Yesterday my Twitter feed included a post from a connection enthusiastically supporting the announcement that New Jersey would include liquor stores in its list of essential services, allowing them to stay open during the stay-at-home order.
In addition to a chuckle, it got me thinking about determinations of essential services and about my two-year, and counting, self-reflection on what is essential to me.
Reflecting on what is essential
For the past two years I have been reading a lot about simplicity and essentialism, with particular focus on times in U.S. history when groups of people determined to simplify their lives or go “back to the land.”
The concept of simplifying and identifying the essential to focus one’s life and lighten one’s environmental footprint is fascinating to me. I have also long had an interest in the home front during WWII. It was a time when, though full of flaws – racism, sexism, xenophobia, to name just a few – communities came together for a cause.
It feels a bit like this pandemic is a similar community-coming-together cause. It also feels like, while government officials are determining the definition of essential, we must do so as individuals too.
Learning is essential
Fortunately for me, personally, I committed to taking classes in early 2020 that have paid off already.
It has been a wonderful experience – learning to knit, learning to use the Sashiko embroidery technique to visibly mend clothing to make it last longer, and obtaining my own sourdough starter and recipes for bread. I’m also tapping into the seed-starting lessons I learned at the Denver Botanic Gardens as I start my vegetable garden indoors in preparation for the season to come, especially given the extra time I have at home these days.
Learning new skills helps entertain us and gets us through difficult times. Change can be tough, though, and I’m reading quite a lot about people hoping for things to return to “normal.” But is the way we we’re doing things really the best way?
One silver lining to massive disruptions like we are currently experiencing is the opportunity it allows for reflection and learning. What can we do differently? How can we learn and take advantage of new opportunities? And how can we ensure the systems for learning are protected and expanded so we can succeed in a new normal? It will take creative minds and teachers to help us move forward positively.
Creativity is essential
Recent stories in the press highlighting the creativity of individuals and organizations in this crisis have floored me.
From virtual performances, to open source medical device development, to small businesses quickly adapting to shutting their doors with creative work-arounds that still allow for the important social distancing, I am amazed by the creative human mind. I am expressing my creativity through mending, crafting, cooking, and gardening, using some of the skills I learned in the classes I mentioned earlier, and tapping the vast resources the internet provides.
I know, to a certain extent, I can do these things because I come from a place of privilege. While my grandmothers, both of whom grew up on Wisconsin dairy farms during the Great Depression and completed only the 8th grade, had to mend, preserve, and use scraps, I get to.
And, if we are headed for another recession, or worse, because of the hit our economy is taking in these days of social distancing and closures, there will be (are!) many more people scraping by. Scrimping will force creativity but may not be a pleasurable challenge; it will be required. But I remind myself that creativity thrives in community.
Community is essential
A huge difference between the WWII home front and what we are currently experiencing is that a major request now involves social distancing. One of the romantic appeals for me when I watch fictional WWII-era BBC programs of women picking fruit and combining their sugar rations to can jam to preserve the harvest is the act of the community coming together to do it.
What does community look like, then, in this emergency situation where social distancing is key to flattening the curve?
For me, it’s going down my contact list and texting friends and family just to say hello and ask how they are. It’s scheduling video calls to check in. It’s being even more mindful of how I spend my money and asking questions – when I cancel my dog daycare because we will no longer be traveling, is it best to still pay for the service or transfer it to a tip that goes directly to the workers? It’s offering to pick up groceries for the next-door neighbor who is a clinic administrator because she is working crazy hours in this crisis and society needs her to be healthy.
And, depending on how long we need to keep our social distance, this spring it may be me placing all the extra seedlings I start indoors in the front yard with a “help yourself” sign so my community can grow healthy food and enjoy the physical and psychological benefits of gardening.
And, while I consider how I can help my community, I also reflect on the myriad ways my community ensures my health and safety – all those essential services and more.
What is essential to you?
I am extremely saddened by the illness, loss of life, and loss of jobs and economic stability this pandemic is causing.
I know I am fortunate to be in a position of privilege that shields me from some immediate stressors and, because I have been reflecting on and pursuing the essential in my life for some time now, my life is not as disrupted as the lives of others.
But I am an optimist and I hope that this disruption allows individuals and society to reflect on the essentials. They will be critical to ensuring our new normal is even better than the normal we long to go back to.
Gina Johnson lives in Denver.