It’s 11:30 am and a man is holding a turtle up to a laptop screen.
“This is Colby Jack,” he says, the man, not the turtle, in a voice I have heard on some other wavelength reserved for data analysis. The turtle seems unsure about most things: the people applauding from a digital distance, the free fall air under his belly. He decides to disappear and I don’t blame him.
This is the what it means to work from home during a global pandemic.
Of course, it isn’t all shell shock. We’re lucky to be working at all and we know it. We say this often, between somber sighs. There’s a gentle buzz of humanity vibrating from weekly sync to weekly sync. We see each other and we hear each other in new ways. We struggle to find the softest words together. It’s a very beautiful thing if you let yourself sit and think about it. I remind myself to do that, over and over and over again.
This would’ve been my dream not long ago, this kind of vulnerability. The only thing I’ve ever loved more than people is actual people, the people behind people. I’ve spent my life as a soft hammer of sorts, knocking down walls of lives previously guarded. More often than not, it only takes a tap instead of a heavy swing. I don’t quite know how or why I possess that power. I suppose it’s a combination of things, a tender ear and a burst of light. A therapist once told me I look like a hug.
It’s a special thing to be a soft place to land, but a complicated one, too. I have felt that fear of free fall at the belly, harboring so many secrets and feelings of so many people — co-workers included. I spent most of last year learning how to rebuild walls after a colleague and I developed a too-close-too-fast kinship. It felt impossible to back away, for several reasons. It proved to be, for several more. It nearly destroyed me and it definitely destroyed us. It redefined the way I understood the value of boundaries for the first time in thirty years of arms outstretched.
I stopped swinging. Then things shifted. Globally.
Now, I look into his home and listen as he shares his fears, and I pray for a day where we can finally just talk about spreadsheets.
This is no knock on my colleague; it’s simply a bizarre reality for every meeting, history or no history, distance or no distance, turtle or no turtle. I watch others transform into jungle gyms for their children and season chickens and share what they’ve learned about coping with change and anxiety. I go back and forth between loving this kind of united-in-shambles community and feeling sad that I didn’t have that when I needed it most. I think about the steps I’ve taken since then, the ways in which I separate colleagues from friends, work life from my life, how comforting those lines have been, and how now they’re virtually gone.
I think about the turtle and I worry about the true boundarists, a word that doesn’t exist, but should. I can’t help but wonder what others who have always valued privacy are doing now. Can they make it through weeks, months, years of emotional small talk? Will they be transformed, hammers in hand? Or will they simply become the kind of hybrid I suspect we all will to some degree: people behind people, answering calls.
It’s too soon to know much of anything, so we continue on. Tasks still need to be fulfilled. Kids still need to climb. Turtles still need to panic. And we still need to see each other, up close or from afar, stumbling on words and wondering what to say — or who to be — next.