This Social Distance

I didn’t know there was a name for my quirky lifestyle.

Practical logistics dictated by our choice to move to a distinctly rural and reasonably remote area in the spring of 2001 amplified the tendency to social distance, but I’ve been working from home, staying put except for essential errands, and communicating mostly via email or phone since the 1990s. Isolation suits my personality.

There are differences, of course. Under the old voluntary regime, we traveled and hosted visitors, occasionally had dinner in town, spent the night with friends. Limiting social contacts had to do with where we live rather than compliance with a mandate from the governor.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is global, but our individual experiences in it are anything but universal. The stupid irony for me is that conditions I would ordinarily take in stride, perhaps smugly dispensing advice from my socially-distanced-by-choice aerie, have been denied me these past months.

Last fall, hubby and I began a construction project down in Cañon City (which, despite the 30 miles between here and there, is our both our nearest town and legal address). Back in 2011, we bought a run-down property to fix up as a rental. It took us seven months to renovate the three dwelling units, and apparently we didn’t learn our lesson because we eventually bought an additional three houses, all in various states of neglect or disrepair. A few years ago, we looked at the maintenance costs on one of them (a 110-year-old Victorian dubbed “The Princess” because it was cute but extremely demanding) and decided to sell it and roll the money into a new build: a house constructed to modern standards, without time bombs lurking in the plumbing or a stone foundation subject to the upheavals of expansive soil.

October 2019. The the house that once stood here had been condemned and bulldozed before we bought the property.

Long story short, I spent the winter coordinating concrete guys and framing contractors, plumbers and electricians, the electric company and landscapers. In February, as Covid-19 progressed from international news to national, I dashed through home improvement stores, laying in paint and light fixtures and tile; picking out sinks and door handles and shelving, all so finish work could proceed even if retail outlets shut down. By March, work that fell within my skillset started: caulking and painting, grouting the tile floors, installing subway tile around the tub and on backsplashes, and a seeming infinitude tedious and/or time-consuming yet hard-to-name tasks.

By the time Colorado’s governor imposed a statewide stay-at-home order in early April, I was pooped: more than ready to accept a delayed completion and shelve the project for a while. Construction had been deemed an essential business, though; the contractors kept working, and thus so did I. I rationalized my failure to comply with the stay-at-home order by telling myself I was adhering to a stay-at-houses protocol. I was either at home or at the vacant house-to-be, entering the closed carapace of my car to commute in between. I avoided public spaces and did my best to socially distance from the handful of contractors who passed through the small house completing their work. I treated the lumberyard the same way I treated the much more crowded grocery store: delaying as long as possible between trips, donning my homemade mask, hustling through the aisles with focused intent, touching as little as possible, washing and sanitizing afterward.

Colorado transitioned to a “Safer-at-Home” phase on April 27, at which point the new house was nearing completion. A few weeks on, we’ve passed our final city inspection. We’re putting the final touches on exterior paint and doing some landscaping, but the house is done and functional. It’s compact yet airy, sturdy and energy efficient. As all of us continue the bizarre and stressful ride of what is, lest we be persuaded to forget, a global infectious disease crisis, I hope it will provide snug shelter for someone through the remainder of the pandemic, as well as in the less tumultuous and disturbing times the future surely holds.

May 2020, slightly different angle.

I don’t, honestly, know what to think of the past few months. The inability to think has been a distressing side-effect of the construction project, the virus, and ongoing sleep interruptions. I’ve been incapable of finding the time or energy for reflective thought. I’ve been stressed out and distracted, consumed by decisions and esoteric engineering requirements, by meeting schedules and paying invoices and figuring out how to navigate problems and mistakes, by facing down grunt work, by trying to maintain my cool with competent contractors who nevertheless do stupid shit or, by failing to communicate their needs and expectations, allow me to do stupid shit…not that I needed any help.

I suppose what I’m feeling now is what many other people are feeling: dazed and a little lost, baffled by upheaval and uncertainty, unsure how to behave and what to believe in a world so abruptly recalibrated. No matter what direction I look, the human costs are awful: incaution can kill while an abundance of caution wrecks quality of life. Droves are out of work and out of business; others frazzled and worn down by ever-shifting demands. The news abuses my emotions with its swerving tenor: noble, tragic, dumb, craven, beautiful, wise, asinine. The wide spectrum of our responses stuns me, until I remember that’s just us, being human. It’s the pace and amplitude that’s so unsettling…isn’t it?

Like many other people, I had plans for the spring of 2020, plans that have in no way panned out. But it’s the disruption of everyday routines that feels most traumatic. The construction project would have wreaked more havoc than I anticipated, but the pandemic has set off unending waves of shock, stress, dismay. Having been away from home so much, I feel unmoored. Whether it’s yakking to myself in my journal, composing a long email to a friend, trying to organize my thoughts on a topic for an essay or a blog post, or settling in for the slow iterative slog on a chapter of this book I’m working on, stringing words together at my desk is what helps me maintain a sense of sanity.

Perhaps the sense of loss I feel is just wishful thinking. Probably it’s fantasy to believe I would have been better equipped to comprehend the pandemic and its incessant knock-on effects if I had been able to embrace my stay-at-home proclivities.

I don’t know if the coming weeks and months will bring any clarity or peace. It’s possible that without the distraction of the building project, my unease and weariness will only grow. But I do know that the concept of “Safer at Home” hits me with a poignancy I’m sure the governor did not intend.

My June destination.

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7 Responses to This Social Distance

  1. Pat Dubrava says:

    You make me recall my most recent house project, the kitchen remodel which seemed to last forever and disrupt my life completely. As for the anti-viral lockdown, my own writerly habits of living are much the same: always home, seldom see others, never do crowds any more. It’s hard to grasp a thing so world-widely pervasive and yet with so little impact on our own lives.

  2. As you know, I am another whose normal lifestyle is pretty much at home. Thank you for putting into words a great deal that I’ve been feeling and not articulating. My partner and I have our separate work spaces– his shop and my office. Normally, we organize a trip to town like an expedition to the New World: plotting destinations from one side of town to the other, in order so that shopping for cold and frozen foods comes last.
    Added to this planning now is the need to load the car with cleaning agents, to wear masks, and to have a fast mutual signal for skipping a stop if we don’t like the look of the crowds. In addition, we have to gird ourselves for the looks and shaking of heads from people who don’t seem to think 100,000 deaths from the virus is anything to worry about. I find the latter attitude baffling, but I have to admit I haven’t spoken to any of these folks about why they feel this way. And I hate admitting this: I’m afraid to ask them, because several other friends have mentioned being laughed at for wearing masks, or threatened with loss of their jobs, or had someone actually try to remove the mask! What??! I would regard that kind of invasion of privacy just as I would regard a stranger attempting to remove my blouse– and therein lies the problem I see coming. We’ve managed to accept the fact that different people believe in different political parties and gods– so why is it so threatening that we don’t all believe the same things about this virus? I could understand it if the folks getting so angry were like me and my partner: in the danger zone for Covid death because of age and impaired breathing. But it seems to be young, healthy people who are trying to remove others’ masks. Well, enough of that for the day. Thank you again, stay aloof, and stay well. And write!

  3. C.M. Mayo says:

    Hi Andrea, I so hope to see you at the Women Writing the West conference this fall! A conference… not on Zoom… will it happen? It now seems like a surreal concept… Fingers crossed!

  4. Andrea Jones says:

    Pat, the incongruities wrought by the virus certainly test my capacities to adapt: how can something feel both immanent and so thoroughly abstract all at once?

    The incongruity of the building project is that we’ve gone through all this upheaval and effort…and we won’t be the ones living there to reap the benefits.

  5. Andrea Jones says:

    Linda, isn’t is strange to add “Do I have a clean mask?” to the logistics of going to/being in town?

    That masking has become some sort of ideological litmus test may well be the most troubling and disturbing development to come out of this, to me at least. For the most part I am baffled, and prone to enraged rants if I start talking about the subject, so I’ve tended to keep my mouth shut. As with most things, I tend to assume that if I spend some quiet time thinking about it, I might come to some understanding of my own mind, but this one isn’t about my mind, is it? What’s peculiar is that the anti-masking sentiments tend to run in tandem with the Gotta-reopen refrain. But even if wearing a mask isn’t 100% effective, if it reduces the chance of transmission, doesn’t that work in favor of reopening businesses etc.?

  6. Andrea Jones says:

    C.M., I’ve missed one writing workshop already this year, and am hoping I don’t have to miss the WWW conference, especially when it’s set to be so close to home. All options seems surreal: a canceled event, a virtual event, a gathering with a bunch of people (!!). Still, fingers crossed for the last option, as you say. Perhaps I should think about making additional masks from fabric that’s more fashionable than a gray bedsheet in case the conference goes forward….

  7. Beth Browne says:

    Wonderful post!! Love the pics! Adorable little house. Also, love the office pic. I will have to see if I can get a pic of my “office” space. It’s a lot smaller than yours!! LOL!

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