Saturday, March 28, 2020

We Are All Essential

At 9am yesterday I was already done working. I sat outside the grocery store and texted Big E, "Need anything from Byerly's?"

I didn't hear back by the time I'd procured the elusive roll of paper towels I'd been hoping to find so I headed to the next stop on my list of errands. Minnesotans had been told to "stay at home" after 11:59pm. Only "essential" business were to stay open, and like many people, I wasn't sure what would be considered essential, other than the obvious, like this grocery store.

When I heard back, I was sitting outside the library, waiting for my turn for a librarian to come out and place the items I'd reserved on a table. He sent me his list, to which I responded, "I left but I have to go by there to get home so I'll go back. Not like I have a lot of other stuff to do today."

Not like I have a lot of other stuff to do today.

Normally I would never say that on a Friday. I'm usually turning appointments down on Friday. I joke that if I could just have three Fridays in the week, I wouldn't need to work any other day. But this Friday, I was done working before 9am. Like many small business owners, I was now left wondering whether or not I was "essential."

The day before, I'd watched a man move out of my office building. He'd already laid off 30 employees. With the stay at home order looming, he could no longer afford rent, even for a small office for himself.  I wondered what he did that was so non-essential. I didn't have the heart to ask.

When I headed back to my office to drop off some supplies after my library stop, more people were moving out. More people who could no longer pay the rent. More people who did something non-essential.

By the time I made it home, I was exhausted. I'd spent most of the night awake, worrying whether my business would make it, worrying what my landlord meant when he said the office building was now on "lockdown",  worrying about whether I was essential.

I took a nap, but mostly I just laid on the bed and worried some more so I finally got up and made myself go for a run. It started as a hike, because I was still so tired I felt strangely similar to how I felt in the middle of the night at the Marji Gesick 100. Basically a zombie stumbling through the woods.

Moving woke me up a bit though, cleared my head. It's hard to worry when you're focused on literally putting one foot in front of the other. I thought about this essential thing and wondered if perhaps what so many of us were feeling right now was similar to how many people feel when they retire (albeit with a lot more stress about money). I've heard stories of people not knowing what to do with themselves when they retired. They feel a bit lost, wondering what to do now. So I wondered, did they feel this too- this emptiness because they weren't sure if they were "essential" anymore?

I thought about my parents and when they retired. Were they less essential then? I smiled, because to me, they certainly weren't. If anything, they were probably more essential, even if it was in a different way than when I was a child. Once they were both retired, I had finally reached that stage of being able to appreciate them, of wanting to share bits of my life with them, of enjoying time connecting with them.

 Not long after Pop retired, they came with me to Europe. I'd qualified for the age group duathlon (run, bike, run) world championships in Hungary and we decided to make a trip of it. Unfortunately, I tore my plantar fascia five weeks before the race. Since we'd already planned the trip, we went anyway. I searched out a podiatrist who literally made me a custom orthotic out of foam while I sat in his office because there wasn't enough time to order one. It certainly wouldn't make me fast, but it would protect my foot enough so I could finish the race.

I met Mom and Pop in Vienna. After a few days of sightseeing and incredible food, we headed to Prague and then to Gyor, the small town where the race was held. We shared small hotel rooms, lingered while talking after dinners and made an adventure out of getting my bike case onto and off of trains before the doors closed, always pleasantly surprised when someone helped us without asking. The night we left Prague, a complete stranger realized we didn't understand the messages coming over the loudspeaker and were going to miss our train.  He pointed me to the correct platform and then, when he realized I would never make it in time with the bike case, he threw it up on his shoulder and started running. I chased him down one flight of stairs and up another, with Mom and Pop close behind. We made it to our platform with just enough time for him to throw the case on the train and hold the door for us. Mom called him our guardian angel for the rest of the trip.
With Mom and Pop in Prague
By the time we arrived in Gyor the next morning, my entire leg was a mess from limping around on my foot with my luggage. The team chiropractor covered most of my leg in the only color KT tape she had left- hot pink.

My parents laughed and said, "Well- at least we'll know which one you are."

The race had been set up to run and bike on small loops to make it more fun for the spectators. Mom and Pop sat in the bleachers the organizers had set up and cheered while I limped around the course with my pink tape. I found them there after my race. Of course I was disappointed that I didn't race to my potential. On my own, I would've just gone back to the room to sulk. They were having none of that. They informed me they'd being staying to cheer for Margaret, a woman in her 70's who was competing for the U.S. Not only was she the oldest woman in the race, she'd been hit by a car while training and battled through the injuries to get here.

As we sat in the bleachers waiting for Margaret, many of the older athletes started to finish. I was still sulking a bit when my mom leaned over and said, "You know, this is a lot harder for them than it is for you because they have to be out there much longer."  I smiled. She had a point. After we cheered them all in, we went out to celebrate. Suddenly my race didn't matter so much.

That trip with my parents, it was essential to who I am. That moment in the bleachers, it was essential to who I am. They were essential. Without my parents there, it would've been a trip about a race, my race. Instead, it became a trip about connection, about the goodness of other people, about being there to cheer on every last person. My outlook on racing changed a lot after that. So did my appreciation for my parents.

As I thought about all this on that run, I thought back to a conversation I'd had with my only client that morning. She had said, "I know what we do here is not essential, but seeing you is important to my mental health."  I realized that while the services many of us provide are not essential, we all need to be careful not to think that means WE are not essential. It's easy to confuse the two.

Our place in this world is not based on what we do for work, what we do in races, what kind of house we own. Our place in this world is based on who we are for others, on how we show up for people, everyday, even if we don't have to, even if those people might not know we're there, cheering for every last one of them. 

Times are hard but we are all essential. All of us.

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