Golden desk lamp in green dumpster

Wear the perfume, walk the alley, do the work

The week-three Wednesday of shelter in place, I had an important video conference call. I got ready in the mirror and, per my usual routine, reached for perfume to spray on my neck and wrist. This gave me pause. What’s the point? It’s not as if these people I’m video-calling can smell me. And my husband, the only human I’ve had physical contact with for almost a month, already knows alllll the smells.
Lime Basil & Mandarin, the label reads. That’s as far as the name goes. I like that. This scent just is what it is. It’s not a sexy scent, but that’s not why I bought it. I bought it because of the way the lime basil and mandarin transform on my skin throughout the day, as if it knows and shape-shifts around me. In the morning, the citrus is always sharp. By mid-afternoon the soft warmth of basil holds me instead. By evening it’s a quiet musk, like the burning embers of a campfire. It lasts on my skin longer than any perfume I’ve worn before. I like that too, that I can smell and appreciate throughout my day. It’s one small thing I can wear to make my day the tiniest, air-particle-sized bit better.
Doesn’t that still apply in lockdown? Aren’t I still here, in this place? Don’t I still have a neck and a wrist with a healthy, wild heart beating underneath? Don’t I want them to pump something lovely into the air, even if only I can experience the joy of it?
Yes. Yes, I decided. Yes.
I spritzed the perfume, returned the bottle to its shelf, shut off the bathroom light, and took my silk-bloused and sweat-panted self to my work chair in the office five feet away. Nothing to see here. Just a grown-ass woman going to non-essential work. But, my friend, if you could smell her…
I’ve been working from home for almost three years now. This process of separating work / from / home? I’m used to that. I’ve got that down. What I’m not used to is the lack of choice. This restriction is what alarms me and spends my mind spiraling. I know how precious freedom of choice is. I worry, worry, worry about what this pandemic means for choice in the future. I’m so worried about what’s coming and the people who will struggle, who will hurt.
To keep from running my head around in these circles, I’ve, instead, tried to keep said head down. Keep working—on professional work and creative work alike. I like to stay busy. I’ve used the time to write and make art. I’m still sitting with all of this; I’m just doing something with my hands while I contemplate it all. Movement makes me feel just as strong as the scary thoughts I’m facing. Staying productive is how I puff up my chest and stare down a problem.
For my husband, it’s the opposite. His anxiety right now stems from the crowny little thorns of that microscopic virus and towers into shadows of the potential pandemonium that could ensue as resources decline and demand explodes in the opposite direction. He thrives by being still with things. He stalks the prey, the problem, silently and with stealth. He wants to sit with it, watch it, to see it from every angle. To not move and scare the scary thoughts away.
Him and I have been taking “sun breaks” every other day. We go stand in the alleyway behind our apartment building, leaning onto our neighbor’s chalky beige garage like a masked Jay and Silent Bob. He likes to just stand there, face to the sun like a happy little lizard. If he had it his way, this is all we would do during a sun break. But after about five minutes, I get antsy. “I need to walk,” I say. “Let’s walk around the park. At least up and down the alleyway. We can take the sunniest path.” He says I need to relax, stay calm, be still. But, I explain, the moving, the doing, is how I be still. I’m not avoiding when I work and walk. I’m working it all out.
Maybe you’re productive in a traditional sense during this time and like being motivated to act. Or perhaps your productivity takes the shape of something more subtle, doing the basics and taking care of yourself is how your self-care presents itself. Does it matter? Are these two reactions really that different? Do we need to fight on the internet about who is doing it right and who is doing it wrong? “Getting through” is not an either/or proposition. This discussion isn’t really about “productivity.” It’s only the fact of how you hold yourself in a moment of fear, so you can better hold others in theirs.
I need to show up. I need to feel like I’m doing something in a situation where I am largely powerless. Showing up means I’m clear-headed and willing to try. Showing up means I’m alive. Means I’m hopeful.
So I wear the perfume. I walk the alley. I do the work. This is how I survive.