May 6, 2020

The best worst year.

I wrote last year about my challenges with being a manager at work, having learned how much conflict and negotiation tax my emotional energy. After nearly two years of struggling, this past fall I transitioned back into my previous role of full-time programmer. Feeling once again in control of my time, I immediately noticed the difference in my energy (as did my family). Autumn days were sweet, bookended by bike rides to work in the cooling air and filled with long stretches of time to relax into a flow state and devote myself to making sense of things—which is what programming is, much more than typing, though there’s plenty of that too.

You hear a lot about “work-life balance”, as if the two were opposing forces that must cancel each other out. But for me, they reinforced each other. I noticed that on the days I was most engaged at work, I would arrive home with more energy than I’d left with in the morning. Like a flywheel, I was constantly in motion, but could rely on that motion for momentum when I needed it.

Like all seasons, my autumn of personal and professional bliss came to an end, though in this case after just a month and a half. My son was born in early December, and while I’m one of the lucky ones to have paid parental leave, that put an end to the virtuous cycle between my work and home lives. Underslept and with barely a quiet moment alone to recharge, the winter passed in a blur of exhaustion. And after returning to work, just was I was beginning to get comfortable, a global pandemic threw the world—mine included—into a disarray we still inhabit.

I’m celebrating this birthday under a shelter-in-place order for my city of Indianapolis: most businesses are closed (a favorite of mine permanently so), nonessential travel is forbidden (though not enforced), and I haven’t spoken in person to a soul outside my little quarantine bubble for two months. But the biggest change has been having my 4 year-old and 5 month-old at home all day, since daycare is closed as well. Last year taught me how much I need quiet time alone in order to feel whole, and now and for the foreseeable future that’s largely an impossibility. So I’ll need to adjust. “The world is our field of practice,” says zen priest angel Kyodo williams. You don’t have to travel to a remote mountain monastery to practice patience and tranquility: one finds ample opportunities keeping a bored toddler occupied for an afternoon or changing a blown-out diaper. And when things get hard to bear for any or all of us, my family has taken to ending the day with a “family roar.”

And there’s been at least one benefit to being at home with the kids all day: I get to watch them navigate the world. As I’m only realizing in hindsight, before being forced to stay at home all day, my weekday interactions with my kids were centered around getting them to do things, things they either couldn’t or didn’t want to do on their own like getting ready for meals, preschool, bath, and bed. Now, with nowhere to go all day, I can watch my infant son try for twenty minutes to maneuver his big toe into that toothless grin of his. And watch my daughter construct a cinematic world of characters and conflict out of the toys she finds lying around (which are admittedly abundant). I can be present with my kids in a way that the tyranny of a tight schedule never strictly prohibited, but certainly never encouraged.

There’s an old Taoist parable about a farmer whose only horse runs away. “What a shame!” say his neighbors. “We’ll see,” says the farmer. The next day, his horse returns, joined by another wild horse in tow. “What good fortune!” say his neighbors, but the farmer responds as before. The next day his son breaks his leg taming the new horse. “What a tragedy!” say his neighbors. “We’ll see,” says the farmer. Soon, the army arrives, recruiting for the front lines, but they pass up the farmer’s son due to his broken leg.

The past year has felt a lot like that. I got a promotion, but it taught me what I really needed was something else. I celebrated the birth of a child five months ago, and haven’t had a decent night’s sleep ever since. A pandemic swept away the routine I’d come to cling to, but has shown me the occasional bloom among the ruins.

Was any of it good or bad? I guess we’ll see.