It’s been a month since the lockdown started in our part of the world. The signs in Canada are that we are making progress in some parts of the country, while others have not seen the worst of their outbreak yet.
It’s a picture that it’s reflected at the personal, individual level as well. Everybody is at a different place in their processing of the pandemic, and it’s important to respect where everybody is at any specific time. That’s why social media can feel even more tonally fragmented than usual, the bakers sharing photos of their goods, the writers and musicians rightfully depressed over the outlook of their industries, the working at home parents discovering the hardships and joys of spending every minute of waking life with their kids, the outrage at the handling of the crisis by some leaders (you know who I’m referring to).
The bomb went off a month ago and now that the dust is settling we can start to assess the damage: the picture is grim, no matter which direction we look. Up until now, I haven’t been able to read much, neither the news nor the analysis or the commentary. In addition to the human toll and personal tragedies, particularly distressing are the articles about the global economic fallout. I’m part of it, we are all part of it, and I can’t face it. The rich countries are just getting over the first bump and my waking nightmare is thinking of the poor countries and what awaits them, Venezuela included.
But like a switch was turned, I have been able to start reading again. A small joy. And I have been thinking also of the explosion of cooking and baking at home, and how the joy of manual work has saved many people from mental collapse. I think it’s related to the fact that, while people working from home look on, the doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists, the hospitals’ cleaning staff, the grocery store clerks, the truck and bus drivers, the postal workers, and every other hands-on front line worker, are keeping the world running. That’s where the phenomenon of a lot of people’s renewed relationship with manual work comes in.
No job is undignified, I learned that from a very young age. I used to sell homemade cookies to buy music in high school. Then, when I moved to Canada, I did every job possible as I learned French, then English, and all throughout university. I was a nanny. I worked at so many restaurants and food courts and picked up so many techniques and tricks from the experience. I cleaned bathrooms. I baked bagels. I helped build a Staples store. I cleaned offices with my husband. I worked at a bookstore, my favourite, most beautiful job ever, which involved both physical and intellectual work going through boxes and boxes of amazing inventory and talking to customers in multiple languages. Serving, cleaning, baking, making—it’s tiring but deeply satisfying work.
As we go back to the basics, being at home with our families as much as possible, the stresses of commutes and schedules relaxed, we have time again to use our hands, to connect with our bodies that way.
The pleasure is in feeling self-sufficient, in intellectually tackling the challenge, in finding solutions, physically mastering it, and seeing or eating the results. It’s not a competition, as social media may make it seem. It’s the pride of the accomplishment, but mainly it’s the comfort of knowing our hands are useful. It’s the pleasure of discovering new skills, which in turn show us how we can survive.
I’m a baker and have been all my life. I understand the pleasure of all the new bread bakers. My husband is a cabinet maker, and free from his usual work in a shipyard, he has regained a new energy for completing all the million projects we have at home (bookcases, and baseboards, and shelving for closets, etc.). It’s not about competing to see who can be more productive, it’s about sweating, moving, building, doing. My brother-in-law, an engineer working on solar energy, channeled his energy into his garden. It’s gorgeous. He recently shared a photo of his new work-from-home station: a table outside in full view of the plants and flowers he so lovingly cares for.
And it’s OK if for some this instinct didn’t kick in, though I suspect that for most people at home it has manifested in one way or another. And yes, there are some for whom even this small pleasure is not possible: those without a home, those without a kitchen, those without money to buy food. These are most likely the ones outside, keeping the world functioning for the rest of us. Not for one minute I forget my and most of my family’s luck.
Like most people, I have been deeply distressed for many weeks. So I have baked, as I usually do, both for subsistence (baking bread when we ran out of the store-bought one) and creative fulfillment. But there’s been a new dimension to this baking: I think it has come from a need to feed and comfort my family at this time, it’s my contribution to our collective process of healing, like millions are doing around the world. Because manual work is healing, anything we do with our hands with care and love is.
Another metaphor. Two years ago, I bought a red azalea. I planted it on our small patch of garden on the side steps of our townhouse. The soil is poor as the roots of a huge bush, planted when the complex was built in 1991, has taken over the plot. The azalea never bloomed. Last spring, I took it out and transplanted it into a big pot. The little leaves became a bit healthier but still, no flowers came in the summer.
March was cold here in the Lower Mainland, and as we faced the outbreak of the pandemic, not even the sunniest day, when we had it, fully lifted me from the overall sadness. But then, a couple of days ago, as I walked out into the steps, there she was: the azalea, greeting me, the smallest, tiniest red blooms coming out in the warm April sun. My heart sang, I felt it get lighter: the plant had bloomed! For two years, my hands had planted, cared, and watered that plant, I hadn’t given up on it. And there she was, healing me, showing me life, showing me her strength, just giving me a million cliche metaphors. I needed them all.