How to Move Forward When Everything Has Ground to a Halt

moving forward during coronavirus

My life in March looked much as it had for the six years before it: I shared a first-floor apartment in a rambling old house in Boston with two roommates, trying to cobble together enough freelance work to pay my bills until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I’d work during the day at my desk in my bedroom, then take the train downtown to meet friends for drinks, or attend a reading or concert several times a week. I was happy — I liked my roommates, and I loved my apartment and my neighborhood. It was the place I’d felt most at home in my adult life, and where I’d lived the longest.

But six months after Boston closed the doors of its restaurants, bars, schools, and museums, I packed up everything I owned and moved an hour south. I soon found myself living in an apartment in a converted mill in Providence, Rhode Island. I’d grown up nearby and my family still lived in the area. Moving to Providence had been in the back of my mind for a while, but it was a move I told others I wouldn’t be ready to make for a long time. I loved my life in Boston too much to give it up.

The pandemic and the resultant slow-down of the world caused me, and many others, to reevaluate our lives and what we need from them. For me, the social and cultural benefits of life in Boston now paled in comparison to a quieter, more solitary life with my own space, closer to family and old friends. Now that I knew I could live without the steady hum of activity and nights out, they were easier to let go.

You might still wonder, however, how do we move forward in times of great upheaval, when everything around us seems to be telling us to stay put?

From Deep Freeze to a Slow Thaw

We all seem to remember where we were when our world shut down back in mid-March. We share stories of our last restaurant meal enjoyed indoors, our last trip to the movies, our last house party with friends, the last hug we received. In the beginning, the shut-down was going to last for two weeks, then a month, and on and on until the time stretched from something finite to something living and elastic, growing and shifting with every passing day and new symptom or development.

In the early days, it was terrifying to go grocery shopping, let alone make any big life changes. It seemed as though our lives were going to be held in limbo for the duration of this virus, until a vaccine was developed and some sense of normalcy returned. But then, quietly, things started to change. While the virus was still rampant, people adapted. We learned how to see friends (outdoors, wearing masks, six feet apart) and do our jobs remotely. Local businesses adapted, too. Slowly, life started to ease into a new kind of rhythm, a hesitant forward motion.

There’s a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden that I think does a nice job of summing up the period of reckoning the pandemic incited: “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” We didn’t need to go to the woods, as Thoreau did in Walden, to lose the world and find ourselves — the virus had done that for us. And as soon as we opened up to finding ourselves, we began to take wobbly baby steps forward.

Soon, people began to make changes. Some people bought Peloton bikes and revamped their home offices. Others moved in with partners. Still others got married and started families or moved to new cities. Careers changed, businesses were started, marriages came to an end. It was as though we were thawing out, waking up after a period of hibernation.

Are You Ready for Companionship?

Though the move was a big life change, I made other changes during the pandemic as well. The first was adopting Gizmo, a 12-pound, 2-year-old Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix with black and white patches. I’d wanted a dog for a long time, but always thought that it would be too difficult to care for a dog without a partner or a backyard. But suddenly, when the world shut down, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. The adoption process during COVID-19 was markedly more difficult than usual because you couldn’t visit shelters in-person without an appointment, but I was determined. I refreshed the adoption pages of local shelters — with the zeal of someone waiting for election results — and began following every shelter and rescue within a 100-mile radius on social media. I submitted applications and made phone calls.

When my roommates and I first went to meet Gizmo (then known as Darwin), he was a tiny ball of nerves bedecked a giant plastic cone of shame. He was clearly afraid of us, not letting us get near enough to pet him, and he peed on every available surface as we walked him around the parking lot in circles.

My roommates were skeptical. “Are you sure you want to do this?” they asked. “Yes,” I said, firmly, as much to convince myself. He was a little weirdo and I loved him already. Gizmo came home with me on March 24, less than two weeks after the initial shutdown of Boston. It would soon become nearly impossible to adopt a dog, given the number of people looking for comfort in what was otherwise a bleak stretch. I’m so grateful I didn’t hesitate.

Adopting a pet during the pandemic was a little more fraught than usual. We couldn’t take a training class, for example, and all the dog parks were closed. I needed to order most supplies online and sought advice via discussion boards and friends. There were no doggie play dates or visits from friends to help socialize him; the first months were rough, but also full of discovery and joy.

Gizmo got me outside, going for long walks on days when I would otherwise have stayed indoors. We took meandering routes, searching out new places to see (and smell). I went down streets I’d never been down before, though I’d lived in the neighborhood for nearly seven years. I saw my community with fresh eyes. I began taking pictures of the houses and front porches, flowers and little architectural details I’d never given myself the time or space to appreciate before.

I’m not the only one who has greatly benefited from adopting a pet during this fraught time. Pet adoptions have surged, one Nielsen survey reported that over 20% of respondents had adopted one or more dogs or cats from March to June of 2020 (up from less than five percent last year).

Though it may feel as though life will be this way forever, it very likely won’t . It’s important to take the future into consideration in any big life decision, but it’s especially crucial now. While animals, dogs in particular, make great quarantine buddies, it’s essential to consider how you’re going to care for your pets if you need to go back to the office or change your living situation.

Making Gains From Loss

During quarantine, I also used my time to reflect on how I wanted to move forward in my career. I decided that stability was more important than flexibility, and began looking and applying for full-time jobs. I was particularly excited about one opportunity, the kind of job that only comes around once in a while — not only was I qualified for the job, but I had a friend on the team and knew the hiring manager. The kind of work I would have been doing was exciting but not completely unfamiliar. The salary and the benefits were fantastic. What could possibly go wrong?

One of my roommates, a good friend and former colleague, decided to apply for the job as well, though she already had a full-time position. This hit me like a gut punch. But it came nowhere near the gut punch of her getting the job instead of me. I cried in bed for a full day when I found out. But then, slowly, I started to see even this loss as an opportunity.

If I’d gotten that job, I would have had to stay in Boston. But now that I was still a free agent, I could go anywhere. What’s more, I could go somewhere where it was more affordable to live on my own, an option that was suddenly more attractive, given the new awkwardness between my roommate and I.

Similarly, Brittany Taylor, a photographer and consultant, found herself reevaluating her career at the start of the pandemic. She’d started a branding company with two friends in 2017, and while the company was doing reasonably well, the pandemic and the precarious position of many small businesses forced some difficult realizations. Rather than worry about how to keep the company afloat, Taylor proposed bringing the partnership to an end, an option her friends agreed with.

“It was the best decision we could have made,” Taylor explains. The business was beginning to strain the womens’ personal relationships, and they all realized their friendships were more important to them than trying to make money together. Sometimes, walking away is the best way to move forward.

Is it Time to Move?

According to a new study conducted by UpWork, a freelance platform, a staggering 14 to 23 million Americans will relocate in the coming months. This great migration is a result of the new freedom afforded by remote work, a pandemic necessity. As 2020 has passed, more and more companies and office workers are seeming to embrace telecommuting as the new normal. With no physical office to anchor them, many are choosing to move closer to family or to places with more space.

Tiffany Redmon found herself making a quick decision on March 15, as a shelter-in-place order came down for the city of San Francisco, where she lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her husband, two young daughters, and a dog. The family had recently purchased a house in nearby Sacramento, where Redmon’s family lived, but hadn’t planned on moving into the house until August. The plan had been to rent the house to Redmon’s sister’s family while they renovated their own home and Redmon finished out her job at a prominent theater company.

But suddenly, as Redmon describes, “there was no plan anymore.” After spending a panicked four days indoors, Redmon says they’d exhausted every possible activity and had occupied every square inch of space in the small apartment. With the theater industry teetering, Redmon and her husband frantically packed everything they could into their minivan and joined the flood of other residents leaving the city. They slept on the floor in the near-empty house for six weeks, but the kids now have a yard to play in, and Redmon says it’s everything she’s ever wanted. She was able to keep her position with the theater company, working remotely, and spend time with her family.

“I feel like I’m literally sitting between the best of times and the worst of times,” she explains. “I have everything I’ve ever wanted, but I can’t even enjoy it because there’s so much uncertainty, and we’re battling fear and boredom and exhaustion all the time. We don’t know what the long-term effects of this are going to be. But it’s the best decision we ever made,” she says. And despite the uncertainty of the future of the theater industry and the stress of taking care of two small children during a pandemic, “There’s a lot of beauty in it,” she says. “We were able to meet our neighbors on Halloween because everyone was sitting on the lawn, handing out candy — that never would have happened in San Francisco. It’s forced change. Everyone is being forced out of their comfort zone. Change is scary but at the end of this there’s going to be a sense of joy in people finding themselves on the other side.”

Kim Liao, a college writing lecturer in New York City, feels similarly about her decision to move from Queens to Brooklyn with her husband. Liao explains, “While we were afraid to move in May due to safety concerns, I felt certain that we had to get out of our cramped quarters before fall or winter, especially since we are both teachers and we were teaching from home during both last spring and this fall. In April, we held classes simultaneously, sitting six feet away from each other in the living room — it was a nightmare.” As COVID cases leveled during the summer, the couple began to look for apartments, navigating complicated guidelines that prevented realtors from showing occupied apartments and avoiding larger buildings in order to mitigate potential infection risks.

“But ultimately, the hassle and the worry and safety concerns about movers (ours started in masks but took them off by the end of the move) paled in comparison to getting what we so desperately needed: more space,” she continued. “Now, I teach in a home office and my husband teaches hybrid — some days in the living room and others at school. If we need to spend this much time at home, it’s so wonderful to have a home that we love and where we have enough space.” Liao feels good that she and her husband were able to make this change, despite their initial fears about the pandemic.

A Few Tips for Moving Forward

Like many, Liao and Redmon found themselves making huge decisions in an incredibly stressful time. However, like me, they’ve both found that the pandemic actually helped propel them into a better way of life. So how do you determine whether to make a big change and how to do it? Here are a few tips for shifting into drive when life seems stuck in neutral.

Make a list

What are the pros and cons of making this particular change? Who will be affected? Is this a decision that can wait, or is it something that needs to happen sooner rather than later?

Take your time

Decisions made in a hurry often aren’t the best in the long-run. Think through what it is you really want and how your decision may impact you in the months and years ahead.

Remember: nothing is permanent

It’s normal to get stuck in a cycle of binary thinking — either you quit your job or stay there forever. But nothing is permanent. If you decide to relocate and you feel unhappy, you can either move back to where you lived before, or try another new place! Instead of quitting your job, you can start exploring other options and work with a career coach to build a plan while continuing to work in your current position until you find something right for you. There are lots of options out there, even during the pandemic.

Ask for support

Seek out trusted friends, colleagues, mentors, and family members to get perspective and support during your transition. Speaking to a licensed therapist or joining an online support group is another viable option for getting advice on a big decision.

Change is scary, but it also brings about growth. As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön has written, “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”

In these times, when the pandemic has sapped most of us of energy and things feel largely out of our control, making big decisions can provide us a much-needed sense of agency. For me, moving helped me get out of a rut in which I was plagued by inertia. The pandemic helped me realize that if I didn’t actively seek change and growth for myself, it wasn’t going to come.

It’s safe to say that COVID-19 has thrown us all out of our nests. Now is our chance to find our wings.

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