Around the Outside

There are two ways to get to the tea and coffee that I drink at least four times each workday. I can walk up the basement stairs to the first floor or go through the door of our walk-out basement and take the outside route to the kitchen door. These routes take the same time. They share nothing else in common.

Here’s what it’s like going upstairs the inside way: Walk past my husband, who also works from home these days, appearing bleary and blurry in the background of his virtual meeting of the moment. Trudge up the steps, surrounded by the windowless concrete walls of our foundation. Fumble through the toddler gate. Cringe as its tension hinge slams it shut behind me.

Here’s what it’s like going upstairs around the outside: Instant fresh air, frigid and bracing this time of year. Sunlight, filtered or shockingly stark. A long view to the horizon, the near hills white under a gray fur of leafless forest, the faraway mountains huddled under snowy blankets. Tree branches creaking in the wind, or, if it’s still, only the sound of my feet squeaking against the powder. Finally, stepping through the front door, coming in like I’ve been somewhere.

We’ve been working from home since last March, and in actuality, I haven’t been anywhere. Much of the normal punctuation is absent from this run-on sentence of a year. Not all of it—my kids get bigger, cyclic contract tasks shift, holidays still roll through. But the one-offs that make this time different from any other are mainly ambient, structural, and frequently negative, and the nice ones, the weddings, the birthdays, the excuses to see other people and other places, will for the most part stay on hold for a long time yet. We’re unbelievably lucky in our isolation, believe me, I feel the gratitude in my bones. But it’s easy to get caught in some needless ruts, putting one foot in front of the other along a windowless, changeless path.

But on the quick walk outside, when I remember to take it, everything announces “this is, that was, something else will be, soon.” Tell the broken maple branch dripping with sap that nothing is changing, or the chickadee who seemed to startle both of us with its spring song. Ask them if anything lasts forever.