Two weeks and four days since the fire. Another four to six weeks until I move home (a fact I learned on Friday, when I thought I was on the cusp of returning).
When you’re not in your own home, your own workplace, your own world, one of the first things you discover is that everything takes five times as long to accomplish. At home, rituals and shortcuts and routines that can be executed without thought. Away from home, there are all sorts of steps:
- I want to do X.
- Oh, wait. I don’t have the stuff here to do X.
- Maybe I can make it work by using Y and Z.
- Okay, not so good with Y and Z, but maybe I can make something work if I use A and B. It’ll take a little more time, but I can try.
- A and B work. Now I have to go back and remember what I wanted to do in the first place.
To say this has been an educational experience is an understatement. (A friend commented early on, “When this is all over, you’ll be a pro.” Frankly, I was happy with my amateur status in the field of crisis management.) Here’s a nonexclusive list of what I’ve learned so far:
How much I depend on what I can see. At home, I have two calendars over my desk, one with deadlines and the other with commitments, appointments, and obligations. Another calendar in the kitchen tracks the commitment calendar so I’ll remember where I need to be when I’ve walked to the other end of the house, because there’s a better than even chance I’ll forget otherwise. Without calendars hanging in front of me at every turn, my constant response to any proposed deadline is, “So that’s–what, three weeks? Oh, wait, it’s only two? Um, okay.” And I tap it into the list of reminders on my phone and pray I’ll remember to look at the list.
How resourceful a person can be when necessary. Have you ever heard of a VPN? If not, you’re precisely where I was seventeen days ago, and you’re exposing as much of your personal information as I was every time you check email or do your banking on your phone. I happened upon the whole notion sheerly by accident when I realized that the hotel has unsecured wireless connections and that I probably shouldn’t be accessing client information on those systems. Not that a VPN is perfect; nothing is. A friend in cybersecurity put it this way: “A VPN is like a condom. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than most people have.” So that’s what I’ve ended up doing so that I can sit here in my hotel and do work without worrying. You do what you have to do.
Who’s going to step up. On the morning of the fire, as I stood in my driveway and watched the tan-coated firefighters flowing in and out of the house as stars shone overhead, two of my neighbors came and stood with me. It wasn’t that they did or said anything notable, but they were there, which meant that in this time when I had no idea what was going to happen, I wasn’t alone. A neighbor from two doors down came and brought me a jacket, just in case. In the days since, a friend who has experience with being out of her house post-crisis sent me a gift card for Bed Bath & Beyond. Another friend sent me a gift card to my favorite spa and a box of cat toys. A cousin sent me a card to let me know she was thinking of me. My long-time insurance agent and friend invited me to dinner the night after the fire. Lots of lovely people stepping in to help, and I appreciate every single one of them.
How much stuff (and which stuff) you really need. This has proven challenging, to say the least. I have a lot of stuff in a small house. While some of it is proving to be optional, other things are essential to functioning, peace of mind, and efficiency. On Friday, I learned that I may not be back in my house until the beginning of December. Saturday night, I went to Staples and procured, among other things, a wall calendar, Post-It notes, a three-shelf sorter, plastic storage bins to keep supplies and work documents organized, paper clips, a stapler, a pair of scissors, and a number of other items I generally don’t think about. Today, I went back to the house and retrieved the hand-vac, staples for the new stapler, unopened bottles of salad dressing from the pantry, a handful of pens, and a mug to hold the pens. Tonight, the hotel suite feels much more like home.
How much important stuff you’ve secured (or failed to). On Day #3 of the cleaning process, I walked into my office to find my social security card sitting on my desk. Apparently, it was in the supply closet, and the cleaning crew found it.
On the first day, Licia (my contact at the cleaning company) said she always tells people to secure money, guns, and jewelry. Since I only had one of the three to worry about, it was an easy job: I put any jewelry of value into a plastic bag, I loaded the plastic bag into a shopping bag, and I’ve kept it with me ever since. On the other hand, she never mentioned things like extra checks, passports, and social security cards–all things you probably don’t want to have lying around while strangers are working your house, especially when you’re not there.
The neverending undercurrent of rerouting. This goes back to what I said at the outset: everything takes longer and is more complicated, because the established routines aren’t accessible. What I didn’t say, but what I’ve learned, is that all this rerouting is exhausting. Heck if I know how Siri does it: every time I have to reroute from the automatic to the temporary normal, it wears me down a bit more. By evening, when I’ve rerouted fifty or sixty times, I have no energy left, and all my virtuous plans for working fall by the wayside. Instead, I turn on the television and watch something I don’t actually care about seeing, just because it’s the path of least resistance.
The reality of comfort food. Many years ago, I knew a couple who got takeout every night. As best I recall, their position was that cooking and cleaning up took up too much time, and where could you get anything better than Boston Market, anyway? But that’s not me. I’m a cook-at-home kind of person, especially when I’m trying to stay on my Weight Watchers plan. I’m getting better at finding places with reasonably healthy takeout options and/or things I can cook with two burners and a microwave, but there’s a limit to how much pasta even a pasta-lover like me can tolerate. I never realized how many of my standard recipes require an oven until I didn’t have one.
How fast cats can adjust to a new environment. This one floored me. From the day each was adopted until the evening of October 5, none of my cats had ever gone anywhere other than the vet. I figured they’d be completely freaked out by the hotel. When I’d brought in the carriers and opened them, three of the five immediately set out to explore (and that includes the blind one). Two of them hung out in their carriers for a couple hours, but when I urged them out, they didn’t put up a fuss. Maybe it’s because we’re all together—I can’t say for certain—but they seem perfectly content in our new digs.
How short the grace period is. For the first few days, clients who knew about the fire gave me a wide berth. Within a week, though, they started calling with needs. I understand this: their clients still have demands, and courts still have deadlines. (And I still need cash flow, especially until the insurance company reimburses all my out-of-pocket expenses, so I wouldn’t turn down a project in any case.) In other words, life goes on, regardless of whether I’m juggling a new career as crisis manager with my other responsibilities. Nobody’s being obnoxious, but when a twenty-minute trip to the grocery store was interrupted by three business calls, I knew my grace period had ended.
Command hooks are one of God’s great blessings. Obviously, you can’t put holes in the wall of a hotel, but dish towels and wall calendars still need to be hung up. The Command hooks let you do this without risking a damage claim after checkout. Blessings on the inventor!
There are people who truly get it. The friend who sent me the Bed Bath & Beyond coupon was out of her house after last year’s floods in Louisiana. She mentioned in a recent post that she was out of her house for 15 weeks and back in with contractors working around her for 6.5 weeks. The precision was hers, but I understand it. A person who hadn’t been through this might have said “four or five months” instead of 15 weeks, or “several weeks” instead of 6.5 weeks, but people whose home lives have been interrupted understand. I’ve been out of my house two weeks and four days. If I get back into my house on December 1, I’ll have been out for eight weeks and one day. Especially for homebodies like me, this isn’t a vacation or a break. It’s a sentence, and we’re tracking every single day. It’s not that we don’t appreciate all the people who are working so hard to get us back into our homes; we absolutely do. But that doesn’t make being away any easier. We still want to click our heels and say, “There’s no place like home,” and magically return to our clean, safe, intact homes.
It’s an inconvenience, not a tragedy. There are people who are out of their homes because of full-blown tragedies. In northern California, many don’t even have homes left anymore. Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands—those are tragedies. Mine is an inconvenience: the house is still standing, with no structural damage. Just smoke and soot, air handler and ductwork and stuff that goes with it, and I’m handling it from a hotel in the same town where I have electricity and running water.
It could have been a thousand times worse. A dozen times a day, I have to remind myself of this, especially when I’m tired and worn out and needing to make yet another trip from the hotel to the house to pick up something I’ve forgotten. In the past two weeks, I’ve talked with dozens of people who have told stories of burned-out houses and spending a year in a hotel during the rebuilding. I’m humbled by what some of these people have endured. Suck it up, buttercup has become my near-constant reminder to myself.
The reality is that every experience falls somewhere on a continuum. Someone always has it better, and someone else has it worse. Perspective is critical, as are organizational skills and a sense of humor. Not to mention dear friends, a cuddle of cats, and a few essential supplies to see you through.
Still, the most important lesson of all is the one I’ve known all along:
Dorothy was totally right.