The Element of Water
You don’t drown by falling into water. You only drown if you stay there.
- Zig Ziglar
I keep thinking of this experience with water metaphors.
The wave of the first impact in my life, economic in nature because of California’s impressive leadership, hit hospitality like a tsunami. It was such a sudden, upending experience to be surrounded by restaurateurs who had to decide quickly to layoff entire staffs and operate on skeleton crews, if at all. By independent grocery store owners who had to ramp up operations, grappling with the risks of exposing their staff to corona virus and the stress of dealing with a panicked public.
Looking back at that week, it felt like watching people pulled under in riptides. Nobody has any idea who will come back up for air, whose business — and staff and families — will still be there when the storm is over.
I tend to explain my own work as “hospitality-adjacent”. I work with chefs and industry beloved bartenders and people who know more about wine than seems humanly possible, but I have a desk at an office and spend my time in Adobe Acrobat and email. We didn’t have to immediately make layoffs, but the impact in three or four months looms like storm clouds on the horizon.
It felt like we were positioned on a small, well-built ocean vessel meant for testing water samples. We have a bit more time to process this than the capsized party boats, but we are watching people go under and aren’t equipped to save everyone around us. Though I’m grateful to have more time to figure out how I personally can respond to this situation, and thank my lucky stars that my team is able to stay inside and socially distance, I realized quickly that coming out of this surrounded by casualties (economic or in actual lives lost), doesn’t seem like a win.
For a while… days, weeks, I don’t even know anymore… it felt like death or near death was the only reality, but the internet gives us windows into many homes.
There was also, I gather, boredom.
Part of the relative economic security that comes with my job is tied to the boring aspects of it. So many of the people who sit on higher ground with the privilege of boredom at this time work jobs a bit like mine. And while the ability to slog through bureaucracy and deal with the state government seem worth it to me in this crisis because I am able to keep my head above water, it’s only worth it in normal times because of my clients. Most of the jobs and industries that were so drastically hit by this make life interesting.
I don’t want to live in a world with just office workers and tone deaf corporate emails and rich celebrities. We can’t set up our society so that only those who sit in offices, or profit from our insecurities, or look good in front of cameras are protected when a crisis hits.
The chefs and bussers, the artists, the people who deliver goods or drive public transit, the people who pick up garbage, fix our streets, care for the elderly, the teachers of our kids, the sex workers and therapists and playwrights and drag queens and all non 9 to 5 folks who we culturally assess as less valuable somehow, less worthy of security. If anything, this experience has taught me they are the ones we should protect at all costs.
And like clockwork, my hospitality clients are popping up with plans to feed out-of-work staff and take care of each other, of all of us. Even before SBA loans hit the bank (which are going to be damn near impossible to repay for many small businesses). I remember why I work with these incredible people who literally nourish our communities. I realize that they are adventurers by nature, and they are called to the depth and opportunity of the sea. We look to them to bring us stories and flavors from destinations we only dream of, and depend on them to open our minds to the richness of life. It’s not just a nice thing to have. We come from the water, and these people help us maintain a vital, primordial connection.
Who we send lifeboats to says a lot about our culture. Who gets rescued when their boats capsize, who gets cared for, and how? Today, next month, in 10 years? Perhaps those of us who are bored could spend our time making a plan for that.
The social “safety net” has always been somewhat theoretical to me. I didn’t fully understand the real-world effects of dismantling public health care or unregulated capitalism or the smear campaign on public assistance. My privilege always provided me opportunities and shielded me from personal experience with what’s at stake.
But this shipwreck has shocked me to my bones. Drenched and cold, yet I feel the heat rise within. I am still here treading water, many of us are, and ready once the waves settle to rebuild a craft, an entire system, that can hold us all with fierce love. We should not ask our sailors and divers to sacrifice for us if we are not willing to sacrifice for them when they’re in need.
The ocean is a powerful symbol in these times. The ebb and flow of psychological states. Floating, drowning, surfing, swimming. A wave’s pull can be too strong for our earthly bodies to fight against. We can be thrashed around and pulled under. We can lose our breath in panic or pneumonia or poverty. We are reminded that none of us will live forever.
But how we respond, how we fight for each other with the time we do have, and how we rebuild will say a lot about our character, both individually and culturally. This experience can change us, and it should. Our vessels and charts and ideology were not sustainable.
Let the new ones be much better and more inclusive.
Let us not forget that all lungs suffocate after too long under water.
And all of us are worthy of safety and love.