This Time is of the Essential

The word essential is rattling around in my brain these days. On one hand, I’m prioritizing essential groceries; on the other hand, the Safer at Home order is enumerating essential services that can still operate in Nashville during this two-week lockdown to flatten the curve.

Coffee, dark chocolate and toilet paper comprise one list, while health care, sanitation, banking, food and beverage, and construction (among many professions) populate the other.

This qualifying of professions reminds me of the time, 22 years ago, when I first thought about what it means to be essential. I was a cub reporter on the business desk at The Tennessean when a tornado tore through the city. Newspaper staff huddled in stairwells while a funnel cloud swirled past 1100 Broadway, and I remember thinking this really could be the end. I was 26 and single. There was a married couple in the stairwell with me, holding hands and comforting each other, and the sight of them left me with the same kind of gentle jealousy I get from watching romantic comedies. (As luck would have it, that same couple eventually introduced me to the guy I would marry.)

When the funnel passed, a supervisor at the top of the stairwell announced it was safe to get back to our desks. But only ESSENTIAL staff, he said. At 26 years old, I wasn’t essential to much in the world, but as it turned out, even business reporters are essential in the aftermath of a tornado. The supervisor added that all NON-ESSENTIAL staff were to remain in the stairwell.

As suddenly as I wanted to find a life partner, I also wanted to know that my work would always be essential. I think that stairwell moment has informed my life choices as much as any career counselor could.

My “sugar daddy,” Mike Rowe, whose charitable foundation paid part of my tuition in construction school at Tennessee College of Applied Technology, has been highlighting unsung essential work for years in his books, podcasts and television shows, most notably Dirty Jobs. In case we haven’t covered this material before, I love Mike Rowe.

In a television interview this week, Mike Rowe had this to say:

“I’m also fascinated by this notion of essential jobs. … It will be interesting to see how that definition evolves over the coming weeks and months. An essential job, to my way of thinking, has always been a person who does a thing that you can’t do. The more we’re isolated and the more we have to rely on ourselves and our families to take care of the stuff in the house, we’re gonna have a whole different conversation about what essential means  and what essential is, I think.”

The longer we’re all in this pandemic-quarantine-lockdown together, maybe we will start to ascribe more value to so many unsung jobs — from plumbers and grocers to truck drivers and other essential tradespeople. Maybe we’ll start to clap for these professionals like people are clapping for heroic healthcare providers around the world.

While we’re talking about essential jobs, there’s one glaring omission on the list of essential jobs exempted from the Safer at Home order: artists.

I understand and applaud the spirit of the Safer at Home order, so don’t think for one second that I’m advocating more people roaming around free-range in the virus-sphere, but it’s worth mentioning that artists are indeed essential, especially at a time when we’re all a little scared and isolated.

Remember the children’s book Frederick by Leo Lionni, about the mouse who seemed un-industrious compared to his friends. While the other mice gathered corn, wheat and straw for winter, Frederick soaked up the sun and stared at the meadow. When his mouse colleagues chided his indolence, he explained, “I am gathering words. For the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say.”

Well, as much as those mice needed corn, wheat and straw, it turned out they also needed Frederick’s words.

But little by little they had nibbled up most of the nuts and berries, the straw was gone, and the corn was only a memory. It was cold in the wall and no one felt like chatting.

Then they remembered what Frederick had said about the sun rays and colors and words.

“What about your supplies, Frederick?” they asked.

“Close your eyes,” said Frederick, as he climbed on a big stone. “Now I send you the rays of the sun. Do you feel how their golden glow…” And as Frederick spoke of the sun the four little mice began to feel warmer. Was it Frederick’s voice? Was it magic?

These spring days of sheltering in place are long and many, and we might run out of things to say, if it were not for the artists, writers and singers, broadcasting impromptu drawing classes, readings and concerts across the internet.

From children’s author Mo Willems’s Lunchdoodles to Neil Diamond’s singing “Hands, Washing Hands” to the tune of Sweet Caroline, art can make us feel warmer. It can make us feel like we’re not quite so alone. It can distract us and give us hope. Whether or not art is magic, it is most certainly essential.

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