My entry on duty with the Foreign Service was supposed to happen on Monday, March 30. A lot of things were supposed to happen before the Corona virus starting spreading.
When I received my official invitation on February 19 to join the State Department’s 202nd A-100 class, I had one month and 11 days to wrap up my entire life and get my family moved to Washington D.C. I quit my job, re-negotiated all my commitments, we got rid of many possessions and packed up the remaining ones, made arrangements to take care of our house, and started planning an epic road trip across America. I signed official employment contracts and began other HR preparations for Entry on Duty (EOD). This was the opportunity we’d been pursuing for 7 years (longer than the lifetimes of our two youngest children). To say that we were excited would be akin to calling the Mississippi River a small stream; we were thrilled.
The pack-out was painful, intense, and very good. Getting rid of so many possessions and making decisions that had been deferred (sometimes for years) lightened our souls and started readying us for the adventure ahead. Unfortunately, it also consumed us. While we were focused inward, a storm was brewing in the outside world.
“Adventure is nothing but hardship in the past tense.”– Andrew Shinn
The Corona virus first popped up on my news feed in early January while I was planning a trip for Fresno Pacific MBA students to Malaysia and Singapore. It’s a trip that I’ve led for the past three years and was handing off to a wonderful colleague. But my risk assessment hat was on, and I was hoping that this oddly-named Asian problem (which reminded me of SARS) wouldn’t be disruptive to our travel plans. I had no idea how this distant storm would come to define our future reality.
After spending Fresno Pacific’s spring break packing, I was looking forward to one last day in the classroom with my students at Fresno Pacific and Fresno State. Unfortunately (for me), both schools cancelled classes that week while figuring out how to respond to the growing epidemic. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to most of my students. But our plans were firmly in place, and the intensity of our personal change kept us from focusing too much of the disaster that was approaching.
On March 18, we began our trek across the United States. We were planning to take a more leisurely drive, stopping to see family members in various states, taking in and enjoying the vastness and diversity of our country.
We were 900 miles into our trip when we received the news that cast our future into doubt: the 202nd A-100 class was being postponed. We didn’t know what that meant and neither did the folks at State who were making these decisions. The Corona virus had become a pandemic, and none of us knew at the time what that would mean.
What we did know is that we had left everything behind, and didn’t have much to return for. Our leisurely drive across the country became a race against the clock, as we began trying to outrun the state closures. We left California the day before a shelter in place order, and drove across Ohio hours before it closed. In Chicago, we bought a traditional Chicago pizza and ate it in our van in a parking lot. Our meals all took place in the car as we focused more on eating miles than calories. Some of the hotels where we stayed told us that we were some of the only guests they had; they were seeing occupancy rates as low as 3-4%.
We arrived in Washington DC far ahead of schedule with no real plan. We spent one depressing night in an Alexandria hotel, then found a lovely Air BnB in Arlington for the rest of the week. We continued to communicate with the State Department. During that first week it became clear that I wouldn’t be starting work any time soon. They didn’t have the capability to swear people in remotely, and all of HR procedures they’ve developed over years couldn’t be retooled to work remotely in a matter of days.
The State Department reiterated their commitment to bring us on board, but still isn’t sure when that will happen. They’re projecting that it’ll be sometime in the next 12 months.
In the meantime, a fellow A-100 colleague connected us with his parents, who offered us very reasonably-priced housing in Winchester, VA. We’ve moved to a comfortable 3-bedroom townhouse in rural Virginia, close to the West Virginia border. After a few days of scrounging furniture from Craigslist and being blessed by our new hosts’ generosity, our household goods arrived. We now have clothes and a few other possessions.
We’re planning to shelter in place here for the moment. The governor of Virginia has closed the state until June 10. It seems prudent for now to be in a rural area. Food and necessities (like toilet paper) are available here for the moment, and we’re comfortable and safe.
“The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!”
– Robert Burns, from ‘To A Mouse’ in 1785
We’ve experienced this pandemic and its fallout differently than everyone else. We were already planning on disruption and change; this is just not the disruption that we were planning for. Our framing of this as an adventure should have given me pause; my definition of adventure is, “hardship in the past tense”.
Our hardship isn’t onerous, though. It’s a deviation from what we expected, but there’s a reason that we trot out that old quote about the best laid schemes of mice and men. We’re together as a family, our needs are cared for, and we’re about as safe as anyone can be in these days. We have the expectation of interesting future work with the State Department and some unknown number of months in which to prepare for it. Overall, life is good.