When my parents were dating during the 90s in New York City, my mom kept her sweaters in their oven. My mom said the kitchen was too small and gross and they needed the storage space. They used to tell that story from time to time when I was growing up, often when my dad commented on my mom’s cooking (which frequently utilized an oven during my childhood). He seemed to be saying, “Look how far she’s come.”
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the sweaters in the oven. Our poor oven, which is lucky if it gets lunch off from roasting chickpeas or brussels sprouts, would be thrilled to have a couple of days protecting some sweaters, I’m sure. This semester, my pandemic fatigue has taken the form of meal-time existential dread, and every time I start to chop my silly little brussels sprouts, I try to imagine myself with the kind of life where the oven is most useful as a dresser. I can’t.
Perhaps, if the pandemic had not made it so that I was less than five steps from my oven 23 hours per day, I would feel differently. In the alternate pandemic-free reality, I’d probably have a small meal plan. I’d go to events with food advertised, order out occasionally and throw something quick together if I could stop at home between 5-9 p.m. Instead, I cook all but one meal a week, ordering takeout on whichever night it is that Soylent or starvation doesn’t feel like a reasonable alternative to food preparation.
The sweaters, which I’ve been thinking about lately when I go to roast my veggies, are a symbol to me of the small ways that the pandemic has changed me. Cooking nearly every meal, while both necessary and mundane most of the time, feels like a significant step toward something resembling adulthood. But as someone who grew up hearing about the “20s in New York” lifestyle, it also sometimes feels like a regression from modernity. My mental image of young adulthood failed to include meals requiring multiple pans and 45 minutes of oven time.
The pandemic has forced a type of domesticity on us all, but for me, it has also rewired my priorities. I no longer want the most competitive, prestigious career at any cost. I no longer want the type of job that forces you to eat takeout six nights per week. I want to be able to cultivate my relationships in the slow, careful way that I cook my food and I want a job that allows me to do that.
I think it’s likely that we will see a sort of “roaring 20s” as people are finally able to safely let loose. My prevailing feeling, however, is a desire to stay close to the familiar. I’m not itching to travel the world or to take a big job in a place away from friends or family. I’m not excited to become so busy flitting from one thing to the next that I don’t have time to make my sprouts.
To me, the pandemic has been one long “deserted island” question. When shit really hits the fan, who do you want to be stuck with — physically or emotionally? For now, for who knows how long, surrounding myself with people I would want to be stuck with on an island is my driving force.
I’m not really sure what I want to do after I graduate, but in the past few weeks, I’ve watched so many talented writers lose their jobs. I’m watching my own talented friends across many different fields struggle to get paid employment of any kind. I’ve watched the incredible dearth of support given to working mothers throughout the pandemic. I’m feeling my ambition shrivel behind a computer screen as I fail to see examples of hard work paying off.
For today — in a way that feels very not-21 of me — it’s the vision of the people that I love around the dinner table that is keeping me going. The oven will need to remain sweater-free.
Jessie Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.