Columnist

Beth Dolinar has been writing her column about life, both hers and the rest of ours, for over 20 years. When not on the page, she produces Emmy-winning documentaries, teaches writing to university students, and enjoys her two growing children.

The philodendron was dead, killed because of the coronavirus, but not by it.

It was the first thing I saw when I walked into my office – my once green plant had gone flat, its leaves now pale and crispy as tortilla chips.

The last time I’d been in the office was early March, the day before my workplace shut down, its producers, writers and educators scattered back to home offices to wait out the pandemic.

I’ve been working from home ever since.

Although field production with camera crews has been on hold, we producers have found other ways to create content. Instead of doing 30-minute documentaries, I’ve done short pieces using Zoom interviews, stock footage and video shot on my iPhone. Perhaps most tricky has been voice-over narration, which I’ve done using a phone app and a small, inexpensive microphone while sitting in my car.

But a new project required that I record my narration in an audio booth, and that’s what took me back to the office this week for the first time in almost three months.

It was weird.

And not as wonderful as I’d thought it would be, for without the people a workplace is just a shell – an empty champagne glass without the bubbles. I walked through the bottom door and across the freshly waxed floor to the editing area. It was dark, and quiet as I’ve ever known it. The little table that usually holds boxes of donuts or bagels to be shared now held a spray bottle of disinfectant and a roll of paper towels.

Sounds turn to echoes in empty spaces. Without the warm softness of people, the building was noticeably more hard. As I entered the second floor from the staircase, the door closed behind me with a loud clang I hadn’t noticed before.

Then, down a darkened hallway and into the production department, where individual office doors were open. From the common meeting area, I could see sweaters slung over the backs of chairs. On the desk of the design manager was the glass candy jar, still filled with little chocolate bars. I used to unwrap one as I chatted with her about work, or our dogs. And there, on the wall, was the production board, its notations about filming plans and air dates color coded in red and green. What plans we all were making, back in the “Before Times,” when we would meet around the table, looking at the board.

How I miss that part of work.

I’m still able to produce and research and write – work has been the firewall between me and despondency. Last weekend I was able to go with a photographer to the sidewalks of Pittsburgh to film a mini documentary – with an actual camera. To be out there again, doing what I do best, felt like returning home after a long bout of stranded homesickness.

I’m hoping to be back with these people again soon, for they are my source of inspiration and energy. In the empty building, my ideas don’t bounce off co-workers, they just echo through the dark hallways.

I sat down at my desk for a moment and looked out the window at the high school football field across the parking lot. So many times I would watch the players as they ran drills, or the band members as they practiced. Watching helped me to work out the wrinkles in a script I was writing.

There on the window sill next to a trophy and framed photos of my kids was my sad, dead plant. Had I known the lockdown would last this long, I’d have taken the plant home with me.

But all those days ago, who could have known?

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