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California to Columbia: moving across the country during COVID-19

Art by Devin Hall

Moving is a difficult, anxiety-inducing and draining task, especially when it’s long-distance. Leaving behind friends and starting a new life in a new town is stressful enough—imagine having to do it in the middle of a global pandemic. 

I have experienced several relocations in my lifetime, ranging from a simple few blocks down the street to a grueling 3,000-mile coast-to-coast move. In the past five years, I’ve lived in five different houses. My first one happened in 7th grade, when I left my hometown of Miami for Palo Alto, a small city in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

At that point in time, I was still young enough to be exempt from most of the manual labor that comes with transitioning to a new house. As I grew older, however, my involvement in each moving process grew as well. I became all too familiar with the pain of putting all my possessions into boxes, loading and unloading trucks and the endless trips to the U-HAUL store to buy more supplies. 

By my fifth house, I was a seasoned veteran with this process, and the volatility of never staying in one place for longer than a year became nothing new to me. But this time, I knew I would be staying in house number five for my last year of high school, and I finally felt stability.

As experienced as I may have been at moving, I could have never predicted or prepared for the move that followed—one that was highly tumultuous, emotionally draining and unprecedented, much like 2020 itself. In August, as I was settling into my most recent house in Palo Alto, bracing myself for the start of an already-stressful senior year, my parents blindsided me with the announcement that, in a month, we’d be relocating to Columbia to start at a new school. 

With California’s ever-increasing cost of living, I was aware of the possibility of living out of state after high school. Even so, I was under the impression that my senior year, combined with the dangers of traveling during a global pandemic, would be enough to put off the potential move for at least a few more years. But with complications of COVID-19 affecting my parents’ hours at work and destabilizing their income, living in one of the most expensive areas in the country was no longer a comfortable option for us, nor was it a rational one. 

The pandemic made virtually every task and stage of the process a little more difficult. Logistically, this move was not easy. Not only was my family packing and shipping an entire house’s worth of possessions almost 1,500 miles away, we were doing so while trying to minimize our exposure to COVID-19. Everything required caution and extra attentiveness, from interacting with movers to trips to donation sites and the hardware store. 

Physically traveling to Columbia involved several plane trips and overnight airport layovers, which were nerve-wracking, to say the least. We carefully wiped down any surface we touched, including hotel rooms, plane seats or our own luggage. Some flights were too crowded to enforce social distancing, which meant we occasionally had to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with passengers from outside our household. We were forced to think about the little details we usually paid no attention to, like how we’d be able to eat at the airport or on the flight. Long-distance travel is exhausting, but even more so when any little action has the potential to get you sick. 

While the transition was physically taxing, it was just as tiring emotionally. Packing up clothes and shoes that we left untouched for most of the year, throwing out makeup I no longer wore and sorting through old keepsakes of friends that I hadn’t seen since March left me feeling disheartened. I wistfully wondered when things would return to normal again and when I’d be able to hug my friends again, travel to new places or go to another concert. 

“I’m the new kid in a school where the closest contact I have with my new classmates is through a Zoom breakout room.”

By now, this feeling of loneliness, of isolation and uncertainty, is nothing new to people around the world. We’ve been living through COVID-19 for nearly seven months now, and throughout that time the world removed or substituted most face-to-face interactions and began communicating in less intimate ways. With the situation evolving so rapidly, most people have spent these last few months in a state of constant instability, thinking, “When will this all be over?” For me, undergoing such a huge transition in my life during an already difficult time exacerbated all of the negative feelings I already had from the pandemic.

Although many friends came to see me before I left, there was really no adequate way to say goodbye to my friends while masked and six feet apart—it felt impersonal and detached. Now that I’m thousands of miles away from Palo Alto, there are no more socially distanced, CDC-approved, park hangouts with my friends. No more conversations from opposite sides of the street. What already felt like a deficit of face-to-face interaction has now been stripped away from me too, and I’m the new kid in a school where the closest contact I have with my new classmates is through a Zoom breakout room. 

Thankfully, my family eventually got through the move COVID-free and all in one piece. As the school year progresses, I know I will find friends and make connections that will enrich my experience in Columbia. As I relax and settle into my new home, it’s worth noting the positive opportunities for growth that circumstances like these can offer. 

Throughout it all, I’ve realized the importance of being kind to myself. More than ever, I’ve been purposefully taking time to focus on self care, whether it’s journaling, taking myself on afterschool coffee dates or simply giving myself an extra few hours of sleep. Navigating a pandemic and a move all at once was exhausting, but having compassion for myself throughout this transition and taking much-needed breaks helps me tremendously.  

Now, I talk to my Palo Alto friends over FaceTime almost daily, and while it may not perfectly replicate the feeling of being with them in person, I’m grateful for the opportunity to even see them in the first place. Zoom is not exactly an ideal environment for meeting new friends, but I take advantage of every opportunity I have to step out of my comfort zone and talk to my classmates, even if it’s just breakout room small talk. 

In the end, this chapter of my life has served as a reminder of not only the strength and adaptability in me, but in all of us as well. It’s safe to say we as a society are not where we thought we’d be at the start of 2020. Nobody could have predicted we’d be living through a deadly pandemic right now, and I personally never expected to spend my senior year doing online school somewhere in Missouri. Regardless, life goes on. It takes great mental fortitude to remain afloat through it all, but we are all still here, showing up everyday in the face of adversity. And I think we will come out stronger in the end because of it.

Has your family had to move during COVID-19? Let us know in the comments below.

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1 comment

Carrie October 12, 2020 at 11:25 pm

My oldest has gone through this, granted not during a pandemic. We were a military family and moved around a lot. I think Rock Bridge was her 16th school.

I feel for you going through such a huge move during pivotal HS years, but I am glad you’re in journalism. That’s a pretty good group.

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