Anger, boredom, gratitude, despair, hope, nostalgia, hatred, stagnation, emptiness, comfort, discomfort, sadness, listlessness, loneliness, uncertainty, safety, anxiety, numbness…
All these feelings and more came to mind when I sat down to do the same Covid-19 related assignment that my second graders completed. They were asked to describe how they’ve been feeling during the pandemic, as part of a “Coronavirus Time Capsule” project. Many of their responses were thoughtful and honest, and they reminded me that, despite our age, background, or life circumstances, we are all experiencing a wide array of emotions that can change drastically from day to day or even moment to moment.
In the early days of social distancing, when the bleak reality of daily life in the time of Covid-19 hadn’t quite set in, I was excited to do lots of things with the endless amount of free time I had suddenly been gifted. I wanted to read all of the books that had been sitting on my shelf for years. I reveled at the thought that I would finally sit down and explore Spotify for hours on end, to acquaint myself with all the new music that had been released since Trump’s inauguration (a date I use to mark time for lots of things, including my waning interest in new releases in the arts and entertainment world). I promised myself I would actually dig out that set of acrylic paints that had been buried at the bottom of a drawer since maybe 2014. I would also try out all the recipes I had bookmarked in my small collection of vegetarian cookbooks. And, I would actually start using those mediation and language learning apps that had been sitting there neglected in a folder on my iphone for god knows how long.
None of those things listed above were goals, and I never viewed this period of isolation as a time to “be productive.” In fact, on one of the last days before all nonessential business shut down, I purchased Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing at one of my favorite local bookstores. I was excited to read her thoughts on resisting the 24/7 productivity culture we’re bombarded with, especially now that I had been given this weird sort of permission from the universe to stop being productive. So I sat in a cafe just down the street from the bookstore, and I made it through about 50 pages before the cafe closed for the evening. I was feeling inspired to start “resisting the attention economy” and hopeful that I would start finding joy and solace in simple practices that I had ignored or shelved because of productivity culture and burnout.
Those feelings quickly vanished when I panic bought a bunch of groceries at CVS because there wasn’t a parking spot in sight at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. And as I carried three heavy bags filled with mostly junky snacks and frozen food down a scarily empty and lifeless main street in Cambridge, MA, a wave of dread washed over me. I put the book on my coffee table after I put away all the groceries, and I’ve felt its eye catching, floral cover stare at me for weeks, taunting me with a sick kind of irony to do something productive and finish it already.
It’s been more than seven weeks since I purchased Jenny Odell’s manifesto on productivity and personal liberation, although it sometimes feels like it’s been more than a year, depending on my mood or perspective when I look back. And in the time that has elapsed, waves of confusing and conflicting emotions have continued to crash into me. On any given day I can go from feeling perfectly calm and at ease with the world around me as I enjoy my morning coffee in bed while I watch some “comfort TV” (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sex And The City, Are You Being Served? etc.) to suddenly feeling overcome by an onslaught of dread and anxiety as I count down the minutes to my next painfully awkward Zoom meeting. I can vacillate between feeling lonely and isolated because my friends and family members haven’t texted me back, to feeling reassured and connected when we exchange even the most trivial messages, like bits of Coronavirus humor or anti-Trump memes (both of which are never in short supply these days). There are also moments when I want to either turn off my phone or throw it across the room, screaming, “Leave me the fuck alone!” because I’m overwhelmed with people invading my space and making demands on my time and energy. And sometimes I just don’t have a single ounce of the energy, attention, or concern it takes to be a thoughtful, empathetic friend, or to even be a social human being at all.
While I may not have reignited my passion for fine arts, kept up with my daily goals on that Spanish app, finished even one goddamned book on my shelves, or had one Zoom meeting that was purely social instead of a mind numbing cacophony of voices from kids or colleagues who still don’t seem to know how to mute themselves, I have found some simple, enjoyable practices that have allowed me to distance myself from the attention economy. I’ve walked many local trails, some of which are familiar and evocative of childhood walks with my dad, and some of which are brand new to me. I’ve observed the turkeys that hang out in my large backyard and the wooded slope directly across the street from my house. I’ve taken a handful of short road trips to the small seaside town where I lived a few years ago. It’s easier to be socially distant there, and today I was able to walk through the town’s eighteenth century era cemetery without being self-conscious or anxious about busting out that dreaded face mask. I’ve had short but lovely conversations from six feet apart with a local author and dogsitting client who I’ve delivered groceries to. I’ve been listening to music more mindfully and critically and falling back in love with albums I haven’t listened to in years (this week’s big rediscovery was Fiona Apple’s When The Pawn…) And I’ve cleaned and reorganized my apartment in small ways that feel refreshing.
Sure, I might spend more time than usual glued to a screen. My sleep schedule might be more erratic than ever. I may be consuming more alcohol and salty, processed snack foods than I usually allow myself to eat. And, aside from completing my minimal work from home requirements, I might not be very “productive” at all by society’s standards. I’m certainly not “crushing” any goals or planning for the future. But honestly, are any of these things truly relevant ot important right now? Life is on pause, so can’t we just put productivity culture on pause as well? I will continue to do what my jobs ask of me, but I will also make time to be blissfully unproductive. And that includes closing my laptop, pouring a second cup of coffee, and cracking open that Jenny Odell book while I listen to the turkeys in the backyard.