(This is the longer version of a post for Medicina Narrativa)
So we’re four weeks into the quarantine, and learning how to re-align our awareness, our perceptions of what it means to get through a day. We’ve all become anthropologists of the very, very particular. Our field work has contracted, compressed; researcher and research subject have collapsed into one. Individual, tribe, habitat, culture – those concepts have started to seem loose, unstable, full of uncertainty, on the verge of unforeseeable potential. The validity of the study is questionable, we’re making the methods up moment by moment, and we probably won’t have a hypothesis until we’ve achieved something resembling a conclusion….
Mostly, I’m paying attention to time.
The sense of time passing, of how it ought to pass, has become completely confused, complicated by existential fear and uncertainty. Should I grade some papers, do some committee work, or should I wonder about just who I am in a dysfunctional, capitalist rat-race run by greedy sociopathic autocrats? As my professional and consumerist world has ground nearly to a halt…how much have I ever needed it anyway? how much does it need me? When I strip away most obligations, and all the apparatus of my life that goes into coping with those obligations (therapy, physical therapy, massage therapy, the gym)…what do I really want or need to do on any given day? I’m interested and made uneasy by frequent feelings of guilt and resentment: if I’m doing what I like, I feel like I ought to be doing something else; if I’m doing what I ought, I feel angry that I’m not doing what I want. Without the demand to satisfy students, employers, co-workers, the world – what satisfies me?
…Deep questions, and yet concentration and motivation are elusive – I drift through the day, staying busy (but am I productive??), and time passes quickly. It’s hard to find the impetus to do work, for work. It’s easy to find the energy to work out – like a border collie, I crave purposeful movement, not easy to achieve in a small apartment; instead of gnawing at the furniture and scratching at doors, I’m becoming compulsive about moving, and – oddly – about sweeping the floor.
I’m sitting too much.
But there is – literally and figuratively – nowhere, and not enough reason, to go.
I’m sitting too much, moving too little.
What happens to our bodily experience when the demands of capitalism have all but disappeared? I don’t have to go anywhere, be anywhere at any particular time. My day doesn’t have to be shaped by commuting, meetings, classes, moving from private to public spaces.
I notice: no need to set an alarm in the morning or feel pressure to Get. To. Sleep. at a certain time at night; meal times are as much defined by what fits with my work schedule as by hunger; with no need (no public health justification) to go farther than the local park, the marketplace figures in my day mainly through its absence. Where once I would pass by the grocery store, the bank, the mall, restaurants, bars, on my way to work or this or that appointment, now, if I leave the house at all, I encounter empty streets, spring time flowering of leaves and blossoms, sky. My bird feeder has become a major source of entertainment.
Does it even make sense to separate discussion of mind from contemplation of body? how I move and how I feel, what I’m drawn to physically and mentally, and what I resist…if they weren’t all the same thing before, they’re becoming the same thing now.
We used to fret so much about not feeling integration of body and mind…Surprise! it’s been there all along, and we just needed a pandemic to be forced into enough stillness and presence to know it….
Solitude: the introverts are the best prepared of all. Is it wrong if we’re finding pleasure in not having to engage with others, in having long stretches of the day when we don’t have to be on for others? when we’re talking out loud to ourselves and consequently don’t have to deal with the agitation of being interrupted or trying to take a turn in conversation? when we don’t have to worry about being diplomatic, pleasing, assertive, attentive when we’re bored, polite when we don’t feel like it…The relief of not having to engage with others makes it easier to notice what kind of encounters feel good, necessary, invigorating or calming, and which ones are burdensome, obligatory, effort.
…And yet, how much solitude can one take before it becomes isolation? So many friends are stuck at home alone, with no-one there for company, no-one there for comforting presence and touch. What effect will that have on those who are already lonely, anxious, depressed?
The crisis is creating a whole new category of relationship challenges. As our world started to contract in mid-March, it was a decision point, time to pick what Dan Savage has coined “our Quarantine” (rhymes with Valentine): who do you love enough to lock down with? who do you love enough to insist on a long-distance arrangement with instead?
I’ve been on the phone and video chat more in the last 3 weeks than I think I have in the last 3 years (devoted readers will remember how much I dislike being on the phone); it might have taken a global emergency to supply the exposure therapy necessary to break me of my telephonic phobia. Still not happy about it – I still feel like a pinned butterfly, fixed there in front of the camera, making eye contact not with my friends on the other end, but with my own thumbnail image there in the corner. It’s hard to ignore one’s mirror image, hard not to be aware of how this angle or that shadow improves or ruins appearance. I’m fidgeting constantly, to keep my face lively, lifted through the mouth and eyes, but smooth across the forehead. I miss my botox and my hair cut. My nail-biting has gotten worse.
In week 1, we were all socializing a little manically. Dinner with a friend, a check-in with the parents, virtual cocktail hour with this group of friends, ill-fated online truth-or-dare with that group. Now, at the end of week 4, the impulse to connect seems to have ebbed a bit. Maybe it’s just too many video-chat hurdles: frozen screens, yelling over one another in our Bradybunch grid, hangovers, news of hacking of our so-called private conversations held on our employer-provided conferencing apps, motion sickness from being carried through other people’s apartments from the living room to the kitchen for refills, odd downtime staring at friends’ empty sofas while they run to the bathroom, alarmed collective outcry when someone tucks in to their wasabi peas without muting the volume first.
…As clever as the technology is, it’s not perfect. Our bodies recognize the artifice. Not natural. Uncanny. Body language, tone of voice, eye contact – before, we might not have been sensitive enough to the physicality of the other, but even in encounters with friends we’d never touch, our bodies still felt that other person there, their energy, warmth, presence – and we’re finding that as much as we might spend time looking at one another across our screens, there’s an absence of immediacy, of the contact that our animal selves need, and now miss.
Or maybe it’s just that after four weeks stuck in our apartments, we don’t feel like we have all that much to say.
Them: “So what have you been up to today…?”
Me: “Not much – I did a pilates video, swept the floor, stared out the window. How about you?”
Them: “The same.”
But is it the case that we’re really not doing much that’s conversation-worthy? I suspect rather that we just haven’t got used to who we are when removed from the stimuli of hectic, urban, professional life. That is, think of how much of our conversation consisted of bitching steadily about stress, overwhelm, demands on our time and attention, provocations of poor infrastructure and a culture that allows too much rudeness, not enough kindness…all of which would then lead to reports of what we would do to combat those provocations – workouts, “self care,” indulgences like dinner or cocktails or shows, travel, the escape/aneasthesia of binge-watching.
And if all that goes into performing our professional and social identities (sorry, I mean, our personal brand) comes to a sudden, grinding halt, and we have to look to smaller, more subtle incidents to give the day meaning…we might not be prepared for that.
Take away that whole stimulus-response process, and apparently, we’re left with nothing else to say for ourselves.
But is that true?
Spending imaginative time, as I do, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it occurs to me: Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre and Dorothea Brooke all lived pretty retired country lives, and they all found plenty to do, and plenty to say. The pace of life was different, but hardly empty (and as constraining as it might have been to be a woman in the 1830s, at least they could leave the damn house) – and if it looks to us as though those women didn’t do much, that’s only by comparison to our lives which we thought, a few days ago, were purposeful and meaningful because they were FULL of productivity! of ambition! of constant movement! – and which to Lizzie, Jane, and Dodo might seem horrifyingly frantic and pressured, leaving no time or energy for contemplation, for connection with one’s loved ones, one’s environment, oneself…
In those days, the words “intimacy” and “intercourse” were used routinely, not in the narrow, limited sense that we do now, to refer almost exclusively to sex – but in a more expansive way, to describe the kind of quiet, private (as in, simply, not public), attentive interactions that were valued for true friendship. A dance, a fête, a route – those more rowdy events were exciting, sure, but relationships were built and maintained through quiet togetherness, intimate conversation, and sharing – a book, letters, music, walks, meals, work.
If Lizzie, and Jane, and Dodo could find something to talk about with one another, I think we can too.
I’ve never been very good about adhering to any human-made system for maintaining whatever we mean by “spirit” – I’m a Sunday School dropout and a dilettante pagan, whose cosmology is a patchwork of ideas and images drawn from Buddhism, yoga, myth, and, mostly, beloved stories. So far, as extraordinary as quarantine life has been, how much of a strain it’s becoming, I have not become that person who can sit still for ritual, sermons, dharma talks, who feels a sense of connection to something larger than herself through the use of symbols and shared invocations…I wouldn’t have described myself as having much of a spiritual life at all, except that – in the absence of all the busy-ness and agita of my daily neurotic life which makes me simultaneously self-absorbed and yet not all that in touch with myself – now, confined to quarters, confined to one’s own sensations, it seems there are some things that are calming, centering, sustaining. And yet I wouldn’t have called this “spirit,” because for me, it’s really so much more physical, bodily, embodied: movement (cleaning, baking, walking, and when possible, dancing); sound (music, birds, rain, wind); scent (freshly baked bread or new blossoms); sight (leaves, flowers, trees, sky); touch (real and imagined).
How does this attention to spirit differ from that of mind, body, or relationships? Aren’t all of those the ingredients of this experience, of the struggle to notice and accept, of being?