“This isn’t that.”
This short sentence gets me through much.
Lately, I have found myself frozen, and I wanted to figure out why.
We all have things that make us hesitate — a person who looks like, smells like, walks like, someone who once hurt us. This man with a cheesy mustache is not that man with a cheesy mustache. This person saying the work needs improvement is not the teacher who wanted you gone. The pain from exercise is not the pain from having pulled something. Sometimes I say it out loud to get through, or move on.
I was upset because I can’t come up with a decent poem. Some friends from my MFA program and I decided to spend this time of world-wide enforced isolation running our poems by each other, and I was able to enter the first two rounds of submissions on something approaching a high. Then, this week, I froze. It wasn’t just writing. I bought the cards for Mother’s Day but didn’t mail them. There was the day that I did all my writing in my night clothes, the day that I didn’t cook, the day I wore an outfit that would make my daughter cry. I managed to perform my remedial ablutions and brush my hair and teeth, but the poem would not gel. The words did not come, and when I gathered them anyway, they scattered again like pepper flakes on the surface of water when you stick in the corner of a bar of soap.
I complained to my husband. He is, after all, the rest of what I call my “germ cohort.” I said, “Sir Isaac Newton discovered algebra when he was in isolation from the plague. I can’t write a poem. What’s wrong with me?”
“First of all,” my husband said, “Sir Isaac has nothing to do with algebra. He discovered gravity. Second, he outside of London where it was safe but he wasn’t cooped up, he was able to walk outside. How do you think the apple could fall on his head? Thirdly,” and he meant this kindly, “you are not Sir Isaac Newton.”
I think those of us who are inclined to put pressure on ourselves (Happy Mother’s Day to the lot of us) feel like we should be using this time of enforced idleness to create something of lasting beauty, that this is the chance we have been dreaming of to spend time at home working on what we love to do.
This isn’t that.
This isn’t what the Romans called “otium,” leisure. This is not, as my grad school experience was, time carved out one precious second at a time for dedicated work even in the face of two jobs and a family. This isn’t down time. This isn’t freedom. This isn’t respite.
This is a time of global trauma. And we cannot be healed from its effects until we recognize that fact.
One of my MFA mentors, the writer Kim Dana Kupperman, encouraged my workshop colleagues and me to learn more about the science of the human brain (among other things) in order to be able to write with understanding. I took her advice to heart, and attended a conference on trauma and writing that stressed that trauma does not take place in words. Trauma is felt, comes in images, scents, sounds, but not words. The seminar was for teachers of writing, and stressed that as writing instructors, we could not heal people the way a counselor can — there is a time and place and often a need for counseling. But by helping trauma victims to write well, we can literally give them control over the narrative of their lives.
I started exploring more. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine offered classes on trauma and the brain. I knew all about Fight or Flight. But I didn’t know that there is a third term involved: Fight, Flight, or Freeze.
This horrible illness has caused not stay-cations or a writer’s retreat but rather has turned the whole world into refugees in our own homes. This has not been a choice. And so it’s not leisure, it is the deprivation of the time, routine, income, company, work, and entertainments we had previously chosen. Some of us are fighting, like my daughter who made us the beautiful masks. Some are fleeing, like the people who insist on flocking to beaches and stores as if nothing has happened, in the hope, perhaps, that acting that way would make it so. (If this is magical thinking, it is not good magic.) And, some of us are frozen.
Frozen isn’t always the worst option. The government chooses to call it “sheltering in place.” We are staying put while we assess the situation and evaluate for ourselves the dangers, risks, allies, and safe spaces.
But in the meantime, if you cannot start or finish a poem, mail a package, decide what to make for supper, or get dressed, you are not failing. You are booting up.
This reminds me not of school but of the reading period between the end of classes and the first exam. The people who are alone are so very alone, and the people who live with others feel like they are never alone. As with reading period, some of us are running around in our sweatpants reading intently and staying up all night. Some of us are all ready for whatever lies ahead and we are quietly creating order out of the chaos of around us. (I expect there will be some amazing yard sales when this stay in place order is lifted.) But the whole schedule where your roommate leaves for class at one on Tuesdays and the room is yours for three hours is blown. We are all displaced and anxious.
I have a few suggestions for wading through:
1) Go ahead and mourn
Coronavirus is not baseball. Cry if you need to.
Tears contain toxins. You really do “get it out of your system” when you have a good cry over something. Lament the graduations and weddings that are not taking place, the deaths and the scares, the restrictions and the cancelled plans.
2) Accept that the world has changed.
The military term for this is “embrace the suck.” Once you have acknowledged how bad things are, it becomes an established fact, it’s like learning your times tables of fractions. It makes it boring rather than scary. It is no longer fodder for complaint or conversation.
3) Look for the helpers.
There are good people everywhere, making signs, going shopping, working in hospitals, watching other people’s children. Actively seek out the good.
4) Be a helper.
Find the thing that needs to be done that fits your skills, talents, and means. Can you donate to a food pantry? Can you buy masks? Can you make masks? Can you help people tie their masks? Use your keyboard and your phone to write and speak words of encouragement.
Do what you can do. If you cannot help, at least don’t be part of the problem. Don’t do things that will endanger the lives of others or frighten the people who love you. Wash your hands, wear your mask, stay home when you can. This applies to me: if I cannot write a good poem, I can read one for now, and let it percolate in my brain. If you cannot face getting all the way dressed, at least brush your teeth and hair. Do small things that your future self will appreciate — pay the bills, wash the dishes, greet people, even if you have to do it from afar.
5) Keep in mind that this will end.
It is maddening not to know when or how this will end, but if we keep in mind that some day it will be over, we can think more clearly and with better hope.
This should, of course, have been my first suggestion. If you are not a praying person, if you don’t have a prayer book, if this hasn’t been your tradition, that’s okay. Prayer is communion with God. Find a quiet place and, out loud or in the privacy of your head and heart, tell God what’s going on and what you think you need. Ask Him if this is really so. Ask Him to send good advice, good thoughts, good solutions. You can tell God when you are scared. It’s not like He doesn’t already know. You can ask him to watch over the people you cannot be with. He already loves them and knows them better than you do.
One of my favorite icons illustrates a section from the Wisdom of Solomon, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.”
When the stress cramps my back and I find myself hunched over and fearful, I force my shoulders back and breath. Rest in God.
This will end.