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If The Pandemic Is Hard For You, Consider That We’ve Never Been Taught Stillness

The pandemic is worth the learning we will do, even though we don’t quite know how yet.

May 12, 2020

July Westhale
Modified from Ujwala Prabhu

t feels like we are cycling between some kind of futuristic dystopian hell-scape and the womb-like, pop tart-laden nest of childhood.

Because that’s what it is to stay at home endlessly: a kind of regression that is made possible by science fantasy tropes of late capitalism gone very, very wrong — here we are, in that pseudo-realistic speculative dreamscape so often written about in fiction; our systems are failing us, and the only way through is to change completely.

I went hiking yesterday on the coast — at a secret spot that is still open. I pushed myself up a grueling incline, through the varying shades of green that let me know, yes, it is undeniably May, until my body sort of broke into a kind of greater understanding. The sort of bodily response that overrides all anxiety: the rationale of a body in fever, for example, or the wisdom of muscle failure. The time during pandemic has been high highs (an almost zen-level elation at having zero control over anything) and low lows (the existential anxiety of having zero control over anything), and this past week was a particularly low low.

The harder the week, the more exhausting the hike.

This has always been true for me. I grew up an athlete, always moving as recreation, both because sports meant community, and also because sports meant an escape from the dark house of my childhood (and/or the dark house of my own shyness and introversion).

There still isn’t anything quite like exercising to the point of near-transcendence: the hum of the body as it goes from sluggishness to endorphins.

The soft reprieve of a body exhausted.

How that means mental placidity is sure to follow (not always tried and true, but still a comfortable enough success rate for me).

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Towards the end of my trek, which I’d gone on in order to find a good view of the giant Scorpio full moon, I discovered a large field of uninterrupted green — tall grass and wildflowers, not a person in sight. What bliss, I thought, laying down in it. At any other time, this field would be manicured. But, like all of us, her natural growth is uncontrolled. A kind of life-after-people.

The field reminded me of running away from home as a teenager. The cops coming for me. I laid in the tall sunflowers at the vernal pool and watched the heads of the flowers turn blue, red, blue, red. They never found me. Since then, I’ve always felt safe in fields.

This came at a cost, however. When I went to change my clothes after the hike, I found a fat tick, latched to the soft skin of my thigh. I’d intercepted him just as he’d been about to bite. While I was taking advantage of the empty field, the largess of the moon, I was still trespassing on someone. Something.

Isn’t that this year, though? The attempt at control comes with a subsequent seismic shift that knocks us down.

The answer, it seems, is to be absolutely still.

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Even in my grandest moments of self-reflection (which, for me, always come in the wise minutes of being wowed by something naturally gorgeous, or being in an unfamiliar city, preferably around a language I don’t understand), I am still conscious of the ever-running current of productivity of my own selfhood. The tick felt like a punishment for my own lazing, my own hubris in stopping in stillness for the sake of something I liked because it was beautiful.

I’m not alone in realizing this — the existential anxiety, in our social context (which is the United States, a country well-known for overworking and underpaying its people) that comes with not knowing what to do.

In her recent Paris Review article “Fuck the Bread. The Bread is Over”, Sabrina Orah Mark writes this of her time homebound during the pandemic:

“I send my sons on a scavenger hunt because it’s day fifty-eight of homeschooling, and I’m all out of ideas. I give them a checklist: a rock, soil, a berry, something soft, a red leaf, a brown leaf, something alive, something dead, an example of erosion, something that looks happy, a dead branch on a living tree. They come back with two canvas totes filled with nature. I can’t pinpoint what this lesson is exactly. Something about identification and possession. Something about buying time. As I empty the bags and touch the moss, and the leaves, and the twigs, and the berries, and a robin-blue eggshell, I consider how much we depend on useless, arbitrary tasks to prove ourselves. I consider how much we depend on these tasks so we can say, at the very end, we succeeded.”

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So it goes; if you’re struggling with stillness, consider the fact that we’ve never been taught how. Never has that been clearer than right now.

The existential roller coaster of emotions under quarantine seems to be our big boulder. We are utilizing the same coping mechanisms that we always have, but nothing is the same. Nothing is working. Is it humbling, or debilitating to be confronted with the fallacies of our systems, of ourselves within said systems?

I say both. I say this from the depths of my own failures to adapt. My own tendency to wake up and tackle the day the same way I did before. The same impetus to make a plan.

You would think being a poet would make this easier — the craft of writing it and the act of reading it require absolute presence. But much in the same way that Modernism sprung from Existentialism during the invention of the atom bomb, we too are in a new wave of art creation that we can’t yet name. So that structure, too, fails to provide a template.

Maybe that’s where pop tarts come in. Comfort food. Songs you loved when you were a kid. Maybe this is the closest we, as adults, will come to understanding our positionalities as children, with no designs on the future, with very little control and autonomy.

Is that, then, the answer? To become like children, and accept our powerlessness as a means of joy? But if you did not have a joyful childhood, as I did not, to what baseline can you aspire?

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The moon is worth the tick, the climb is worth the exhaustion. The pandemic is worth the learning we will do, even though we don’t quite know how yet. I promise you that this is an opportunity, though I can’t speak to how it is for you, specifically. But I do know I dream at night of kissing my friends’ faces, when I can. The simple acetone smell of a nail salon. The normalcy of a crowded subway train.

The previously-normal world underscored by my own deprivation of it.

When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to go to a public school that had a program called Yosemite Institute — a kind of makeshift, get-you-ready-for-natural-stewardship, like Sierra Club for minors. YI always included year-long fundraising for a week of backpacking in Yosemite in the dead of winter (typically late January) in which myself and my friends would go with our favorite science teacher to hike, learn about botany, and be bowled over by Yosemite Valley under fifteen feet of snow.

The first time I went, we were asked to hand over our watches at the start of the trip. The night was a moon-filled one, not unlike my recent field. The valley was blanketed in perfect, silver snow and we had no flashlights. Our teacher asked us to sit until we stopped thinking about time — that was it. No other directives, entirely self-assessed. Sit in the snow in the brilliant field until you realized you’d stop thinking about time.

It took most of us a very long time, or what felt like it, since we had no way of knowing. But like the rods and cones of our eyes that gradually got used to the dark, we’d find ourselves turning from the confines of time’s rigid landscape, and into a softer slope; something made of liminal space, of sensation.

I was fifteen. This was before I had steady access to the internet, before cell phones, and still I was shaped by routine and the undercurrent of productivity: when would we eat, to what cabin would I be assigned, and how would that fare for me in the larger system of adolescent hierarchy? How quickly I almost lost that field forever, how quickly I almost succumbed to the riptide of my own distraction.

It isn’t to say that quarantine is easy; far from it. If it were easy then we wouldn’t have a system to change, per se. There are weeks where the proverbial field is constantly at the forefront of my mind, and there are weeks I battle tides as beastly as any.

“There you are,” I said to the moon, before laying down.

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