When COVID-19 encroached on our world, I have to admit that I was originally excited about having the time to do the things I never have time to do. I would catch up on laundry, go through old boxes, clean out the basement, start eating right, and finally have time to create. I pictured my days filled with writing.
I am chronically busy. Call it immigrant child syndrome because I am always starting a new project, working on a poem, or thinking about my next collection of work. I was raised in Brooklyn, by a mother who immigrated from Haiti, to not waste a day.
As social distancing continued, however, what I did not anticipate was how overwhelmed and jumbled I am feeling. Before social distancing, I was somewhat of a curmudgeon. Most interactions with people tend to feel like a drain on my energy. The classic mind racing of introverts: “What do I say? What do they need from me? What do I want to say to shorten this interaction?”
I presumed that with social distancing my energy with home projects would be high. But after the first two weeks, I could barely concentrate. I felt like I was breathing in all the anxiety in the air. I could not read emails and comprehend the information. I could not focus my thoughts. I could not do what I thought would be comforting and soothing — writing and home organizing — so I had to find another way to de-stress and understand what my body wanted. I started listening to my body and letting myself do nothing if I wanted to.
Doing nothing runs completely counter to how I was raised, but I also know that doing everything is what shortened my mother’s health and life.
So much about being in this society is about “getting stuff done.” If you have “spare” time and you are not productive with it, it feels like a guilty waste because it is time that is now gone forever. I wonder now: was it truly a waste? Why do we feel guilty about giving ourselves a break?
I am impressed with how well my body works now that I can give it the proper amount of food and nourishment. Instead of fueling up on caffeine, nuts, and twigs while running from one place to another, I now have time to plan meals and eat real food. I have time to care for my body and what it needs, instead of what I need it to do.
Our society tells us to push through discomfort and show up anyway because that is somehow preferable to not showing up at all. We ignore pain in friendships and love, with family and jobs, instead of stopping to actively address the issues. We distract ourselves with busy-ness, to keep us from turning inward and investigating ourselves.
I have always been “doing,” but sheltering at home has taught me that “being” is enough. I find myself enjoying stillness, talking to my dog, and getting adequate sleep.
Some days I wake up so refreshed and energized that I go through my things to purge and organize. Sometimes I come across an item that sends me plunging into a well of remembering. It might be a memory of a pre-pandemic good time. It might be related to my mother before she passed away. I think about what I would have done differently if I knew things would change in a month, in a year. Then I think about how that knowledge would have ruined the time and the beauty of what it was. We were authentic in those moments.
It is interesting what we accumulate with the hopes of “having time to go through it.”
I am fortunate to have this sabbatical from my job. What I am realizing — with my first time off since I was 18 — is that it takes 1.5 months to feel human again, 2.5 months to read and understand things, and about 3 months to come up with my own thoughts.
I believe sabbaticals should be available to everyone everywhere. We all need the time to care for our “flesh suits.” The way we live tends to never give us a chance to know or explore what we value about ourselves, what we need, and what makes us work as human beings.
Valérie Déus (she/her) hosts the radio show “Project 35” on KRSM, programs a film series with FilmNorth, has published a collection of poems, and runs the “We/Here” art zine. This story is supported thanks to our COVID-19 Fund donors.
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