:: But to say there is no sustained time to work because my kids are at home is to leave off half of the problem. The other half is out there, in the unidentified place where the terror lies.
It’s odd, the way public writing about “productivity” has changed, and even grown, in the time of this pandemic. It has split into two camps:
How to Make the Best Use of this Time at Home!
Stop Worrying about Being Productive During a Crisis.
Anyone who knows me well knows that, if I were to pick a camp, it would be the second. And yet, I cannot stop worrying.
I’m a writer. I write books. Usually, I write a lot of books. In fact, I turned in a manuscript with a co-author just a few days ago. The thing is, we should have had that manuscript in weeks, perhaps months, ago.
But we just couldn’t do it.
The project was a mountain that was too steep. Too high. The burden, too heavy.
Finally, after being pestered (politely) multiple times by our editor, my co-author and I spoke to each other, and we made a plan. We made the looming big task into smaller, manageable tasks, and we set a short deadline (so we couldn’t drag out the project), and we finished it.
During the time we worked, we checked in on each other. Tears, perhaps, were shed.
And now that the files are submitted, all I can think about are the rest of the books I’ve committed to writing, and how I can’t imagine starting at the bottom of yet another impossibly steep, impossibly high mountain, with a burden that is again too heavy.
I would like to toss aside productivity. But I can’t.
Yesterday, my husband and I were gathering up every pair of headphones the kids had scattered around the house. At first, we wondered if we needed to buy more pairs now that we are all home together, the kids homeschooling on the computer, us working remotely and having online meetings. But we wanted to be sure we needed them before we spent the money.
Money, like everything, is stressful right now.
During my search, I opened a drawer and discovered a snarl of fine white cables—an innumerable number of earbuds, their tangled state the obvious explanation for why the kids weren’t using them. I sat down to untangle each pair one at a time, clean them with a little Windex on a cloth, and wrap them into neat bundles.
After the fourth pair or so, and only part-way through my task, I started thinking about how long it would take before the headphones were snarled again.
I turned to my husband. “I feel like Sisyphus.”
“Which one was he again?”
“He pushed a boulder up a hill over and over, and it kept rolling back down.”
[Photo description: Seven pairs of cleaned, white, apple-style headphones, bundled neatly.]
I’ve stopped writing books that have no “deadline.” Ones that aren’t under contract, as such. For example, the proposal that is with an agent and in the hands of an editor who “would like to see some more pages”? That one I haven’t touched. I couldn’t possibly. It’s too big, too unwieldy.
It’s a book I love. It’s in the hands of an editor I admire. To leave it aside makes me want to weep. But there is no sustained time for writing. Not anymore.
Just now, just as I’m writing this essay, my son ten brings in a little box into which he put a caterpillar and dirt, and plants, and some water, creating a neat little habitat. That was four days ago.
He exclaims from behind me, “A cocoon, mom!” And he comes running into my office, even though I’m here writing, wearing my large headphones, in my “I’m Working” position.
I pull off my headphones and turn to him, taking the box from his hands to examine the specimen. “How cool.”
I pull up the dictionary on my laptop. “Do you know the word ‘chrysalis?'”
10 shakes his head, looking over my shoulder.
We look at the word together, then at the etymology. “It’s from the Latin, and before that, Greek. Meaning ‘gold.’ Because the cocoons look shiny and metallic.”
“Did you know that 75% of our words come from Latin and Greek?” 10 asks.
Actually, I don’t know that. “Wow,” I say. “I didn’t.”
10 looks at the cocoon, holding it up at different angles. “It does look shiny.”
He’s right. The chrysalis is beautiful.
He leaves the room, I put on my headphones, and I write. Here. Now. This.
But to say there is no sustained time to work because my kids are at home is to leave off half of the problem. The other half is out there, in the unidentified place where the terror lies.
If the problem were only the interruptions by my family, then I wouldn’t have been able to write a book when I homeschooled the kids two years ago, and I wouldn’t be contemplating homeschooling next school year.
The problem is that, in the morning, my chest hurts from asthma, and I know that my son 9 has asthma too. And the terror in the back of my mind starts building. I cast it aside, It won’t happen to us. But that is a lie. That is denial. It, this disease, could very well happen to us.
We are so close to death.
The problem is that, while I do all I can to make this home happy and safe for my children, all of that energy must come from someplace, and therefore it comes from me. When they get scared—and they do get scared—I tell them all will be well, and in my brain, the words punch and kick, Lies. Lies. Lies.
All will not be well. All is not well. Nothing at all is well.
The world jokes about drinking Quarantinis and gaining the Covid 15. I get it—levity in the face of disaster can be helpful. But sometimes I wonder: Am I seeing levity? Or am I seeing denial?
I know what denial feels like because I use it everyday, deliberately. Every morning I put up a thin membrane of denial to keep the terror at bay. Keeping it up, though, is hard work. This living membrane takes so much of my energy.
By the evening, I’m spent, and down it comes. I fall asleep early, 8pm, 9pm, exhausted. And so very afraid.
At 5am, I wake, screaming, torn apart by nightmares. Slowly, I put up the membrane of denial again, and I go on.
The word “productivity” is not a part of my life at all. It’s profane.
Katie’s Guide to Pandemic Productivity, or, What Work I Can Do Under the Circumstances:
✤ I can do Things that can be accomplished in 20 minutes.
✤ I can do Things that take 20% of my brainpower and concentration.
✤ I can do Things that can be done between 7 and 9 in the morning and 3 and 5 in the afternoon.
Therefore I can:
✤ Pay a bill.
✤ Scan a document.
✤ Run payroll for my company, of which there is only one employee, me, and which takes approximately 5 minutes.
If I can break a large task down into tiny tasks I can do those tiny tasks.
Breaking a large task down into tiny tasks can be, itself, a demoralizing and difficult task.
(However, a friend told me that this breaking-down-a-task work is called “task management” and that people get paid a lot of money to do. Therefore, when I accomplish task-breaking-down, I should be hoity-toity about it. “Today I did task management.” I thought his words were funny in a dark way, which is my favorite kind of funny.)
What I Can Do Right Now, In This Very Moment:
I’m sitting here, writing an essay, because anything longer than this is impossible. And this is not an essay that I will polish and send to a magazine. I will publish it here on my own website, because to polish it, seek out an editor, pitch it, and work through revisions?
And I’m only writing this particular essay because these are the thoughts that have come to me this morning. This is not an assignment from an editor, or a monthly column that’s due. This essay is a bolt that entered my brain, which then allowed me to put words down and remember what writing feels like. I’m grateful.
Like every essay I’ve written lately, there is no ending to this one, no kicker. There is only the endless, open-endedness of it all. Each morning I awake in terror. By mid-morning, the lack of sleep has caught up with me, but I push on. I strive to keep a daily routine for my kids’ sake, and my own.
But sometimes I wonder what we’re doing it for. Why. Why bother. The world, it’s upside down, and we’re tumbling with it.
When those thoughts come, I know that the membrane has gotten thin.
That’s when I go to my room, and breathe, and take some anxiety medicine, and breathe some more. I rebuild myself, and down the stairs I come, to hold up the people who need me most and the tiny world we live in.
If you enjoyed this piece, you will enjoy my book, LIFE OF THE MIND INTERRUPTED: ESSAYS ON MENTAL HEALTH AND DISABILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION, available at lifeofthemindinterrupted.com. Buying my books is a great way to support the online writing that I do for free.