Exhibit A: I used to take all kinds of things from the law school cafeteria in my pockets. Tea bags, an uneaten half of a bagel, single-serving peanut butters, fruit. This was technically not allowed, but the thrill was worth the risk. My little law-school dorm room desk filled up with crumpled tea bags I kept on hand in case of any caffeine emergencies. Just to have. For later.
I had been describing some feeling, some anxiety, some distress of some now-forgotten variety, to my spiritual director. At the time, I’m sure I wanted her to respond with either “You’re wrong; just think about it this way and it’ll all be fine, dummy” or “You’re completely right; everything is hopeless.”
But instead, she came back with this completely puzzling question: where do you feel that in your body?
My immediate reaction was to want to say: “In my head, where my brain lives, because that’s where my synapses happen,” but I figured that might sound pretty condescending. Plus, can I really feel my synapses? I’m not sure how I’d know.
So, slightly more politely, I asked for clarification.
As I’m guessing you’ve noticed, the world has gone a little quieter. This is one of the blessings popping up like stubborn shoots in the chaos.
If you, like me, find noises in general objectionable, now is a great time to open a window and listen. The birds are going absolutely bonkers. Are they always, this time of year? Probably, but now there are fewer cars and trains and crowds to drown them out. Maybe it gives their tiny ears a break, too.
(Excuse me for a second while I Google “do birds have ears.” This is a well-researched operation, folks.)
Just now there is one making a bona fide ruckus somewhere outside. It’s echoing off the buildings. I’m very proud of her, whoever she is, screaming out her cause.
Coming to you live from this confusing crisis. By the day and the hour it’s expanding while our lives are contracting, staying home if we are able, avoiding our communities.
This isolation is absolutely for the best. It’s also hard, surprisingly hard, even for a confirmed introvert who often craves more unstructured quiet time alone, and whose ongoing bout with walking pneumonia should have made her very accustomed to working from home, resting, and avoiding exposure.
But there’s a problem, reader. I need routine. Badly.
The first day of resting with my pneumonia saw me pulling all the books off my shelves to arrange them in some non-librarian-approved order. This was exhausting. But it wasn’t to last. Before too long, I was binge-watching Love is Blind on Netflix late into the night while my eyes and brain turned to compost, no doubt wondering what they’d done to deserve this fate.
Without a bit of structure, I turn into a listless puddle of a person. I forget to brush my teeth until dinner. I don’t put on real clothes. I play Civilization VI, turn after turn after turn, unable to stop, until I get genuinely depressed.
The self-quarantine we’re all doing will be this kind of structureless time on steroids, and the situation is making me anxious for people I love and for people I don’t even know. The anxiety makes the puddle-self grow even puddlier. If I don’t change my ways, I may achieve many types of victory on Civ, but at what cost?
I need to meet myself somewhere, not just watch myself melt through my own fingers for the duration. However long the duration of this turns out to be.
So. I have a plan. Due to overwhelming demand,* I will be posting something here every day until…someday.
The thing is, in spite of the listlessness and my recent aversion to writing and my general slide into feeling as though I have no bones or muscles at all, I’ve been on a bit of a tear when it comes to ideas. Early this morning I started listing things I want to write about, and there were a few dozen that came up.
An interesting side effect of listing these ideas out, and committing to writing one a day, is that I’m forced to wonder what life will be like 11 days from now, when I might be writing something my audience has been clamoring for (my thoughts on various conspiracy theories.)*
So, watch this space, if you wish. I’ll see you tomorrow. But finally, some words for solitude from the wonderful Henri Nouwen:
Solitude is not a solution. It is a direction…Every time we enter into solitude we withdraw from our windy, earthquaking, fiery lives and open ourselves to the great encounter. The first thing we often discover in solitude is our own restlessness, our drivenness, and compulsiveness, our urge to act quickly, to make an impact, and to have influence; and often we find it very hard to withstand the temptation to return as quickly as possible to the world of “relevance.” But when we persevere with the help of a gentle discipline, we slowly come to hear the still, small voice and to feel the gentle breeze, and so come to know the Lord of our heart, soul, and mind, the Lord who makes us see who we really are.
For the last several weeks, I’ve had company everywhere I go (which, for reasons that will soon become evident, has not been many places). Walking pneumonia. Sounding like a cross between an exotic, possibly sentient, plant and some sort of CDC PSA, it’s not very interesting. It’s the sort of illness where there’s not much to say or do about it. You’re just sick for a while. You have pneumonia in your lungs, for a while. You have little energy and little appetite. You have a low fever, on and off, for a while. You cough it out. There’s no cure or secret to it, as far as I can tell.
I keep thinking it’s over, but the reports of my restored health have been greatly exaggerated. It just keeps coming back in the form of unpleasant fevers after a few days of activity. This sends me back to slug mode, barely leaving the house and infrequently putting on real pants.
You may have noticed that the months September, October, November, and December contain clues that they used to be at a different spot in the calendar: September was once seventh, October eighth, November ninth, and December tenth. You may also have heard that this was because July and August were added later, to honor Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, respectively, knocking the whole calendar askew in the process.
BUT DID YOU KNOW
…that this is a lie?
July and August weren’t additions to the calendar; they were simply renamed from Quintilis (5th month) and Sextilis (6th month). The renaming spared them the embarrassing fate that the following months suffered, spending eternity with misleading prefixes.
No, the reason for the shift is that the latest additions to the calendar were January and February.
Bear with me: the original Roman calendar had ten months of 30 or 31 days, starting with March and ending with December. This only took 304 days. The other 50 days in the lunar year were monthless.
A time so dark and slow it didn’t even bear naming. Just the long wait until time would finally resume in March.
Eventually, the Romans deigned to allow time to go on, even in winter, and January and February were born.
I’m struck, though, by the notion of living without time, but only for a while. Now, we are able to free ourselves from day and night, winter and summer, through the magic of electricity. A single hour of a lightbulb’s worth of light from an animal-fat candle used to require 60 hours of work. For most average people, then, night was simply dark. There wouldn’t have been enough spare labor lying around to justify lighting the night. And in winter, the nights are long and dark. Imagine sitting inside, struggling to stay warm, in the dark, for sixteen hours a day.
That is life without time. That is a taste of eternity.
Now, I’m not an ancient peasant. 60 hours of my labor can buy me actual decades’ worth of light. My HVAC system means I can stay at 70 degrees all year long, if I want to, except if I dare to go outdoors. I should be immune to winter.
But I’m not. It gets into me anyway. It feels endless, especially when the frigid wind is whipping right into the seams of my coat, and when I’m taking the train only in disorienting darkness. When there’s no hint of living green, just brown and grey through bare trees. (West Coasters: you fortunate green-winterers don’t understand).
Maybe there’s some wisdom in letting this be non-time, rather than trying to count down the days until it ends. It’s just a pause, an empty lung, a long sleep.
This post is about drones. The musical kind, not the…other kind. Or the other other kind.
A while ago, something occurred to me: if I completely adore a song on a deep, what feels like a cellular, level, it almost certainly has a drone. A low note on a synth often does it. Could be a piano, too. Or, slightly more literally, a bagpipe. I don’t discriminate.
(And, I should disclose, I think I’m pretty generous when I say “drone.” If you consult the dictionary, a drone is “an instrument or part of an instrument (such as one of the fixed-pitch pipes of a bagpipe) that sounds a continuous unvarying tone.” I mean something broader: whenever there’s a part of the music that is more or less sitting still below whatever else is going on above it, even if it’s not just one tone. Sue me, musicologists).
It’s not always obvious to me what, exactly, is appealing to me, or that it has anything in common with all the other times that I felt transfixed. Instead, it just feels like my brain saying an emphatic, unconditional YES to whatever is going on.
This phenomenon is so pronounced that my boyfriend (much more observant than I am) picked up on it very early in our relationship. As it happens, he often finds drones unsettling. Somehow, through this adversity, we manage to make it work.
Cat Power said something that made this all make sense to me: a drone is a thick cloth to keep the song warm. Yes, that’s it: it’s something that makes a song feel all that much more physical. Like it’s reaching out and holding me still.
Something like a steady mark against which change is measured. The drudge of daily life. The steady heartbeat. But also discord, warning, a ghost at the feast. A hint of intrigue.
Lest I get totally carried away, let me stop and show you some drones I have collected in the wild:
Especially the last few days. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather. This means a lot of lying on the strangely comfortable floor under a blanket.
I nap, and play games, and read, and write a bit here and there, and FaceTime my family, and in moments of tremendous ambition, go out for a meal or some exercise.
There’s some big part of me that feels pretty defensive about this. To answer “nothing” to the inevitable “what did you do this weekend?” feels like a betrayal of conversation itself. It feels almost passive-aggressive, like I’m withholding something, or else it feels like a cry for help with a life that needs filling.
Another driver is the problem with many names: FOMO (fear of missing out). Or, if you enjoy incredible long German words, Torschlusspanik (gate closing panic)—the fear, as night draws in, that you won’t make it back inside the city gates before the gates close at curfew. Much like a medieval peasant with a dread of being trapped outside with the outlaws, I have a fear of time passing and leaving me behind, and opportunities slamming shut before I had a chance to explore them.
This is, typically, irrational and unwarranted. I am not a medieval peasant, and my future is probably not full of bloodthirsty outlaws. But that’s beside the point.
But doing nothing is also, ironically, something I’ve been wanting to do more of. In recent years I’ve had lots of moments of feeling over-committed, and I hate all the resentment and drama that tends to go. along with that. In times like these, I start to fantasize about what it would be like to have nowhere to be, no tasks that needed completing. All the freedom in the world to do what I please and say yes or no to the whims of the day.
So much of my life is spent caught between these poles, trapped in that in-between, nowhere space between action and inaction, between something and nothing, neither pursuing the relaxation that I crave nor getting tasks done, but feeling increasingly awful as I play infinite levels of a mobile game that is throwing my entire nervous system out of whack and making me nauseous.
The goal is to find that space of beautiful nothing-doingness, where I produce nothing of external value and I enjoy the minutes as they pass. Where I’m free to do exactly what is right at that moment.
This weekend, that’s looked a lot like lazy floor time. It also looked like writing this, rather than some rather more involved (and possibly more interesting) posts. But this weekend has also looked a lot like contentment, so I want for nothing.
I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.
When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.
It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.
There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.
But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.
We were lined up, robed, on the risers, facing the congregation. I was always the one who insisted on the robes: even in shades of medicinal pink and purple, they made church choir feel gloriously dramatic.
And this is how it goes in my memory: our song is interrupted by the assistant pastor, stepping up somberly to say that we, the United States, have just now on a Sunday morning dropped a clutch of bombs in Afghanistan. He leads us in prayer about it.
I don’t remember if we started singing again after that.
That was 2001. A lot of things have happened since then, both martially (for us) and personally (for me). One thing (really, the only thing) uniting both of those columns: a massive chunk of the taxes withheld from every paycheck in my first six jobs went to the wars.
But otherwise, nothing else happened, for me. For millions of people in various countries thousands of miles from here, and for many thousands of my fellow Americans? Everything happened, or stopped happening.
19 years and most of my life after that day in church, just a week ago, I was having a night at home pruning my houseplants, doing the laundry, and meditating. A real evening, you know? Then I looked at the internet and it appeared that a whole new war was starting. Or the unending one was metastasizing. It’s sort of hard to tell the difference. My stomach made a few flips. I took a few capsules of valerian root and tried to sleep.
And what do I do?
I drive around Northern Virginia when I’m unable to avoid it. There are apparently no zoning laws and people live cheek-by-jowl with the sharp-topped office towers bearing proud names of companies whose advertisements on the metro make little sense and are almost always for drones.
I read Silk Roads. I learn: this is what those who desire to be world powers do. They bite down hard, and don’t let go, of the area between the Mediterranean and China. They are happier to let it dissolve in their mouths than to open their jaws. They always have and they always will, from Rome to Britain to the USSR to us. These days, they are required to find timely, heart-rending excuses for this behavior, but these excuses are superfluous, neither necessary nor sufficient to explain it.
I continue to be disappointed about my government from without and within. I learn more about the massive portion of it that is completely unaccountable to us, by design, and proudly so. I find it hard to stomach this.
I come to believe that abuse of power begets conspiracy theories about the abuse of power. Belief in those conspiracy theories enables those who would abuse their power to do so in the open, with a smile, on a grand scale.
This is not a surprise.
And even as I write these words, weary and in a sense heartbroken and enraged, I look up from the keyboard to laugh with my boyfriend. I take breaks to write notes thanking family and friends for Christmas gifts. I stretch my legs on the floor.