As we enter month three of Boston’s shelter-in-place order, I’ve been finding myself drawn between two opposites. A part of me is drawn to the horizontal: lying in bed, lying on the couch, cocooning myself in a thousand blankets like a Victorian child struck by a mysterious malady. Another part, fueled by caffeine and the encouragement of my fiancée, wants to work.
In the absence of my usual jobs, I’ve been hunched over the computer, picking away at a novel seven years in the making. But time is a privilege, especially when so many people don’t have the luxury of staying home, and so is being able to quiet the humming stream of bad news. With every word I write, I become more aware of that privilege, and for some reason, it feels like a fox at my heels.
At the beginning of shelter-in-place, I remember seeing a comparison to Shabbat drawn, which struck many people as ludicrous. Shabbat is meant to be a time of rest and contemplation. When the whole world is in survival mode, there is no time for rest. While we experience a culturally traumatic event, there is no time to think. Shelter-in-place is not a vacation, not a writer’s retreat, not a weekly pause. And yet.
“You’ve never had a break,” my mother said over the phone. “Take this time as a break.” But a break indicates rest and there is no rest to be had here, even though I spend my days in a traditionally restful position. What is the difference between physical rest and mental rest? Is there something wrong with me that I can’t relax, that any break in my wall-to-wall schedule has to be filled with productivity? The way I view myself, my value, comes down to how well I can spin trauma into gold. Those horizontal days are filled with guilt about how I could be doing more to help, more to improve, just more. And the working days feel selfish, like I’m squandering this luxury so few people have.
Trauma takes your brain chemistry off the tracks. And this event is traumatic, though certainly more for some rather than others. Society’s most valuable citizens, the essential workers, who have always been overworked and underpaid, are given an impossible choice between illness and paying their bills. I have the exquisite privilege of staying home; shouldn’t I make the most of it?
Therein lies the cognitive dissonance. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know other creatives are feeling the ceiling descend. The pressure to work, to make, to spin that trauma into something useful. It makes me wonder if current events haven’t peeled back the mask of productivity culture and revealed its true face.
I’m lucky. I can focus enough to write, have always kept my head down in times of stress. But this is not Shabbat, not even for me. Processing trauma is work, taking care of children and family members is work, existing under immense strain is work. What does it say about us that we push creativity and rest on top of this work? As shelter-in-place progresses, I wonder how the cultural perception of rest and work will change, and how we as a community approach creativity in times of stress.