THERE’S MORE THAN ONE WAY to escape a pandemic. You can shelter in place, go nowhere, see no one, exercise indoors. You can catch up on home-improvement projects, learn how to cook, start painting, read that pile of books that’s been gathering dust on your nightstand. You can finally write that memoir or novel you’ve been wanting to get to.
In my case, I seemed to have been rendered speechless. I ceased creating. I stopped writing — not able to find the words or the will. Piano practice went by the wayside. And though I read news articles incessantly, I couldn’t manage to open a book. And anything like cooking or painting or tackling a new project seemed too daunting to contemplate. Instead, I sank into a vague malaise.
In the beginning, I figured it was the increased demands of my job. The company I work for needed to shift more than 1,200 employees from the office to working from home. As a manager in our training department, I was responsible for developing the training materials to help with that transition, as well as revising all of our new-hire curriculum to be delivered over Zoom for the unforeseeable future. So, I was working 12 to 14-hour days and weekends for several weeks, and I was spending 8-10 hours a day in Zoom meetings. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.
But my sense of unease was deeper than fatigue.
On April 2nd, my only journal entry since March 8, I tried to write about what was going on. I titled my entry “COVID-19 and the End of the World as We Know It.’
I wrote, in part:
The world has changed — irrevocably, I think. Has it only been a month? The coronavirus was in the news back in late February and early March, but I didn’t pay it much attention. I had no idea how it would affect the entire world and change our lives. As someone I know said recently, ‘We are living through a historic time.’…
Most of the world’s countries are on lockdown. Businesses have shut down. Grocery stores and restaurants deliver or offer pickup. All personal services have closed. No one goes anywhere, except perhaps to get outside to take a walk…
I haven’t been writing. …I have only been exercising and working.
I thought maybe I was mildly depressed. And who hasn’t been, to some extent? I’m fortunate in that I have a great job that I’m in no peril of losing and a loving partner with whom to spend my time during lockdown. But, like all of us, I’ve been missing my family and friends and the pleasure of going out to a restaurant or a movie.
Instead of my usual activities, I have become obsessed with exercise. For a couple of years, I’ve been rising pre-dawn five days a week to work out, but now it is where my mind drifts when I should be focusing on other things. I plan all my workouts and track my progress — cycling, walking/jogging, yoga, strength and core training. I have joined Peloton and TrainingPeaks, Strava, RGT, BKool, RidingWithGPS, Zwift, Sufferfest (these are all subscription workout apps), and every related Facebook group. And I spend hours on my computer every day researching physical training science and interacting with other athletes.
I’m fitter than I’ve ever been in my life.
But I recognize this obsession for what it is — an escape from the new, unfathomable reality. Not only an escape from the disease, but also from the toxic political landscape, a different sort of pandemic. When I am working my body, the world, with all its problems, recedes into focused physical sensations: movement, heartbeats, and sweat.
I’m now in the gradual process of emerging from this strange mental-emotional state, returning to reading and writing.
But I feel as though I can’t catch up. So much is happening, so fast. The murder of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations and chaos across the U.S. have highlighted the systemic racial inequity and violence embedded in our culture. I have both hope that this movement will finally inspire real change and fear that it will all die down and come to nothing. Like so many other demonstrations against war and for social justice in my lifetime.
And so I struggle to find words, because nothing I say or write feels meaningful enough.
I have recently realized that my speechlessness is not caused by depression; it’s grief. Without knowing it, somewhere between my disappointment with the California Democratic primary (I was an Elizabeth Warren supporter) and the social and economic tornado caused by the coronavirus, I had tipped from hope and activism into a profound sense of loss. And all my words felt small and pointless.
Now, as I watch the world roil through the lens of my computer screen, I’m beginning to emerge from my creative torpor. Do I dare hope? Will all this pain and unrest result in honest conversations and positive change? Will previously unheard stories come to light and make a difference? Will I again find meaning in my writing?
I’m sharing this personal story of my own small struggle because I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has been going through something like this, and because I want to help frame what we’ve been feeling and experiencing and together find a way to bridge the gap between our old lives and our new ones. To find meaning again in our stories, however small a piece of the larger puzzle they may be.
So I invite you to share your words — your stories — of what your life has been (and is) like during this COVID-19 pandemic and during this uneasy social-political time in our world.
Send your stories to me using the form on my Write for WTL page, and I will publish them in a new series on Writing Through Times of Change.
I believe our stories — our words — are important. They matter. So let’s share them.