"This pandemic has created a pause, but I think we’re all wise to lean into it."

By Amy Butcher

March 26, 2020
In the wake of this global pandemic, a viral meme has made the rounds on social media, attempting to take humans to task by reminding them that, while under quarantine, Shakespeare wrote King Lear.

Amy ButcherI am not writing King Lear. I am not writing much of anything. What am I doing, exactly? Laundry, mostly. Also: dishes. I am wiping down counters and cabinets, doorknobs and faucets, the hinge on the mailbox. Walking the dogs and watching the flowerbeds and getting inventive with my pantry staples. Each night, I play Top Chef, and my basket ingredients are this: red sauce, lentils, broccoli. Yesterday I built an above-ground planter. Can I fashion a DIY greenhouse? Tomorrow I will attempt to fashion a DIY greenhouse.

Am I losing it? A little bit.

This pandemic has created a pause, but I think we’re all wise to lean into it. We live in a nation obsessed with productivity, obsessed with color-coded calendars and cross-pollinating schedules. Our email inboxes are overflowing, and our children play six sports. There is nothing inherently wrong with productivity, with the desire to be busy and consumed. But there are the things we want to do and then there are the things we do because: because we want to be agreeable, because we feel as though we should, and because it is easy, in this nation, to equate productivity with success.

For a while I, too, was seduced by the lure of productivity, convinced by the budding sense that visible demonstrations of efficiency were direct indicators of my worth: as an employee, and as a human. To be busy was to be useful. To be useful was to be of value.

I have since become suspicious of this narrative.

Do You Want To Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Response?” asked a recent viral essay. There were layers to author Melissa Febos’ argument, but her point remains a salient one; swap “writing” with any verb that means the most to you—researching, or experimenting, or, for many of us, teaching—and you’ll arrive at the same conclusion: we don’t enact this verb enough. Whether conscious or unconscious, we are more often concerned with demonstrating efficiency and busyness than we are with what we love. We are more concerned with perception than plugging into our passions.

Of course, like all of my colleagues at Ohio Wesleyan University, I am teaching. I am taking time each day to develop and create course content, to post lectures, to tend to discussion boards and otherwise be available for my students. But I have become suspicious of productivity, of staying busy for busy’s sake. “Please Do A Bad Job Of Putting Your Courses Online,” urges Rebecca Barrett-Fox, arguing students—and yes, their professors—will soon, if they do not already, have a number of pressing needs in direct competition with their studies. Some have found themselves back in homes, for example, far less conducive to learning or studying. Others have had to take on new responsibilities in the wake of change: caretaking, for example, or babysitting, or juggling housework. Still others face fundamental challenges accessing technology, or books, or reliable Wifi. Libraries and coffeeshops are closed.

We live in a place far too rural for Internet!!!! one student lamented recently. And where I normally go for Wifi is closed!

So I am teaching with skill and intellect, yes, but also with flexibility and compassion. I am holding my students accountable, but I am also urging competence. Among my colleagues, I am also putting my theory into practice: I have said no to certain things, and I have politely turned down requests. In the quiet solitude of these past few weeks—where fear and anxiety run rampant and will no doubt increase in the weeks to come—I have thought a lot about productivity, about our need to always be running or firing off an email or taking on tasks.

I am learning to sit with my discomfort, I wrote one of my favorite students recently. We were discussing our new favorite modes of distraction, techniques we’d learned to adapt to keep our minds busy and far from fear. This makes sense, because we are scared. We are anxious, we are worried. Some psychologists call these weeks a trauma, and some psychologists say this is grief. I agree.

Thus: a DIY, shabby greenhouse.

But what any good therapist will tell you—and the principle upon which all of yoga is founded—is that it is important, more than important, to learn to sit with your discomfort, and to learn to recognize the difference between discomfort—which strengthens the mind, the body, the muscles—and what is real, unmitigated pain.

Some of us are in pain. Some of us soon will be. In this case, my advice is null. By all means: do what you can.

But for those of us who are experiencing, perhaps for the first time in our adult lives, a prolonged sense of discomfort—my colleagues, my friends, most certainly my displaced students—I think we’d all do ourselves a favor to acknowledge this moment for what it is: a way to manifest stillness in our bodies. To find peace without productivity. To indulge in the pandemic’s pause, and whatever pause or pauses await us still. Let us not be productive, but proficient, competent. Let us take stock of the things that matter. When else in our lifetime will nearly everything be shut down, be closed, be dark, be shuttered? When else will we have a day without a meeting or an appointment, a lesson or class or practice? Hours, long and endless, to watch the way the sunlight changes, or the way that love is present in the six-feet buffer we move beside.

By all means, students, complete your work. I am not advocating for stagnancy or failing. Do not be derelict in your duties. Get your critical reading journals in on time if nothing is prohibiting you from doing so. I am awaiting your Blackboard responses. But don’t make the mistake of ignoring what is most pressing: your discomfort, which may well be new. Learn to make space for it in your bodies. Learn to make space for it in your lifetime. Do not busy or task those thoughts away. Sit with them, say hi. Some days, that is enough.

If you’re writing King Lear, I applaud you.

But this is in defense of the rest of us, those who are simply making coffee, wiping down counters and washing hands. Who are sitting in this place of pause, inspecting the flowerbeds, waiting to watch new worms as they push up through wet spring soil.

Amy Butcher is an associate professor of English teaching creative writing. Her forthcoming book Mothertrucker will be published in 2022 and was acquired by Makeready Films for film development with Primetime Emmy-winning Jill Soloway directing and Academy and Golden Globe-winning actress Julianne Moore in a starring role.