Coronavirus Diaries No. 1

I have been working from home for the last week and cutting down on socializing (due to an unrelated cold and asthma flare up) for a couple weeks. I have a million ideas of how to use my time, but the unstructured openness of the day makes it hard to focus on any one thing. Working from home feels like neither working nor being home

I’m trying to manage my worry. Entire industries are collapsing, and there is a tsunami of unemployment claims coming. The west coast might be ahead of the country on these measures, but viruses don’t respect state borders and every state that delays responding is going to be hit harder by it in 2-3 weeks. I think it’s possible that we will witness Great Depression-level destruction of the economy.

Oregon has been a half step behind California and Washington in covid cases and public health response, but this week is when the anticipation has become visible. Restaurants and bars have shut down (a big deal here—between coffee, beer, and cocktails it feels like 2/3 of the Portland economy involves pouring liquids). I live on a busy street that usually has two hours of rush hour traffic in the evenings, and it’s been empty.  I have a job, for now, but arts organizations are very vulnerable to recession. My office has felt tense since it became clear that we would need to cancel almost half of our concert season.

I’m doing my best to keep functioning. I make breakfast in the morning. In the absence of free office coffee, I bought beans for the first time in several months and brought my beloved tiny, one-and-a-quarter-mug French press out of storage. In the middle of the day, when I’m feeling bored and antsy after being in my computer chair for too long, I use a jump rope I bought on an impulse. I play video games, I read, I write, I play music. Yesterday I got a tremendous gift from a friend who let me take a long soaking bath in his oversize tub.

I’m not trying to say that everything is so cozy! or wow, isn’t this quarantine kind of like a staycation! I am deeply unsettled right now. When the part of my brain that wants to find the bright side of everything starts to speak up, I have to remind it that we haven’t seen the worst yet, we are still living through the very beginning of this story. What I’m thinking about is how we are navigating a perfect natural experiment in the practice of self-care cut off from the commercial appropriation of the idea.

The writer Tara Brach has a concept she calls “the trance of unworthiness”—a default state of busyness, distraction, dissatisfaction, disassociation, and self-loathing* that defines much of our time, if we let it. Although time goes by quickly without intention, it’s the opposite of a creative flow state. It’s the emotional induced by a society oriented towards trade and; we yield to jobs and technologies that take our time and attention, we work hard for rewards that do not make us feel better or contribute to our growth, and we blame ourselves and the people around us for the eternal discomforts that go along with being alive.

*what are their antonyms? Steadiness, focus, satisfaction, being present, and self-love—­what a great list of virtues to cultivate!

It is not worth the cost that many people are going to pay, but in this brief moment, it seems like the trance is not working. Every daily action, from going to the grocery store to texting your parents to going to work is invested with meaning, danger, and a true understanding of its value to our lives.

Self-care has become a cliché because it has been so successfully coopted by advertising. At the root of the concept is political and economic resistance, though. If the world around you is trying to destroy or oppress you, every act of care that you give to yourself is an act of resistance. It turns out that that’s a big “if” though—big enough to drive an advertising campaign through. Our culture teaches us its most important lesson from a very young age: spending money makes you happy. It establishes a lifelong relationship of cause and effect: when I’m feeling bad, I spend money, then I feel better. Once that lesson and relationship are established, all every company from soap to soda-pop has to do is pull that lever.

But look at where we are! It feels like the world is trying to destroy us. We are being called upon to do something difficult and counter-cultural: stay home, stop spending money, stop socializing in person, be with yourself. We have suspended one of the most powerful parts of our economy: paying other people to distract us from ourselves and make us feel better.

When we develop an understanding of how we can meet our own needs, that relationship to the self is so strong that no commercial interest can exploit it. Feeling good in our own bodies, feeling fulfilled by our work, feeling connected to our relationships, these are all so particular to our individual selves that no product can perfectly fill that need. The satisfaction and strength that we feel when we fill our own needs have so much integrity that we can’t be lured into dissatisfaction.

I think that we are at the beginning of a very difficult few months or years. There is a lot of death coming. We will need to adapt to the need for extended distancing until effective vaccines or medical treatments come into use. There is a possibility that our political institutions are too broken to meet this moment, and if that is the case we may be in for an extended economic depression. Finding ways to meet our own needs and the needs of our close kin and friend communities is going to be a survival skill.

I want to hear about what needs you are discovering and what ways you are discovering to fill them. I’m OK, and I hope that you are OK too.

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