Pandemic Recovery Diaries #2: Healing Can Look Like Doing Nothing

It was a pandemic miracle, brought to you by Pfizer and Moderna: For the first time in a year, I had thirty-six hours alone. My husband and kids visited the grandparents. After intense, Olympic-style tidying, I turned to the altar of pandemic leisure—Netflix—and took seriously my ample, overwhelming options. I settled on My Octopus Teacher.
 
You might know the story: Off the western Cape of South Africa, a man named Craig Foster visits an octopus every day. Diving daily into a kelp forest, Craig witnesses the octopus’s ingenuity in keeping black starfish off her food. He watches as she camouflages orange and gold and brown, mimicking not just the color but the texture of whatever she glides across. One day he reaches a hand out, and she reaches an appendage back, her white circular suctions kissing his human skin. They become friends.

Image: Underside of an octopus. Many circular suctions on its appendages.

Then one day Craig watches her predator, a striped, meter-long “pyjama shark,” chase her through the trunks of kelp trees. The shark sends her around rocks and into a crevice, then succeeds in tearing off a limb. 
 
After the shark swims away, Craig watches as the octopus creeps along the ocean floor limpingly, which seems an absurd word to use about an octopus. But the octopus didn’t only swim—she sometimes also walked, leg upon leg. So yeah, now she was limping home.
 
Craig finds her the next day. She’s alive but unmoving. She’s weak and white. Her lids stay shut, resembling little black hyphens on the orbs of her protruding eyeballs. Day after day, Craig finds her the same sad way. He doesn’t say in the documentary what the viewers fear.
 
But after about a week of bearing witness to what looks like a slow death, Craig spots it: a perfect arm in miniature. It’s growing in the place where her appendage had been torn off.
 
She hadn’t been dying. She’d been growing. 
 
This is the part I dig. Fallow periods might look like death to us. They can look like death on land too, if you glance across a field and see no sprouts. Trees bare. Bushes brown. Nothing alive. 
 
I think about this now in pandemic recovery. We’ve suffered significant losses. Our predators are everything that caused us grief this year: the virus of course, but also white supremacy, the politicizing of basic safety measures, the ableist words of politicians who say elders aren’t worth the economy. And of course there are the private losses, big and small. Loved ones. Vocations. Jobs. Connections. We lost supports for kids who can’t learn on Zoom, and childcare to make the bills, and, for some, marriages that couldn’t take the quarantine pressure.
 
At times, pandemic recovery might look like doing a whole lot of nothing. Crawling under a rock and taking many deep breaths. But it’s not defeat. And it’s certainly not death. It’s restoration. It’s healing. 
 
This is likely why I find myself in possession of two books lately: How To Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell, and Do Nothing, by Celeste Headlee. I have critiques and takeaways. But one thing is certain: Doing nothing takes practice. And that’s because it’s countercultural. It works against what we’ve been taught. There’s a reason why it’s a law on Moses’ tablets. Keep the sabbath holy. For one whole day, do absolutely nothing. 
 
After a year like we had, I suspect many of us need not just a day or days, but weeks.
 
You are not dying if you take a break from helping grow the nation’s GDP. You are not dying if you take a reprieve from producing, from achieving, from proving your worth. You might in fact be doing the most important work: healing. You might be truly living.
 
So, in my pandemic recovery, I’m taking time to do nothing. This is not as easy as it sounds, given my habits of multitasking that the pandemic exacerbated. More on that in another post, but suffice it to say, Zoom-schooling the kids while working from home left me squeezing productivity out of every available minute—either that, or scrolling numbly on social media in a manic urge to keep “doing” while I was spent. This is no way to live. I’ve been aiming to do less lately. And this past week, I did find myself staring—mesmerizingly—for a full twenty minutes at three star-shaped helium balloons. Thanks to the whir of our living room ceiling fan, they performed the most elegant accidental ballet in the living room.

Image: Three half-inflated white star helium balloons against a dark teal wall.

FYI: Eventually, the octopus’s little arm became a fully formed octopus appendage. She splayed in snowflake-like symmetry across rocks, and Craig’s chest, and anything else she liked—all eight limbs of herself. Then she swam away like a fluid parachute in the ocean. 

< Announcements >

  • The paperback of Raising a Rare Girl releases today! You can find Fiona and me unboxing copies on Instagram. They’re pretty and a little Wes Andersony, in the best way.
  • To celebrate, I’m reading (virtually) at Writers & Books this THURSDAY, July 8, at 7:30 pm. My dear mentor Steve Kuusisto, brilliant poet & disability activist, will join me in conversation. Won’t you join us? Sign up here. It’s free.
  • And if you want to talk more about pandemic recovery with me and writer Sally Bitner Bonn, we’ll be doing that just before the reading, at 7:00pm Thursday, July 8. Here’s the link