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

Pandemic Recovery Diaries #1: Start Where You Are

I work for a large state university in New Jersey, and in the spring of 2021, when the president gathered us all together in the usual pandemic way–via video conference–his central message was surprising for a financially savvy leader of a major institution. He didn’t tell us to amp up our productivity now that we all had access to the vaccines. He didn’t tell us to crank out all the research and writing that COVID had kept us from. He told us to heal. He said healing should be our priority after all we’ve endured.

If we’d all been in a physical room together, I suspect we would have enjoyed a collective sigh of relief. Instead, we stared at muted boxes of each other–which is the only way we’ve known each other for the past year.

How do we heal? I recognize I’m super lucky to have gotten that message from the boss of my boss of my boss. But permission to heal doesn’t immediately manifest a posture of chillaxing, as much as I wish that were so. I’m still kind-of working in overdrive, even as I’m clearly burned out.

I think to heal, we have to take stock of all we’ve endured. And we have to be honest about what it cost us. Why am I so tired, I ask my husband, like I didn’t just live through 14 months of a global pandemic. But we had to adapt so fast and juggle so much that I can’t remember the details. It takes another person outside my own set of eyeballs to remind me. At nights when we’re collapsed on the couch together, I make my husband replay it. What did we just do? Why was this so hard?

For starters, we just spent an entire school year with less than half the normal hours of childcare, which means the usual contract between working families and the state was obliterated. For someone with a second grader and a fourth grader with significant developmental disabilities, the physical and mental and psychic toll has been immense.

If I repeat what else we endured, it sounds both cliché and profound. Mundane and amazing. It became our normal, and it’s so far from human normal. So I think it’s worth repeating, even though we all know it: Some of us adopted our work to an entirely virtual world, creating new modes that kept the economy’s ball moving but were not nearly as rewarding–and were possibly much more taxing. Some of watched our work disappear. Some of us worked outside the home with cloth masks over every breathable hole in our faces, and tried to keep our bodies six feet from every other body, and tried to read the subtle cues of others without seeing half their faces. We withheld hugs from grandparents and siblings and best friends. We “masked up” for the very people who carried us in their wombs. The list goes on.

Of course, some of us also endured the biggies: lost loved ones. Lost health due to long-haul COVID. But even those of us–like me–who didn’t suffer tremendously in the obvious ways still managed our own complex matrix of costs, the likes of which I don’t think we fully understand.

The other day, I heard Krista Tippett say something like this, and it stopped me in my tracks: We’re going to have to reconcile with the fact that we became a danger to each other by way of our own breath?

How do we heal from that?

Our culture likes to get over things quickly. We have one-day funerals. We urge widows to remarry. There’s talk in some political circles about how “Nobody wants to work anymore.” If that’s even true–and I have my doubts–I suspect it’s because we just worked through the impossible. Just pivoted a hundred times based on the shifting findings of science, just figured out how to disinfect our groceries as soon as we learned it wasn’t necessary, just figured out how to teach third graders over Google Meets as soon as the district decided we were going “in-person,” just figured out how to do our full-time jobs in the inadequate hours of our kids’ schooling right as the state went back on lockdown.

I can’t capture every scenario, and I know there are some who felt mostly untouched by the pandemic, for different reasons—no kids? very remote living? astronauts on the space station? But many of us juggled more than humanly possible. We held our breath for a year, our breath that could kill each other.

We also held our breath as we watched George Floyd not be able to breathe for nine minutes, and we held our breath as we watched people who did not look like George Floyd attack the nation’s capital at the urging of our–at the time–most powerful leader. We held our breath while we waited for a ruling from a justice system that’s notoriously bad at actual justice for Black people. And then the ruling came, and we got to exhale a little.

But all of this–the personal and the public–has cost us.

The worst we can do is pretend it hasn’t. The worst we can do is move on like none of this happened. To dust ourselves off and assume the grueling postures of “business as usual,” whatever that “usual” was. I vaguely remember. Some of it was no good anyway–not for disabled folks, not for people of color, not truly for any of us.

We’ve spent so much time on computers this past year that we might think we too can reboot with a flick of a switch. But we aren’t machine. We’re human. That’s something the pandemic has reminded us: how truly vulnerable and fragile and very human we are. For many of us, it might still be time to lean into that vulnerability, to acknowledge that fragility. To rest, to recover, to heal.

Pandemic Recovery Diary Reflection: Would you like to keep your own pandemic recovery diaries? Here are some questions to reflect on:

What have you endured this past year? What did you have to adapt to? How did you have to pivot? What have you lost? What did you see/hear/smell? What did you grieve? What were the costs? Make a list if you want. Include the mammoth and the miniscule.

Then move to the present: What’s your physical state right now? How do you feel in your body? Mind? Spirit? How might it be different than before? How can you honor the truth of that?