I did something this week that I have never done in my adult life. I spent the entire week at home with nothing specific to do. And, as with my breakthrough five weeks ago when I spent my first full week at home with something specific to do, it was much easier than I expected. And a much more positive experience than I anticipated.
There’s been much analysis around the impact of the new normal created by the new C-word. On the one hand, if I hear “these are unprecedented times” once more, I’ll run screaming out of quarantine and into the nearest tattoo parlor. (Thanks, Governor Kemp, for providing me that option! I at least want to die with some killer ink!) On the other hand, it’s a cliché because it’s true. Unprecedented, to my annoyance, is exactly what I’m discovering about my new set of life experiences.
The nearest I can get to a related experience is summer vacation when I was a kid. The best I can recall, my first job was the summer of 1988, so it’s been 32 years since I have had the experience of being at home practically all of the time for more than one day consecutively. I recall the vast stretches of quiet play and appointment television (from Scooby Doo when I was younger to Video Soul as a teen), the idea that each day was laid out before me with an elegant, zen-like simplicity, waiting for me to inhabit it.
There existed no considerations about where I would go, how I would get there, and who and what would be there to shape my experiences. How I focused my day was dependent on my imagination and my easily-toggled preferences (Top 40 vs. R&B? Play outside with friends or inside with my intricate notebooks of play statistics?) (Yes, I was a nerd.)
I have never looked back on those days longingly. I’ve been consistent in my attempt to create my best present instead of wishing for the past. But now that I have recaptured some of that simplicity, it reminds me what was so soothing about it.
In case you don’t know me or haven’t figured it out from the clues above, I am an introvert and an only child. Childhood was not some noisy blur for me. I recall my childhood as quiet. My parents argued. School could be grating with its numerous unsavory characters and its bad acoustics. But for an introvert, the overriding solace I had in my own thoughts was what kept me sane. The calm of summer vacation is sort of a real-life embodiment of my inner world, and so I recall it fondly.
The question that I have been contemplating as I have weathered the current situation: why did I wait for a state-mandated home quarantine to revisit such a peaceful place? The answer is complicated, perhaps too complicated for me to answer with any degree of accuracy. (Note: won’t stop me from tryin’! See below.)
First, as mentioned above, I try not to fall back on the past as a crutch. Not in recreating whole ways of being, at least. I think we all burn through different ways of being as we gather more life experience. Once a phase of our life ends and we need to adapt to new needs and responsibilities, we move on to a different way of being. Trying to recreate the quiet summer vacation playtimes of my youth would be silly because they cannot exist, at least not without serious revisions to how I stage my life as an adult.
Second, being in my own head is a double-edged sword. The fact that I can retreat to my personal world and it’s always there for me is soothing. However, there are “mind fields” that, when tripped, can blow me into a panicked state. I won’t chronicle here the anxieties that await around the corner from every wayward or negative thought, but for sure they exist and unless you happen to be June-frickin-Cleaver, you know what I’m talking about.
I think that’s the bigger issue. Of course, I’ve had time off over the years. I took vacations and thankfully am now granted vacations. (For anyone who works at an hourly no-benefits job, you know the difference). At most times I’ve had two days off a week. I could have chosen to spend all those days sheltering in place (or cocooning, as it is termed when it’s voluntary). I hear tell of associates and friends that get off work for the weekend and delight in spending the entire weekend at home–gardening, housekeeping, crocheting, reading, cooking, and sleeping.
At some point in my adult life (earlier than I can recall), I branded myself a victim of cabin fever. I can’t stay at home. It’s too confining. I’m like a rat in a cage. A zooed animal banging my tusks against the cold metal bars which restrain me from the big, beautiful world that’s out there to see. I might miss something!
All of the above overblown rhetoric is true in its own histrionic way. Although I’m a card-carrying introvert, I love being out in the world as long as everyone leaves me alone. I further branded myself as a city boy as soon as I moved to Nashville at the age of 12 from the deep recesses of rural northern middle Tennessee. I love being out in the city, with its endless array of shops and public spaces to explore, or more to the point, to walk past and decline to explore with any earnestness.
And yet. And yet.
I really just want to be somewhere that distracts me out of my own head. Because when the other edge of the sword cuts, it slices deep. What happens when I stay home and get cabin fever is that I start thinking about the circumstances of my life; nay, my existence. I careen toward depression before settling into panic and despair. It’s not that my life is bad–but I have enough equanimity to understand that I can look it and see the bad as well as the good. When I start dramatizing my equanimity, I cast the good as naïveté and the bad as realïté.
In a world where malls and restaurants are open, those are the ideal places to go to take cover from these internal doubts. I can people-watch and mall-walk and window-shop. Now, in these unprecedented times, I am forced to avoid these same places in order to take cover from more tangible threats.
My fear six weeks ago was that I would feel cornered by my own thoughts while at home. My fear one week ago was that I would absolutely feel cornered by my own thoughts while at home with nothing to do. Neither fear materialized.
Let’s be real for a minute. I don’t live in a Buddhist monastery. I have Sling and Hulu and Netflix. I have books and magazines and endless Facebook feeds. I have laundry and dishes and little balls of entropy called pets. There’s tons of shit to distract me in the same way that fully precedented times and their hyphenated public activities distracted me before.
That is to say: to some degree I have simply upped my level of engagement with at-home pursuits so they’re just as fulfilling (and void-filling) mentally as my public pursuits. I haven’t beaten down my demons or demined my “mind fields.”
That being said, it certainly helps that I am now skilled at practicing avoidance right at home. It’s like buying an indoor grill!
Lest I wax too cynical, it’s worth pondering whether what I label avoidance is not actually something way more helpful: acceptance. Knowing that bad things can and will happen and being able to carry on with life despite that knowledge–that’s a handy little tool in the Swiss army knife of life.
Not obsessing over negative outcomes is different from refusing to acknowledge real, fixable issues, like broken personal relationships or financial irresponsibility.
In that sense, avoiding those obsessive thoughts is just as sensible as avoiding the mall during a pandemic.
If my six weeks at home yielded a conclusion like that, to hell with the mall. I’m good right here.