photo: Chelsea Batten

Chelsea Batten lives on the Upper Peninsula with her husband and son, only (only!) five hours north of my adopted hometown of Eau Claire, WI. For someone who grew up twenty-five minutes from the border of Maine and forty minutes from the border of Massachusetts, five hours seems like another planet. Heck, it was only four hours to Canada! (I realize it’s now only five hours to Canada.) But both because of Chelsea’s proximity and relative remoteness, I like to use her as a kind of gauge. We have similar sensibilities and overlapping tastes in literature. I love her writing more than anyone else’s, and there’s no one I trust more with mine, because she possesses the fine balance of being both far enough removed from culture to see it clearly, and somehow also intimately entwined with it. Much more so than me, who feels as though they fall behind in the current cultural climate by leaps and bounds each day.

As the TikTok videos mount, I feel increasingly like Hector in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, staring in disbelief at Ricky as he dances in the forest, listening to his faux WalkMan. What is this strange device? This new dance? I thought it would be funny to make a video of the clip where it says “TikTok users” over Ricky’s head, and “Me” over Hector’s, but in further evidence of my cultural and technical ineptitude, I have no idea how to make such a thing. (Hence this collection of words instead.)

A few weeks into a pandemic-induced quarantine, I sent Chelsea an article by Allegra Hobbs, a staff writer for Study Hall. “As I’m sure you’ve heard,” Hobbs writes, “Shakespeare wrote King Lear while under quarantine during the Bubonic plague.”

On Productivity and Fear” grapples with the question of how to spend our time. It’s not really a new question, but it feels weightier now, in the midst of a pandemic that sheds light on our mortality and leaves many of us with more time to dwell on questions like how to spend our time.

Hobbs observes, “there is a certain type of person who is inclined to view the grim prospect of continued quarantine as an opportunity. Or rather, two types of people: goal-oriented productivity fetishists and believers in the creative potential of tragedy.”

Back in November, I began tracking what seemed to be an uptick in conversations around “busyness.” It’s fair to say it wasn’t an uptick but a constant occurrence, one I’d just started to notice after a boy who feared commitment (wish we could call it conjecture but that statement was founded on multiple excruciatingly long conversations) finally found his out by saying he was “too busy.”

“Bullshit,” I said. “We all make time for what we want.”

Someday I’ll tire of making an example of him, but his busyness made me particularly angry because it was all a farce. After, I told someone that all the boy had to offer me was the illusion of busyness. They asked why I called it an illusion. Because (a) we all make time for what we want, and (b) when I was this boy’s age I was a full-time graduate student, worked two jobs, regularly exercised, painted and photographed and exhibited my work, and made time for a new relationship that would last six years. The boy worked part-time and took two classes while complaining he had no time for all the things he wanted to do, let alone time to see me once a week. (Which made it especially funny when he started dating his roommate, as it’s easy to make time for a relationship when you already live together.)

“Busy” is a relative term, but what I disliked was the way he used “busyness” as an excuse, when his schedule was entirely within his control. What I would have preferred was the truth — the relationship and my companionship wasn’t a priority — and I would have preferred it three months sooner.

Since I couldn’t change any of that, I decided to strike busyness from my own life. No more filling up my days with appointments, errands, activities. I no longer had time for people who didn’t have time for me. I retreated into self-imposed solitude for three weeks: no social engagements, no social media, no distractions, and no television. I went to work, came home, read, wrote, stared at the wall, cooked food, went for long walks. Doing ‘nothing’ took getting used to, but protecting it was more difficult. After three weeks, I had little desire to hop back on social media, but the social engagements and invitations were harder to turn down.

In February, I cleared my schedule yet again to recover from a cold. I declined yet another invitation from a friend and she texted back, “Are you avoiding me?” No, I answered, “just trying not to overextend myself” (with “trying” being the operative word here).

When people asked, have you been busy? I had to resist the conditioned response: so busy. I asked other people how they were doing, and they replied, busy.

In America, “busy” is often synonymous with “important.” We glorify busyness in the form of “How I Get It Done” articles that extol the virtues of time management, power naps, running on five hours of sleep, and multi-tasking.

On Valentine’s, my friend and I struck up a conversation with friends of hers at the bar. The couple each had children from previous relationships, and full-time jobs. Somehow the conversation came to the subject of busyness, of how full life had become, with no signs of stopping.

“I’m done with busyness,” I announced, which suddenly felt like a preposterous thing to say aloud, both in its impossibility and its privilege.

Fast forward a few weeks (months?) and it feels as though we are all living impossible lives. Many of us are unable to go about life as we did before, while others are busier than they could’ve imagined: full-time parenting plus full-time working from home, running a restaurant with fewer staff, working long hours at hospitals and medical facilities.

Allegra Hobbs’s essay “On Productivity and Fear” outlined the current conflicting messaging — do more and do less — and the ensuing pendulum swing between hyper-productivity and not doing anything at all.

Instead of writing King Lear during a plague, we sit around like Hamlet: “to be, or not to be: that is the question?” But we find ourselves instead asking, to do or not to do?

Though it seems like a new conversation emerging as a result of the pandemic, I see it as a resurgence of the age-old question of how to spend our time. Last July, I received a newsletter from a creative consultant, titled, “‘Take it easy’ is the new #hustle.”

#Trendalert — Rejecting fast pace/expensive lifestyles, striping [sic] off a layer of public facing whateverthefuck, challenging the necessity of big city grinds, removing multiscreen ‘virtual’ non-realities from our routines AND diving back into the IRL is (or could be) so-hot-right-now [author’s emphasis].”

I’m particularly fond of the parenthetical caveat, “(or could be),” as though the trend forecaster mistrusts their own trends. And what I found particularly fascinating was their arguably contradictory missive eight months later, at the outset of the pandemic:

This is NOT a time to let the news (or the actualities you are facing) strip you of your motivation, nor is it a time to allow yourself & your business to lose steam or stop working altogether. […] NOW IS THE TIME time to advance initiatives you’ve been thinking about. It is time to integrate new polices [sic] & procedures, to do the hard work on your infrastructure. It’s time to double down on the work you’ve wanted to do — higher-order work that gets pushed aside because of the day-to-day grind [author’s emphasis].”

So which is it? Challenge the necessity of big city grinds, or double down on “the work”? The kindest interpretation would be to read between the lines of the author’s seemingly contrasting messaging and say both are possible: challenge the way we’ve been working in the past and find new ways of working. (For $300 an hour, you could go straight to the source and ask the consultant what they meant and how to spend your time.)

As for Allegra Hobbs, she says she is not a “goal-oriented productivity fetishist” or one of those “believers in the creative potential of tragedy.”

“I have never measured my life in output; I have very few tangible goals; checking off a list of tasks doesn’t give me a sense of fulfillment. As for the creative potential of tragedy — the idea that a plague-induced Broadway shutdown could ultimately inspire great plays about human frailty and decline, à la Shakespeare — my response is more or less the same. So what if someone wrote a great play surrounded by a sea of dead bodies? Great art comes from all sorts of circumstances and is hardly a balm on large-scale loss of life. I tend to be an anti-literary killjoy in this regard, given my steadfast belief that the bad things that happen to you and those around you are not a narrative to make sense of or build upon. They are what they are.”

What did Chelsea think? I sent it to her, wanting to know her take. She responded concisely, as always: “I relate to some of it, but I also envy her for having all this time to herself, to process and observe her own experience. In some ways having a kid makes this a lot more bearable because he’s so cheerful and keeps me busy. But on tough days like yesterday, I wish I could just wander around like a ghost and feel my feelings without interruption.”

What fascinates me about the conversation surrounding productivity is how everyone has a different take on it, because although we’re all technically living through the same crisis, everyone’s lives are markedly different — creating this weird moment where we’re simultaneously brought closer together and pushed much further apart.

Our unprecedented access to information in the midst of a pandemic is a first, both with the never-ending news cycle and the staggering amount of user-generated content: TikTok videos, Facebook and Instagram posts, Snapchat stories, YouTube livestreams, Reddit threads, Twitter feeds, and more. We’re all processing in real-time, publicly. In the New York Times, author Sloane Crosley asked whether writers should write while still steeped within the pandemic, but there seems to be no question of whether concerned citizens should Tweet.

“Art should be given a metaphorical berth as wide as the literal one we’re giving one another,” Crosley writes. “Really, we’re only just now nailing World War I. But like everyone else, writers feel the need to distill life as a means of surviving it.”

Not everyone feels the need to distill life into 140-characters or a well-curated Instagram feed; it just feels that way because there’s so much user-generated content circling around the same issue while driving wedges further and further into our disparate experiences. Sometimes we see flashes of recognition in a post, but other times we see nothing that looks like life as we know it (or knew it).

At the beginning of a Zoom yoga class I attended, the teacher told the five (white) participants how we needed to be more connected now, not less. But I can’t stomach all the self-help, new-age, spiritual-bypass rhetoric about connection. Yes, there’s a connective tissue that underlies our experiences, but there’s also a widening disconnect, one that was already present, both in our day-to-day and in our structural systems. It was easier to ignore the death tolls when no one seemed to be counting.

Perhaps the disparity and discrepancies and disconnection is what we need — needing to realize that although many of us are connected by wires and wireless, we are living very different lives.

That’s the thing about privilege: we’re told we’re all aiming for the same target but later realize we’ve been given different targets, placed at varying ranges. Some are so far away they can hardly see what they’re aiming for, let alone reach it.

In the Atlantic, Ed Yong writes, “When do we go back to normal? That outlook ignores the immense disparities in what different Americans experience as normal.”

Someone else wrote about how the pandemic would cause social media to implode, shedding light on the widening disconnect. (With such a plethora of content and too much time to digest it, I can’t even recall where I saw this, only that it’s been stuck in my mind for months.) For instance, how one person takes to Twitter to complain about working from home while another posts about losing their job. The writer said it was the same reason why some marriages ended after the death of a child: because the spouses are stuck at varying levels of grief and never sync their cycles. One person is in denial while the other is deep in depression. One person is angry while the other has reached acceptance.

On Instagram, a woman in New York City wrote, “And those who fled when the tide came in, it’s really okay, you don’t have to come back. The city is quiet and glorious without you, you know.” The comments flooded with people who were triggered by it, most likely those same folks who had houses upstate to flee to, or family to stay with in less cramped quarters. The outcry was so severe the woman added a note at the end, “(edit: it wasn’t my intention for this to be such a large or complicated conversation for everyone. It was merely a thought as a born and bred NY’er even with her own privileges, who has felt the ease as the tide has gone down. Thank you to everyone who has weighed in)”

It’s not just on social media; it’s in text messages and phone calls too: a friend is working from home full time, parenting her five-month-old baby, and her husband lost his job but she’s hesitant to complain. Meanwhile, celebrities cloistered in their sprawling multimillion-dollar mansions urge us to stay home. And yet I’m also hesitant to complain, knowing my meagre Midwestern one-bedroom with access to a nearby park is a veritable palace to those crammed into small homes with big families, or residing in a single room with their significant other.

Before I open my mouth to bemoan my solitude, I remember other people would kill to be alone right now, perhaps (and unfortunately) even literally.

I’m not sure we’ve ever collectively lived through the same situation with the ability to broadcast it so publicly; hoping to find our experience reflected in others, we find it rendered unrecognizable instead. ‘Comparison trap’ takes on a whole new meaning.

“This is no longer a few people’s story,” Sloan Crosley wrote. “This is now everyone’s story.”

Perhaps I’m being greedy when I say I want all the stories: the born and bred NY’er who didn’t flee New York City and the ones who fled in the night to quieter pastures; the woman parenting full-time while working from home after her husband lost his job and the woman parenting full-time while unable to work at all and the woman working long hours at a hospital who can’t see her children. I want to read about the flood of orders overtaking Amazon warehouses and the strike organizer getting fired for protesting unsafe working conditions and the people complaining they can’t get their unnecessary items shipped to their house in two days via Prime. I want to hear about those living alone in self-isolation like me and the ones trapped in a house bursting with a dozen people but only one bathroom; the ones quarantined on a cruise ship infested with coronavirus and the ones who have no idea what’s going on outside the confines of the silent meditation retreat; the ones lamenting they’ve worn the same jeans for four days and the ones who can’t bring themselves to put on pants.

I want it all because it makes me feel connected to them while serving as a reminder that there are entire lives and existences outside the scope of my imagination, let alone the day-to-day reality I so often take for granted.

A version of ‘Against Busyness’ originally appeared in the cedeling newsletter.

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