Last week I surrendered to the it-burns-it-burns-but-I-cannot-look-away impulse that marks the moment that we’re in. For me that meant, among other things:
In short, I did exactly the opposite of what I teach, what I typically do, and frankly, what I find most comforting.
Of course, this response is partly due to the extraordinary circumstances we’re facing. But it’s also due to the fact that I’m navigating these circumstances outside of my usual place. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for more than 2 weeks: First, to give a retreat; then to visit my parents; and then—unexpectedly—to hunker down in my brother’s nearby home, so I could help out my parents without exposing them to anything I may have picked up while traveling.
Many of you have lost your usual place as well. Not necessarily because you’ve been traveling. But because you've been asked to leave the places that make up your daily round. Campus is empty and class is now online. Those of you still exercising have to go outside or fire up the treadmill. The library carrel you finally snagged and the café you love to write in are both shuttered.
And it’s not just that you have to work in a different space. It’s that the space you’re now in is regularly invaded by interlopers. Your desk in your home office is strewn with distracting tax forms. The front page of the New York Times is now your browser’s homepage.
Your children are with you All. Damn. Day.
The thing is, when we’re not in our usual place, it’s harder to maintain our normal routines--writing or otherwise. That’s because context contains cues that, over time, train us to associate a particular kind of behavior with a particular place. As teachers, we know this, and make use of it all the time. Think about how we feel and behave in a 10-person seminar room vs. a 250-person lecture hall with stadium seating.
Without our usual contextual guidance, the habits we rely on to stay focused and steady are more likely to fall apart. So even if you’re past the phase of obsessively monitoring the news, you’re still transitioning to a new physical environment whose cue structure may be radically different from what you’re used to. That’s fantastic if you’re looking to break bad old habits and put something new in place.
When you’re working from home in the midst of a pandemic and trying to stay grounded? Not so great.
I hope you can see where I'm going with this: social distancing is what we should all be doing. And unfortunately, the very behavior we need to stay safe may make it harder for us to follow the work routines that keep us serene. I mention this, because it’s important that we all recognize how hard this is. Before we talk solutions, we have to acknowledge that the problem we’re facing is bigger than you and your individual will.
But that doesn’t mean you are powerless.
If you find yourself flailing, the first thing you need to do is find some emotional ballast. Ballast is different from an anchor—that’s an object that keeps us tied to one place. Instead, ballast is weight—strategically placed to keep us balanced as we move forward. Think sandbags tied to hot air balloons.* Right now we’re shooting up into the atmosphere with no sense of control. Finding emotional ballast will slow you down. Even you out. And give you the mental space you need to determine the best next step.
Everyone’s emotional ballast is different, so the trick is to make sure you’re using yours and not someone else’s. An easy way to do that is to take two minutes and write down your version of the list I wrote above. Grab a pen and paper and write down the first 5 things you did this morning after opening your eyes. Leave 3 or 4 lines between each item. And if you have colored pens handy, write this list in red ink. If your mornings are fine, but you get off track in the afternoons, write down the first five things you do after lunch. The point here is to identify what it looks like when you go whizzing off into panic, distraction, or inertia.
Now, go back to the first item on your list, and right next to it, write what you’d normally do in pre-pandemic times. Or, if the virus has amplified behaviors that you knew weren’t working for you, write down what you know would feel better. Write these second items in green ink, or with beautiful handwriting, or in thick, bolded lines. Whatever you need to do to make them stand out.
This first item on your list is your ballast. It’s one, simple thing you can do to find some stability. To steady yourself for just a moment. To stop careening wildly through the day. If you’re totally overwhelmed, and can’t find even 30 seconds to think, just do that one thing, whenever it makes sense. Your ballast could be anything—a cup of coffee; devotional reading; singing in the shower; 2 episodes of Tiny Kitchen; child’s pose; baking; bird watching; sex. It doesn’t really matter what it is. It doesn’t have to be serious or sacred. It just has to be what works for you.
My ballast, for example, is to sleep without my phone; then to floss and brush my teeth immediately upon getting out of bed. Removing the phone eliminates my ability to check in with the world. While brushing my teeth makes me check in with myself. When I’m amped up and desperate to start Doing, forcing myself to brush my teeth first brings me back to my body. It makes me enact what I know to be true but have a hard time accepting—that I have to attend to myself first if I want to be any good to anybody else.
And that’s just the first item. If you’re up for it, use the rest of the items as a set of instructions. Instead of following List A, follow List B. Keep your list with you and consult it as needed. Do as many items as you can handle without getting overwhelmed.
Maybe you will write. Maybe you won't. What's most important is that you find a pocket of calm from which to rebuild your routines in your new work environment. You are not likely to rebuild them all in one day. Or even one week. What you can do is disrupt the unhelpful patterns you may have fallen into and lay the foundation for change.
This is what it really means to Shelter in Place. To find safety where we already are, instead of searching for it outside ourselves.
Need more help finding space for writing?
Subscribe to Inkling for honest, practical essays on how build a writing life.
*Technically they're gas balloons, but you get my point