That’s the best way to describe the past few weeks. Due to events I don’t have to describe to you all, our entire way of life has changed. The people around us are all out of work, working from home, or going to work in what are most likely unsafe conditions. Regardless, each and every person now lives on a continuum. Regardless of their economic or social standing, everyone has had to radically change the way they live. And pretty much all college students, save for a few staying on their campuses or in their respective college towns, have been sent home to confront a radical new reality. I’d best describe it as a transitory space: one in which we are both unburdened by the need to get dressed in the morning or the pressure to socialize, but also closed in; one in which we have more time to do what we’ve been meaning to do,but have also had all the energy and vigor sucked out of our lives; one in which we are freer, but also stuck like never before. In short, one could look at it from the angle that there are plenty of new opportunities available and new things to come from this experience. But again, regardless of economic or social standing, there is no realistic, sensical angle one could apply to this situation that obscures the indisputable fact that it fucking sucks.
I’ve come home to a particularly strange environment, one not radically different from the one I come home to every break, but with enough tweaks that it exists in a liminal space that is even more alien than something entirely new. My older sister is back home, along with her cat Mimi, who is much younger, smaller, and faster than my cat Tom Tom, who has been with the family for about fourteen years. In some ways it recalls a different time, in which Tom Tom’s brother Thurman was still with us; he died right before I left for college, another strange, huge transition for me. But it’s also different, as Tom Tom is utterly terrified of Mimi and refuses to be in the same room as her. My room has always been a mess when I come home, but in the process of moving in (a near-disaster in and of itself, but that’s a story for another time) and the ensuing lethargy of quarantine, it’s reached catastrophic levels of disarray. I brought a bunch of books home, but I’ve barely touched any of them. As someone who suffers from social anxiety, I’ve often feared feeling isolated from my classmates. In the most literal sense, I am more isolated from them than ever, and our experiences in having to cope with this sudden change differ from person to person, but our anxieties come from the same place. There’s a sense of calm to be felt in being able to empathize with all of my classmates, and I feel confident that we will come out of this having bonded. But I miss a lot of people, and my existential anxiety—which has overtaken my social anxiety in the past year or so, for better and for worse—is ramped up to 11.
I’ve coped with the times by going for daily walks, drawing, and watching films every night that I have the time. These are hobbies I’ve kept for a while, but as near-daily rituals, they’ve each taken on a new meaning. Walks have always been a rare time when I can reflect, and though my ability to explore has been handicapped by limited travel capabilities, my neighborhood haunts evoke a calming feeling that is perfect for this reflection. The value of these walks hasn’t diminished as the frequency’s increased; if anything, they’ve become more valuable. They serve as a reminder that I’m alive, and that life, whether it be in the sky or the air or in water, will continue in some form or another long after I’m gone.
Movie-watching has been key to fighting off cabin fever the past few weeks, especially early on when I was still processing everything and didn’t really have work to do. I initially just watched whatever was on my list that looked appealing to me, but over time I found myself only wanting to watch foreign-language films. I think this has largely been due to the fact that, outside of Kurosawa, Bergman, and some choice Italian films, my experience with foreign-language films is limited at best. I’ve always been obsessed with 40’s/50’s film noir and the 70’s New Hollywood era, and these films typically attracted the bulk of my attention. But also, many of these foreign-language films have, in my mind, spoken to this current moment.
One such film, for me, has been Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, which centers around a titular wanderer, named Monda, who hitchhikes and occasionally works on farms, only to drift off somewhere else for whatever reason she feels. Each scene is intercut with a documentary-style talking head interview where one of the characters talks about their perception of her, some admirable of her, some disgusted by her vagrancy, and many just confused and/or taken aback. This focus on how the main character is perceived as central to the film, and I can’t help but compare it to the present moment. Each of these characters are connected by the same character, but their perception of her completely differs from person to person. As I mentioned before, our experiences in dealing with this pandemic also differ from person to person, but our perception of them is almost entirely rooted in the same thing, that being fear, anxiety, and discomfort. This is a weird, uncomfortable feeling, as it is human nature to see and perceive things differently from one another, as these characters do. The fact that everyone is, in some form or another, miserable right now is not a reassuring thing, and as questionable and infuriating as it would be, attempts to spin this situation positively would certainly make this more normal. However, there is reassurance in knowing that we are always connected – not just by major global pandemics that upend each and every one of our lives, but also, in more normal times, by small things, like the people we see on the street and our daily rituals.
Another film that particularly impacted me upon viewing was Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, a sprawling, surreal, semi-autobiographical film about an overwhelmed auteur filmmaker struggling to make a movie, made by an overwhelmed auteur filmmaker who himself struggled to make this movie. Art about art has existed for a long time, but I’d argue 8 ½ did more than any other work of art to forge the archetypal confessional narrative, and it has inspired every work of that ilk in some way or another. It’s tempting to cast the film aside as self-serving pretentiousness, but I found myself empathizing with the main character, Guido, as someone whose creative anxiety has bled into their social turmoil. For the longest time, my perceived creative inadequacy was central to my anxiety. My love for art is a large part of what drives me in these moments of lethargy, especially now as I’ve been deprived of human connection. However, this love was always undercut by my inability to create. I’m obsessed with music, but I can’t play any instruments. I love movies, but I can’t make them, in any capacity. Strangely, writing has always been the reverse, as I feel more confident as a writer, but that confidence is undercut by difficulty concentrating on reading, and the fact that I’m embarrassingly poorly-read. The most gutting of these shortcomings, for me, was that I’ve always loved art, but for the longest time I couldn’t even draw a straight line. I think it hurt because, while music and filmmaking require a level of dedication that I’ve tried and failed to muster, art is right there in front of you at all times. And yet, each time I tried to make art, it came out nothing like the way I pictured it in my head, which made me hate myself. These dynamics haven’t escaped me. However, slowly but surely, I came out of the woodwork and got interested in drawing, and have since built up some experience, and a large amount of my down time these past few weeks has been dedicated to making art. I still deal with confidence issues, as more often than not my pictures do not come out the way I want them to, and time and time again I’ll feel more frustrated at the end of a drawing session than I was when I started. But at the same time, I’ve learned to take a more improvisational approach to drawing at the beginning. However, over time I’ve learned to accept these rough edges, and take a more improvisational approach.
Drawing has always been a valuable coping mechanism for me, and when I’m in the throes of depression, it serves to reaffirm my humanity and show the value in my perception of things. That being said, the rhetoric surrounding “productivity” in these unforeseen circumstances (KiNg LeAr WaS wRiTtEn In QuArAnTiNe) has irked me. Outside of an academic or professional artistic environment, and situated within downtime, a serious creative endeavor is almost never a simple way to pass time. It’s something one takes part in because they want to creatively express themselves, or they view it as a coping mechanism, or a multitude of reasons. No one could seriously say “fuck, school’s cancelled. Guess I gotta write a book now.” It happens on its own. Whatever steps you take to cope with this situation, whether it be reading, writing, cooking, creating, or watching TV and staying in bed, there’s room for reflection, for thoughtfulness, for anything you want to make of the experience. Truth be told, living through this experience and adjusting in any way, shape, or form is one of the most productive things you can do. And speaking from experience, wallowing in self-hatred over an inability to create and make good with down time is one of the least productive things one can do, no matter how much pressure there is to do otherwise. Take a moment to reflect, to remember that you’re still breathing, still caring for people, and still living, and that you’re doing more than enough by that nature.