The Chosen Quiet
Notes on a slow January.
I’ve always hated January. It’s cold, with none of the charm of Christmas lights and holiday excitement. There no real end in sight to days that range from gray and gloomy to sharp, short, and freezing. And for me, January usually comes with some sort of forced reset — no drinking for the month, eating only whole foods, exercising daily — which certainly feels good in the aggregate, but can also feel an awful lot like deprivation on the daily.
This year, though, feels different. It feels slow and quiet and restorative. It feels like doing the quick work of dismantling an ornate structure, and now carefully and intentionally rebuilding its foundation.
I’m not really socializing this month. I’m working, but only as much as I have to. I’m trying to get up earlier and earlier. I’m moving my body every day. I’m eating whenever I’m hungry, and only eating things that are nourishing in the long-term, not just comforting in the immediate. I’m closing the screen more often, going to bed when I’m tired, sleeping as much as I can, making all my food at home.
It feels, in some ways, like the positive inverse of first few months of the pandemic: A brief period where the whole world feels like it’s slowing down.
The difference is that this time it’s chosen.
I often fantasize about having a giant pause button that I can hit to make the swirl of life just stop — to pause me at whatever age I’m at, give me space to assess, remove all the demands of work and friends and family and plans and obligations. I sometimes read stories about celebrities who have been hospitalized for exhaustion and I think, “that sounds nice.”
But when the giant pause button was actually and improbably hit, I hated it to the point of near breakdown.
I don’t know about you, but the pandemic threw me into a spiral of anxiety, angst, and depression. I write for a living, but I had never given much thought to my “creative process” — I just write, it is what I do. But during the pandemic, really for the first time in my life, whole days and weeks and months would go by when all I could think was, “I have nothing to write, and I have nothing to say.” The year and a half that Covid kept my world extremely small was the least generative and least creative period of my life.
And ok, I did write a book — I remind myself of that when I wonder why I wasn’t as productive as so many other people seemed to be. But other than that, I didn’t create much of anything that I was proud of.
But that in and of itself proved to be useful information. Some people are Thoreaus; they create when they’re alone and in silence and have long stretches to live as solitary beings in their own minds. And some people need a whole lot of input in order to generate output. I realized that I need people and the energy of a vibrating city — not the same “conversations” with the same handful of people on Twitter, and not even conversations with the close loved ones I talk to every day, but the immeasurable amount of stimulation that comes from simply moving through a large metropolis. I need the street art and the museums, the live music, the shops and bars and restaurants and signs and smells and millions of little things to look at and desire and resent and admire and navigate around. And mostly, I need the people: The knowing glance across a subway car, the casual chat with the bodega guy, the people you see so often you start to think you know them, the people clearly from out of town, the fabulously dressed, the bizarrely dressed, the bizarrely behaved. The drinks with friends, dinners out, meeting new acquaintances, rekindling friendships that have frayed with time, remembering there are always so many more interesting people in the world, so many delicious things to devour, so much life to soak up.
Since getting fully vaccinated and reentering the world, I’ve been doing a lot of soaking up. While a small handful of my friends appreciated the quiet slow of lockdown, for me, the Covid era felt like stolen time — years I’ll never get back, when I got older but couldn’t experience much of anything and didn’t create much of anything and for the most part just woke up every day feeling old and defeated and listless and resentful. (And still, how lucky, in a pandemic, to get older).
So it’s odd, perhaps, to impose that same small, inward-looking way of living now, when I don’t have to. But as with so much else, the slow and quiet hits differently when it’s entered into by choice instead of force. I’ve been running myself into the ground, and letting my physical health deteriorate. Again, over the past few months, I’ve felt like I’m in a creative rut. And so instead of being forced inside, I’m hunkering down in order to rebuild from the group up. I’ve stripped out drinking, socializing, going out, over-stimulating myself with new people and new places and new things. That will all come back, and soon. But I am hoping I can build the things I love — novelty, experience, soaking in the vitality of pulsating places and the energy of other people — on top of firmer and more fertile ground. From there, I hope, good things can grow.
In one of the Writing Practice emails last week, I asked about productivity: “What does it mean to be productive, to produce?” That word, “productivity,” has taken on (pretty well-deserved) negative connotations in progressive Millennial-land, of hustle culture and absurd workplace demands and the billable hour (hello lawyers). But right now, I’m thinking of productivity in terms of fruitfulness and abundance: How can I get my body, mind, and spirit in shape to allow the dreaming-up of projects that feel exciting, and then the carrying-out of the work to midwife them into being? Where do I need loose, dreamy space, and where do I need discipline, ritual, and structure?
Maybe you’re two weeks into a failed New Years resolution. Maybe you’ve already forgotten your intentions or manifestations or goals or hopes or whatever else you pledged to commit to memory or tapped out in your Notes app on the first of the month. Maybe you don’t care (good!); maybe you’re trapped in a familiar cycle of annual self-loathing. Or maybe you’re still riding the high of the New You, in these first few weeks of what you intend to be a whole new way of living.
I’m not sure we ever change wholesale. I’ve personally never even been that good at changing small habits (I still bite my nails, sorry mom). But we can absolutely change the ways we tend to ourselves.
In these flinty few weeks — what would one call the dog days of winter? — how are you taking care of yourself? As we enter the fourth year of a pandemic, when most of the world has gotten back to semi-normal and yet nothing is at all the same, what have you learned about yourself, your needs, and your impulses? What felt bad when it was forced on you, but might feel good to invite in willingly? What do you want to grow in the future, and how can you create the necessary fertile conditions?
Back to politics tomorrow. Today, I hope you are keeping warm and keeping well.