What I’ve learned from the time when nothing happens, not Here
Renee Yaseen | Monday, August 17, 2020
“Having just digested all the New York Times and some pretty awful clam-chowder I made for myself, I don’t feel the slightest bit literary, just stupid. Or maybe it’s just too much solitude.” — Elizabeth Bishop, in her letters to the poet Robert Lowell
Hi, it’s me. Writing to you from … not Here. I am a slim eight miles from the University, a distance which I am likely to keep for the next few months. And although I’m not around in the normal sense, I’ve concurrently experienced a lot with you: the sunlight streaming in my window, the storm on August 10, the social, spiritual and physical transformations this pandemic has moved within us, the way the approaching 2020 election feels almost unreal, the rhythm of a four-year election cycle blurred and skipping beats against the backdrop of bigger, structural issues.
Maybe, in a few months, I’ll write a “Why Taking a COVID-Related Leave of Absence Was Actually the Best Decision I Ever Made” essay. I could also write the “I Miss Dorm Life and Thought-Provoking Classes — and Why That’s OK” essay. But I can’t say too much about how it’s going yet. I have days where, like Elizabeth Bishop, “I don’t feel the slightest bit literary, just stupid. … maybe it’s just too much solitude.”
I can name lots of historical figures who have successfully taken long breaks from formal work or from being in public. The famous writer Walker Percy was actually trained as a physician before he contracted tuberculosis during an internship at Bellevue Hospital in 1942. He spent several years quietly recovering at the Trudeau Sanitorium, resting, sleeping, reading and writing philosophy. He subsequently quit medicine, and began writing and reading about the issues that would make his career. Emily Dickinson rarely left her house. Frank Ocean hasn’t released an album since 2016. And the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Elizabeth Bishop, expounds on her appreciation for solitude in her letters to Robert Lowell, documented in this wonderful blog post from Brain Pickings.
There hasn’t yet been enough time to discern whether these past few weeks of solitude have transformed me into Walker Percy or a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. But for many of us compelled to take leaves of absence due to the coronavirus, this semester is an experiment with perhaps the longest period of solitude we have every experienced. And sure, it’s not complete solitude, with my brothers popping in every hour or so to borrow my charger, watch “Phineas and Ferb” or ask if I can make them a smoothie. But it’s really, really close.
Here’s what I’ve learned thus far, from the periods of time where nothing happens:
Restrictions can spark your creativity.
It’s the rules of a game that make it fun. When the rules change abruptly, our brains go to work trying to find fun workarounds and new solutions to boredom. My leave of absence challenges me to creatively fill my time: to find resources for extracurricular education in the subjects that interest me, to get elbow deep in creative projects I never would have begun otherwise.
Stillness can reorient you towards meaningful work.
Like many children of immigrants, I was raised with a very pedal-to-the-metal attitude about academic and career achievement. More was always better. I often felt I was barreling as fast as I could toward an abstract idea of “success,” abandoning my own interests and passions half-explored in favor of an extra hour of studying or preparation. But my leave of absence has distanced me from opportunities to be judged by metrics like grades and test scores for a while. I’ve been asking myself — in this stillness — all the sorts of questions you have to pretend you know the answers to in freshman Moreau class: what do I want? What is success to me? What unique skills of my own can I use to add to this world?
Silence can make you a better listener.
To explicate on this point I’ll offer two resources: this poem, “Because These Failures Are My Job” by Alison Luterman, and this TED Talk by Julian Treasure called “5 Ways to Listen Better.” Like Alison Luterman, I’ve realized the limitations of my own capacity for attention in a noisy, colorful, information-filled world. A little bit of silence, quiet and stillness is a great help for things like reading, writing, thinking and prayer or meditation.
The pandemic has made our world a little quieter as we all struggle to learn a “new language” with which to communicate and show affection. The bit of awkwardness that comes with saying hello 6 feet apart feels like trying to tell my Syrian grandmother I love her in English — the effort to connect is made and acknowledged, but there remains an incompleteness in the interaction — a slightly disappointing hint of what it could have been (had I used the correct language to convey my emotion). I know that even on campus, many of you are experiencing that feeling of incompleteness and quiet in the face of distancing protocols and restrictions on social gatherings. But I think we are accomplishing feats of communication: we are listening to each other and (most of us) changing our behavior to be attentive to the needs of others. As we all learn a new language with which to communicate with one another during these “strange and unprecedented times,” here’s to those who patiently listen.
Renee Yaseen is a junior who majors in International Economics and Arabic. She’s currently on a gap semester doing lots of creative stuff and lots of un-creative stuff. She can be reached via the chat on a shared Google Doc at 3 a.m., on Twitter @ReneeYaseen or by email at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.