The Waterfall (1910) by Henri Rousseau
HOT DAMN, we are in the shit now, people. I mean truly.
Deep breath. Quit out of that scary article you’re reading on your immaculate laptop screen. Put down your pristine, recently sterilized phone. Close your bloodshot eyes for a second. Feel this: This is very hard for everyone.
People are already making jokes about self-care in the time of coronavirus. But motherfuckers, if you’re not feeling stressed right, you’re either ignoring the news entirely, you’re in denial about what comes next, or you’re a fucking robot.
So, Siri? You don’t need to take a deep breath. Everyone else: Take a minute to feel compassion for what you’re dealing with right now. WE ARE ALL IN THE SHIT. Even if you don’t think you’re feeling things about this, stay alert to how much ambient stress is in the air. The tiniest uptick in difficulty at this moment is likely to push you off the edge quickly. The smallest conflict with a stubborn parent or a temperamental kid or a dismissive friend can compound your stress and trigger an emotional landslide right now. Give yourself a break, and forgive yourself for whatever you’ve fucked up so far.
We’re all going to fuck up under these conditions. Personally, I’m stressed — VERY! — but I’m in MANAGEMENT MODE. In my family, I hold things together. If my wheels come off, everything goes to shit. I’m the one who holds us together emotionally. Which is… not a small task.
So right now, I’m a little bit robotic. I’m talking to my husband and my kids and my friends a lot. But I can still feel a little time bomb inside my skull. A little voice is saying: No tears. No weakness. No time for feelings. What is self-care, exactly? Not sure. Talking about self-love right now feels like chatting about your favorite ice cream flavor right before you’re dumped onto the beaches at Normandy. I’m ready to storm the dunes in wet boots. I’m not ready to cry.
It’s crazy to think about what quarantine/ social distancing looks like for different people. Very social extroverts who live alone have to be hurting at the moment. Introverts might be better, but they also, sometimes, underestimate how much connection and socializing they need to feel good. People with bad roommates? Oh my god. I can’t imagine this without hyperventilating.
People with families might have a lot of support, but any fissures that exist in those relationships are going to show themselves quickly. Also, kids? Whew. My 13-year-old daughter has just been inducted into hell. She asks me ten times a day why I’m doing this to her, like I invented global pandemics just to torture her personally. I’m getting, uh, not so nice about it. I am saying things like NEW TO ME, NEW TO THE WORLD, IN FACT, SO BACK OFF FOR HALF A SECOND. Smaller kids must be even harder.
So we all have to slow down and be good to ourselves. What bugs me is that I was prepared for this. Like many other intense social-media-fixated human beings, I’ve been following the news around the coronavirus obsessively since late January. Around mid-February, I created a place in a closet for food and cleaning supplies, partially because reports indicated that people who planned early would reduce the strain on supplies once the shit hit the fan. I don’t own a single mask, to be clear. I have some gloves, not a ton. It’s all very haphazard, to be honest.
But I thought I was feeling my stress ahead of time (so proactive!) so I could be calm once shit got dark. Nope. And watching shit get worse is not going to be relaxing. It’s going to be hard. Let’s not go into detail here. It’s going to get very dark.
Anyway — ANOTHER DEEP BREATH — I don’t want to hold forth on the glory of feelings at this moment. I’ve been thinking a lot about survival mode. Imagine being shipped straight into the center of the Pacific Theater during WWII. Think about how little emotion you’d manage after a while. You’d have to get a little numb just to exist. In The Thin Red Line, one of my favorite movies of all time, there’s this soldier who’s madly in love at the start of the film, and then his whole demeanor slowly changes as he’s exposed to the calamities and callous algorithms of war. And oh god, does Terrence Malick capture the sensation of falling in love so viscerally and sensually, and then he just assaults you with the brutality of battle. GO WATCH, IT’S SO GOOD.
There’s this unforgettable scene (no spoilers!) where the shadows of big clouds are sweeping over the tall grass. It’s one of the most breathtaking scenes ever filmed. Apparently Malick waited stubbornly, for weeks, until the clouds were just right. He knew exactly what he wanted, and everyone on the crew hated him for it. (Which feels so relatable for any writer. Like yes, it’s absurd how tenacious I’m being about this, but I need to make this just right.)
Thanks to Malick’s perfectionism, the meaning of that scene is so clear: Even when the world grows dark, beauty still asserts itself, stubbornly. Even when you’re waiting to get cut down, even when you’re sure you’re doomed, the preciousness of this world shines through.
And then? It doesn’t shine through anymore. You get ground into the sand one too many times, and you can’t see a thing. The darkness becomes too much and you have to power it all down, just to survive.
So this is what I want right now: To watch the clouds pass over the grass and take the moment in. To take everything that’s here and feel it as much as possible. To forgive myself when I can’t feel a thing, when all I can do is just breathe and exist. And to forgive the people around me when they can’t manage much, either. It’s so fucking hard.
It’s easy to feel unnerved by what’s coming. But you might be tougher than you think. Be good to yourself, but look for your toughness, too. Notice how strong and capable and resilient you are, and give yourself credit for it. And keep watching the clouds.
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