March 26, 2020 § 17 Comments
By Grace Mattern
Good news! My screen time is down to an average of 23 hours and 10 minutes per day, @NasimiShabnam, writer and activist, tweeted the other day, one of the first I see when I sneak over to Twitter from the essay I sat down to edit. Comedian @DoctorDoug replies, Good news guys, my screen time is down 8% to 27 hours a day.
In our new world ruled by the novel coronavirus pandemic, I have no social life, my volunteer and personal commitments are cancelled, and consulting gigs are on hold. Unexpectedly, the open time I crave as an over-committed writer is here.
But right behind the word document on my screen is my Google browser. What’s happened since the last time I checked the The New York Times (five minutes ago)? Is there an update on the number of cases and deaths on the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard (checked six minutes ago)? But first, Twitter.
I don’t have a program that blocks internet access for a set period of time. Time to write. Time to focus. Usually I’m able to ignore the addictive suck of the internet for an hour or two, closing my ears to the attention whining that seeps out of my computer. My guess is that even writers who have internet-blocking programs aren’t using them right now. Or if they are they’re setting them for 15 minute intervals.
Pandemic life has created an unprecedented level of distraction. The established structure of our lives unraveled so rapidly I wouldn’t have believed it a week ago. Extreme social distancing, isolation, lockdowns, restaurant closures and empty schools — I would have tossed that all off as a particularly paranoid version of an imagined future.
Yet, here we are. Here I am, looking at my screen, then looking out the windows of my study. There is the same physical world out there, the farmyard minus the farm house and milking barns that burned down in a blaze so fierce I felt the heat standing at the end of my driveway, a hundred yards away. Only the concrete silo still stands, topped with a silver metal dome backed by a line of tall spruce. This rural landscape is lovely but right now it can’t compete with the invisible virus, a blaze I can’t see.
Back to Twitter for distraction. Thankfully I also find validation.
Writer @susanorlean tweets, I’m amazed by everyone who says they will get tons of work done during this lockdown. I can’t begin to focus! Am just obsessively reading the news, listening to the news, watching the news, spreading the news. No work.
With such compelling news why wouldn’t we be obsessive? We’ve been fed distracting online content for years, our brains trained to go back and go back and go back to whatever our screens feed us. And we’ve never needed the latest feed more than now.
Orlean replies to a tweet by musician Rosanne Cash who reminds us all that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during his plague quarantine – I, on the other hand, will be playing Words with Friends. Researcher of extremist groups @egavactip isn’t even planning to play games: 500 years from now, students of history will be saying, “Just a reminder that when Mark Pitcavage was quarantined because of the plague, he made like a billion mediocre tweets.”
Poet @chenchenwrites posts, honestly i can neither read nor write poetry right now. which i’ve been feeling down about. but like, that’s ok! poetry doesn’t have to be the answer all the time! poetry doesn’t have to save us or even sustain us every crisis.
To which queer romance author @FozzyGlamKitty replies, that’s why i been annoyed how in the beginning with the Shakespeare/King Lear posts, like dammit us writers/creatives are people too. Creating/writing can wait, we’re allowed to be distracted, worried, and tired.
@HomoSherlock (neurodivergent jew-ish gayzn) had perhaps the best answer: nope sometimes what sustains us is stale pantry popcorn & ten hours of Love is Blind
Back to my windows. It helps to see that the sun is still traveling north, lengthening and warming the days. The red buds of the old maple in the yard are beginning to bulge and this morning there was a rush of bird song as dawn spread around the rim of sky. Here I am. Here we are, part of a web of life that grows and diminishes in endless cycles.
The novel coronavirus isn’t evil. It’s not a “foreign disease” that arose through intent. It’s how the world works. Viruses change their cellular structure over and over to find new ways to bind to animal cells and reproduce. We’re all here to reproduce and right now the coronavirus is having tremendous success.
Given the intelligence and creativity of humans the virus won’t always have the upper hand. But for now it has fundamentally altered how we all live and work and focus. It’s okay to give ourselves a break if we can’t create.
As artist and author @adamjk says, sorry i can’t write “king lear” right now
Grace Mattern is a writer, artist and activist. She has published two books of poetry and her work has appeared in The Sun, Prairie Schooner, Calyx, Appalachia and other publications. Her writing and visual art can be found at www.gracemattern.com