At the beginning of quarantine, my diary was full of to-do lists. For example:
- No 4 PM disaster nap!
- Read 1 hour
- Something artsy 1 hour
- Stats problems 1, 2
All of these were dutifully crossed off, excepting stats problem 2, which remains circled darkly in my entry on March 19th. On that same day, I also noted that I was “excited to start gardening,” and that “I’ll try stitching every time there’s a family movie night.” The garden did get planted; the stitching never got completed.
In addition to the to-do lists, March is also month of positive affirmations:
March 19: “I don’t need my body to change, there is nothing physically to work to.”
March 25: “I’m smart. I’m creative. I’m happy, loving, selfless.”
And yet these go-get-em checklists and affirmations all come after bad days:
March 19: “I had one good day, then another bad one. Completely fell apart and spent noon on just vegging out waiting until I could go to bed. Putting it behind me; moving on.”
March 20: “I get itchy and nervous when it’s quiet sometimes.”
March 24: “I’m a nervous sludge. Shell? This is not a great moment for me.”
March 25: “I’m back after four days of mess, more or less.”
In my memory, March is less fraught with conflict. I don’t remember this recorded fluctuation. The peaks and valleys of my failures and successes have been flattened into one hazy, dreamlike memory.
April spaces out: four entries for the whole month. The month starts with uneasiness:
April 1: “Past two days have been alright. I feel like I’m getting a foundation for myself… I have to let myself be slow right now, because I don’t want to lose these small gains. But it feels restless and unproductive.
I don’t know how to grapple with defining myself. It’s hard to sit with this big emptiness. Like I’m a box waiting to be filled. I don’t know how much it should be thought about, versus just done through my actions.”
Filling… with personal growth
Here begins my last big to-do list: a final attempt to fill “this big emptiness” of vacant time with personal growth and success. I focus on three areas of improvement: creativity, kindness, and freedom.
But it takes ten days after this entry before I get back to my diary. No mention of my three goals ever appears again. Instead, I fluctuate rapidly between cravings of isolation and productivity. In certain periods, I feel miserable and useless, I try to find work to fill my hours with. In others I enjoy my freedom, and I yearn for an even more complete rejection of any kind of work at all.
April 11: Mom had to have emergency surgery; school has been more demanding than expected; things fall apart a little. I have to put them back together. And over again, and over again.
April 20: I look back at April and there’s not a lot in it. At first this made me want to condemn it as lost time. In fact, I feel quite happy with it… It was good– I didn’t do much, and it was so good. I can tell I’m making happy, empty memories.
May 11: These past few weeks I’ve fallen into something I haven’t known before. I feel useless, like I’m waiting to sleep again. My mind just wants to blank itself. The thought of other people’s expectations fills me with sick. I feel like I’m carrying my body everywhere with no place to put it.
May 23: Filled with thick, low anger today. Fought with Mom about rent and housing. I saw David and he’s the same– strict, perfectionist. I don’t know if the source of the problem if him or me. Am I being paranoid and imagining judgment? I don’t think it’s all in my head, but I don’t think he’s actively judging me. It’s hard, because I think it’s latent.
Whatever it is, wherever it comes from, I can’t tolerate it. It makes me want to leave my own life and just lie by a lake somewhere. I have absolutely no drive for greatness or accomplishment anymore. He would call that laziness. I would’ve too, last year. I’m not saying it’s an improvement. It just is.
June 6: Everything starts next week- my job, my internship. I am ready to go back to busy. Time becomes more valuable when you have less of it. I hate that waste feel.
June 8: My life has no direction… I repeat myself. I rise and recede at regular intervals.
Some people say they are called to do something, are set down to accomplish something. I don’t have this internal pulse. Everything about me originates outside of me, I have no claim to myself.
June 12: First day off work, working all weekend. Amazingly, going back to work has zapped my life back into order. I can’t decide if this is good, if I’m making my time more valuable, or rather if my life has been so reduced and harnessed that I don’t know how to handle complete freedom.
June 23: I spend each day sleep-walking the same sequence so I don’t have to wake and look at my life. I want to be alone, isolated from any justification or forward movement. I’d sacrifice for that respite. I need clarity.
Rereading these entries, I am reminded of the crisis of personal direction that quarantine forced on me, and likely, many others. We were stuck at home for months. For many people– nurses and doctors, essential workers, and teachers– this period came with work that was intense, dangerous, and unrewarding. But for myself, it was mostly empty. I had schoolwork, but it was reduced, and I got by with minimal effort. I was freer than I had ever been, with few outlets for my energy. I couldn’t help but ask myself: why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing with my time?
Is this irresponsible?
I never got an answer to these questions. In fact, as seen above, I didn’t even manage to grapple with them in a productive way; mostly I just wallowed. They still sit with me– less so, now that I have more work, more tasks to occupy my time, but they undeniably nag at me.
Should I be working more or less? Making more sourdough starters with my mom, seeing my friends more, lying by more lakes? Is this irresponsible and lazy? Should I be applying to more internships, picking up extra shifts, studying more? Or will any choice I make just end up with the same rising and falling motion–happiness, then sadness, success and then defeat? “And over again, and over again?”
Perhaps that’s just life
I still ask, every day, and find no real answers. But perhaps that’s just life: asking important questions, trying answers, again and again, even if it leads to nothing. Fernando Pessoa thinks so, at least:
“The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognizes is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential.”
And to be fair, even if we are in an endless loop of good and bad days, at least we still have the good ones.
June 25: “It’s okay today. The light comes through my window, I have books to read. The leaves are bright. I want to feel good and whole, give love and see beauty. So, I will walk to the river and put lemon in my water and hum songs at work.”
About the Article
Reflections on the entries in a Covid quarantine journal.