Dear Rick Moody, Life Coach,
I have many questions, but I will limit myself to one, to save us both. I find action difficult right now. And by that I mean, besides my morning walks in my neighborhood, I feel most comfortable at home, not doing much besides sitting in front of the computer, whether it’s to do work or write or read Twitter or watch hurricanes come on shore or read about another shooting, another space to open up for oil drilling, etc. I don’t want to clean the house, though the kitchen sink is clear every night and the bathrooms are okay. The meals I make my boys are fine. My husband has a pizza place so he’s hardly home and is too tired to help. It’s like I’m sitting in the curl of a tidal wave that never strikes (but could!). I feel I am setting a bad example for my boys in how to cope and how to live. My nine year old definitely had a hard time during the spring, not wanting to go out at all, even in our driveway. He’s better now. But every day, while I’m at the computer, my kids are in the other room watching TV or playing Fortnite with friends and I feel terrible. They go over to their grandparents’ house some days and I do bring them out to see friends safely once a week or go on a secret fun afternoon trip. Mostly, though, I hardly see them. Before you know it, they are going to be growing up and away from me and I’m going to have missed it. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel on top of the wave, and I find that depressing. Please say some magic words. Anonymous.
This letter is very moving to me, and timely. You are not alone, Anonymous. In fact, you are widespread. Almost everyone feels as you feel now, I suspect. You are a fact of civilization. You are an eminent voice of civilization. Maybe you are just exactly what it means to be human now (and maybe that is different from casting you as part of civilization now, when “civilization” is a problematic word, when “civilization” does not seem so civilized). People probably either feel the way you are feeling now, or else they are not being entirely honest. This is my hunch.
That is, the pandemic condition is a condition of isolation, in various gradations, and, perhaps most painfully, a condition isolation in a group, often enough. A group of others we love deeply, wish to protect, care about, but with whom we are too closely bound at the moment. Love, in the Pandemic, refers to a person who is getting on your nerves. Never has Freud’s observation of the porcupine—cozying up to its mate to get warm, getting stabbed, and moving off, only to get cold again—seemed to entirely accurate. Love, care, irritation, and isolation, are all mixed up together in this stew, one that causes these contradictory feelings to be hard to distinguish on occasion.
Ironic, too, that we are all reach across this isolation through social networking, imagining that this will in some way help, when we already knew, and now know better, how much more alienated this will ultimately cause us to feel. Social networking is part of the problem, and your note to me, through the nexus of the social network, is like a radio signal cast out into the interstellar void, which I am trying to send back with a human response, a response that is otherwise, warm and urgent, so that the void is in some way diminished.
The first thing to say is that your feelings seem to me accurate, sensitive, and, alas, routine. In fact, you have made a beautiful thing with your words, a thing of acuity. Through the fog of the pandemic, which, it seems to me, rewards exaggeration, perhaps because panic often has difficulties of scale, you have instead captured the world as it is, and this is the excellent capacity of language, the excellent capacity of writing, that it can, over time, think through our difficulties, and restore them to the scale that they warrant, to be felt in a condition of accuracy.
Most excellent here is the way your letter turns on the concerns of motherhood. As always, motherhood is near at hand, and utterly suppressed in the Pandemic. It is a thing that is essential, constantly taking place, and somehow unworthy of being properly expressed, as though its frequency somehow renders it insubstantial, rather than utterly, utterly essential. (There are some similar features here to fathering, or I experienced your travails as not dissimilar to my own while reading your letter, I who am often home with a four-year-old and an eleven-year-old. Though with one stark difference: fathers are always rewarded in an outsized way for doing next to nothing.) Look, I counsel self-forgiveness in the matter of Fortnite, and Roblox, and all similar. This is the problem of human history, not the problem of you, Anonymous, trying to keep everyone alive, and not hysterically upset, in the most difficult time in American history since WWII. Can we not all forgive one another for Fortnite for the rest of this lockdown, until the vaccinations are widespread? In my house it is actually YouTube, and in particular YouTube videos of toy unboxing. Will you forgive me for this?
The screens are the blessing and curse, the bringer of civilization and the catalogue of its grievous failures. Raging against screens now is like raging against air conditioners. It’s true! You shouldn’t use an air conditioner! They are awful and make things worse! It’s true, Fortnite is a curse, and those dances are really hard to deal with, especially when your kids do the floss flailing wildly around the open spaces of a living room! But what can civilization do to provide us with alternatives, to provide us with an ethical solution to the need for air conditioning, et al.? Is it not the job of the entire hive, to come up with these kinds of solutions? People can make moral choices for themselves, and these are worthy, but it’s also okay to forgive the people who, for whatever reason, need to rely on the hive to lead the charge in these global problems. The relationship between the individual and systemic failure is dynamic, not easily nailed down– sometimes the individual can solve the problem, sometimes only civilization can, and the dynamic fluctuates wildly. The first obligation of a parent in pandemic is more basic than these grand philosophical questions: keep everyone safe and healthy. Whatever it takes.
My second point would be: your letter exhibits great reserves of creative ability. What can we do today to carry on the legacy of creative thinking in our kids, in this difficult time? What is the one thing we can do in the long march of these ten or twelve hours to nurture and extend creative thinking in our children? What can we do with our creativity today for the kids, notwithstanding the exhaustion, the depression, the sheer grind of this time? For a while, I was painting with my son, I would use the Ikea watercolor box, which is about as creative as the basic Crayola box, maybe a little bit less so. My son often painted superhero figures from “activity books.” Was I teaching him anything about painting? I taught him that we could do it every day, and that popsicle sticks could be just as good as paintbrushes, or twigs from the yard, and that any color could be a good color, especially dribbled around Pollock-style, but that’s as much as I know; I figure the solution is less about prioritizing a painterly result, and more about a way of being. I want to model the activity as a way to be, and if Fortnite is better at teaching what creativity is, then that’s okay, that’s history, that’s where we are. However: I think when we criticize people’s parenting right now we might be taking a snapshot, and confusing it with a movie. What is this going to look like in twenty years, the memory of this time? I think we will not be convulsing with regret over Fortnite. One thing we will think is: in the hardest time in a hundred years, I spent eighteen months with my kids, every morning, every night, sometimes all but a few hours of the day. That commitment, that discharge of responsibility, often unnoticed by, for example, our friends who are unencumbered enough to meditate for an hour a day during the lockdown, or who are managing to collect wines, or learn to bake, is heroic. Your work is heroic.
I am in no way critical of your approach, therefore, but I’m just going to throw out a few suggestions, and am less advising using them than I am advising trying, again, anew, to bust out of the inert, gazing-paralyzed-at-history feeling of the pandemic, to think up a few things to try, for the sake of the activity: 1) what if the kids had to keep a diary of this time, could just be thirty words a day at first, 2) what if you had them build a pandemic table, or place a pandemic table, in the basement, let’s say, that collected relevant objects of this time, which could be changed out as events alter the context, 3) what if you had them invent a new sport, a new religion, a new world philosophy, and report back on their deliberations on the subject, a little bit at a time, 4) what if you taught them about poetical meter, and invited them to rap in this meter each night, in order to get dessert, 5) what if they had to interview one another each day, about the effects of the pandemic?
These are just ideas for building in what human contact there is and can be, in a ritual the wants to memorialize what we are all going through. Whatever you can actually do, actually accomplish, is a record of our time, and that is enough.
One last gentle thought: if you need a place for your own creativity to go in this time, absolutely put it in the spot where dishes and laundry once went. Induce the children to help with this stuff! It won’t hurt them at all, and they may like it, and you may too. I feel like the doing-things-together model, no matter how painfully repetitive the task, makes life better. And this can start anywhere, a little bit at a time, not all at once, or ever.
That you wrote the letter, announced the quiet, intense, understated anguish of this time, is an indication of how sensitively tuned, and that is a thing to revere. I think you’re doing great, because you’re here and able to write, and to conceptualize what we have lost. We have, in fact, lost a great deal. We are, I think, suffering deeply. It’s worth saying that out loud again. And the more people cover up, and refuse to name the suffering, the worse it gets, the more our reality testing is disfigured by isolation and chronic depression. Your family is so lucky to have you in this time, and they will know this, and, one day, you will feel proud that you made it through, and I hope this letter can be a record of that recognition.
Rick Moody, Life Coach