Back in 2008, when I was hurriedly trying to churn out a memoir in the nooks and crannies of my full-time job at The New York Times, I developed a system — a habit — that helped me enormously.
I wrote my Times articles on the personal computer on the big desk in one room of my modestly sized apartment. But I wrote the accruing passages of the book on the laptop on the small dining table in another room.
Moving to that table and firing up that laptop was a signal, as was getting up from it. And the memoir, by occupying a designated space in my home, also occupied a designated space in my brain. When I focused on it, I could really and truly focus on it. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything more briskly or with such unfettered concentration.
I thought about this during several recent conversations with friends and professional acquaintances about how they were holding up in this cinched and cursed state of lockdown. I heard a recurring complaint: about how borderless and amorphous and blurred together everything in life had become.
Home and office were suddenly one and the same, and there was no zipping to a coffee shop with good wireless for a change of scenery. Children who once left for many hours and then returned were constantly underfoot. Spouses or romantic partners were present ’round the clock.
Weekdays were indistinguishable from weekends. The usual calendar markers (birthday celebrations, graduations, weddings) had disappeared, as had the custom of reserving certain activities for certain settings. There was a single setting for the gamut of activities: home.
And while that could be efficient, taking commutes and traffic and many errands out of the equation, it could just as easily be deadening. Indeed, my friends and acquaintances weren’t raving about how much they were getting done. They were marveling at how oxymoronically adrift they feel at a time when they’re more tightly anchored than ever before. Sheltering in place had left them lost in too little space.
They’re supremely lucky, of course, as am I. Many people don’t have the option to stay home and stay put. Their circumstances demand that they venture out, no matter the health risk. They’d welcome the challenge of numbing sameness.
It’s a challenge nonetheless. One university professor whom I was interviewing for an upcoming column spoke of how tough it can be to maintain your sharpness when you’re sitting in a fixed place, staring at a fixed screen, your psychic metabolism at a fixed pace, for so long. He said that before this pandemic, he’d never fully appreciated “the importance of leaving the room.”
The importance of leaving the room. That’s what I was recognizing and bowing to, without being able to articulate it, when I was writing my book in the fashion that I described earlier. And it’s a phrase — an idea — about more than physical location.
We often lend meaning to what we do, exalting and protecting it, by giving it definition, by drawing parameters around it, by assigning it its own place, by separating it. Being able to move toward it and being able to move away from it: These are crucial to its specialness.
Why do therapists tell people with insomnia not to read or watch television in bed but instead to put their head on the pillow only when they’re keen to doze off? That’s about erecting boundaries: on this side, wakefulness; but on that one, sleep. It’s about training the brain and body to respond to given cues with given behavior.
Part of the purpose of the office — and the reason, say, WeWork sprang into being and spread so fast — is to prompt a mental reset: Now that I’m here, I do X in Y fashion. At least until I go back there.
The way we dress is another form of definition, another set of prompts. Putting on something starchy announces that it’s time to conduct business, putting on something sparkly announces that it’s time to party, and putting on sweatpants announces that it’s time to deflate.
So what happens when it’s sweatpants for morning coffee, sweatpants for the Zoom conference call, sweatpants for the Zoom happy hour, sweatpants for dinner? The same thing that happens when the coffee, the conference call, the cocktail and the casserole happen within a few dozen feet of one another. Behold the fog of quarantine.
“The very shape of society is dissolving in front of our eyes,” Sam Anderson wrote in a recent essay in The New York Times Magazine, noting that such rituals as workdays and mealtimes had “been drained of meaning. Society has become, in large part, boneless. A soup of ex-society.”
A deboned, soupy life: That sounds and feels right. And concentration depends on bones and borders. It demands compartments and compartmentalization.
I’m working on a new book. The going has never been slower.