not a fairytale of productivity

This week Jamelle Bouie started his newsletter, which he writes every week for the New York Times, with admission:

Longtime subscribers know that I try to begin each newsletter with an extended thought or take or observation. Unfortunately I don’t have one for you this week. My personal bandwidth for writing beyond what I need to do for my column has narrowed considerably, in large part because I don’t have the energy for anything else. In lieu of the usual, I want to share a few more stories for you to read this week. Perhaps next week will be the one when I’m able to think beyond the next 24 hours. I’m sure many of you who are living exactly one day at a time can relate.

I love this, because even pre-pandemic, there was an expectation — for public figures, but also just people in your life — of steadiness. You get things done, regardless of how you feel, and whenever anyone, truly anyone, asks you how you’re feeling, you say good! Even if you were “a beautiful mess” or whatever language a certain swath of influencers use to describe their “just keeping it real” aesthetic, the goal was always a whole lot more beauty than mess.

But a global pandemic has wiped away so much pretense. For the past few weeks, I have stared at an item on my to-do list — WRITE TALK — and shuddered. In our non-pandemic universe, I would be going to New York at the end of the month to give a talk at a big conference, the sort where I’m always the weirdo without a snazzy powerpoint overflowing with animations. Usually I get by on, I dunno, the strength of my ideas, but when they canceled the conference, they decided to put the entire thing online. I’d still get paid, I’d just have to give my talk from my dining room table. Earlier this week they sent a box full of expensive equipment for lighting and filming. I have a rehearsal scheduled. There’s a director. I want to hide.

But I wrote it this week. I tried a bunch of different intros, cobbling together bits from chapters of the book, but none of it worked. The only thing that felt right was starting by saying just how much I didn’t want to write the talk — that doing anything more than what I’m (barely) doing already feels impossible. That none of this is normal and pretending otherwise only benefits the powerful and the profit-hungry. The more we give ourselves permission to actually feel what we feel — anger, grief, despair, fear — the more our resolve will strengthen to 1) not let this a shitshow and governmental failure of this particular magnitude happen again and 2) actually enact change, personal and systemic, on the other side of all this.

The pandemic did not have to happen this way in the US. The economic fall-out and confusion did not have to unfurl the way that it has. Nearly every other country in the world is evidence. Our systems have been broken for some time. It’s just become even harder to pretend otherwise. So don’t pretend. Let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling and let others know too, so long as you’re not putting anyone in danger or being an asshole. Be honest about your limitations. You’re a human who’s grieving. You’re not working from home; you’re working from home during a global pandemic. You’re not parenting; you’re parenting during a global pandemic. You’re not going school or job searching or trying to navigate governmental systems for unemployment; you’re doing all of those things during a global pandemic, and all of it sucks. If we pretend otherwise, we’re buying into the idea that our primary purpose in life is to be a work robot. We’ve been trending that way for some time. But what would happen if we used this opportunity to reject the premise entirely?

I wrote the talk. I’ll deliver it from my dining room table this week. It’s not slick. But at least it’s not a fairytale of productivity during societal collapse.

Some Things I Read and Found Compelling These Past Weeks:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this as a momentary distraction in their inbox every week or so, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; I am writing this fucking thing during a global pandemic.