To paraphrase a popular musical, “Can we get back to real life, please, yo?”*

It might just be possible to escape the drama of politics and move our attention back to our lives. For the first time in four years, I don’t feel like I have to ask Matt every night at dinner, “So, what stupid thing did the US do today?” I want to think that there might now be people in charge who are trying hard and doing their best, in spite of the inevitable mistakes and missteps that will happen along the way. Maybe the rest of us can finally get back to our small worlds and immediate cares, yo.

I’ve been thinking recently of an image from a favorite haiku: “The hinge of the year.”** Every January, as I pack away holiday décor and cheer, I am struck that in New Mexico the winter season has already turned a corner by the first of January. It is still cold. I still have to scrape the windshield of the car many mornings before I can drive to the pool. If the skiers have their way, there will still be powder on the slopes for several months to come. But the light noticeably changes in January. The daily marker of sunset and sunrise I was using just a few weeks ago to guess the time has to be adjusted almost daily. It seems possible to imagine clearing the garden of leaves and cutting back dead foliage. When I do, I find the first few inches of green, hearty daffodils and hyacinths starting the emerge from the ground.

If there was ever a year we needed visible signs of new life, this is it. While we might have rejoiced to see the end of 2020, 2021 looks—in too many respects—much the same. Some years ago, Matt and I spent New Year’s Eve with my sister Beth and her husband and toddler. At midnight, Beth pulled out a bowl filled with little scraps of paper. On each piece of paper was printed a word: “Love”, “Joy”, “Support”, “Nurture”. We each were asked to draw a word and that word was to be our guiding theme of that year. Or so said Beth. My word was probably “Practice.”

Our word of 2021, I have decided, is Inertia. Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet, used this very word in her poem on January 20th:

…because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation…

Even the kids are talking about inertia. “You know, Amy,” said one insightful high school pianist, “a body in rest stays in rest. What are we doing these days? Nothing.

He has a point. After so many months of hibernation it is difficult to get moving again. And January, even in the best, most hopeful of years, is a contradiction of both good intentions and unpleasant tasks. There are the hours of garden chores to be done this time of year (“I’ll be in the back 40,” I sometimes say to Matt as I head out the door, clippers and gloves in hand.). As a self-employed person, there is a pile of tax-related paperwork to sort and organize, so that I can then help my accountant make sense of the scribbles and numbers. Luckily, after months and months of what I call Covid math, my skills at figuring probabilities are sharper than ever. (If Person A was possibly exposed to a Covid Positive Person B on Tuesday, and I saw A on Thursday from X feet away for Y number of minutes, then I have to quarantine for Z number of days after Thursday or until A has a second negative test.) These kinds of calculations are exhausting. I’d rather lie on the couch. (A body in rest…)

The inertia thing is all too real. Several weeks ago the front page of The New York Times had an article about the pervasiveness of screens in today’s world and it might mean for the physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing of children. It’s a concern, not just for the young, but for all of us. When school and tae-kwon-do and piano lessons and church and livestream concerts and our social lives are all online, it does raise the question: what will the transition back to real life look like? I worry that when we are finally released from our lockdown lives, some of us will be paralyzed with anxiety and unable to leave the comfort and familiarity of our houses, our bedrooms, our little screens. Personally, I find myself wondering if I’ve lost my former high-functioning stamina, if I will ever be able to handle being really busy again, or if any activity requiring me to leave the house after 7pm will seem unreasonable and unattractive. Inertia runs deep.

Last fall I read Deep Work by Cal Newport, a computer scientist and professor who is a sort of genius on productivity life hacks, especially those concerning technology. He isn’t anti-technology, obviously, as he is a computer scientist by profession. However, he is technology-wary and extremely mindful about its place in our lives. He defines “deep work” as those “activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration.” “Deep work” is simply another way of thinking about the concept of “Flow” made popular in the 1990’s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. And while Newport’s bias might be naturally directed toward the long list of accomplishments that can be ticked off and achieved by highly productive and efficient work habits, to be fair, he also gives plenty of acknowledgment to the potential satisfaction and happiness in living and working deeply. “If you instead rouse the motivation to spend that same time actually doing something—even if it’s hard—you’ll likely end the night feeling better,” he writes in his equally thought-provoking book, Digital Minimalism.

Which only serves to reinforce Csikszentmihalyi’s findings about the state of “Flow” thirty years ago. We think we are happiest when we are on vacation or enjoying a leisurely empty weekend, but studies show that people report a higher level of contentment when actively and strenuously engaged in doing something: gardening, practicing the piano, reading, struggling over a crossword puzzle. We fool ourselves to assume that we are happiest on a lazy Sunday afternoon watching Netflix, when our best moments might be at work on a busy Tuesday morning at 10am. Indeed, that ever-tempting notion of “let’s just hang out” might not be our best plan for psychological and emotional well-being.

It’s the hinge of the year. Or maybe the hinge of this pandemic, the light ahead noticeably brighter than it was just a few weeks ago. To once again borrow Gorman’s words:

For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

Time to get back to our tax prep, our garden chores, our practice charts, our real lives. Yo.

*This would be, of course, Hamilton. I’m not the only one thinking of Hamilton these days. Amanda Gorman quoted Lin-Manuel Miranda as well in her inaugural poem when she borrowed the line: “History has its eyes on us.”

**from The Haiku Anthology edited by Cor van den Neuvel:

the hinge of the year
holding up candles in church
lighting up our breaths

            –Nicholas Virgilio

***If you are searching for fun Valentine’s Day weekend entertainment, see here. This will be nothing but fun. Guaranteed.

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