Essay by

Taking A Pause in Response to a COVID-19 World

Essay by

“What is easy is sustainable. Birds coast when they can.”
― adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy

 

It started on 9 March. In the course of a few days, jobs were postponed or cancelled; schools were shut down; a text message informed me stores were out of toilet paper, eggs, and milk; and in the middle of all this I was following hourly updates on my phone because my internet went out. It’s not business as usual in the academy or the theatre, so let’s respond accordingly.

It can be argued that people who become professors are overachievers; we are trained to go the extra mile. In the days following a slew of closures, devastating cancellations, and unprecedented demands on faculty, many have risen to the task. There are resource lists and idea exchanges; some creative college students are even doing a quarantine bakeoff. While all this is commendable, it is also important to create space to grieve and breathe. Many in the lower ranks of faculty and our students are in economically perilous situations, and these same people may be caretakers to children, parents, or both.

Kaja Dunn holding one of her sons

Balancing work with the need to slow down and acknowledge change. Author comforting one of her sons.

As our country watched the news roll in of increasing COVID-19 cases, cancelled or postponed shows and contracts, school closures, and supply shortages, we were also inundated with requests from our universities, our grant funders, our children’s schools, and other places. In these first weeks, the push has been to continue business as usual.

Many of us haven’t had time to stop and feel; we’ve been pushing the emotions down to triage tasks that have to be completed: trying to keep up with instructions about switching to remote learning for our children and creating lesson plans for our students, stocking medications for older relatives, making sure we have supplies after weeks of being told to go about our daily lives. In addition, many of us are losing jobs and watching the economy crash. And, when we do have a moment to feel and express our feelings, they get can get policed on social media and by others. I have had several conversations in the past couple weeks where someone begins to express their grief or disappointment and follows it with, “I know people are dying and this isn’t a big deal.” But grief isn’t a competition, and two things can be true simultaneously. Yes, there are larger problems, but also losing a creative opportunity, postponing a wedding, losing a job, losing childcare, and the many other loses suck, and so many of us are feeling it all.

It’s not business as usual in the academy or the theatre, so let’s respond accordingly.

Last year my campus was subject to a school shooting; students, colleagues, and I were celebrating at an end of year party a few hundred feet away. A couple days later we were back at meetings, making plans, sharing the slogan “Charlotte Strong,” and carrying on. Only we weren’t all carrying on. Some of us were making mistakes and becoming forgetful. I was convinced I had the flu and went to my doctor about sore throats and a headache. She said it was trauma and I had to (slowly) learn to give myself permission to rest, and to feel. I believe that’s what we need to give ourselves in this moment.

Many cultures allow time for grief and processing. Many religions include a sabbath period weekly and a time for mourning after death. These practices not only give us a minute to breathe, but allow us to have connection with our community and loved ones. This break in the normal, the acknowledgement of loss, can allow time to heal, and also gives us a moment to reflect on what might be good going forward.

We live in a world where we now receive information and even work 24/7, so even when we try to disconnect for worship, rest, or family we can receive emails or even texts on personal devices. What if we had a national moment of grief, of trauma, acknowledging the devastating loss for artists and theatres, both established and emerging: the massive hours of work that will go unrecognized, debuts that won’t happen, and economic security that is now impossible? What if we allowed for a collective one-day breath to comfort our children and other loved ones, and, now that we know we are looking at months and not weeks of change, figure out what we will do and process our feelings?

This break in the normal, the acknowledgement of loss, can allow time to heal, and also gives us a moment to reflect on what might be good going forward.

I love the resourcefulness and can-do attitude I see: the readings being streamed and virtual play festivals popping up, the impulse to take heartbreak and create or be productive—sometimes driven by the very real need to salvage budgets. But I worry that we have forgotten how to pause and take stock of our situation. That the drive to continue with minimal interruption and maintain operations may actually cost us down the line. What if we also took this moment to teach our students about grace, compassion, flexibility, and priorities? There are examples around the country. Many institutions are switching their grading to satisfactory/unsatisfactory. Professors are reminding us of the hardships students will face while converting their own courses online and writing guides to help others do the same. Students are being offered flexible deadlines, notes, low technology, and asynchronous options. Struggling theatres are also raising money for organizations in need. Many parents are wondering how they will work without the availability of school and daycare and are finding solace in online groups; homeschool moms (it’s mostly moms) are offering some advice to parents thrown into distance learning at a moment’s notice.

Some people may seem like they’re overreacting to panic, but let’s remember that their response could be because they have an undisclosed condition that puts them in a high-risk group or may be due to them having limited ability to stock up at a moment’s notice. Let’s remember that being prepared—and being available for hourly email updates—is also a mark of privilege, as are the financial resources to have bought two weeks of groceries before the panic started, and the time free from small children or elderly relatives to be productive at home.

We can use that privilege as so many already have to pull together, provide toilet paper to a single mother or elderly neighbor, share websites and resources with those who may not have them, encourage other artists and theatres doing “virtual pass the hats”—pooling resources and partnering with non-profits—and most of all simplify what we are asking from each other and ourselves. There will be a time to ramp up and create and produce theatre again, but what if we catch our collective breath and take a quick time out first?

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Hi Kaja,

Thank you for sharing. This really resonated with me. I have been thinking a lot about the following quote from Thomas Merton in regards to self-care and taking the collective pause you mentioned for myself but also to serve others better. Of course, as you mentioned, those with more privilege have the opportunity to "pause more" while others who are designated care-takers continue onwards. I'm curious: what ways have you found to create the moments of pause for yourself in these days of COVID-19? 

Thank you again for sharing and for these reminders. 

Best,

Claire

"There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."-Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Hi Claire,

Thank you for your question. Maintaining connection, through texts and a couple late night zoom group chats has been vital. I thrive in community. During this time, I have had to work to overide anxiety by acknowledging what I CAN do, and setting hard limits for what I can't. It means supporting other parents, helping with a church food drive with a contribution, connecting people to resources, participating in art that is meaningful ect.  I have said no to opportunities because I have to balance work and children and my own well being. I have reached out to teachers and administrators and spoken about what manageable looks like for our family. Somedays success looks like getting up and getting everyone through the day, some days it's really wonderful work, and somedays it's learning to let myself rest and being honest with others (including the small humans I love) about it. 

Warmest, Kaja