Augh. The doldrums!
I should have strong feelings about Rosh Hashanah, and our family did observe the somber holiday, dutifully spreading our apples and challah with honeycomb and eating the delicious chicken soup that Kevin’s mother had made for us. But after dinner I found myself mindlessly staring at…I don’t even remember what, and after the new day was upon us, I fell into my bed in dreamless slumber, completely undisturbed by the booming honk of the shofar in the streamed, virtual synagogue service that the family watched in the next room.
I awoke to another mindless dinner, and a mindless movie, and somehow when the sun rose yet again, Kevin found me staring at Youtube videos of how to make fancy animal pompoms. I felt inside myself the urge to do everything and yet again and again I do…nothing.
Our planet’s equator lies in what is officially called the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and has, for millennia, been unofficially called the doldrums. It is the place where the northeast and southeast trade winds converge and cancel each other out into a strange, flat, windless calm. Clouds do not move across the sky in the ITCZ but instead quietly form and dissipate as strangely fixed landmarks above our heads. I saw this for myself a year ago when we were in Tanzania, where the movement of this peculiar calmness brings predictable rainy and dry seasons. It’s not that nothing ever happens in the atmospheric doldrums, just that there is an unending sameness to it.
That sameness, that peculiarly becalmed atmosphere was embraced metaphorically long before the climatological impacts were well understood. We may not have experienced equatorial weather and winds firsthand, but anyone who has read The Phantom Tollbooth can immediately recognize the feeling of slipping into the doldrum, where thinking is not allowed and where you can do anything as long as it’s nothing and everything that isn’t anything at all.
Everything, even the most basic parts of “functioning as a human” have been a struggle, not for any good reason. Just because it’s all…too…hard…and…there’s…no…energy. Words flowed freely weeks ago and now each and every word is a fight. I can’t think. I have nothing to say. I haven’t done anything. I haven’t felt anything. It’s just all too hard. I can’t even.
For what feels like a very long time now (but in reality has probably been two weeks), I have just been trying to get to the six-month mark, to have documented what we have lived through for half of one year. I know the pandemic will last longer than that. I know the struggles won’t go away. But I set a goal for myself and as I drew closer and closer, it felt more and more like I was moving through mud, and sludge. I’m slowing down. Thought is replaced with lethargy.
As I questioned what was wrong with myself and why I didn’t seem to want to actually DO, my friend Margaret came to the rescue with an observation she had found on Twitter. There, Dr. Aisha Ahmad gave voice to something we probably knew but just couldn’t access in the doldrums. She noted that it is completely normal and natural to fall into a slump or hit a wall at the 6-month mark. Of course! I knew this from working on my master’s thesis and anyone else who has had a similarly long and challenging assignment has probably felt this too.
She went on to assure us that while we can’t just break through the wall nor is there anywhere in this pandemic we can run away to and escape it, that just like the clouds over the Serengeti, the 6-month slump will dissipate in a few weeks and we will again be able to move forward with creativity, with excitement, with passion again. Until then, be gentle and patient with yourself and know that this one more phase we are moving through. You cannot move from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere without passing through the doldrums, but you can move through the doldrums to other exciting places full of new things to see, do, and feel.
In The Phantom Tollbooth, the secret to moving past the doldrums was to think. Think about anything. Then think some more. Think until your brain gets so curious about all the thoughts it’s thinking that you can’t help yourself from doing. It’s hard at the beginning, and silly, little thoughts about silly, little things are perfectly okay to warm you up. Even the little thoughts will move you forward a little bit and bigger thoughts will come and those will move you forward more.
And that’s why I’m writing my way through the doldrums. I may write some things that are short, or stupid, or even wrong, but every word that slips out of my brain, traces a path across my fingers, bounces along the computer keys and jumps up on to the page brings me one step closer to the other side of the doldrums.
Just as I know it is almost impossible to imagine right now, I know you will make it to the other side too. I look forward to meeting you there.