by Abigail Akavia

Social Distancing with Kids, Leipzig 2020

A few thoughts about working from home, about “home”, about writing and about not-writing. About myself, with full realization of the incredible privilege that allows me to write—in normal days and, a fortiori, in days of pandemic.

When the reality of the COVID19 tsunami began to hit us here in northeast Germany, my husband suggested we should pack a suitcase or two and go to Israel, or “go back” to Israel, where we both grew up, where most of our immediate relatives and many of our closest friends live. But where—I repeatedly countered in the anxiety-ridden conversations we had in those faraway times of three weeks ago—we don’t live anymore. We haven’t lived there for over a decade. We don’t have a house or an apartment there, we don’t have a home there. The thought of living in a rented space for the foreseeable future without most of my stuff, without my routines, however blanched-out they are these days, forbidden by law to see my kids’ grandparents and my friends, was panic-inducing to me. I’d rather stay here, where I don’t have to relearn where the coffee mugs are shelved.

It was around the time that videos of quarantined neighbors singing from their windows and balconies starting pouring out of Italy. This was never explicitly said between us, but if I had to explain the terror my husband (and even if to a lesser extent, definitely I, too) felt at staying confined and socially isolated in Germany, I would put it like this: the thought that our neighborhood would start singing—a song we don’t know, in German—and that we would feel a sense of alienation and exclusion, rather than solidarity and belonging. So far, this hasn’t happened (partially, but certainly not only, because the restrictions here are less severe than elsewhere, and people are still allowed to leave their houses to take walks, for example). And who knows, maybe if it does happen, the hipsters of our block will opt for some internationally beloved civil rights movement anthem in which we can join. Either way, like all anxieties, this one too—being cooped up in our apartment, fearing that food will soon run out, surrounded by East-Germans—tells us more about our psyche than about the likelihood of an actual scenario in the world. 

Since then, it’s felt like one schizophrenically lazy Sunday after another around here. Lazy for obvious reasons. Nowhere to go, nothing to hurry to. Certainly no 8:31 train to catch. Schizophrenic, in that self-bashing way that academics and other writers, more or less creative types, spend their time, filled with the constant dread that whatever it is I’m doing now is “not work”, while in fact “I should be working.” At first, social media inundated us with recommendations on how to best use our time at home (bake, do crafts, learn to play the ukulele!); a couple of weeks in, and we are urged from all sides to let go of the false notion of time as an endless font of creative opportunity and realize instead the gaping hole of terror and insecurity that COVID19 ripped through our thin veil of routine comings-and-goings. To most of the world, the terror and insecurity is real and palpable, and you won’t be reading their musings about it. To a person who normally works from home, and works at “writing” (see important disclaimer above*), the line between these two mindsets, “productivity” and “what for?”, is paper-thin anyway. 

Making lunch? Not work. Doing the dishes? Not work. Scrolling down my feed? Definitely not work. Oh look, it’s time to make dinner. On some days, the kids offer a respite from this frenetic and familiar cycle of guilt (I’m not working enough, and I’m not even parenting enough!). It’s cheesy because it’s true: your children are at once the greatest distraction and the most direct call to be in the moment. They will truly teach you to be zen, if you merely relinquish your desire for privacy and most of your intellectual aspirations. Other days, the kids too are hitched to the uncannily self-perpetuating hamster wheel of productivity—required to complete two pages from the math workbook, or to produce five lines of nicely handwritten text (ye gods, is five lines enough?) or perhaps finish that drawing you started? or oh, yes, this is a good idea, how about we use this time to teach you some truly essential life-skills, like putting away your clean and folded laundry?

We do all this, in the name of keeping up with some sense of normalcy, even though we know—at the very least because we’ve read—that nothing is going back to normal. Capitalism is about to crumble. The human race is being forced to reconsider its place in the kingdom of “life” most broadly construed. We don’t have to be Productive anymore! I don’t quite buy it (pun half-intended), even when these arguments are beautifully written. We are still creatures of habits, even when many of our routines have been entirely cut off. Besides, we must save face for the sake of the kids. They are still growing. They do in fact still need to learn subtraction, and how to make themselves a peanut butter sandwich. O My Children, The World Will Not End.

Is this a lie? Perhaps, but it is as white and necessary as the one we tell them about death, for as long as we can pull it off: it only happens to the very very old. And so we take care of the kids, make sure the house is not filthy, and try to work in 30-minute chunks. We distract ourselves with online content, and don’t get enough sleep. 

Despite the unbelievable plethora of artistic output that has been made available online in the past few weeks, I still find myself almost exclusively drawn to the usual culprits, wasting my time (I really should be sleeping, or staring into space, either one would be better) on the same platforms of readily available or streamable content as before. I didn’t tune in to that exclusive living-room concert I signed up to get a secret link for. I haven’t yet watched any of the theater productions Schaubühne Berlin has put on offer, even those with English subtitles. But two special exceptions came up.

The first, and for a long time only, piece of (non-TV) art I consumed online since the isolation started was Hofesh Shechter’s Clowns, a mesmerizing dance beautifully shot for video. (It was made available in full for a few days last week.) I’m finding it very hard to describe, other than using the words mesmerizing and beautiful. I could string some more adjectives together, but, as always with dance, it wouldn’t quite translate the art into graspable concepts for someone who wasn’t there to experience it firsthand. Watching this piece just felt right for me. It felt visceral without being uncomfortable, challenging but not impenetrable, throbbing but not painful. Beautiful but not pretty. I knew its syntax, I could recognize nuances. It felt familiar. And through this familiarity, it reminded me of a truth I already knew: that I would rather be a dancer than anything else. “It’s my biggest regret,” I text a childhood friend. “You hated it growing up. It made you miserable.” Not quite. It physically scarred me for life, yes. I hated my body, definitely. I was miserable—because I could not do it. It was like being fluent in a language, except for a horrible stutter. Belonging, but still feeling ill at ease: Home, as imprinted on my teenage soul. 

The first, and for a long time only, piece of literature I could bring myself to read since the isolation started was Tenants Assembly, Orit Gross’s new book of short stories (in Hebrew, digital copy also available). Orit happens to be a close family friend, and this is not entirely incidental to my choice to read her book: my parents had, on a lucky, recent visit here, brought me a physical copy that they received from Orit. Being able to hold a book that I also very much want to read is a confluence that now feels cosmically rare. The painfully small number of books in Hebrew, my mother-tongue, that I have on hand in my current apartment (the rest have been stowed away in boxes or shelves in cities where I previously lived) make it so that Tenants Assembly is a veritable gem to me, in this moment in particular. On an even more personal level, Orit is not only a writer, but a dancer. Or “a non-professional dancer,” as I was amazed to learn she defines herself, even though she now constantly works with professional dancers and choreographers, and has performed worldwide. She is a central collaborator on GO!, choreographer Galit Liss’s boundary-shattering piece about and with older women who quit dancing in their childhood or teens, and took it up again in old age. Orit is somewhat of a hero for me, proving that a return to (“professional”) dance is indeed possible. One of the characters in Tenants Assembly is an older-than-middle-age woman, who carries the burden of disappointment of a past dancer, or no-longer dancer, or never-really-was-a-dancer. She longs to be seen again as a “ballerina,” to have her body recognized as graceful, sensual, vital, powerful. 

Gross’s book is set in a typical Israeli apartment building (I felt immediately at home). Each story, or chapter, focuses on a different apartment and the tenant(s) it houses. There is some overlap between them, when characters cross over their chapters’ threshold and meet in the elevator, or the parking garage, or at a neighbor’s doorstep. The book offers a mosaic of private moments, glimpses of horror and tenderness, and the shared space that contains such secrets. The author gently invites us to lend an ear to these secrets, pulling us in to the apartments through the peephole. We see the inside of people’s lives and the walls they build around them to keep strangers away, even the strangers that are close enough to eavesdrop through those very walls. An exploration, brimming with empathy, of dysfunctional homes and broken hearts, of the urge to connect with another human, and the no less forceful repulsion we feel towards our neighbor. A meditation on “home”—four walls, a few windows, no balcony or back yard—the space we ineluctably share with others, either from within or, at its borders and boundaries, from without, even when we think we have shut everyone else out. What better reading for our times of forced isolation.