BY ELENI SCURLETIS
On March 22nd, I was sitting between my parents on the couch in my childhood home. My dad was dragging his finger down on his phone screen, repeatedly refreshing Bloomberg as he frantically watched stock prices plummet. My mom was scrolling through a Facebook page that displayed videos of ICUs, flooded with patients struck by Covid-19. I stared at the carryon suitcase at the foot of our staircase, sundresses and bikinis splayed out on all sides for my week-long, senior spring break trip that never happened. Instead, it had turned into an indefinite stay at home, as my university closed and my final two months of classes shifted to online learning. This had become our nightly routine, and with each day my sadness felt increasingly debilitating as it merged with the anxiety of an impending new norm of uncertainty.
On the coffee table in front of us sat a 1,000-piece, personalized puzzle of a photo of my grandmother – a gag gift that nobody had touched since it was unwrapped on Christmas. I shook all of the pieces out in front of me, and watched my dad look up from his phone, the disorganized chaos immediately sparking the interest of his mathematical, problem-solving brain. We both kneeled onto the carpet and began arranging piles of similar colors, images, and patterns. Every few minutes, my mom would jump up from the couch and hover over us, giddily reaching her hand down as she located the specific piece my dad and I couldn’t find under the blur of our silent focus and concentration.
Soon, my dad’s work days would be rewarded by time spent on the puzzle. Next, we incorporated a paint-by-numbers canvas into our nightly activities. The more the images formed, the less I felt the crippling feelings of anxiety and fear that weighed so heavily as I tried to process the fragility of a world that had once seemed unassailable. My parents suddenly did not have all the answers. They couldn’t hide the shear panic that enveloped their lives. With every reminder I gave them to turn off their phones or to stop checking the news, I felt like my role in our family had switched with theirs. The mythical land of adulthood I had always imagined myself launching into following graduation began to crumble.
As I started to see that the future I had once pictured was a facade, I was consumed by a suffocating anxiety. A quick remedy to these feelings, for me, tends to come with control, but suddenly, I could not fix the problems that haunted me, and I could not answer the questions that persistently replayed in my mind. I scrambled to find sources of productivity, desperately trying to take refuge in a routine that could somehow grant me the comfort of stability. I was blind to the privilege of the permission slip life was handing me. My family and I were healthy and safe. I had a home to live in. I did not immediately need to enter the job market. For the first time in years, I had nothing but time. However, the stillness that followed the obliteration of my plans filled my mind with terror. The voice in my head was a never-ending reel of what should’ve been, what could’ve been, and what may never be.
Elizabeth Gilbert, the American journalist and author best known for her memoir Eat Pray Love, has often spoken about the power of silencing the mind. She explains how the insatiable “egoic self” never stops talking, complaining, criticizing, and searching for reasons to be unhappy. This chatter is a large cause of suffering. Gilbert explains that, for children, art is often a subconscious source of quiet for the mind. Children naturally gravitate towards creative pursuits – drawing, coloring, painting, imagining – which inadvertently promote stillness and calmness. The arts are a natural and “feel good” source. However, when we enter adolescence, we tend to discover what Gilbert refers to as “fast, hot-wired” ways to feel good, such as sex, substances, and spending money – “if it’s not a martini, it’s a man, if it’s not a man it’s a Mastercard, if it’s not a Mastercard it’s a muffin.” We often indulge in these habits so we don’t have to endure the pain of existing as human beings. For many of us, especially in today’s society, these sources of numbness are workaholism. We seek shortcuts to attempt to return to the place in our lives when we stopped creating art. Art is a slower, gentler, and healthier way to silence the voice of our relentless egoic self. The best part is, there is no hangover – there is no negative consequence. We must rediscover our source of intuitive play, reclaim it, and hold it tightly.
Why does time always need to be for productivity, and not for play? The need for certainty and progression can be paralyzing in today’s circumstances. With my anxiety, I often find myself battling an all-or-nothing mentality. “If I can’t find a job today, I might as well not do anything.” As the pandemic seemed to linger and its indefiniteness loomed, the puzzles were packed up and the paints were put away. My time in my childhood home began to feel like a regression; my accomplishments from the past four years began to feel meaningless. My egoic self encouraged me to pull at the loose threads of my current situation, completely unraveling myself into a state of self-pity, negativity, and helplessness. To put it simply, I felt completely uninspired. I didn’t know how to play, I only knew how to be swallowed by guilt because I could not be productive. I lost the security of the ever-available distractions that surrounded me for four years in college. I went through a sort of withdrawal from the Novocain of my usual quick fixes. I no longer had a source of numbness, and I lost myself in my mind’s chatter.
When I sat down to write this piece – my first time writing since before I graduated – the obvious occurred to me. I love to write, I always have. I was an English major in college. Neurologists have studied that writing, despite its use of words, is a proven way to silence our internal chatter. Writing comes from the creative, intuitive part of the mind – the same one we would use to play as children. This escape, this vacation from unavailing anxiety, is what Gilbert refers to as a “quiet oneness” with everything around you. So, at a time when I was desperate for the solace that comes with the mind’s silence – why had I forgotten to write?
In such a fast-paced society where “time is money,” we forget to authentically play, drawn to the allure of a quick release. We forget the value of a quiet oneness, of the serenity that comes from a peaceful mind. I forgot to write, if not for a job application. I forgot to read, if not for a class. I forgot to walk, if not for a work out. I forgot to play, and I’m still working towards remembering how. I wish there was a quick fix solution I could share to ease this rediscovery, but this process is meant to be slow – and that’s okay. In fact, that’s the whole point. These days there is very little in our immediate control, but we can choose how to use our spare time. I encourage you to pause, if you have the privilege to do so. For an hour or so each day, try to remember what playing once meant to you. We can still find small and beautiful moments of stillness despite the chaos. We can pick up our puzzles and our paints and find what gives our inner child light.