These are first-person-plural times. What I did today is the same thing, I hope, that you did: we stayed at home. We watered the plants, pet the dog, antagonized the cat, sprayed down our groceries as best we could, half-assed our way through a yoga video, took a nap, read too much news, cooked dinner, looked at social media, watched a movie, tried to distinguish chest-tightening symptomatic of anxiety from chest-tightening symptomatic of something worse. We’re all in this thing together, and our chances of success are directly proportional to the degree that we act like it. “I am he as you are he as you are me,” as John Lennon said. “E pluribus unum,” as the penny reminds us. “We Are One (Ole Ola),” as Pitbull featuring Jennifer Lopez and Claudia Leitte so aptly put it during the 2014 World Cup.
So excuse me as I slip into something a little more comfortable: the first-person singular, I, me, mine (that’s George Harrison for you). I’ve been at home for nearly two weeks, suspended in the deep burrowing state familiar to writers on deadline. But I do have to leave the house every so often, to walk the dog and buy food. And what did I see this past weekend when—sporting a hideous pair of purple nitrile gloves, like a color-blind Fosse dancer or a homicidal mime—I fearfully opened the door to take to the streets of Brooklyn? I saw people. People of all kinds, but far, far too many people who are just like me: healthy-looking millennials who are doing what in a normal time would be healthy-looking activities, such as jogging, biking, and crowding the farmers’ market. People were out and about. They were strolling. They were milling. Some, if you can believe it, were picnicking. And it is my belief that, though many were maintaining the requisite six-foot distance, too many were not. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who visited the city on Saturday, noticed the same thing, and called on the Mayor to thin out the crowds, while lambasting the young for their carelessness in the manner of a dad who has had it up to here. “Young people aren’t invincible,” he said. And it’s true. We’re not.
I get it. It’s hard to be inside when spring is springing, but it’s necessary—hell, it’s a matter of life and death. At a time like this, it helps to have trained at a sedentary, solitary, indoor profession, because that’s what’s required: training. You can’t do ten sit-ups and expect to look like you’ve spent months at Muscle Beach, and the same is true for the art of sitting still. I suggest that, in addition to doing calisthenics and learning a new language and writing a novel and anything else you might be doing under these strange, disturbing circumstances, this is a time to cultivate the art of Sitzfleisch. Literally “sitting meat,” this excellent German term indicates both the material that one sits with—the tush, the booty, the rump, whatever—and the ability to remain seated upon it for periods of great duration.
Some people are natural sitters. They take to meditation like a fish to water. Me, not so much. I’m more like Grace Paley, whose father warned her, “You will never write because you have no Sitzfleisch.” (Fortunately, he was wrong. But, unfortunately, he was also right, because she was antsy to be out in the world and didn’t write as much as she should have.) While working, I like to get up, bounce around, do a stretch, have a putter, make up a little dance, clip my toenails. I like distraction so much that, a few years ago, I made a short list of guidelines to follow for a necessarily imperfect Sitzfleisch session, which I offer to you here as mere suggestion and inspiration, amended for coronavirus times.
You may walk to the window.
You may drink tea, as many cups as you like. (Caffeine-free, otherwise your sitting will be shot.)
You may eat a piece of chocolate. (Have the whole bar. Hell, have two.)
You may sit dreamily on the toilet. (A great place to work on your Sitzfleisch.)
You may put on and take off socks.
You may dust relevant working surfaces
but not so that you get distracted by cleaning. (I am part of the class of writers who love to clean to procrastinate, because it gives us the illusion of doing something necessary and productive. In this climate, I encourage breaking your sit to clean any and everything.)
You may heat up soup.
may not definitely should cook an ambitious meal.
You may not check Twitter.
Stay strong, and sit long.
PAGINA 100 POPAYAN COLOMBIA
Photo: Yale Joel / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty
By: Alexandra Schwartz has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2016.