Last year, just as lockdown started, I was on a quest.
I wanted to learn every possible productivity hack to maximize the situation and reclaim my life and time in pursuit of some non-descript objective. Helpful articles and listicles were in great supply, with titles like 10 tips for staying productive during quarantine. I digested them like mana, thinking that the whole episode would be a short jaunt and that I’d be proud of everything I’d accomplished.
Then the weeks turned into months, and time seemed to slow down with the closing of the rest of the country.
Feeling unnerved and languishing with the news of death, racial strife, and turmoil, my reading habits changed. I began choosing articles with headlines like Stop Trying to Be Productive for confirmation that maybe productivity wasn’t the point. For once, I didn’t have to worship at the altar of busyness and productivity—a realization that challenged my nose to the grindstone upbringing. In conversations with others, I discovered they felt the same. When explaining how they stayed occupied, they listed activities like reading, relaxing, watching television, baking, walking, or just catching up with friends and family. What was happening?
A rip in my universe gave me a glimpse into how others were experiencing the pandemic and defining success. Where I saw an occasion to shift my professional life into overdrive, others lived as though they were on an extended, howbeit, cloistered European holiday. I felt like a voyeur—an outsider, undercover— peeking into a separatist movement whose agenda consisted solely of loafing. We were surviving differently.
Reconciling the pandemic as a chance to be productive or to relax in the shadow of so much trauma weighed heavily on me. Both choices felt perverse. Should I be productive? Should I just relax and wait it out? That feels unnatural and awful. If I can’t do much for others, I might as well do something for myself, right? Can I do both? Should I be doing something more meaningful? What are my obligations to others during this and how do I go about fulfilling them?
I felt rudderless.
A couple of months ago, I watched the documentary In Search of Walt Whitman based on the recommendation of a friend. For three hours, I became saturated with the meticulous outline of Whitman’s life—his penchant to regularly change jobs, how he came to write three editions of Leaves of Grass, the Civil War years, and his later years—and the standard interviews with literature professors, historians, and authors. But as I reflected on the film, I found that understanding the context of Whitman’s poetry via his lived experiences helped me to better understand my experience with the pandemic, beginning with his fondness of loafing.
During lockdown, many found their worlds exponentially smaller as they were forced to stay home and survive in their own way. However, I believe Whitman would have praised my friends for their loafing. In an editorial from 1840, he wrote, How I do love a loafer! Of all human beings, none equals your genuine, inbred, unvarying loafer. But why does he love a loafer? The opening lines of his poem Song of Myself shed some light:
I loafe and invite my soul
I lean and loafe at my ease…observing a spear of summer grass.
He noticed something in the act of loafing that I couldn’t. With time to reflect, many came to appreciate the parts of their lives and environments that were formerly unnoticed or taken for granted. I, too, experienced this. Like others, my world shrunk to the size of my neighborhood. But for the first time, I saw more people than ever before—neighbors and visitors alike—mulling around outside, taking long walks, connecting with one another, experiencing nature, and ostensibly searching for something or nothing. It seemed a wholly uncoordinated effort for loafing emerged, and I was there to witness it.
What followed was an inversion of the cloistered meaning of pandemic homelife. A rarified type of personal productivity, wholly unrelated to profit or prestige, took over. People weren’t trying to be productive or active for some objective—it was for the sake of feeling alive. Being active and sharing simple experiences amid death and trauma made people feel like they were alive and surviving, which was, itself, an act of productivity.
With that appreciation, I, too, felt compelled to invite my soul to be at ease and appreciate the world around me without pursuing some objective.
Without any doubt, when Chaos had his acquaintance cut, and the morning stars sang together, and the little rivers danced a cotillion for pure fun—there were loafers somewhere about, enjoying the scene in all their accustomed philosophick quietude.
I think Walt would be proud.
Anthony Clemons is an Appalachian writer whose work has been featured in Harvard Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and other fine outlets. He has an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College. You can find his previous publications and occasional musings at anthonycclemons.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @anthonycclemons.