The Labor of Leisure

by Laura Lee

 I am going to get so ripped. This was my first thought after I finally came to terms with the reality of COVID-19. After the loss of my job, my paycheck and my social circle; after the realization that what was happening was not going to go away, I decided not to waste a second of this unexpected “leisure” time. So, I was going to get ripped. I was going to run six miles a day instead of three. I was going to read the collected works of Henry Miller, Jane Austen, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was going to power wash the house. I was going to train for a marathon. I was going to knit a sweater and master the art of French cooking. I was going to finally put those short story ideas to paper and brush up on my Spanish. I was going to be structured. Productive. Efficient.

What I actually did was tumble down endless TikTok holes, where 40 something year old Mom’s drank wine before 11 a.m and countless cats clung to curtains. I played Call of Duty for days on end, re-watched old TV shows for the millionth time (really? Sex and the City again???) and mindlessly binged on bad 90’s movies. I knitted one panel of a cardigan before shoving the remaining yarn in the closet, read about half of Tropic of Cancer, and swapped the collected works of Dostoevsky for the collected works of Lianne Moriarty. Instead of mastering the art of French cooking, I mastered the art of ordering Chipotle. My kettlebells sat in the corner of my living room, gathering dust and after a broken toe, my daily running mileage went from three to zero. 

With the exception of the last semester of my senior year as an undergrad, I have worked a full-time job since I was seventeen years old. That’s over a decade of my life where I had a function, a purpose. I never loved my job, which was one of the many reasons that I decided to further pursue my education, but it made me feel productive. More importantly, it kept me connected to the world.

I never realized what a cumulative effect downtime has. Every night I would think to myself tomorrow will be different, tomorrow I’ll get up and do something. But the next morning would come and I would wake up groggy from too much sleep. I would walk past my weights, past the unopened books that were piled in the corner and make my way to the couch. I would sit down, feeling the familiar sag of the cushion beneath me, plans for the day ahead already forgotten. By the time evening came, I would think another day wasted. 

This sense of ennui began to dictate my every move. It clung to my back like a living thing. Was I really the same person who was going to train for a marathon and learn how to cook?  I could barely get out of bed in the morning. Each day was endless, unchanging. I would think of a line to one of my favorite songs, Amy Hit the Atmosphere:

 “There has to be a change I’m sure/Today was just a day fading into another/And that can’t be what a life is for.” 

I would tell myself that it could be worse, remind myself of how lucky I was. I had a partner who still had their job, I had a roof over my head and food in the pantry. But using the tragedy of others to invalidate my sense of loss only made me feel more alone, less worthy, as if my feelings were a mere frivolity. So the days dragged on and I could feel my world getting smaller and smaller. I knew things would change, that my first semester as a Women’s History MA student at Sarah Lawrence College would challenge me in the ways that I needed, but it all just seemed so far away.


With the commencement of the fall semester, I am beginning to feel purposeful again. Over the past few weeks, I have begun to dig myself out of the hole I had grown far too comfortable in. I put away my PS3 and began to explore the readings in my book lists for class. The work, the community and the commitments are helping to rebuild what I lost. The structure offers a type of comfort I not only missed, but need to survive. I think of how I was this spring, and it frightens me that I became unmoored so easily. There were days when I felt that my sense of self was hanging only by the most tenuous of threads. My grip has once again begun to tighten, but the memory of how easily that can change will never leave me. I doubt I will ever finish my sweater (or give up Chipotle for that matter) but it feels good to run again. More than that, it feels good to be productive again, to be connected to others in a shared goal. That feeling of community gives me hope for the future, and that it something too precious to ever lose again.

Laura Lee (she/her) is a first year Women’s History MA candidate.  Her thesis work will be an exploration of the representation of child-free women throughout history and popular culture.  She loves pugs, travel, theater, sub-zero temperatures and any activity that involves jumping off a cliff.

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