As of Wednesday this week, a quarter of all kids at state school in New York were absent, for virus or other reasons. In the UK, a week before Christmas, they wouldn’t have been at school in the first place, but across much of the US, winter break doesn’t start until Christmas Eve. Every year this seems ungenerous, but this year it’s unbearable. We struggle in on Wednesday in -3C weather, and that night I have a conniption. That’s it, we’re out. I tell my kids, we’ll stay home tomorrow; the vacation starts now.
It costs me something to say this. Through a combination of kneejerk rule-following and a desire to have the house to myself, we rarely skip school, even when people are sick (not with Covid). Until recently, we didn’t skip anything much. I’ve long subscribed to the theory that it’s better to do things than not do things. I also have to be vigilante against constant lobbying from my kids to take the line of least resistance. “No, we’re going, so stop asking me,” is a phrase played on repeat in my house with varying levels of crossness. “Giving up” is bad. Effortful endeavour is good. “You’ll enjoy it once you get there” – a line used every Thursday night by my mother when I didn’t want to go to Brownies – has surfaced three decades later to be rolled out prior to violin, taekwondo and playdates in the park. Silently, I say it to myself as I shrug on my jacket prior to dinners.
The thing is, I hated Brownies and never did enjoy it when I got there, but it’s too late to rewire now. The desire to opt out, an expression of lassitude in other years, is in any case different this year. “Do you think it’s dementia?” a friend texted this week. Her kid is in one of my kid’s classes and she too pulled them out early, only in her case she got the dates wrong. The ability to plan and retain information has been messed up by the stress of Covid and we’re also physically depleted. “Do you think I should get an MRI?” texted my friend, which made me laugh. She’s a nurse practitioner; I’m a writer. In the immortal words of James Corden to Adele when she asked him what to do with her hair during Carpool Karaoke: “What I like is that you’re coming to me for this advice.” But in these dog days of the pandemic, the anxiety is common: am I tired-tired, or diagnosis-tired?
If I’m tired-tired, I have to push through it. That is what we’ve been taught, and in the face of even the mildest desire to do otherwise all the old superstitions rise up. Conditioning kicks in. What will happen if we don’t do the thing? Pre-Covid, this anxiety was characterised as Fomo (fear of missing out), but it was always more than that. Going out is active and leads to wellbeing and wisdom. Staying in – sitting, watching, reading, thinking – is passive and constitutes giving up. The first is morally superior, while the latter is a gateway to nowhere. The fear, always, has been that given too much downtime some kind of lotus-eater scenario will kick in – doing the thing is great, but have you tried not doing the thing? Oh, man. It’s amazing – and after a few evenings on the sofa we will sink into it forever like quicksand.
I still broadly agree with this characterisation. Mostly, when we force ourselves out, the experience is better than Brownies. Action begets action. Serendipity is hard to pull off in front of the telly at home. And scrolling has introduced a whole new level of irresistible emptiness to what we erroneously call relaxation. But it also strikes me that giving up needs rebranding. There is, sometimes, something to be said for sitting motionless and staring into space. A decisive opt-out needn’t be wholly passive. We are doing this thing at the expense of the other thing and it’s an active choice, not simply inertia.
The night before we skip school, I am pathetically stressed. I read, with relief, that more than 420 of the city’s roughly 65,000 classrooms won’t be open on Thursday because of Covid, so it’s not likely anyone’s going to care. It’s responsible, in a way, to take two vectors of infection out of the classroom two days before the holiday. So much mental effort for a tiny break. That’s it, I’m done. Happy Christmas.