• Stephanie Brown

15. During a pandemic

Updated: May 26


Georges Seurat, Le Cirque, 1891


We are now at day 47 of sheltering at home. We're not in quarantine, technically, because none of us are sick or have been sick. But we stay home. We go out to walk the dog and to the grocery store once a week. I have not been farther than a few miles from our house since my husband and I slipped out of the house for a hike the week before the trails closed. We are fortunate in that we have plenty of work to do during our time at home, and we are in good company with each other. We have been doing jigsaw puzzles. And cooking. And then working some more.


What I have not been doing is writing. Part of it is bandwidth. For weeks I have been so distracted by, and focused on, the news, that I have not been able to imagine sitting down to create anything. My mind would simply rush back to the front page of the New York Times to see the latest updated horror. Or I would hear about another family's loss, or an illness.

When I could contemplate telling more of this story, I questioned its utility. Questioning the utility of any academic project is the first step towards paralysis. I wondered: is writing more of this story of a lost painting worth the trouble?


I try to discipline myself not to read most of the academic hysteria that crosses my screen. The earnest battles. The bitter strife. The real frustration and rage. I know, I know. I have seen it and heard it and lived it. Reading about it only brings it back for me, and when I am trying to maintain custom and ceremony in our household, there's no point. But discipline wouldn't be discipline if it didn't fail occasionally, and this morning I read this, about the decline in academic papers submitted by women in the last few months:


...women are more averse to risk and more cautious about how they approach research. Therefore, it seems that whenever they can set aside time to work on their research, that time is largely devoted to completing well-developed work within their comfort zone.


A group of women economists have studied authorship of working papers put out by their colleagues in the field and report that "our preliminary analysis suggests that the productivity of female and, more generally, midcareer research economists has been disproportionately affected by the lockdown measures." Among the healthy and economically stable, who's not working on their research projects? Women. Women aren't working on their research projects.


In the last six weeks, I have: written one guide for shifting to online teaching, designed two virtual conference sessions, revised two syllabi, organized countless Zoom meetings, collaborated with someone I've never met in person to create an online crowd-sourced virtual internship survey, met with current and former students to advise them on career and course decisions, and continued to be present in my online classes six days out of seven. I have, in other words, completed well-developed work within my comfort zone.


While I have been doing that, a separate track in my imagination has been wandering the streets of Paris. I have thought about Max and Rosy Kaganovitch. About Florence Roy. I have thought about Francis Norgelet and Léon Marseille. All of these people inhabit my brain, in their own sort of quarantine. Their shelter in place is one to which I hold the key. I set the duration. So now I am going to try to let them out. I am going to try to find some space to take the risk of opening that door and letting these characters step outside of my comfort zone.


When I sat down to write this, I thought about historical pandemics. My characters were all familiar with illness and sudden death, with economic upheaval and dysfunctional governments. That was their normal. Perhaps they didn't stay home, but that was because they didn't have the same theories about contagion. What they did do was carry on. The painter Seurat, three years older than Louis Roy, died in 1891 after an illness of less than a week. He left behind parents, a thirteen-month-old son, and his mistress, the boy's mother. It may have been tuberculosis, it may have been diptheria. His son died two weeks later; his father, two months later. It was not unusual. It was sad, but not shocking. I could show you dozens of other artists and writers who died too young in waves of sickness that washed across their cities. Or you could check today's paper.


When Seurat died, he had not yet finished his painting of an acrobat balanced atop a prancing white horse. The acrobat has tossed her head back and is balanced by the merest touch of her toes to the horse's back; she is about to spin, the horse to canter, the clowns to cartwheel, all while the onlookers in their fine hats and topcoats sit enraptured in the stands. Life is coming at you fast. Seurat spent his last weeks installing an exhibition of his own work and his friends'. The exhibition opened on March 20, 1891. Nine days later, Seurat was dead. His unfinished painting--The Circus--hangs in the Musée d'Orsay.


We have to proceed as though creativity is worth the trouble, even if it falls outside our comfort zones.

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