On pressing pause

Zinnia Naqvi, May 2020

It seems silly to continue to write to you about making when you have just been forced to stop making. To stop is sometimes even harder then it is to start. Especially when you have just started to get that ball rolling, to find your momentum. Now all of a sudden everything has been ground to a halt.

This is a feeling I have become familiar with.

Last year at about this time, I had been working extremely hard on producing two exhibitions for Contact Photo Festival. One was a new public project, and the process of working on this project was the most difficult circumstances I had faced before. I had gotten into a conflict with one of the organizers from the onset, and this had really shaken me. I had been extremely stressed for months, not sleeping well, constantly going over details in my head. Finally just when I had finished all the work and was getting excited to celebrate it, I became very ill. A week before the shows were about to open, I was hospitalized for severe pneumonia and flu.

As I sit here now and smell the spring air wafting through my window, I remember the same smell coming in at this time, when I was sick. The illness took hold from out of the blue. I didn’t have any previous health conditions and had never been this sick before. The doctors didn’t understand how someone my age, in good health, could become so sick so fast.

When I was in ER getting an X-Ray, the technician said to me:

“Oh you are very sick!”

I said yes. I guess I was. I was mostly drowsy from the morphine they gave me so I wasn’t sure.

“How did you get so sick?”

I don’t know.

“Hmm. Are you stressed?”

Not really. I said, thinking that I had been stressed for the past few months, but at that time I was actually starting to feel more calm.

“Stress can do crazy things to the body. It can totally change you.”

The technician told me about his own experience of becoming suddenly ill and spending three weeks in hospital at a stressful time in his own life. No other medical professional has ever said anything like that to me. The links between the states of the body and mind are very hard to quantify with science. But I often think about the story that this technician told me and I am so grateful that he did.

For the next few months I felt like a shell. My lungs were very weak from the infection and that made me tired all the time. I was also angry that my celebratory moment had been taken away from me. I worked really hard to be able to get to a certain place with my work, and I felt like I deserved to enjoy it. I also felt like I couldn’t trust my body anymore. How could it fail me so suddenly like this, with no warning? How could I know if it might happen again?

But maybe there were warning signs and I just didn’t notice or listen.

We live in a world in which we are constantly expected to produce, innovate, re-invent ourselves. That is the only time we are given the kind of validation that we are supposed to want — exhibitions, awards, residencies, opportunities. No one gives you special recognition for slowing down and listening to your body, or having healthy work-life boundaries. We are supposed to figure that part out while also pushing ourselves to our limits.

After this happened I kept thinking about all of the artists I know who are constantly traveling between exhibition openings, residencies, teaching positions, film shoots all over the world. How was I supposed to have a career like that if my body was just going to crap out on me without notice? I was confused and I was tired.

Eventually after a few months, I did regain my strength. I thought I had learned a big lesson, about recovery, slowing down, and saying no to things. But maybe I moved on too fast. I planned another very busy fall for myself. I was traveling out of the city almost every weekend for multiple projects. I felt strong again and ready, but I think that my body didn’t agree.

I was supposed to graduate from my MFA at Concordia in January 2020, but on January 1st I broke my ankle.This injury was an accident from going on GT Snow Racer on New Year’s Eve, so at least it was a funny story. But it was more painful than getting sick. This time, I had to spend a few months also doing a lot of ‘social distancing’. I had to make the hard decision to postpone my thesis show from January to May.

During that time, I pivoted my focus. I held a lot of skype studio visits with people whose opinions I wanted, or who I just wanted to get to know. I focused on refining my writing. I also watched a lot of Gilmore Girls. I cried a lot. I leaned on my friends and my partner and my cat. I was grateful to have a nice apartment to hole up in. It was hard being alone all day. I rode waves of being sad, content, angry, and happy. I was very deficient in Vitamin D. I had to start taking supplements, and also asking friends to come over to just “take me for a walk” so I could go outside and stand on the corner in the sun.

It’s been a hard winter, and right as it seemed I was starting to get out of it, we have been hit with this unprecedented international pandemic. And I am back at it again. Although to be very honest, I was generally feeling calmer about this one then I was about having pneumonia or breaking my ankle. Maybe this is just me being selfish. We are on Day 11 of isolation. A week after the doctor told me I could start walking on my ankle, they decided to shut down the schools.

I don’t think I have cried since this has started, but I listen to the radio and I am feeling very scared. I think a lot about my experience of being in the hospital last year. I mostly think

about how I don’t ever want to be in that position again. I am also sad for my friends, who have lost jobs, and my students who are being forced to navigate this thing that no adult has lived through before. Usually we try to look to our elders in these times of crisis, but this has really never happened before in a comparable way.

But I think something that I have learnt from this difficult year is that the best way to keep my body healthy is to try to keep my mind healthy. Stress can make you feel sick when you aren’t and it can also make you get sick very easily. Trying to find the calm in all this is a lot easier now that I am not going through it alone. Perhaps this is one thing that we can find solace in — that we are going through it all together.

My thesis show that was set for May 2020 will most likely be cancelled. I will have to present 3 years of MFA work to a jury over Zoom. I am sad about it, but also slightly relieved. I would have loved to have that moment to celebrate with friends, family and peers. It really would have been the cherry on top of a very pivotal experience in my life. I learned, grew, absorbed, read, thought, and expressed so much. It’s sad to think that all of that will now be reduced to a video call. But I have realized that these moments are never really the picture-perfect moments that you envision them to be, nor are they the most prominent memories that you keep afterwards.

After this is over, I don’t have any plans. I have no idea what I will be doing this summer. I won’t have a job and I imagine it will be a hard time to find one. But all I can think about is how happy I will be to walk to my favourite ice-cream shop and get soft serve, and sit in parks, and see my family and my friends again. I have no idea what the future will hold after this. Even though the prospect is a scary one, I just can’t help but feel that it will be a slower, kinder one. Maybe I am being naïve, but I think it will be some time before we all forget about the feelings that have come up in our time isolation.

The experience of being sick has also taught me that everything can be rescheduled. Things that seem urgent can be put on pause. If you really need to stop, you can. And if you really need people, and ask, they will show up for you. It is extremely empowering to realize that you are not in this alone. It will take time to figure out how to heal from this trauma. But we are all bonded by this experience. We must be kind to each other going forward.