How to Sit by Jemimah Wei

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For much of the past year, I have been obsessed with sitting. How to do it, for how long, in what permutations. 

Currently, I sit by the corner of the dining table to write. My legs are splayed open at a 90-degree angle, perpendicular to my torso, each foot raised on a separate dining chair. My body a bookend. I sit ugly, I know. But it’s not like anyone can see. 

Exactly one year ago, the pandemic hit, and I was bundled back to Singapore, with half my life still strewn around my 9x11ft room in New York. The messiness was deliberate, an act of defiance. Like, I’ll be gone just a minute. I’ll turn around and come right back. It’s fine if I leave my underwear kicked under the bed, I’ll pick it up when I return, next week. Three months later, I conceded defeat, enlisting a girlfriend’s help to pack everything up and move it into storage. Wow, she said, as her phone camera dragged across the first room I ever had to myself, painstakingly furnished with second-hand furniture unearthed from the armpits of Brooklyn, each piece meticulously cleaned, polished, and painted as I carved a life out for myself, once upon a time. Her face was large and pixelated on the screen. You sure are messy. There’s nowhere to even sit

One of the pettiest grievances I have regarding the pandemic is the forced separation from my chair. A couple of weeks before the pandemic hit, I spent 2 hours dawdling in the Staples on 81st Street. A new chair would cost 3 weeks of grocery money, but it’d be worth it. Good posture was a hallmark of successful adulting. It took me a long time to decide on The Chair. Longer to pull out my purse and actually bring myself to pay. I sat in it less than 20 times, and then, the rest, you know.

My chair, my chair, a kingdom for my chair. 

In quarantine, everything hurts. My muscles are still pretzeled up from the 27-hour flight. I’ve gone from deep winter to aggressive humidity in a day; I’m perpetually sticky, tense, and anxious. The place I’m quarantined at gives me three sitting options: the vinyl floor, a red mini couch, some glass dining chairs. All made for lounging, not working. A different kind of life. But life, regardless, must go on. When I sit to work, my thighs glue to the glass. The screaming suction of protest it makes every time I try to get up makes me feel ashamed. Eventually, I don’t move from the chair at all. I sit cross legged, facing down the blank computer screen, trying to get the words out. 

I buy a cheap chair when I get home. It’s only temporary; I expect to be reunited with my beloved ergonomic one back in New York at any moment. I keep waiting, and waiting. 

I’m sitting down when the news comes. The first wave of grief takes the shape of action, the immediate injection of a supernatural capacity to handle. I call the funeral parlour for updated Covid-safe guidelines, coordinate schedules, deal with the administrative stuff. The second wave manifests in paranoia. This cannot be happening again. And again? Clearly, we have been hexed. Cursed. By the time the third wave comes, I have lost all interest in sitting, I crawl into bed, where it’s purportedly safe. 

My mistake. It was time, regardless, that goes on.

Because I am chronically Type A, inaction, for me, is dread. It only compounds into failure, an arrow’s straight path towards doom. I nudge myself out of bed and into the kitchen chair. Hello, hello. Sorry I’m late. Just a heads up, I might cut in and out today. My internet’s been wonky. The connection’s a bitch.

My mother is worried about me. The way I hunch across my screen, as if protecting it with my body. As if restraining it. Keep sitting like that and you’ll get a dowager’s hump. Dowager: dignified widow, retired queen. Ha. I am not worthy of a dowager’s hump. I have so much further to go, I am so tired. I straighten my back and type the same words, over and over again. 

Ergonomically-driven research becomes a means of escape, of procrastination. I’m not writing because my back hurts. I’m not writing because I can study my way out of hurt. I’m not writing because if I have this piece of information, I can fix my posture; thus, my life. I’m not writing because I cannot bring myself to contemplate what it means to live with so much grief. I’m not writing because I don’t want to make sense of the year. Because I don’t want to confront the answers. What I’m doing: reading yet another white paper on lumbar support.

Did you know? Spinal pressure sits at about 140mm. Slouching increases it to 190mm. Bad posture puts up to 40% more weight on your spine, triggering the deterioration of your vertebrae’s integrity in as little as twenty minutes. The worst possible thing you can do is to sit, slouching, bearing weight. Say, for example, a bowling pin. The total amount of pressure exerted on your spine is insane. It’s the equivalent of, like, 275kilograms. Imagine all of that, compressing your spinal disc. Weighing it down. Making it hard to breathe. It hurts less if you hold the weight closer, but only slightly, only temporarily. The best thing you can do for yourself, really, is to let it go. 

Time, it goes on. 

On the one-year anniversary of all this, I get a real office chair. Finally. It’s cute and red and made of mesh. The height is adjustable, the armrests swivel. There is a complicated hydraulic explanation for the way it offers support. I thought getting it would feel like defeat, like surrendering to circumstance. But it feels good. Here I am, in my chair. I’ve not moved. I am still learning how to sit.

Jemimah Wei is a writer and host based in Singapore and New York. She is a Pushcart nominee and her fiction has received support from Singapore’s National Arts Council. Jemimah was recently named a 2020 Felipe P. De Alba Fellow at Columbia University and is a Francine Ringold Award for New Writers honouree. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nimrod, Smokelong Quarterly, AAWW’s The Margins, Pigeonholes, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazines, and CRAFT Literary, amongst others. Presently a columnist for No Contact Magazine, she is at work on a novel and several television projects. Say hi at @jemmawei on socials.

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