Canceled.

It was Thursday, March 12th. The last day of winter quarter at Savannah College of Art and Design. I was bleary-eyed from lack of sleep but full of adrenaline, racing to finish one last assignment and get it uploaded to an online discussion board before my eleven AM class. A stack of essays marked with my scribbled comments sat beside my backpack, waiting to be shoveled inside.

And then the email came. I saw the white notification pop up on my iPhone screen, and before I read it, I knew. The heaviness that had been hanging in the air for the last several days settled onto my shoulders like a weight.

The message was short and to the point. It said simply:

Courses at all SCAD locations to be offered online only for spring quarter. More information to follow later today.

I just sat there, staring at my phone. Even though I’d been following the news reports about the coronavirus, up until that point it had still felt like something far away. Something I wasn’t quite sure how seriously I should be taking. After all, life in Savannah hadn’t changed that much. Tourists still flocked to the bars on River Street and filled in the old town squares. Celebrations for the week-long booze fest of St. Patrick’s Day had already begun, promising more drunken mayhem the closer we moved toward the holiday. The previous night, my boyfriend and I had met his aunt and uncle for dinner at The Olde Pink House, an upscale, multi-level restaurant in an elegant southern mansion. The mood was festive. Every table was full.

I was sitting in my morning class when the next email came. All in-person classes and public events during SCAD’s spring quarter, including graduation, were going to be canceled. Academic buildings, libraries, gyms, dining facilities, and most residence halls would be closed. Campus was effectively shutting down, effective immediately.

The rest of March 12th passed in a haze. I should have been happy: it was the end of the quarter, and I had made it through. I had made it through the first, grueling, ten weeks of graduate school. Instead, confusion ruled the day. Confusion and mild hysteria. The corridors of Arnold Hall were crammed with students huddled in corners and pushed up against windows, talking on their cell phones in hushed voices. Some students were visibly upset, some were crying. All of them wondering, “What now?”

My first class let out early, so I walked to a nearby cafe, sat at the bar, and ordered two tacos for lunch. Outside, the sky was bright blue, the weather warm. It didn’t feel like a global pandemic was on the horizon. I scrolled through the news on my phone and saw that the U.S. president had issued a travel ban to and from Europe, sending airports into chaos. More travel restrictions were imminent. I texted my friend Vim, in California. I had been planning to fly to Oakland the next day to visit him and his wife Sharon for my spring break. “Everything just got crazy here,” I wrote. “I’m not sure I should travel. I’ll call you later?”

By the time I got home, canceling spring break felt like the only logical thing to do. As I watched via cable news, events in the outside world began to change, and quickly. The San Francisco Bay Area issued a shelter in place order. Los Angeles and New York closed down their bars and restaurants. Meanwhile, in Savannah, my yoga studio stayed open, and tourists continued to take advantage of the city’s open container law, ordering cocktails to go and strolling down Broughton Street with plastic cups in hand. But time pressed on. The news turned darker. And little by little, Savannah started to catch up.

First, on March 19th, the mayor issued a state of emergency, closing public beaches, fitness centers, movie theaters, and all bars that didn’t serve food. Next came the official shelter in place order on March 24th, forcing all restaurants that hadn’t already closed to switch to takeout only, and effectively shutting down all non-essential businesses. Both of those orders were well behind those of the cities hardest hit by the pandemic, but still felt progressive compared to much of the rest of the south.

Savannah House

It has been three weeks since I received that initial email from SCAD. My extended, largely quarantined spring break is over, and my new, virtual, spring quarter has begun. Life looks a lot different than it did three weeks ago, and I’m not sure how to feel about that. My emotions swing wildly from day to day, and from moment to moment. There are worries about my west coast family and the friends I left behind in New York. There is gratitude for my spacious condo, and relief that I’m no longer living in a cramped Manhattan apartment at a time when everyone is shuttered inside. There is the alienation of living somewhere new, far away from most of the people I love, in a part of the country where the prevailing worldview is sharply different from my own. There is the aching for home and for the familiar. There is the claustrophobia of not knowing how long this quarantine will last.

And then there is anger. So much anger that frankly, it catches me by surprise. Some of my anger has been fueled by cable news, by watching elected officials play politics when they should be helping people and saving lives. But the large volume of corona-related content swirling around the internet is what has triggered me the most. Every day, my news feed is a barrage of essays and social media posts telling me about all the things I should be grateful for, all the ways I should be using my time productively, all the “virtual” experiences I should be having. Everywhere you look, there are too many people, with too much time on their hands, trying to spin this pandemic into a positive experience. It’s exhausting. It’s irritating as hell.

That might sound extreme. Negative. Mean-spirited, even. At first, I didn’t want to admit how genuinely ticked off I was by all the people insisting I take a glass is half full approach to this quarantine. But then I realized something: the anger I’m feeling is really grief.

It’s not the kind of grief I’m used to. Not the kind I’ve experienced before. I’m lucky enough to be able to say I don’t know anyone who has died from the coronavirus (and I hope that I never do). But all of this insistence on positive thinking reminds me of the worst, most unhelpful things people said to me after my parents died. Things like “there will be a silver lining to all of this,” and “everything happens for a reason.” For the record, the next time someone tells you “everything happens for a reason,” when something really shitty happens to you, you have my permission to punch them in the face.

There is no “right” way to feel right now. It’s weird and unfamiliar and scary as hell. And the scariest thing about it is the sheer number of questions we don’t have answers to. No one knows how long we’ll have to stay at home, or how many of us will get sick, or how many businesses and individuals will be financially decimated in the process. What will life look like when all of this is finally over? We simply don’t know.

Here’s what I do know: if you’re like most people, you’re probably grieving something right now. It might be something small, like a vacation you had to cancel. It might be something larger, like the loss of your job or your income. Or, you might be one of the millions of people struggling with depression, adrift and alone in this sea of self-isolation.

Whatever it is that you’re feeling, the important thing is not to judge yourself for feeling it. Yes, you can always find someone else who is struggling more, someone who has it worse than you during this time of crisis. But playing the comparison game is not helpful. We’ve all lost something in this pandemic. We’re all grieving something. And admitting the difficulty in that doesn’t make you a bad or a selfish person. It just makes you human.

So, do the things that bring you comfort. If you want to use this time to write the next great American novel, or learn another language, or get into the best shape of your life, go right ahead. But you don’t have to. You could also call a friend. Or go for a walk. Or simply get through the day.

I’ll be right here, getting through the day alongside you.

Until next time, friends.

Savannah Sunset

Lucky.

If you are falling. . . dive.

We’re in a freefall into future.

We don’t know where we’re going.

Things are changing so fast, and always when you’re going through a long tunnel, anxiety comes along.

And all you have to do to transform your hell into a paradise

Is to turn your fall into a voluntary act.

It’s a very interesting shift of perspective and that’s all it is.

Joyful participation in the sorrows and everything changes.

 – Joseph Campbell

You can feel the weather beginning to turn in New York. Even with the bitterly cold wind whipping off the Hudson River, even with a recent snowfall that caused – unnecessary – school closures, you can tell: it won’t be like this much longer. Warmer days are coming.

This winter has been my worst season in recent memory, which is not something I say lightly. I’m in a new apartment, renting a room one subway stop uptown from my former (glorious) Morningside Heights sublet. I feel lucky to have landed here. My room is spacious, the rent is – by Manhattan standards – affordable, and I’m able to go month to month without a long-term commitment. Without a job or the desire to sign a lease, this was my best option and I am grateful to have found it.

Still. Transitions are always difficult, aren’t they? I miss the reliable package delivery and in-building laundry and Black and Decker coffee maker of my old apartment. I miss the corner bodega where the old man behind the counter called me “sweetheart,” and the proximity to Morningside Park, and the fact that it took me half as much time as it does now to walk to the gym.

I’ll adjust. I’ll get used to this new place and find things to love about it that surprise me, just as I did with the old place. But in the middle of this transitional period, in the middle of what is still winter, there are other things going on. Hard things. Like an ongoing health condition that has left me anxious and depressed. I am struggling to accomplish the most basic of tasks, and then I get angry at myself for my lack of productivity. It’s a vicious cycle, one that makes me feel overwhelmed and vulnerable. And New York City is not a place where you want to feel vulnerable.

I’ve been through winters before, ones far worse than this one. And what I’ve learned through weathering those storms is that I have to be patient. Beating myself up or spiraling into negative self-talk about how awful I am doesn’t help me. Instead, I’m focusing on the small steps I am taking forward each day. I’m reminding myself to be grateful.

“No one moves to New York for the weather,” someone told me recently. That’s true. But this particular storm is not New York’s fault. What I can see after a year and a half of living here is that the place is not the problem. This place just exposes my problems. Because New York is a place where it’s impossible to hide.

So, after a too-long hiatus from this blog, I’m not hiding any more. I’m struggling and I’m being honest about it, while also acknowledging the fact that I know I’m luckier than most. I have a roof over my head and access to good doctors and a network of kind, caring friends who have been texting, and calling, and checking in. I have love in my life. And I have the knowledge that I have experienced far worse than this and have come out the other side, which gives me confidence that I will again. Because even the worst winters don’t last forever. And when spring comes, I’ll be here. I’ll be ready.

Until next time, friends.

Montauk.

The sea wants to kiss the golden shore//
The sunlight warms your skin
//
All the beauty that’s been lost before
//
Wants to find us again.*

I woke before my alarm, song lyrics in my head. I heated up a mug of hot water, squeezed a slice of lemon into it, and put my headphones in. From the weathered armchair in the corner of my living room, I watched the sun rise over New York. I watched the clouds turn pink, their color deepening before dispersing, bathing the buildings in gentle light before bidding them goodbye. I watched from my eighth-floor window as a crammed subway train made its way downtown, filled with people going to jobs I didn’t have, leading lives I didn’t live. I watched the day begin, and then, I wrote.

I’m not sure when the shift began. I think it was twelve days earlier, on the way to Montauk, when from outside the window of my eastbound train, from over a bank of snow, I first glimpsed the Atlantic Ocean. And later, on a Long Island beach, when I climbed over more snow to get to sand and stood, watching the waves crash, watching the water recede and return, breathing in cold salt air, that for the first time in a long time, I felt like myself again. There was no grand epiphany, just a quiet voice whispering, “Remember?” And I did. And then I went back inside, to work.

I came to New York to write. And though I’ve been writing every day, I haven’t enjoyed it. The process has been torturous, and slow, and has often felt – to me – without purpose. But as a friend of mine once said, “Sometimes we make the story so big, we can’t tell it.”

When I tell you that writing saved my life, I’m not exaggerating. A few years ago, when I was in the worst part of my depression, when the world felt like it was collapsing around me, writing was the only thing that gave me any relief. I’ve always harbored a secret worry (not so secret any more, I guess) that I feel more than most people. That I feel more than what is normal. So, when real tragedy struck, the emotions were so big they threatened to drown me. That was when I first started experiencing panic attacks. When I couldn’t swallow food without feeling like I was choking. When I struggled to get out of bed.

I should have asked for help. But I didn’t. I wrote. And as I wrote, I learned something. I learned that if I could find a way to articulate my emotions so that other people could feel them too, if I could turn them into real, tangible things in the form of essays or blog posts, if I could get them out of my body and into the world, then they wouldn’t swallow me. Call it sharing my pain in order to survive. I don’t know if it worked, but it sure felt like it did. And it made me feel a hell of a lot less alone.

I don’t write to survive any more, but sometimes I forget that. Sometimes, I’ll be working on an essay or a section of dialogue or a scene in a play, and something will come out that’s intense or unexpected and knock me sideways and I’ll have to stop for a while. And I’m reminded that the thing that brings me the greatest joy can still, occasionally, be dangerous.

When I went out to Montauk, the weather had already begun to turn. By the time I got back to the city, the snow had melted, the streets had cleared, and it was – dare I say – pleasant. I took the subway downtown to look at a theater space, and using Google maps as my navigator, I experienced a feeling that can only be described as relief. There was no headache, no bitter cold. Being outside, walking around, was fun. Were people on the streets actually smiling? In New York?

I guess that’s the thing about winter. The storms can be brutal. But on the other side of them? Beauty. And every so often: moments of pure, unfiltered joy.

Until next time, friends.

*Lyrics from the song “Ordinary Love,” by U2

Her.

It was a Facebook “memory” that alerted me to the fact that I’d missed my grandmother’s death anniversary. I’d missed it by an entire week. I stared at my iPhone screen for a solid minute, wondering why a post from four years ago, in which I thanked friends for attending the opening weekend of a play festival that I co-produced, would trigger such heaviness in me. And then, suddenly, I knew. It was because I had written that post just one week after my grandmother died. The anniversary of her death had come and gone, and I had completely forgotten about it.

When the call came on that Saturday morning, April 13th, I didn’t answer it. There was only one reason that my eighty-six-year-old grandfather would be calling me. Ever since I had visited Grandma in the home for Alzheimer’s patients two months earlier, I had known that her end was near. Her decline was steep and rapid. She had gone from placing daily, mostly-lucid phone calls to me, to being wheelchair bound, her white blond hair tangled and swept off her face with plastic little girl barrettes, her pale blue eyes reflecting no recognition of me, all in the space of a few weeks.

I got into my car and replayed my grandfather’s message. “We’ve lost another one, Sar,” he said, his voice tired, resigned. I called him back, listened as he told me that he’d arrived at her nursing home too late to say goodbye. “I’m sorry,” I said. I told him I loved him, hung up the phone, and went to rehearsal. And I told no one – not one single, solitary person – what had happened. Not for weeks.

Looking back, I suppose the fact that I kept my grandmother’s death a secret from everyone who knew me was not particularly healthy. But at the time, my decision – at least to me – made perfect sense. I was one week out from opening a series of one-act plays, two of which I was acting in, another of which I was directing. I had a full-time job, one that I had only recently returned to after taking a leave when my father died. And it had only been seven months since the death of my mother, who had crawled inside of a vodka bottle (or more accurately, a liquor store’s worth of vodka bottles) on the heels of my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. The space between the deaths of both of my parents had been less than five months, and I was tired. I had taken enough “bereavement” time. I wanted to get back to my life. I wanted to get back to work. And I had a show to open.

But four years later, I can finally admit that there’s another, darker reason why I never allowed myself to grieve my grandmother’s passing; why I don’t mourn her loss the way I’ve mourned the losses of my parents. My grandmother was not a nice person.

That’s what I’ll tell you when I’m feeling kind. What I’ll tell you when I’m feeling brutally honest is that my grandmother was an emotional terrorist. She was a serial abuser, one who reserved her worst brutality for those she claimed to love the most. I can’t count the number of times that, as a little girl, she brought me to tears by telling me something hateful about my parents. And she took immense pleasure in depositing my favorite stuffed animal, a ratty and well-loved St. Bernard I never slept without, into the trash. Her only “apology,” was to tell me I was better off without him, because he was “full of disease.”

As I got older, I got tougher. My grandmother lost the ability to make me cry. I fought back. I called her out. And the bullying stopped. But my mother? She wasn’t so lucky.

I’m glad that I’ll never know the full extent of the hell that my grandmother rained down on my sweet, emotionally sensitive mother. I know enough to know that she destroyed whatever fragile self-confidence she might have had. Even as a little girl, I remember the temper tantrums and smashed dishes, the screaming and shrieking, my grandmother accusing my Mom again and again of being a “horrible mother.” I remember the multiple “interventions,” with Mom and Grandpa raiding Grandma’s stockpile of prescription drugs and flushing them down the toilet, telling her, “Enough.”

And I know that my grandmother, who valued money and prestige above all else, forbade my Mom from pursuing the only thing she ever really dreamed of: becoming a professional tennis player. Mom – ever the dutiful daughter – obeyed, but deferring her dream was an event that changed the trajectory of her life. Even after she married my father and moved to Alaska, finally out from under her mother’s thumb, she never seemed to recover the gumption to go after her heart’s desire again.

As twisted and grotesque as it may sound, in some ways I feel “lucky” to have been born the daughter of a woman raised by an emotional abuser. My mother, never allowed to follow her own dreams, fiercely supported me in the pursuit of mine. Starved for affection by a woman who didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, my Mom showered me with love, making sure I always knew that I was the center of her universe. And spending years watching the person who I loved the most never believe that she was good enough had a profound effect on me, making me determined to live my life in all the ways that she couldn’t.

Part of me will always blame my grandmother for my mother’s death. I have no doubt that her relentless abuse is the reason my Mom sought solace in the bottle in the first place. But I also know that blaming her is too easy, that life – and human beings – are more complicated than that. My grandmother was sick for a long time, longer than any of us ever knew. And my mother had her own mental health issues, which she numbed with alcohol and refused to seek professional help for. Mental illness and addiction run rampant in my family, carrying with them a legacy of dysfunction, a legacy that I am determined not to repeat. Which is why, even though I know that this essay would have horrified my mother, I also knew that I had to write it.

Family is complicated. So is love. And I believe that people are capable of harboring two competing emotions within their bodies at the same time. For example, I can tell you that I loved my grandmother deeply, and yet most of the tears I’ve shed over her death were for myself, because I wished that she were different. I can tell you that as much as I admired my mother, I am terrified of ending up like her. And I can tell you that though I feel guilty about forgetting the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, I also wish that I didn’t have to remember it. I wish that April 13th was just another day on the calendar.

Until next time, friends.

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