This post had an incredibly hard time birthing itself into the world. I made repeated attempts to translate into binary form a host of feelings and musings and revelations that have come from this pandemic period, but nothing quite captured the gist. This post still doesn’t capture it, but I tried.
I remember the last time I tried to encapsulate this range of emotions – when I’d just been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. There are so many synchronicities between the pandemic and cancer and I say that without a hint of irony. There was the beginning of the pandemic – that period in March and April – when we were just starting to emerge into our new reality…the feeling of waking up every morning and saying “oh shit, this is real”. The isolation from family and friends. The confusion and depression. And the elephant in the room, the ever looming possibility that we – or our loved ones – could die from this disease. The possibility that if you scratched your nose the wrong way, comingled with the wrong people, or rode the elevator after someone who might have breathed out tainted droplets, you could have made an irreversible mistake.
But here’s the good news – and this comes from someone who knows a little about challenges where death is a conceivable outcome – there is always a silver lining.
I say this with a well-read nod to the slew of recent articles, such as this one and this one and this one, that have emerged on the topic of “toxic positivity”. It’s okay to not be okay they all report. Own your baggage. And I agree. It’s important to feel our feelings, not to buckle under the pressure of showing a shiny happy face to the outside world. But I also feel that it’s my duty to report that when life gets torn down to the studs, the rebuilding can often produce a better, stronger, more reliable house. We may be too lost in the weeds of our current situation to fully appreciate our opportunities for personal (and cultural) growth, but they are there.
I wish I could have taken a dose of my own medicine in the spring of 2020. Early quarantine nearly broke me. In an ideal world (a world very much unlike the current state, hi, yes, clearly) I would have been able to extract myself from my depression with a gentle reminder that “this too shall pass” or “may I live like the lotus, at ease in muddy water” or even “raise your damn vibration girl, you’re better than this”. But that’s the thing about depression – often you don’t know that you’re depressed until you’re waist deep in the sludge without your gaiters on, grasping for mercy while you sink.
Heading into 2020, I really felt that it was going to be my year for new beginnings. I’d shown up at my therapist’s office in November babbling about numerology and the number 20 being my “new start” number. “Everything starts with 20” I told her as I started listing events that would support my nebulous claim. I went into labor on the 20th, I tried to put my dog down on the 20th, the podcaster I’d listened to in a dreamlike state the night before had undergone a profound spiritual awakening on November 20th…. “I’m telling you, next year is going to be a big year of change for me. I can feel it. It’s going to be huge.” If she didn’t get the point, which her wide eyes and frozen face suggested she hadn’t, I hammered the point home. “2020, two twenties.”
Whether I believed in my convoluted numerology story or not, I felt it in my bones, in my viscera, that 2020 would bring mountains of positive change.
I felt that I’d earned it.
I’d slogged through the last 5 years, beating my way through thick and unruly brambles with a machete in hand. Doing my darn best to just survive. Cancer metastases. The loss of my dog with whom I shared an almost spiritual connection. A sexual assault and ensuing two-year court battle. Some pretty tough personal issues on the home front. There were days when I didn’t feel that I could handle the deep and omnipresent darkness. And to keep the skeletons partially hidden, I’ll admit to this alone: in the summer of 2018, I questioned whether I’d had enough. Like really enough. Read between the lines.
I was jacked up on pills, dosing myself on the regular with antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. Dosages that kept me so fogged up that I once got lost in my own neighborhood. I was two blocks away from my destination – a ten-minute walk from home – when I looked up at the street signs and had no idea where I was. A street that I’d walked down hundreds of times. Google Maps finally set me straight.
It took several years of intensive therapy, using both traditional and what I will call *highly untraditional* methods, the subject of another post (or posts) (or book) to pull me out of this mess. But I did it. Emerged back into the land of the living with a re-invigorated appetite and enough energy to consistently put dinner on the table that didn’t come from a can. The darkness was in the rearview mirror and I hoped (prayed, not that I’ve ever been the praying type) that I would never have to experience that level of depression again.
Most important, I was able to reconnect with my creative side. I spent the fall of 2019 applying to graduate school for creative writing, crafting a 25-page writing sample based on my experience healing from trauma. I doubted my abilities and felt demoralized at times, but I kept at it, honing and honing my sample, sending it out for feedback, sourcing recommendations, and then shakily hitting ‘submit’.
In mid-March, 2020, I found out that I’d been admitted to Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, and The New School, the latter offering a nearly full-ride Presidential Scholarship. My mind was BLOWN. I’d doubted my skills and had nearly talked myself out of applying. I was the girl who’d flunked the one and only English class that I ever took in college. First semester, freshman year. Side note – never rely on the CliffsNotes to write a paper. Revised side note – use the CliffsNotes, haul yourself to the Dean’s office, promise to NEVER EVER EVER pull a stunt like that again, even if you’re getting your ass kicked by smartie pants undergrads who bleed Faulkner and quote Nabokov, and then earn yourself a mountain of As in penance. For yourself, but also for your Dean because Deans are fucking scary.
I planned to spend much of the spring and summer reading, writing, and preparing myself for the fall semester. I wanted to start graduate school with a deep reservoir of writing so that I could focus on revising and editing, rather than building a portfolio of work from scratch. I mapped out the months ahead, made sure that I’d have an after-school sitter helping out at home, signed the kids up for overnight camp.
And then boom. Covid hit. The week after I heavy-breathed my way through a conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson who’d called with news of my Columbia acceptance.
High-lows, and so it goes.
We all have our stories of what we were doing and planning before the virus changed our world. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that none of us were immune from the impacts of this pandemic. And dear lord almighty, my situation hardly compares to the hardships that others have faced this year. Raging wildfire, job loss, racial discrimination, death piled upon death.
However, I did want to illustrate my story to give some credence to my feelings of stuck-edness so that the punch line – and I’ll get to it shortly – will make more sense.
With New York city quickly becoming the epicenter for the pandemic, I packed up the kids, the dog, and enough belongings to fill a car, and headed north. Up to Niagara Falls, across the border and into Canada, all the way to our family farm in rural Ontario. Rodney stayed behind to manage his companies through a mess of layoffs and revenue loss that was only just beginning to unfold.
Early into our Canadian quarantine, I posted a picture to my personal Instagram account. In it, I’m bundled in wooly layers and muddy jeans, standing outside of the feed barn, holding a bucket of chicken pellets. I’m smiling but I’m not. “New job”, it captions. “Barn manager. Next role, hairdresser? Add that to elementary school teacher, cook, medic, laundress, CNN news watcher.”
As big a 180 as I could have swung from my anticipated direction this spring. And I had a crushing suspicion that graduate school would have to be deferred. (spoiler alert, my plans were spoiled.)
Always a champion of women’s rights and equality, I found myself solely responsible for cooking, cleaning, managing the kids’ schooling and taking care of an actual henhouse. It was like I’d stepped onto a 1950s rocket ship and had blasted back in time to an age where gender parity was as foreign to the collective conscious as the surface of the moon.
In June 2020, The New York Times reported that the effects of the pandemic on working mothers “will last far beyond this period of crisis…..that a generation of working women will experience setbacks that may have lifelong consequences for their earning potential and career opportunities.”
I was pissed. I know that so many of us were pissed (shocked/saddened/terrified/[insert adjective]) at the beginning of the pandemic, but I really do have to acknowledge that I was PISSED.
I was also heartbroken, especially as time went on. Black bodies murdered, the ensuing race riots, endless stories of families losing loved ones, contacts and colleagues getting outed on social media for racist behavior. I’ll take this moment to remind anyone who might have forgotten that in June, our food industry – an industry influenced in so many (often wonderful, beautiful) ways by Condé Nast and Bon Appétit magazine – was ravaged by tales of racially-based pay inequities, blackface, and other shameful behavior.
I wasn’t just angry and sad, I was really struggling. I was trying to speak up online, both on my own Instagram account and in the comments on other publicly-facing profiles, but the anonymous nature of vast swaths of the Internet lends itself to too much vitriol. Too much toxicity. And at a certain point, you have to ask yourself – is this fighting and word-tussling with strangers the best way forward?
So yes, I was depressed. Again. The kind of depression where you don’t know how far you’ve fallen until your kid walks into the bathroom and asks why the words “I hate you” are written on the steamed-up shower glass.
I’ve since come to terms with the fact that I’m an empath, and for those of you who recognize that term, you’ll know how highly sensitive we are. We absorb others’ energy, especially the negative kind, and layer it alongside our own traumas, deep, deep within, to the level of cellular structure. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk says in his groundbreaking book of the same name, “the body keeps the score”.
In late June, we drove home from Canada, back to our New Jersey lake house where we’d stay for the rest of the summer. As I drove, across Niagara Falls, past the jerk border agent who grilled us about the kids’ snacks (no sir, I’m pretty sure there aren’t fruit and vegetables in those pretzels sir), I began to think….what if….what if I just shut it down? The outside. The news, social media, all of the chaos.
What if I just went really, really, really quiet…..and listened.
What would I hear?
I posted a heads up on Instagram that I’d be taking the summer off because I felt motivated to “do better”. I wanted to understand – and even possibly befriend – the source of my anger. To learn about how I can be a better activist, a better human. How I can learn from this pandemic period rather than trying to resist it.
I wanted to spend the summer focusing on the people in front of my face, three small humans who needed my dedicated presence more than ever.
At the lake, I replaced the hours that I typically spent reading the news and engaging with social media with daily meditation, journaling and self-work. I spent time with the kids, blissfully unencumbered by the desire to photograph their every move. I made good but ugly food – baked oatmeal without the usual mound of perfectly-sliced garnishes, eggs with messy yolks, pasta without the microgreens. Essentially, I just chilled the EFF out. Removed every single stressor, every single obligation. I passed on all of the new work opportunities that came through. The only job that I gave myself was to keep us – me and my kids – safe and nourished.
As a type A overachiever this approach was met with quite a bit of resistance, but I kept reminding myself – it’s not forever – just try, just try, just try.
There’s a productivity mindset that exists as a cultural phenomenon, globally, but especially here in the US. Zoom into the eye of the storm and until this summer, you would have seen me and my husband, clinking glasses in celebration of all that we’d crossed off our to-do lists. All that we’d managed to accomplish, especially when met with limited time and resources.
Covid gave me a chance to release myself from this hold. To question whether productivity should be the ultimate goal, or whether another, more desirable goal, was achievable. Something a little more grounded or enjoyable perhaps. Something that required the use of my senses – open eyes, searching ears, an interest in the “now”.
I wholly realize what an unbelievable privilege it is to let go – to not be worried about agonizing things like bills and expenses. To give up on my freelance jobs so serenely.
I also recognize that my husband and I have slaughtered ourselves over the past 20 years working jobs in finance and consulting so that we’d have a buffer for a rainy day. Gah! The guilt. It permeates. I’ve read that it’s the wound of the throat chakra to feel guilt for your gifts and privilege, so alas, some of my chakra wounds clearly need tending.
With this new, moderate attitude about life as a backdrop, I sat down on my rear end and started the work. Almost serendipitously, on my first day of “silence”, I was drawn to a tarot card deck that I’d bought for my son over Christmas (not knowing anything about tarot cards at the time, but having seen them in my therapist’s office and thinking they’d be something he’d like). I googled some videos on how to set up the cards, drew several, and was struck by the reading. I found it to be insightful, inspirational, and was thrilled about the good juju that stayed with me throughout the day.
The cards aren’t for everyone, but as a technique, I found them to be a great launching pad for my morning meditations. Say a topic came up in the cards – such as trust, or comparison, or awareness – I could then meditate on that specific topic.
The more I sat, the more I learned. I meditated on insights that had been raised in therapy over the years, but somehow, in this setting, were given space to flex and breathe. Time to settle and process.
As I slogged through my internal world, I realized that I’d constructed a cage with invisible bars. The freedom that we’re able to experience while meditating (staying in position and traveling to no other place but the far reaches of our own minds), is remarkable. I began to see my anger as a trap, as part of my cage, which was holding me back from experiencing any kind of peace.
I realized that I was constantly going into battle – on the topic of racism, on the topic of equal rights, on the topic of boo-hoo it’s unfair that I have to give up graduate school this year. (*the latter sounds whinier than I meant, but I was genuinely frustrated about this topic and palatable or not, this frustration needed to be addressed.)
A funny thing happened when I decided to sit in place. Sit through the discomfort of all of this anxiety, anger and frustration. The feelings began to pass, replaced by a burgeoning sense of calm. Not to mention the associated experience of soul journeying, complete with blinding lights and what I can only describe as a pulsating electrical charge. This is what meditators talk about. I get it, I finally get it!
I read somewhere – and damn if can’t remember where – that low vibration feelings of anger, resentment etc etc are like a beach ball. You can push the feelings underwater, but they want to rise up to the surface. When they rise, you try to mask them in socially acceptable ways, but they come out as passive aggression. Or judgement. Obstructionism. Victimhood. All the way down until you can’t hold the feelings anymore and they burst forth as anger, hostility, or even rage.
So rather than continuing to push them down (my preferred technique for oh, about 44 years), I began to let the feelings rise. I let myself marinate in them, feel the shaking in my chest, the pounding in my temples. Sense the tears sting my eyes before they’d spill down my cheeks in briny streaks. I’d let it all come out. And I would sit there without distracting myself out of the pain, right there on the floor, with my candle lit, and a few cards and crystals strewn about. I’d sit there and feel the feelings until the heaviness would pass. Then I would journal about the experience.
Sometimes this process would take 30 minutes. Often it would take 3 hours. Done on the daily, it added up to a lot of time spent venturing deep within my psyche. Like those deep-sea expeditions that probe underground worlds that many of us would be far too terrified to explore.
If I were to capture my efforts – and my learnings – this summer in one word, it would be this: “surrender”.
Surrender to the moment.
Surrender to a universal force that is greater than your own will.
Surrender to the pandemic and the truth that it is calling the shots right now, not you.
Surrender to having the kids at home and seeing it not as a blow to your own goals and timeline but, rather, as a gift of more time with them at home. (sometimes it’s not a gift and I run out onto the lawn tearing at my hair yelling “Take them! Take them!” to nobody in general but those moments are happening less and less 🙂 )
Surrender to the possibility of new creative insight, new skills, new directions.
Surrender to the fact that you – and those with whom you interact, in person, online – even the cranky ones – are doing their best with the tools at their disposal.
Surrender to the idea that you can address issues of race and social injustice from a far stronger place if you’re clear and level-headed. There is always room for anger, and we should be angry, but not to the point where it clouds our reasoning and our response.
The changes have been so profound. It’s like my first 44 years were spent as one version of my self, and now, as I head into my 45th year, someone new is emerging. Someone who is more relaxed, filled with more joy, someone who is less easily triggered by her environment. Someone who is so excited about her future and all of the adventures in store. I’m really proud of her and all that she’s accomplished.
If this sounds at all like airy-fairy fluff BS, too good to be true, you can validate with my kids. They will most certainly vouch that someone stole their Mum and replaced her with a happier, lighter version, one with a frightening affinity for harem-style yoga pants, a growing collection of crystals, and who smells faintly, yet consistently, of palo santo.
If I were to envision my old self – the self who was with me up until the spring of 2020, I would see her as tough, physically bound, throwing herself with all of that armor and padding against an impenetrable force that she knew nothing of. Carrying a light but burying it so deep that it only glimmered on occasion.
Believe me, the armor is still there, and I’m only just beginning to take it off. But I can see a path forward that isn’t quite so heavy.
This wake up has been intense and essential. Life-changing in the sense that my journey forward, despite a pandemic and a slew of ongoing personal issues, is filled with excitement and opportunity. The opportunity to continue to explore this inside world. To find other traps. To learn and re-learn the act of surrender.
It has been such a gift.
And as a bonus, I get to tell my therapist, “See! I was right. 2020 was my breakout year.”
I’ll stop myself before I begin to sound too woo woo, although I think I’ve already crossed that threshold. But you know what, if it takes a social media break, candlelit meditations, a stack of journals, a few crystals, a tarot deck (ok, thirty), and a spiritual guide or two to help lift you out of some black-as-night darkness, do what it takes. Follow that little voice that guides you towards your next step, whether it’s a dramatic change, or a simple shift. This is our time – the great pause – to shake things up. To look into our shadows and see what we might be willing to shed.
No two transformations are alike and as much as I want to share the wild, wonderful, and sometimes gory details of my own personal work over the past few months, it’s not relevant outside of story value alone. Meditation wasn’t the only tool, there were others – an aura reader, a numerologist, an energetic light worker by the name of Infiniti, a guided psychedelic mushroom trip. But at the heart of my work, was a willingness to sit, to get quiet, and to listen to my higher self.
We all must find our own path, we must be authentic to our own needs, there is a voice inside of you who is willing to guide you forward. Listen to it. Authentic change is possible. I was able to shift from pure wretched darkness into a glowing, vibrant place of self-nurturing and love, and if I can inspire a single person to undertake his or her own journey of healing and self-discovery, then my job is done.
Hang in there everyone. Sending love and strength. Xoxo Jess