#1: A message from the void (my apartment)
Featuring a dusty little mushroom cut
Thank you so much for subscribing to my newsletter. I’m touched, all the way from my Brooklyn quarantine (day 18). How are you doing? You can reply to this email or answer via comment on Substack if you’re in the mood, or you can just let the question float in your head for a minute, like a private prompt for your private consideration. My answer would be something like “fine,” which in some circumstances is code for “not fine,” but in this one feels like an honest triumph. I have not looked mournfully into the middle distance in at least 24 hours, which is progress.
The first week in quarantine was…hard. As the coronavirus-related deaths, layoffs, and closures multiplied, it sometimes felt like the world was ending (and still does). Of course this has been truer for some than others, but I’m finding that distinction a little unproductive these days. So many of my recent conversations with friends have circled the question of who is entitled to feel anxious and depressed right now (surely not us, with our clear lungs and cans of soup), and all I’ve concluded is that asking does little more than increase the bad feelings, which is of no use to anyone. Denying our emotions only underlines them. Enough time and we’ll be forced to reconcile.
A week before my last day as the features director at Man Repeller, I’d become more aware of face-touching and hand-washing, but the threat of the virus to New York still felt distant, almost theoretical. There were 126 cases in the US. People were laughing about the sales of Corona beer. This was March 3rd. I sat in therapy that morning talking about the week off I planned to take after wrapping things up at work. I was excited to wander around New York, see some friends, clear my head. When I left I told her I’d see her in two weeks. “Hopefully I’ll be feeling relaxed and energized by then!” I said, like an idiot.
Seven days later, on March 11th, 300 people died from Covid-19 in a single day, Trump enacted the European travel ban, the NBA suspended its season, and Tom Hanks announced he had the virus (which, per The Atlantic, had an outsize impact on dissolving political partisanship regarding the outbreak) (yikes). The next morning, on my first day as a “freelance writer”—which is to say, as yet unemployed and uninsured—New York schools and offices started to close, the stock market saw the largest point drop in DOW history, and I officially went into self-quarantine.
That I’d contemplated the risk of self-employment for over a year and then managed to time it this way would be a little funny if it weren’t deeply unnerving. I needed to scrap my entire freelance plan. Budgets were getting slashed, every writer was writing about the same thing, every media site an endless scroll of virus coverage. (Okay…with some exceptions.) It’s been a daunting time to try to elbow my way in, develop new relationships, and last week I was so overwhelmed by the prospect that I spent “my week off” crying on FaceTime, destroying brain cells watching Love Island, and donating my money to charities in $5 increments while frantically forecasting how long I could stretch the rest.
I also took some lonely walks past this broken mirror, which started to feel like a bad omen.
Dissolve the image of me bounding into my therapist’s office after a week of rejuvenation, replace it with the image of me calling her from my bedroom, hugging my knees to my chest like a lost child. I told her I felt horrible, and ashamed for feeling horrible, and she told me all of that made sense, and slowly my body unfurled. Weird how it’s sometimes as easy as that.
For the sake of reconciling, I’ve been trying to give the above anxiety space in my emotional mise en place ever since, even as I remind myself how fortunate I am. Both can be true. I’m so grateful I can afford to cover my own room and board for a few months if I can’t find paid work, and that my and my family’s health is intact. My head spins for those who can’t say the same. The essential workers putting themselves in danger for the sake of humanity. The families who fear losing their homes or food security, or those who never had those things in the first place. (If you want to donate, I’ve linked some organizations I vetted through Charity Navigator at the end of this email.)
My wage-working friends are enduring so much pressure, some of it in the form of layoffs. And my salaried friends, although not facing financial peril, are struggling under the weight of their remote work, which doesn’t seem to be letting up even as everything else grinds to a halt, including every facet of life that nourishes their leisure time and mental health. Late capitalism has never really given a shit about people; it’s just especially true now, as politicians weigh “saving lives” with “economic viability.”
I’ve been thinking about a particular fantasy of mine a lot lately. After I moved out at 18 and my parents started weaning me off financial support, I started dreaming of them sitting me down one day and revealing that I was actually an heir to a fortune, that they just wanted to teach me the value of hard work before they told me. Even today my siblings joke that the big news is still coming. Is this every teenager’s fantasy? Because it’s still mine.
Maybe it’s normal to dream of getting rich one day, but there’s something particularly potent about this dream in America, where money is the only path to adequate healthcare, leisure time, autonomy, and protection from crisis. If you define happiness in American terms—finding “passion work” (which usually requires a lot of time and well-funded failure), having nice things, rising above the rest—money can even buy you that.
It’s no wonder we’re all obsessed with financial freedom; our society is not set up to offer us any sense of wellbeing without it. In times of crisis this comes into starker relief: Maybe a cushy checking account can’t protect you from Covid-19 itself, but it can certainly get you a test, good treatment, and otherwise protect you from all the fall-out. As Megan Amram so poetically put it: “Corona is a black light and America is a cum-stained hotel room.”
Anyway, week 2 in quarantine actually felt marginally better. I think it had something to do with the shock of a global pandemic wearing off, even as danger crept nearer. (Dark.) I also finally found the mental capacity to write—which was a huge relief, even if nothing’s been published yet—and establish something of a routine, which we uncomfortable creatures require in uncertain times. Here are my newfound house rules after 17 days indoors, each one time-tested in a similar manner to Bill Murray’s wooing of Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day*:
Do not look at the news or social media first thing in the morning. All you will want to do when you wake up is lay in bed and scroll (you might even think you deserve it), but if you do, your day will be off to a shitty start.
Instead, get right up and make the bed (critical).
After yoga, go for a walk around the block, keeping your distance from other walkers. Feel free to swap 3 and 4, but be cautious that the yoga will quiet your mind and the walk will turn it on.
Take a shower—must be every day—then get dressed in something that is not pajamas.
Save hair-washing for when you’ve had a bad day and need to hit the invisible water-activated reset button located on your scalp, which I recently discovered.
Try to sit down at a desk/table (not the couch) and work on something (anything) before lunch.
Check in with friends and family. Do not underestimate the healing power of a FaceTime happy hour.
Pick up the house throughout the day. Messiness will make you feel depressed. Always clean the kitchen before bed.
Try to stay present; the past and the future will not offer much reprieve.
*People with kids or more responsibilities than me, I bow down in respect and also recognize these probably do not apply.
I wrote a piece last week about the usefulness of treating self-quarantine like it’s depression. I hope to share that with you soon, but in the meantime, the advice I’ve found the most useful: Don’t underestimate the delicacy of your mental health right now. Simplify your needs.
Welcome to Maybe Baby
One part of my freelance plan has remained intact: Start a newsletter. I’m excited to have a dedicated space for more casual thought and writing. Before I worked in media, I used to publish these long, wandering blog posts, and while most of them make me cringe now, I found them really restorative to write. This newsletter will hopefully be less long and wandering (uh, other than this one?), but my goal is for its looseness and candor to be similarly restorative—to read, too.
By the way, seeing all the comments under my departure announcement on Instagram and Man Repeller played a big role in my prioritizing this, so if you’re one of the people who left one, thank you so much for the encouragement!
Okay but actually what is this newsletter?
Not to get too big for these specific britches, but I knew I wanted Maybe Baby to regard the unknown, and especially the parts of ourselves we avoid or override for lack of clarity or certainty. It can be uncomfortable to explore emotional frameworks that are in conflict with each other or our stated beliefs, but writing has always helped me step calmly into that chaos, like a hazmat suit for self-betrayal.
This probably explains why I’m so drawn to the word “maybe,” and use it so often in my writing. Our internal lives are complicated; I’m changing my mind all the time. I’m not sure whether my constant hedging is a strength or a weakness (am I embracing the unknown or shying away from it?), but I’m attracted to the intellectual slack it affords me. I like to assert, but I prefer to do it gently.
As an editor I often encourage writers to introduce uncertainty into their writing, too. I’ll add comments in the margins like, Might you want to soften this here? Leave a little room for other possibilities? I’m sure other editors would disagree (Don’t hide from what you’re trying to say!), but I think there’s a way to comfort a reader with authority without patronizing them with certainty. Because what do any of us know, really? And who do we become when we close ourselves off to other possibilities? There’s safety in maybe, baby.
Here’s what this newsletter could and will look like:
-A public diary
-A different perspective
-An errant thought
-A home for pieces no one would pay me to write
-A conversation with someone I admire
-An advice column
-A seeking-advice column
-A glorified link round-up
-A book club
-And at its most basic: Proof of life
I hope, no matter the format, that it brings you the kind of comfort a long conversation with a friend might (in contrast to, say, the chaotic kind Love Island offers, although maybe a little bit of that, too, because there’s no going back for me now). Something like the emotional embodiment of this bird:
Part pensive gaze, part mushroom cut, part animate sphere, part rainbow. House-arrest anklet not optional but temporary.
And on a final note, if at some point you’d like to financially support the continued creation of this newsletter, or help me put more time and energy into it, I’ve created a Patreon where you can make a one-time or regular contribution as low as $1. (This sentence was poisonous to type.) (Update: I no longer use Patreon! To support Maybe Baby you can become a paying subscriber here on Substack!)
Thank you so much again for subscribing. If I run into you anytime soon I owe you the most reassuring elbow bump of your life.
Some places to donate to Covid-19 relief:
Feeding America (alleviating food insecurity)
Family Promise (helping the homeless population)
Heart to Heart (supplying and distributing medical equipment)
Direct Relief (supplying and distributing protective equipment)
Alight (providing healthcare, clean water, and other support for vulnerable communities)
Restaurant Workers Community Foundation (helping struggling restaurant workers and owners)