#2: Hi, it's me, an emotional email
Hailing from a city called The Only Good Corner of My Couch
Hello. Welcome to newsletter no.2 and day 25 in quarantine. It’s apparently April 5th? I’ll believe it when I see it.
A quick aside, which I’ve been advised by management (aka people in my DMs) to put up top: I decided to launch Maybe Baby as a free newsletter, both to increase reach and accessibility. But per my criminally long tweet thread last week, I don’t think the free-to-read model (which forces blogs and websites into ad businesses) is the best one for funding quality creative work. I never intend to run ads here, but I’d love to continue putting as much time into this newsletter as I would paid writing. So I’ve decided to give you the option to voluntarily “subscribe” to Maybe Baby through Patreon for $1/month (or however much you’d like)! (Update: I no longer use Patreon! To support Maybe Baby you can become a paying subscriber here on Substack.)
If you’re unfamiliar, Patreon is a service that connects creators and patrons for this specific purpose. If you’re able to show your support this way, thank you so much! I promise the newsletter will be better (and more frequent) for it. If you’re not, I still love you and think that thing you said that one time was genuinely clever.
I’ve been counting my deep breaths lately. The ones that seem to reach beneath my lungs to an extra reserve I didn’t know was there. It’s become my unsubstantiated litmus test for determining whether my chest tightness is a symptom of coronavirus or anxiety (or hypochondria, although I’m no longer sure there’s a difference). Today I’ve had four.
A couple months ago I met, interviewed, and profiled a woman with a traumatic brain injury named Abigail. In the piece I explain how she has to devote a great deal of energy every day to thinking about her brain—how it’s doing, what it needs, what it can and can’t process. “I imagine this is something like monitoring the temperature in the room,” I wrote, “or how often you breathe. There are certain realities I’d rather accept and forget forever, like my ability to absorb new information until my brain burns to a crisp and sends me to bed.”
Was this some kind of foreshadowing? My life is now almost entirely defined by negotiating with the climate of my apartment, analyzing my own breaths like a sentient stethoscope, and considering whether the internet will help or hurt me the next time I open it. It’s a lot to juggle, and that’s before I’ve even done anything.
Paranoia in New York
Last spring, my boyfriend Avi and I bought a beat-up 2013 Honda Civic from a used car dealership in Queens. It’s a pain to move for street cleaning three times a week, and it’s been collecting dings (and in one case, a large crunch above the left tire, delivered via hit-and-run) the longer it’s parked in Brooklyn. But like most things in New York, the value just edges out the inconvenience, the wear and tear like proof we’ve paid our city dues. And now that our mobility has been otherwise prohibited, we’ve been especially grateful for it.
Earlier this winter, waiting for Avi to hurry up and take the picture.
The other day I climbed in and noticed the center glove was flung open, with items spilling out across the passenger seat. A half-torn-open pack of gum, a spare aux cable, things like that. It was obvious someone had broken in and shuffled things around looking for something of value, finding nothing. This used to happen almost every night to my ‘98 Civic when I lived in San Francisco (I guess 15 years between models didn’t do much for their security). At a certain point I put a sign in the driver’s window that said: “I’M SORRY BUT THERE IS NOTHING OF VALUE IN THIS CAR AND BREAKING IN WILL WASTE YOUR TIME.” Ballpoint pen on a manila envelope. The next morning I came out to my car and it was clean, so I put it in the window again the next night, and the night after that, until it became a habit. My car was never broken into again. Funny how sometimes you only have to ask.
Anyway, when I noticed the recent invasion, which has never happened in Brooklyn, I wasn’t angry so much as sorry and paranoid. I imagined someone with the virus coughing all over the dash, their shaky hands searching in desperation, their body seeking much-needed refuge on our fabric-covered seats. As I put everything back and wiped it all down, this image kept running through my head, like something out of a zombie movie. I find my mind going to these places a lot these days, entertaining previously surreal ideas and then observing those same ideas from a disbelieving distance. It’s all very unmooring. It makes you realize how small our mental worlds were before, when our fears of impending apocalypse made us feel a little sardonic, maybe, but never especially rational.
I’ve been driving into Manhattan occasionally (something I’d never done before), where the narrow streets are lined with businesses locked behind silver gates and the typically crowded sidewalks are empty save for a few cops and stragglers wearing medical masks. To take these images at face value almost goes against my instinct. I want to avoid the most dire interpretation, but what is the less dire interpretation? Life right now is nothing if not circling that question until I’m dizzy. All before I’ve done a single thing.
Other Observations From the Week
On a lighter note, there is a specific type of tree that is blooming all over Brooklyn, seemingly before the rest. After some Googling I think they’re called Callery Pears. Whenever I go on walks I can’t take my eyes off them, impressed by their willingness to flower at! a! time! like! this! On my street one of the branches has dipped so low it seems to be reaching out to say hello. I assume it normally would have been clipped by now, but I’m glad it hasn’t, because it keeps reminding me that most of nature is not sick. Just us.
Bird chirps have a similar effect. The other day Avi and I were walking to the store and peeked through a fence to a little grassy clearing that seemed out of place in New York. Some spare car parts were strewn about, but kind of in a romantic way, and there was a group of singing birds perched on a rusty bicycle like a little choir. I was like, “Crazy that birds don’t know about the pandemic,” and he was like, “Birds don’t know about anything,” which I thought was rude to the birds.
We’ve been losing our heads a little. Giving things around our house stupid nicknames: paper towel is “paper T,” sweet potato is “sweet P,” tooth brush is “tooth B.” For some reason it makes us laugh to abbreviate the second word instead of the first, especially when it doesn’t come naturally at all (as in, “oat M” or “tomato S”), very dumb. And then sometimes I’ll hear him say something like, “Want some wheat T’s and cream C?” and I’ll think it sounds like music, and it will occur to me that we’ve been shut-ins for nearly a month and it’s starting to show.
Birds and flowers notwithstanding, bad days are beginning to feel like the rule instead of the exception, which I keep reminding myself makes sense when the world is in crisis. Last Tuesday I lay around all day depressed. The despair hit me suddenly, draining my resolve to put on an outfit or pretend things were okay like some kind of stupid Sim who doesn’t realize she’s confined to a 500-square-foot space. Sometimes pretending everything’s fine becomes more of a burden than the opposite, and so I just let it wash over me—not by choice, exactly, but maybe by necessity. That day didn’t feel restorative at all, but the next morning I was a little lighter, as if I’d passed an emotional kidney stone. Sometimes you can’t fight the process. Sometimes a yield is the fastest path to sweet relief, or as we might call it in my house, sweet R.
Perhaps I’ve learned this lesson most acutely through writing. So often the words don’t come, and it’s awful, and I want to pretend it’s fine, so I close the document, go on my phone, dust the floorboards (I’ve actually done this to avoid writing before; it’s amazing what procrastination can inspire). But this doesn’t ultimately solve the problem of writer’s block. At some point I’ll have to return and trudge through the mental quicksand, especially the parts that make me want to slip out of my boots and run in the other direction. But whenever I do, I’m reminded that’s the whole challenge of writing (and maybe all art): courting that resistance, even languishing in it, instead of assuming it means you’re faulty.
Maybe emotions can be like that, too.
Some Good Things I Read Last Week
If you want to read something raw and beautiful: “Since I Became Symptomatic” by Leslie Jamison for New York Review of Books
If you want to read something that pinpoints why famous people are especially annoying right now: “Celebrity Culture Is Burning” by Amanda Hess for The New York Times
If you want to reading something helpful and comforting:“That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief” by Scott Berinato for Harvard Business Review
If you want to read something arresting and activating:“Reality Has Endorsed Bernie Sanders” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor for The New Yorker
If you want to read something honest and affirming: “The Saddening” by Leah Finnegan for The Outline, which laid off all its employees last week. I’m so sad. It was one of my favorite online publications and I’m not sure who or what could fill the void it's bound to leave.
I’m sorry all these picks concern coronavirus, but I’m finding it hard to read anything else.
A parting thought
A subscriber named Maia wrote to me last week that “these are dark yet clarifying times,” and I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot. It’s true that sometimes darkness can be clarifying, however paradoxical that may sound. Imagine how the curve of a body feels when you touch it in the dark, or how joyful a laugh sounds from the depths of grief. This moment has already shone a light on where our social safety nets are failing us, the tangible impacts of empty political rhetoric, and what it feels like to count our breaths, lose touch, be reduced to our most basic needs. Like a sensory deprivation chamber, loss shows us something new. And because we have no choice, we will wait this out like a bad feeling, revel in it like an impossible sentence, and find a new perspective on the other side. We can at least count on that much, before we’ve really done anything.
Yours in I’ve-looked-and-felt-bad-for-an-entire-month solidarity,
Haley Christine Nahman
Hi Haley, first of all I want to tell you I admire you, I admire your writing and the original and sharp point of view you're always able to share. I'm writing from Italy and I'm a freelance illustrator. I'm saying these things because when I say I understand what your fears are and how it feels to live in a country in lockdown, without a fixed salary, I really mean it. I read your long Twitter thread and this last newsletter and I agree with your subscriber who said "these are dark yet clarifying times". When Corona Virus hit Italy more than a month ago I had to change all the work plans I had for the upcoming months (events were cancelled, commissioned work postponed, clients disappeared and my side job as an English teacher - because as a freelance I do have a side job - suspended too). This situation paralyzed me. Then, maybe speaking with my therapist, maybe speaking with my boyfriend, maybe because I just took some time for myself, writing things down, trying to really understand what I could do in these weeks, something changed. As a freelance, I've been aware for quite a while that I can't rely on commissioned jobs. They're too uncertain, they depend on criteria I can't control (like you said in your thread), they disappear in hard times. I can count only on myself. Then if commissions come I'm happy to work on them, but my working life, my mental balance can't be based only on that. That's why I started working to empower my skills, to concentrate on what I like, to understand what I like and pursuing it. These weeks have, hence, turned into "clarifying times" for me. I've started working on my own projects, studying and seeing how I can make a living (and a real business) out of this personal work. Something has started moving and I now see a path for myself I hadn't noticed before. This is to tell you that this newsletter, all you feel like doing and feel it's useful to others because it fills a void in the communication/journalism market is worth doing. Don't let this darkness prevent you from creating your own opportunities. You are more than skilled to do it. I'll be supporting you on Patreon and can't wait to see all your upcoming projects. Sorry for the very long comment. Wish you all the best!
Please keep sharing your recommended reads!