pandemic diaries: 3 years later

A few months ago I started rereading over 17 years of blogging, organizing posts into thematic google docs: grad school in Boston, life and work since, burning bridges, and of course, the pandemic diaries. The latter collection became a 50-page google document and over the past few weeks I’ve been rereading those posts and making notes for a 3-year anniversary update. Initially I was weirdly looking forward to doing this, but as we get closer to the 3-year mark (which I’ve always thought of as the last day my kids attended school in person before lockdown, as I wrote during week 42: “the last day the kids attended in-person school…is how I'm keeping track of time during this pandemic”), I felt less and less motivated to continue, which I think is indicative of how my memory works. I was remembering the things I’m oddly nostalgic for, and had pushed aside memories of far less pleasant things like a full year of distance learning. I’m grateful I blogged as much as I did, especially in the first year, but reliving that time through these posts, sporadic though they’ve become, has predictably reignited a lot of mixed feelings. 

Faking It

1970s rock band America’s song ‘Sister Golden Hair’ randomly came on in my Spotify playlist the other day and I was struck by the lyrics, these posts all swimming around in my head these past few weeks:

I've been one poor correspondent
And I've been too, too hard to find
But it doesn't mean you ain't been on my mind
Will you meet me in the middle?
Will you meet me in the air?
Will you love me just a little?
Just enough to show you care?
Well, I tried to fake it
I don't mind sayin', I just can't make it

It’s a little dark, I know, but I think a lot of us, especially working parents, are faking it in more ways than perhaps we were pre-pandemic. As I reread the pandemic diary posts I traveled back through the weirdest three years of my life thus far, oddly nostalgic for the slowed pace of life in the early days (and things like weekday family morning walks, something that’s simply not feasible now), traumatized by distance learning…

It's a weird time, wrapping up week 10 of the school year, as we simultaneously settle into a somewhat sustainable routine (we could do this forever!) that is also somehow mildly torturous. And the very people who keep reminding parents that this is an unprecedented crisis situation turn around and dismiss, whether intentionally or not, how incredibly challenging this has been and continues to be for kids, parents, families, relationships, etc. I can feel deep gratitude for jobs we can do from home, space and technology for school work to happen, and our continued health while also refusing to sugar-coat how far from ideal distance learning has been and continues to be.

…and the social anxiety caused by things like "pandemic pods," feeling a sense of loss for where my life was finally going before the pandemic…

Still trying to recover from the pandemic in this way, my life pre-pandemic finally starting to settle into a nice mix of work, studio, family, and all the other stuff - all of which was skewed during the pandemic.

…and literally grieving the loss of someone very dear to me, not directly due to COVID (a very COVID-era quote about this loss: “I take some comfort in knowing she died in her home, surrounded by her adult children, not alone in a hospital”), but a relationship that COVID complicated, like so many. I wrote in week 23 that “I'm envious of people who find themselves surrounded by extended family and close friends” and this is still very true.

In a nutshell, what I wrote after the one summer camp of 2020 that did not get canceled ended predicted pretty accurately how I continue to feel now: 

The return to #momcamp last week was interesting. On the one hand, I didn't miss driving the kids to and from Fairyland twice each day. It was nice to return to having nothing really time-specific any given day, other than our various work meetings. But even then, if I have a meeting at 8 or 8:30 I only need to get myself ready, not myself plus two kids in order to leave the house and make it to point B by a specific time. I didn't miss making lunches, although obviously they needed lunch made at some point and it only took three weeks for me to forget how often they seem to need a snack of some sort. I enjoyed getting out with them each day for some sort of walk or hike, not something I'm as likely to do when I have an uninterrupted work block.

Beanbag Frog in 'The World Champion of Staying Awake'

Pandemic Time

The pandemic diaries began on March 16, 2020, the Monday after the kids’ final day of in-person school before lockdown. What characterizes my memories of those first few weeks is trying to establish some semblance of routine amidst general pushback to the idea of homeschooling or really providing any kind of structure, because we all thought this was going to be temporary (schools initially closed for two weeks plus spring break, then the rest of the 2019-20 school year, and then, here in Oakland, much or all, depending on grade, of the 2020-21 school year), a vibe that returned a year or so later when we were all so thoroughly burned out. Many parents of school-aged kids approached those initial weeks like a cross-country flight with a toddler, providing unlimited snacks and screen time. I wrote several times about how in Oakland this wasn’t exactly our first rodeo, having experienced school closures due to wildfire smoke, power outages, heavy rain (yes, we once had a “rain day”), and the teachers’ strike the previous year. But obviously nothing could have prepared us for the duration of this closure (about a month into the pandemic I wrote, “any anxiety around school being closed through the rest of the school year has morphed into anxiety around summer camp and beyond”).

The Plandemic

“Guess how I manage my anxiety?” I wrote that first Monday after lockdown. “I plan stuff, I put things on my calendar, I use my calendar to visualize how I'm going to get through the next three (plus?) weeks. I realize I can’t control everything (anything?) but this gives me back some sense of agency.” First time I talked to my Grandma on the phone after lockdown even she proclaimed, “you’re a planner!” While I did find things like the manifesto of the idle parent comforting in those early days (a copy of it still hangs on my fridge as a daily reminder), I looked to planning and sought structure as a way to manage anxiety and have some sense of control over the experience. Initially, and something I’d return to from time to time those first few months, I created a schedule of activities based loosely on the National Day Calendar of random (mostly food-related) holidays. Here’s a sample of things we did those first couple of months (and somewhat into the first summer break):

  • We watched a panda documentary and made fork print panda art.
  • We learned about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
  • We made hot spinach artichoke dip.
  • We watched a documentary about 3D printing.
  • We learned about Rudolf Diesel and development of the diesel engine, biodiesel, etc.
  • We watched Biggest Little Farm. Finally.
  • Celebrated World of Flour Day by watching a documentary, checking out a relevant museum's website, having ravioli for lunch, and making salt dough.
  • Learned about asteroids and stuff.
  • Made chia pudding.
  • Conducted a dancing raisins science experiment and made homemade chocolate covered raisins for National Chocolate Covered Raisin Day.
  • Traumatized the 7yo by watching the first episode of the Netflix series 'Medal of Honor.'
  • Dissected candy bars and designed wrappers for our own candy bar inventions for National Nougat Day.
  • Ate a lot of guacamole.
  • Made a couple of art ASMR videos (and pondered whether or not art ASMR a thing)

As I wrote toward the end of that first school year, I’m still good at “keeping myself too busy to give in to existential dread.”

A Day In The Life

Other than manage distance learning and other activities and playdates via Zoom, the kids started doing chores with us on the weekends, and weekly family movie night on Saturdays was born, a tradition that continues today. We stayed active and ventured outside every day, going on lots of neighborhood walks, plus I continued to run around Lake Merritt a couple of early mornings a week. “The downside right now, of course, is that there's nowhere to go, but that's also kind of the upside. In other words, I don't have to dream up some exciting plan or outing for each day.”

Eventually the 2019-20 school year ended. Here’s a compilation of Instagram stories I recorded throughout a day in the life of working from home with kids distance learning on the penultimate day of that first school year. Approaching that first summer break, I reflected on how “I could really use a respite from the day job after nearly three months of working from home while juggling distance learning, but where would we go?” Fairyland was the only summer camp that wasn't canceled. This is what I wrote about those three weeks of summer break: “Even after just a day, I can't accurately articulate how amazing it was, after 14 weeks of distance learning and mom camp, to have 5-6 uninterrupted hours to work. And for them, to be able to get a break from us, from our house, and interact, even from a distance, with other children...amazing.”

It wasn't all bad

I’m so Zoomed out now but some virtual stuff I genuinely enjoyed, like Oakland Zoo’s behind the scenes series every weekday at 2:30. It was a nice way to cap off the “school day”. As shown in the day in the life compilation, I enjoyed practicing piano via Yousician although I eventually plateaued, took a break, and have yet to get back to it. I did a paper folding workshop with designer Kelli Anderson (bought a kit that came by mail in advance of the Zoom workshop) and at one point during the 2020-21 school year, the then 2nd grader went on a virtual field trip to Luvin Farms in Colorado, not something they could have done as easily in real life, of course.

The day the skies turned orange

The most challenging stretch of lockdown was when the California wildfires were so bad that the air quality in the Bay Area was dangerously unhealthy and we were forced to stay indoors as much as possible.

September 9, 2020

“This picture does not do justice to the ORANGE skies we experienced last week," I wrote that day, "my iPhone trying awfully hard to auto-balance the apocalypse...It's a sobering realization that even if we weren't in the middle of a global pandemic, the kids would most likely still be out of school due to the smoke and lingering air quality issues.”

Silver Linings

Because we spent so much less time going places and schlepping kids to activities for over a year (I was also still working part-time at this point...I've since transitioned to full-time), I spent little chunks of time in the studio more consistently then than I do now, eventually wrapping up a project that started before the pandemic but took on new meaning with everyone at home all the time. I’ve yet to show this work, having submitted exhibition proposals to two venues so far, one of which rejected it, one of which I’ve yet to hear back from. 

Toward the end of the 2020-21 school year, after the then 2nd grader had moved to a hybrid schedule, spending a couple of afternoons each week at school, in person, the garden teacher handed out seeds for students to plant at home. We planted sunflower seeds in a little patch of dirt in our front yard and they grew to be about 7 feet tall. “It's not sourdough bread," I wrote, "but the results have a very early pandemic project vibe.” A few months later, we saw the Joan Mitchell show at SFMOMA for my birthday. About sunflowers, Mitchell wrote: “They look so wonderful when young and they are so very moving when they are dying.”

Keeping the lights on

No, I'm not referring to the Motel 6 slogan. Remember when Alanis Morisette performed her song Ablaze holding her young daughter on her hip? What parent wasn't desperately trying to do this every day, juggling work and their own health and sanity? "My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze."

And while keeping the light in my kids' eyes ablaze will never not be my daily mission in life regardless of anything else going on around us, the pandemic diaries ended when this sort of thing no longer felt like an accurate description of our daily lives, from the New Yorker essay about Angela Garbes' book Essential Labor: "At one point, Garbes compares the pandemic to early parenthood, a period of time 'when whole lifetimes are held in a single day when 'the smallest details matter, they become the universe'—when we 'restructure and rearrange the way we live, how we define our lives, and what we value.'" And I guess there's a part of me that is, 3 years later, with so much having gone back to an imperfect "normal," feeling a little conflicted about this.

P.S. In March 2022, I finally ran the race I had trained to run right before the pandemic began. “There's something really powerful about—finally—checking a goal off one's pre-pandemic to do list.” And I am indeed the girl of 100 lists, so I'll end with a list of things added to my ongoing to do list during the pandemic that I still haven't done:

  • Use Kelli Anderson’s This Book is a Camera
  • Buy a record player and start a record collection
  • Do something with this website/idea: Forces of Easel
  • Use my 30+ year old sewing machine more, after I discovered during lockdown that it still works!
  • Get to work on the podcast season 2 (although, as I wrote at some point during the pandemic, “I worry if I do, it'll take up all the little bits of time I need in the studio. Which is fitting since that's kind of what season two is all about”)

P.P.S. I still can’t believe my gingerbread dumpster, complete with candy “fire”, didn’t go viral. “Alas, it was fun to make and pleasant to consume, unlike most things in 2020.”


we don't need another book about creativity

Or do we?

Studio shelfie...the rest are in the living room.

I’ve compiled quite the collection of books about art and creativity over the past couple of decades. And I’ll just get right to the point of this post: 15 years post MFA, I’m increasingly left wondering, after all these years and all these books…why?

And yet, I keep reading them. I recently finished two very different books about creativity, beginning with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention,’ a gift from my husband. When I shared some misgivings about Csikszentmihalyi’s definitions of creativity (this, for example: "Children can show tremendous talent, but they cannot be creative because creativity involves changing a way of doing things, or a way of thinking, and that in turn requires having mastered the old ways of doing or thinking") he added Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson’s ‘Creative Quest’ to my collection, describing it as a book about "creative people working through the anxieties that creatives have."

So why do I read all these books about creativity? To work through related anxieties, certainly. And maybe to restore a little hope when I’m on the verge of nihilism. "When all goes well," Csikszentmihalyi writes early on in 'Creativity,' "the drudgery is redeemed by success." This is a common sentiment in books about art and creativity (because this path is hard, y’all!), echoed in Questlove's 'Creative Quest'—"you need to be aware of the nutritional benefits of failure and the empty calories of certain kinds of success"—and in Felicia Day’s memoir, a book I wrote about nearly 5 years ago, here. At one point in her book, after funding dried up for Geek & Sundry, Day immediately wrote out everything she learned from working on that show. "The more mistakes," she writes, "the better the story afterwards, especially if there's a happy ending." It’s the classic motivational quote about how failure is a routine and necessary experience on the road to success.

But what if there is no happy ending? What if the "drudgery" is never redeemed by "success?" Or, at the very least, what to do about the often long and painful arc, not at all linear or logical, between drudgery and "success," however one eventually comes to define it? While Csikszentmihalyi writes in 'Creativity' about the importance of attention, or audience, and feedback ("just as the sound of a tree crashing in the forest is unheard if nobody is there to hear it, so creative ideas vanish unless there is a receptive audience to record and implement them"), he eventually encourages creative types to let go of the idea of the finished product and audience and instead pursue "the love of the creative process for its own sake." This, I guess, is critical to finding "flow." Maybe it's like finding love when you least expect it. Anyway, he explains, "if one does these things a certain way, then they become intrinsically rewarding, worth doing for their own sake." I too wonder, "what is the secret of transforming activities so that they are rewarding in and of themselves?" (And also, more practically speaking, where will I store all this finished—but unshown and unsold—work??)

I find myself torn between the pursuit of this "autotelic" experience—"the feeling of freedom from the threats and stresses of everyday life one experiences when completely immersed in the domain"—and the desire/need for feedback. After art or grad school, with so few exhibition opportunities for so many artists, many now seek this sort of feedback on social media. I personally haven’t shown my work in real life for nearly 15 years and it’s not for lack of making stuff (or trying). As Jenny Odell writes in her recent New York Times op-ed about Twitter and time, I too have looked to social media for "a sense of recognition among peers, connection to people with shared interests and whose work I admire, and the ability to encounter new, unexpected ideas." And, sure, followers and likes are seductive (again, from Csikszentmihalyi: "a pat on the back does wonders for creative productivity"). But even our digital attention span seems increasingly short and devoid of any sort of constructive feedback. Furthermore, as Questlove suggests in 'Creative Quest,' "technology has given people too many easy ways to deliver feedback without similarly equipping artists to resist it." In short, social media is not a great substitute for the kind of audience or feedback you might have grown accustomed to in art/grad school and/or if you’re lucky enough to show your work in a physical setting.

'Creative Quest' is at times, by contrast, written with the assumption that as an artist you are going to put what you create out in the world in some way, ideally in exchange for some sort of compensation. "This book is, in that sense, different from other books about creativity. I am assuming that what you do will end up somewhere, in front of the eyes or ears of others." It’s about the process, but it’s also very much about the product (and you’ll learn a lot about music!). Questlove’s book is also a bit more prescriptive in that he has actual suggestions for creative production, like revisiting older work and collaborating with others (so weird to me that so many books about creativity specifically try not to be prescriptive in any way...and I get it but, y'know, give me something I can use!).

As a self-described creative generalist (I pursued art in college precisely because I didn't want to choose just one thing to do, figuring I could explore all my interests through my art), I also appreciate Questlove’s more contemporary take on creativity, and how we go about making things. Csikszentmihalyi encourages a more focused approach: "Before you have discovered an overriding interest in a particular domain, it makes sense to be open to as much of the world as possible. After you have developed an abiding interest, however, it may make more sense to save as much energy as you can to invest in that one domain." I don’t disagree with this, especially if you’re limited on time, as most artists with day jobs are. But I also really love Questlove’s take on this, encouraging creative folks to strive to be what he calls "'pancake people'—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button." On a sidenote, this also ties in again nicely with Day’s memoir mentioned above, in which she goes on to describe a creative support group that meets over pancakes, something I’ve wanted to establish here in Oakland ever since reading her book (this pandemic effort across the Bay came pretty close to the idea).

As an artist with a full-time day job and two kids (I don't have much time to make work, I haven't shown my work in years, I question if I qualify for grants and residencies should I even find the time to apply, all of which leads me to still put air quotes around the word artist when I describe myself), I really appreciate what Questlove advocates for here: "I want to reverse this whole movement of separating artists from each other, of saying that one man or woman is more or less of an artist than another one. For that matter, I want to broaden the definition to include anyone who is making something out of nothing by virtue of their own ideas…there is a difference, it may not be as great as some people believe." Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges these practical tensions inherent in pursuing creativity as well: "Training, expectations, resources, and recognition are to no avail...if the young person has no hope of using his or her skills in a productive career. In our culture, a huge number of talented and motivated artists, musicians, dancers, athletes, and singers give up pursuing those domains because it is so difficult to make a living in them." And yet, we keep reading these books about creativity as if they're magically going to give us what we really need, which is time (and money).

The bottom line is opportunities for artists are highly competitive. It's a basic supply and demand problem. I don’t have data handy to back this up, but it seems like the number of people pursuing creative paths has exploded while the opportunities have remained stagnant (and have quite possibly, post-pandemic, dwindled still). Even smaller, alternative venues attract hundreds of applicants for one project space opportunity that comes around once a year. Furthermore, galleries and alternative spaces alike plan their calendars sometimes years in advance and connections are critical (Csikszentmihalyi again: "without access to the domain, potential is fruitless"). When I’m feeling optimistic I counter my desire for a piece of the art world pie with the cheery idea that the pie simply needs to be bigger! Unfortunately, however, "to achieve creativity in an existing domain," Csikszentmihalyi writes, "there must be surplus attention available." Later he adds, "Because of the scarcity of attention, we must be selective." Perhaps, in lieu of more books about how to be more creative, we need to help creatives and non-creatives alike learn how to pay attention, thereby creating the surplus needed and greater opportunities for artists. More demand for the supply. A bigger pie!