Two years ago today, I roamed Calcata, Italy, an abandoned commune built into the side of volcanic cliffs. Photographs recollect a sleepy medieval era village seemingly inhabited by more cats than humans, where uneven stairways meander past charming facades; signs of life on empty paths absent. I was struck by how unoccupied the town was, particularly juxtaposed with lamenting the impossibility of capturing an image in central Rome without a sole tourist interrupting the frame a day prior.
The memory was unearthed via a journal I keep: One Line A Day. Each April 11 reveals a stack of April 11s above, showcasing snippets of life years prior. The one liners weave a great source of reflection. What aspects are unchanging? What has seen transformation? The motivating factor that perpetuates the habit relates to my obsession with the implications of a Zora Neale Hurston quote: “there are years that ask questions and years that answer.” In a given year it may not be obvious which way it swings, but as pieces fit together one line a day a truth emerges which I find necessary and rewarding to contemplate.
In comparing 2018’s empty street moment to today, much of the world has adopted a Calcata shut-in lifestyle, flagging empty streets a reoccurring theme. April 11, 2020 signifies 4 weeks of solo quarantine, an absurd amount of time to be trapped in the rabbityhole recesses of Char’s Mind, which is currently working OT to process it suddenly being a year of majorly WTF questions. I could do a modern take on ALICE IN WONDERLAND called CHAR IN QUARANTINE and you wouldn’t believe how much trippier it gets past stripey smiley cats and hookah caterpillars. For I confess in the depths of my depravity I’ve even contemplated going live on IG and enlisting in the military. DEFCON 3000. To absolve myself of any potential wrongdoing spurred by a perpetually overactive mind, I’m attempting via the only best way I know, to let my thoughts run a course through longwinded exploratory prose that I hope has insight about where we find meaning, beauty and purpose in this moment.
The first two weeks of quarantine I felt essentially every negative emotion under the sun. There was the immediate panic as a result of an initial wave of furloughs at work, including the pain of having to release the best hire I’ve ever made. Non-furloughs were reduced to a 50% capacity in terms of working hours and salary, though having now absolved the duties of my coordinator, working half time to cover the jobs of two people while navigating entirely new protocols for what my job looks like is totally unrealistic. There is uncertainty in the long road ahead that we can sustain this and I worry about the prospect of a 0 hour, 0% salary. Desperate, this speculation kickstarted a frenzy of job applications and frantic emails to recruiters coupled with the awareness that nobody is likely to be hiring in this environment, and wondering if even once the immediate crisis clears and we are able to resume normal movement within society, will the economy rebound in a way that is sympathetic to job opportunities within the apparel industry? Will I have to go backwards in terms of responsibility, salary, title to find my next steady employment? Why does my career path seem to be a neverending process of starting over?
Next, a spiral of fear I could be out of work for the long haul. Solemn resolve to begin a crisis management budget and strategy. Doubt about the choice I made to pursue to such a rocky sector. Echoes of scoffing in my head I have not relieved since college about fashion being a stupid career move, though this was avenged when all the designers converted their production sites into mask making facilities, and vindicated, I triumphantly declared outloud to my plants: “AND THEY TOLD ME FASHION WOULDN’T SAVE LIVES!” Regret, anger, denial, exhaustion, confusion, sleeplessness, frustration. The humiliation of the unemployment application which I completed at the advice of my employer, ushering in my lowest low. Then I felt incredibly selfish that my worries were centered around my situation when there were other people who were worrying about whether or not their family members were going to live, how they were going to put food on the table for their children; other preoccupations of a greater magnitude than my own. While I know there is not a hierarchy to suffering I also feel so fortunate to be in the situation I am in despite how it is not exactly what I would call ideal, and I should be more grateful about counting those blessings.
As I began to settle into my bizarre new existence, a quarantine routine, the haze from this series of negative emotions cleared, replaced with a resolute determination to weather this crisis nobly and productively. It occurred to me I had just circumvented the phases of grief. I tried to tap into the root of this sentiment – what am I even grieving?
I guess sometimes it seems as though a lot of doors I’ve tried to go through in life have shut in front of me particularly as it applies to family and romantic relationships specifically. This has always been acceptable for me because I’m still able to knock down so many doors in my professional life and see consistent success in this realm. I don’t feel lacking for not being called to life as a wife or mother or living down the street from my parents and seeing family every weekend because I have my career success to keep me focused and busy (not that these things are mutually exclusive because I don’t think so at all; these are simply the justifications and frameworks I have applied to my own life to help me make sense of it). It is because in the occupational realm, input matches output. I can work so hard and see a direct impact in the success of that, whereas in other realms my level of input has not been matched in the outcome. So the grief seemed to stem from the slamming of my primary door and this question of where to turn to when all the doors are shut? And further, when all typical “keys” to “unlock new doors” have been temporarily suspended due to “shelter in place”? I began thinking, if your work and your output are the fundamental sources of inspiration, success and worthiness, how do you sustain meaning and purpose from life when everything has been stripped away by an order to stay at home and do a whole lot of nothing? In set a pressure to replace that sense of achievement by figuring out a temporary goal with which to distract myself, such as trying to train for a marathon or learn a new language.
In processing this on a call with a friend, she was struggling to understand my frenzy, asking “why do you feel like you need to PROVE or DO anything to feel accomplished and worthy? Why can’t you see that you are worthy and enough simply by just being?”
Sincerest apologies to my poor network of friends as I work my way through my phone book subjecting them all to my burdensome unanswerable questions in desperation to feel some type of resolution and understanding. But it really is just the coolest, having people who GET you enough that they just hit you back with these equally unanswerable and amazing questions. And then say, “you should go WRITE, Charlotte.” DAMN. I am known.
One of the most helpful pieces of media I’ve interacted with amidst this crisis begins to answer exactly that. Krista Tippett really is always peering into my soul and speaking my heart. In this case, a 10 minute dialogue from her Living The Questions series, which is inspired by another favorite quote of mine from Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into an answer.”
In the meandering minutes of this particular piece she is exploring a question submitted by someone whose sentiments are exactly what I had been pondering. Raised to believe that success is defined through achievements in intellectual and occupational pursuits, she was struggling to reconcile her self worth while quarantined. “If I believe we are all inherently worthy just by being human, how can I feel that way when I’m doing ‘nothing’?” The transcript and audio are here; if you choose to interact with it I recommend listening rather than reading as it is much more powerful in that way.
Krista does not answer the question directly. Instead she explores ways of starting to build into an answer. Being kind to yourself, getting settled into yourself, remaining soft. I love her closing line: “and it’s going to be a piece of us cultivating depth and calm and resilience and even, I think, creativity for this long work ahead.” ❤ When I think about who I want to be known as, hands down it would be a person of depth, calm, resilience and creativity, willing to dig in to the long work and be kind and soft in the midst of that.
Another struggle for me has been the notion that you can work your ass off arranging your life as soundly as possible: having the recommended emergency funds in the bank for being out of work for extended amounts of time, contributing to a retirement, being debt free, living below your means and all these other ways of being responsible and setting yourself up for success. Applying CONTROL makes me feel so good! Perpetuating a consistent illusion that I am IN CONTROL is such a KEY part of my identity! Yet how fragile this identity really is, if it can all be completely upended by circumstances entirely outside of our control. In some ways I have this feeling of acceptance that we all need to experience this collective humbling right now, and I’m looking forward to the potential of that while knowing how difficult it will be to face.
Alas, as I can only hope from any of my writing and thinking, finally it starts to add up a little bit.
Is it perhaps more productive to think about how to replace our fragile frameworks and preconceived beliefs on what success looks like with something that cannot be toppled? For lack of a better analogy the ‘American Dream’ concept, and all of those it has any level of a grasp on, needs a life coach to help it figure out how to redirect towards what really matters in life.
I think about this virus that is powerful enough to topple economic systems, to inundate our medical facilities, to alter social programming in the way we go about tasks such as grocery shopping and hygiene and our day to day jobs; all these really macro level changes simultaneously. And then the devastatingly individual micro scale realities too: a virus that strips away human dignity by rendering its victims to die alone, gasping for air, surely never having imagined this would be their end. How much beautiful soul work in this world was yet unfinished by those whose lives have been lost? The virus ruined that immense potential too, and I hate that.
Perched to usher in so much destruction at so many levels I wonder what could possibly be more resilient than this virus? In a scientific and medical sense, a vaccination. But what was the point of any part of going through this entire experience if we are not equally committed to figuring out a vaccination for healing humanity itself? This is what I am starting to think about: how do we develop a collective humanity resilient enough, that, unlike our economy and our broken healthcare system and the nuances of what we arrange our days and priorities around, is strong enough to be the victor in this and any future battle?
If I could summarize a common thread between the above mentioned input from Zora and Krista and Rilke, they seem to understand this idea that I am living into with more ease the older I get: we are not owed answers, but instead, we owe ourselves to seek the answers out, because the process of seeking propels us into a transformational process. It is better to not have a concrete and immediate answer to the questions because that would negate any process of searching below the surface; admittedly this is also vastly more challenging. But when you come out the other end of it, the consequences of the journey vibrate at a higher level than the question itself which then in turn loses its sense of urgency. In this moment rife with unending uncertain asks, where and how do we pivot to start navigating our way into answers? I can’t expect to know how this is all going to unfold or what the point of it was, but I can open myself up to exploring that. And this is where my exploration has led me…
If I take my own transformation in the last month as an example, it can seem easy to get caught up in the negative emotions which all boil down to fearing death. Death in the very literal sense as a result of COVID19 for ourselves or for anyone we know. Death of so many small and large businesses that won’t survive. Death of productivity, death of industry, death of income, death of physical progress in the reduced ability to exercise, death of prior ways of doing things. This was unproductive and unsustainable for me. Instead, I want to think about what gives me LIFE. At the risk of sounding like some cliché Buzzfeed listicle, some of what that means to me —
- The friends that meet my tough questions with both tougher questions and a gentle presence to come alongside me as I work my way through them. Being able to do that back for people.
- Through acts of service being someone relied upon to ease the burdens of others. The person who fields the late night text “are you awake? I just ended it with him…can I over? I don’t want to be alone.” Or the “a family emergency has me needing to leave town in a couple of hours, what am I going to do with my dog?” I’ve got you. The closure of certain doors in my life is an insurance policy in maintaining my ability to be a person always willing and ready to say yes to helping any way I can. HERE for that.
- Synchronicity, and those moments where something so coincidental happens that you feel like for just a split second, the world was made for you. Like hearing a word as you see the object, or receiving a text from someone in the moment where you are actively thinking about them, or experiencing déjà vu, or a decade later running into your childhood neighbors at a tourist site in Paris. The NO WAY moments of life.
- And TRAVEL. How travel is a secret portal to entirely new patterns of thought and forever alters how you navigate your own existence in the world. The bewildering possibility that it is actually an endless source of expansion in consciousness in that way; you could live forever and never stop traveling and seeing new things and learning about yourself and the world via all of these fresh horizons that is literally WILD! Any time you experience a shift in perspective and priority. Nudges and inklings to recharter a course even if the destination is unknown.
- Trying something new even if you’re awful at it. There is a distinct variant of confidence that results from trying something new that allows you to push yourself forward with a little more self kindness and purpose. Being able to laugh at yourself is another moment that feels really good.
- Passion. To choose one word to stand alone in this listicle without necessitating further explanation: passion.
- The summit of a hike; there is so much potential here. The resulting landscape visage an immediate reward for the output of having physically challenged yourself. Sore muscles; hiking soreness is my favorite soreness. An awareness of insignificance in a good way, that everything is more incredible than you remembered and how fortunate we are to see and experience these things. I find life in any moment like this in nature, not just hiking but seeing shooting stars and the moonlight reflecting on the ocean and animals doing animal stuff and weather doing weather stuff and just marvelling at the incredulousness in how we’ve inflated our importance to deny the need for these beautiful reminders of more. It’s really hard to put into words what I mean by all of this. Hiking was the last time I’ve participated in an activity IRL with anyone and if COVID19 got me I’d rest easy knowing that was the note I exited on.
- Random acts of kindness. A month ago, I was consuming every piece of news possible about the state of things, thinking knowledge was power, and being ‘informed’ translated somehow to security. That is total bullshit, FYI. Now, the articles that compel me most are ones that illustrate the extraordinarily creative ways humans are using their kindness to adapt to what is going on.
- When two people experience some unexpected moment of hilarity together, and there is that caught off guard style of laughter. Surprise laughter is the best kind. That symbiotic knowingness of someone having the same interpretation of a situation as yourself without having to vindicate that in dialogue.
- When hours have whittled away the contents of the bottle and the fire is reduced to a fading glow of coals and the conversation goes quiet and you’re thinking about having just spent the evening sitting around a fire in the company of the people with whom your soul feels at ease and your personhood is safe, just what a blessing all of that is. Those moments of good conversation and good people and good food and good wine that just make you feel a little more alive.
- Different interpretations of a work of art, whether literature or film or poetry or fine art or music, and the inferences art evokes about our individual worldviews; using art as a tool to understand ourselves and each other better through the conversings it provokes.
- Those moments when life has perfectly styled itself (or actively arranging them) when each sensorial activation is stimulated at once. I’m talking about when when it’s snowing outside and you’re curled up in front of a fire place with a glass of wine and a book and nowhere to be and the playlist fits the vibe. Or driving up PCH with all the windows down and smelling the ocean air and feeling the warmth of golden hour absorbing itself into your skin and realizing this is the most alive you’ve felt all week. VIBES just straight up vibes I love vibes.
- Compliments that are so powerful they stick with someone all of their life: that you identified something so core to their essence and verbally affirmed it, and it was in this moment that they finally accepted it as a non-negotiable aspect of their existence. Making others feel seen.
- Finding the courage to speak from a place of complete vulnerability, and having that fear mitigated when the response results in a deeper level of awareness between two people.
I have begun to find comfort in, provided we survive the immediate danger of staying alive, ALL of these life giving things will still be here when the fog lifts, even if our jobs and bank accounts and the pasta aisle are decimated and the road ahead is looking frighteningly uncertain. To me, these are the moments that I would describe as that resilient collective humanity that so intrigues me. They are my dreams to chase and places to turn to for security, purpose, wisdom and hope moreso than our economy, occupations, systems and routines. Once we resume life as we knew it, I hope we will seek them out with a more insatiable persistence and relish them all the more. I am aware that there will be moments where they don’t seem like the perfect stronghold to counteract the magnitude of what we are facing…though is that not a lesson in itself, that we seem to give more power to what is bad than what is good?
I don’t presume to be an expert in therapeutic exercises or ascribe to a generalizing view of what may or may not be helpful for everyone, but I will say that taking some time to reflect on what I see as life giving in Char’s World gave me some peace of mind. If you allow yourself the liberty of escaping into that place of contemplation for a bit I’d love to hear about what gives you life, too.
So April 11th ends and the streets are empty, but I’m realizing that my reoccurring symbol is not about being shut in, it is illustrative of a blank path ahead of us that we have the opportunity to choose how to navigate. Stay the fuck at home until you’re prepared to do it justice. Just kidding, but only kind of. I’m just a girl in the world asking you to think about what it would look like to proceed down a path focused on highlighting the life giving moments you see as resilient to disease instead of getting caught up in that which is not sustainable in times of pandemic. And for everything you do to move from that place. Work from there, love from there, ask from there, learn from there.