A Note for the Hopeless

Around the end of June 2020, Ben and I heard a group of people singing “Happy Birthday” outside our window. We live at the top of a fifth-floor walkup on 80th Street in Manhattan, and our apartment looks out onto hundreds of stranger’s back patios and fire escapes.

The first few nights we heard the song, we chalked it up to an enthusiastic Zoom call. But when we started hearing it every night–sometimes multiple times–we were bewildered. In a time when isolation stretched on for the foreseeable future, this imaginary group of revelers started to frustrate me. Why did they get to gather and sing when we were playing by the rules?

By the end of August, our metal and rust-covered rooftop had become our greatest respite from our overheated one-bedroom apartment. One evening, when the singing started up again, Ben carefully leaned over the edge of our fire escape and spotted a group of beautifully set tables and strands of decorative lights. “It’s an outdoor restaurant!” he yelled, “That’s who’s been singing happy birthday!”

No one was breaking the rules, no one was flaunting their social distancing. It was a small pocket of joy outside our window in the back patio of a restaurant we had no idea was even there.

The Tricky Part About Hope

In spite of this cynical misunderstanding, Ben and I have somehow held onto a sense of hope from the very beginning–perhaps foolishly. I personally gripped onto hope so tightly that it took months to get over my anger at others who hadn’t. Even when I spoke to my therapist on the phone–who is paid to ensure I am living in reality–I raged about the lack of trust and hope during such a traumatic time. Every time my positive attitude was met with a “But things will never be the same, ” or a, “Yeah, but we’re gonna suffer a lot before then,” set me on fire with frustration. This feeling, I admit, was unfair.

Hope–quite understandably after this horrific year–has been linked with irresponsibility. I get that. In many parts of our country, a hopeful tone is paired with a flippancy that this pandemic is not as serious as it is. It can be linked with denial, with a sense of–let’s face it–selfishness. But Ben and I never doubted scientists, we wear masks, and we intend to enthusiastically get vaccinated when our time comes. So where did our cautiously hopeful attitude fit in? And why did it bother me so much that we felt alone it it? And why did it take me a year to write this blog post?

Days and Days and Days

Until I was eleven-years-old, I grew up in a very dangerous part of Plainfield, NJ. By dangerous I mean our house was broken into, our family was threatened multiple times, and when we did move, we weren’t listed in the phone book (this was pre-internet). Eventually, we managed to move to the tip of New Jersey so far back in the woods that they’d only recently put up street signs.

The move–which happened on July 15th, 1998 (an anniversary I celebrate every year)–was my end to a metaphorical pandemic. Even as a kid, I knew deep down that Plainfield would end, I just wanted us all to survive to see the day.

When I tried to immediately embrace my new life in my new town, something felt severely off. Imagine driving an hour from your house and finding a town of people that had never heard the term Covid-19. They’d had a perfectly normal year. They went to school, won some achievement awards for good grades, joined a softball team, and regularly hung out with a group of friends. This was me moving at 11. No one else had been through what we’d been through. That whole time, the rest of the world had carried on while we’d remained frozen in time.

A large part of me throughout my teens and early 20s silently resented the people around me for not losing those years. I assumed–incorrectly–that they hadn’t had challenges and that my awful reality was the truer reality–the way the world “really was.” They were the naive ones. What I didn’t realize is that these people, these loving people in my life, were the “Happy Birthday” singers out my window. They were the distant reminders that joy had prevailed somewhere, even briefly, during my dark years. In the end, it was my college group of friends–who were not part of my childhood story–that helped me get to therapy and pulled me out of despair.

The trickier thing today is that we are all in the shit together. There’s no group of people living without the knowledge of our shared trauma. Our trauma has all been different–very much so–but I use the word trauma deliberately. My therapy journey eventually took me to a PTSD specialist in 2016. I never pegged myself as someone with this diagnosis because I hadn’t been in a major accident, seen combat, or been physically attacked. My therapist explained the concept of complex trauma–PTSD that develops over a period of time when the threat remains constant. It is better explained by professionals here. Not all trauma develops into PTSD, but in my case it had.

My work with this therapist made me realize that the way I’d been living my life was not the only option. I always knew this on some level. I moved, after all–life had “returned to normal.” I read all the self-help books, became a Buddhist, went back to Catholicism, gave up both, walked 500 miles across a country, but still, a part of my body was still in Plainfield.

Most importantly, I couldn’t leave this trauma at the top of a mountain in Spain, I couldn’t leave it in a church, I couldn’t even leave it with a therapist. It took a long time to fully believe my world had changed and that the threat was not always waiting outside the front door.

A Complicated Ocean Metaphor

As I’m writing this today, even the NYTimes is admitting that hope could be on the horizon. We have vaccines, we have a president with a plan, and scientists are feeling hopeful. But what about us? I keep feeling like we’re all standing on the shore of hope–please excuse the long metaphor to come. Some have already swum out into the sea while others are on the shore yelling at them to come back. I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle, right in that place where the wave tries to pick you up but you have enough contact with the ground to still walk back.

If this had happened ten years ago, there is no question I would be on the shore. The weight of this horrific year would have proven my greatest fear–that things are “never going to get better.” That’s what depression and trauma love to tell you.

And yet, somehow, this time, perhaps because I’ve been in these waters before, I know we will be swimming again together eventually. It will just take time.

So, why am I finally writing this? Let’s start with why I am not writing this. I am not here to say that there is a silver lining to any of this. Fuck that. It was terrible. It can be terrible. I am not here to say that this pandemic is something that will be easy to get through or get over. We may never “get over” it in the sense that we think. I will never be over Plainfield. Instead, the experience for me has become a comparison tool.

Every now and then, I think back to the girl crossing off days on her bedroom calendar until the big move, terrified that something would happen before then that would hurt her family. Nowadays, even when I’m having a crappy day, I can think “Look at this! I have normal problems!” The world and all its flaws becomes much more vibrant.

When I hike the Camino de Santiago (something I talk about a lot on this blog), I spend most nights in hiker hostels or monasteries with anywhere between 5 and 100 people in each room. People snore, beds creak, and sometimes the air is so thick and smelly that you think there is no way you’ll be able to sleep enough to walk 18 miles the next day. But I’ve learned a trick. I think back to my trapped Plainfield days and ask myself if I’m trapped now. The answer is always no. The cynicism and frustration melt away and it all becomes a big adventure again. By this point, I’m snoring into the church rafters.

We may do that with Covid someday–perhaps not–but maybe. Maybe in a long line at the grocery store, on an over-crowded boardwalk, or when you’re tucked into one of the small wooden seats in a Broadway theatre. What was once frustrating may feel different, like a part of the adventure that was once taken from us.

Now for the reason I am writing this–finding hope after Plainfield took me 16 years. And honestly, the pain is still ongoing, it’s just far lighter than it was. But I moved through it with time, patience, therapy, and a lot of steps forward and backward. The people in my life that remained in the ocean proved that there was still hope out there somewhere–they reminded me that life could go on living when I felt safer on the shore. It helped me to see them, even if I wasn’t ready to join them.

We can hold hope and reality in the same hand. We can wear masks, follow restrictions, and be hopeful that things are improving simultaneously. And when Covid is controlled, we can feel fearful and relieved simultaneously as well.

I don’t have answers about what will happen in the next few months or years, but I can say there is another side to this pain and there is no rush in getting there. The voice that says “the world may never be the same” may simply mean that you will never be the same, and of course you won’t. I definitely won’t. But different doesn’t mean worse off, it’s just different.

I hope to be in the water most days, showing those on the shore that it’s possible to have hope. Other days, I may be back on the shore, safe in my worry. Wherever I am metaphorically, on my 35th birthday this October, I hope to eat at the restaurant outside our window and tell them all about how their singing made a difference in our lives when the world felt so far away.

A Note on Belonging

I had a pretty difficult time returning from both of my Caminos. The noise of American televisions, the lack of connection with people in your neighborhood as you walk down the street, the speed of everyday life. The biggest shock driving home from the airport was the rigid geometry of the streets in our suburban town. Everything was a square: the yards, the houses, the intersections.

My left brain, which found some sweet rest while hiking across Spain, grumbled out of hibernation as I tried to adapt back to a regular, monotonous town and schedule. The sound of English was jarring–I missed being forced to find the overlaps in our shared languages to interact.

On the other hand, the Camino opened a social doorway for me. On at least five or six occasions, I’ve had the chance to sit down with other Camino pilgrims and long-distance hikers right after they’ve returned from their own trips. No matter what we talk about, I always ask them the same question: how have you been adjusting to coming home?

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AOC Challenge Week 6 & 7: Break Time

Photo via Unsplash

Hi All! I’ve hit a wonderfully busy time of my year, and for my own sanity, have decided to give myself a blogging pass for a bit until things settle down. In the meantime, last week’s On Being episode speaks to a lot of what I’ve been contemplating here. If you need a nice lift this morning, have a listen to this episode.


One of my favorite clips from the interview transcript, referring to a distancing that has occured since the election…

MS. BROWN: Yeah, no, we’ve sorted ourselves into ideological bunkers. And what’s so crazy is how that social demographic changing — of sorting into those ideological bunkers — tracks exactly with increasing rates of loneliness. And so I would argue that — and this goes back to your paradox — nine times out of ten, the only thing I have in common with the people behind those bunkers is that we all hate the same people. And having shared hatred of the same people or the same — I call it “common enemy intimacy” —

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, right. That’s such a good phrase.

MS. BROWN: Our connection is just an intimacy created by hating the same people, is absolutely not sustainable. It’s counterfeit connection.

MS. TIPPETT: So it’s not true belonging.

MS. BROWN: Oh, God, it’s not true belonging, it’s hustling of the worst magnitude. It’s just hustling. And so my question was, for the men and women who really carried this sense of true belonging in their hearts — they didn’t negotiate it with the world; they carried it internally; they brought belonging wherever they went because of their strength and their spiritual practice around it — what did they have in common? And so this first practice of true belonging is, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” When you are really struggling with someone, and it’s someone you’re supposed to hate because of ideology or belief, move in. Get curious. Get closer. Ask questions. Try to connect. Remind yourself of that spiritual belief of inextricable connection: How am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?

MS. TIPPETT: Actually, I think, the real spiritual practice — or at least hand in hand with that — the spiritual practice you’re pointing at is reclaiming our belonging, our human belonging, and having a courage to stand alone in our own groups, to transcend the tribal politics. Is that fair?

MS. BROWN: Yes. That’s exactly right.

MS. TIPPETT: So that we defy the sorting. We just say, “We’re not gonna live this way.”

MS. BROWN: I’ve probably been in front of — let me think — realistically, 25,000 people since this book came out, on a book tour across the United States. And every time, I ask the audiences, “Raise your hand if you deeply love someone whose vote in 2016 you find incomprehensible.” And 99% of hands go up. And we have to find a way. Then I ask, “How many of you are willing to sever permanently your relationship with the person you love, because of their vote?” And maybe one or two hands goes up.

I’m not; I am personally not willing to do that. Now I’m not going to tolerate abuse, or I’m not going to tolerate dehumanizing language. I’m not going to have a curious and open dialogue with someone whose politics insists on diminishing my humanity. Those are lines that were very clear with the research participants. But short of that, I’m going to lean in, and I’m going to stay curious.

A Story About a Bee and a Hug

On the second-to-last day of our hike to Santiago, Christina and I weren’t exactly on the top of our game. While Christina’s physical health was wavering, my mental stability and patience with the trip fell more and more each minute. I was growing weary of the whole ordeal, which is not where you want to be at the end of a spiritual pilgrimage.

After failing to find a bed in the cozy private hostel nearby, we ran across the speedy highway to a small “village,” made up of one bar, the public hostel, and a gazebo with a Jesus-looking man selling books (if the historically inaccurate white Jesus from your American Catholic School textbook aged a few years and sold books on the side of a dirt road).

He waved with kind eyes and his yellow lab came out to greet us. This made me laugh a bit, as I had been making a “joke” in my head for about a week of wanting to find Jesus. Not in the sense that many Christians mean–though I deeply respect their beliefs, I do not share them. Instead, this Buddhist on a Catholic pilgrimage was slowly turning into a grouchy insomniac with a bruised bone on the top of her foot that just wanted to go home. And so, I had spent the past week desperately longing to rediscover the human connection millions had found in these little Camino villages, churches, and roads, but had somehow eluded me the closer we got to our destination.

We waved back and walked down the road to a bench outside the albergue (Camino word for hostel), as it did not open until 1. It was noon. As Christina tried to prop herself up and sleep a bit, her obvious fever growing, giant Mack trucks flew by us approximately every 10 seconds. Hoards of happy, energized pilgrims that had only just started their walk a week prior, bounced on to the next city, waving as they passed and looking with an air of “You alright?” each time.

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How to Return

The past two nights, I’ve stumbled through NYC pretending that I fit in, ignoring–or hiding–that I still feel like an outsider.  I stop extra long at busy intersections–at one point so long that a feisty West Village pedestrian smacks into the back of me without a word of “Oops” or apology.  I’m in the way.  But I can’t explain to them that I recently spent five weeks with traffic as one of my biggest contenders.  Before you leave, you avoid telling your parents or husband that car accidents are the biggest–and pretty frequent–cause of pilgrim injuries, or worse (Hi dad!).  I scuttered across a few too many highways with a heavy backpack because the yellow arrows told me to.  But alas, here I am, a safer New Yorker.

I am also used to being the “other” in a city. I see women walking toward me with makeup and fashionable clothing, and my brain still tells me that I am an outsider in hand-washed hiking pants, a faded blue shirt, and a nylon headband covering the heat rash on my neck.  I know I’m not, I’m one of the normals now.  But that’s the issue, I don’t feel like it.  I don’t feel like them and I know I’m not like them.

The true issue is figuring out what the hell you do with this confused energy right after you get back from a trip of this sort.  This happened to me last time as well, and honestly, I thought it had to do more with life events at the time, and not a pilgrim-reintegration syndrome, an issue I just made up all on my own.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total mess by any means. In reality, I’m sitting at my new homemade desk (because I now write from home for a living, yay!)–with some calming folk music, a hot mug of freshly made coffee, and even a small oil diffuser that calmly changes colors every few seconds.  I could not be in more of a comfortable, introvert-friendly, privileged scenario than right now.  So why am I such an emotionally stunted grouch half the day?

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When a Community Loses the Biggest Energy in the Room

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher asked us to describe the first time we processed the idea of death. As was the case with most of my high school papers, I came up with a much better description of this childhood moment years after writing the paper; still, the assignment has stuck with me for years. If I wrote the paper today, I would talk about my paternal grandfather’s passing when I was ten years old.  I understood the idea of death, but I didn’t yet fully comprehended the human confusion that succeeded someone’s passing, especially when the person lost was one of those “big energies,” one of those people that changed the energy of a room, who drove the conversation and led a community in subtle ways that no one truly notices until the person is gone.

In my limited memories of him, this was my grandfather–a “big energy” kind of guy. At the funeral, my dad–who up until this point I had never seen get emotional or speak in public–told a story (Dad, I’m sorry, I’m probably going to butcher this). As he was driving out to Pennsylvania for the funeral, trying to process what he was going to say in the eulogy, he stared out into the river alongside route 80. Though most of the water was frozen, there was one circle of clean, melted water right in the center of the river. And in that hole of water, was a swan–just sitting, in his own little area of peaceful space, lit up by some sunlight. This serendipitous sight sparked a memory of when my dad and his family first walked back into their Wilkesbarre home after the flood which followed Hurricane Agnes in 1972.  He recounted that the house was nearly ruined, the living room and furniture caked in a foot of mud.  But across the kitchen, my grandfather was clearing off a space on the counter, furiously cleaning a few square feet of space. My dad, wondering if his dad had lost his head, asked why he was cleaning off such a specific space when he was surrounded by rooms of mud–what good could that one spot possibly do?  And my grandfather turned around and explained that all day, no matter how overwhelming things seemed, he would have that one clean space amidst all the mud. It was a space for the swan in the frozen river. Whether it was a well-read coincidence or a sign from my grandfather, the world reminded him of his wise energy and profound lessons, even after he was gone.

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The Troubled Relationship Between Time and Art


Back in college, my friends and I invented a day of the week known as Twunesday.   Twunesday fell between Tuesday and Wednesday, and all events that didn’t fit within the constraints of our seven-day week were scheduled on this day.  When will I write that paper?  On Twunesday!  How about taking a nap?  Twunesday is an excellent day for naps!

Nowadays I find myself filling up my Twunesday schedule with all the artistic endeavors only doable on days when I have a clear schedule, void of responsibilities.  I daydream about a clean, cleared-off desk with an artsy looking planter full of succulents, a steaming coffee cup, and a little framed motivational quote about the sun and new ideas, or some other baloney.  This desk does not exist is my house, most of my writing is done at the dining room table with a cat laying half off my keyboard, usually cutting off the use of everything from caps lock to the space bar.  A pile of papers containing theatre mailers, tax documents, and notepads with my husband’s play notes are held down by a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, of which I have read half.

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“You’re Not Good, You’re Not Bad, You’re Just Nice”


Right after the election, a meme was making the rounds, predicting that Hillary would come out on stage before the inauguration to sing “Last Midnight,” from Into the Woods.  If you’re unfamiliar with the musical, this may have looked like a jab to Hillary’s character, since after all, the song is sung by the witch.  In the song, the witch denounces the actions of everyone on stage, dooming them all, before disappearing in a puff of smoke and returning to her “uglier,” previously cursed self.  But if you do know the show well, you know that the witch is one of the strongest, most complex and powerful characters of the show.

I happen to know the show backwards and forwards because of the lucky fact that I was an introverted musical theatre child of the 90s and staged an imaginary production of this show in my living room.  Nowadays, whenever I see theatre festival notices that state, “If chosen, play must be fully produced prior to the festival,” I think about how I’ll always have the production of Into the Woods in my back pocket, the audience just won’t be able to see my cast of imaginary actors.

Anyway, to put it in a nutshell, Into the Woods sets a bunch of familiar fairy tale characters in one town, all in pursuit of their personal dream.  The Witch is one of the story’s common threads.  She has a rough past–a history of cursing the baker’s family into sterility (after being robbed by them), and oh yes, trapping her daughter in a tower.  But as the play progresses, we hear each character’s side of the story and watch them either grow into empathetic people, fall into a life of crime, or a combination of both. And as an audience, you start to question: who is justified in their quest?

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An Acting Lesson for Troubling Times


When I was twelve, I played Anne Frank in a local theatre production up in the mountains of North Jersey.  It was in one of those performance spaces that makes you miss the community theatre scene–a sturdy, 19th-century chapel in the center of town, with original wooden pews, a lady bug infestation, and the smell of books and old coffee.

The timing of this show was a major comfort for me and my family, it was just over two years since we had moved from Plainfield, a town that had become so dangerous that we purposely “disappeared” with as little a trace as possible.  These were the days before the internet, and so all you needed to do was select being “unlisted” in the White Pages, and bam, you were off the grid.  Studying Anne brought such solace to me in a time when I felt that I had also up and left my friends without a mailing address.  The door simply closed on that old life.  Unlike Anne though, I started a new one.  I was welcomed by a chance to play in the woods, to ride my bike until the sun went down, to meet new friends, and through that, work with new theatre companies.

I had a pretty lucky theatre ‘career’ as a kid, I probably worked more then than I have as an adult so far.  But up until that point, I hadn’t dealt with a role with such a massive line-load as Anne.  I also spend 99% of the show on stage, only stepping behind a flat to change during the second act; and of course, I did not come in the final scene, when Otto Frank returns without his family.

But my primary focus was on my lines, of the logistics of staying on stage that long, of the ins and outs of imitating and embodying a historical figure I had already looked up to for years.  You can learn a lot about someone’s energy and enthusiasm for life through their writing voice, and perhaps this is why we’re all so drawn to this girl.  I studied the way she viewed the crumbling world around her, how she always maintained empathy and a belief in others’ goodness, even when she got angry and frustrated and panicked.  I connected with the fact that she had terrifying nightmares that woke her up mid-scream (at least this is how its depicted in the show).  I grew up with nightmares, and still either sleep walk or wake up gasping for breath from time to time.  But most of all, I remember obsessively retraining myself on how to hold my pen–sometimes the two front fingers connected to the pencil, my thumb on the other side, and sometimes the pencil between the fore and middle finger, something that took a good deal of practice.  I still catch myself doing these from time to time.

Like this.

Like this.

And so I learned to sit like her, to speak in a rhythm I believed she would have used, and to sink into the small world of the annex; as in real life, I played with the ladybugs and stared out the church window at a similar chestnut tree she describes in her diary.  In the end, as with all roles, I am still me, and so we slowly became one, walking and talking in tandem.  In the early days of living in a new town, she was a friend.

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You Are My Starfish–A Camino Story

Photo via Unsplash

Photo via Unsplash

Despite the past several days throwing us some curve balls (I fell down the steps this morning–no broken bones but some pretty impressive cuts and bruises), I woke up feeling generally okay. Sure, the heat in our apartment still doesn’t work because our boiler almost blew us up last week. And sure, every day, the news reminds us that the country is crumbling.  And yet, as I tried to express in last week’s post, good things are still happening.  Maybe that’s why I can handle wiping out on my back steps, spitting toothpaste all over the room and nearly breaking my elbow.  I can take that.  Because on the bright side, I still don’t have to live through another November 8th, 2016.

After that terrible week, I felt paralyzed.  I felt that no matter what I did, nothing could fight this national disaster.  But as the days passed, and our clouds of fear slowly parted, many of us started finding very small, very subtle ways of trying to improve the days of those around us.  A coworker approached me about a Secret Santa for local low-income seniors, another friend arranged us to volunteer at a homeless shelter.  While I was there, I bumped into another friend, totally unrelated to the first arrangement, who had come just to volunteer with her husband.  Because she knew she had to do something.  Because of these, and some other random opportunities for acts of kindness, this was one of the most fulfilling holiday seasons I’ve ever experienced.

The country has seen this too.  A record-breaking donation season, a huge increase of women running for local offices, people stepping up to defend strangers, just to name a few.

But I’m not here to pat myself on the back.  I’m actually here to talk about a Camino story (surprise!).

The Camino of Animals


Ben and I were chatting about this phenomenon last night–people’s call to action after the election.  It’s easy to feel that small acts are too insubstantial when the headlines tell you that no matter what you do, an unstoppable sentiment of hate and intolerance has been reawakened in our country.  It’s hard to feel that leaving a larger tip on someone’s bill, or going out of your way to say something friendly to a stranger really matters at all.  Why donate one place, when there are so many groups that need our attention?

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