5-11-2020

For the last few years on May 11th, I’ve used Instagram to pen a sort of letter to Lowell, my high-school boyfriend who passed away when we were twenty. I’ve done this because the main thing that has made his death easier to cope with is remembering how positive and happy he was as a person, and how much he just loved life. It seemed like being unhappy was not in his vocabulary. His nickname was, honest to god, Mr. Sunshine. 

I’ve written to Lowell about how his loss has impacted me, and how I’ve been trying to stay positive and embody his spirit. I’d write about what I’d want to show him in my life, and what I’d want his input about. This year I want to tell him about Tyler, a Yankees fan who was at one point a spokesperson for Occupy Wall Street, and what I’d give to see Lowell talk to him.

My grief is different now. Lowell’s death was the first loss that impacted me in a significant way, and while I’m not going to compare losing him to losing my mother, the coincidence of Mother’s Day falling on the day before the anniversary of Lowell’s passing has compelled me to write. 

Yesterday was the first Mother’s Day I wasn’t able to call my mom, or send a gift, or go home and visit her. I was understandably dreading the days leading up to it (being inundated with internet ads that shouted “don’t forget about Mom” was pretty taxing), but all day yesterday I was met with texts from friends sending me good vibes, well wishes, and lots of love. My dad sent my sister and I a photo from Mother’s Day in 2014, when the four of us went to the Met together. I went on a long walk with Caiti in Prospect Park, I made chocolate chip waffles like the ones my mom would make me. I did lots of things to feel better, and they helped a lot, and today I woke up with the same mom-shaped hole in my chest that I’ve had for months. 

One of the toughest realizations I’ve had in the middle of this pandemic is how badly I feel like I need a mom. I miss her every day, not just Mother’s Day. I will probably have to be socially distant from people I love when her birthday in July comes around, and possibly for the anniversary of her death in August; I will probably miss her every day in the interim. I don’t say this to detract from everything my friends and family have done, I say this to emphasize how grateful I am for it, and how much I need it.

At the tip of the iceberg, I miss the ability to call her and talk for hours on the phone (or, if she missed my call, how my phone would light up with her picture and the ringtone I set for her, “Happy” by Pharrell). More than that, I miss the ability to call my mom crying and not have to explain what was wrong until she’d told me that, no matter what, it would be okay. Often, I think I am a complete failure for not constantly being able to “be strong” without her, how when I miss her I feel like a little kid again, and how I can’t escape that feeling when I come across music or pictures or other things that remind me of her. It is very hard to convince myself it’s going to be okay right now. 

It is even stranger to explain or rationalize individual grief in the context of the pervasive sadness where I live. I read a figure from Paul Newell that New York “has had 7.44% of all COVID-19 deaths (and 8.1% of cases) worldwide,” along with the tweets about how “the United States is experiencing the same amount of deaths as 9/11 every (x) days.” In writing this piece, I’m not trying to assert that my sadness is worse than anyone else’s - while my loss is significant to me, it is minuscule compared to the scale of how many people have lost someone in the last few months due to COVID. The grief we are experiencing on a planetary level is at times overwhelming, and I am so fucking sad about so much.

In the past I have been able to make sense of grief by taking pictures and finding material nostalgia. A couple of weeks ago, I read this article about Minivan Rock, a genre described as “Y2K-straddling equivalent to the smooth soft rock that was similarly ubiquitous on radio playlists of the mid-1970s to early ’80s.” Basically, it was a list of the most common radio hits from my childhood. There were only one or two songs I didn’t recognize by title, and when I listened to them, I realized that I’d heard them dozens of times before. I even knew the choruses of some of them. Today I sat down to write because not only was I thinking of my mom and Lowell, but also because I was nostalgic for all the days in the middle of spring that I spent in my hometown, listening to these songs as I drove around.

Having an artistic process about loss, memory, and longing has taught me that it’s easier to make work about missing places and things than it is to make work about missing people. However, it’s also taught me that they’re inseparable: all of my photographs of places I haven’t been in months or years are imbued with the memories of those who were there with me, in person or in spirit. Whenever I write about a picture I’ve taken, I end up writing about my most prominent memory of that place. The photographs in Big Empty of the baseball field, floodlights, and parking space are about the time I got to spend with Lowell, watching him play baseball or driving around with him.

What I don’t talk about, when I talk about Lowell, is how depressed I was after he died, and for how long. It was the first time I’d lost someone so close to me. I look back on being able to come out of that depression after Lowell died as a huge personal success. I wouldn’t know that kind of sadness again until I was putting my life back together after losing my mom. I’d be lying if I said this grief was the same (sometimes it seems that grieving my mom has only gotten harder as time has gone on), but I know that in time it will get easier. 

Already, I have been finding positivity in moments of grace and benevolence. Having so many people reach out because they were thinking about me is not lost on me. I am very lucky to be as loved as I am. I’m choosing to take stock in little things that remind me of the people I’ve loved and lost, little things only I would recognize. Last year on May 11, at the Garry Winogrand show Caiti took me to, there was a photograph with a LOWEL theatre marquee in the background, and it made me think of my friend. Yesterday, the Brooklyn Public Library ebook app informed me that I was next on the list to borrow When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön, who was one of my mom’s favorite authors, and I couldn’t help but feel my mom’s presence in what was probably a grand coincidence. 

Any sentence I could write about how integral my mom was to who I am as a person would not do the sentiment justice. I’m especially aware of my mom’s presence as I take pictures - I imagine her feedback, always overflowing with support, never punitive in her criticisms. It’s been difficult to keep at it without her around, but the knowledge that I’m where she would want me to be, doing what she would want me to be doing, surrounded by people who love me, is enough for the moment. Even though the world is a pretty bleak-looking place right now, I am aware that this is temporary, and that even when I can’t put them directly in my line of sight, there are in fact better things ahead.


5/2/2020

I have been finding it hard to write because I have been trying to enjoy how good things are where I am right now. The subtext is that I have been trying to enjoy the good things instead of writing about them, because the overwhelming majority of things going on are uncertain if not terrifying. There are some great things in the place where I am right now. I am drinking a beer that is brewed with earl grey tea and coriander, and the sun is starting to dip under the balcony over mine. I have my music on and my yellow Vans are lit up in the sun. I’m turning away from the fear I feel ninety-nine percent of the time to write about how I am actually doing, and the act of doing that is in fact great. 

Every time I come out on this balcony to write, I look out over a couple of trees next to my apartment building. Their leaves blend into the leaves from the trees overhanging the subway. Being between Flatbush Ave and the subway, my balcony becomes a wind tunnel as the Q train passes us by (the B train hasn’t come for weeks). I’ve thought about tracking how often trains pass the apartment, so I can try and prove my overly romantic theory about how trains only pass each other in front of my building, and are otherwise vessels of solitude on a concrete-lined outdoor track. I could go and watch the platform clocks count down arrivals if I wanted to, but it wouldn’t be the same. The buildings on the other side of the train have rusted fire escapes instead of concrete-floored balconies like mine. Right now, I can see someone on one of the fire escapes in a coral-colored jumpsuit with a cigarette, on the phone, their head at a bored tilt.

Yesterday Tyler and I walked around the neighborhood in the late afternoon. The quiet of my early rise yesterday carried itself through to the afternoon and the morning’s grey sky shrouded me in the sense of sleeplessness that makes drifting off into an afternoon nap effortless. When I woke up from my nap, the sun had come out, and with it every person finishing their work-from-home week or deciding that it was the perfect time to take the dogs or the kids for a walk. Late afternoon sunlight always makes me think of the same things: walking through thick Virginia woods when I went to sleepaway camp; forested walks I’ve taken with my family in the years since I’ve moved to New York; photographing memories of green things when I return from anywhere I go. Tyler has been walking less than I have lately, but when I go to Prospect Park alone, I find paths that allow me to get lost among the trees, if only for a moment. Walking with him is one of my favorite things to do; before the virus we would go on long walks together just for the hell of it. 

The stretch of the park near our apartment bustled with activity, and so did the park-adjacent fields at the circle near Parkside and Coney Island Ave, so we decided to go through the neighborhood on the way home. We walked along Caton and Church Avenues and their side streets, pointing out the gorgeous architecture of the older houses, lamenting the addition of every unsightly apartment complex. We held hands when it wasn’t too warm or too crowded on the sidewalk. My chief complaint about wearing a face mask (besides spending the whole time I’m outdoors smelling whatever I’ve just eaten) is that the condensation from my breath collects under my mask. If I spend any time exerting myself while wearing my mask I can feel sweat literally drip down my face. When I take it off, the skin of my cheeks is oddly velvety to the touch, if not a little clammy. It goes without saying that the masks impede regular breathing. Even though Tyler has mostly recovered from his COVID symptoms, his complaints of dizziness and breathlessness after a walk make perfect sense to me, because while I’ve had no COVID symptoms, I too have trouble breathing with the mask. That said, we see plenty of people without masks, and we both agree that it’s a better idea to wear the mask.

I had made a familiar neighborhood of Lefferts Gardens before I knew Tyler, long before I considered moving in with him. In the past four years I had gone on a couple of dates (with different people) at the bar that is now around the corner from us, the place where I texted my sister that I loved Tyler before I even told him. It confounds me that this is the apartment I fell asleep in the night after I found out my mom was sick, almost nine months ago, and it further confounds me that I have barely left this apartment for almost seven full weeks. On a Facetime call with my sisters I posit that the percentage of work that is now being done from home, and the reliance upon delivery services and remote access to other resources, are what will turn us into the Earthlings from “WALL-E,” bodies hovering on a spaceship, barely sentient beings. Every time I take a walk I feel like I am stamping that out defiantly, even if my face sweats in the process. 

As I finish my beer I’m thinking about the passage of time and how completely absurd this year as been. When the virus ends, over 10,000 New Yorkers will have died (right now, about a sixth of the death toll in the US), and over 30 million people in the US will be unemployed. I have opened a new beer and am considering taking a nap on my balcony, or just lying in the sun with my eyes closed. I am lucky that the person I am with in self-quarantine is a partner and a friend, and someone who, after all of this is over, just wants to lie down in a big field of grass, which is all I ever want. There are no certainties right now, when the situation in my community, my country, my planet, is as dire as it is, but knowing there are some things I can count on and look forward to has been enough to keep me going. 


1/20/2020


Here I have a self-portrait I took in my bathroom last night. I had just gotten out of the bath where I tried, in vain, to read some of Susan Sontag’s early journals, and ended up looking at Twitter for the better part of ninety minutes instead. Deleting Instagram from my phone has only made me use Twitter more and I think it’s time to delete that from my phone too. In the background of the photograph is a long pamphlet of photographs of New York from the early and mid-20th century. 

This is one of my only non-flash Polaroids that is in focus. Tyler gave me the camera as a Christmas gift and it’s the perfect gift for me. I developed 3 rolls of 120 film as well, but the contact sheets I made are no indicator of the work’s quality. The manual settings on my Polaroid camera are magical but also a pain in my ass. The still life in my living room is out of focus because I wasn’t taking the aperture setting seriously, but it turns out a plastic camera can still record depth-of-field (and put things out of focus). That’s the case with a lot of the photos I’ve taken. All my Polaroids have come out a little yellowish. I think my apartment is more than a little yellowish. 

I’m looking at the camera this way because I like how I look getting out of the bath, characteristically. I make this face often in self-portraits. I like being in the bath, with just candles and a book, as I’ve done for years now. I like exiting my plane of existence and sweating too much and turning the lights on in a foggy bathroom, flushed, my mouth geranium. I told Nicole today that I don’t know whether or not I am working on self-portraiture, or trying to feel pretty. When it developed I felt about half as pretty as I thought I looked when I took the picture. If I had my druthers the camera would not have me positioned in two thirds of the frame, but I couldn’t see the frame before taking the picture. It takes a lot for me to feel like I look nice, or pretty, lately, and this is one of the only successes I’ve had with the Polaroid. I have been trying to look at myself more kindly lately. It is as much work as trying to focus the lens of a plastic camera. 

My dad said that I was struggling, offhandedly over the phone a couple of weeks ago. He wasn’t saying it to demean me, or discount my experiences- he meant that I’m struggling because I do not have a job I love (who does?) and because I don’t make a lot of money (again, who does?) and because I am still reckoning with supreme loss, even after what feels like long enough. (It is not long enough! That is the kicker about grief. It is never fully done with you, ever.) I only say that it feels like it has been long enough because I am sick of feeling like I am struggling. I don’t know how to deal with supreme loss except to pretend it’s not happening, until it all comes crashing down on me, along with feelings of guilt and inability and inferiority and other negative shit. I feel unable to access the grief and sadness I am harboring, unless I let it come back to me in its own way. I am having such a hard time self-motivating, knowing what the right thing to do is, because I had the immense luck to have a mother who believed in me, who is now gone. I don’t know how to harness that self-confidence, organically, and I get very sad when I consider that absence. What I was told was grief is supposed to get better and easier, with the passage of time, and maybe that expectation is what has made it so disappointing that it feels like it’s only gotten harder. I’m sure I also compound that with a hefty amount of feeling like I am fucking up grieving (I know I’m not), which makes it that much harder to push past. 

But: it isn’t impossible. I asked friends to send me writing prompts because I am trying to ham-fist my way back into productivity. Today I chipped away at the tip of the iceberg of writing down all my job responsibilities in one place, so that when I start applying to other jobs I will have something to hand off to my successor. I am looking at other jobs. I am logging every single thing I eat, so that when I (inevitably) have another gastritis flare-up, I can show my doctors, look, I’m not eating (total) garbage, please take my symptoms seriously. I am going to yoga weekly. I have a new therapist who is great. I’m reading a lot of books. I’m writing, here and in a journal. I am doing a really good job of it, all things considered. This is why it does not look like I am struggling. 

At some point I want to point to the characters of my grief and blame them for tormenting me, months later, even though I know that my own self-doubt is more powerful than any outside influence. I want to be able to make some kind of work, writing or pictures, about this time in my life. I do not want to feel stifled or limited by my grief (see: posting a naked photo of myself on the internet) and I do not want to lapse into passivity. Today in yoga I reached up in a side-angle stretch and felt like I could grab the ceiling fixture, an orb as dull and yellow as the wall in this photograph. I want that sensation, but with the center of my creative process. I want to get out of the bath of my struggle, the January air making my skin real again. I want to break the hemiseal and heave into the pulp of it all with my whole body, like a blood orange in August. 

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