(to read WSIJM Part I, click here, and for Part II, click here)
It’s a cold morning, with the sun hidden behind clouds, the way I prefer it. I can feel the tiniest droplets on my face as I walk down Olentangy trail. There’s a tin taste in the air, the scent of thousands of different species of greenery, and the only sounds are from the river about four yards on my left. The force going to the ball of my feet is not taxing, yet has launched a lifetime of motion to where I am now. After a certain distance, roughly a quarter mile, my thoughts begin to disentangle, and the world grows simultaneously acute and quiet. I feel like walking is no longer an active motion, but one part of many that serves to propel motion forward. The road connects me to my past, all things present, and the multitudes of possibilities. This is where thinking happens.
In my last full-length post, I transcribed my first day of my second year in my doctoral program at Ohio State University, down to the minute. This time, I wanted to try its inverse; I wish to encapsulate a whole year of doctoral studies in one sentence. After completing two years of studying, my first year of teaching here at OSU, along with working as an editor for a magazine, taking classes outside of my department, and reaching some important milestones, all while trying to survive a pandemic, I can’t think of a more eloquent way to phrase it:
Grad school is fucking hard.
(Okay, this may not offer as much detail as my previous post, so allow me to elaborate…)
The best way to start understanding this sentence is by continuing from that original post, and what happened after that day. The feeling of newness was wearing off, and I starting to feel pretty comfortable as a grad student as the second year started….until it actually started. On my first day, I was officially a 2nd-year grad student, English Composition Instructor, Editor for QuePasa Ohio State Magazine, and LASER Hub Mentor, along with the other labels I came in with, like 1st Gen, Latinx, male, working-class. It was really strange, trying to be good at ten things at once. What’s stranger is that here, when you’re in your second year of grad studies, you’re learning a ton of new tasks as you go, yet feel inclined to perform a mastery of it, as if all of your efforts are dedicated to this one thing, all while trying to plan for the next ten things you have to do. While you teach, you’re thinking about a journal article your professor told you about; while you’re writing, you’re thinking about your next lesson plan; while you’re grading, you’re second guessing that one comma. It’s really hard, almost unreasonable. An earlier version of myself would have welcomed the challenge, feeling honored to accomplish such a feat, but present-day me, in this spot, had to be honest: I don’t know how long I can keep going.
When I started teaching and began my new editor gig, grad school threw at me another lesson I resisted for as long as I could. To be a grad student is to walk around with a toolbelt that carries every tool you have ever picked up along the way during your academic experience. When you’re confronted with a new challenge, the tool you’re used to using may not do the trick, but you have another one in your belt that will. When I started teaching here, no matter how many years I taught before, teaching in my new program was something new, and I needed to learn how to do this well, but I started to doubt my tool kit. I loved being back in the classroom, and writing prompts and lesson plans brought back memories of doing work I cared about, but this time, something was different. There was no sense of familiarity while standing in front of the class. Instead, I was being molded into the teacher OSU wanted me to be. I was teaching a class with a prescribed syllabus, a book I didn’t choose, and every week, I was taking a class on how to teach at OSU, which, in the way it was described, made teaching feel like I was from a different planet. I’d walk into class conflicted, feeling like I’m about to teach something I don’t believe in. I’ve seen colleagues with brilliant ideas get swatted down solely because it doesn’t fit in the prescribed syllabus. This was worse than squeezing a square peg in a round whole- if that peg doesn’t go through, a lot of people are going to be upset. It was not pleasant, but, like most of my experiences with teaching, it’s the students that made me try to fit through that round hole. I had students from different countries, and met students who come from backgrounds that cannot fathom life after high school that doesn’t include college. My initial impression told me it was going to be really difficult to connect with these students in large part due to my non-traditional academic trajectory. There were a lot of discussions that took place in class that had nothing to do with the syllabus. Instead, we all tried to understand each other. And most of the time, it paid off, ultimately creating a classroom climate that says, All backgrounds welcome. That was the saving grace for teaching that semester. Most students came from a background that told them their whole lives that college was their only option. Once they met a teacher who tried something different, it became a kind of equalizer. It felt like we all symbiotically benefitted from this pairing. I was no longer defined by my parameters. Versatility was the tool from my toolbelt that helped the most with this new teaching environment. It was okay that I was the square peg trying to fit through a round hole. I had a toolbelt, and they wanted to learn.
There were actually way more challenges and a different kind of newness in my second year outside of teaching. Getting through classes and teaching was more about completing tasks than learning, the kind that sucks the fun out of learning. My gig as magazine editor was a kind of dream job, where writing was the focus, but the job itself was more than writing. I did promoting, networking, worked with various student organizations, and managed a team, all while juggling multiple deadlines. It was not easy, and there were days where it felt more like a job than a dream job. But there was a lot to like, too. The magazine focuses on Latinx voices at Ohio State. Curating a magazine that helped reflect the pastiche of being a Latinx student at OSU was something to take pride in. To be the driver of the vehicle for Latinx voices was not easy for all the right reasons, but I did it while teaching and taking classes. I could take in all the pride I want, but it was still a lot of work. I also took a class on Health Disparities in the Sociology department, learning about the social and theoretical approaches to addressing health care access and how health care is practiced at the public level. Sitting in that class felt schizophrenic at times, where I’d marvel at the stuff I’m learning, especially when it’s material my classes in the English department doesn’t cover, yet moments later, it felt like I’m back in high school, taking a biology class where my notes benefitted from a quantity-over-quality strategy. I haven’t been in a class like that in ages, making me tap into a part of my brain that laid dormant for years. All of these new challenges were not what I was expecting in my second year. Cumulatively, they demanded a new kind of skillset. It was no longer possible to avoid this new lesson: I needed new tools.
Some days, I would spend the whole day in the library reading room, surrounded by the giants I stood on the shoulders of, where the air is still and the windows tall and beautiful. After several hours, my mind growing foggy from the noise of emails and due dates, I stepped outside and walked around the campus oval. I pass by an ocean of faces, yet I floated through the crowds like an apparition enjoying people watching. The skies, sometimes cloudy, sometimes clear, provided the calmness I was looking for. All of the thoughts in my head were yelling for my attention, but when I would go for a walk, they all retreated to their corners and diplomatically agreed on who needed my attention next. The green became a welcoming companion, absent of judgement, ready to provide whatever I needed to keep working. Those walks saved me from numerous headaches, unwinding the trapezius. It soon became a hot spring of inspiration, replenishing my will to work. This is how thinking happens.
Walking around the oval, getting more and more comfortable with my students, and finding a good routine all helped create a groove that made riding the semester a little easier. After a while, I also found really interesting inroads with my students, especially with my International Students. I’ve taught International Students at my previous campus, but for some at OSU, this was their first semester as well as their first time in the States. One interesting characteristic they shared was how much they utilized office hours. They hesitated sharing in class, never raising their hands or contributing to the class discussion, but when they were in my office, they had tons of questions and were always interested in hearing about how to improve their writing. For some, meeting during office hours was more than supplemental time, but just as much a part of their learning experience as classroom time. As they continued to utilize office hours as a resource, I thought about the positionality of teachers and how to use office hours to enhance their learning experience. I drew from Rita Charon’s teaching on Narrative Medicine, and the power dynamic that exists within this setting. My goal should be less about passing down wisdom and more about how to empower these students, making them feel their own agency in action. I think about how Charon defines Narrative Medicine as “at once attuned to the individual patient, replenishing for the individual professional, dutiful in generating and imparting medicine’s knowledge, and cognizant of the responsibilities incurred by the public trust in medicine”. Out of these exchanges, we ended up crafting a teaching experience that put them in the position of shaping what they got out of the class. I solely facilitated.
The first few months proved really difficult, but sifting through the paperwork, the deadlines, and days where getting up and going to work felt impossible, a really good learning experience came out of it. That semester, I also observed one of my advisors, where we’d talk about his pedagogy and how to teach and grade an upper division class. This, on top of teaching, working as an Editor, and taking classes, all worked to get me to a really interesting point of my program: learning what kind of academic I wanted to be. I gave a lecture on Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal to the class I was observing. I prepped for weeks to teach that one hour-and-a-half section, but when I got to lecture on things like how we use language to heal and how to be an ethical listener, the things I was interesting in studying in my field, it felt like I was working up to that position for years. Maybe because I kinda was. About a week after that lecture, our issue of QuePasa was completed and printed. Seeing that issue was like that feeling when I worked with my dad in his construction company. You labor for long stretches of time, seeing the product get built piece by piece, hitting moments where you’re not even sure when it’s going to be done, and then it is. You take a step back to really look at it. It’s gorgeous. I was really proud of that issue, and I was happy to be part of the team that launched it.
It was a strange feeling when the semester ended. I stepped away learning a lot, but I was happy for it to be over. In my previous semesters, I either leave feeling like I’m climbing closer to my goal, or like I just wanted it to be over with. This time, I learned so much, yet felt like the semester was squandered by my own hang ups about work and teaching. Did I miss out on a great opportunity, or am I not seeing the benefits to this semester yet? I couldn’t tell, and the more I reflected on it, the more lost I felt about my place as an academic. This is one of those times when a long walk would help. Instead, I jumped on a plane. I went home to LA for winter break. Going back home feels like pressing a reset button, where I get to delete the stress induced by grad studies, and come back with the same vigor and enthusiasm when I started my program. I saw family, our new dog, some friends, a few places I missed hanging out at. My favorite part was attending my friend’s wedding. I’ve known this couple since my earliest days of
undergrad, and seeing them tie the knot was a really beautiful moment. Everyone looked gorgeous, and I met with friends I haven’t seen in several years. The moment that stuck with me the most was seeing my friends and their family during the ceremony as walked down the aisle. I’m sitting there with my +1, my friend Maureen from CA, awe-struck and taking pictures, but with every person walking to the alter, I think, Why haven’t I done this yet? Why I am actively avoiding commitment? What’s stopping me from settling down? Several years ago, I would have had answers to these questions, answers that involved chasing a dream and trying to stave off inevitable boredom with life. After reaching a goal that was once considered impossible, moving to a different state to pursue my studies, doing research, and reaching several new milestones, it feels less like it’s building to something, and more like I’m accomplishing great things now. I’m no longer chasing after goals, but finally meeting them. I leave with more questions as we close the night. After the reception, and dancing until our toes lost feeling, we head back home. That phrase is starting to feel more entangled the longer I’m in my program.
On a plane again, heading back to Columbus. I wake up from a light nap. It’s about 3:30am, and the cabin is pitch dark. I always try to sleep on the plane, and I’m always unsuccessful, thinking the next time will be it. The lesson never kicks in. The feeling I hate the most is being inside a plane, traveling hundreds of miles per hour, yet feeling like you can get up and walk around. I walk down towards the lavatory. I can feel the pressure under my feet, but I’m so groggy, it means nothing at the moment. Once I step in, I wash my face. As the beads of water droplets run down, I see my reflection, wishing I didn’t. It’s a face that can no longer be called “young” anymore. My eyes are bloodshot, my hair has a lot more grey streaks, wrinkles in my forehead are starting to set in. I don’t like the face in this mirror. It’s the face of a person who has done one thing with his life, slowly leading to the end. I thought becoming a writer was supposed to change my trajectory. It feels more like I took a long detour, then somehow ended up back on the same path. My grip on the sink only tightens. Nothing but frustration is running down my arms. Soon, I’ll be back on campus, one year older, hoping to feel a little different. My body is tired, and I need to rest. I walk back to my seat, and feel an inversion of air pressure underneath my feet. It’d be really easy to let the force knock me down. But I don’t let it. It’s almost four in the morning. It’s cold in the plane, but I look outside and see a few stars. I like the view.
When the Spring started up, I wanted desperately for things to be different. It was my last semester of course work, so I decided to make the most of it. I was taking a class in the Comparative Studies department, auditing a class with my advisor, and doing an independent studies section focusing on medical humanities, working with the OSU Med Center. Plus, I was going to teach a class with my own syllabus, my own readings, and assignments I assigned. (this last part doesn’t sound exciting, but to me, its like I found a master key of teaching, and everything was going to fit into place) After the first week, I felt really good. I had the classes I wanted, I was doing the teaching I wanted, and my research in Narrative medicine was going really well. I even found a place to share it- at the OSU Hayes Forum. After observing my International Students for a semester, I decided to pursue it as a research question. It was a great find, and I felt like it was going to produce something fruitful. Studying, teaching, and researching- I really nailed this trifecta! It was like every possible positive part of grad studies was right in front of me. This was that moment in action movies where the hero has everything figured out and says, What could go wrong? And, just like those movies, the hero learns shortly that the answer is, well,….quite a lot.
A couple of years ago, The Atlantic published a piece about how grad school can have a serious impact on mental health. One of the tenets of grad school they mentioned that can be triggering has to do with the workload, leading to struggles with isolation. I never thought I’d experience it because I’ve always thrived when I’m left alone with my work. I looked forward to sitting in the library, a Coke on my desk, listening to my study playlist, and working away. Hour-long stretches is when I got my best work done. This new semester felt like it was giving me a significant sized portion of exactly what I wanted. After about the second week, I was soon living the isolation the article mentioned. I was reading ten scholarly articles a week while keeping up with my readings for my courses, usually around three books between each class. In between reading, I was also working on a paper for my advisor that never got any better, revision after revision. My workload was a mountain of readings I had to chip away at, and all I had was a worn-down pickax. Sundays were the worst. There was this constant flux between feeling guilty if I don’t work, in conflict with wishing to just drop my books and take the day off. The hardest part was if a window of time did open up, the first thing I did was call my friends to see if anyone wanted to go out and do something. This provided another hurdle. I wasn’t the only one swamped- we all were. We all had papers to write, or mountains of readings to get through, or other responsibilities. It only reinforced the isolation I was trying to fight. One day, I read for so many hours on end, I sprained my shoulder. I had no idea I could get physically hurt from studying too much. I’ve been burned from engine coolant, got lacerations from broken glass working behind the bar, sunburned from working in my dad’s construction company. I can now add sprained shoulder while studying as an occupational hazard.
The Februaries in Ohio are cold. It made it almost impossible to go on walks around The Oval without being covered in several layers. My isolation got to the point where I started to hate the library; this cold behemoth that chewed grad students up and spit ’em back out. I spent so many hours there, I was starting to blend into the furniture. I could rest my hands on the table from where I was studying and feel every motion inside the library. Every clacking button, every footstep, every chair adjustment, every page flip, every phone vibration. I was no longer a person, but a human automaton, built for the sole purpose of completing tasks. One night, leaving the library, I stepped into an elevator. When the doors closed, I could no longer see my reflection. I am no longer thinking; the intellectual curiosity part of me made way for getting work done. Studying soon felt as menial as digging a ditch. I would leave the library and walk home at the end of these days, with my shadow crawling behind me, exhausted from working so much, begging me to give him a break. But I couldn’t. I had deadlines to meet.
It was a week before the Hayes Forum, and even this, as much as I enjoyed it, felt like work. (a lot of work, actually; I was learning about the field as I was writing about it, something I don’t recommend, yet almost every grad student is guilty of) But on the morning of the forum, things felt a little different. I dressed up, wore my nicest shoes, and had my paper in hand. When I got to the room where my presentation was going to take place, I saw a lot friendly and familiar faces. We started sharing notes and info about our research and slowly became a small coalition of support for each other. My colleagues had brilliant presentations, with really helpful PowerPoint presentations. When it came to my paper, this is where things weren’t slightly awry. I just read off of my paper, and I burned through my entire presentation time, including the time allotted for questions. It was not my finest presentation, and I’m not proud to admit that. (as one friend put it, I was Hayes-zed) As I walking off, two opposing voices were in my head; one scolded for presenting so terribly, trying to convince me to never try for a conference paper again, and the other said that this research came out of a really good place and is worthy to pursue. As I sat down, the coalition was supportive and honest, telling me that they liked my writing, even though we all knew it was not a successful presentation. When the forum was over, I headed home, at about 5pm, and rested. Later that night, I met a couple of coalition friends for drinks.
Between the time after presentation and hanging out, I thought about how to continue my research, and what to do with it. I actually liked the writing, and I feel like this is one of the enjoyable parts of grad school. I had a question, I did research, and I shared what I wanted to say. By the end of the day, I got a subject only about ten people in the planet care about, and moved it to eleven. Its one of the few accomplishments grad students can cherish. I went home and rested, a rest well-deserved.
Slowly, my attitude started to lift. Crossing off the Hayes Forum deadline helped rid a lot of the stress I was dealing with. Soon, I was knocking out one deadline after another. I finally finished that paper for my advisor, and, after compartmentalizing my time, I got through all of my teaching duties. A lot of time opened up, and I then started to make plans with friends, which was great timing since it was almost spring break. I also reconciled my relationship with the Thompson. I would walk inside with the same enthusiasm I had for learning I had as when I started my program. I thought, Yes, the workload feels unreasonable at times, but when you get a handle on it, and remember why you do it in the first place, it becomes a little easier to handle. I’m about to leave my Comp Studies class, the last one before Spring break, laughing with classmates and thinking about the following week. As I walk out of the building, I think to myself, If I can handle all of those deadlines and come out of it feeling enthused, I think I’m doing this grad school thing well. Then those awful words creep up my throat, as if to ensure catastrophe. I tell my friends, “It’s Spring Break, and we’re going to take some needed R and R- what can go wrong?”
(I really need to stop saying that)
On March 9th in The Lantern, the Ohio State University Newspaper, published the following:
Ohio State has suspended face-to-face instruction effective immediately due to the coronavirus outbreak until at least Monday, March 30, according to a university-wide email.
University President Michael V. Drake announced Monday night in a university-wide email that lectures, discussion sections, seminars and other similar face-to-face classroom settings will be replaced by virtual sessions due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Sometime last December, threats of COVID-19 broke out all over the world. While I was insulated in my own grad school bubble, the world started to see it creep through their populations, and soon so did the US. As soon as Ohioans and students of OSU began to catch it, the campus closed and we were all sent into quarantine. All of those things I said about the Thompson dissipated. I was about to complete the semester from home. I have never been good at working from home. I liked my walking commute, seeing faces in passing, and finding a good routine. All of that didn’t matter anymore. The safety of the entire student population was at risk. We began practicing social distancing, wearing masks, stopped getting together. By the end of the week, I went to buy groceries, prepping for the first lockdown. Bread, orange juice, yogurts, beef jerky, stuff for sandwiches. Before I got to the register, I stop, and ask myself a question I don’t think I’ve ever asked myself: am I buying this because I need it, or am I panic buying? Standing there with my grocery basket felt like an eternity. I was slowly beginning to internalize what life during a pandemic will look like. I’m no longer trying to survive grad school, but just trying to survive. I buy the groceries and leave, calculating how many times I’ll need to do this between now and the next several months.
It only took about a week to make life feel a dystopian novel. You wake up, check your phone for updates and stats on the death count and infection rates, check in with your friends and family, mark Xs on your calendar, counting down the days you’ve been held up indoors. I’m blasted with emails from my campus about moving to online instruction, and time now feels like an amorphous blob, no longer a thing you can feel, but omnipresent, like water to fish in a fishbowl. Mornings have now been stripped of all routine. We’re all told not to leave your own home due to an invisible presence that is relentless in finding its new victims. And when you do decide to leave, the act of “coming home” is now a process. Taking off your face mask, washing and sanitizing your hands, second-guessing just how much contact you had with others, tormented by wondering if the cough from the person behind you was within six feet. My social media feed is filled with inspirational posts about staying positive and braving the storm that is COVID-19. The elicited positivity lasts for about four seconds. All I care about when I’m scrolling through my feeds is that my friends and family are okay. Yet pandemic-induced consumerism does not hesitate to capitalize on our collective fears. I see ads for facemasks, portable hand sanitizers, contact-free door openers. Slowly, the enthusiasm I had for learning is calloused, caring solely about completing whatever task I have for the day. When I’m free from work, my inner grad-student wants to do as much as possible, like read, or write, or do something to make up for lost time. Instead, l lay down, staring at the ceiling, wondering if quarantine will ever come to an end. Grad school is supposed to have challenges you work on and apply the skill set you have been accumulating. With a pandemic, I feel like I’m throwing a bunch of hammers towards a wall, hoping that fixes my problem, a problem I’m not even sure how to define. I felt so lost, I’m not even sure how to end this paragraph. After a day of exerting all of my energy into trying to survive, I crawl into bed. I’m no longer capable of “falling” to sleep. Instead, I exhaust myself from watching whatever random documentaries are on Netflix. I couldn’t tell you what they were about. Thinking is not happening.
It was impossible for me to get work done at home. I was never a homebody. Plus, studying at the library was a staple for my academic success, but now the university is telling me I can no longer work there. I once spent four hours sending one email. I hated it. But the days were passing, as slow as they did, and I had to figure out how to get work done. I thought about what speaks to me and what is within my environment that can help me. I thought about what helps me get through my workdays, and apply it to living in a pandemic. Soon, I find a really helpful remedy: Nightwalking. As the state encourages staying home and social distancing, and as someone who was never a morning person, Nightwalking became a little gem during the transition. There are some cold nights left in the end of March, but the bite of the cold is welcoming, helping me feel connected to the outside. As I walk, I get a sense of how much every day life has changed. Every business around me is closed, not due to the hours, but due to the shutdown. The roads are empty, to the point where you can walk down the middle of the street for several and never have to move for traffic. Every other day, I notice people going into cars with luggage. It’s hard to tell if they are leaving to escape quarantine or to be with loved ones. Those are the only assumptions that come to mind. When I’m out Nightwalking, I feel a tranquility that was presumably out of reach after watching the news all day. I’m centered, in tune with my surroundings. I also to take up amateur photography. (by “amateur”, I mean I posting nice pictures of trees on Instagram) It’s an interesting hobby during a pandemic, taking a slice of time, then reflecting on your emotional state when looking back at the picture. My favorite picture is on one where a church marquis was in the background, saying “God is still creating”. I can’t help but ask, What is he creating? Will it help up get through the pandemic? I have no idea, but a miracle sounds nice right about now.
Passing the time during a pandemic is brutal, moving at the pace of a blob monster. Days blur together, then a whole week passes, but you feel like you’ve done nothing with your time. A few friends and I start to figure out a few things to try, like Zoom Happy Hour meetings, and watching Netflix on a groupchat. One friend and I start sharing short stories together. There’s something genuine about creating a story in a fictional world where a pandemic isn’t happening. One night, I shared the following:
On a long August evening, the kind where the sunsets last for days, a band of horses was running towards a big city a few miles over. The horses were running with one word one their mind: follow. At the beat of an Indian drum, every gallop brought them closer to the city, as it did with their self-awareness. What does follow mean? Who should I follow? Why should I follow? These were all warranted questions, as their running turned into labor. Their horseshoes started to crack, and their muscles ached, but as they got closer to the city, so did the howls of the sick, melancholy, lonesome voices of those who needed them.
The horses started to remember: follow does not mean to run blindly, into the next stop; it means to follow your heart and do the right thing. The horses were bringing what the city needed: love, affection, empathy. Soon, their shoes started to mend and their muscles were rejuvenated. The horses continue to run to this day, towards those who needed them the most, to those who stuck with their hope in their hearts, to those who kept believing that tomorrow brought promise.
We are the horses, and we are the people in the city.
We continue to share stories. Our prompt is to pick a color, animal, and shape. This is the story wrote when she said “red, horse, circle”. And I was listening to Band of Horses at the time.
(click above to hear “Is There a Ghost” by Band of Horses)
I tried to read as much as possible about how people coped with living in a pandemic. There were so many articles about how to avoid feeling claustrophobic or stir-crazy. A few had good advice, like meditating or talking to friends on the phone. Others were clickbait that lead readers into conspiracy theory rabbit holes. Those aren’t difficult to spot, yet I can see how luring a rabbit hole of pathos-heavy writing can be. Sometimes, I’d see one and think, Who falls for this? That was until what was possibly the most frightening day in my grad studies career. I woke up one morning really sick. As soon as I opened my eyes, I gave myself a quasi-diagnostic check. Symptoms: runny nose, hurts when swallows, headache, shivers, small case of vertigo. I’m petrified. I’m the type that hardly gets sick, and when I do, orange juice and chicken soup usually fixes it in a few hours. This was not that. I’m scrambling to figure to out if I’m infected. I find YouTube videos that discuss the step-by-step process of infection. I’m Googling “do I have coronovirus?” It’s horrifying. I go to the nearest CVS, but it’s closed. The nearest Target is sold out of thermometers. I begin to hyperventilate. One article says that if you can hold your breath for ten seconds, you’re not infected since it is a respiratory infection. I try it, and I can do it successfully. I’m only more frustrated now because I believed this non-credible medical claim I saw online. I teach students on how to avoid websites that are incredulous, yet here I am, trying this pseudoscience in hopes that it makes me feel better. Instead, the opposite happens. My stomach starts to hurt, but I have no idea why. I reach out to friends back home, and one of them tells me the symptom to look out for is fever. I’m looking it up as I walk home while also ordering a thermometer on Amazon, which ends up taking almost two weeks to get. I check my forehead. No fever. As soon as I do, I don’t feel sick anymore. The pain in my stomach is hunger, after not eating the whole day out of worry. I get home and have a horrible breakdown. It’s a low moment for me. I’m low, not because I’m sick, but because I’m not sick.
The semester is still going, and somehow, I muscle through. I start to feel better and decide to get lost in my books. The isolation I was fighting ended up having an upside. My classes begin to get more lenient as doing research and getting work done gets harder and harder to finish. I decide to do the same, becoming more accommodating with my students. Some of them go back home, while others are terrified to show up to campus. After a few exchanges with my advisors and my students, we all adapt to our new circumstances in an effort to get our work done. I’ve always loved the feeling of digging into my research, the way farmers dig their hands in the ground to work. Our new reality translates to getting the work you need to get done so you can mark it off of your to-do list. I used to resist it as much as possible, but now I don’t fight it, knowing that this is most likely the best attitude to have when it comes to writing during a pandemic.
After two hard months under quarantine, we all get through the semester. My research gets put on hold, I turn in truncated final exam essays, and I give my students their grades. The semester is now over. If we weren’t in a pandemic, I’d call all of my friends to get together at our favorite bar for drinks to celebrate finishing another semester. But we can’t do that. We’re all under quarantine, our favorite bars are closed, and some are planning to head home, with a possibility of never returning. As I hear from friends who are leaving, a small voice in my head says, “Say something warm and compassionate, since this may be your last time you ever talk to them”. I try to embrace some sense of commencement and start making myself homemade Negronis. A few weeks prior, I went grocery shopping and decided to buy the ingredients. I thought to myself, No way a plague is going to stop me from celebrating. I’m at home and start making myself a Negroni. One part gin, one part sweet vermouth, one part Campari. As I stir all the ingredients, I look down the center of the swirl and soon our new reality hits me. Get-togethers and happy hours are a thing of the past. I have no idea when will be the next time I will be surrounded by friends. I stop stirring, and drink it, then I make another.
I start think about family back home. I can’t even fathom getting on a plane right now, as they soon become hotspots for infection. I went home last summer. Now, I’m not even sure that’s possible, then I make another.
Is this how my graduate studies will come to an end? Can I even continue my research? What is the rest of my grad program going to look like?, then I make another.
I really hate online semesters. So many hours in front of blue light burns my eyeballs. Hour long stretches of studying are now reduced to mustering enough effort to sit in front of a computer for a few hours. It sucks the fun out of studying, then I make another.
What the hell is this thing?!? Some bug in the air? How the hell does some speck of dirt have so much say into what I do?, then I make another.
then I make another.
I really just miss my friends. I want to throw a gigantic party after this horrible moment is over. It’s going to go away soon…right? then I make another.
I just want this to be over. Why is this happening? then I make another.
Fuck you, coronovirus. I just want to punch you in the goddamn face.
I start to make another, until I notice my hands trembling. I have to stop. Right. Now.
I stumble towards my room, feeling like I want to gag, except I don’t, or can’t. When I lay down, the whole room spins. I’m getting sucked into a whirlpool of despair. I have no idea when any of this madness will end, and I have no control over it. I soon feel every emotion I’ve experienced in the last three months, stirred by a bar spoon, reaching my insides, swirling everything into one cocktail, comprised mostly of loss, fear, disdain, ineptitude, defeat, frustration, and bitterness. I start to really hate drinking at this point. Everything is spinning. I hold on to my mattress in order to stop myself from getting thrown off, even though I’m not actually spinning. I almost let it consume me, devouring all sense of hope. Then I reach for my phone. I begin to txt. “Hey- do you have a second? I could use a friend right now” I get a response. The spinning starts to slow.
The next morning, I go on what is possibly the longest walk I’ve gone on since being at OSU. My goal is to come back home with a new found perspective (but really, I’m trying to walk off the booze). People are out wearing masks while shopping for groceries, jogging, walking their animals. It’s a fairly warm morning, reminding me that summer is about to start. I go to a Starbucks and order a large half ice-tea/half lemonade, the drink I’d order at the coffee shop in the library. My emotional state at this point of the pandemic lied somewhere between frustrated and pessimistic, but the more I walked, the more my thoughts cleared, sliding the scale towards realistic, edging closer to hopeful. I can’t help comparing the struggles of grad studies with living in a pandemic. Isolation is definitely the common trait, where the two serve a purpose, for better or worse. Another way is how you’re put into a position of being versatile. You can’t solve the problems these two present because you’ve never faced them before, so how do you survive? The answers are simple, yet so powerful, they feel like magic. Reach out to friends, listen to the experts, keep your mind active, find healthy ways to manage stress and spend your free time, listen to your feelings and start addressing them. All of these exercises will work wonders if we let them work. A few days later, I started jogging and exercising. It gave me a routine in the morning, and I loved the feeling of my thoughts running amok in my brain, then calming down during my cool down. My other friends have hobbies like knitting, cross-stitching, taking care of plants, writing poetry. They all sound amazing. I promised myself I’d try something new on a kind of basis. I went to craft store to see what I’d need to start cross-stitching. (there is SO MUCH to buy) I keep looking for more hobbies to try out. I have the time.
I wish I could say that my solution to the dread that is living in a pandemic was something as simple as finding a new hobby. It wasn’t. The days were still long and there was no end in sight. My advisors were kind enough to help me with my research over the break, but I still struggled with working at home. Living in Columbus was also stress-inducing, as it was one of the centers for anti-shutdown protests. It was getting harder and harder to reach friends, as they all found routines and vigorously stuck to them. My lowest point came about a month after the semester was over. I was at home, trying to start reading for candidacy exams, but I couldn’t concentrate. So much was happening in the world, and rumors about the Fall semester staying online only added to the frustration. Did that mean there really is no end in sight? I want to go back to the classroom, but the situation is still really dangerous. Where is the middle? Is there a middle-ground between these two positions? A rage starts to build inside. I leave my house to go on another Nightwalk. I hope to cool down, but tonight feels different. I’m actively confronting my frustrations. Why can’t people just wear masks? Why can’t we all band together and save the world? What is my research contributing to this new reality? Why does a solution feel so impossible? My frustration builds, running down my arms. Soon, I feel compelled to do something I never thought I’d experience: I feel like ripping my eyeballs out of their sockets. Like poor Oedipus, I rejected the life in front of me. I don’t want to live a life solely comprised of rejecting everything. There is no answer that can help me feel differently. This is worse than feeling confused or lost; I’m desolate in this new reality. I had nothing, no one, no direction. I didn’t know what else to do. I was about to collapse, falling right onto the pavement. Then it hits me:
I can write
Writing is the space where I have some control. Writing is where I get to really put words into action. Writing is where my solace lies, sharing all of my frustrations, laying them all out like a deck of cards, and developing some mastery of them. Writing became the protruding rock from a wall of a bottomless pit I started to fall into. My hands barely catch the rock, testing my grip and every muscle in my arm as I gaze into the blackness. All of my strength is put into my fingertips. I start to look up, for another protruding rock, and start to move up, climbing steadily, reaching the surface soon. I get home and start writing, I start to craft sentences, paragraphs, pouring my thoughts into an outline. A gigantic cluster of ideas turn into something meaningful. I wipe the dust off of my blog and stat typing. The words you are reading now are those that saved a life. The more I write, the more the world started to feel easier to live in. I start to research things like pandemic culture, epidemiology, alcoholism, how to socially distance with friends. Words and ideas are my salvation. It’s about 4 o’clock in the morning when I start to feel sleepy. I click Save Draft and and close my computer. After experiencing such an epiphany, I’d try to meditate or ground myself to calm down. Tonight, it doesn’t feel necessary. I brush my teeth, and wash this day off of my face. I get into bed and fall into a deep sleep, finally looking forward to the next day so I can finish my draft.
Its a June evening. I’m now sitting in the park. The library is still closed, but I find the park to be a place where I can spend hours reading. The park has the sounds of birds and barking dogs, but not as many several months before. People are walking around, some with dogs, or with friends, or strollers. Most are wearing masks, but not all, since they are a healthy distance away from everyone. Going out to public spaces still feels ominous, but we are all adapting to the pandemic. It still frustrates me to think that this is our new reality, especially as the death toll climbs, and I hate seeing cop cars driving by and staring at everyone in the park, but I also began to internalize the notion that if everyone does what is needed, we can get through this. Thinking this makes it easier to get through the day (because it has to). In between, I start to do reading on my own. I’m reading some of my favorite poetry, like Frank O’Hara and Tennyson. There’s a stillnes poetry offers, thinking about the now, and the economics of language. Hours pass as I want them to. The end of the day feels good. I go home and decide not to work without feeling guilty. This is what a good day during a pandemic looks like.
So far, all of my WSIJM posts end with quotes. Here is one of my favorite passages from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, serving as an ode to walking:
I know that this was Life,—the track
Whereon with equal feet we fared;
And then, as now, the day prepared
The daily burden for the back.
But this it was that made me move
As light as carrier-birds in air;
I loved the weight I had to bear,
Because it needed help of Love
I love my friends, my family, and what I do. My studies are a long walk though a cloudy path. I have no problem walking as long as I have to.