COVID, My Kid, and a Conference

“One way that I know I am a writer is that either I am writing, or I’m wishing that I was.”
-Jericho Brown, Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, 2022

As I reflect on this in the wake of the conference, it occurs to me that this is also one way that I know I am a mom.

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference was an absolute delight this year. The weather in Homer was flawless, the faculty phenomenal, and the conversation among the attendees was a much-needed jolt in the doldrums of the pandemic.

Yet, amidst the sun and soft breeze, a small, dark cloud hung over me and still hangs over me, keeping the memory of those four days from perfection: missing my kid.

During the conference, with masks optional for attendees and airline passengers, I isolated from my kid, husband, and parents, forgoing the comforts of our camper, and instead sleeping in the back of my car. In the little time I had with my daughter on lunch or in the evenings, I watched her play or shared meals from a distance, always outdoors and masked as appropriate. I write this from the confines of a self-inflicted, post-conference quarantine in my parents’ guest room, waiting to find out if I got sick or am in the clear to return home and finally snuggle my panik.

So many—certainly the government, virtually all businesses, and most people—are starting to view the pandemic as a thing of the past, forgetting or blissfully ignorant that there are still 18 million children under 5 in the United States who are ineligible for vaccination.

As I reconnected with writers I knew before the age of COVID and connected with some for the first time in person, many inquired as to the state of my daughter, who recently turned four years old. I explained our situation with a longing ache. One friend was particularly kind and told me I was a great mother, a salve on my constant questioning if I’m doing the right thing keeping her isolated. She’s had three of her birthdays in the pandemic. She barely remembers playing indoors with other children, eating in restaurants, or visiting the homes of others. She talks longingly of all the things she’ll get to do and people she will visit with, “When I get my shot!”

Still, she thrives, and most importantly, she is healthy. She is one of the estimated 25 percent or so of kids who haven’t caught COVID, at least not yet. “We don’t want to trip at the finish line,” I keep saying, but that finish line keeps moving further away, and nobody seems to hear the pleas of parents to expedite the approval process. Delay after delay dash my hopes, and I am tired. So, so tired. I want my kid safe.

Selfishly, I want to go back to real life, too. Those four days of the conference, masked and anxious though I was, were the closest four days to “normal” I’ve had in more than two years. Despite my little dark cloud, I was invigorated, happy, reassured that I knew who my people were. I dreaded coming home to Anchorage, back to the environment that slowly eats away at my extroverted personality, poisons my mind into depression, separates me from so many and so much that I love.

I am a writer, because either I am writing or I’m wishing that I was. Right now, I am writing, but wishing I was momming. Sometime soon, I’ll be momming and wishing I was writing.

A Second Coming Out

When I was around 9 years old, a boy—who I went to school with for several years before and after—teased me about being a girl. I don’t remember what he said, precisely, but I recall he was attempting to gatekeep one of my (many) traditionally masculine interests. My response has stuck with me for two decades: “I’m not a girl.”

“Then what are you?” he sneered? “An it? Look,” he looked around at our peers and pointed at me. “That’s an it.”

The “It” moniker followed me for several years. Now that I’m older, I understand the real meaning behind that statement: that if I was not a cisgender girl, I was not a human. I was an object. I don’t hold anything against that classmate of mine. Twenty years ago, society was not as woke as it is now, and that kid was as clueless as I was, probably just parroting what he’d heard from adults. He was only nine or ten, after all, and I have no idea his stance on gender issues now, nor do I care.

The thing that nagged at me for many years later was, why did I respond that way? Why did I say I wasn’t a girl? Especially since, most of the time, I do feel like a proud Indigenous woman. A happy and confident mother. I wrote it off as internalized misogyny.

But other things over the years nagged at me as well. Alternating between a desire to dress masculine and feminine. Periods of body dysphoria I dismissed at times when the pendulum swung toward comfortable. And why, in my fiction writing, did I gravitate toward male protagonists? Was it just derivative, defaulting to the options presented to me as a young reader of young adult fantasy?

Those of you who know me probably know that I have been open about being bisexual and queer for… well, forever. I went through an awkward period in my late teens/early twenties where I wanted to eschew labels, but as long as I was old enough to be attracted to people, I have openly acknowledged an attraction to multiple genders. There was no “coming out” moment with most of my family. They’re intelligent, educated, and accepting people (and a few of them are openly in the LGBTQ+ community as well).

But I’m sure many other queer people could tell you that “coming out” is a repeated process with every new person you meet. When is the right time to share this info with a new acquaintance? Your work buddy? Your boss? Your in-laws? (Small note: I use the term “right” here to mean “right for the person,” not “right for society.” Fuck society. Queerness is not validated by your status as in or out, nor does society or etiquette dictate the “right” time to make that transition, if ever.)

So, most people in my life know that I am bisexual and have known I am bisexual for a long time. But it is time for a sort-of-second coming out, not because I was closeted, but because I was figuring things out. Now, rapidly approaching thirty years old (no, seriously, my birthday is this week), and thanks to a lot of interactions online, I have realized I am genderfluid and sometimes genderqueer.

This might be confusing or foreign to some of you who are cisgender, but the best way I can describe it is that sometimes I am a woman and other times, I am just… not. When I told my husband, I used some comical descriptions I saw on TikTok: sometimes I am Girl… sometimes Girl Lite…  Girl+ …. and—my favorite—Girl you ordered from Wish (mostly girl, but something is a bit off).

As unsettling as this realization has been for me (and may be for you who have known me a long time), I find comfort in the knowledge that nothing about me has changed. All I am saying by coming out as genderfluid is, “Here is a label I feel fits a certain set of characteristics I already possess.” Characteristics I have always possessed. If someone close to you comes out, I think that’s important to remember. They’re the same person before and after.

This experience is my own and should not be taken to represent the experiences of any other genderfluid, genderqueer, bisexual, or other LGBTQ+ individuals. Best policy is to always ask the individual about their pronouns and labels, and to subsequently not be a dick by arguing with them about those pronouns or labels. Since some of you lovelies will likely ask, I am happy using she/her pronouns, but they/them or he/him don’t bother me in the slightest. The shirt pictured depicts the genderfluid flag and was created from a Lord of the Rings content creator @donmarshall72 on TikTok and comes in a variety of flag options, with 20% of profits during Pride Month going to The Trevor Project.

Too Many Hats: Struggling to Create in the Age of COVID

Often I speak of my various roles in terms of hats.

My favorite hat is my mom hat. I imagine it’s the kind a Musketeer would wear, in a rich purple with gold feathers. It’s playful and flashy, but maybe the ends of the feathers are a bit frayed. It’s well-loved and ready for an imaginative adventure, but it also signifies a duty.

My second favorite hat is my writer hat. I imagine this as a stylish beanie. Dark green, my favorite color. Perfect for a cold night in with a London Fog, or a literary event at my local cafe.

My student hat looks exactly like my writer hat on the outside, but underneath there hides a tiny professor nagging me to work on my thesis.

There’s my wife hat. I imagine it’s a baseball cap, like my husband wears daily. It’s probably a bit wrinkled and a little faded, but still ready to whip out for a picnic at the park, a day on the lake, or a ball game.

The last major hat is my day-job hat. It’s black—not for mourning, but just for practicality. It’s necessary, and it might look great on someone else, but on me it’s a bit awkward. Too big, maybe.

There are other minor hats. My chef’s hat. My daughter hat. My sister hat. My dog mom hat. (I worry what that would look like).

Before the looming threat of COVID-19 transitioned me to working from home, the pressure of “owning” all of those hats was stressful. Four days a week I would drop off my daughter at her Aaka and Aapa’s house. I’d whip off my mom hat and settle into my day job hat for a few hours. Then back to the mom hat. Chef’s hat. Grocery shopping hat. Student hat. Once in a while I’d get to wear the writer hat and attend a reading or write whatever I wanted.

Working, being a mom, running a household, and doing a Master’s degree is a lot of hard work.

Boy, do I miss that level of stress.

The thing is, so many of us parents who work from home are now having to wear two or three or five hats at once. My pre-COVID life was tiring, but it was also compartmentalized.

At the end of 2019, I started tracking my writing on a daily goals app. Some days I managed only a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, but if I succeeded in writing, I got a check mark for the day. I wrote for over three months straight. I was proud of myself: I’d finally succeeded in balancing my life enough to write daily.

Then our first COVID-19 case hit Alaska. Red X’s started stacking up on my goal tracker app.

That flashy purple mom-hat may be my favorite, but it’s also big, meaning it doesn’t leave too much room for anything else. My toddler is like most toddlers—high energy, needs constant stimulation, and used to having attention. But, somehow, I’m supposed to continue with my job (which has a whole new set of hurdles being online, by the way), and being a student, running my household with all of the extra steps social isolation creates. Add onto those things a whole new level of anxiety; take away any sort of support system. My mental health was in the toilet. I was always stressed, usually anxious, and often depressed.

I was wearing too many hats. Where was there time left to be creative? I didn’t have time or energy to pick up that writer beanie. The student one was pretty neglected, too.

But I’ve since realized I needed that hat. I needed it to dig my way out of the dark hole of bad mental health where creativity goes to die.

It wasn’t easy, but now I have three weeks back on the writing wagon. Here’s how I did it:

Step 1: Forgive yourself. Right now, we’re all in some state of coping, and however we handle that is okay. Maybe you won’t be as creative (or maybe you’re one of the luckier ones who is cranking out art as your own coping mechanism). Maybe you’ll come up with a new schedule that works for you. Maybe you’ll eat a ton of junk food and sleep 10 hours. Whatever happens, don’t beat yourself up about any red X’s that might be on your own calendar. I also had to let go of trying to be perfect at my job. Fortunately, my coworkers and boss are decent human beings who understand that I, too, am a human being. They’re going through many of the same things. The big problem was me being too hard on myself.

Step 2: Focus on your core needs first. Often, I would snowball into a bad day (or days) because I felt crappy physically, which made me more anxious, which made it harder to sleep, which made me feel crappier, etc. I realized I could turn this around in my favor. Start small. Drink a glass of water. Eat a small, healthy snack (yes, I know I said earlier junk food was a coping mechanism, but it can’t be ALL the time). Take a walk. Take a nap. Play. If your job will allow it, take a day off.

Step 3: Start small. Write whatever. Write one line. One paragraph. One stanza. Draw one sketch. Five minutes. Be creative for five minutes. Often, once I started, I found I could keep going longer. I needed to keep going longer. Remember to forgive yourself if that’s all you can manage, though. Writing or making art in the in-between moments of life is better than not at all.

Step 4: Find ways to re-compartmentalize your work and non-work life. Some hats (like me and my parent hat), you might need to wear all or most of the time. But when you can, you need to be able to set some hats aside. For me, this means working in one room and writing in another. Sometimes I do the latter outside, if the weather cooperates. I live in a duplex that’s just over 900 square feet, so options are limited, but being on my laptop 8-10 hours a day is more bearable if the scenery changes. The different room is associated with a different part of my brain. Compartmentalization also means creating firm work/non-work hours. I try not to answer work-related messages outside of work hours. I don’t have my work email on my cell phone or have notifications on my laptop outside of work hours. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but setting boundaries with my job is essential for me.

Step 5: Get help if you need it. I started seeing a therapist a few weeks ago via video conference. I got a ton of great coping mechanisms for my anxiety and depression. Some people might not need a therapist, or might not have access to one, but you need to talk to someone. Make sure you’re doing those phone calls and video chats with your friends and family. And make sure you’re talking to other creatives, too! Keep that fire lit. I don’t live with any creatives (though my daughter’s crayon scribbles are showing great potential), so I have to get that fix elsewhere.

Your hats might be very different from mine, but remember that the most important thing right now is to be safe and take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself and others. Wash your damned hands.

Queer Happenings at The Writer’s Block

On Saturday, August 10th, I had the pleasure of reading some of my poetry at The Writer’s Block Bookstore and Café! Queer Happenings Edutainment Night featured a panel discussion on Alaska’s budget cuts by Rev. Jacob Poindexter, Justina Beagnyam, and Dana Dardis and art by Jeremiah Freeman, Tatiana Agnew, and yours truly!

This was my third time reading at the Writer’s Block, but my first time reading outside of my MFA program. Anxiety was high, but fortunately I was able to employ some techniques passed on by faculty member and poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell. It was great to share the stage with some true Alaskan activists and talent. The crowd was super animated and supportive. With a great food and drink menu, books, and a constant flow of art and events, The Writer’s Block is rapidly becoming one of my favorite hangouts.

My poetry lately has focused a lot on my identity as multi-racial, being a mom, and some social and political themes. One of the poems I read was “For Reinette,” which appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Alaska Women Speak.

Thanks to my MFA classmate, M.C. MoHagani Magnetek, for hosting and inviting me to participate! And a big thank you to my friends, family, and coworkers, who showed up and probably got a little more than they asked for!