I’ve always considered myself a private person. Not in the I-don’t-use-social-media way, but more in the… I-use-vagueness-to-dodge-personal-questions way. I’ve used what’s public — my social media, my journalism — as a way of hiding what’s private — mostly anything about my immediate family, my financial burdens and professional struggles, the lonely feeling of beginning young adulthood several states away from home.
But the isolation of the pandemic has begun smudging the line I’ve kept between the personal and the public.
For as long as I’ve been a writer, I’ve wanted to write a memoir. And for that same length of time, I’ve kept diaries — of poems with lines crossed out and rewritten, taped in photographs, drawings. In my teenage years: thoughts on fights with friends, on how I need to leave Long Island, on things my family just didn’t understand, and (in rougher moments) on whether or not I’d ever have a boyfriend.
The problem was: None of it could ever be seen. Not because I was embarrassed, but because it felt wrong. It wasn’t all mine. Growing up in my extremely Russian home, family loyalty was valued above almost all else. And to prove loyalty was to refuse to air out any dirty laundry. To let anyone — even a close friend — see you sweat was to betray your blood, and to value anything or anyone above your blood was beyond forgiveness. (“Your family is the only people you have in this world. Friends are meaningless.” — Every older member of my family, on multiple occasions.)
Russians (myself included) have a flair for the dramatic, and I did not want to be on the other side of any of them if I accidentally let the wrong thing slip (like when I accidentally told my first grade class that my parents smoked cigarettes and was later told, “While you’re in school: No. We. Don’t.”) So I held on to all of it, with white-knuckled fists.
In my writing program in college, I concentrated on literature and fiction. In my short stories, I mainly wrote about male characters. In my one non-fiction class, I wrote my final personal essay about the band ABBA. When I presented a thesis on homelessness and welfare to my class, I did not mention that I had been on welfare myself. And when I entered the world of media post-grad, I did not pitch stories with a personal angle.
This worked, right up until things started to fall apart. In April 2020, I was on the job hunt. The roommates I was friendly with moved out of my apartment, while two, a couple I didn’t know, stayed, and my boyfriend moved in. The four of us never left the house, keeping to our respective couples, rarely bumping into each other. And for the first few months, I did what I always do when I’m stressed: I turned into myself, deeply, and tried not to let the cracks show through. I all but disappeared from my group chats, and ignored calls from family. I leaned on my boyfriend when I felt able, letting no one else know that I felt like I was spending weeks-turned-months just treading water.
Eventually, summer came, and things looked up. I was adjusted to a new remote job. I was going outside again and even seeing small groups of friends. I remembered what it was like to be seen and share things.
The thing about staying inside for a year is: You begin to forget what it means to feel real, to exist outside of just your own world and be a part of someone else’s. To be a part of strangers’ lives, of routes, the background noise of regular haunts. It took me a long time to realize how necessary that feeling is.
There have been times during the past year where I’ve tried to become so small, to package up my life so neatly in a box labeled “private” that it would barely be shared with anyone besides my boyfriend and myself at all. In this perfect tiny world, I’d be satisfied and never need anything else.
Other times, I miss being out there so painfully much that I’m willing to share any mundanity with someone who’ll listen. Do you want my bread recipe? This is what my half-drank coffee mug looks like in mid-morning. Here’s my new work from home set-up! We bought groceries today!
I’ve found that the only antidote to this unique restlessness is — you guessed it — writing. I find myself thinking back to a quote from Susan Orlean, whose keynote speech at a writer’s retreat in Skagway, AK I covered
for the local paper:
“Are you a communicator or are you a navel gazer? Nothing that I’ve ever written couldn’t have used 10 more times in the typewriter, a hundred more times. It doesn’t matter to anyone if I’m sitting alone in an office tweaking.”
So, today (and I hope many other days), I’m choosing to be a communicator.
As always, thank you for reading.