On a call with some of the folks from the Wayward community the other night, someone shared a conversation they’d had with their therapist about emerging into 2021. PTSD, the therapist pointed out, doesn’t generally rear its head while soldiers are on the battlefield. It comes later, when things are supposedly “safe” or “better” and everyone around us is celebrating or relaxing and we’re only just beginning to experience the full impact of what we’ve been through.
It hit me like a pile of bricks.
I feel so far away from my creative self right now. The only thing I keep finding comfort in is learning that a lot of other friends are in the same boat—that maybe a majority of us are actually grieving the loss of whatever creative spaciousness or clarity we’d managed to eke out in the solitude of Quarantine. Or maybe we’re all just braced for the next wave of closures and infections and losses, or finally feeling the full weight of the closures and infections and losses that have already come and gone.
My first family COVID deaths happened in quick succession within the last two weeks—far past the peak of the Pandemic. What does that mean? How am I supposed to feel? They lived in another country, separated by oceans and continents and the 17 years since I saw them last in person. But they were family—a community I struggle to feel connected to at the best of times, even though I yearn for it desperately. I’m vaccinated. My parents are vaccinated. Nothing quite like thinking you’re “safe” and then realizing grief can still snake its way into your circles, no matter the care you take.
I’m thinking, too, about the way I keep brushing off this mental and creative slump in conversation, waving my hands and explaining to friends that “it’s just a phase” and “things will feel better as soon as I get stuck into my next project.”
“This always happens,” I say. “I always pull through.”
But something I didn’t account for is living in house alongside my dad, one of my primary sources of creative inspiration and cheerleading growing up, who genuinely has lost contact his creative self. Dementia is not the seasonal cycle that I usually comfort myself with when I think of the ebb and flow of creative embodiment. It’s a far darker and more linear decline. It makes the threat of permanent loss in these low tide seasons feel more real.
It’s not to say that I’m over here worrying about imminently losing all my marbles. More that…I don’t know. Maybe that I haven’t been making enough space for the enormity of everything. When I make light of this season—either because I’m afraid of it, or embarrassed that it’s happening to me, or something else—I rob myself of the chance to feel my way through into whatever comes next.
Piper Haywood wrote one of those very good posts last week—a cross-section of personal interests that manages to be both minutely specific and widely resonant. It was full of thoughts about female furniture designers I’d never heard of and Joan Didion essays on notebooks and ideas about the distinction between personal blogs and…whatever else it is that we do to try and share ourselves on the internet. I loved reading it. It also reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about here.
It seems silly to say, but I wasn’t prepared for just how often I’d come face to face with the things that made me now that I’m living at home.
My dad never taught me about Commonplace Books or Zibaldones, but he kept one religiously.1 He was always hunting for quotes and anecdotes to fold into his teaching or add to his column in the local quarterly magazine. He also inscribed them on the collaged, abstract bookmarks he made for everyone he met. A great deal of his creative expression boiled down to this magpie tendency—a delight in gathering raw materials and mashing them together into something new.
Piper shared a quote from Didion where she talks about the notebook as “bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.” This certainly seems to have been the way my dad approached his pocket-sized collections. His penmanship makes every page feel like a work of art, but I don’t think they were primarily made to be shared—at least not in this form.
And yet below every quotation about children or parenting there’s a note:
There’s no way he could’ve known I’d open to this page, having just read Ondaajte’s poetry for the first time last November. Having listened to Aimee Mann in college. Line after line, I see so many names and themes that have showed up in my own obsessive collecting.
When Didion lists the kinds of people who keep notebooks, she closes with “children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” It makes me shudder in recognition.
Growing up, I was all too aware that my parents were the age of my friends’ grandparents. My extended family weren’t down the road, but scattered throughout England and South Africa and Canada. I didn’t have siblings. I’ve been bracing for as long as I can remember to try and make sure I’ll be able to survive on my own. (No wonder I placed such a high value on independence in my career.)
I think I felt that keeping my parents had to be an act of willpower—one I could fail at and therefore had to approach with constant vigilance. But when I see these notebooks, something shifts in me. These words are confirmation of something I’m trying to learn in my bones: I couldn’t lose these people even if I tried. Their patterns made my patterns, at least in part, and as long as I pursue those patterns, I carry them forward in the world.
My inheritance is ubiquitous.
1. I don’t know how to do tenses with him. He doesn’t do these things anymore, but to speak about any of it in the past tense makes it sound like he’s dead. He’s not dead, but vast parts of him are no longer present. How do I talk about that? I don’t know. ↩
Okay well right after I wrote that whole thing about distrusting heroics Zina told me she’d done her first volunteer shift administering COVID vaccines and I will admit that in that moment I found myself whispering “oh my god she’s a hero“.
But that’s not the addendum. The addendum is about SAINTLINESS, which is adjacent to heroism.
I remember my mum telling me that people would say “Oh, you’re such a saint” or “You’re so selfless” or “I don’t know how you do it” when she shared that she was taking care of my dad (and freelancing, and running the household, and so on, and so on). It made her furious because it felt like a classification that divorced her from having the right to lose her temper sometimes, or to find what she was doing impossibly difficult, or to demand (and deserve!) help from her friends.
“Then again,” she added, “that’s probably because I wasn’t complaining to them. I didn’t want to be a downer.”
I do this—play it off when I talk about what’s happening with my dad. I try to put other people at ease because the alternative means engaging fully (sometimes in front of people I don’t know well and maybe don’t trust) with the immensity of my grief.
Saints, superheroes, “successful” people…there is a flattening that comes along with these labels—a reduction in interconnectedness. It’s what drove me to give that XOXO talk in 2016, and it’s what keeps driving me to try and talk about this stuff more publicly; to push back against the part of me that wants to make out like I can do it all on my own.
tl;dr: I’m becoming increasingly wary of any label that obscures our reliance on one another and denies us our wholeness as human beings. I think that’s it.
Unearthed this particularly fine birthday card (c. 2007) from my dad today.
Hi friend! If you’ve landed on this page, you probably just asked me a question about my move, possibly prompted by hearing about it for the first time via my 2021 Hourly Comics. Hopefully your question is answered below:
Whoa, you’re moving?
I have, in fact, already moved! I drove away from Portland on February 4th, quarantined for a week upon arrival, and then received a negative COVID test so I could relocate safely.
Where are you off to?
Ojai, California, the valley I was raised in, to move in with my parents and my 21-year-old cat.
Is this permanent?
(By which I mean: I don’t know!)
I realized I needed to move now the night before I was due to give this talk, so if you’d rather hear me verbalize why I’m making this choice, you can watch it.
The textual version is that my dad is 81 and has moderate dementia. He also had a couple of micro-strokes last November. My mum’s been shouldering the bulk of caretaking for the last few years, barring the odd break when I’ve come down to help. I’m an only child. We’re all muddling through a Pandemic. It’s the right time to be here.
I’m also going to be head-down working on my next graphic novel (Seacritters!) for the foreseeable future. Given that a publishing advance isn’t enough to live on for the time it takes to complete a book, reducing my financial overhead right now is a smart move.
This sounds really hard!
I have a remarkably functional and loving relationship with my parents. Ojai is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most beautiful places on earth. (It also has the best bookstore.) I’m near the ocean. I’m in a community of people who’ve known me since I was very small. I get to focus more fully on work that delights me. I’m no longer panicked at the thought of missing opportunities to care for and connect with my dad. This is all, actually, really good.
I don’t want to downplay the fact that caretaking is complex and often devastating. This will not be a walk in the park, but it is 1000% the thing I have been longing to do for several years. Being in this place, with these people, gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment and love that is irreplaceable.
Do you need anything?
If you’ve had parental caretaking experience (especially if you’re also under 40), maybe drop me a line and say hello. Never a bad idea to have allies who know what this is like.
If you want to support me materially while I make my next book, I’m sharing stuff on Patreon and would love to have you in that community.
Can I have your new address?
YES! I got a PO Box and nothing so exciting has ever happened to me ever. It is:
Lucy Bellwood, PO Box 734, Ojai, CA 93024
I would love to receive mail from you.
Okay! The end! Thanks for reading!
(Obviously if there’s something I didn’t talk about here, please return to our conversation on whatever platform you came here from and ask about it, but at least you have the facts now. I appreciate you reading through all this so I don’t have to repeat myself a bunch 💛)
This morning I woke suddenly in the dark, startled by something toppling in a gust of wind, and decided to get up. I very rarely regret being up before the sun. It’s something my dad taught me to love, waking early to wash the previous night’s dishes or listen to Satie at the kitchen table. Sometimes we’d go to the park and hit tennis balls back and forth on the empty courts, or walk around the block in the pitch black till my legs itched unbearably from the cold. Whatever we did, it always felt like secret, stolen time. A pocket of temporal spaciousness.
So, this morning, I got up and made tea and decided to curl into the armchair in the corner of the living room and use this particular pocket to read.
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay came very highly recommended. This is sometimes a deterrent because I’m the sort of nightmare person who stubbornly avoids things the more often I’m told to consume them, but in this case I’m glad I persevered.
The premise is very simple: a year’s worth of daily essayettes on various sources of delight. The collection glows precisely because it isn’t some kind of Pollyannaish litany. Instead, it captures the complexity of finding joy in a flawed world, and the particular necessity of claiming joy as a Black man in America. Gay’s entries are full of digressions and caveats. He’s constantly gesturing toward vast, complicated power structures with one hand while using the other to point at tiny, captivating miracles poking their heads out of the soil.
I love any piece of work that wrestles with the paradox of “and yet” and “even still,” and this book is no exception. I love it because it doesn’t demand that we wait to be pure enough for joy. It doesn’t position a sense of a wonder as a commodity to be bought or earned. It doesn’t disqualify people. Delight is simply there, in spite of it all.1
Two years ago I sat in Mother Foucault’s Bookshop on a Saturday morning with the sun streaming through the windows and listened to my friend Anis perform his poem Today’s Love Is Brought to You by the Letter Jon Sands. (You can probably hear me laughing in the background of this video. You can certainly see me crying in the background of another in the series from that morning.)
Hearing the way Anis says “I fucking love Black people” echoes the many celebrations that run throughout The Book of Delights.2 These two half-Black poets share a tender ear for the sublime and an irreverent sense of humor—the kind of sharing that makes me wonder if they’ve met.3 Their words flow into each other and elicit snorts and grins and also pangs of truthful recognition. Neither of them eschew the paradox of what it means to embrace delight in the world we live in—in the skin they live in—and I am so deeply grateful for it.
I stayed curled in the armchair for an hour or so, and when I was done reading the acknowledgements (one of my favorite parts of any book) and had breathed one of those happy, book-finishing sighs, I looked out the window and realized there was white frost sparkling on all the neighborhood rooftops, and that the sunrise had snuck up on me, and that it was January 20th.
Happy new presidency, America.
3. Yes, part of me also wonders if there’s the sort of inexplicable friction we sometimes recognize as envy in this comparison. Occasionally people will refer to me alongside other creators whose work I admire and rather than feeling like a compliment it elicits a jab of petty resentment. But my friend Mara taught me that often what we envy in the other is an aspect of the self we haven’t fully claimed yet, and you know what? I believe that. It checks out. Things have gotten better since I started noticing those tiny jabs and thinking “Yeah, okay, that’s me too. I have that. Wouldn’t notice it if I didn’t.”↩