Going Creatively Sane in Quarantine

How losing it is helping me keep it together

I'm wearing an oversized orange scarf as a dress. Dolly Parton plays while I check the growth of my sourdough bread starter and hang another Christmas ornament on the kitchen hutch. I've brought my partner to the bedroom three separate times to show him the way the sunlight hits the floor. Have I lost my mind?

Maybe. But maybe I'm going sane. Creativity sane. And it's pretty exciting.

For the first few weeks of this quarantine, I did what is expected of me. I wore sweatpants every day, baked sugary breads and took Zoom calls. As a creative director in advertising, my job is to be creative. After doing this job for some time, the ideas always eventually come. Most times they arrive in package form. They come when I'm wearing shoes and when I'm having a reasonable, high-protein lunch. When they arrive, I greet them calmly. Then I give them structure and I put them into motion. They continue to come during quarantine, but they are different now. They don't demand that I do anything. They just kind of are. And well, they're weird.

Since the beginning of this quarantine, I've been going through the range of emotions. Attacks of grief flooded in after reading personal accounts from nurses in New York. I looked at statistics and imagined the faces of loved ones in pain. I urgently texted my friend pictures of a dark patch of skin on my right foot. Can you diagnose this? I don't want to bother the doctor. I got irritable. I snapped at my partner for literally doing nothing more than asking a question that I didn't "feel like answering right now." From a neat seven-foot distance, I'd effusively thank the grocery-store workers who are risking their lives to keep us all fed and wiped. I rode these emotions like tidal waves.

This morning, however, I felt something new. I think maybe something beautiful is breaking through. I woke up and I got weird. Wonderfully weird. I broke my routine and I left my bed unmade (strangely difficult to do). I dance-grunted my emotions out. I adopted various dialects to explain to exactly no one why my sourdough bread was having trouble rising. I asked the trees their opinions on the excessive squirrel activity as of late. I made an interpretive collage out of old résumés, and I wrote people I loved very specific emails about why they are special.

Yes, these things are kooky, but they are also terribly freeing. I saw myself not just "coping" but expressing my full strange self, half-dressed and floating around the kitchen. I haven't seen this me since I was 9 years old, having full-blown conversations with my cat while making candle holders in the basement. This was a time when I wore my grandma's clothes head to toe because it changed the way I felt. Or when I'd hand-paint canvas shoes for friends and family, colors dependent on the shoe owner's personality type. It's kind of great to be back here, in this strange and freeing place.

In my advertising work, I found my ideas to be clear and efficient. They came from a steel part of me. But these new ideas? These quarantine ideas? They're not following any order. I woke up wanting to create a black-and-white lined painting. I don't know why, but now that's what I'm doing. Is my kitchen covered in flour? Yes, it is. Have I seen the light of makeup in weeks? No, I have not. Do I know what day it is? Yes, I do. It's Saturday, Day 33 of my quarantine. I'm paying attention-ish.

I spent so many years trying to wield and control my creativity, mostly for my mental health. I sought out all of the things. The meditating, the yoga, the talk therapy and the Epsom salt baths. I even stopped drinking alcohol eight months ago in an effort to gain clarity. And that has been, for the most part, pretty wonderful.

Right now I feel a different kind of creative flow emerging from these challenging emotions. Am I creating high art that the world needs to see? Who cares! It's not about productivity. For so long I trained my brain to work on projects that could win awards, to come up with ideas for new businesses, to make things that I could sell for money or for recognition. I thought that's what I was supposed to do—be creative in service of commerce. Now it feels like creativity is springing up in service of sanity and connection. Maybe this can be an opportunity to express myself more authentically. Who knows where that could lead? 

Each of us is shifting right now, finding our breaking points, grieving and working through. We are allowed to break. We're allowed to leave the laundry and wear costumes over 9 a.m. brownies.  And through this breaking, maybe each of us can meet our own true weird. 

When this does finally end, we'll share a brighter, more earnest part of ourselves with the world. Or at the very least, we'll keep ourselves entertained. Until then, you can find me making full body masks out of old beauty supplies.

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Bevan Mahaney
Bevan Mahaney is creative director at Grey West.

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