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All the little ways I let it kill my own art – Alexandra Kostoulas

By: Alexandra Kostoulas |

Inoticed a few other people copied my dispatches since I published and promoted the last one. They are mostly bloggers and they labeled their posts “dispatches from quarantine 001. If it’s a coincidence, then what serendipity, but if it’s copying, then I’m annoyed. I know I had the idea first because when I set up the domain and the blog it was in March and their posts were after April 13.

The thing is, it almost made me stop writing this blog.

That’s the thing I can’t get over.

It. Almost. Made. Me. Stop.

Also the other day somebody devalued me and the work that I do. The details of what they said are not important.

Don’t take it personally, I told myself.

But, because I am human, I did.

And I let it silence me for a while.

For a week or so.

The last time it happened, I let it silence me for a year. Once, for a decade.

The thing about this coronavirus quarantine is…it is making me–like a lot of people–reflect on my life. For me this self-reflection is manifesting in my career. Probably because I am emerging from my second maternity leave, and wondering if I even have a career anymore.

I am looking back at the past decade and all my set-backs. All the times when I didn’t send my work out because I didn’t think it was “ready” or “good enough” yet. All the opportunities I let pass me by. All the deaths I experienced.

All the little ways I let it kill my own art.

That was the worst part.

I held myself back because I was grieving.

In the first half of the last decade, I lost my grandmother, my father, my first pregnancy. I had a life-changing injury that took 18 months of physical therapy to come back from. I almost died of sepsis in a Bangkok hospital. I almost lost my mom to breast cancer, but she beat it and is now back cantankerous (and as loving) as ever. Not it that order. When we think of trauma, it is never in order.

I could not write about any of this stuff or finish the work I was doing on it because I hadn’t fully digested it. I was still traumatized.

And the Coronavirus, with its long slow tail–got me thinking about all the little setbacks that happened to me, and how I let them silence me and I worried about how many more will come now with the coming recession that is starting to take hold.

During the last recession, I got passed over for tenure track jobs. I did not get ahead like I thought I would. Things were not rosy for me. I ate a lot of crow.

In all these ways I hid inward. I did not speak.

Ilet the fear wash over me. I let the setbacks and the deaths swallow me up.

But in the last five years, good things started to happen to me. I had two healthy babies. I kept writing and working on my novel. I finished a poetry collection. I founded and cultivated the SF Creative Writing Institute. I mentored and worked with amazing people who I helped find and develop their voice. My living situation got more secure.

But, I didn’t send my work out as often as I would have liked.

Instead, I minded my own business. I shuffled along whistling, trying to be unobtrusive.

I guess, without knowing it, I bided my time.

I have two students of Creative Writing who are young women from diverse backgrounds.

In my heart when I want to feel better about myself, I called them my protégées. I mean, they are their own, and they are amazing, but in some way, when they were still fledgeling on the border of stepping out into their own writing careers, they were my protégées. Humor me. Life is nasty, brutish and short. Give me a protégée now and again.

Anyway, these protégées were a little more savvy than I was at their age but they were young and eager like I was.

Two and a half years ago, when my first baby was born, they each came to me for help. One with grad school applications, and one with scholarship apps for the grad school I wrote her a letter of recommendation for and helped her apply for. They both got full ride scholarships to their schools of choice. I warned them that being a woman and being ethnic and being a writer are not the easy way. They said they knew. I warned them not to give up their day jobs which were well paid and hard to get because there could be another recession. They said they knew.

I talked to one of the protégées recently and she is living in an apartment in New York. Outside her window is the pandemic. She is alone. She is teaching online internationally. She is doing amazing things. She hears sirens 24/7.

They never stop.

She confided in me that she is only looking at the news and watching documentaries during the corona times.

I said, you know what, me too. I’m only looking at the news and youtube.

Neither of us were writing yet.

As for me, I spent the first moth of quarantine frantically moving our classes online and trying to save the Creative Writing Institute from going under, the month before that making sure we had enough food and supplies at home, the month before that, adjusting to a life with two small children, the month before that recovering from birth.

Before they left the Bay Area, I explained to them my journey with publishing.

That I hadn’t published as much as I thought I would by now because life threw me a lot of curve balls and most of them were death and illness and economy related. I’m not complaining. I have also been very lucky. It’s just the way it is. They listened with compassion.

Anyway. Here I am now, typing at the dining table while the babies sleep as if my life depended on it.

The thought has just occurred to me:

One thing I know how to do is how to keep going in a crisis. If I have any wisdom to impart to anyone else, it’s this.

My mind keeps flashing back to the previous recession when I had just graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing, and post 9/11, when I had just finished college at UCSB and there were no jobs. I talked my way into my first ESL teaching job with no experience out of desperation.

If I have one thing to share about my writing, it’s that I regret that I didn’t keep showing it despite the nay-sayers and the trauma. I should have kept putting it out there and I should have never stopped.

I should have been deaf to other people’s and my own criticism.

And now, Corona Virus times or not, I am going to write and send out work as much as I can when I can.

So here I am. I’m back. I’m going to keep writing and showing work. Keep finding new ways to make it happen. Even if I’m slow.

When I’m writing, when I’m designing courses for the Creative Writing Institute, when I’m playing with my kids, I am not thinking about the dread that is out there. I am not letting the dread fill me up inside.

Writing in here is keeping me accountable.

If you’re out there reading this and you want to write too, please send me stuff. I’ll publish it on here. I hope it will keep us all going.

 

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And now, we go out very little – Alexandra Kostoulas

It’s hard to know how long this thing will last. We are all biding our time and staying inside.

There are so many things I wanted to do during this Coronavirus time and I love watching tv and reading books so much but I haven’t felt like it. I’ve also wanted to work on my novel and my poetry collections.

Instead I have felt like preparing my house, obtaining vegetables and cleaning them and making meals that stretch and utilize all of my groceries is my number one priority.

I even went through and picked the vegetables that grow wild in my garden. I think my grandfather planted them. He died about a decade before I was born. But he grew all sorts of things in the backyard that kind of take over and have now started to grow wild. One of them is this either dill or fennel. Another is green onions. They grow like weeds back there and come up every March. Usually I just let them be and they go away by June. I have a terrible gardening ability. Nothing from the generations of farmers or healers was passed down to me.

When I went in for my 4-month-old’s doctor visit, I mentioned the coronavirus, and people in the front office were making jokes about it. The receptionist came in with a cold and still worked. I asked the pediatrician if I should be worried about it. He said it was no big deal because small children were not affected according to the data, but then I said that well you never know and that millions of people were on lockdown in China and that isn’t a small thing. He joked that we may be all on lockdown by the fall. Fast forward to six weeks later, we all are on shelter-in-place and the doctor’s office released a troubling webinar explaining about the coronavirus with deadpan expressions and dour tones that I made the mistake of watching late at night. The three doctors basically said to sterilize everything in your home multiple times a day with disinfectant, which god only knows I do not have time for. I have a toddler and a 5-month old. Basically everything goes in the mouth.

I’ve decided to stay in as much as possible. I see other people going for long walks etcetera and going into nature. But I have never been good at getting out of the house with two small children.

What makes me nervous are all the joggers.

It’s like every single person has decided to take up jogging right now as if their life depended on it. The young millennial joggers do not cover their mouths and they run triumphantly past you on the street, or on the path where you are walking, in the park, etcetera.

When we do go out, we strap the baby to me, go all together to the more secluded parts of golden gate park and take our 2-year-old in the stroller. But we bring a little wagon that we let him run with and pull behind him. I figure if he is pulling the wagon, he isn’t touching other things. Then I sanitize his hands a bit.

I kept thinking in the back of my mind that this may be the last time we may do certain things for a while. So I let myself do them one more time and I watch and wait. I was keeping this to myself in January and February because I thought people would think I was nuts.

Back in early February, I was thinking, well, lets keep going to the playground because there will probably be a time when we can’t go. Let’s go one more time to baby music class and soccer class and story time because there may be a time when it will not be safe to go if the virus proliferates. Let’s stop going to the gym (or in my case, I never went back after having a baby like I thought I would)

And now, we go out very little.

 

It is kind of nerve-wrecking going out with a global pandemic out there.

I was low-key about my fear for a long time.

But I think now a lot of people are also afraid, so I can just be truthful about it.

I find it to be scary as an immunocompromised person with an older mother and two small children under 3. Nothing that people can say to me will make me feel otherwise. I will find a point to the contrary of everything people say.

And you know what, I think it’s okay to be afraid. I’ve embraced it now. My fear is what is protecting me. I can control my fear. I can think about it and obsess about it.

My fear is a known quantity.

My fear is making me write this. It’s taking away my sleep and taking away my novel editing time from me.

But it’s getting me to write this blog and the stuff I post on here, is me breaking out of my comfort zone. It’s me, showing myself and my work to the world in a way that I have been afraid to do for many years.

So, amid all the fears, and all my challenges, I am stretching myself. I am putting myself “out there” and my raw unedited work on the line for the first time in over ten years.

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That being said the next post on here will be by somebody else. I have more to say, but the goal of this project is to get us all to write during this crazy time. I hope to spend the downtime writing other things.

If you are reading this and you would like to publish something related to your experience, please send an email to submissions@dispatchesfromquarantine.co

 

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Weird at the Grocery Store – Alexandra Kostoulas

We knew something was up when things were starting to get weird at the grocery store.

This line keeps popping into my head or a variant of it. Like some day I am going to be an old grandma telling my grandchildren about this time, and they will listen to my storytelling mouths agape, thinking what a strange and distant era their crazy old Yiayia came from. I don’t know why that scenario keeps popping into my head.

My own Yiayia was a survivor of the 1918 flu epidemic. Born in 1911, her parents were Greek immigrants from the rough craggy mountains of the Peloponnese region of Southern Greece, near Kalamata–where the olives come from and Sparta–where the Spartans came from.

Her father an immigrant and young man at the time, was cook in the Garrison Inn in Newburyport Massachusetts, her mother a clam shucker. When you go to Newburyport, they have a historical store but none of the Greek immigrants are written into the history. It’s just smiling white Anglo-Saxon Protestants like the pilgrims. You can buy scrimshaw there (it used to be on real whale bone–but it is now on plastic).

My grandmother and her younger sister worked at the textile and shoe factories before child labor laws were in effect. Except my grandmother was too slow–so she started a business of selling candy bars to the factory workers (probably other children) for a nickel a piece.

She ended up getting off the factory line and expanding her business later. But that is another story.

I take after my grandmother in temperament. I am also too slow and I am also physically quite delicate. Being an adjunct professor at several schools at the same time almost broke me when I was doing it. I had a terrible fall down some stairs in my early 30s and it took me 18 months to recover, and I decided after that to take a break. Somewhere in that time I had started my own business teaching creative writing and formed the Institute. It is like the candy bar business my grandmother started as a child in many ways that I haven’t really understood until now.

Now with two small children I don’t know if I could go back to teaching composition or ESL at a college.

I don’t know if I have it in me. I respect the work though. You never know.

I am trying to build my stamina back up bit by bit. But this whole stay-at-home mom thing was never something I imagined I would be doing. It is so freaking hard. The quarantine just makes it harder in some ways.

I keep wondering when I will fully slip into my life as a writer–now that I finally know how to write. I decided that once my oldest started preschool in the fall would be the time that my career would soar. But we were rejected from the fancy preschool near our house in the neighborhood that my family has lived in for 50 years. All of my fantasies of pushing the stroller there and walking home w a fancy latte in the cupholder in luxe exercise pants and a crisp wool pea coat to sit at the computer and write my novel in the fog until 3pm were dashed. It was a great fantasy though. I don’t have fancy exercise pants btw. I have 8-y-old Target ones. But in my fantasy they were fancy.

After getting rejected, I went to watch the sunset at Ocean Beach in my car and cried–(which I don’t do very easily) Then as I was crying I took a picture of the sunset and posted it to facebook and talked about how disappointed I was.

 

One of my childhood friends, a mom, who is walking away from a difficult marriage comforted me. She said basically that everything happens for a reason and that I wouldn’t want my kid there anyway if they didn’t want me, and I would see why this is good in the long run.

In fact, many moms comforted me. The moms all knew what it means not to have your kid in preschool. What it means for one’s career.

Two weeks later, the city shut down due to Coronavirus.

All of my mom friends are being expected to work from home and take care of their kids at the same time. All the burden is falling on the moms. Oh yeah, and they are supposed to still pay for their expensive preschools and daycare centers during this epidemic in order to hold their “spots.” What kind of shit is that? I’m the only one who can say it now because I don’t have a spot to hold onto. Fuck that. There I said what everyone is thinking.

Right as the shelter-in-place happened, one of my writing clients, a midwife and amazing poet, had these home-made tinctures and teas she was selling to her clients. I saw her advertising them on instagram. I bought one. It’s a reishi mushroom tincture and anti-viral tea. She left them for me and I went and picked them up. I paid her online because social distancing.

When I took them home, I got a flash in my mind of my grandmother.

The story that was passed down to me is that she survived the 1918 flu epidemic because her poor immigrant parents had these tinctures that her father made. Tinctures full of special herbs. My great-grandfather was a medicine man and a healer, his mother was a doctor–his wife, my great-grandmother, was a midwife. They made these tinctures for “wellness” or I think they called them tonics. My grandmother was a small child at the time–the eldest of 5 sisters.

The story goes that her father gave the tinctures to all the Greek immigrants in Newburyport and the surrounding areas and they all survived the flu epidemic because of the tinctures my great-grandfather made.

The main sadness of his life was that he never got them up North to Maine, to his sister, and she fell ill and died. He died later in an accident at a factory, tragically. My great-grandmother lived to 97 though. And my grandmother to 99.

The first weekend of quarantine, I found out my husband had been exposed to the coronavirus at work. We found this out after I picked up the tincture. I spent the first two weeks of quarantine quietly shitting a brick, drinking the tincture, and the anti-viral tea and making avgolemeno soup and bracing myself in case any of us got sick. So far nobody in my family got it. Luckily we are all ok.

 

Last week I found out that somebody who works at a whole foods in SF has it. Glad we don’t shop there because the parking lot is too aggressive on a regular day, let alone in COVID times.

As the social fabric breaks down a bit, like the women two and three generations before me, I realize I am falling back on folklore and family. I am falling back on my roots. I am falling back on stories. At the end of the day, stories are what settle me.

And I am still here, spry in the middle of the night, drinking tea at the kitchen table.

Stealing the time to write.

 

 

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This whole thing is hard – Alexandra Kostoulas

–Alexandra Kostoulas |

This whole thing is hard.

Some days are easier than others. Today was one of those days that was easier emotionally.

But the few times I do go outside I see sad and worried looks on people’s faces in the streets.

And the people who are selling food or in the essential services look exhausted and are wearing masks and limiting access to the hardware store etc.

You have to tell them what you want, and they make sure that not too many people are in the store before you can go in and pay.

I bought soil and the last seedlings they had—mint, and I got some essential things from my office.

At the same time I do feel better when I go outside and see the world once in a blue moon. People are clearly losing it. I saw a pile of office worker left behind detritus in the Tenderloin next to a tent of homeless people that was black and charred—-like it had been burned.

On Friday, I saw a bourgeois woman in her 30s walking her purebred dog while drinking a glass of wine (in a wine glass) while wearing a designer wide-brimmed hat with a huge gold chain around the brim and a fur coat, casually chatting to another person in vocal fry at the mouth of Golden Gate Park while social distancing.

Also boarded up businesses overnight in the rich newly gentrified part of town. I am staying in for the foreseeable future or until I run out of eggs.

I have made my house my sanctuary.

I have more help with the kids than I normally do. And I don’t give a shit about their bedtime.

They will eventually sleep as they are doing right now. A lot has happened while I have been on maternity leave. The whole world changed. #dispatchesfromquarantine

 

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It Took A Riot – Dispatches from Quarantine – Michael J. Moore

It Took A Riot

By Michael J. Moore

You may know my name from the recent articles being published pertaining to the COVID-19 situation at Monroe Correctional Facility or you may be a horror fan and recognize my name Michael J Moore from my many articles and books or from the Preliminary Ballot of the 2019 Bram Stoker Awards 2019.   Whichever it is, my aim, as a Latino author and writer, is to write and at the moment, I’d like my voice and those of my fellow inmates to be heard through my writing.  I am also now suffering from COVID-19 and worried what might actually happen to myself and my fellow inmates.

I’ve written a series of articles on COVID-19.  I attach a copy of It Took a Riot for your consideration.

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Some guards are angry. Some are pouting. A small handful, however, are being good sports about having been ordered by their superiors to cover their faces while at work.

I’m thinking:

It’s a shame it took a riot to make this happen.

The Monroe Correctional Complex (“MCC”) is one of the oldest prisons in Washington State, and the structure does nothing to conceal its age. A tour within the confines of its fifty-foot concrete wall, and you feel like you’ve been teleported back through time, and ejected into the courts of a medieval castle. Aesthetically, it’s a monument to everything that might scare you about prison, but those of us who live here know it as a safe haven, and a hub of positive programming and educational opportunities. The vast majority of MCC’s incarcerated population were sent here for protective custody, after being targeted by gangs in other facilities, and for this reason, serious violence is a rare occurrence.

Still, on April 8th 2020, I sat in my cell, listening to the cages rattle, as my neighbors screamed, pounded, and shook the bars. I watched, on my television, from an aerial view of the yard, a crowd of residents kneeling around the baseball diamond with their hands zip-tied behind their backs after a group demonstration turned aggressive. And though I, myself, didn’t participate, I can’t remember many times in my life that I’ve been more grateful than I was toward those who did, because like them, I don’t want to die.

The Washington State Department of Corrections’ website claims that they’ve taken precautions to halt the spread of Covid-19 in all their facilities. Though I don’t have access to the internet, I know this because MCC has been on the news every day for over a week. Here, those steps have involved suspending visitation and all programming (educational, religious, or otherwise), closing down parts of the facility, and limiting the number of individuals allowed in others. For the past month, these steps have confined the majority of us to our living units, which least enable social distancing.

And all the while, a lot of us have been thinking:

The guards are the only possible vessels in which Coronavirus could hitch a ride into our home. So why are they standing elbow to elbow, laughing, and whispering in each other’s ears? And why in the hell aren’t they wearing facemasks?

The media is calling prisons, petri dishes. They’re being compared to the cruise ships we all saw sailing off the coast of Florida with hundreds of infected and several dead on board because the close quarters provided an environment in which it was impossible for Coronavirus not to spread like fire on acetone. A couple of weeks ago, the incarcerated community in MCC received a memo, informing us that DOC staff were issued masks with the option of wearing them. Most opted not to wear them, so naturally, people got sick. Some of us wrote grievances, receiving only vague and evasive responses. I asked one guard in the dining-hall why he refused to wear his mask, in light of the death which he could be unknowingly introducing into my community, and he smiled as he responded:

“Man, I’m just trying to spread the love.”

And I was thinking:

Oh yeah, they don’t view us as human. Why would they care if they kill us?

It doesn’t seem to matter that MCC is unique amongst prisons, in that a high percentage of its residents have turned their backs on self-destructive lifestyles, choosing instead, to invest their time and energies into education and other modes of rehabilitation. The mentality seems to be:

Fuck ’em. If they die, they die.

So as time passed, people continued to get sick, and on the evening of April 8th nonlethal weapons were deployed in the yard because a crowd of residents decided the long stretch in segregation that they’ll now be sentenced to, is favorable over being murdered by Washington State Department of Corrections staff. Every one of them was housed in the Minimum Security Unit, and set to be released in under four years. With the loss of good-conduct-time, which results in participating in a group demonstration, every one of their release dates will now be postponed. But the incident received national attention, and the guards in MCC were ordered to wear facemasks.

So now I’m thinking:

Why are some guards still not wearing them?

Last night, when somebody asked one who was working in my unit that very question, I stood at my bars and listened closely as he replied:

“I’m hoping one of you writes a grievance on me, so I’ll get suspended and get some time off work.”

And I was wondering:

Why should I have to write a grievance? Shouldn’t he be fired on the spot for not complying with an order intended to keep him from killing me? 

And: 

If it took a riot the first time, what’s it going to take now? 

But mostly, I’m thinking: 

I wish I could thank the heroes.

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Michael J Moore’s books include Highway Twenty, which appeared on the Preliminary Ballot for the 2019 Bram Stoker Award and the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, After the Change, which is used as curriculum at the University of Washington.  His work has received awards, has appeared in various anthologies and magazines and has been adapted for theater. Follow him at twitter.com/MichaelJMoore20 or facebook.com/michaeljmoorewriting

Originally Published at Dispatches from Quarantine

May 20, 2020
Monroe, Washington