The backs of houses, seen from an upper floor, bathed in a warm sunset.

Photo: Tara Fay

So Much Left to Do, Still: Regaining Purpose During a Pandemic

I value complete control. Not control in the way of coercing, but the kind that comes along with being intentional, planning carefully, and knowing what’s on the horizon. I have never dealt well with the unknown, and to have spent the past three months in a completely unpredictable state has had a profound effect on the way I view time, and sitting with the uncertain.

At the beginning of quarantine, everything was desolate and empty. I felt it around me, and I felt it internally. Time moved in a way that I couldn’t seem to adjust to: very quickly, but at the same time measured and unhurried. I wanted some power over the time, to will it one way or the other, but it wasn’t possible. I wanted some semblance of control back. Instead, I was forced to settle into uncertainty, and a deeply lonely feeling of having nothing to distract me from the negative thoughts and the depression that have plagued me since I was a teenager. With nowhere to go, all I could do was stay indoors, sit with my loneliness, dwell in it, until suddenly I was suffocating.

The storefront of an Italian market, with neon and handwritten signs covering its windows, seen from the sidewalk.
Storefronts in Bloomfield that were empty during the early period of social distancing. Photo: Tara Fay
The bright blue facade of a store with figurines of Mary and Jesus in its windows.
More empty storefronts. Photo: Tara Fay
An empty grocery store, viewed from its empty parking lot.
Early mornings at ShurSave. Photo: Tara Fay

It became too much to bear, and after weeks of insomnia, intense anxiety, and irregular moods, I crashed, and wound up admitting myself into Western Psych. I began a remote Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), 12 hours a week, as well as weekly sessions with a psychiatrist and a therapist. I also started medication for long untreated bipolar disorder. It took some time, but all of a sudden I could breathe again. I began to see the world around me in a way that I had not been able to when this all began. It was almost like seeing things for the first time. The colors of plants, the sunsets—it all felt new and fresh. I felt like I was now able to adjust to, and function in, “the new norm.” Although it was still precarious, there was balance, and stability.

A row of houses and their backyards, viewed from an upper floor, at sunset.
Sunsets in Bloomfield. Photo: Tara Fay
A tiered row of shelves full of houseplants on the sidewalk in front of a store window.
Gina's Green Market. Photo: Tara Fay

I took walks; I read books. I was becoming familiar with the world again, and more comfortable with the idea of an uncertain future. I practiced mindfulness, and being present in the moment, with less focus on the movement of time. I felt as though I was reconnecting with my children, who had become like little strangers to me. They had adjusted beautifully to every shift, every change in circumstance, and now I was catching up with them.

A close-up view of a windowsill holding three potted houseplants and a stack of books.
The view from my bedside. Photo: Tara Fay
A hand with chipped pink nail polish rests on a turquoise blanket next to a pile of freshly picked buttercups.
My daughter's hand. Photo: Tara Fay
A cemetery with lush, green grass and trees in the distance.
Walks in Allegheny Cemetery. Photo: Tara Fay

And then George Floyd happened. Time was continuing to move quickly, but there was no simultaneous delay anymore. Everything was so sudden. The balance I had attained was thrown. But I found equilibrium, because before I am anything else, I am a Black woman. I watched as people began to tear things down in their rage. I wanted to tear things down with them. I wanted to scream and yell and riot against the injustice of it all. I still want to.

Through all this, the general preoccupation with death that I’ve always had, a result of never believing I was going to live very long, suddenly became very prominent. It was all I could focus on. There was death around me, death all over the news, the looming idea that it could very suddenly happen to me, my friends, my family. In IOP therapy we talk a lot about things we are grateful for. Many times during these exercises I don’t participate. It’s difficult to consider a grounding force that keeps me alive and existing. It’s selfish, I know, the idea that my children aren’t enough. But anyone in the perils of depression can understand—sometimes we can’t think outside of ourselves. But in those moments of protest, I suddenly felt purposeful, tethered to a cause.

Spaces and places that were empty for so long were suddenly filled with bodies that walked and yelled and spoke for the ones who are no longer here speak for themselves. I walked and yelled with them. During the East Liberty protests, which turned into a standoff with the police, I ran with them, pushed back against tear gas and rubber bullets with them. In those moments I wasn’t afraid, because I had already overcome so much in such a short span of time. And I know this is bigger than me, bigger than a virus, bigger than a loss of sanity. When fighting for this cause, fighting to dismantle white supremacy, there is no space for fear. I now lean into the lack of control, and regard time as an abstract concept, a very temporary condition. I have so much left to do, still.

A page in an open book with an epigraph reading,
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. Photo: Tara Fay
A view from behind a group of protesters walking down a street underneath a bridge.
Protests moving from the South Side to Downtown. Photo: Tara Fay
A crowd of kneeling protesters fill an intersection in front of a gas station.
Protests moving from the South Side to Downtown. Photo: Tara Fay
A row of more than three dozen uniformed policeman wearing helmets and face masks and holding rods form a line blocking a street, from sidewalk to sidewalk.
Protests on the South Side. Photo: Tara Fay

Tara Fay’s The Promised Land Will Be Green (2020) is on view as part of Counterpressures at Carnegie Museum of Art until January 3, 2021.