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How it began: Finding hope and comfort in the desert

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021

This morning, I made myself go for a run. It was a short one around our little corner of Edgewater, just something to get me going. It’s taken Chicago a while to warm up (a phenomenon I am well acquainted with growing up in the northeast), but after a lonely and seemingly never ending winter with little social interaction, I now fully understand the unbridled joy that my longtime Chicagoan friends feel for spring!

A distant glimpse of downtown Chicago on a recent spring walk

This Tuesday morning run was windy, humid and had a fair amount of sunshine, and somehow, it reminded me of early morning runs in the desert, before the sun had burned up the moisture in the air that had accumulated overnight.

One year ago around this time, I was getting into great running shape in Phoenix. It was one of the only activities I could do in the midst of our first lockdown, and it was one of the first routines I upheld for a while during the pandemic (and like most of my pandemic routines, it eventually dropped off). Although it was only March in Arizona then, it would still get pretty hot during the day, so Scott and I began to get our runs in early, usually around seven before the pavement really started to heat up.

We would hop in our car and drive a short distance north 7th Ave to one of the entrances of the Arizona Canal, a waterway that cuts through the middle of Phoenix. Along the canal there was a long, mostly-paved path which gave way to views of geese, families of ducks, and giant, weird-looking fish that sometimes jumped out of the water. It was lined with occasional shrubs, cacti, and desert flowers in some areas that decorated the backs of the adjacent apartment complexes. It wasn’t all pretty: there was the shopping cart lodged in the bottom of the canal, a fair amount of trash and debris scattered along the banks of the water, and various friendly and/or sketchy characters walking, running, or sometimes, stumbling along the path. One of these characters used to walk around with a giant gray parrot on his shoulder.

Views of the Arizona Canal with clouds and sun

Facing east at the beginning of the run was a great view of Piestewa Mountain: a craggy, pointed peak that sits in the middle of Phoenix and glows red in the early morning when illuminated by the sunrise. It loomed over the beginning of our runs like an unattainable goal, appearing much closer than it really was...much like the end of the pandemic.

A muted Piestewa in the distance, with clouds preventing the red glow

At the time, my work-family colleagues at Arizona Opera and I were all grappling with the lockdown and cancellations in different ways. Scott and I lived a five minute walk up the street from the rest of them, and after Arizona Opera shut down their facilities, I didn’t see them for weeks. Before the cancellations, I distinctly remember Cadie recalling a conversation she had had recently with a friend, who had remarked, “This pandemic is not going to be a sprint, but a marathon.” That phrase really stuck with me, and although many of us had already read about pandemics in the past at that point and we generally knew that it could be up to two years before the world returned to normal, it was that word, “marathon,” that really drove home the reality of the pandemic for me.

What a marathon it has been.

Thinking about the past year is exhausting. When the anniversary of the start of the pandemic began to roll around a couple weeks ago, I tried (and failed) to stay off social media. The trauma of the cancellations, the halting of normal life, the apocalyptic scenes in grocery stores, the emotion on our bosses’ faces at the abrupt end of our production came flooding back, and as social media dredged up these memories, I wasn’t having ANY of it. Even if pandemic life has become normalized for us in many ways, it’s still an ongoing battle that we face every day. I’m admittedly one of the LUCKIEST artists during this time, and it’s still been a struggle for me. The Ryan Opera Center moved us to Chicago and kept us employed and singing for ten months now, and I have been unspeakably grateful. And even so, it's been an unwelcome adjustment to bring the "goods" without the energy of colleagues and the audience around you.

Our Safeway in mid-March 2020, and a silly and life-saving care package from Mom

When we began diving into remote work and virtual coachings in Arizona almost exactly one year ago, my best friend reached out to my husband, who has a background in medicine, and said that he was feverish and sweating uncontrollably. He knew he had caught the virus, and hadn’t told me yet as not to alarm me. That was a new era of darkness for me: My best friend came down with an unrelenting case of the COVID in New York City, which was ground zero for the virus at that time. There was so little that any of us could do. I felt completely helpless, and I was scared. The reality of my bestie’s illness really hit home and instantly changed my perception of what this virus is and what it can do. Although he had a really rough case that included pneumonia in one lung, he luckily came out of it just fine, and is fully recovered, smiling, and *killing it* today. But from then on, COVID had my full attention. Like the riptides of a choppy ocean, I saw that this virus could sweep anyone out to sea at a moment’s notice, no matter how well you think they can swim.

Scott and Hazel and I attempting to spend some outdoor time on our patio despite the very loud drone of 7th Ave below

Even throughout the helplessness and fear of that period, however - the cancellations, the sudden isolation, my best friend’s case - Scott and I were finding ways to cope. We added long evening walks with Hazel into our lockdown routine for some active meditation. Sometimes we were silent and pensive, and sometimes our walks were filled with deep, real-life conversations. (Hazel, on the other hand, happily bounded around and searched for sticks to destroy every time, regardless of whether we were talking or not.) These walks, though, kept me grounded during what was the scariest moment of the pandemic, for me.

One of our last evening walks in Phoenix before we moved, around the edge of Encanto Park

There’s been too much to recount since May 2020. Scott and I moved (see previous blog!) and subletted and apartment hunted in Chicago throughout the pandemic, and settled in to our fourth new city together (not counting my summer work). We had occasional social outings, but in general, we hunkered down. We didn’t see our families for the holidays, and it hurt, but we got through it.

Yes, the past year was exhausting. It’s STILL exhausting. But, it’s kind of crazy: Thinking about the things I did to pass the time last year during the beginning of the lockdown is bringing me some levity these days. Last year, the start of the pandemic was scary, it was new, and we were all finding new ways to cope and feel human amidst a sh*t ton of fear and uncertainty. It’s remembering the moments like our morning runs in Phoenix, stopping for take out on the way back (an iced latte at Copper Star Coffee, and a chorizo and egg breakfast burrito from Phoenix Burrito House - OMG, both so delicious), and some distanced, desert sunset happy hours that brought my heart some relief. And somehow, they still do today. It’s remembering the progression of days when my best friend switched back from sending texts to sending voice messages because he could speak again without coughing, saying that his fever had broken, and that his taste and smell was returning. It was those first few Zoom meetings when I realized that virtual coachings weren’t actually useless (although they come with many challenges), and that the ability to work and use my voice made me feel somewhat normal in a world where everything suddenly seemed upside down.

Today, I’m finding even more levity in the selfies I see of all of you grinning with joy and relief as you hold up your vaccine cards. As I sit here writing this, I think about this time last year juxtaposed with those vaccine card photos, and it brings tears to my eyes.

We have SO far to go, and the threat of the coronavirus is still real. With that said, though, I do hope that we all can remember the beginning of the pandemic last year not with sadness, but with hope. We knew so little then, but we still found solace in the simple pleasures in our daily lives. The gray parrot on the guy’s shoulder. The long walks and talks. Supporting our local restaurants by ordering takeout, and tipping the employees extra well. Marveling at the strength and bravery of all essential workers. The novelty of the early Zoom social hours. A distanced rooftop Whiteclaw tasting (haha, yes, that really happened). The teeny, tiny sprout I found, courageously springing up between the gravel and concrete along the edge of the canal.

And now, 1.7 thousand miles away, the cool humid breeze and touch of Chicago sunshine paired with the tulips coming up in the gardens in Edgewater bring me back to these moments last year with appreciation rather than despair. To everyone reading this: Keep on fighting. Sending heaps and heaps of joy, strength, and love as we continue to weather this storm.

Some closing photos of post-run Hazel kisses, cactus flowers, and a v. important canal-side meeting.


Please enjoy some bonus content: A video I took last year of an inflatable Olaf the Snowman in the canal, who had CLEARLY not had a great night.

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