146: You are here. Navigating your creative journey thru the pandemic with Mara Thomas

It’s the first of TWO solo episodes by Mara Thomas

Mara Thomas is the MVP or VIP of ASBX. She has contributed 26 blog posts, participated in six podcast episodes thus far, and now is gifting Artist Soapbox listeners with 2 solo episodes. And they are amazing.

You’ll hear Mara speak with her trademark honesty, vulnerability, wisdom and humor about her own journey thru the pandemic and her thoughts on how we as creatives can navigate this perpetually liminal space with courage and compassion. Enjoy.

Transcription and Links:

Hey friends. It’s really nice to talk to you. Before we really get into it, I just want to let you know that there will be links to many things in the show notes, so if you hear something that strikes a chord, we’ll have more resources at your proverbial fingertips. Also, we always love to hear from you. If you have questions, comments, or otherwise, drop us a line. It would make our day.

Now: Sincere question: how are you? It’s nearly impossible for me to answer that question during normal times and even more absurd to expect an easy answer after the past 15+ months. There’s never really an easy answer, anyway. At least not in my experience.

So here’s the complicated answer. Depending on the day or even the moment in the day, I might be sad. Or inspired. Or full of dread. Or motivated. Or lethargic. Or focused. Or angry. Or grateful. Or completely unmoored. Since early 2020, and I’m sure many of you can relate, there has been a lot of change in my life. Not only have we all collectively lived through a year of uncertainty and loss, having our worlds and our families’ worlds flipped upside down, for me personally I have been navigating a new path, studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling and starting my own business as I look to make a mid-life career pivot. At the same time, I lost the job I had for over 13 years, taking away a sense of stability and security. I know so many of you have felt that particular blow this year, as well.

Another challenge of the past year has been my health. Since early 2020 I’ve been experiencing health problems that bear a lot of resemblance to Long COVID. I got sick before the pandemic was in the news, so I never got tested, but whether it was COVID or not, since I got sick I have never been the same. I used to run long distances — in 2019 I even completed a marathon. Now I can’t run 3 miles without walking. My brain seems to have this perpetual state of cloudiness, like when you put your glasses back on after you took them off for a while and you realize how dirty the lenses are. Like, I can function, but I know there’s a film over it. From time to time, when I’m speaking out loud, even the simplest words and phrases are sometimes really hard to recall in the moment and I get stalled out mid-sentence. 

This spring, I wrestled with bouts of fatigue, another first for me. I had days where I slept all day. Days where even the simplest tasks — checking email, responding to texts — seemed overwhelming. My brain was so foggy that driving felt dangerous. I had a battery of tests done. The good news is, they could find nothing demonstrably wrong and I’m essentially a healthy person. The bad news is I don’t have any answers about why it was happening or if it’s likely to happen again. For those of you living with chronic fatigue, my heart really goes out to you. It’s immobilizing and I hope you have the support around you that you need.

Now for some good updates from the past year. During the pandemic, I turned 40. I fell in love and got married. What?! I know, right?  I joined the ranks of the backyard chicken farmers, because that’s what I needed — more animals. For those keeping score at home, I’m up to three dogs, one cat and ten chickens. Send help. But even these happy and “good” changes can wake up sleeping dragons. After all, what’s scarier and gets us more into our irrational brains than getting close to someone? Now that I’m married to someone who can really walk with me through the vulnerable, embarrassing, difficult parts of my life, I’m feeling them in a new way. If that sounds SUPER uncomfortable, you’re right. It’s like I simultaneously feel like I know myself better than I ever have but also feel completely self-conscious with zero confidence. What a fun combo! However, it’s dawning on me that this might be the painful part of growth that is actually helping us facilitate true intimacy.  I’m making the choice to be candid about my insecurities with my spouse so I don’t let old patterns sabotage the life we’re building — plus doing the really hard work of intentionally changing those old behaviors. Would I rather skip this part? ABSOLUTELY. Do I think it will be worth it in the long run? Without a doubt.

On top of all of this personal upheaval, there’s the isolation of quarantine and the complete shutdown of live, in-person performance. My band, Cold Cream, played its last show on March 11th, 2020 — one of the very last days that mass gatherings were allowed. It was surreal to be there, with all the news swirling around us, and then basically the next day all the doors slammed shut and seemingly everything changed.

At the time, of course, we were all optimistic that things would be contained and we’d be back to normal by the summer. I was gearing up for a production of one of my plays in Durham in June and we were still thinking that would be possible. Of course, as circumstances quickly revealed, there was no way that would be possible. Losing the ability to play with my band, to see live performance, to be in the room with other people, to co-create in spaces together — I’m still feeling that loss. I want to honor that none of that is on the same level as the truly life-or-death decisions people have had to make as they face economic insecurity and actual mortality. However, losing this connection to our collective community expression ushered in its own form of grief for me.

Mostly I have responded to the grief by completely ignoring it aka denial. Trying to focus on other things. Expanding my garden, starting my new school program, devouring books. But what I wasn’t doing was playing music or writing creatively in any form. No songwriting. No long-form brain dumps that might turn into a blog post or a short story. It was like I put that part of me in a box and put a big padlock on it. I couldn’t engage with it because it was too sad.

On Artist Soapbox, we have talked about comparison being an obstacle to creativity. In the past year, some people have found ways to engage with creativity on Zoom or playing music on Facebook or Instagram Live. Personally, I just can’t do it. I’m glad that others can and do, but there was something about engaging with this treasured part of life through a screen that amplified the sadness for me. On the radio one morning, they featured a theater group that was adapting to the current reality and the interviewer set up the segment by saying, “During the pandemic, some theater artists are satisfied reading plays on Zoom, but this group wanted more.” And I was like, So many of us want more. We are trying to stay sane. We are trying to stay connected to one another. 

I realize this was just a bit of ham-fisted writing, but it really got under my skin — probably because it contained this subtle and false comparison. That if you haven’t found a way to harness your creativity and adapt, y’know, in like SIX months, then the problem is you. You’re not adaptable enough. What are you even doing with your life?! How can you actually claim to be creative? 

And then I recall the wise words of my friend, songwriter Juliana Finch, who said, “This is not down time. This is a global pandemic.” Exactly. There’s no template for this. There’s no way to know how you’re going to process this until you’re in it. And I think for most of us, how we’re processing it really depends on the day.

For anyone out there who is struggling with comparison, with seeing other people manage to find new forms of expression or generate new work during the past year, I’m here to say, I get it. Me too. It feels like that entire part of me, which is a pretty big part, has been offline for over a year. I look at my guitar, gathering dust, and I just shrug. I submerge myself in the words of other writers but feel no pull to do any writing of my own. 

But here’s the difference between Mara, age 40 with 17 months of pandemic experience and Mara at an earlier point in the trajectory. I know my creativity is still there. I can trust that. I know I will feel that pull again. Just because things are dormant doesn’t mean they’re gone. I am grateful for this perspective because I know how it feels to doubt myself and feel washed up and like I should just move on and let those dreams die. Well, if I had done that when I was 32, I would have missed out on so much. So much was on its way to me, but I had to get through some other parts of life in order to be ready. In order to get there. In order to have the experiences that actually fed the writing, that informed the performances.  

And right now many of us are in that messy, uncertain, middle part. The part between, “I used to do this” and “I’m doing this again.” We’re far enough in that there’s no going back but we haven’t made it to the other side yet. This is the part that sucks. To anyone who needs to hear this: In the past year plus, if your priorities have shifted, that’s OK. If you haven’t produced anything, that’s OK. If you’ve lost momentum, that’s OK. If you’ve spent parts of the past year numbed out eating Cheetos in your bathrobe, that’s OK. Not that I speak from personal experience or anything… 

To put it another way, not directly engaging with your creativity doesn’t mean it’s gone and it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. There’s no such thing. 

Alright, Soapboxers. That’s it for today but, surprise! I’ve got a follow-up episode where we get into the “Now what?” question. What comes next? Where do we start? HOW do we start? I hope you’ll tune in for that conversation and, again, please see the show notes for links to some of the things I mentioned today. Thanks for being part of our beloved community. ‘Til next time.

Bio:

Mara Thomas is a Durham-based playwright, actor, musician and teaching artist. A local musician for over 15 years, Mara can usually be found making noise in the punk group Cold Cream but, y’know, COVID. Since she can’t blast her face off at punk shows these days, Mara is channeling that energy into a Master’s program at NC State for Clinical Mental Health Counseling.  

Mara Thomas

POSTSCRIPT:

We are hard at work here in Artist Soapbox land, launching into 2021 with projects a plenty. I’ll share when I’m able, but be assured that much is percolating behind the scenes. In 2021, I am slowing down the podcast episodes, but I still have many to come this year. Please stay subscribed on your podcast platform of choice and follow ASBX on the socials and at artistsoapbox.org so you know as soon as fresh audio goodness drops.

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