I spent the first week of COVID-19 lockdown in a state of almost-panic. My nerves were frayed from the constant stream of information I insisted on consuming; if I wasn’t listening to NPR, I was on Twitter, checking body counts and infection rates, staring bleary-eyed at those terrifying line graphs. It was unsustainable and unhealthy. I was driving myself nuts.
When I saw people on Instagram posting about #ChalkYourWalk, I figured I should give it a shot. I liked the idea behind it—people are supposed to write uplifting messages for their communities in sidewalk chalk. Plus, it would give my stir-crazy family something to do. I grabbed a bucket of chalk and ushered my kids to the bike path behind our house.
My six-year-old daughter got started right away. She wrote “we are all in this together” in a rainbow of powdery letters. Big, loopy hearts floated around the text. Her four-year-old sister dug in the dirt nearby, shouting in delight anytime she hit worm pay dirt. They were happy. Nobody was fighting.
I grabbed a piece of chalk and considered my options. Should I write something funny? Something profound? My six-year-old was already onto her next chalk drawing, the four-year-old still digging. I settled into a sunny patch on the path and decided to try to draw a huge sandglass. I wrote “This won’t last forever” along its wooden frame. It was clunky and the perspective wasn’t right, but I stuck with it. I added streaks of white chalk to make the glass bulbs look reflective. I used different colors of green and blue to make the sand look almost 3-D.
I’m not an artist. I’m a writer. In fact, a book I’d been working on for four years had just published in March. It was the pinnacle of my career thus far. Critics had called it “riveting” and “sharp,” and I’d allowed myself to believe that this was going to be my year. I was going to do a little book tour, some big press, and finally share this story with the world.
Then, COVID-19 reared its ugly head, and brought to a halt anything but the utterly essential. Book tours are not essential.
I finished the sandglass and stood back to admire my work. It was a little wonky, but not terrible. I snapped a photo and sent it to my husband along with the explanation, “I’m so bored.” He responded, “I wish I was bored,” and I felt a pang of guilt. He’s an oncologist at a local hospital, and had spent his day scrambling to figure out how to care for his high-risk patients amid a pandemic. I was such an asshole.
I checked my email for news from my agent or publicist. Maybe there’d been a spike in book sales? A last-minute interview request? There was nothing. My shoulders sank.
That afternoon, I stood at the kitchen sink and watched neighbors on the path pause at my big, clumsy drawing. Some of them smiled. A few even took pictures. My heart swelled.
The next day I was out on the path again, this time drawing a big soap bottle. My lines were wobbly, but I kept them faint, hoping I could cover them up as I worked. The tension in my jaw began to ebb. I filled in the bottle and added soapy words dripping from the spout: “Wash your hands.” My girls weren’t interested in chalk art anymore, but they were content enough to play nearby while I drew. And so I kept at it.
For the first time in weeks, I wasn’t thinking about coronavirus or mourning my book’s terrible timing. I wasn’t checking Twitter compulsively or hassling my publicist. And I wasn’t swallowing that awful, acidic fear that I felt anytime I thought about my husband caring for sick patients, virus clinging to his shoes, shoulders, neck. I was just… coloring. It felt great.
Over the next few weeks, I went through three boxes of chalk. I drew dinosaurs, monsters, and a fairly pathetic sunset. I tested out different fonts and realized that the bubble letters I learned in middle school were still pretty sweet. The path behind my house slowly got more traffic, and I told myself that it was more to do with my artwork than the extended shelter-in-place order which forbade just about everything except for neighborhood strolls. Any time I saw someone take a quick cell phone photo of one of my drawings, I beamed with ridiculous pride.
As the world grew scarier around me, I retreated into this new, bizarre pastime. I created themes for certain days. I’d announce, “Today is doctor appreciation chalk day!” before setting to work on a five-foot paper mask, my kids wandering in and out of interest. At dinner, I’d brainstorm about the next morning’s project. At night, I’d strategize new color blending techniques.
My drawings still weren’t perfect. But they were starting to get a little better. And I was starting to get better, too. The mental quiet I could achieve out on the path was beginning to linger even after I was done with a drawing. I was less irritable, less afraid, less bitter about opportunities lost.
One morning, I awoke to a text from my sister telling me that my sidewalk chalk was on BuzzFeed. I blinked and clicked the link. There it was: a drawing of a Project Mercury spacecraft alongside an astronaut helmet with the phrase: “Be like NASA: Give people space” printed in bright colors. I’d done it weeks earlier as a sort of pouty, self-indulgent tribute to my space history book—the book I could have been on tour promoting.
I stared at my phone. And then I started laughing. Big, belly laughs filled the room. I’d spent years thinking that a book was the most important thing in the world, and I could see now with crystal clarity that of course it wasn’t. Family, health, encouragement are what matter. This was a nightmare of a situation, but we’d get through it by urging each other on.
My next chalk piece was a quote from FDR: “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.”
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