Art in the Time of Quarantine

Time. Time is one of the threads that everyone seems to touch on these days in their tweets and posts. We have long been guided by schedules of work and school and other constructs, and then this virus hit and everything changed, slowed down, stopped, went out of sync. 

Each of us is going through this surreal shared moment in time, viewing the world through our own lenses, with our unique combinations of challenges and privileges, maybe sharing that view with the people we are living with or talking to. My experience is enmeshed with that of the kids. Most of the day we’re all doing our “work,” but then we have a lot of dinner-table conversations, and I cherish those, a chance to check in with one another after the day of work and school work—a time to ask about “How Things Are Going.” 

Some days the answer is: not great, frustrated, scared, lonely, restless, angry. Some days the answer is better, ok, not bad, better. So much depends on who we have (or have not)  interacted with, and how we have related with them during that day. So much depends on what we’ve heard of the news. So much depends on how the kids are doing.

When trauma typically happens at schools (and the current generation of elementary and high school students have had too much experience with this), we call in counselors. We have talking circles and support groups. We make allowances for ordinary responsibilities to allow some room for processing and healing. We try to help the kids because most of them don’t have the tools they need. Right now, those systems are not really in place to help them—even with teachers and parents trying the best they can. 

The kids have been doing the best they can, and I’m of the philosophy that we need to temper our expectations right now. If many of us, the adults, are not ok, how can we expect the kids to be? 

So they do their homework and they miss their friends; they try to connect online and on the phone, watch movies and read, and have their own creative ways of dealing with it all. 

My son, Liam, is a musician and composer, and he decided when the shelter-in-place started that he would write a new song approximately every other day. 

I’m reminded of a quote from Neil Gaiman’s keynote address for the May 17, 2012 commencement ceremony at The University of the Arts. He said: 

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

“Make good art.”

This is something I often quote to my kids. Creativity is a tool we have when we need it, when we can use it. It’s not always possible. Sometimes we have to wait for life to give us a window. Sometimes we have to make that window. Sometimes we make good art.

Liam has made some good art. His EP was released today and is available on Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud, iTunes, and Amazon music. I’m really proud of him. His piano compositions are like soundtracks to our life right nowthey are complex and sad with surprising moments of joy. I’ve been working while listening to them in the background, and I’m excited to share them with you right now. 

His professional name is Hyrix, and the EP is titled Insomnia. I think you’ll be moved by its beauty.  

You can listen to the EP on Spotify:

Or on Soundcloud:

Everyone is wondering when things will go back to “normal.” Will they ever?

I don’t think we can know what normal is going to look like. I do believe that this time will irrevocably transform our children and what they do to shape their future in ways that we cannot even imagine. I feel like Liam’s music and the other things people are doing right now to express themselves, to connect creatively with one another, to be as present for one another as possible—these will be the touchstones we have to remind us of this time and why we reshaped the future accordingly, hopefully for the the better. 

Thoughts at the Turn of a Decade

I planned to spend the last day of 2019 writing and the evening hanging out with the kids. They’re getting older, and I know that days spent celebrating New Year’s Eve with Mom are few and precious. But then I decided that I wanted to prepare a special meal for the day, which meant that instead I spent much of the afternoon in the kitchen making a cassoulet—as well as a batch of varenyky in advance for Sviat Vechir, Ukrainian Christmas Eve, next week.

So, in between chopping and sautéing, braising and boiling, I kept leaning over to jot down thoughts on the laptop positioned at the end of the counter. Once they were tucked in after midnight, I was able to finish up. Here are my stove-side thoughts for the end of a decade.

2020 is the beginning of the sixth decade I have been alive for; this is the decade when I’ll turn 50. Looking back:

1970s
I was a child, and surrounded by love. The world was scary and wonderful
in the way that fairy tales are wonder-filled. My life was full of star wars
and little houses on the prairie and sorcerers and ghosts.
1980s
I became a teenager and immersed myself in books.
I fretted about the future and dreamed about falling in love,
and I learned invaluable lessons in loneliness.
1990s
I fell in and out of love so many times. I found my voice
and learned how to use it. I found my path and I decided
who I wanted to be when I grew up.
I read everything. I taught. I danced and I wrote
into the early hours of almost every morning.
2000s
I got married, moved back and forth overseas, became a mother.
I learned new lessons in generosity and loneliness.
We traveled to awesome places, touched the past
and planted seeds for future adventures.
Through my children’s eyes, my life was full of star wars
and little houses on the prairie and sorcerers and ghosts.
I wrote new stories, and I tried to figure out who I was in a new context.
2010s
I wrote and parented and wrote and parented and rarely slept.
Thanks largely to the internet, I reached out to find community.
I was welcomed into circles and made new circles.
I tried to figure out how to be a better mother, partner, friend, writer.
I failed sometimes. I fell out and in and out and in love,
and I learned new lessons in loneliness. I got divorced.
I taught. I danced, and I wrote into the early hours.
I watched my kids turn into teenagers, and I see them
trying to figure out their paths and find their circles.
The world is scary and wonderful, but I am reminded
that we can overcome the monsters in the forests
and in the closets and in the mirrors.
(That is the gift and magic of fairy tales.)

So as the decade is ending, there are two things I keep thinking about:

First thing is that it’s important to finish things. Sometimes that means the end of a story or a book; sometimes that means the end of a marriage or a friendship. Not every ending is happy, and many of them hurt, and all of them are work. The work part is important. So is asking for help.

The second thing is that it’s ok to change our minds. The only thing we can know with certainty in the present moment is how we feel right now. We may have felt differently a week ago and we may feel different in a day or a year. That’s ok, because we are all changing. To be human is to try things, to make choices, to change our minds, to try other things. Hopefully we find people to share the journey with us, so that we can learn from one another and love each other along the way.

This feels really important as I watch the kids growing up. I am aware of the pressure they feel all around them. There’s the pressure that schools put on them to figure out their futures, but there’s also the pressures of social media. In this very public reality they live in, where so much of their lives is being broadcast online in photos and in streams of words, they are expected to know and share a lot about who they are.

While this can be a beautiful way to explore identity and find community, if you’re someone who is searching or uncertain, it can feel isolating and paralyzing when everyone else seems to have figured out who they are and whom they love and what they want to do.

With these things in mind, here is my wish for my kids and for everyone as we move into the 2020s.

Don’t be afraid to finish things. Remember, when we finish one thing, we create space for something new. When you are ready, be open to the new things.

When you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. There are people who want to help. If someone asks you for help and you can help, try. This is a lesson in karma right out of the fairy and folk tales.

Try to encounter people and their beliefs with a generosity of spirit. The world is full of new ideas and experiences that will challenge us and sometimes even change us. That’s scary but also wonderful.

You don’t have to figure it all out at once. Be kind to yourself and patient with yourself. Give yourself permission to change your mind: about a major, a job, a career, a person, an idea, a place, and most of all, yourself. Being authentic means being honest about who you are and how you feel in a given moment, this includes recognizing the need to change something in your life.

I was nearly 16, the same age my oldest daughter is right now, when we moved from the 1980s to the 1990s. I can’t imagine navigating young adulthood today. Their generation is aware of the world and its global challenges in a way that we were not. They also have tools we only dreamed of.

I keep coming back to fairy tales. I’d like to think that together we can overcome the monsters… in the forests and in the closets and in the mirrors. Maybe we can see the end of some systems and patterns that have hurt people and the planet for too long. Maybe the 2020s will be the decade when we create the space for something better.

Happy New Year. xxo

Touring our new cookbook — and spending time with family

Thank you to everyone who came out to Astoria Bookshop for our New York launch and to the Book Cellar for our Chicago launch! Both bookshops were wonderful and we had a terrific turnout! I meant to write sooner, but we’ve been bouncing from one thing to the next for the last month.

We brought the kids for the NYC launch, as well as batches of Dante’s Nine Layers of Torture Bars and Pythagorean Serum cocktails to share with the audience.

At The Astoria Bookshop with Dingding Hu (who makes a fabulous Janet), our illustrator for FORKING GOOD.
It was nice to be able to share our NYC party with the kids this time. It’s not often that they’re all able to travel with us.
Thank you to everyone who came out to celebrate with us!

Inspired by Dingding’s costume, Stephen and I decided to dress as a gender-swapped Michael and Janet for the Chicago party…

So thrilled to have coworker friends from NIIT show up! <3
My Soul Squad. I love these people wholeheartedly.

The Book Cellar featured a special The Good Place-inspired cocktail created by Stephen that was not in the book: French Vanilla Antimatter! And we brought more Dante’s Nine Layers of Torture Bars to share with our guests.

***

In the last month, FORKING GOOD made it to the Semifinal Round of the 2019 Goodreads Choice Awards for “Best Food & Cookbooks!” We also had some nice press, including this featured review by Foreword:

An extended inside joke that show fans will delight in adding to their shelves, Forking Good is a comfort-food laden, lightly philosophical cookbook worth indulging in.

We were included in this feature, “Pop culture cookbooks are one thing Millennials aren’t killing,” by Danielle Zimmerman for Hypable:

We’ve exhausted so many avenues of celebrating the fandoms we love that it was only natural for us to turn to food next. After all, fandom and pop culture already nourish our souls, so why not our bodies as well?

Stephen and I also did a fun interview for i8tonight, which is their own culinary spin on the Proust Questionnaire:

Where is your favorite place to eat?

Valya: Honestly, I love to eat at home—ours and other people’s. I appreciate the intimacy and personality. Outside of home dining, we really love our neighborhood Ethiopian restaurant, Ras Dashen. Also high on our list is Band of Bohemia, such wonderful food and cocktails.

Stephen: As an East Coaster relocated to Chicago, I thank the heavens for Jimmy’s Pizza Cafe, which is the place to get real New York pizza in town.

You can read the rest here.

Meanwhile, in the kid arena, there was a lockdown at my older kids’ high school. That morning, I got a text from my son telling me that their high school was on lockdown, and it was not a drill. My son and daughter, both in the high school, proceeded to relay information to us via text about what was happening as the students shared updates with one another around the school.

As it turns out, the lockdown was prompted by two pellet guns brought in by students, and the school seems to have dealt with it safely and efficiently. Still, it was terrifying to be a parent helplessly waiting for information about your children’s safety… in school, where they should be safe. I am so grateful that all the kids are ok, and I could not help but think of the hundreds of parents across this country who have sat frozen with feelings of helplessness and fear.

We talked about it at length at dinner, and the kids were mostly calm and pragmatic, discussing places where they think security could be better, praising teachers for staying calm and helping, relaying the fears and concerns of their peers.

This is their normal. This is anything but normal.

I’m still processing.

***

And speaking of parenting, there was the time last week when I was tucking in my youngest, and she said something sweet about hoping to be a mom like me when she grows up. I told her thank you, but it’s also ok if she decides to be a cool aunt instead. She certainly doesn’t have to decide now.

She looked at me with that intense Lana gaze for a minute and then said, “I see what you’re doing, Mom, trying not to push me in a direction. I know how you think. I KNOW where you get your parenting from. I READ your parenting book. The whole thing.”

Then she settled into her pillow and said (very pleased with herself), “I guess I know famous people too.” And went to sleep.

***

Thanksgiving behind us and the winter holidays ahead, I’m looking forward to some vacation days — cozy afternoons baking with the kids, coffee dates with friends, catching up with reading beside the tree, catching up with writing under quilts, and so much cuddling on the couch.

I hope that your December is also cozy and full of things that make you feel warm and happy and loved.