The truth about the pandemic is unavoidable: We are stuck. Many of us have been stuck, quite literally, in our homes, others are functionally stuck, limited to commuting to work and coming right home to avoid contact with too many people. I’ve sacrificed seeing friends, family, and loved ones, and have also felt trapped in other ways, having experienced mental health effects from the last ten or so months. A lot of us feel like we have lost parts of ourselves we’d thought were essential or impossible to misplace. I know I have.
In the before-times, my favorite thing was hosting events for friends. I’d plan themed parties and bake and cook special dishes. I would make epic charcuterie spreads. It was a large part of my identity, even though I didn’t necessarily think about it that way. I never thought about — I never would have even considered — what would happen or who I would become if those things could no longer be central to my life.
One of the last events I hosted for friends was a small get-together in February, which I created a Facebook event for, aptly titled “To All The Bis I’ve Loved Before.” The sequel to the movie To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before had just dropped on Netflix, and I invited a group of my best friends, who all happen to be bisexual, and we marathoned the first and second movie. I baked cookies that looked like letters as an homage to Lara Jean. I got pink wine and gummy Xs and Os. It was a “Palentine’s Day” gathering that was extremely symbolic of who I am as a person. My friends and I took wonderful, funny photos, talked about our most embarrassing and weirdest dates and relationships, and basked in the glow of each other’s company.
But then everything changed. I was suddenly in my home 24/7, and the things that had once brought me so much joy and been so quintessential to Who I Am — cooking new meals, making events with punny titles, and honestly, doing things for my friends — faded from existence. I didn’t have the energy to cook. I felt unmoored without being able to see my chosen family. I had to find new outlets to manage my stress and distract myself; I needed new ways to feel excited about life again. And I wasn’t alone. Over the course of the past year, I’ve spoken with lots of friends and strangers on the internet through Twitter and Tik Tok who needed — and found — something to help them cope with all of life’s daily burdens and worries. Whether it’s knitting, cross-stitching, motorbiking, or something else simple and grounding, we’ve all found something that made us feel alive again.
Jesi Taylor Cruz, who asked to be identified as a nonbinary Black femme, says they’ve transitioned from being a compost enthusiast to being a compost proselytizer. “Before the pandemic I’d discuss composting, worms, microbes, organic waste, and related topics sporadically or within the context of my academic research alone,” they say. “Now, my actual work and primary hobbies are compost-centric to the point that I’m talking to multiple people a day about composting and contacting my local reps about local organic waste mismanagement constantly. Basically, composting went from being a supporting character in my life to being a main protagonist.” But composting is not just a hobby they found during the pandemic. “It has improved my quality of life in the most unexpected ways,” Jesi explains. “The joy I feel when other people tell me that they, too, understand the magic of composting is endless! It’s changed my worldview and made me appreciate the ‘little things’ in life so much more.”
Jesi says they’ll be devoting more and more of their time to organic waste management, and don’t think that this newfound self will fade away when it’s safer to go back to their old life. “Every part of me tells me to shift gears and make this my life’s work. It’s no longer just a cool thing I love to do and talk to my friends about or post on social media. It feels purpose-driven in a way I’ve never felt before when it comes to a job or hobby,” they say. One reason Jesi feels so close to this work is that it’s equity-driven, and aligns with their deepest values. “An important part of my work is making sure that other people know that we should have access to the resources and infrastructure required to heal our planet, reduce harmful emissions, and meet climate goals in our cities. I’m hoping that my work leads to changes in that regard in the near future.”
Finding constructive ways to use one’s hands to bring something beautiful into the world seemed to be a common theme among the people who spoke with Refinery29. Ryan, a non-binary artist living in Ohio, tapped into their creative side while quarantined last year. “I started making jewelry with left-leaning phrases and ideas: ACAB, ‘eat the rich,’ pronouns and such in the weeks before the pandemic began, and ended up building it into my primary source of income and a fundraising tool for bail funds and mutual aid over the summer,” they say. “It never could have been more than a little side project if I had kept working. I just didn't have the time to fill more than a few orders a week, let alone develop new designs or hone my craft.”
But this hobby was far more than just a side-hustle for Ryan.“My jewelry has helped me to stay afloat when I can't work and unemployment isn't coming through, but it's also been a powerful outlet for the outrage and fear that watching the last year unfold has left me with,” they say. My anxiety was debilitating for a while after I got arrested protesting last year, and having work to focus on and the opportunity to use messages I believe in to raise money for causes I care about was a big part of my recovery.”
By mid-2020, I too had found new things that I could fit into my life and new ways I could express myself safely, even during quarantine. I leaned into chaos in some ways. I went back to doing things alone that had brought me joy as a kid — creating Sculpey masterpieces, doing art — and then new things like stick-and-poke tattoos, and giving my roommates haircuts. In all my years, I never imagined myself as someone who would enjoy or even be good at cutting anyone’s hair. It’s too much power, I’d thought. Not only does it mean holding sharp scissors and clippers close to someone’s skin, but it’s incredibly easy to completely ruin a person’s hair so much so that I imagined how awful it would be to then have to buzz the rest of it off.
Still, my roommates needed their hair done and going to a salon still doesn’t feel safe. It wasn’t completely new to me, anyway. As a child, I had helped my mom do her hair. So, I was very familiar with the smell of semi-permanent dye and the feel of scissors in my hands. And I’d spent plenty of time paying attention to my own stylist when she cut my hair. Even so, memories from when I had attempted to cut my hair with Crayola zig-zag scissors when I was five still haunt me. I had wanted to give myself “Spock hair” after watching Star Trek and it didn’t end well, as you might imagine. So though it had been some years since the last time I’d cut anyone else’s hair, to my surprise, I didn’t mess up when I first gave my roommate Francis a cut. In fact, it was such a good haircut that he said it’s his favorite he’s ever gotten — and he’s continued to ask me to cut his hair every time he’s needed a trim since. And each time I do, I send a picture to my own stylist and she affirms that it is indeed a great cut, especially for a novice. It isn’t that external affirmation or validation that makes me love it, necessarily — but instead that I can use my hands to do something beautiful that makes someone feel like themselves — the whole reason I’ve always hosted events for my friends, anyway.
By discovering these latent passions, it’s like I’ve found myself within myself during the last year; all of us who have done just that are finding out that we’re all like Russian nesting dolls, pandemic matryoshkas. We are layered and deeper than we knew, in possession of untapped skills and passions, and there is always more of ourselves to meet.