Waning Normalcy: Down the Rabbit Hole with the Monster

Cassandra Stephens


The sand glittered gold as it smacked me in the face, and I spent days trying to remove it from my scalp. This is what I most remember about my last writing retreat before I became sick. With my determined spouse, a good friend, and our dogs, we hiked down to the beach on the Northern California coast, a little south of San Francisco’s Bay. It was not one of those paths with easy access, and we had to push ourselves against the 40-50+ mph winds, somehow convinced that it would be calmer down by the ocean, with the protection of the tall coves; it was not. This was the first time in my life that I witnessed sand cascading down multiple cliffs, and in the sun, each looked like a gold glittering waterfall, with the fluidity of sparkling sand creating the illusion of a water flow.

This was the last normal weekend that my new spouse, Marshall, and I would have, although we had no idea at the time. We were enthralled with the idea of travel and had been able to take many short trips to explore our new home in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. If someone had told me on that day how much I would come to crave the smell of sweet, fresh-cut grass from my home state of Tennessee, I simply would not have understood. This day was in February of 2020.

On the day after Thanksgiving in 2019, I had married my partner of seven years in a picturesque outdoor snowscape in the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. The ceremony was at dusk with our closest family and friends. My adult daughter, Kayla, was my Maid of Honor and engaged to marry her fiancé the following November. It was a magical time for my family, and we had worked hard for it. After the wedding, my husband and I finished the teaching semester, slept for a few weeks and then headed to Oahu and Maui for the first time.

Looking back, this is when I started missing the humidity and all the shades of green where I grew up. I had never fully adjusted to the desert climate in the Sierra Foothills, although I have always found it majestic and charming. When we returned from our honeymoon, we settled back into our one-bedroom apartment for the spring semester and planned to continue applying for tenure-track positions in our respective fields. Never for a moment did we imagine that most academic job searches would be cancelled or that universities nationwide would be implementing hiring freezes in the coming months.

Several weeks into the spring semester, my spouse became really sick. He did not get the flu shot. So, we assumed that it was the flu, but perhaps it was not. That whole time is somewhat blurry, so I remember my experience quite a bit more than his, likely because of how hard and fast that I was hit with my own sickness. We thought he was feeling better for a few days, but his symptoms returned. During this time, I began to feel like I had a hairball in my throat, not that I know what that feels like, but I can imagine, and it’s the best way I can think to describe it.

A few days later, I walked down the stairs to get in my car and head to campus to teach my classes. I did not even make it to the car. I immediately walked back upstairs into the apartment, cancelled my classes, and called my doctor’s office. They were able to get me in quickly that morning. I told my husband I was taking myself to the doctor and that I did not feel right; I was having trouble breathing. He seemed quite sick and was in bed but declined a doctor visit for himself, so I asked him to wait for me at home.  Although I am only in my mid-40s, I have asthma and had smoked for 20 of my younger years. The doctor said that she couldn't hear air moving in my right lung and prescribed a steroid pill and an antibiotic along with a steroid inhaler and my regular inhaler. She also suggested that I drink water and warm tea as much as possible and said to come back if I did not feel better in a few days; she told me to stay home from work. This was on a Monday. It was difficult to sleep and breathe, but late that night a series of tornadoes blew through the Middle Tennessee area. One F4 tornado travelled within a mile of both my parents’ as well as my daughter’s and her fiancé’s home. Thankfully, they were all okay, but since I was up talking and texting with them much later than usual, they realized how sick that I was. In the hours that followed, I read everything I could find on COVID-19. Early Wednesday morning, I woke up unable to breathe and was afraid to go back to sleep. I had a fever and decided not to take any fever reducer because I wanted them to be able to figure out what was wrong. My daughter called later that morning and became worried when she heard the wheezing. I phoned the doctor again, and she told me to come back in. I almost didn't want to go. I actually packed a small bag of my medicines and things in case they wouldn't let me return home, somewhat, but really only half-jokingly telling my husband and daughter that I feared men in yellow cars and black suits might show up and take me away (These were the early days of the virus.); I again asked my spouse to stay home and wait.

They conducted chest X-Rays, and my doctor was able to see pneumonia, although she did not tell me this—just that I had an area on my lung; there was a miscommunication, likely on my part since I was so sick. She prescribed another antibiotic and breathing treatments every four hours. She said that was all that she could do and that if my breathing did not get better, then I should not come back or to go to urgent care but that I should go straight to the ER. I asked if it could be the novel coronavirus after she said that my strep and flu tests came back negative; she said the only testing criterion that I did not meet was the one about being out of the country, and at that time, that made me ineligible for a test. She told me that she was very worried about me and that I should take this seriously and do nothing to stress my lungs. The fact that I had been in lecture halls full of 150 or more students and recalled a cacophony of coughing and sneezing during the last few weeks did not count. She told me to avoid people. I spent a week on a strict medication schedule in a steroid-induced, sleep-deprived haze, extremely nauseous from so many meds, but I was able to mostly clear my lungs. I am thankful for her rigorous treatment. I called the doctor back to ask about my lung and about travel to the upcoming CCCCs conference; it was then that she told me it was pneumonia and apologized for not being clearer. She strongly discouraged any travel.

Shock and denial are powerful forces. Figuring out what to do next was nothing short of a surreal experience. I was cautious enough to move my classes online for the next week, knowing that the week following that would be spring break, which would give me time to recover and to keep myself and my germs at home. I was still trying to rationalize flying to myself when the nation began its week-long screech to a terrifying halt. I was relieved to hear that CCCCs had decided to cancel the conference. I had already heard from friends and colleagues who cancelled but was having a hard time deciding anything, much less using my own judgment after the fight that my body had been through. Since I no longer had any immediate issues to work through and had been home obsessing and reading everything that I could about the virus and its impact on other countries, I finally found a way to contextualize what was happening and what I needed to do, something that was somehow impossible in my attempt to retain normalcy. I contacted family and friends to let them know what had happened to me and pleaded for them to take this seriously. They listened, and I am beyond grateful. The days and weeks that followed were once again a blur.

I had been genuinely excited to visit Milwaukee. My grandfather’s parents had immigrated there from Germany, and I had hoped to explore some of the area, maybe imagine that I was seeing the world through my grandfather’s eyes, perhaps invent a space that I could never truly access—a glimpse into my heritage. This was also the first CCCCs that I had attended in several years, and I was looking forward to a long weekend full of academic conversation and idea sharing. I was set to arrive on my birthday and had planned to celebrate by attending a welcome session for those who would be serving as documentarians for the conference, a new role established by CCCCs for the 2020 Conference. I had been teaching courses that integrated documentary shorts as well as virtual reality storytelling, the latter of which would be the focus of my presentation. Perhaps this all seems banal or trite now, but doesn’t everything? I enjoy travel, I love my job, and fancy myself a photographer and filmographer. The culmination of these experiences is why I had such a hard time letting go of what might have been the last bit of normalcy that I would see for quite a while.

Had I attended the conference, I would have arrived on March 25th, 2020, my birthday. For me this would have been the epitome of a perfect day. I keep saying that I am going to stop counting as I get older, but I never do. I would have flown in, checked into my hotel, and immediately begun my documentarian duties by taking some video of the city and the conference location. I would have then attended the Documentarians Reception to see how I could best dedicate my time. I had planned to go to the German restaurant Mader's for dinner and to likely stop at the hotel bar for a glass of wine and some mingling before going back to the room to look over my presentation and watch television. Yes, I plan out the places that I will eat at during a conference. First, I like to find the best pizza in town; the closer to New York style, the better for me. Then, I look for local favorites and regional cuisines. It is part of the fun.

The novel that I assigned and was rereading with my students around the time of the conference was Frankenstein, and when I suggested to my spouse that I write the bulk of my daily recollections in the format of diary entries, he immediately recalled the book, stating that it had a Gothic, epistolary flair and seemed “kairotically appropriate.”  The following daily recollections of this documentarian’s experience are depicted in that vein as follows:

Thursday, March 26th, 2020

The monster (creature) that has been brought into existence and allowed to roam largely undetected initially is wreaking havoc on lives across the globe. Had the monster been contained early, then the following would have likely been my experience at the first full day of the CCCCs conference. I would have gone to the hotel gym and then found a local coffee shop within walking distance of the hotel or popped into the newcomer's coffee to welcome people and chat with others followed by some type of breakfast. Then I had planned to attend the 12:15pm panel "Rethinking Audience in Multilingual, Translingual, and Digital Composition Pedagogy," to hear about my friend Brian Stone’s latest research. Next, I would have gone to the 1:45 pm panel "Not Common: Queer Approaches and Experiences in the Writing Classroom" to see Trixie Smith’s presentation. The rest of the day would likely have been more malleable and dictated by my documentarian’s eye.

However, the monster was able to live among us, so my updated schedule includes a morning book as a reward for completing a marathon 48-hour grading session. Currently, there are good days and bad days, and they are not scheduled yet. They dictate when they will come. I owe my little dog a walk. I hope to make him happy today. Little things like smiling or chatting with elderly customers at the grocery store also seems to help me as much as I hope that it helps them. In my downtime, I like to watch horror movies or suspense thrillers, but this seems too much somehow now. I think that I will go with Alice in Wonderland tonight (the 2010 version, of course). Watching comedies seems counterintuitive at this point. In a sense, I seem to have moved to the acceptance phase of this thing, but there is still a lingering feeling of dread and uncertainty for the future and definite heartbreak for the lives lost. I'm writing this from bed. Around me, I can hear a car alarm going off, music from a neighbor's apartment, and somehow still silence. I'm trying to not read the news today, but I know that it will not work.

I read that the Senate passed a stimulus package, given the millions of people who are now unable to work. This seemed like some type of progress in making things a little less bleak. I also read that the president wants to reopen the country on Easter to help the economy; that is terrifying and not at all recommended by Dr Fauci. I was then able to set the news down and end on a positive note. It turned out to be a good day, so I reached out to others to see how they were, something that I have not been strong enough to do on some days. I spent most of it video conferencing or texting with friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and family. I helped support some move past their anxieties and paralyzing fears about the future, since I was having a "strong" day; I obviously have the same paralyzing fears. I talked with a pregnant acquaintance about how to find items for her baby that is due in about six weeks; she can no longer have a baby shower. In my shocked attempts at finding toilet paper, I had not considered how one might find diapers. I participated in an online fear and anxiety workshop through our local community yogi/yoga studios via Zoom. I Facetimed with a work colleague to have a cocktail hour and share our thoughts on various situations, including our appreciation, which my husband calls a political crush, of New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo. I talked with my husband about online grading practices (he also teaches composition). I supported a friend that I have not seen since grad school by asking if she was okay; she was not. I wondered about a friend who insisted that I come to her apartment for pizza, and when I declined, made me feel horrible about it; it felt wrong.

But, so does everything else right now. I do not like being across the country from my parents and daughter, so I am trying to help others close to me. We went to help one of our local Mexican restaurant owners record a video to promote community support through takeout and delivery, with proper social distancing and hand sanitizer of course. My new obsession with hand sanitizer is nothing short of weird. Finally, I fed the sourdough starter and had a frozen meal for dinner. I answered some student emails and went to bed early with a headache.

Friday, March 27th, 2020

If the monster had not travelled so freely within the U.S., today I would have attended the day-long workshop “Writing Creative Non-Fiction: Finding the Ordinary in the Extraordinary.” During lunch, I would have visited the Exhibitors. Then, tonight I would have gone to check out the Big Truckin’ Food Fair before retiring to my room to present at 8:00 am the next day. Given the current situation and what feels like the extended gift of a second day of mental clarity, I hope to write. I need to write a recommendation letter and help a student revise her personal statement. I need to return student emails and record personal messages for my courses that are now online. I need to do so many things, but I'm going to bake a loaf of sourdough and finish reading Frankenstein.

I have been trying to channel the nervous energy that I have been experiencing, but my focus is off. It's hard to avoid checking the news to find new information or to look at Amazon online to see if toilet paper and flour are magically back in stock. Physically, the lingering cough from the pneumonia is nearly gone, although there is a new tightness in my chest. This appears to be anxiety. I was really looking forward to visiting Wisconsin; I have not been there since I was a young child and remember only that it was the longest drive ever in the back of my grandparents' Cadillac.

My grandfather's parents came over from Germany when they were young and settled in Madison. I hoped that going there and visiting some museums might make me feel closer to my late grandfather who passed about five years back. He was an amazing man, who met my grandmother on a blind date in Nashville, when he was stationed at Ft. Campbell in the army. She was from a small town in Kentucky and grew up on a farm. I'm feeling nostalgic. I'm feeling thankful that I am no longer sick and that I didn't need hospitalization. I am fearful that my daughter's fiancé is going to get the grocery store job and that they (or my parents) will get sick as a result. His interview is Monday. He was laid off this week. So much is unknown right now.

I am in my living room. It is cleaner than usual, which in itself is unusual. I have opened the window so that the cat can see out, and my dog sits by my feet, looking up at me with an "I love you" smile and soulful, knowing eyes. The dog chases the cat, and the kitty smacks the dog on the butt. This all feels normal, but there is palpable tension in the air. I have the news on in the background with captions and on mute. The sourdough in the oven is starting to smell good. I can only hear people talking below my window. They are loud, but I don't care right now; it's good to know that people are out there. I plan to Facetime with my daughter for an hour or two if time allows. Sometimes now, we just sit on Facetime while we both work on the computer; it helps us feel closer. I just rewatched the animated birthday cards that my dad sent; they're hilarious. The longer this goes on, the more that I worry about having to drive to reach my parents or my daughter in my dinky car on long desert highways with few gas stations and many penitentiaries (in total a 32 hour drive). I am contemplating purchasing a few gas cans. Is that paranoid? I am not sure.

Evening update: my husband is reading on the living room couch, the cat with him, and the dog is with me. We need quiet time to decompress. I can still smell the hamburger helper dinner that he made; it was strangely comforting. I am staring at some of the first sweet tea that I have had in ages, also a comfort splurge from growing up in the south. It's nearly unheard of here in Nevada. My stained glass lamp is providing soothing light. The president wants governors to thank him or to risk being denied supplies for their states. This is infuriating but not surprising. Suddenly the craving for comfort foods or foods that my mother used to cook makes me realize that it helps me feel safe, like I did for most of my childhood. What else might help with this though? The smell of Crayons or Play Doh? I can only eat my feelings for so long.

My husband has more of a need to talk than I do, and that makes it hard to focus on my diary entry, but I am so very thankful for him. He is also cooking many amazing meals. I'm not complaining. It's just a symptom of quarantine. I talked to the apartment complex management about our now uncertain plans to move this summer. I played trivia on my phone with a handful of friends. I also started a Yale online course titled "The Science of Well Being." My counselor's office called to tell me that I could not have my first appointment through Tele-Med. I actually have to go there for the first one. I'm not holding my breath; this has been cancelled several times. I'm okay with it but worried for people who might not be. I dropped off some sourdough starter on a friend's porch. The contact with the cashier at the grocery store is now mediated by protective plexiglass panels. I briefly spoke to an elderly customer, who motioned to me to roll down my car window so that he could tell me thank you for stopping and letting him go first. I wish I could have talked with him longer, but I felt the monster lurking.

Day 4: Saturday, March 28th, 2020

Today, I would have given my presentation on using VR in the composition classroom at 8:00, and then I would have chaired the panel following it. Then, I had planned to either go to Ian's Pizza, County Clare Irish Pub, or Discovery World for an afternoon break, depending on my mood. Perhaps, I would venture out to the park. But, in looking at today's weather (43 degrees and rainy), I might have just stayed at the convention center. Next, I likely would have attended the Saturday workshop "Collecting and Documenting Place-Based Narratives" from 2-5pm. Then, I would have gone out for dinner with friends who were at the conference. Of course, none of this happened. I worked more on trimming the dog's hair, a poodle mix; this is no small feat. I also talked with the coworker who was mad at me for not coming over for a dinner party. And, she is still angry.

Some estimates now say that the death toll could reach 100,000 to 200,000 in the US alone. That is such a hard number to imagine. I vented on Facebook about the number of people taking their teenagers and middle schoolers to the grocery store for social outings. And a colleague felt the need to defend them on my wall in my safe space. I had said that there was no need for entire families to be shopping together right now, and she responded with “what about single mothers etc.?” I was a single mother for 14 years, so I kept thinking that she should know that is not what I meant, until I realized that we really did not know each other. The whole exchange felt weird. In some instances, it almost seems like we are turning on each other, in others it feels like I am gaining new and important allies, who go above and beyond to be supportive. Perhaps our stages of grief are playing out in different time frames, which is the most likely in my opinion. I also read a post on an old friend's wall that compared the stay at home protocol to drunk driving, claiming that asking people to stay at home will not work because we ask people not to drink and drive, yet they do it anyway. Faulty analogies abound. I am feeling a little angry and sad. People are really losing it on social media; this invokes fear and further feelings of isolation. It is only social media, but right now it seems like a portal into the outside world.

It is not all bad though. There is still good to go around. I am looking more and more forward to Zoom meetings; however, they take a lot out of me. In some ways, I am becoming more connected to my academic roots because now, since we are all staying home, we are doing things that we probably should have been doing more--keeping in touch with those that we do not often think to, former advisers and colleagues, because they live across the country. When access changes like this, suddenly, I feel like I can be more selective with who I choose to spend my time with now and in the future. I can see that I need a springboard for my writing, and I need a small amount of social interaction, although I find that too much interaction is distracting. In my work, I feel like I am now seeking both an academic research outlet for my writing and a totally different creative approach that I typically would not have the time for - perhaps creative non-fiction, poetry, or screenwriting.

I spent part of the day contemplating whether or not I should try and plant a small garden on my balcony and whether I should purchase a few cans of gasoline to leave out there, too--just in case I need to travel the desert to get back home to my daughter. It seems that the internet is all that is holding us together right now, and that terrifies me. I have also been helping her plan her 100-person wedding for November. We are not sure how it's going to play out. That makes me sad. She just helped me plan my dream wedding, and I so want that amazing experience for her. In the end, we are just happy that we are safe and healthy. Damn the monster.


I have always been a fan of reflective writing, but this process, this journey in reflection, separated by several months since I first typed my thoughts and tried to make meaning of what was happening around me, has helped immensely in terms of finding the strength that I need to make it through the coming months. I will continue to log my thoughts. Writing is a part of who I am, and while I cannot hold myself to the same standards that I might have held my past self, I now—in this moment—write with a sense of fleeting time and the need to embrace my surroundings, family, friends, and community. To do this, self-care and concern for those close to me is paramount, which sometimes means listening, albeit if briefly, to silly conspiracy theories so that a friend can feel heard.

Of course, I always state that I disagree, but have you ever tried to convert a conspiracy theorist? I can advocate with the best of them, but I cannot actually move a mountain. All humans need small successes, and I found one of the most helpful challenges to a low-stakes success early on. Being one of the cliché pandemic sourdough bakers is not all that I have learned to do so far though. Literally anything that keeps my hands busy seems to be helpful, even packing and moving; we were just able to move to a two-bedroom apartment. We are some of the lucky ones. Small projects that can be completed, that offer up a deliverable or an artifact are the ones that I have found the most rewarding. Creating routines and keeping open communication with loved ones is key to retaining our sanity. How else do I explain my constant need to talk to my family through video chat, or how do I explain the neighbor with a garage, who gets up every day to open it, uncover and shine his boat but never move it, pull his motorcycle outside, and take the leaf blower around his parking space? (We don’t really have leaves on the ground in our complex.) It is a constant. So is feeding my sourdough starter.

My sourdough bread is good now. I figured out how to control a process that is driven by natural yeast and directly affected by its environment, handling, and shaping. It is made with a 76% hydration level and has an amazing crumb. It took a little while to develop a nice sour taste in the high desert, but now I feel like I am a master of creating strong and aromatic gluten. Who am I again? So very much has changed. We have all changed. My daughter quickly adapted to the idea of a small ceremony wedding and a larger celebration in the coming years. I learned through student evaluations that my students were okay and that they were still excelling in their studies, even though they had such an abrupt transition to online courses. My institution decided not to return after spring break, and we went online like most others. I began knitting and painting and anything else that I could do to keep my hands busy so that I didn’t fall back into my old smoking habit. I bought a sewing machine, and once I finish a few work-related projects, I will make masks to donate and to send to family, friends, colleagues, and community members.

Ah, masks. As of this writing, masks have been politicized, and it’s beyond heartbreaking. I have barely touched on what happened since the week our nation shuttered. To write about the events that unfolded in New York City relayed by a friend living in Manhattan and elaborating on his tales of jogging past make-shift triage areas in Central Park would be another essay. To try to depict the events surrounding the death of George Floyd, who was brutally suffocated by a police officer, and the protests that later were turned into riots, or to write about the fact that the current administration plans to hold rallies this summer in which it will require a waiver to protect them against lawsuits if their attendees contract the virus is far beyond the scope of this essay. However, this is what is happening, and we have surpassed 116,000 deaths as of this writing. I have been trying to shift my focus to how best to serve my students, to make them feel safe, to help them hear others that they do not agree with.

The future feels, and is, so very uncertain, but I believe, in solidarity, we will carry on. I have reconnected to my roots—the rhizomes that we all need to be truly grounded. I now think of these roots as gold sand in a strong ocean that I need to unify. I have learned to seek out those with whom I can have the most meaningful and thoughtful conversations, and this helps me to keep myself grounded and positive so that I can continue to be the mentor to my students that I need to be during this time of unprecedented uncertainty. Will I meet them in person this fall, or will we create a community online? Typically, I would think, well, it will be here before we know it. However, now, time feels so much like a construct: sometimes it stalls, sometimes it escapes, but mostly it feels unpredictable, and some things are just forgotten about. I mean, does anyone know what happened to the murder hornets?

Dear 2020 Cassandra:

Writing can create meaning out of chaos; remember this so that you journal more. Say it every day when you rise. Rereading about the experiences that you describe in your documentarian tale will be hard. Trying to write a short response to them will be even harder. However, what will strike you the most is how much more you wish that you had recorded daily experiences. Truth told, not every day will you have the energy or the motivation. Some days will just be about existing so that you can see your family again. So much will change, but you will remain grateful. Your husband, your father, your daughter, and some amazing friends will keep you grounded. You will visit your family; they will be vaccinated.

You will attend water aerobics with your mother. She will be so excited to be back with her group of friends and to be outside that she’ll breakout in dance (the twist) because it’s more fun, and when the instructor asks what motivates someone to run she’ll exclaim “Bees!” and take off sprinting in the pool. You will have dinner with your brother again and see one of your best friends, both of whom were affected severely by the monster, so do not panic. You will even return to California, several times: once with your husband, once with your friends, once for your daughter’s bachelorette celebration. Each time you will remember the gold sand, and it will remind you of one of your favorite lines from the film Fallen: “There are moments which mark your life. Moments when you realize nothing will ever be the same and time is divided into two parts, before this and after this.”

You will be fundamentally changed by trauma. What was then thought to be something that affects primarily individuals and groups will affect the entire world on some level. It will change the way that you think, the way that you teach, and the way that you complete your own writing. Be open to those changes. Embrace them.

Some final advice: don’t listen to conspiracy theorists; they do not really need to be heard, not on matters of life and death. Estranged family is a perfectly acceptable thing. If your gut tells you to avoid someone, avoid them. No pizza in the world will be worth the kind of drama that “friend” will eventually try to bestow upon you. And, when you finally take that long-awaited trip with your father to Fall Creek Falls in Tennessee, do not wear the Chacos that you have been wearing literally everywhere. Bring some real hiking shoes.

PS: You will smell that fresh cut grass in your parents’ backyard and look out into fields of lightening bugs/fireflies and enjoy smokeless summer skies with 90% humidity; in fact, it will rain the whole first week that you are there. You will ride in your dad’s truck. You’ll even write a poem about the outing to the airport called “The 60 MPH Bug.”