None of Us Are Okay. Let’s Get Started.

Mara Lee Grayson


There is nothing right to say anymore. I led a virtual orientation for the writing center I direct this week and, though it had been a few weeks since the semester ended and I’d last seen most of the staff, I couldn’t bring myself to employ the standard meeting opener etiquette and asking everyone how they were. I began with: “None of us are okay. Let’s get started.” 

My whole job changed when our campus closed in early March of this year and, with it, my life is upended, far more upended than it felt when I left New York City, where I was born raised, and educated, after three decades, and moved three thousand miles across the country. I sobbed for the first hour of the drive out west but I was excited. Now I am afraid.

When I was in college, the novelist Michael Thomas told me that distance was important when writing about trauma. That semester I was enrolled in his nonfiction essay course and one of my closest friends was in rehab after an overdose and ten days in Bellevue’s psychiatric ward. For my first assignment, I had written a first person account of my own drug use and my role as her primary contact with the outside world.

There were fewer than ten of us in the class. Michael Thomas would soon publish Man Gone Down, which would eventually win one of the richest, most prestigious international book prizes. He was also the first Black male professor I’d ever had, though that hadn’t occurred to me at the time. Thomas, at least to me and my small group of artsy leftist friends, was one of those professors they made movies about in the eighties. He wore jeans and long dreds, and he sat on a desk, talking about Bob Dylan and Tom Waits in ways that made the songwriters’ connections to our craft obvious, though they were never directly stated. On the first day, more students, all of them women, had been enrolled, like my best friend who dropped the class during the second week because she was studying geography and had little interest in creative nonfiction. Apparently this was typical: She’d heard from a friend who’d heard from a friend that Thomas was “amazing to watch.” His class was the only reason any of us went to campus on Fridays.

After a few weeks, I was still struggling to revise the personal narrative, which I confessed to Michael Thomas after class one afternoon. “Come by my office hours,” he said.

I hadn’t known before then that professors kept office hours or that students could visit their professors during those hours. I talked with Thomas for an hour in his office; the conversation held significance for me as a writer, but it was also, I realized later, one of the reasons I was able to imagine myself as a professor. 

“You have been cursed with talent,” Thomas told me. “But you don’t have distance. And you need distance to write about this.” We spent most of the hour talking about addiction. 

I revised the piece for a class I took the next semester. During workshop, seated next to me was a returning student, an older woman with short white hair and thin manicured hands, one of which she placed gently on my upper arm. I flinched. 

“Are you okay?” she asked.

I stared at her gold button earrings to stifle an eye roll. I responded: “I’m fine.” The battle cry of the traumatized. 

Trauma often manifests as unprocessed, overwhelming sensory input: flashbacks, intrusive mental images, the visceral urge to recoil, wrap limbs around torso, a second before we know why we must move so, if the knowing comes at all. In putting language to trauma, the writer can create a coherent story, one that is as much about the writer’s worldview and self-identity as it is about the traumatic experience itself. Trauma strips us of control, but the writer takes on an agentive role through shaping the narrative that encourages the reclamation of authority over experience (Spear). 

I still haven’t published that essay, though I’ve published others about various traumas I’ve experienced. As a scholar, I’ve also written about writing about trauma, pointing out that the process requires reflection upon and reconstruction of the experience. As Michael Thomas first taught me, this process often requires distance, and, therapeutic and transformative though it may be, representing trauma in writing is so, so difficult. 

This pandemic is a trauma. It’s also, for some of us, re-traumatizing in various ways I’ll try to explore in the following pages. I don’t have distance on anything right now. If any of us do, it can only be a coping mechanism for the most privileged. In this essay, this snapshot collection of my life and work during the past three months, I aim to reconstruct various traumas to tell the story I want to tell, my own story as I have experienced it, chaotic and scattered though it may be.

Part I: I Am Not Okay

The walls of my home office are barer yet the room seems to be smaller than it was when the year began. Save for an hour each day on the balcony, reading and absorbing some of the heat of the spring sun, the drive to the beach I took on my 47th day indoors, which resulted in a disappointed U-turn once I realized no one but me was observing social distancing mandates, and the walk around the block, which in Southern California takes half an hour, on day 83, I have spent three months inside. Most of that time has been in this room. 

Through the window on the balcony, the pygmy date palm tree, on whose thorns I punctured my finger one afternoon in April and spent an hour reading about the potential for bacterial infection from pygmy date palm thorn punctures before delving into full-fledged panic and cycling through six plastic Band-Aids in 24 hours as I tried desperately to keep the wound clean, has grown taller than I am. Its fronds drape over the metal railing, competing for attention with the full-sized palm reaching up from the empty courtyard three floors below. The sun at noontime shines so brightly over the courtyard that the tall palm looks neon. The pygmy fronds, still in the shadow of the courtyard’s concrete walls, are a drab military green.

If I were a simpler woman, I might let this sit as metaphor or explain to you the analogousness of the trees to my current state of being: The sun shines outside but I sit here in darkness. The world is outside; people are inside. But nothing is so simple now, even on this side of the window.

After close to a year living in this apartment building with no issue, security patrol came to our apartment more than ten times in February alone, alleging complaints about noise we weren’t making. After the third time, we stopped answering the door. They, in turn, stopped identifying themselves and just pounded on the door, as we remained quiet inside. We filed numerous complaints with the management company and the security company and wrote fifteen emails to management, fourteen of which were unanswered. At the end of the month, I spoke in person with the property manager, who said she didn’t believe we weren’t making noise, despite video from our own security camera demonstrating that we were sitting on the couch watching television most of the times the patrol arrived. My spouse tried to reason with her while I, triggered and overwhelmed, burst into tears.

“I get that you don’t know me,” I said, trying to speak calmly. “But I’m telling you that I have a trauma history. What your security guards are doing is terrifying to me. I feel unsafe.” I started crying again.

The property manager laughed. She laughed.

In March, two days after the governor declared a state of emergency, we received a letter informing us that the lease renewal we received in February had been rescinded. Our lease ended at the end of April, so we spent the month consulting with an attorney, that, if we continued paying rent, we would have a very good case should we be evicted. 

That same month, I watched my neighbors violate both the shelter-in-place and the building’s amenities closure in ludicrous ways: The young parents in the apartment directly across the courtyard threw a party; the men played beer pong on the balcony while the women sunbathed in the off-limits courtyard. The family that had just moved in next door to them threw a housewarming party; I watched through the window as the tenants hugged and kissed every guest on the way out. Some neighbors in an apartment on the first floor hosted a birthday party for a child; I counted ten children and no social distancing. Four people shared a joint on a fourth floor balcony.

I am struck by the cruelty of some people, and the sheer recklessness of others.

I would move yesterday if there wasn’t a pandemic.

But there is a pandemic, and my spouse, Alex, is an essential worker for a medical supply company; he visits multiple hospitals every day. I have my own health issues, compounded by the physical effects of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, which predispose me to some of the same effects COVID-19 has been found to have on the body. So, for the most part, I have stayed in this room since mid-March. 

I’ve worked hard to create a safe, habitable, workable space in here. I’ve worked so hard to create a safe space anywhere. For survivors of abuse, finding a space free from threat is paramount, but home, for many of us, is not a safe space. 

Most of my life I have coped by leaving: As a child I stayed at friends’ houses as often as I could, which, because of my mother, wasn’t very often. When I was at a friend’s time and it was time to go home, I hid under their bed or in their closet and closed my eyes and begged the god I didn’t believe in that my mother would give up looking and go home without me. I jumped out of my mother’s moving car more times than I can remember. In those instances, I ran to strangers’ houses: if a family was sitting outside their house or if someone stopped me running down to the street to ask why I was crying, I’d stop and ask them to protect me from my mother. They’d let me stay there, ensuring my mother, if she showed up, stayed outside, until my father came to pick me up. Later, I would sit at the kitchen table with my mother and write them cards apologizing for my overreaction and thanking them for their hospitality.

When I was ten years old, a friend and I decided one day after school that we would run away the next day. We could take a bus; I’d already learned how to get a Greyhound ticket. That night I packed a bag of clothes, some money I’d saved, and other things I thought I’d need and tucked it into my backpack, which I carried the next morning to school. In the afternoon we took the school bus to her house. I pulled out the bag. I was ready, I told her. But she hadn’t packed. For her, running away had been a whim. For me, it was a plan, one that seemed was never going to happen. A dream I wished was reality.

As a teenager and in my early twenties, my car was my salvation. Midnight drives on the Southern State Parkway out to Long Island, chain smoking with all the windows open, just to turn around and drive back when I got to the Hamptons or, once, the lighthouse out in Montauk. Road trips in the middle of the night with friends, all of us drunk, to someone’s parents’ house in Pennsylvania or Virginia, just so I wouldn’t have to go home. 

As an adult, a year after finishing my PhD, six months after my first book was published, married already for five years, I drove across an entire country to find a life that could be mine, to build a home my mother couldn’t enter.

Part II: My Students Are Not Okay

During a one-on-one Zoom conference in mid-May, a week before the official end of the semester, a graduate student I’ll call Karina laments how exhausted she is from adjusting to a fully online teaching schedule as a middle school English teacher, working a second job on the weekends to make rent and pay tuition, and finishing school. Her usual leisure activities – the daily gym visits, weekly massages, and dinners with friends – are unavailable. We talk about an assignment I’ve given my composition pedagogy students to create their dream syllabus for a First Year Writing course. She’s struggling with the openness of the assignment, as I’ve found many ELA teachers do, accustomed, as they often are, to rigid standards and prescriptive instructional practices. The charter school she works for doesn’t allow her to design her own lessons, let alone unit plans. 

“Then view this as a chance to play,” I say. “Don’t worry if it’s perfect. I’m not concerned about your grade. It’s more important that you have the opportunity to design something on your own.” 

“Nah, that’s just it. It has to be perfect.” This aligns with what I’ve observed throughout the semester: She has submitted assignments an average of two days before the deadline, asks as many questions as anyone else in the small class of talkative graduate students, writes ten pages when two are required, and responds to nearly every classmate’s discussion board posts. 

“Ah, I know that feeling.” I’ve spent years in therapy talking about that feeling. 

“But I can’t relax. Any time in my life that I’ve relaxed or stopped paying attention, that’s when bad things happen.”

My body seizes up. What a strange experience, hearing my words come out of someone else’s mouth. I keep the soft sad smile on my face. We’re on Zoom, after all; she can’t tell that my legs are shaking. 

Without asking, I get some of the backstory: Abusive mother, absentee father. She never felt safe as a child; she didn’t know what kind of mood her mother would be in from one day to the next. She learned to take care of herself because her father never did anything to stop the abuse. Now she lives alone. She didn’t expect to be lonely during the pandemic, she says, because, in fact, she feels safer alone, but she’s missing her routine, her hobbies, her friends. She misses the cinnamon rolls from her favorite bakery, which is now closed. A friend sent her a recipe for cinnamon rolls, she tells me, but she couldn’t find yeast at the grocery store. It’s been on my own shopping list since early March. Yeast, it seems, has been in short supply across the country. 

In an optional group check-in meeting last week, one of her classmates said, “I miss hugs.” 

“I miss giving hugs,” Karina added. “I don’t like being hugged.”

Now, she tells me that she’s been anxious recently because all of her favorite coping mechanisms are unavailable. The gym is closed. The massage therapy studio, the same chain at which I have my own monthly membership, is closed. She tried doing a happy hour with her friends via a Zoom call, but it just wasn’t the same. 

After making sure that she doesn’t want me to refer her to someone to talk to, I share a couple of self-soothing techniques my therapist shared with me. She tells me her plan for working on a revision of the unit plan she designed. 

When we end the call, I can’t move. My body is numb, my head is dissociating. This is the freeze. My nervous system is protecting myself. I don’t cry until later, much later.

This happens at least once every academic year. I don’t tell my students about my abuse history. They must see it in me, the way I move, the way I talk about self-care as part of social justice, the fact that I’m usually the youngest professor they’ve had but I’m almost maternal, warm in a way I wish my mother had been to me. Or maybe it’s simpler than that: A few semesters ago, while talking to my students about tropes related to mothers, I accidentally said “torture” instead of “nurture.” I wonder how many times I’ve let words slip without realizing it.

Three months before my father died, he joined me in a therapy session. My mother drove him to the therapist’s office. He had a cane by then, an accoutrement he’d carried since a bowel obstruction and major abdominal surgery three summers earlier left him bedridden for months in a nursing and rehabilitation center two blocks from the ocean he couldn’t see from his room’s only window, and he hadn’t been able to drive or take the subway in years. I told the therapist that I didn’t want my mother in the room, so we left her in the waiting room. My father and I sat across from the therapist. 

When I’d planned the session with my therapist, I’d intended to rehearse what I would say to my father, but I couldn’t bring myself to think about it long enough to plan. I don’t remember now what I told him that afternoon.  

“I wasn’t around enough,” he said. “I was always doing a show.”

I’d always loved that my father was a stage actor and director. He taught theatre classes occasionally at a local college but he was almost always home when I came home from school. When I had days off from school, he took me to the college campus, showed me around the theatre, introduced me to his friends in the radio station, and, on occasion, let me sit in on his classes. When I was a teenager, we did some radio commercials and a play together. I remember the plays he did, so I know he wasn’t always home in the evenings, but I don’t remember his absence, only my mother’s presence. Once when I was little he took an Amtrak to do a show somewhere or to visit a friend. I don’t remember how long he was gone, but when he came back my mother and I met him at Penn Station. I loved train stations, bus depots, airports. I’d look around at all the people moving and imagine myself going everywhere, wishing to be anywhere but where I was.

“And maybe,” he sighed but didn’t finish the sentence. His eyes were wet. “It was really hard for me to accept that my wife was doing that.”

It had never occurred to me before then to be angry at my father.

Part 3: We Are Not Okay

From March through May, New York City was the epicenter of the outbreak in this country. A family friend I’ve known my entire life died of COVID-19 there in March. A relative died in April. My father-in-law, who works for the city, was diagnosed one day before his department established a policy allowing all employees over age 60 to work from home. Alex’s grandfather, a 93-year-old who once captained an icebreaker and who, until he got sick, woke each morning before dawn to walk 4 miles along the Verrazano Narrows Bay, caught COVID from his home health care aide less than a week later. He was in the hospital, then rehab. His cousin, with whom he has lived for two decades since they both lost their spouses, has been hospitalized with the virus for months. Other friends and family have been sick as well.

Perhaps because “emotional bonds with places can form or change through experiences of tragedy and loss” and because “we can bond with places that irrevocably alter our lives through traumatic and painful experiences” (Manzo 51), I find myself missing New York. This is the first time I have missed the city since we moved here. 

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been packing up our extras, the items we don’t use on a daily basis: winter clothes we haven’t worn since we moved to Southern California, serving ware and party decorations we can’t use during social distancing, hundreds of DVDs I don’t watch but for some reason cannot bear to part with, family photo albums too painful to look at. I’d hoped that packing would make an eventual move less daunting. We’ve lived in five apartments in five years, and, despite my disgust at paying rent on an apartment from which our management company intends to evict us, moving still seems overwhelming. 

After three months, I hate this room. I resent this room. 

This room is part of an eleven hundred square foot apartment in which I no longer feel safe in a so-called luxury building in Huntington Beach, the unfortunate locale where, on May 1st, the City Council voted to fight Governor Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place orders and beach closures, where a thousand protestors, many wearing MAGA hats, gathered that same day to protest their inability to lie on the sand, and which was quickly labeled via social media “the Florida of California.” The new moniker does not sound as good as “Surf City” but may be an improvement over the equally accurate yet less official “Suburban Center of Multiple White Nationalist Groups.” 

The latter moniker, however, has regained traction. On Sunday, May 31st, a gang of white supremacists shouted racist slurs and attacked peaceful protestors at a Black Lives Matter protest here in Huntington Beach. That protest against police brutality, one of hundreds of such protests against police brutality across the country and around the world following the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers, was declared unlawful by the same local government that not only condoned the protests against the shelter-in-place orders earlier that same month but also heeded those protestors’ calls. White people protested and the shelter-in-place was lifted; Black people protest and we are now under curfew. 

This is the story, more or less, across the country. Curfews have been set up, unsuccessfully, to prevent protests in cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Minneapolis, just to name a few. Militarized police and the National Guard have been deployed to arrest those who violate curfew. A Black news reporter was arrested live on television with no reason given while complying with the demands of police officers in riot gear. In Washington, D.C., the secret service sprayed tear gas at peaceful protestors so that the president could get a photo op in front of a church. Police officers are countering protests against racist police brutality with mostly racist police brutality. Cops in Buffalo pushed a 75-year-old man to the ground then walked over him as his skull bled. Police officers in Atlanta Tased two college students sitting in their car. Cops in Austin shot a teenager in the face with supposedly “less lethal” ammunition. Cops in Brooklyn drove a squad car directly into a crowd of protestors one block from a house I lived in for two years, more than a decade ago. 

The news coverage, unsurprisingly, is tentative, passive-voiced, and evasive, framing racist police brutality as something that happens rather than something people do and systems perpetuate. There’s a lot of data out there for a race rhetorics researcher, but I’m not doing research. Instead, I’ve been working with some members of the NCTE/CCCC Jewish Caucus to move from statements of solidarity to tangible antiracist action. I’ve been working with the WPA-L Reimagining Working Group and the Moderation Board to develop a value statement and stronger participation guidelines to prevent the racist, misogynistic interruptions that have become the hallmark of the listserv. I’ve been organizing white faculty and staff in my historically Black, Hispanic-serving institution to do the antiracist work we should have been doing since our founding sixty years ago. 

I was hired because of my work on racial literacy or, maybe, sadly, because I’m a white-identified woman whose work is in racial literacy. I have run racial literacy workshops and faculty learning communities, helped build and run a writing center, and introduced graduate courses on race rhetorics and equity in composition pedagogy, but progress on my campus has been slow, due largely to limited resources and the white savior complex of so many members of the faculty. 

The pandemic has made even more visible the remarkable privilege and willful ignorance of so many of my colleagues. I am disgusted by the various emails, news articles, and social media posts I have seen talking about “rigor” and “student responsibility” and debating the usefulness of replacing letter grades with credit or no credit options. I am amazed and appalled that anyone sees an option besides giving students every benefit of the doubt imaginable and removing grade-related barriers. Grades are problematic, to say the least, to begin with, and the current situation makes them even more so. There is a global pandemic. Some of us have lost loved ones; some of us are sick. We are taking care of children, parents, and partners who are out of work or essential workers on the front lines. We have lost jobs, savings, and homes. Our students are in the same situation. 

We have so little power in this world; why would we wield any of the little bit we have over other human beings who are suffering right now, especially our students?

Like most people with PTSD, I have some unpredictable triggers and some very particular ones. One of the biggest ones for me, unsurprisingly, is harm to children, cruelty to those who don’t understand why they are suffering, those who internalize abuse and are brainwashed to believe they’ve done something wrong, those who feel shame, guilt, fear, self-hatred, for reasons they don’t fully comprehend. 

This isn’t a direct analogy, of course; my students aren’t children and many of them do understand all too well the structural dynamics that play into their (mis)education. But we cannot deny that the structures of the academy are traumatizing for many of our students and that our insistence on “rigor” amidst a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations is racist, classist, ableist, and willfully ignorant and apathetic of the challenges our students are facing. 

I am saddened by the lack of self-reflection of many of my colleagues and their inability or unwillingness to examine the ways in which their own classrooms may exacerbate the trauma so many of our students, especially those who are already minoritized and marginalized, are already facing. These so-called educators continue to wield their racial and socioeconomic privilege as a weapon against the students they teach, even during a time when the entire country is – or should be – forced to reckon with the collective, generational trauma inflicted on Black people for centuries. 

I believe in dismantling the system, yet I work within it. The gains, if they come, will come, as always, because of the efforts and persistence of Black people and accomplices who have taken to the streets. I have not, however, joined a physical protest. Were there no pandemic, I would have been outside marching over a week ago. 

I made a Black Lives Matter sign with some poster board I’d planned to use for professional development sessions with writing center staff when we were on campus but we won’t be on campus this fall either. I looked up the details for a protest here in Huntington Beach. I got dressed, turned the data off on my phone to prevent tracking. As I got to the door, I panicked. I’d barely been outside in three months. Would I be able to handle the crowd? Should I use my only n95 mask? What if I get sick? What if I get Alex sick? Alex has been working this whole time; what if he already has the coronavirus? What if I do?

I couldn’t get myself out the door. 

I spoke with some activist friends and cousins, most of them union organizers, lawyers and nonprofit directors: They were organizing at work too, but none of them had gone to the protests. Maybe it’s age, one pointed out. I’m in my mid-thirties. Many of my friends are older. It’s not our generations out there. That’s a cop-out, I told myself. But it’s true, I told myself. I felt like a hypocrite.

Most friends I’ve spoken with have told me some version of the following: “You do this work for a living. You’re one person, and you’ll make more of a difference doing the work you’re doing than holding a sign and possibly getting or spreading Coronavirus.”

I can’t shake the feeling that I am not doing enough. Like my student, Karina, I still aim for a perfection I know to be a mirage. 

I am the daughter of an abuser. But I am also the granddaughter of a Russian immigrant who, in 1936, when Roosevelt refused to send troops to contribute to the fight against Franco, joined the Lincoln Battalion and went to Spain to fight the rise of fascism. I come from protestors and activists. I am the Spanish battle song lyrics tattooed on my back. I am what I believe and what I do. 

I am trying. I put the Black Lives Matter sign in the window. Two days later, I took a drive, alone, with the windows down, going 80 on the 405 with Spanish Civil War music turned up as loud as the volume could go, and when I got back home and parked on the roof, I stood outside and let the sun wash over me until my ears teared. That same day, Alex found yeast at the grocery store for the first time in months. In the evening, we replanted the pygmy palm tree in hopes the fresh soil would bring it back to life.


Author's Reflection

June 14, 2021

I poured a lot of pain into that Documentarian Tale, more than I realized at the time. I feel exposed by the personal information and the pain I shared, but I’m defiant: I don’t expect others to sugarcoat PTSD and a global pandemic, so I probably shouldn’t expect myself to either. I didn’t talk much about the discipline or my work. I wonder what others wrote. And I hate how I ended the piece: I put a sign in my window and took a drive? That’s my contribution and my healing process? I tried too hard to tie up the piece, but I suppose I was trying to tie up something, anything, amid a crisis that is yet unfinished and still beyond my control.

I feel obliged to provide some sort of update, so, rather than spend time debating the validity of that assumption and the necessity of such an update, I’ll give you some tangibles. This is the data, if you will, to the best of my abilities without interpretation: We weren’t evicted. I wrote a lot of poetry. One poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize; it didn’t win. I was vaccinated. I finally got a haircut. Last month, I had drinks and dinner at a brewery, outdoors, with a cousin I haven’t seen in years. Last week, the university announced that we will begin repopulating the campus this summer. Today, the mask mandate in California was lifted.

But the pygmy palm tree is dead. The cousin who was in and out of hospital with COVID-19 is dead. Lauren, a New York-based friend and family member, is dead. The fellow professor to whom I once lent my copy of bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress is dead. A few weeks ago, I opened the book in search of a quote and found a note thanking me for the recommendation. Two other professors are dead. The graduation ceremony was in person with limited attendance. Via livestream, I watched the university president give a woman’s diploma, posthumously, to her mother. On average, close to 400 people in the United States died of COVID-19 every day last week. 

I miss my commute, my friends, the gym, and crowded bars, but the pressure to return to a state of normality I’m not sure exists is frustrating and intimidating. I didn’t have distance last year, but I’m not sure I have much distance now either.

If I could speak to the version of me who wrote that Documentarian Tale, I’d tell myself to move to another building anyway or to buy a house before the high cost of Southern California real estate becomes astronomical. I’d tell myself to get a bigger pot for the palm tree and to water it more often. I’d tell myself that this is hard, that it’s okay if I’m struggling, that other people are struggling too. I’d tell myself to take more walks and to keep writing poetry. I’d tell myself to give Lauren a call. 


Works Cited:

Manzo, Lynne C. “Beyond House and Haven: Toward a Revisioning of Emotional Relationships 

with Places.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 23, 2003, pp. 47-61.

Spear, Rachel N. “‘Let Me Tell You a Story: On Teaching Trauma Narratives, Writing, and 

Healing.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture , vol. 14, no. 1, 2013, pp. 53-79.