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“This is stupid,” I said to my mother after reading her a deleted excerpt of this essay over FaceTime. For more than an hour the night before this deadline, I worked to convince my mom that I could not write an essay on being creative, especially not during the pandemic.
“But what about those postcards you made?” she insisted.
“No one wants to hear about that, Mom,” I said back. “Not even I want to hear about that.”
Fed up with my negativity (and sass!), she quieted my criticism by forcefully reading a New York Times Magazine article by Tara Aranio titled “My Totally Normal Addiction to Buying Teen Magazines on eBay.” Cooly, she turned away from the camera to grab the glossy magazine off of the ottoman. “All you need is some inspiration,” she said.
I sat in my kitchen, soothed by my mother’s voice and the intimate details of Tara Aranio’s childhood trauma of being the only 8th-grade transfer to her middle school, and her subsequent compulsion of buying pop teen magazines. I felt a similarity between the two of us, as Aranio confessed her middle school magazine obsession and the one she rekindled in 2020 as a frazzled adult living in quarantine. I wondered if I, too, had ever resulted to compulsive habits to avoid uncertainty and gain a sense of control. My mother’s voice began to fade as I remembered my reaction to living in quarantine with no friends, no routine, and little environmental control. And then, finding out I had COVID-19.
I was only in Richmond for two weeks before I started making postcards. Most of them were sent to friends and family, some to Instagram followers who had seen my cards on suggested stories. I transferred colleges in Fall 2020 — an ambitious and possibly idiotic decision to make.
I spent my early days in my new Virginia city biking around to numerous coffee shops (most of which were closed) and walking in and out of my new kitchen foyer trying to acclimate to my three new male roommates’ confusing comedy as soon as possible. I left the house a lot, normally on my bike or newly purchased skateboard to reassure myself I was still in control and the captain of my own ship. With earphones in, I would let Big Sean and Paul Simon guide me down wrong turns on one-way streets and diamond-shaped roundabouts. The unfamiliar houses and alleys became an ideal backdrop for my daily movie montage.
With a BIC pen and thick printer paper practically falling out of my back jean pocket, I would stop periodically in front of symmetrical townhouse porches, fire escapes, or frosted brick buildings whose outlines were not too difficult to draw. Often I was too embarrassed to take out my pen and paper on the street, so I would take an iPhone photo before meandering back home. In my new room, tucked behind the communal kitchen and adjacent man-cave basement entrance, I would spread my acrylic paints, brushes, and fountain pens out on my caramel brown wooden floor. While painting or redrawing 1930s café architecture, I would make sure to keep my door wide open, hoping to get an occasional greeting or wave from my newly acquainted roommates. After my Monet-style brushstrokes were finished, I made sure to plant my finished postcards on our kitchen counters, casually, to spur artistic conversation. My roommates rarely took the bait.
For weeks, I practiced the regimen of bike, paint, write, and stamp postcards, successfully filling up my free time absent of social commitments or work shifts. Similar to Tara Aranio as an 8th-grade middle school transfer, I would wear my most Richmond-esque clothing on these rides to try and blend into my new student body and artistic Richmond backdrop (my knee-length jean cut-offs were a necessary staple). I liked to imagine my fleeting eye contact with Richmond porch regulars and James River joggers was filled with comradery and pride for a city filled with artists, writers, and musicians. The scenic and urban routes I found made me feel connected to Richmond. Writing these postcards gave me a built-in audience for bragging about Richmond.
After about three months, I stopped making postcards regularly. Winter brought in the cold, something I forgot about while living in San Diego the past two years. After sitting on my skateboard for two long drawings, I broke the two back wheel bearings. In November, I got a job working at one of those alluring Richmond coffee shops I used to gawk at from afar. While exciting, work shifts and weather significantly shrunk my free time and motivation to draw for hours outside looking for spunky front porches or Narnia themed she-sheds. Was my creativity a pandemic one-off?
Back to my phone call with mom, I waited for her to finish reading about Tana’s magazine indulgence that followed her through middle school and the pandemic. I thanked her for reading so assertively. Though I only listened to the first three paragraphs and ending line, I knew It was true my postcard compulsion had been a way for me to control my surroundings and create an idyllic version of Richmond and my new life in the pandemic. Tana was right, with loss or change of circumstance comes a need to control. Lucky for me, my compulsive tendencies were making watercolor townhouses paintings for my relatives and friends in California, not the expensive eBay hustle of buying 80s magazines from random users in Kentucky.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.