Intimacy/Isolation: Stranger, But Not Estranged – What Motherhood Taught Me About Creativity in Isolation
by Margaret Zwiebach
Lea este ensayo en español aquí.
I never liked being alone. It has always been a struggle for me. A heady cocktail of extroversion, anxiety, and ADHD make my mind an overwhelming and at times unfriendly place. When I discovered theatre, where the qualities I managed and avoided were considered boons to be celebrated and encouraged, I felt instantly at home. Within the camaraderie of collaboration and the shared purpose of ‘the show’ I found a community I loved.
Theatre became an integral part of my life. In college I made theatre, in graduate school I studied theatre, but when I moved to New York City, I felt the impulse to write. My love for theatre was not diminished; on the contrary, my experience and education inspired me to explore my own ideas and abilities in ways I never felt empowered to before. All I needed was a laptop, pen, and paper to set my dreams on their feet.
But choosing to seclude myself within the intimate bounds of my imagination was a challenge I had yet to face. I began spending long hours alone, the blinking cursor tap-tap-tapping impatiently on the blank page before me. I quickly discovered the best way to withstand this new and intense isolation was to temper myself with the intense togetherness of theatre.
I was, after all, living in New York City, the beating heart of American theatre. I went anywhere that the busy hive of directors, producers, dramaturgs, actors, stage managers, technicians, designers, and students poured their creativity and energy. Good theatre, bad theatre, experimental theatre, boring theatre—everything taught me something. Afterwards I’d take the subway home, jostle along with my fellow riders, navigate the teeming sidewalks to my building, ride the cramped elevator up to my apartment, and sit down on the couch with my dogs on my feet. Surrounded by the thrum of New York, I felt safe to be alone in a way I never had before.
But in March 2020, in the blink of an eye, Covid-19 was everywhere. My family, friends, and neighbors disappeared and New York became a shadow of itself. Suddenly my husband and I were entirely alone in our little apartment—except we were not.
We shared a tiny soul between us, snugly concealed beneath my loose fitting sweaters.
We walked across a deserted Central Park to my 20-week ultrasound on a cold and wet spring day, too afraid to take a cab. A piece of paper taped to the doctor’s office door told us I had to go in alone. FaceTiming from the sidewalk, my husband pretended, for my sake, that he could see the blood pumping in and out of our son’s heart on the screen. I held his hand tightly on our way home, the drizzling rain falling on my shoulders.
Our only connection to the outside was electronic, the blue light guiding us through our days and our nights. Zooms, FaceTime, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, TikTok, YouTube, and Animal Crossing became our theatre. We performed our compliance to stay-at-home orders and mask mandates, recording, editing, and portraying our experience in memes, pictures, and videos shared across platforms. I spent months watching myself behave on the stage in my screens. Watched as my hair grew out and my belly outgrew my clothes. Joy and sadness mixed like oil and water. We checked in on each other: “How are you holding up?” “I’m ok, we’re ok.”
Writing became an impossibility. Vulnerability, curiosity, and intimacy, the doors to creativity, slammed shut to weather the storm. I couldn’t open them, I didn’t even want to. I was too afraid of what I might find…or let out.
But motherhood changed that. Blew those doors wide open.
I gave birth in the last days of July 2020. Suddenly I was home with this tiny creature, my heart and body exploding with love for him. My parents quarantined and came to stay. Eight days later we performed the Bris, the Jewish ritual of circumcision, from our apartment. We broadcast the prayers and blessings over Zoom, recorded it and watched it over and over again. It was so strange; enacting in near total isolation this ritual that bound my son to his heritage, but we didn’t feel alone. What we felt was our community of friends and family stretching across continents to reach us through the tiny speck of camera on my computer, bringing us their joy.
My parents stayed for one month, my father working and my mother taking care of me. In the other timeline, the one that should have been, we never would have had this time—she spent all day, every day, by my side. With no interruption from visitors, well-wishers, friends, social events or obligations, our isolation granted us connection. We had nowhere to be but together, and I never needed her more. I was a stranger to myself. I didn’t recognize my body, my emotions, my city, my country, my life. Unruffled, my mother would hold me and stroke my hair as I cried over everything: loving my baby too much, or not enough, tears of physical pain, heartache, loneliness and fear, stinging joy and vicious guilt over the privilege of greeting precious new life into our family while so many coped with unbearable loss.
“Mal de muchos, consuelo de tontos,” (“Company in misery is only a fool’s consolation”) my mother would say. Nevertheless, she would console me by sharing the hardships of her first year of motherhood. She told me how she came to California with my father in 1980, newly married and hardly twenty-one. They were eager to start a family and soon she was pregnant. Every day my father would go to school and my mother would sit at home in their apartment, alone. Nowhere to go and nothing to do, she knew no one and hardly spoke English. When the phone would ring, she quite literally hid in fear of the voice on the other end of the line, demanding her understanding. She told me she cried like I cried. She felt alone, afraid, and unsure, like me. She hadn’t known how to be a mother, and neither did I.
“You aren’t really alone,” she would remind me, “I was really alone.” She spoke matter-of-factly; this was her life, not some drama. She told me how little by little, she learned English, met friends, grew her community, went to college, went to graduate school, made a home, had more children. Her life changed in ways she never dreamed as a little girl growing up in Mexico City. And mine would too, she would assure me, that’s what life does.
“I can’t even imagine,” I would say as I listened to her, really listened. I came to understand that her willingness to be a stranger in a new world, despite fear, was the source of her strength. Stranger as in alone. Stranger as in traveler. Stranger as in explorer. Stranger as in disoriented. Stranger as in new. Stranger as in rehomed. Stranger as in transformed. As a woman she was all those things. As an immigrant she was all those things. As a mother she was all those things. The very things that might have isolated her, she used to forge the foundations of her life, the bonds of her friendships, the bridges of her understanding. She was a stranger, but she was not estranged.
The circumstances of my mother’s stranger-hood were much less extraordinary than mine, but her experience, and her decision to share it with me, allowed me to understand my own in ways I never expected. My mother showed me that every new moment in life, ordinary or extraordinary, from becoming a parent to living through a global pandemic, from seeing a show to writing one, isolates you from who you once were and connects you to who you will soon be. What makes me a stranger today can make me feel at home tomorrow by virtue of how I choose to alchemize my experience―into a snare of isolation or a vehicle for intimacy. The kind of intimacy, born through creativity, that made me feel at home in the theater; that drew me to writing; that blessed me with motherhood. And all I needed to write again was remember that through my words on this page, two strangers, you and I, might feel less alone.
Margaret Zwiebach (she/her/hers) is a writer and artist living in New York City, working on her first novel for middle grade readers while running after her son and two devilish dogs. She arrived by way of Wellesley College (Spanish and Russian Literature, BA) and King’s College London (Shakespeare Studies, MA). Margaret does not believe in “guilty” pleasures, and is an unabashed consumer of reality tv, delicious snacks, and various crafting hobbies. Her work is deeply rooted in and inspired by her Jewish-Latina heritage and the cultures of her parents’ home countries of Peru and Mexico.
Photo courtesy of Margaret Zwiebach