Loss, in these times, is unrelenting. An unfathomable number of lives have been devastated. Jobs deleted. Rhythms and routines erased.
But there are quieter forms of loss, too. Less talked about, harder to quantify. Like lost opportunities, or watershed career moments interrupted or overshadowed by an explosively contagious virus that upended everything.
We asked four women who found themselves at professional turning points last year to describe what it felt like to achieve — or very nearly achieve — a milestone during a pandemic. Below, you’ll hear from an author, an artist, a musician and a scientist. Their callings are different, but the outlines of their experiences are the same: marked by triumph and disappointment, quick pivots and adjusted expectations.
Each had imagined what their career wins would look and feel like; the coronavirus complicated the picture.
Author — Bloomington, Ind.
Famed writer F. Scott Fitzgerald believed brilliance lay in one’s capacity to live with contradiction.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” he wrote.
On that front, Megan Giddings is a master.
The author, whose debut novel, “Lakewood,” was released last year, says 2020 was “the best year of my life and also the worst year of my life, all at the same time.”
The best because her debut novel, five years in the making, entered the world in late March. (“When I was 22 and had gotten nowhere,” she says, “I was like, ‘I’m a failure. I’m never going to write.’ And now I’m so relieved that it happened.”) The work helped land her a visiting professorship at Michigan State University — much higher-paying than her earlier jobs as an adjunct — and unlocked other opportunities she’d never previously imagined.
The worst because we’re a year deep into a pandemic that has left Giddings, 36, like so many others, feeling scared, grieving and profoundly disheartened at times. “My mental health has never been worse,” she says. “I feel really disillusioned with other people.”
Two opposing ideas, hope and despair, also factor heavily into “Lakewood.”
The novel centers on Lena Johnson, a Black college student, and begins with an ending of sorts: Lena’s grandmother, the woman who raised her, dies. Along with her goes Lena’s sense of security. She’s left to grapple with an astounding amount of family debt and must also find a way to support her mother, Deziree, who has a debilitating and costly illness. When Lena is invited to participate in the Lakewood Project, a secretive research program that offers an eye-popping paycheck and comprehensive family health insurance, she jumps at the chance. The gig requires a move to Lakewood, Mich., a rural, largely White town that isn’t particularly hospitable to people of color.
This storyline is based, partly, on Giddings’s lived experience growing up in rural Michigan: “People just notice you,” she says. “There are times where you can tell a kid has never seen a Black person in person, but you’ve just stopped and gone to a grocery store.” A lot of her feelings about race are shaped by that environment, by “being in spaces where you’re always aware that you are different.” Lena reports to work at what appears to be a shipping company — a cover business for the Lakewood Project. What she undergoes there is initially unsettling and ultimately nightmarish.
With themes of inequity and experimentation on Black bodies, “Lakewood” might rightly remind a reader of the real-life Tuskegee Study, an unethical 40-year experiment in which Black men with syphilis were neither told of their diagnosis nor given effective treatment, or the 19th-century gynecological experiments carried out on enslaved women without anesthesia. The book elicited comparisons to Jordan Peele’s 2017 film “Get Out” and generated some buzz when it hit shelves March 24. But that excitement was partially drowned out by the world rearranging itself to respond to the pandemic: Schools were closing, restaurants were cordoning off their dining rooms, office workers were bringing laptops home and lockdowns were blanketing cities across the globe.
Giddings’s book tour, of course, was canceled.
“All these people were, in a well-meaning way, telling me that I should be angry or at least trying to give me the space to be angry,” she says via Zoom, from a wallpapered office in her Indiana home. “I think they thought I really needed it so I didn’t feel selfish.”
But she wasn’t angry. She was afraid.
“I had a real animal panic brain,” she says. She bought many, many masks. She made sure her home was stocked in case she fell ill.
“My anxiety was so bad that I didn’t even consider being angry or upset that I lost this thing that was kind of a big deal. My brain felt like I was just going to die. I was in danger.”
Several months later, Giddings began to truly process what was lost: the occasion to meet booksellers in other states who championed her work and the opportunity to reconnect with loved ones in cities along the tour. (She mentions making some lovely digital visits to classrooms to talk with students, but, speaking broadly, interactions in two dimensions rarely feel as rich as in three.)
Readers processed “Lakewood” in evolving ways, too, as 2020 marched on.
“It’s been very strange watching how people react to it,” she says. At first, “before people were ready to even start thinking seriously about covid, all anybody really wanted to talk to me about was race with this book.” Then, she was asked about health insurance — more than the money, the coverage Lena secures for her mother compels her to forge ahead with the Lakewood Project, even after a fellow participant’s teeth tumble out. Last June, Giddings says, after the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 and amid the subsequent protests, questions swung back to race.
While “Lakewood” depicts racial and socioeconomic oppression in a world much like our own (with only hints of the uncanny), Giddings’s next book, on which she’s already at work, looks at injustice through the prism of magic. The story takes place in a world where witches aren’t fantasy. They’re real. That leads to heightened persecution of women, who must either marry by 30 or give up their money and become wards of the state, unless a male relative agrees to be their guardian.
“I wanted to write really seriously about how easily women’s rights are taken from them, and also how much more punitively Black women are treated if they don’t conform,” Giddings says. The main character is Black. She doesn’t conform.
My anxiety was so bad that I didn’t even consider being angry or upset that I lost this thing that was kind of a big deal. My brain felt like I was just going to die. I was in danger.
The writing is going, but for much of last year, it wasn’t going at full speed. Giddings was adjusting to her new position as a (virtual) professor. And she just wasn’t feeling “emotionally 100 percent.” Now, though, she’s regaining her stride. A partial draft of her second novel officially sold to a publisher late last year, and the healthy pressure to finish has made her — “for lack of a better, less obnoxious phrase” — more productive.
She and her husband have a ritual that also helps when she’s feeling low.
“I can vent at him about the world for 20 minutes,” she says. She starts with the news, then spends 10 minutes on “everyday annoyances, petty things that bug me. And it usually makes me start laughing and it puts things in context.”
In short, she’s managing.
“I’m here, I’m trying,” she says. “I’m trying to do things to help other people. That helps. It helps so much sometimes.”
Musician — Brooklyn, New York
Sometimes people lie for the hell of it. Sometimes people lie to hide. And sometimes, every so often, a person can lie her way to the truth.
Take Mia Berrin. Sometime in 2016, at a party in New York City, a group of guys approached her. They were musicians, they mentioned; they were in a band, by the way — “I think they were trying to impress me,” she says.
Her response: “Oh, really? I’m a musician. I play in a band.”
This was a boldfaced falsehood, but not altogether detached from reality. Berrin, then 19, was a singer and guitarist, even though, at the time, she was primarily a college student unhappily pursuing an acting degree. (As a Black, White and Puerto Rican woman who identifies as mixed race, she says she rarely came across roles that reflected her identity.) The guys asked her to share some music. So, she uploaded a couple of demos she’d made in high school to the music site Bandcamp and sent them the link, expecting nothing. The guys replied, saying they’d like to produce some songs for her. They also asked her to open for them at a show for early career bands.
She said yes; it was the first time she performed live. The experience felt magical, defining, Berrin, now 23, says — like she’d found what she was meant to do.
Soon, her fiction became fact. Berrin kept playing shows. She ultimately transferred from New York University’s drama program to its music institute, diving headlong into developing Pom Pom Squad — the indie rock/grunge project she started in her high school bedroom in Florida — into a full-fledged Brooklyn-based band. Berrin was very much the face of the group: She wrote the songs, sang the lyrics, ironed out the logistics.
So when she landed the chance to perform at the 2020 South by Southwest music festival in Austin, it was a very, very big deal, she says. The popular festival, which can be career-launching for young artists, was supposed to take place March 16 to 22. Pom Pom Squad was slated to play at a handful of showcases, many of which paid no money but were laden with opportunities — to possibly sign with a label, connect with eager fans or build rapport with established musicians. The cost was high, Berrin says, given that the band would have to pay for their travel to Texas, lodgings, transportation, meals and equipment rental. But the payoff? Potentially priceless.
In other words, Pom Pom Squad — which consists of Berrin, bassist Mari Alé Figeman, drummer Shelby Keller and guitarist Alex Mercuri — was picking up steam. By early March 2020, the foursome had played their first show outside of New York, in San Francisco. They had their first-ever tour on the books, and then they scheduled a second. (Among the stops was “the venue in my hometown where I went to homecoming in high school,” Berrin says.) After the West Coast gig, SXSW was going to be their next big thing, kicking off the band’s lineup of performances across the country.
The day of the San Francisco show felt like a scene from a movie, a symbol of what was ahead, Berrin recounts over Zoom, vinyls lining the wall behind her in the Bushwick apartment she shares with her partner and her pet, Zelda the cat. “We all cried, and we were like, this spring is going to be amazing, touring is going to be amazing.” Then practically the next week, “everything came crashing down.”
The coronavirus pandemic shut down the country. Regular life, so to speak, was canceled — music festivals and concerts included.
“The first thing I felt was just devastation, especially because of how much of the band is me, and how much work I put into it on a personal level, just being my own label, being my own publicist, being my own biggest advocate,” Berrin says.
She grieved briefly, then pivoted firmly.
“I just kind of had to turn it around,” she says, “because it was like, it’s a safety thing, it’s not about me, it’s not about my career, and it felt in that moment almost selfish to ask the ‘What about me?’ questions.”
Early in the pandemic, she tried live-streaming. But that felt flat, she says, literally and figuratively. Some experiences, like the pulsing, soaring, communal sensation of live music, aren’t quite replicable on a screen.
The first thing I felt was just devastation, especially because of how much of the band is me, and how much work I put into it on a personal level.
“You don’t get the kind of heart-swelling feeling,” Berrin says. When hundreds of people congregate in the same space to hear the same thing, “There’s 500 different experiences happening around you, there’s 500 different people who have feelings about the same song and relate to it in a different way,” she adds. It’s “just such a beautiful thing.”
Without the shows, without the tours and without a day job — Berrin, like millions of other Americans, was laid off from the public relations firm where she worked — she was left with quiet. Stillness. Removed from the Brooklyn band scene, where she says everybody knows everybody else and they all play the same venues, she felt a sliver of relief.
“There’s something that feels kind of good about not being in the scene, because I don’t have anything to compare myself to,” she says, as in, “Who’s getting the better shows? Who’s getting the better this? Who’s getting the better that?”
Away from the crowds, she embraced creation.
“I think it allowed me, in writing, to unlock a lot more of myself that I maybe would have ignored, because New York is a busy place,” Berrin says. Pom Pom Squad had previously released two EPs — one in 2017, the next in 2019 — but the next level came this fall, when Berrin finished drafting her first full-length album, an exercise in lyrical introspection that she says touches on autonomy, her queer identity and her journey in the music industry. With regular coronavirus tests, she and her bandmates began practicing again; they went on to record the album, which will be released sometime this year. She speaks of it adoringly: “I talk about it like I’m talking about a new girlfriend or something. I have a big crush on it.”
On the subject of musical crushes, Berrin’s been sweet on oldies lately, listening to artists from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Like Frank Sinatra and the Shangri-Las. Tommy James and the Shondells and the Ronettes. And the Flamingos, crooning that enduring melody, “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
That one brings her back to another place, another time. “I used to work at this really creepy experiential perfume store” in New York, Berrin says, and “they played that song a lot. And I loved it. I loved every moment of it, and I would just lean against the window and pretend that I was in an old movie.”
She’d be wearing a red suit in a red room and speaking in whispered tones — part of the experiential perfume pop-up’s job requirements. She was selling a story, a product, a manufactured experience. But beneath the fabrication, she found the music.
Scientist — Laurel, Md.
Here’s a concept that — if you sit with it for just a moment, really consider the ramifications — will probably blow your mind.
Outer space is expanding. Maybe you knew that, perhaps you’re unimpressed, but just think: The universe is a limitless body that keeps fanning out, growing ever more limitless, ad infinitum. There’s no boundary, no breaking point.
That’s pretty trippy — a fact that Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle would likely acknowledge, though maybe not in those terms. A planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Turtle, 54, grew up enamored of the cosmos. Her father had majored in astronomy, so he was always urging his children to look skyward, at meteor showers and auroras, comets and eclipses. And her grandmother was well-versed in constellations and mythology, so Turtle learned of all the “different dimensions of the sky.”
She took astrophysics and cosmology — the branch of astronomy that investigates the origins of the universe — courses in college, but ultimately decided to train her focus on our solar system, she says, “because it’s so tangible.” In other words, “We can get there.” The vast, spreading universe is full of secrets, but we can’t launch a land rover to a faraway galaxy or inside a supermassive black hole. We can, however, fly a rover to Mars. (And we have.)
At the moment, Turtle’s sights are set on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
As the principal investigator (PI) for Dragonfly, a mission backed by NASA, Turtle’s leading a team that’s busy at work testing and designing a rotorcraft lander — roughly the size of a small car — that will travel to Titan, gather data and transmit it back to Earth for analysis. (Titan is “a really unique place in the solar system,” Turtle explains over Zoom. “It’s the only moon that has an atmosphere, and its atmosphere is actually denser than Earth’s.”) Dragonfly will launch in 2027 and reach Titan in the mid-2030s.
Turtle, who is only the third female planetary mission PI in NASA’s history — which she says is both “a little daunting” and “a little surprising” — was tapped to talk about the mission for the 2020 TED Conference, the annual assemblage of great minds giving an assortment of talks on bold inventions and ideas. (Last year’s speakers included a venom scientist, global poverty activist and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown, among others.) Last year’s TED theme was “Uncharted.” The talks were set to take place April 20-24 in Vancouver, B.C.
As with so many events that were planned before March 2020, the in-person component was scrapped because of coronavirus. TED briefly toyed with the idea of having live talks in July, but that proposition unraveled. The conference would be virtual, the organization decided, and it would begin May 18.
That changed everything for Turtle. Her live talk, by that point, was essentially ready for the stage. It had been written and rehearsed; accompanying graphics created. A virtual presentation was a different animal.
“We were looking at giving a talk in July in person, and now we’re trying to put together a video effectively, a produced video, for June. So we didn’t have a lot of time to turn it around,” Turtle says.
She credits her colleagues at Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory — “the group here is spectacular,” she says — for helping her pull it off. The final product was a success, visually interesting and easily digestible. Still, the moment-to-moment experience couldn’t have been more dissimilar than speaking on a large, sleek black stage, the iconic red TED logo illuminated in the background, an audience of strangers listening raptly.
Turtle recorded her talk at the Applied Physics Lab, in front of greenscreen, as four or five masked colleagues watched on, giving thumbs-up and trying to smile with their eyes.
“When I give talks, I move,” Turtle says, and “there’s kind of a connection to the audience, right? You can tell if people are getting it or if you said something in a way that’s confusing, and you can kind of adjust on the fly.”
“So it’s a very different experience standing still, gesturing to a greenscreen, which is not something I have a lot of experience doing,” she adds.
It was complicated. On the one hand, Turtle was disappointed to miss the payoff of real-time audience connection. “Public speaking is always something that’s a challenge,” she says. “I’m not always the most comfortable person in front of a large audience, but it’s also fun.”
On the other hand, recording her talk was a team effort, and collaboration sits well with her soul. “I like team sports. I like teamwork in missions. And so it actually was a lot of fun in that sense,” she says.
You get up into the Earth’s orbit, or you get to the moon, and you see the immensity, the scale of just our solar system, and how small we are in it.
Naturally, the opportunities to mingle with fellow TED attendees and speakers were limited during the remote conference, but Turtle says virtual get-togethers were held before and after the lineup of talks. Hers aired alongside those of an architect unpacking ancient Indigenous design systems; a painter reflecting on his work about Black mothers whose children are missing; and actor Ethan Hawke making the case that creativity isn’t about career or talent but rather essential to human life. (“I was just stunned when I saw the group I was in had Ethan Hawke in it,” Turtle says, throwing up her hands with a tiny, awed gasp. “I mean, I’ve known his movies for so long.”)
The TED Talk was a moment in time, and time, like our ever-expanding universe, keeps stretching ahead. Turtle’s days are filled with meetings and project management, tracking the many moving parts of the Dragonfly mission amid the logistical difficulties of remote work. There’s early testing happening now, to ensure that the rotorcraft can survive the dense atmosphere and frigid conditions on Saturn’s moon — Titan’s surface temperature is a whopping 290 degrees below zero. Her team needs to decide how much data to send back from Dragonfly to unlock answers to questions about Titan’s chemistry and geology, and evaluating that incoming information will be an intricate dance: One day on Titan lasts about 16 days on Earth.
On top of all that, Turtle is wondering what questions she hasn’t even thought to ask — the unknown unknowns (to quote former secretary of defense Donald H. Rumsfeld). “The solar system’s imagination is better than ours,” she says. “We can’t always predict what we’ll find.”
The coronavirus has both halted and devastated the globe in ways minor and major. But Turtle acknowledges that our universe, in its infinite mystery, is unphased.
“Astronauts talk about this,” Turtle says. “You get up into the Earth’s orbit, or you get to the moon, and you see the immensity, the scale of just our solar system, and how small we are in it.”
Artist — West Orange, N.J.
Nothing was going as planned. Everything was falling into place.
Call it fate, luck or God’s benevolence, but the circumstances of artist Bisa Butler’s life in the mid-1990s sent her down a path she couldn’t have predicted. Starting with oil paint-induced nausea.
A painting major at Howard University at the time, Butler was pregnant during her senior year of college, which wasn’t planned. She (literally) could not stomach the smell of oil paint and the associated pungent odors, like the turpentine used to clean brushes.
“I started having trouble finishing my assignments,” she says.
A professor proposed that she use fabric in her work. It wasn’t an entirely out-of-left-field idea: She loved fashion and sewed her own clothes, custom-made skirts and dresses that she says probably were a little dramatic for undergrad. But it was a serendipitous suggestion, given the artist she would become.
Not long after, while in graduate school, she delved deeper into fabric-based work, or fiber art. Around the same time, she’d been painting a traditional portrait of her grandmother, which was going poorly. Grandma was not pleased, and didn’t bite her tongue. (Butler didn’t think it was so terrible back then, but now? “It was like my paintings just had no soul,” she says.)
So, when a professor tasked Butler’s class with making a quilt that looked like a picture, she thought, “This is perfect.” She re-created her grandparents’ black-and-white 1930s wedding portrait using a swirl of silks, linens and wools gathered from her mom and grandma, both of whom sewed. And these weren’t just any scraps of fabric: They were vintage Dutch wax prints and African textiles; Butler’s mother was born in America but raised in Morocco, and her father hails from Ghana.
The final product was a hit, and a harbinger. When she presented it in class, “everybody was kind of silent at first,” she says.
It was supposed to be a simple assignment. Yet what Butler had created was textured, complex and layered, on par with a thesis-level project. “It was something that was so different that neither they nor I had really seen before, and it felt like the start of something big.” (And her grandmother’s response? “Thrilled.”)
These days, Butler, 47, is a celebrated textile artist, known for crafting vivid, life-size quilted portraits. While she occasionally depicts contemporary figures, her subjects are often everyday Black men and women, usually derived from decades-old images found online in the National Archives and taken by the likes of famous photographers including Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange. The subjects, many of whom are anonymous, likely would have never seen the photos they populate, Butler says, and may never have been captured on film again.
“I feel like I owe it to them to do something about it,” she says, “don’t just pass it by, don’t leave it in this virtual dusty stack, but pull it down and make something of it and give them some light that they do deserve, because the photos are strikingly beautiful. At least they’re beautiful to me.”
Once, she says, someone asked her, “Why do you make your figures look so regal?” She replied, “Am I? This is literally the way I see them. I’m not making them look regal. You’re just not looking at them clearly.”
Beginning March 15, Butler was scheduled to have her first solo museum exhibition at New York’s Katonah Museum of Art, displaying 26 of her works.
You already know that didn’t go as planned.
A solo exhibit is a monumental achievement for any artist — perhaps all the more so for Butler, who had worked as a full-time art teacher for 13 years, pouring her creative energy into her students and reserving time for her own projects only on nights and weekends. (“I was always that teacher who had a swarm of kids around me. I even had to tell them, like, ‘You guys can’t be in here during lunchtime. I need a moment,’” she says with a chuckle.)
Everything she created up until 2017, her final year of teaching, was “was really small,” she says, about “the size of a sheet of notebook paper, or maybe two pieces of paper put together, because I was always rationing my time between helping my kids with their homework and making dinner.” Lesson-planning took extra time, too.
When she left her day job and dedicated those hours to artmaking, her body of work, and dimensions, blew up.
“I just felt like, yes, I’m going for it. I’m doing everything!” She says “everything” like everythiiiing, with a real sense of unbounded joy that prompts a burst of laughter. “Like a mad scientist at that point, I made things as big as I wanted, I used all the color I wanted.” (On average, her quilts tower at 7 to 8 feet tall; her largest are 10 by 12 feet.)
Those efforts paid off. She went to Art Basel, a high-end international art fair, multiple times with her gallerist, New York’s Claire Oliver, and traveled twice to Expo Chicago, an international contemporary and modern work exposition where her pieces sold out within a few hours of opening on her first trip.
This past February, she had her first solo show at Claire Oliver Gallery. That felt sublime.
“I’ve watched the Jean-Michel Basquiat movie so many times, where he’s walking into his exhibit. It’s New York and he’s finally made it, and there are all these people there,” she says. “So, I always had that fantasy that that would be me one day, walking into a big exhibit. And it happened.”
Butler felt on top of the world, and she intended to ride that high to the Katonah Museum exhibition just weeks later, scheduled to open March 15. Guests had RSVPed. She was getting a special dress made for opening night.
But the news grew more ominous. Then her sister Souki got sick. She came down with a high fever mere days before opening night. Butler called the museum to inform them of the situation; they already had plans to shut down. Even before New York entered lockdown, Katonah canceled the exhibition.
“I was so worried about her that it took me away from feeling sorry for myself,” Butler says. Her sister never tested positive for the coronavirus, but all her symptoms checked out, and in those days, testing was less reliable. In time, Souki fully recovered, and while Butler was sad about the stalled exhibit, she figured — like many others — that regular life would resume in a matter of weeks, and the show would go on.
You’re alone for months and months working, and then you get to have this fabulous, fun opening. And so without that, it’s almost like a Christmas that never comes.
Butler’s museum exhibition did ultimately open months later, in July. Attendees were masked. Social distancing was enforced. Capacity was limited to 25 percent. There was no opening night shindig, no fanfare, no photos or wine or laughter. Butler was happy the exhibit opened at all, truly she was, she says, but the social element was sorely missed.
“The fun part about art,” she says, is that “you’re alone for months and months working, and then you get to have this fabulous, fun opening. And so without that, it’s almost like a Christmas that never comes.”
And yet. When she contemplates the subjects of her portraits, Black sharecroppers and agricultural workers she found in the Farm Security Administration’s Office of War Information photo collection, which documented life in America from 1935 and 1944, she can’t complain.
“I get to be at home and work,” she says. “I didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and go out to the fields and work for somebody for nothing, slave for somebody, and then come back in when the sun is down.”
There is much on the horizon for Butler. Approximately 800 people are on a waiting list to buy her work, she says. Just one large-scale quilt takes roughly 1,300 hours to make, she says; a smaller quilt requires about 200 hours. She’s trying not to think about it.
She is visualizing the future though, like the day when she can step foot (ideally, mask-free) inside her newest solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, which opened in November; 20 of her portraits are currently adorning the museum’s walls, though the institution itself closed again in November as coronavirus cases ticked upward.
It’s slated to reopen in mid-February, and her quilts will be on display through early September. “I look at it like this beacon in my mind,” she says, “it’s what keeps me going.”
“That exhibit is there, and it will open.”