My sweet and dear friend, Colleen, sent me this beautiful card of encouragement about women of fire. I taped it up at my desk. Ironically, I had just read this story by one of our favorite artists, Flying Edna/Brian Andreas Studio, a few nights before as I was scrolling through inspirational quotes, a meditative pastime in these times of quarantine.
Over a decade ago, my apartment building caught fire and I almost got trapped inside. That fire literally and figuratively forged me the way a blacksmith forges iron. I developed intense PTSD as a result, and went into weekly therapy with Brian, a wizard of a therapist.
I sat with Brian every week for 3+ years and looked at every dark corner of my mind and past. It was a brutal, painful initiation. I had to do that heavy work on myself. I had no choice. I ran out of places to hide. I ran out of coping mechanisms. The fire burned them all away. All that was left was me. Not what I do or who my friends are or where I went to school or any of my accomplishments. Just the iron core of who I am.
It was messy, dirty work, and I’m so grateful for it. I didn’t do it because I wanted to. I did it because I had to. I’d never wish it on anyone; I also wouldn’t change it for myself. I’ve been into the darkness of my own mind, heart, and past. I lived there with a powerful flashlight in-hand, shining it into every hidden place. There, I found my own light. There isn’t anything I don’t know about myself. I know exactly what I’m made of, and how I’m put together. It’s powerful knowledge. It made me courageous.
That courage informs my biomimicry research around plastic. People’s reaction when they hear about my work: “How depressing!” and then they continue on with their single-use plastic loving lives. It is depressing. And if I can make a positive change in that field, it has an oversized impact. Solutions in dire situations are like that—it’s possible to make huge leaps forward because there is no other choice. So I get to work trying to make a difference with what I have—my science, business, and writing.
That courage also informs my reaction to coronavirus now. Another friend of mine asks, “How are you today?” They don’t wait for an answer before saying, “NYC is so awful right now. You must be so depressed and terrified that you can’t even get out of bed.”
No one needs to tell me how awful the situation is in NYC or send me the stats about it—I live here. I know all the stats. I’m surrounded by them. I read every official news report and listen to every press conference by every expert. And not once has it crossed my mind to leave NYC or stay in bed. Not once. Our essential workers need our support. I’m here for them. Thanking them, donating money and time, checking on my neighbors, and signing up to volunteer with the city when and how I can in a safe way.
What’s happening in NYC now will happen in many cities across the country. I’m here to learn, and to help my neighbors, essential workers, businesses, and government improve this city for all people. And then to help other cities that go through this when this disease shows up on their doorstep. And it will, and soon, and I’m sorry about that, and I will help you when the time comes. Personal therapy prepared me for this work, too.
NYC is in a dire state, and the circumstances of our essential workers is horrific. Just as I came through my fire a far better person than I was before, we have the chance to come out of this dark time a better community that helps many more people, especially our healthcare workers on the frontlines. To do that, we have to do the hard work of transformation. Together, we have to be committed to finally fix and heal and reinvent the many broken systems that have been broken for decades. We have to be committed to make all this difficulty mean something. I’m committed.
New York City got dire news and numbers today, and we’re nowhere near the apex. Our heroic healthcare workers are managing a staggering amount of stress in the face of coronavirus. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to donate anything at all, we would all greatly appreciate it. I just donated and will continue to donate to help support the people on the frontlines who are doing so much for all of us.❤🙏
To donate, please visit: https://nychhc.networkforgood.com/
I wrote a piece for the Biomimicry Institute titled “A Quiet War: Biomimicry in the Time of Coronavirus about how a biomimicry call-to-action can help us now during coronavirus and fortify our healthcare system and economy when we face future pandemics. Here’s the link: https://biomimicry.org/a-quiet-war-using-biomimicry-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/
Here’s the full story:
Never underestimate the power of the small. In a matter of weeks, the microscopic virus COVID-19 has reshaped our macroworld in ways we never imagined possible. It is understandable that many feel fear, anxiety, and distress right now.
Active participation in an effort to help others is one way to temporarily alleviate some of those emotions. Biomimics have a valuable role to play in this moment. As biomimics, we are trained to find solutions to the world’s complex and often-painful challenges by turning to nature’s designs for guidance and wisdom.
First, we must scope the challenge we face. What do we know about the context of COVID-19?
For it being a novel virus, all of this context is a tremendous help to us from a biomimicry perspective. When we synthesize all of this information, we can build out the frame in which our solution must work and identify which types of solutions we need to help find. It’s in this spirit that we present a call to action to the entire biomimicry community to develop innovation in materials science and product development in the following fields:
Nature has many possible solutions to future pandemics and existing viruses. Species such as a wide variety of bats seem to be able to carry these diseases and not succumb to them. Studying these species and distilling the deep design principles of their abilities to be carriers could hold powerful keys to human health. Wiping them out through climate change, habitat loss, and hunting could literally translate into wiping out their potential to help us find preventions, cures, and treatments. Species conservation is vital to human health. Let’s honor what other species have to teach us. Let’s protect them and learn from them.
One of the greatest shortages right now in the healthcare field involves PPE—personal protective equipment. Medical masks, gowns, face shields, and shoes are vital to protect our healthcare workers while they are saving the lives of and caring for people who are so sick from COVID-19 that they need to be hospitalized or placed in the ICU.
It might seem simple to just ask PPE manufacturers to increase their output. The challenge is that these manufacturers are facing shortages of the raw material to create PPE, which are mostly made from specialized types of plastic woven in specific ways by specialized machines. We need better materials (and more of them) to create these lifesaving products, and we need faster, easier, cheaper, and more efficient ways to manufacture them.
There has never been a more urgent time to develop biodegradable materials that can replace the various types of plastic with a more sustainable material.
The discussion about plastic also leads directly into our food packaging issue. Much of our food is packaged in plastic for sanitary reasons, and sanitation has become a hot button issue in the past months due to COVID-19. Plastic packaging, like medical waste, is a main contributor to the plastic waste issue we have. By developing a biodegradable alternative to plastic, we may be able to feed two birds with one seed—create an alternative and sanitary packaging material for food and an alternative material for PPE.
In addition to washing our hands, we’re also cautioned to avoid touching surfaces whenever possible, because the COVID-19 virus lives on surfaces for some amount of time. If someone with COVID-19 touches a surface and then at some later time someone else touches that same surface, they risk getting the disease. One solution that would be immensely valuable would be some type of covering (a film, paint, casing, etc.) that would resist the attachment of viruses to it, or better yet degrade them on contact the way that soap and alcohol do. This type of material would also be used in PPE to resist the attachment of the virus to keep it clean and sterile.
Cleaning and personal care products
Sustainable cleaning and personal care products could also be a solution to the PPE shortage and the need for the sterilization of physical and personal surfaces. Healthcare workers could safely re-use PPE if it could be properly cleaned and sterilized. Likewise, if there was some type of personal care product (a lotion, gel, etc.) that we could put on our hands that would degrade the virus on contact, that would also be a tremendous help.
Short-term solutions with long-term benefits
While so much of our collective attention is now focused on COVID-19, our efforts have far-reaching benefits that will last long after this current pandemic ends. And it’s not a matter of if we’ll see another pandemic in our lifetimes, but when. COVID-19 will not be the last time we face a viral pandemic. With climate change, we are likely to see more pandemics in the future than we’ve seen in the past. Innovations in all of the areas detailed above are not only helpful for managing COVID-19. They would help us better manage any crisis like this in the future.
Our healthcare systems are at the breaking point now, because we have not been properly preparing for an event like this despite the warnings from epidemiologists and public health professionals. They warned us. We ignored them. Let’s not do that again.
Let’s innovate now to help our current situation, and help our future selves better identify and manage a pandemic when it finds us again. There has never been a better time to turn to nature for help, counsel, and wisdom. Biomimics, our time is now. The world needs us; it is crying out for help and innovation. Let’s answer that call.
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story.” ~Hannah Arendt
As a fiction writer, I create worlds and characters who are as real to me as anything and anyone outside my door. They’re my friends. They’re my lifeline right now. As always, they’re helping me write my way out. This doesn’t mean I’m not scared or worried or anxious. I am all those things. My writing gives those emotions and feelings and thoughts some place to go, it gives me a tool that helps bear the burden so my own heart and mind and shoulders don’t have to bear them alone.
A bright bit of news today. This weekend I turned in the rough draft of my biomimicry project about creating a biodegradable alternative to plastic. When I started this research back in 2019, I never imagined that it would take on the relevance it has today. In a time when it’s easy and understandable to feel useless or helpless, this project has given me an intense sense of purpose.
Being in NYC amid the coronavirus, there’s a lagging threat to our environment that isn’t yet coming into focus because we have to be focused now on protecting and saving human lives and protecting our healthcare workers and first responders. All of this personal protective equipment (PPE) of masks, gowns, gloves, and respirators, as well as medical equipment like ventilators, syringes, tubing, IV drips, etc. are all made from plastic. Even all of the sanitary wipes we’re using – personal and household disinfecting – are all plastic. What we will eventually have to reckon with is that coronavirus has created an exponential spike in plastic waste that may be very slow to ease, and it will have dire environmental consequences.
It happens to be that polypropylene, the kind of plastic I study, is one of the most popular plastics used in healthcare. Most of this plastic medical waste is either buried or burned. It’s not recycled because it’s (rightly) considered biohazard waste. With coronavirus, we’re obviously seeing a huge uptick in the amount of this plastic waste from hospitals, as well as more plastic waste from homes, offices, restaurants, stores, etc. because of disinfecting wipes. The increased demand is also causing us to extract and process more fossil fuels which significantly contribute to climate change.
This will eventually become a problem because plastic is already a huge issue that’s contributing to climate change and the degrading of our ecosystems. Now, it will exacerbate a difficult problem even further. Anything that accelerates climate change even further contributes to creating an environment where viruses are more likely to thrive. It’s a vicious, ugly cycle.
So what could make a difference? Creating a biodegradable, virus-resistant alternative to plastic as the raw material to create PPE, medical devices, and healthcare products. That’s what I’m working on with the lab I’m collaborating with here in New York City. This research has now taken on an added importance and urgency. We’ll be polishing this research over the next two weeks and submitting for funding months sooner than we ever imagined we would. Our hope is that we will be able to create a company to create jobs to create products that create the opportunity for a greener, healthier healthcare system that will be much better prepared when a public health crisis like this finds us again (and it is a matter of when and not if). It will also help us create a cleaner, healthier world in general if we are successful in replacing plastic with a biodegradable alternative that has all of plastic’s virtues and none of its vices.
We have a long way to go and we have a lot of hurdles to clear but beginning this work during this time feel like a way to make some progress. At the very least, it helps me feel like I’m doing what I can to be both helpful and useful from where I am with what I have.
In these final moments of the evening, I’m coming to this log tired and anxious and grateful and sad. It’s a jumble of emotions that feels like a never-ending roller coaster. I woke up to a police helicopter flying over my building; there was a fire set to three subway stations in my neighborhood. One was badly damaged, two were not. We lost a dedicated transit worker and several people were hurt in a city where we already have too many people dying and too many people hurt. The police suspect it to be arson.
It was sunny and warm today, a day that would have felt like a perfect spring day. The parks and streets would have been full of people. Laughter and smiles would have been everywhere. There would have been ice cream trucks and people eating outside at sidewalk cafes. Dogs would have been barking and playing fetch. We would have all reveled in the sunshine and in the fact that spring had finally sprung. Instead, we huddled inside and cheered for our healthcare workers from our apartment windows high above the streets. Alone. Together. Apart. Connected. Sad. Hopeful. Tears and smiles and every emotion in between. We’re all mixed up now and I don’t know when or how we’re going to make it right again. But I know we’re trying. So many people are trying and giving and supporting and donating.
I talked to friends and family and classmates today. I wrote. I walked my dog very far away from everyone else. I made my meals. I listened to music. I watched live cams of the deep blue sea. I listened to the news. There is some light, some progress, and that light shines because it is surrounded by so much darkness.
The number of sick people mounts. The death toll climbs. The additional hospital beds are built by brave military soldiers for brave healthcare workers being asked to serve as soldiers. The supplies are scarce, and therefore precious. They are the difference between living and dying for too many people. We sit while Washington fails us and then pats itself on the back for a job terribly done.
Every day, I give myself 10 minutes to unpack the box of my worst feelings, to imagine the worst of my fears. I take them out and look at them and toss something-like-a-prayer up to the ceiling asking for all of this to just be a terrible, terrible dream. And that something-like-a-prayer gets a simple 2-word reply fro m the abyss—”Not yet.”
I cry. I wipe away my tears. I blow my nose. I hug my dog. I put my very worst fears back in the box. I put the box back on the shelf. I go back to work—writing and creating and inventing and finding ways to be of use from where I am with art and science and business. They are the tools I have to use to be of use. And so, I use them.
It’s strange that the greatest act of love and compassion for our country and our community is to do absolutely nothing, to stay home. It feels unnatural. It feels wrong. We should be doing something. We should be taking action. We should be out in the world making it a better place. But the very best thing we can do is to stay home, stay right where we are, and do what we can from our own couches. All our productivity and hustle and ingenuity won’t save us now. What will save us is to sit and stay. I never thought I’d see this day. Never even imagined it would be possible, much less necessary.
Our Governor of New York offers us the facts and hope, which is exactly what we need in our city, our state, our country, and our world. He is the nation’s governor now, and I’m so proud he’s mine. He is a light. He is someone to look to for strength and courage and resilience, things we all need in hefty doses.
I spent a lot of time this week talking to people about how we will come through this, who we will be when it’s over, and what the price of getting through, scars and all, will cost us. We have to dare to talk about silver linings and opportunities and lessons learned. It’s all that keeps us going, and we must keep going. We are being forged right now, on the open flame. What will be left in the ash when the fire is finally tamped down by science, the only weapon we have in this war? I don’t yet. But I’m determined to find out.
The hardest thing about coronavirus in New York is the paradox we live with in every moment. We are trying to find sources of comfort, to stay productive and helpful, and to remain calm. And, all around us, we see so many of our neighbors struggling. In yoga, we often contemplate how to be present with suffering and not succumb to it. I never imagined I would have to test my practice in this way.
First, the facts:
The Phineas update:
Inspiring quote of the day:
“Nothing in nature lives for itself. Rivers don’t drink their own water. Tress don’t eat their own fruit. The sun doesn’t shine for itself. A flower’s fragrance is not for itself. Living for each other is the rule of nature.” ~Unknown
I’m so grateful to the artists doing what they can to lift people’s spirits during this tough time. This one by the Toronto Symphony is stunning: the wonder of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It reminds for what we’re fighting for and why it’s so important to stay home to stop the spread.
Since I’m in NYC, which is currently ground zero of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic, I decided to write daily nighttime logs for a few reasons:
1.) I wanted to give you a glimpse into life here;
2.) What’s happening in NYC now could happen in cities around the country at some point so this might serve as a ray of hope for you to see how someone gets through this;
3.) Some of the information about what’s happening here isn’t accurate so I wanted to give you a first-hand look at life here and someone to whom you can ask questions;
4.) Writing has always helped me to work through difficulty and I expect these weeks and months will be no exception
I don’t know what will come of this set of posts. My hope is that at the end of this that it proves to be fruitless because nothing happens and we quickly resume our daily activities. I don’t think that will be true, and I really hope I’m completely wrong. Time will tell.
I’ll always give you the tough news first, then move into hopeful and helpful moments, and finally give an update on my quarantine buddy—my dog, Phineas. I’ll end with an inspiring quote that helped me today.
So here’s what life’s like for me right now, what I’m thinking, and how I’m feeling:
The Phineas update:
Inspiring quote of the day:
“If you feel like you’re losing everything, remember that trees lose their leaves every year and they still stand tall and wait for better days to come.” ~Unknown
I hope you’re all well and safe in these ever-changing times.
I have some good news in the midst of a lot of difficulty: I made it into the second round of the Sundance 2020 Episodic Lab program with a TV pilot that I wrote. I’ll know by August if I’ll be invited to their Lab in October. Just making it to the second round feels wonderful.With all the tough news in my city of New York, this is a bit of light and I’m so grateful.
Special thanks to John Bucher, Script Pipeline, Ruth Sabin, ScreenCraft, Ed Freeman, F.J. Lennon, and Ken Lacovara for their invaluable notes on my scripts and their endless stream of encouragement for my writing.