what i learned

‘We’d Never Been Alone Together in One Place’

The Cut spoke to the busy and famous about what they’ve learned about their loved ones in quarantine.

Blackout series. Illustration: Jules Julien
Blackout series. Illustration: Jules Julien

An early trope of self-isolation was about Shakespeare allegedly writing King Lear during quarantine. Predictably, the idea of being productive in lockdown was thoroughly overcome with backlash. Intensifying health fears, the evaporation of child care, the disappearance of jobs — none of it seemed primed to inspire a new five-act play. This doesn’t mean, however, that excessively creative people aren’t learning and growing right now. Like us, they are spending more time at home with beloved parents, partners, children, plants, and dogs, getting to know them just a bit better than before. Below, quarantined comedians, writers, actors, directors, producers, and designers tell the Cut what they’ve learned from seeing loved ones in a whole new light.

I Learned You’re a Very Patient Skateboard Instructor
—Mitra Jouhari, Comedian

I’ve learned (or, rather, confirmed) that my boyfriend is a lot more patient with me than I am with myself. He is so encouraging and is constantly (gently) reminding me that no one is expecting me to be a professional skateboarder after approximately three combined hours of skating. When I make a mistake (a.k.a. fall on my ass), he picks me up, then sweetly points out the technique I disregarded because I was too busy trying to do cool shit that I have no business trying to do, and then doesn’t take it personally when I brush him off and go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah — I know, I know” (I didn’t know). Ultimately, he also looks very hot when he skateboards, which is a nice plus. It’s fulfilling some serious junior-high fantasies to watch my 32-year-old boyfriend zoom around on a skateboard doing tricks while I struggle to maintain my balance on a barely moving plank of wood. I am grateful that every time I look at him and scream “AM I DOING OKAY?!,” he knows that I desperately need him to offer instant, earnest, varied affirmations or else I will disintegrate into a million tiny pieces.

I Learned Some of My Friends Think This Is About Them
—Karamo Brown, TV host

One of the things I’ve learned about people I know and the world at large is that narcissism is real. You know the song that goes “You probably think this song is about you”? I think that is the realest song right now. I saw a post recently where someone said, “Think about the people who were calling you during the quarantine, because those are your real friends after the scene is done.” This happened within my social circle, too. And I was like, Oh my gosh, do you really think this quarantine is about you? You’re measuring people’s friendship on whether you got a call during a time when they’re grieving and trying to process their own emotions? People need to check their egos.

I Learned You Have a Higher Domestic Standard Than I Do
—June Diane Raphael, Actor

My husband and I have been tested in terms of how we equitably create a day here. So much of what women are doing is not just the actual caretaking of children and elderly parents but also the emotional labor — just holding the household in one’s mind at all times and not being able to turn that off. I’m learning that my husband definitely has a higher standard for things being clean than I do. I am much more comfortable saying, “I’m not interested in dusting during this time. I just busted my ass all day and homeschooled and responded to emails and worked and did a table read. And then my reward at the end of the day is to do dishes and clean the kitchen for two hours?” We’ve had many conversations about it. It’s sort of like, “What’s working this week?” It’s evolving. Paul and I have decided whoever’s taking care of children is doing the harder job.

I Learned My Grandmother’s More Active Than Me
—Niall Horan, Musician 

I always knew that my dad is quite fit and was a well-known sporting figure in our small hometown, but the older he’s become, the better he has kept himself. He’s turning 60 years old in July and is still managing to cycle nearly 25 miles a day. My mum’s been doing her 14,000 steps whilst pulling weeds in the garden and keeping well. Which takes me on to my Nanny. Where do I start with this lady? Margaret Nolan turns 90 this August, and she is a super-soldier. She is younger than her years, likes to get out and about. My cousin got her a new phone at the start of the lockdown and taught her how to use WhatsApp video. She’s better at technology than me, and she’s 64 years my senior. When I called her last week, she was painting her garage door!

I Learned You’re an Incredible Playtime Parent
—Audra McDonald, Actor

I’ve always loved the way my husband’s imagination runs wild when he’s playing with our daughter, but to watch it while we’re in quarantine has been really incredible. On days that I get mom-burnout, he jumps in. One day, my neighbor asked me, “Did you see what your husband and your daughter are up to?” They were in our yard and had pulled out the kayak and were having an adventure. They put on the life jackets and everything and went on this huge kayak adventure in our flat yard. That was very moving. I would never have been able to come up with that.

I Learned About a New iPhone Feature, Thanks to My Mom
—Regina Hall, Actor

I just bought my mom an iPhone. It’s not going well. Somehow she messed up the password, just recently, and managed to unlock a feature that I didn’t even know existed. When you keep putting the wrong code in, you actually are able to lock yourself out of your phone, disable it. It assumes someone’s trying to break in. So that was a feature my assistant actually looked up. My mom doesn’t know how to text message either. But hey, it’s new and we’re going to get better.

I Learned Our Relationship Is Even Better in Close Quarters
—Bellamy Young, Actor

Before the world changed, my sweetheart, Pedro, and I had never spent more than a week or two together consecutively. He lives in London; I live in L.A. He is a percussionist, so a lot of his time is spent on the road; I am an actor and similarly go wherever a job takes me. We’ve been dating almost three years now, and though we’ve had many incredible adventures all around the globe, we’d never been alone together in one place. NYC has always had my heart, and now it was sheltering us. The first few weeks were like other visits: romantic and playful and distracting, in the way that time together is when you know it will end soon. But after three weeks, it all shifted. We were gonna have to get real to face the ever-changing abyss ahead of us. Not that we hadn’t been real, we were just being the best version of ourselves. Now we needed to show it all.

As we shifted, I was relieved to realize that it all just got better. I got to see parts of him I never knew. How HARD he works almost every hour of every day. Last night, he was reading to me in bed as we were falling asleep, and he came across the word painstakingly. Pedro is Portuguese, and English is his fifth language, so some words are still new to him. But I thought, What a perfect word for you, my love. You work your heart out at everything you do. 

I Learned How Committed My Mom Is to Her Own Mother
—Shangela, Drag queen and entertainer 

I’ve been quarantining in Paris, Texas, at my grandmother’s house for the last two months. This is the most time I’ve spent here since I was 18 years old. Being here has shown me what a commitment it is to take care of an elderly parent. My mom takes care of my grandmother, who’s in a wheelchair. Being here on a daily basis, seeing what is all entailed in this, has given me an even greater respect for my mom’s dedication. I’ve always helped out financially, but the actual labor involved — I see what a commitment it truly is. It makes me want to engage, to be more hands-on in helping her. It’s also taught me to have great patience. Before, she’d tell me how she didn’t get certain things done in a day. I was like, “How did you not get this done? You were home all day.” Now I understand: Just because she’s home all day does not mean that she has an amazing amount of free time.

I Learned That I’m With the Person I’m Supposed to Be With
—Bobby Berk, TV host

My husband and I have been together for 16, almost 17, years. So I’m thinking, Is there anything that I’ve learned about him in quarantine that I didn’t already know? And there’s not. We know each other so well. He has proven to be the patient, wonderful, loving, kind person that he always is. Throughout our relationship, we’ve spent a lot of time apart. I had my own retail stores for about ten years and, obviously, for Queer Eye, I was always on the road. So I was a little worried. For the first time in years, we’re going to be with each other 24 hours, seven days a week, and for quite a while. It was really nice to see that the key to our relationship was not that we just don’t see each other that much; it’s that we’re the right people for each other. It’s been nice having that reconfirmed: that we really do get along, and we really do enjoy each other’s company. We’re just really comfortable with each other. He still chews too loud. I’m stubborn. But other than that, it’s perfect.

I Learned How Hard Seedlings Work to Stay Alive
—Zac Posen, Creative Director, Brooks Brothers Women’s

I’ve been gardening a lot, learning the patience of nature, starting seeds, and having to be patient for three months until they’re ready to plant. I’ve always loved to garden, but I’ve never been able to be in one place and see a whole season of spring growth. I have a new appreciation for all those little seedlings that you see in a plant store and what it takes to keep away the weather, the bugs, the disease that a plant can get. You just cannot control nature.

I Learned Just How Homesick I Am
—Bruna Papandrea, Producer

I went into isolation on March 11. It was around then that I got a call in the middle of the night that my brother-in-law had died suddenly. That event, and everything happening in the world, has made me reconnect with family in a big way. Most of my family is in Australia. This death was just so shocking. He was 45. I don’t think we’ve grieved yet.  Honestly, I don’t think it will start till we can all be together in Australia. I’ve never missed Australia more than right now.

I Learned Just How Unconditional Janet’s Love Is
—Janicza Bravo, Director 

About a week ago, during a fitful night of sleep, my dog, Janet, came from the foot of the bed to my side. She nestled her head in the gap between my waist and hip. As I lay in bed awake with her on me, I thought about how she’s never really ever gotten mad at me. Really mad. The kind of mad where eyes can’t meet. I scanned through the last 11 years of our relationship, as anyone would between the hours of 4 and 5 a.m. She’s been frustrated, sure. Bored? Absolutely. Sour? Often. Merry? Often. Devoted? Always. I’m sorry. I am sorry for all the times I’ve lost patience. For all of the times I wouldn’t allow for the luxury of smelling urine-soaked roses. For all of the times I’ve rolled my eyes because the perfect spot for shitting takes a minimum of 15 blocks to cultivate. She has never once raised her voice at me … well, only when insisting that I play with her more, which is reasonable. And sometimes for table scraps — also reasonable. She is my love, my constant, my peak. A psychic once said, after I referred to Janet as my daughter, “She doesn’t see it that way; she sees you as her counterpart.”

I Learned That a House Is Not a Home
—Sam Lansky, Writer and editor 

At the start of the pandemic, I paced around my apartment, which suddenly looked different under the spotlight of my judgment. I’d thought of painting the walls, but never had, and now their blankness infuriated me. I emptied out the hall closets, sorting and organizing things. In the walk-in, there were built-in shelves too high for me to reach, where I had stored things from my life in New York when I’d first moved in — mementos from the last serious relationship I was in, things that saddened me to look at but saddened me more to throw away, even after so many years. I thought I would have made that apartment a home — and better, if I’d known my world would shrink to the size of it. I kept the blinds drawn. When I FaceTimed with a friend wearing a turtleneck, she laughed; it was 90 degrees and sunny outside, she said — not that I ever would have known. I left for occasional grocery runs, but the sight of barren shelves and the shoppers, their eyes anxious behind masks, haunted me for days after. My apartment depressed me, but at least it felt fixed, like a variable I could control. The world outside felt unsafe. Several weeks in, something snapped inside me: The darkness of the day, the darkness of my mood, and the darkness of the news felt like a death grip. I was helpless and hopeless, desperate to see anything other than my same old things and my same old apartment. Then, feeling stupid for not having thought of it sooner, I remembered: the roof. I took the stairs up and found that it was sunset, all of Los Angeles glazed in amber light. I crossed to the other end of the roof and looked out over the city, realizing that I was home. I took a deep breath. I was grateful.

I Learned My Support System Is Small But Mighty
—Stella Meghie, Director 

I’ve learned that my phone doesn’t actually ring more than it needs to — that I’m probably a good candidate for a lockdown based on my ability to pare things down. I’m a minimalist at heart. The small circle of wonderful and weird people that do actually call me are a perfect fit.

I’ve learned that my friends are gracious and pretend to enjoy TikToks I’ve captured and sent to them. My WhatsApp group chat keeps me going with inspirational images and a little gossip to get us through the midafternoon slump. Layne always takes my call — when she doesn’t, I text her threateningly to find out why she’s not picking up, which thankfully makes her laugh — and listens to me talk obsessively about Whitney Houston. I rarely talk about the actual pandemic unless I’m talking to Simone. My Aunt Jean always calls to tell me I’m looking good after generously sending heart eyes to all my exercise photos on Instagram. I’m lucky in my small world. In a very hard time, I have a very good group around me.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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‘We’d Never Been Alone Together in One Place’