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'This is a collective experience’: How Baltimore’s creative class practices self-care during coronavirus pandemic

DJ James Nasty says he's using this time of social distancing in the coronavirus era to take it easy, cook more and get some reading done.

Despite what your social media feeds and e-meets with friends and colleagues may suggest, there is no right way to emotionally handle the coronavirus pandemic. Keeping your mental health in check can be difficult in even the best of times, let alone one ruled by chaos and dread.

Public health experts aren’t the only perspectives to learn from right now. People in the arts, restaurants and other parts of the creative class find meaning in chaos every single day. We consulted several Baltimore creatives to see how they’re dealing with this unprecedented moment.

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Amy Langrehr, Food blogger

Amy Langrehr has used the quarantine as an opportunity to go diving — in her pantry. The blogger behind Charm City Cook has been preparing comfort food dishes like buttery egg noodles with kielbasa and peas, and white bean soup with garlicky toast, all from items she happens to have on hand in her Whitehall Mill apartment.

Not every dish turns out Instagram picture-perfect, says Langrehr, who directs marketing and development for the GreenMount School. Just the other night she was making pasta puttanesca. She didn’t have anchovies, so she googled substitutions and used sardines instead. “It was not good. Not at all.”

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Her advice to home cooks? “Try to have the best ingredients you possibly can and very few of them.” She’s a fan of frozen cod from Trader Joe’s — it’s versatile and easy to cook — chickpeas and fresh herbs for every occasion. “Herbs are going to save your dish.” She also loves using leftover ingredients like chicken and vegetables to create stocks. “The feeling of not wasting food is my favorite thing in the whole world.”

Langrehr has also done her part to support local businesses, ordering fresh seafood from JJ McDonell and CSA boxes from Chesapeake Farm to Table. She’s also been ordering fresh flowers, a small indulgence for a troubled time. With just one bouquet of bright blooms to liven up her apartment, “I feel better.”

Arli Lima, Food blogger

Arli Lima’s Instagram account is a mosaic of delicious things she’s consumed at Baltimore restaurants, from gooey macaroni and cheese to bright green cocktails garnished with a lemon.

With restaurants mostly closed and her evenings suddenly free, she’s been going for long walks through downtown Baltimore and Mt. Vernon. Now that the streets are mostly empty, Lima has a chance to notice things that ordinarily escape her attention.

“I’m always amazed to see the cherry blossoms up close.” She loves to see the petals fall to the ground.

The pandemic, she says, “was a much needed break that I didn’t know that I needed.”

DJ and entrepreneur James Nasty talks about some of the hot sauces he produces. He said he's using these uncertain times to relax, cook and take it easy.
DJ and entrepreneur James Nasty talks about some of the hot sauces he produces. He said he's using these uncertain times to relax, cook and take it easy. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

James Nasty, DJ

Many DJs had their livelihoods almost completely shut down when the pandemic forced gig cancellations and postponements. Heralded Baltimore DJ James Nasty wasn’t one of them, which is lucky for him.

“I’m not really worried about income right now,” he said. “This is probably one of the biggest things that I hope artists can learn from me, and I’ve kind of preached to artists in this town for a while: live performance income is not the only income you can rely on, and shouldn’t be.”

Nasty, who also books shows for North Ave. Market and runs Jones Falls Sauce Company, noted that he’s able to depend on income from licensing songs and related sources. Instead, the pandemic has pushed him to focus on “refreshing and recharging.”

“I’ve been a full-time musician since 2012, and also a full-time entrepreneur, so I’ve been using this time, honestly, just to take a break and reconnect with being a person,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of hiking, and just taking my time and cooking at home.”

Rob Savillo (left) performs with bandmates Erica Burgner-Hannum (right) and Terence Hannum (background) as The Holy Circle.
Rob Savillo (left) performs with bandmates Erica Burgner-Hannum (right) and Terence Hannum (background) as The Holy Circle. (Derek Rush/Courtesy of of re:nü gatherings)

Terence Hannum and Erica Burgner-Hannum, The Holy Circle

The couple that forms two thirds of the dark electronic trio The Holy Circle are dealing with a lot of moving parts right now. As full-time educators, they’re navigating the switch to teaching online. They also balance this with the responsibilities of parenting their 8- and 11-year-old children.

“We’ve had to try to start to draw some boundaries about when we’re going to be online working, and when we’re going to spend time together [as a family],” Burgner-Hannum said. That said, creating separation between the various roles they occupy (including as artists themselves) isn’t easy. The Holy Circle recently put a demo together to shop to labels; while this pandemic coincides with a break they’d planned to take, concerns about when they can go on the road and play the new material remain.

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Budgeting time for making and engaging with art, whether it’s listening to records or painting or writing in journals, has helped them stay sane.

“For both of us, listening to the thing we made and talking about it, talking with Rob [Savillo, their bandmate in The Holy Circle] about new ideas and sending each other little demos, that’s kept us still optimistically creative,” Hannum said. The pair also noted that abandoning notions of a fixed schedule helped them incorporate creativity into their daily life. “Recognizing that maybe working in some time to go back and forth between my job and doing something creatively is probably really important for my mental and emotional health,” Burgner-Hannum said.

Joy Postell.
Joy Postell. (David "Wavey" Anderson III/Courtesy of Joy Postell)

Joy Postell, singer

R&B songstress Joy Postell, like many artists, had key opportunities threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic. For her, they’ve included a speaking engagement at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and a show at the Ottobar. She admitted to having “moments of panic” towards the crisis’ beginnings.

Now, however, she’s taken the time to both stay grounded and be productive. Her natural introversion has made what could be a more stifling time into something actually productive. She had recently put a lot of work into her upcoming album; now she gets to shift her energy to photo and video treatments, sitting with the music and other planning.

“The timing kind of worked a little bit for me to be still for a second, because I’ve been working a lot, and now I’m sitting with everything I’ve been working on,” she said.

Postell also makes time to skateboard and otherwise be outside for her mental health. Practicing daily gratitude helps her through all these endeavors. “I try to make sure I’m tapped in on my spiritual side,” she said. “I’m remaining grateful. If I start my day by saying ‘Thank you,’ it just sets the tone for, ‘Okay, things are going on, but there’s something to be grateful about.’”

She encouraged others to maintain and build support systems during this time. “Don’t be afraid to reach out, pick up the phone,” she said. “This is a collective experience.”

Mani Marino.
Mani Marino. (Olivia Camille)

Mani Marino, rapper/singer

The anxiety that Mani Marino feels around COVID-19 largely revolves around going to crowded stores and concern for older family members.

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“I’m my mom’s only child, and we have a really, really strong relationship,” she said. “She’s a woman who’s in her 50s, in decent health but, I would say, in some ways, immunocompromised. Just thinking about the possibility of her contracting this virus and what that might mean for her health is something that I’m trying to be really calm about.”

Beyond these worries, the rapper and singer has used this moment to “unplug everything” and focus on herself. “We live in a really fast-paced world with a lot of stimuli, and that can be productive in a lot of ways, but it can also be a little overwhelming at times,” she said. “It’s nice to actually be just with myself and by myself for extended periods of time.”

She advised other artists to lean into uncomfortable emotions and put their most honest selves into their work. For the rest of us, she had the following message: “Understand that this is temporary.”

Kondwani Fidel.
Kondwani Fidel. (Photo by Joe Cardamone.)

Kondwani Fidel, poet

Between working on an MFA thesis, a new book release and other poetry, Kondwani Fidel is often busy in solitude. But he isn’t enjoying having to hole up as much as the pandemic demands.

“It’s a difference from wanting to be in the house to having to be in the house,” the poet and educator said. “You can’t really enjoy the time that you spend alone because you’re just paranoid in a sense. I feel, for me, will somebody in my family catch corona? Or will I catch that s**t?”

Despite those worries, Fidel tries to keep working through the troubles—even if, on some days, the enormity of the pandemic consumes his attention. He said he hoped to start a ritual of waking up early, reading and writing for a few hours before looking at his phone.

“Soon as we wake up in the morning, the large majority of us, we go on social media,” he said, “Before we ever get out the bed…you know exactly how everybody else feel before you even question yourself on how you feel.”

Fidel advised others to use this time to build supports and develop themselves as much as circumstance allows them. “Whatever your passion is, people should be definitely utilizing the time to pursue their passion and just become better at their craft,” he said. “I’m not being insensitive to those people who don’t really have the mental bandwidth to crank out work and read and write and create, because everybody’s mental capacity is different. There’s probably a person who can’t complete their art because now they got their kids 24/7, or they might be kicking out more money, probably picked up an extra job, probably drive for Uber and DoorDash now.”

Anne Tyler, novelist

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and longtime Baltimorean is a master at observing the social dance people engage in while navigating the tensions between the need for privacy and communal life — and during the pandemic, that distance has become more complicated and confusing than ever.

“Isn’t it interesting that nowadays, a sign of goodwill is that when you see a friend in the distance, you cross to the opposite side of the street?” she writes in an email. “(With a wave, of course.)“

On Tuesday the Knopf Doubleday Publishing group released ”Redhead by the Side of the Road“ ($26.95). It’s Tyler’s 23rd novel and like most, is set in Baltimore.

Tyler notes that though the disease has constricted human activity, the relative absence of foot and motor traffic has encouraged wild animals to move more freely about an urban environment than they would normally.

“Yesterday I saw four deer as I walked down Deepdene Road,” Tyler writes.

”And a few blocks further on, I had to step around a robin taking a bath in a puddle, lifting both its wings to wash its underarms. I think the animals are delighted with the pandemic.“

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