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How a little glue, glitter, and old magazines helped me exorcise some pandemic demons

Focusing on making gifts for friends brought some much-needed stress relief in 2021.

The writer and her collages at J.P. Licks in Harvard Square.Adele Traub

Actors are introverts.

Not all actors, but a surprising number. More than I expected, when I got involved in local fringe and community theater a few years back. A self-confident introvert fascinated by interpersonal dynamics — the kind who might write a social advice column, say — can thrive in the theater. Everyone has a clear job. There’s enough backstage downtime to grow friendships through simple proximity, in a way it’s hard to do after college. Opportunities to be low-key helpful to castmates abound, from running lines to lending a bobby pin to bringing greenroom snacks.

Theater was my art, my hobby, and the infrastructure of my social life, until COVID took it away.

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Yes, we introverts suffered too, in spring 2020. Sure, we could stay home without making excuses, but now every conversation — on Zoom or a socially distanced park hang — was one-on-one, face-to-face, and intense. I was lonely and depleted at the same time. I wanted to be in a greenroom again, needlepointing and eavesdropping, surrounded by art and friendship.

I needlepointed in the virtual company of Dean and Sam from Supernatural instead, and posted my projects to a Facebook craft group started by community-theater friends. This led to a bombardment of ads for craft kits, including an irresistible little paint-by-number of a bee in a wee bowler hat carrying a briefcase. I work at Harvard Business School — the “B-school” — and I added its logo to the executive bee’s briefcase, along with some decorative brass studs. I lacquered on a quote from Admiral James Stockdale that meant a lot to my boss, and gave it to him.

Continuing to experiment with embellished paint-by-numbers, I incorporated jewelry, embroidery, and text — words and artifacts and memories of people I love. The way my friend Dany said “Preposterous!” that one time. The copy of The New York Times my cousin Dan gave me at my mother’s funeral, from her birth date in 1933. The 1922 etiquette book Dutch friends bought for me in a Connecticut antique store, over the concerns of the owner who wanted them to know this book would not help them — Americans behaved so differently today. The resin medallion my mother had worn as a child as proof of vaccination.

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As 2020 drew to a close, I was so fiercely proud of my friends — their determination, resilience, creativity, humanity. Gazing upon the year’s worth of unread New Yorkers in despair, I decided to create multimedia pieces for a dozen friends who wanted a memento of that epic time. One of the most important things friends can do is bear witness to each other. I wanted to show Kellie, and Dan, and Naomi, and all the others the strength and beauty and complexity and humor I saw in them.

Reading the magazines at a single go was like reading a Stephen King novel. The first mention of the virus, “something called Zoom,” fears that as many as 100,000 might die, Black Lives Matter protests, counterprotests, evolving conspiracy theories, and the ever, ever rising death toll. The only thing that made it bearable was reading through a dozen pairs of eyes besides my own. I saved covers, clipped art and captions, paragraphs and poems, and sorted the resulting shoebox of material into envelopes labeled Timeline & Death Toll, BLM, White Supremacy & Conspiracy, Lockdown, Vaccine, Environment & Economy, RBG/ACB, Lottery Quotes (Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery was republished on January 27, 2020), DJT, Trebek & Other Celebs, Theater, Virology, Overall Mood, and ??.

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For three months I combined the New Yorker material with beads, embroidery, ribbon, paint — which turned out to be exactly what I needed to do to 2020. Stab it through with red silk floss! Hot-glue a burned matchstick across it! Glitter-dust and cut and paste and fancify with trash and treasure. “The pieces are crude and energetic and angry and loving,” I wrote on the letter that accompanied them. “Each one is a scream and a laugh and a long, powerful hug.”

Until I’m hugging in the greenroom again, and screaming and laughing on the stage, it will do.


Robin Abrahams writes the Miss Conduct column for the Globe Magazine. Her art will be exhibited at the J.P. Licks in Harvard Square through early May. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.


Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.