"I could lie motionless in the middle of the mess, finally able to stay afloat, at least for a little while."—Alice Nguyen

In the Middle of the Mess

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the Washington University in St. Louis chancellor announced in an email to all students the closure of residential housing and a transition to online education in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The university’s decision echoes similar responses from universities nationwide. The announcement came when many students were away for Spring Break, and prohibited students from returning to St. Louis to retrieve their belongings. Everyone who remained on campus had to pack and leave by Sunday, March 15—a four-day move-out notice. 

Chaos ensued. WashU later announced a plan for collecting and shipping priority items to students’ homes, but at the time everything was uncertain. Many students panicked, having left their medicines, laptops, and course materials at their campus residence. The university briefly revoked students’ access to campus by disabling key cards, but quickly returned access due to the volume of complaints.

I had been living on campus. The day of the announcement, I started packing up without knowing where to go. Without a permanent home in the United States, I had the options of staying with distant relatives in America, traveling back to Vietnam to be with my family, or renting an apartment to stay in St. Louis. As I frantically gathered and stuffed articles of clothing into a suitcase, I ran through in my head the costs these options would incur––three- and four-figure numbers that I was not prepared to pay. That evening, I made ten phone calls to my parents, three to one and seven to the other, since they were divorced and living in different time zones, to discuss the finances and risks involved. Without a safe and financially viable solution, all I could do was tear my posters off the wall, stack my books into boxes, and gather my clothes into a giant heap. At one point, I remember plopping down onto the floor, drowning in the middle of that big, scattered mess, half awaiting a divine messenger to rescue me from my impasse. 

I had just shipped my boxes to storage when electronic intervention arrived the next day in my WUSTL inbox: the Office of Residential Life had approved my Late Stay Request, meaning I could stay in WashU housing until the end of the semester. This was my best low-cost option; and so I took it, even though it meant being apart from my family. Upon receiving the news, I reached for my phone and dialed my parents for another round of thirty-minute calls. This time, however, I could lie motionless in the middle of the mess, finally able to stay afloat, at least for a little while. 

Fast forward to April 2. I have returned my clothes to my closet and my books to my desk. I have had my first few Zoom meetings, submitted two essays, and written a few online discussion posts. My internship with CAM continues remotely: just last week I crafted two paper collages as part of CAM’s Art At Home series, which I found to be a source of solace. I have learned a few recipes; cooking my favorite Vietnamese dishes alleviates homesickness and keeps me occupied. I started journaling again as well, hoping to gain some clarity in this time of uncertainty. Like many others, I use this time to catch up with loved ones (virtually of course) and pursue projects big and small, picking up loose ends, mending jagged edges, trying to weave out something close, or perhaps close enough, to beauty, from these endless rotations that have become the fabric of my reality. 

Boredom, in these extraordinary times, is a privilege and a blessing in disguise. Despite the immobility of quarantine life, at times I felt lighter and freer, having been suddenly released from the hustle of life-from-before. I revel in an amplitude of space amid a multitude of fears. 

Alice Nguyen