During the uncertain first months of quarantine, ELLE.com asked several novelists to chronicle their new normal with a tribute to the person helping them get by. The results—heartfelt and harrowing—are presented here as a grateful salute to those who kept the world spinning in the year’s darkest moments.
At the end of 2018, I lost a very good friend to cancer. The grief was like its own quarantine—people could see me through its glass, but it felt like no one could touch me or even hear my voice. There was no way out of it but to go through it. As I stared down the long months ahead, I wasn’t sure how I’d recover.
Six months after my friend died, I still struggled with my daily tasks. I had trouble being present with my kids, who were four and one. I had to set aside the novel I was writing because I couldn’t focus. Some of the people closest to me shared that it was difficult to be my friend. All these little losses added to the weight of a bigger loss, and my body was drowning beneath the weight of them.
I needed my body to move, but I didn’t know how.
I took dance classes when I was young, and I always found that it was the best way for my heart to speak when my mouth couldn’t find the words. So I scrolled through YouTube last spring, hoping to find some kind of dance workout that would be fun for me while entertaining my children. I stumbled across an easy-to-follow dance video for “Womanizer” by Britney Spears, performed and choreographed by this young guy named Caleb, who called himself The Fitness Marshall, and two of his friends. They were welcoming and goofy, not to mention incredible dancers.
I hadn’t laughed so much since before my friend passed away. Within three minutes I understood something I hadn’t before: If I wanted to care for my body, I needed to laugh first. After “Womanizer” finished, my son asked to do it again. Then we did a different dance, and another, and another.
The next day, my son wanted to do “the real Marshall Arts” again, which is what he calls Caleb. We’ve danced with The Fitness Marshall almost every day since. He’s become an important part of daily life in our house, even though we don’t know him, and the gifts he gives us have become even more vital since the pandemic began.
I am not a scheduled mom. It’s too much to think about weekly routines for my kids in conjunction with working to launch my first novel while also writing another one. The single anchor in our day is our half-hour dance session with Caleb right after breakfast. To me, this counts as P.E., an extracurricular class, and even a spelling lesson if Fergie is on the playlist that day. One of the most impressive things about the Fitness Marshall is how much free material he has. You could dance for a week straight and not repeat a song. He choreographs the dances himself, films them himself, and edits them along with his best friend Haley and his boyfriend Cameron, both of whom often appear in his videos.
My family takes turns choosing the songs—right now my daughter usually picks “Taki Taki” by DJ Snake, while my son’s favorite has always been “R.I.P.” by Sofia Reyes. My favorite service The Fitness Marshall provides, though, is a weekly sweat session that lasts for either a half hour or a full hour. Often you can join it live, or you can simply watch it when you have time, even months later. Every session features a fresh playlist. Before the pandemic, Caleb and Haley filmed the sweat sessions in a large open space with a brick background, but since quarantine began he’s been shooting them in his apartment. The sweat sessions are about $16 a month, and once I signed up, I never thought about going back to a gym again.
Caleb and Haley recently started their own podcast, and in the first episode they talked about how lonely it can be to film these videos week after week, because it’s hard to visualize anyone on the other side of the lens. Maybe it’s because I haven’t truly seen anyone outside my immediate family in weeks, but hearing that gutted me a little. No one can escape the dreaded feeling of isolation anymore. Even so, Caleb’s is the friendly face we’ve seen every day since mid-March. My therapist encouraged me to find new ways to be present with my loved ones when physical presence isn’t possible—and that’s exactly what Caleb is doing for so many. He lets himself feel a little lonely every week so we don’t have to be.
I remember one sweat session a few months ago, when Caleb’s new pants split down the crotch right at the beginning of the warm-up. Haley and Cameron belly-laughed so hard they had to step off-camera before they could continue. It gave me the impression that they’d be dancing together, just as they were, whether they had an audience or not. Watching them reminds me to laugh with the people I love, in whatever ways we can right now.
It’s this shared joy that keeps me going back to Caleb’s workouts, even though I love the music and the choreography. He’s been very open across his social media channels about his history with anxiety, and how it plays out in his daily life. He has never pretended to be happy all the time. One thing quarantine has taught me is that if I short-change my grief, I’ll also short-change my joy. They are not opposites—they’re partners. Having a daily dance session with Caleb has created a space where I can work through whatever feelings come that day—despair, frustration, hope—often with my kids within three feet of me. It’s no small miracle to feel like I’ve gotten a private moment when there are so few to be had.
Oh, and if you’d like to give The Fitness Marshall a try, here’s a playlist of some of my favorite songs.
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