Mary Poindexter Mclaughlin: “Cowardice and Courage”
This is why I hid for so long.
Forgive me, but I’m a little lost. All of my guideposts have disappeared, and the landscape is unfamiliar.
Allow me to explain.
For all of my adult life, I’ve been part of a community. Living in New York City, I had a few groups: the Theatre Crowd — wannabe actors and writers who took classes together and cast one another in shows; the SAT Preppers — tutors who helped Manhattan’s elite children get into the best colleges, who all worked for the same miserable woman and bonded over her lack of morals; and the Homies — friends from high school or college who had come to NYC to follow their passions.
My social life wasn’t glamorous, but at least I had one.
Then I had kids, and the social scene shifted dramatically. Once they were school-age, we moved so that they could have a Waldorf education. I remember vividly the first potluck at the school, thinking “I have found my people!” Like us, lots of other families didn’t have a television, spent time outdoors, and cared about organic food. Like us, they wanted arts at the center of their children’s lives. Like us, they voted for Obama.
Even when we moved to a different place, so that I could take a job as Administrator of a Waldorf school and our kids could be closer to family, once again it seemed we had instant community: like-minded people with similar backgrounds and values surrounded us.
Together, we cheered at the soccer matches and basketball tournaments; we sat in the audience and applauded after plays and concerts; we participated in fundraisers and volunteered on committees; we brought each other soup. I felt needed, accepted, and appreciated.
When our kids went on to the local high school, much of the same community remained. The frequency of contact diminished, but the warmth still radiated — even when I left my job as Administrator and enrolled in a new masters program in theatre performance studies. I was ready to return to the world of creativity and the dramatic arts.
There, I formed another tight little group — my diverse cohort of seven clung to one another big time, in order to retain some semblance of ourselves-as-artists amidst too much theory and not enough practice. (More on that in another essay.)
After graduation, I did a yoga teacher training course, and started teaching at a local yoga studio, while at the same time I met more theatre artists in Buffalo. As my kids left the nest one by one, I worked my way into the theatre scene. I was hired to work on projects. I made friends. I created a writer’s group.
And then 2020 arrived.
At first, I just hunkered down like everyone else. I took the opportunity of solitude to write a massive history play in Elizabethan prose and iambic pentameter. Every two weeks I brought a few more scenes to the writer’s group, which met on Zoom, like every other writer’s group during that time.
By the beginning of 2021 I had finished a first draft, and asked one of my theatre friends (I’ll call her Sally) to direct a reading. She happily agreed, and we put together a cast list.
Also by the beginning of 2021, I had become more and more disillusioned with the whole covid narrative. Things weren’t adding up. Why, if this thing was as virulent as they were saying it was, weren’t there bodies in the streets? Why didn’t I know a single person who had died?
I dug into charts and data from the CDC, to try to understand the metrics used to determine percentages of covid deaths and how they compared to deaths by other illnesses — heart disease, for example, or diabetes. I looked at age ranges, obesity, underlying conditions. I read studies about masks. I read anything I could get my hands on about viruses and immunity, and how they interact.
The more I read, the more I found myself agreeing with my husband, who hadn’t believed any official government story since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and wasn’t buying this one, either.
We didn’t see eye to eye on everything, but one thing was super-clear to us both: neither of us trusted Big Pharma, and neither of us was willing to get vaccinated. During our children’s upbringing, we had only allowed them the bare minimum of immunizations, relying on blood titers to show immunity for many diseases.
In fact, that was one of the common beliefs we had shared with many in the Waldorf community. The theatre community… not so much.
As July of 2021 approached, Sally and I worked out the details of my play reading. I had suggested we do the reading outdoors at a park, to allow everyone to feel comfortable without masks. I told her I didn’t want to see my play read by a bunch of faceless actors. Too much would be lost. She agreed.
What I didn’t say, was that I didn’t want to wear a mask indoors myself.
Two weeks before the date, Sally contacted me. “I checked out the park. I don’t think it’s going to work — there’s just too much ambient noise, and what if it rains?”
Before I could think of a helpful response, she continued: “But I have great news! I contacted the (Insert Name Here) theatre, and they’re happy to let us use their space! I’ve booked it for the same time and date.”
Stunned, all I could do was thank her and hang up. Sure enough, within the hour, there was an email in my inbox to all ten of us, explaining the venue change and including something to the effect of: “Since we will be indoors, please wear a mask if you’re unvaccinated. I’m sure we all have loved ones we want to protect.”
My heart raced. I was stuck. If I wore a mask, I’d be telegraphing to ten theatre people whom I had worked so hard to befriend that I was NOT ONE OF THEM. If I didn’t wear it, I’d be lying.
The day loomed, getting closer and closer. I didn’t know what to do. I was losing sleep every night, trying to figure out what the “right” thing to do was. I wanted to talk it over with my friends, but who? The Waldorf people who had all gotten the shot? The yoga community who’d done the same, and posted themselves on Facebook with stickers proving it? My theatre friends, many of whom were participating in the reading?
A theatre friend who lives miles and miles away from Buffalo, and who also decided she didn’t want the shot, gave me this nugget: “Who gave her the right to make that decision for everyone, including you? She’s not a doctor. It’s your play, your reading. Do whatever you feel is right, and don’t feel guilty.”
On the day of, I still didn’t know what I was going to do. I decided I would do what felt right, in the moment. I knew I wasn’t sick, so that was a plus. I drove to the theatre, parked, and carried in a case of water, sweating profusely all the way.
At the door, Sally greeted me warmly and welcomed me in, but kept her distance. And that was that. I didn’t put on a mask. I didn’t say anything about it. As the other actors arrived, I did the same as Sally — a warm hello, from afar.
It felt lousy.
After the event, I realized it wasn’t guilt that I felt; it was sheepishness. I had chosen safety over integrity, and I was disappointed in myself for it. I knew I was wanting to preserve my working relationship with all of these people by pretending I shared their beliefs.
I had never done that before. I had always spoken up — gently, usually — to share my opinion, even when it was not the prevailing ideology. But this time I caved, and it felt… well, lousy.
That feeling drove me to pull away entirely from the theatre scene. That, and the fact that no one who was unvaccinated could attend or work there. I quietly slipped away, not confronting the artistic director I knew quite well, or the other professionals.
I considered writing an impassioned letter to state my beliefs, but then reconsidered, attempting to preserve a possible future working relationship.
I felt strange, separate, and othered: from former Waldorf colleagues and friends, from local shopkeepers, even from my family (not my husband or kids, thank god). My sister, who had always generously helped me financially, withdrew her support, saying I was alien to her. Indeed.
At my very lowest and loneliest, I miraculously connected with two like-minded souls whom I had known from Waldorf. The three of us got together regularly, to remind one another of our basic sanity, and in time, we expanded to include others, holding potlucks to organize and foster community. We called ourselves United for Health Freedom. It became a lifeline.
Over time, as New York State loosened its grip and what we perceived as an imminent threat diminished, the group’s purpose shifted. It became less activist, more festive.
Once again, I had a social life. A small but vital one.
Eventually, despite the somewhat-more relaxed regulations, my husband and I still decided to leave New York. Our reasons were stage-of-life-related, financial, and yes, political. We no longer had faith that New York was operating in the best interests of its residents. Case in point: after the proposed “Covid Camps” bill was pulled from legislative consideration due to massive public outcry, Governor Hochul turned it into a regulation instead.
Attorney Bobbie Anne Cox sued Hochul and the State of New York, and won: the state Supreme Court ruled that the regulation was unconstitutional. So what did Hochul do? She launched an appeal. That’s right. She collected the exorbitant taxes we paid to the state, and used them to fund an attempt to overthrow the will of the people of New York.
We were done. We sold the house, moved to Florida, and here I am, a woman without a tribe:
A former staunch Democrat who now votes Independent, Green, and Republican — depending on the issue and the office.
A mostly-vegetarian in a land of meat eaters.
A theatre artist who is not welcome in the theatre.
A spirit-seeker in the midst of materialism.
A pro-choicer among pro-lifers.
A lifelong northerner amid palm trees.
Yet I love it here. I love the relaxed, friendly vibe, the beach, the sun on my face, and the sense of freedom. It’s palpable here. No one asks if I’m vaccinated. No one seems to care. Well, except for theatre people, probably. I haven’t darkened any theatre doors yet.
I also love that The Art of Freedom was born here. The idea for it fell into my heart when I came here looking for a house, at the very end of 2021. This place made me feel secure enough to launch a publication devoted to freedom of all sorts — political, emotional, and spiritual.
It has taken me this long to feel my way into its highest purpose, and be courageous enough to fulfill it. Part of why I wrote this essay was to come clean, as it were. To open a portal to the hidden inner struggle of shame that propelled me into launching this Substack… and let the light shine in.
Honesty is setting me free, I can feel it even as I type. Freedom seems rather necessary to write The Art of Freedom, no? Freedom from shame, from loss of approval, from fear itself.
So as I move forward, here’s what I hope to accomplish.
I have always been a bridge-builder, a person who facilitates connection in the midst of conflict, who reaches for consensus rather than majority domination.
I’m still committed to building bridges, even at this time of our evolution when it seems that almost everyone else is burning them down. If you’re looking for polemics, you won’t find them here, though I believe they have their place. My mission has always been to invite black and white to step together into grey.
Yet I’m also committed to sharing what I see, as honestly as I can, and with as much compassion and tenderness as I am capable of.
To the theatre community in Buffalo — I’m sorry I didn’t speak my mind. I wish I had. Maybe there are others there who could have benefitted from hearing my point of view. As I have found forgiveness for my cowardice, I hope you can, too, and chalk it up to fear.
And to my Substack community — I hope you will be inspired and lifted by what you read here. If what I believe is not what you want to hear, feel free to unsubscribe with my blessings and my gratitude for the time we’ve spent together.
If, instead, you find that this place brings you to a greater understanding of what it means to be human, and free, then I humbly ask that you share it with others, so that our community may grow and thrive.
Welcome to my tribe.
Creative expression to inspire human resilience and connect with divine freedom.