digital nomads

Jobs, homes, relationships—tens of millions of Americans walked away from their lives after COVID-19 changed the world as we know it. For some, joining the Great Resignation was an opportunity for self-reinvention; for others, a shift in circumstances—from childcare needs to personal safety to mental health struggles. Here, eight women open up about quitting their lives: how it all started and how it’s going now.

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LILIT MARCUS
39, Hong Kong

lilit marcus

The diagnosis came in November 2019: breast cancer, stage IIB. For Lilit, the news was especially gutting. She had moved to Hong Kong from New York just weeks earlier, having scored a coveted job transfer in her role as a CNN travel producer. One moment, she was planning adventures in Bali and Thailand. The next, she was mapping out a partial mastectomy and months of radiation and chemo. She had barely experienced her new life before being dealt another.

Treatment began that January, just as the novel coronavirus was becoming a global concern. Soon, nobody was jetting off to Uluwatu or hitting the town for fun nights with friends. Lilit felt weirdly advanced in having already made peace with these circumstances. Welcome to the “2020 sucks” club. I’ve been here since the start.

Back in her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, Lilit’s parents thought she should come back; they were worried about her health. She tried to imagine crashing with her folks—her driver’s license expired, her old friends no longer around—and knew it wasn’t the move. She had worked too hard for Hong Kong. Hong Kong was her home now.

Although it’s too soon for words like “remission” and “cured,” her care plan is going well. These days, she thinks about cancer the way a lot of people are thinking about COVID-19: as an enduring situation that demands long-term protective adjustment. “It’s not over over,” Lilit says. “But I can manage it. I can have a pretty much normal life, which is really nice.”

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alexis k nelson

ALEXIS NIKOLE NELSON
29, Columbus, Ohio

In the beginning, Alexis wasn’t even thinking about leaving her marketing job. She had supportive managers and a steady paycheck. She had health insurance. Quitting during a pandemic? That would just be reckless.

Then, in April 2020, she made a TikTok about edible garden weeds. It went viral, and Alexis suddenly found herself internet famous. Her following exploded, and so did the demand for fresh content. As the Black Forager, she shared tips for finding and eating wild plants on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Now Alexis had two jobs: Zooming all day for work work, then cultivating her social channels late into the night.

When a rare vacation day was thwarted by a crisis at her marketing gig, Alexis had a breakdown. She realized she’d been so afraid of making a professional leap that she was jeopardizing both pursuits, to say nothing of her mental health. It was time, she knew, to unlearn the feeling that she should be grateful for the opportunity to run herself ragged. One of her jobs had to go. She chose to take a chance on the Black Forager brand she’d created, resigning from her “office” job in October 2021.

"so many of us realized, 'oh my god, we shouldn't have been living like that"—alexis k nelson, 29, columbus, ohio

Since then, things have been…busy. There’s a book deal plus leadership opportunities in the foraging and vegan cooking space. Still, Alexis is wary of burning out, and maybe that’s the most valuable learning she’s had yet. “These days, I get to wake up and be like, Is this adding value to my general existence?” she says. “One day in the future, the answer might be no. And then I’ll do something else.”

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jojo trumbly

JOJO TRUMBLY
29, Spring, Texas

Jojo was an amazing second grade teacher, the kind who collected Pokémon cards and riffed on the wonders of outer space. It wasn’t easy when the world shut down and her classroom shrank to a video grid of little faces. But that was also the week she learned she and her husband were expecting a baby—some happy news amid the hardship.

When summer came and her school district still hadn’t settled on a plan for the fall 2020 term, she started to worry. Would they stay remote? Return to in-person? No one had an answer. But they wanted a decision from Jojo as to whether she’d continue teaching. She had seen news reports of people who contracted COVID-19 in the workplace—parents who became too sick to care for their kids, moms who died without getting to say goodbye. Their stories haunted her. With vaccines still months away, classroom work felt way too risky. She decided to resign.

Jojo found work with a digital education platform and began streaming classes for kids in China, sometimes at 3 a.m. Texas time. The schedule became too much once her baby daughter arrived in December 2020. Time to switch gears again.

Jojo wanted to bring her community together. That spring, she launched a marketplace for small purveyors, an outdoor bazaar where folks could shop for handmade wares and such. It’s been rewarding, but the logistics are a lot. She’s not sure how much longer she’ll keep it up. Next, she may start a marketing firm. A dance studio isn’t out of the question someday. “I wanna do all the things,” she says. “I’ve got my finger on the pulse.”

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jacquie campos

JACQUIE CAMPOS
26, outside Asheville, North Carolina

Jacquie had always thought of herself as a writer. But working as a Sunday school teacher through the darkest days of COVID-19 left little time for creativity. Many of her students and their families in Jacksonville, Florida, had been hit hard by the pandemic, and she felt overwhelmed by the lack of social support for her struggling community. After a year of doing her best to help, she was spiritually and professionally spent.

The time had come to answer a question she’d been asking for a while: What would happen if she gave herself the space to really write? She quit her job in April 2021 and booked two consecutive stays in remote cabins—one month in Alabama, followed by another month in North Carolina.

Growing up in a big family, Jacquie had never been so alone before. Now, in solitude, the words flowed. She began hashing out a novel—a project she had long dreamed of tackling. When her two months were up, she didn’t want to go back to her Before Life. She got a work-from-home position as a virtual assistant, rented a longer-term cottage, and kept writing. All along, she was tapping into her savings, a finite resource. Then, in October 2021, she lost her remote gig.

"solitude was the most intense gift i could ever give myself"—jacquie campos, 26, outside asheville, north carolina

Jacquie was left thinking deeply about work and identity. She poured her thoughts onto the page, churning out a play inspired by a career-themed childhood field trip. She liked what she’d written and decided to stage it for a digital audience right from her living room. She sold tickets on TikTok, and to her surprise, people actually showed up—and they liked her work too. The proceeds helped cover her rent. “Now I can sustain myself for a little longer here, just writing,” Jacquie says. “Hopefully, it continues to work out.”

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jade van kley

JADE VAN KLEY
31, Nashville, Tennessee

Concerts are Jade’s favorite thing. The raw energy of a live set? Nothing compares. She used to tour with her friends’ bands, snapping photos of their gigs for social media. Even after becoming a nurse, she maintained her ties to the scene. She was a lifer.

When the pandemic hit, Jade found herself on the front lines—first doing infectious-disease surveillance at the Minnesota Department of Health, then at a nearby VA hospital as an infection preventionist RN. Conditions were grim. Patients were suffering. Jade’s coworkers were burning out. Taking in the despair all around her, Jade was struck by a feeling: Maybe her public-health expertise could do more than keep people safe—maybe she could also help the music world that had so enriched her life.

In September 2020, she packed up her car and moved to Nashville, mostly on gut instinct. She sent word to her music contacts to let them know she was available to oversee COVID-19-related health and safety logistics for in-person concerts and tours; she’d help plan socially distanced outdoor performances, arrange testing for talent and crew—whatever was needed to make music possible again.

this is the biggest risk i've ever taken

She heard back from a connection at Third Man Records. She heard back from a musician-turned-writer friend who was filming a movie up in Canada. She heard back from the management team for Jason Isbell. They all wanted Jade’s help. Her business, Backline Nurse Consulting, took off.

Ironically, her greatest hope is that her work will become obsolete because that will mean the pandemic is over. “I want to make sure that if something like this should ever happen again, artists have more protections in place,” she says. “How can we continue to improve and heed the lessons we learned?

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devin spady

DEVIN SPADY
25, Everywhere

Devin was never a staycation kind of person. Whenever possible, she was out of town—trekking through South America and all over Europe. Office jobs kept her rooted to an address, but she was a born wanderer.

When the pandemic hit, Devin podded up with her parents and siblings in Houston. Clocking in remotely for her marketing job at Facebook meant almost all her waking hours were suddenly spent in a single spot. Devin soon felt stifled, and by September 2020, she was desperate for a break.

One day, she got in her car and drove for hours, all the way to Big Bend National Park on the Texas-Mexico border. Standing among the colossal rock formations, she felt like she was finally able to breathe. This was joy; this was freedom. This, she realized, could be the blueprint for a totally different way of living.

no one really knows where i am   and that's awesome

In April 2021, Devin left her parents’ place again—and hasn’t stopped moving since. She has no permanent address. Her housing budget goes toward gas money and stopovers in places like New York, New Orleans, and Santa Fe. She still works remotely (now for Bumble) and relocates whenever she likes. Many friends envy her, which Devin doesn’t understand. “When they’re like, ‘ I wish I could do that,’ I always ask them, ‘Why can’t you?’” she says, thinking of all the young people she knows with remote jobs and little to hold them in place. “Nothing is tying you to your home.”

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damaris giha

DAMARIS GIHA
29, Brooklyn, New York

It was February 2020, and Damaris had a timeline: In exactly one year, she would leave her ad agency job and focus on making music. She created a savings plan, tightened her spending, and tapped a financial adviser for guidance. In the meantime, she worked on her first single and a music video.

It’s not that she hated her day job. She had thrived off the energy in the office and was good at all the problem-solving her role required. Then the world turned upside down. Going remote was soul-sucking, and 8-hour workdays somehow stretched into 12-hour workdays. Damaris spoke up: She was burning out. But what could be done? Her whole team was under pressure.

The stress of working from home made it harder to create music at home. But she decided to stay in her job to build up more of a savings cushion. In July 2021, she finally put in her notice. She was so tired. Tired of being tired and of being anxious and burned out. And she knew that before she could focus on her art, she’d have to restore her health. On the advice of her financial adviser, she signed up for Medicaid and SNAP benefits. She learned to let herself rest.

i gave all of myself to my day job there was nothing left to give my art

Since last fall, Damaris has been more musically productive than she was in the entire 18 months prior. And she has a plan to record and release her work. “I’m staying flexible and figuring out other ways to monetize my music,” Damaris says. “I am smart. I’m capable. I know now how to adapt.”

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aimee cevallos

AIMEE CEVALLOS
26, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Aimee felt stuck working in her parents’ restaurant. She had attended Le Cordon Bleu culinary school; she’d held positions in fancy eateries in San Francisco and Austin. And yet, there she was in the spring of 2020, back in Myrtle Beach, trying to help keep the family business afloat with carry-out margaritas. Yes, a pandemic was happening. But she feared she was falling behind in life.

Aimee and her husband—also a cooking pro—plotted together: Maybe they could relocate to his home city of London and open a restaurant there, where public health care would relieve some of their financial strain. It could be the fresh start the couple needed.

Only it wasn’t. By the time they arrived in London in December 2020, the Alpha variant was surging. The restaurant industry was hit hard (again). Everything seemed gray: the London sky, the national mood, Aimee’s career prospects. In March 2021, she flew back to Myrtle Beach, alone, for a three-week break.

life isn't a race you can't force things

It felt different this time. The sunlight lifted her spirits. The roar of the ocean was a comfort. She dropped in for a few shifts at her parents’ restaurant and felt invigorated just to be cooking again, in the familiar hustle and bustle. When Aimee talked to her husband back in London, he said she sounded like herself for the first time all year. He also admitted his heart wasn’t in the marriage anymore. Aimee hung up and never went back.

She realized she didn’t need to move across an ocean to get unstuck—she needed to end a marriage that was no longer functioning. Today, living and working with her family, “I’m mentally in one of the best places I’ve ever been,” she says. She’ll return to chasing her culinary ambitions when the timing feels right: “Everything’s gonna happen when it’s going to happen.”

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Photographs by Yael Malka (Devin Spady and Damaris Giha), Juan Diego Reyes (Jacqueline Campos), Joseph Ross (Jade Van Kley), Gavin McIntyre (Aimee Cevallos), Maddie McGarvey (Alexis Nikole Nelson), Laurel Chor (Lilit Marcus), and Arturo Olmos (Jojo Trumbly).