Alive, Awake & Making It Through

Here we are, humans on the earth during and after a global pandemic. It's not like there wasn't a bunch to cope with already. But we're alive and awake and, with a lot of help, making it through the best we can. I'm waxing psychological about all that.


Updated: Mar 20

There’s been a lot of talk this month about anniversaries. No, not the heartwarming kind. Quite the opposite.

Sometime this month is the day when, one year prior, all of this began. The day you took your plants home from the office, just in case. The day the school closed, hopefully for only a couple weeks. The day you went to work with new fear. The day it hit your life.

Your pandemicaversary.

We’re familiar with annual holidays. Our calendars, Gregorian or otherwise, are populated by events that come around again and again, year after year. Same season, same sensations.

And isn’t it strange when that’s messed with? You’re accustomed to New England winter on Christmas, but one year take a trip and spend the holiday in the tropics. Sandals and sunblock instead of fireplaces and fuzzy pajamas. Warm not cold, humid not dry: this isn’t how your body is used to feeling on that day, with its long history of sensory association. Weird. Just goes to show how much environmental cues orient us.

This is how event anniversaries work.

The time we began or ended something, gained or lost something, joined or left something, arrived or exited somewhere. The time we experienced a rapid change, a traumatic experience, a spectacular blessing. The time we arrived somewhere we had long strived to reach, or learned we never would.

These events become encoded in time. In calendars and in body clocks. The day holds meaning, structuring the relationship between past and present. And when that time of year rolls around again, those thoughts and feelings can reawaken.

It can feel almost like being back there. As if that moment never ended.

That’s because some parts of the brain don't care about time. There’s a timelessness to certain memories, certain feelings. When you find yourself in that same time of year again, same month and day, same environmental cues, part of the mind knows this place, as if on a map. We can remember things with intensity, as if they just happened yesterday, though decades may have passed.

This won’t be the same for everyone. A lot of factors will determine how a moment lives with you as time goes by. When it comes to the pandemic, we may all have been in the same storm, but we were in very different boats. For many, this March won’t feel like an anniversary yet at all. Relief is coming to some of us much sooner than others.

But chances are, no matter the boat, we'll probably remember the pandemic a bit more around this time of year, when it got its hold on the world.

There is so much to make sense of in what we’ve been through. It won’t all happen now. Year after year, we will spiral back to these memories. And with another revolution around the sun under our belts, with another year of age in the books, another year of distance from the moment of impact, we will make a little more meaning.

Thinking of marking an event anniversary? Things to consider:

Remember how it was: It’s healthy to spend some time reflecting on other times and places in our lives. As we learn and grow, we come into new perspectives, opening up new possibilities for making meaning of our experiences. What can you see now, from here? What was it like back then? (*Trauma reminder: therapists exist, if needed.)

Notice what’s changed: And yet, now things are different. An important part of marking the passage of time is marking change. Things have evolved since then, perhaps in more ways than your daily life would have you believe. Think about that time, and look around now. How have things developed since then? How have you grown?

Meet the unmet: In our memories, we will often find needs we had back then that weren’t met. One of the most meaningful ways to mark time is honoring those needs now. Spent a year too alone? Commemorate that in community. Couldn’t make sense of things then? Write all about it now. Needed comforts that were unavailable? Reach for those things, delivering them to that part of you that went without. It’s never too late.

Bring the inside outside: Storytelling is a core human bonding behavior. What inside of you longs to be told from that time? Lots of people are reflecting these as-of-yet unshared aspects of their pandemic reality in posts on social media, where we (for better and worse) do a lot of communal narrative-weaving these days. But you don't have to share publicly to make storytelling meaningful: sharing with close others, or with yourself, in your modality of choice, can be just as meaningful.

Make it tangible: Traditions the world over have physical ways to mark occasions which carry ritual meaning. Whether you light a candle, jump into a lake, make or eat certain foods, or anything else you come up with, find a way to turn the abstract emotional into the concrete and tangible. Doing so changes the state of those feelings, opening a new angle on metabolizing them. And, you can repeat this the next year, layering meaning to objects or activities over time.

How might you mark your pandemicaversary in years to come?

I’ve been on an exam-prep-induced hiatus from blogging for a while now, and may be for a while longer. I plan to work my way back to posting more regularly again in the coming months. But for today, I’m dropping back into your inbox because as you may know, we all have an event coming up on Tuesday.

In many ways it’s already begun, and in many ways it will continue well after November 3rd. Of course, I’m talking about the election.

This is a blog about emotional wellbeing, not about politics. I have nothing smart to add on the topic of what’s going to happen. I can, however, talk to you about why you may be obsessed with that question, and why you should spare a few thoughts for how you'll take care of yourself no matter what happens.

Since your nervous system is tasked with keeping you safe, tracking potential danger is a major priority. In this case, with the stakes of this election being what they are, your body may be registering threat. We are each experiencing different levels and types of threat based upon our identities, upon the nature and degree of privilege and oppression we live with.

For many, the election in 2016 was a major stressor, if not a trauma. Not to mention the four years that have followed, four years which added fascism and a pandemic to the already profound struggles of life within capitalism and white supremacy. This election is both an anniversary of that fateful day four years ago, and possibly a trauma of its own.

Whether from recent events or from long ago, many of our nervous systems are already fried. We are so tired of coping. We were tired of coping a long time ago. And yet, the reality is that we're not done with coping. Chances are pretty good that no matter which way the election goes, we’ve got some excitement in our future, and not necessarily the good kind.

Sound grim? It may be. But this time, we do have one major advantage, at least as far as emotional wellbeing is concerned: We see it coming.

Much of the past four years has been a litany of surprise. Even once we could no longer be shocked by the cruelty of our government, we never knew exactly what we would be dealing with next. While we're not luxuriating in certainty now either, we have had the date of this election in the back of our minds for a long time. Unconsciously, if not consciously, we've been watching it approach. While sometimes seeing an event coming just serves to give us more time for worry and dread, other times the advance notice can be a big help.

The difference is in the preparation.

Just a little bit of planning can mitigate the impact of a stressor on the nervous system. Both because your body will register the planned-for stress differently, and because you will have planned for it! Meaning, you may have some helpful things in place.

In these last couple of days, I invite you to make a coping plan. A plan can be very elaborate, or it can be just a few small elements. You can go for gold and set yourself up to be as well tended as possible, or if resources or energy are limited, you can say to yourself “cookies, fleece socks, call my sister.” Look, you’ve planned! Your nervous system will thank you.

Some things to consider:

Set the scene: Where will you be? Who will you be with? Who will you be in touch with from afar? How much/little will you watch election returns? How much/little will you be on social media? What will you eat? Do you plan to go to bed by a certain time?

Resource yourself: What might help you manage the stress to your nervous system while we wait for information, or experience what plays out? Get really concrete: A comfortable outfit, a favorite snack, a scheduled walk or stretch or run or dance break, a pet on the couch with you, crayons for coloring or a puzzle to put together, an alarm on your phone telling you to take five deep breaths, bubble wrap to pop or a pillow to pound your fists on, a favorite mindfulness or coping app, a playlist for muted commercial breaks, a heating pad or ice pack, images that you find beautiful or soothing, lotion or a candle with a scent you like….you get the idea.

Game out the follow-up: How about the days after? What do you want in place for yourself? A day off, a therapy appointment, a stocked refrigerator, a walk in nature, a phone/video date with someone close to you, time for extra sleep?

Make it official: However big or small, whether it's a solo plan, a friends plan, a couples plan, a family or pod or community plan, do whatever will make your plan meaningful. Write it in your journal, scribble it on a post-it, say it out loud to someone in your support system, put it on your calendar, send it in an email, put it in a Google doc, whatever's going to make it real to you.

Be open to adaptation: You know what they say about the best-laid plans. There's nothing wrong with making adjustments along the way. In fact, even if your entire plan ends up out the window, you will still benefit from having planned. The act of considering our wellbeing better attunes us to our needs. As needs change, so too may the plan need to change. The important thing is that we take care of ourselves and each other as best we can, through whatever is to come.

What's your Election Coping Plan?

Today, on Juneteenth, I invite my White readers to listen to an interview with Aunt Harriet Smith, recorded in Hempstead, Texas in 1941. Here is part 1 of 4.

This interview is part of the “Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories” digital collection in the Library of Congress.

Harriet talks about having been a slave, about life during “slavery time,” her experience of “the break up,” the transition marked by today's holiday, and then life after slavery ended.

In our White consciousness, slavery is something long ago, long enough ago to be abstract and distant. But these audio interviews conducted with formerly enslaved, freed people were recorded between 1930 and 1950.

Not so long ago.

In our White consciousness, the White people Harriet describes are not us. In our White consciousness, we didn’t and wouldn’t do those things now. Also in our White consciousness, the profound legacy of slavery, all the modern day manifestations of structural racism, all the systems still built and upheld by us White people, systems which are still exploiting, harming, and killing Black people, are abstract.

Our privilege renders them so.

We treat racism as an intellectual topic. A cultural phenomenon. Something happening elsewhere then within our own communities, our own institutions, our own families, our own hearts.

But behind every political topic are people. Within every sociocultural dynamic are lived experiences. The political is always personal. If it’s not personal to you, that speaks to your position and your privilege.

Do not let your privilege render this abstract. We are talking about human beings. We are talking about ourselves.

When you find yourself intellectualizing, when you catch yourself distancing, when you notice yourself treating the lives and traumas of Black people as an interesting sociopolitical topic for debate, and Whiteness as something separate from who you are and how you live every day in this legacy of supremacy, colonialism, and slavery, ask yourself:

Whose voice do I need to hear to make this personal to me?

And then go find that voice. Find a video, an audio recording, a memoir, a first-person account, or someone in your own world who has offered or is consenting to share – and bring a face, a voice, a story to what would otherwise for you remain abstract.

As the interviewer asks and Harriet shares, notice the lived reality she is describing. Notice the difference between her expectations and experiences in life, and your own. Notice the racism playing out in the interview itself, the assumptions and the voyeurism of the interviewer. More than anything, notice how you feel, one human listening to the story of another.

I am still making my way through this collection of interviews. As a content note, some contain more traumatic elements than others. Additionally, the quality of some of the recordings will make it hard for some to hear. If it helps you with either of these, I encourage you to read in advance, or following along with, the PDF transcript linked below each recording.


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