The Shiny Season

How do we conceive of the fact that whole swaths of society are still grappling with a stress event so severe that our hair fell out? … That hundreds of thousands of people are still dealing with the effects of a virus that, in its acute form, turns the body on itself — and so often turns us on each other? We’d rather performatively answer emails than allow our bodies the space to recover. ..Our literal and figurative immune systems have been worn thin, and everyone’s sick and canceling plans and treading water and if you have the time to do the laundry, you’re putting on the clean clothes right out of the dryer, which, again, feels like a metaphor for a lot, for pretty much everything.

-Anne Helen Petersen, Culture Study Substack Newsletter

“It’s the season for JOY!” So trumpets a TV commercial featuring a smiling mom filling her shopping cart with knickknacks and scented candles. As if some cosmic being simply hit the Play button after two years of pandemic living, I’m once again commuting to work, putting my face uncomfortably close to strangers in bars, and being a good little consumer. I can go to a movie theater and see a rom-com starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney like it’s 2019 again (or 2009, or 1999). I can go to H&M and peruse sequined crop tops and oversized sweaters. I feel compelled to buy cocktail dresses and attend any social event to which I’m invited, to make up for lost time, to pretend that nothing has changed. To sparkle

Has there ever been a holiday season filled with more promise? Has there ever been a more exhausting one? 

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Underneath the hum of capitalism and the numbing drumbeat of “back to normal” lurk antibiotic shortages, thousands of people suffering from long-COVID, violence against queer and trans communities, people being denied abortions and lifesaving miscarriage care, the collapse of humane and apolitical free speech on platforms like Twitter, corporate profit gouging, labor strikes, the list goes on.

The pressure to “make the season bright” is tinged with melancholy. Maybe it always has been. It’s the saccharine cheer of “Holly Jolly Christmas” mixed with the haunting sadness of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It’s hot chocolate and matching pajamas, bitter family arguments, grief, and loneliness. It’s twinkling lights and short dark days, beautifully wrapped gifts that become January’s slushy gray trash piles. 

The 2022 Holiday Season according to H & M.

But there’s something particularly fraught about this year because we seem to be pressured not only into pretending that things are the same as they were before the pandemic, but that they’re shinier and better than ever. Americans in particular love extremes and don’t deal well with gray areas and in-betweens. A pandemic is a national emergency or it’s over. People on the Internet are fawned over or they’re canceled. You’re well enough to work or you’re disabled. And this lack of nuance, this bent toward toxic positivity and national obsession with individual “freedoms” makes anyone who isn’t thriving feel invisible and flawed.

 I was listening to an NPR podcast about long COVID that resonated deeply with me. As the host puts it, “COVID is still a thing, very much a thing, but there’s this cultural amnesia around what we’ve all gone through and what many of us are still going through [with long COVID].

In ways both wonderful and terrible, pretending the pandemic never happened isn’t an option for me. Those dark months and terrifying, lonely years live in my cells and memories. After spending most of the last six months healing my mind, I’m left with the damage that two years of trauma and having COVID in June waged on my body. It took most of the summer for me to be able to climb a flight of stairs without laboring breath. I have unexplainable muscle and joint pain that started in my right hip and spread to both legs. Sometimes it hurts to stand, and sometimes it hurts when I’m just lying on the couch. 

I don’t know if the pain is related to COVID, age, or inactivity, and I’m grateful I’m still mostly functional and able to enjoy my life. But between the leg pain, my migraines, ADHD, and depression/anxiety, I sometimes feel like I’m a member of the walking wounded. Like so many, I occupy a gray area between wellness and illness, abled and disabled, between who I was that last innocent December before the pandemic and who I might be in Decembers to come. 

So, no matter how much I want to be the shiniest, most joyful, busiest, sparkliest version of myself right now, I’ll fall short. I’ll struggle to get off the couch because of the pain in my legs. I’ll have to miss events I was looking forward to and not bully myself when I fall short of my own expectations. Because it’s okay that I’m not operating at 100%, regardless of the time of year. I’m still worthy of love, rest, pleasure, and care. I’m still grateful for my incredible partner, supportive family and friends, meaningful work, a city I love, a rescue dog that depends on me, and my 4 beautiful nephews. I’m lucky and I’m still healing. I’m a contradiction.

I believe the pressure to make this “the best holiday season ever” doesn’t promote healing or rest, and yet so many people I know need both desperately. The cultural narrative around the holidays tells us we must either love the season or hate it, to be Tiny Tim or Scrooge. But it also darkly whispers that if we don’t love it, if we’re not joyful, something is wrong with us. That it must, somehow, be our fault if we’re exhausted or stressed or sick or grieving. That if we could only buy the right gift or dress, attend the right party, and put up the right decorations, we would be like the shiny happy people in commercials. But that narrative is gaslighting us on a mass scale, leaving us unprepared to face setbacks and disappointments. 

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Have Yourself A Merry Little September

When we want to describe a sense of joy, lightness, or unfettered enthusiasm, we often use the word “childlike.” This makes sense–anyone who remembers their childhood or now tends to a child has witnessed innocent joy in the purest form. But sometimes we forget that childhood also contains much sadness and fear. Children are sensitive, emotional creatures not yet conditioned to hide their reactions to the sensory world around them. They cry when they’re hungry, lonely, sick, or injured. They are small and new and the world is big and confusing, so it’s okay for them to feel however they feel in the moment. 

I have a three-year-old nephew who I absolutely adore. He’s funny, curious, loving, and easily thrilled by the most mundane things like lawnmowers and sidewalk chalk. He’s often joyful in the way we imagine children to be most of the time. But he’s also sensitive and readily emotional, reminding me a lot of myself. I once saw him weep when, in the book my sister was reading aloud, a kitten fell down the stairs. “Took a tumble,” he sniffled. Apparently, he cries every time they read this particular book out of empathy for the fictional kitten. 

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On Birds, Bad Days, and Paying Attention

I lay in bed covered by my weighted blanket, trying desperately not to scream or start sobbing. My brain was churning itself into a mental illness smoothie: panic mixed with depression mixed with ADHD overwhelm. It had been one of those days. I sliced my finger open trying to cut bread. I found out that my shitty new health insurance plan had a $4,800 deductible, and I would be paying hundreds of dollars out of pocket for my migraine and other medications. 

After all that, the icing on the proverbial cake, a little brown mouse sauntered across the floor right in front of me. I have mouse trauma, people. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Partly due to a horrific experience with mice in one of my first NYC apartments, and partly because I just hate them. The little fuckers send me flying right off the handle. They make me feel like my home, my safe place, is infested and disgusting. The way they dart out from nowhere makes everything else in my life feel out of control. The particular combination of ordinary inconveniences and stressors had pushed me well outside of what my therapist euphemistically calls my “zone of tolerance.”

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Healing is Hard Part 2: Doing The Work

“You’re doing the work.” 

My therapist said this to me recently. I’ve heard this from therapists before. It’s a phrase that’s both flattering and irritating in its vagueness. What is “the work?” Why am I doing it? And how long do I have to keep it up? 

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The Cardinal And The Storm

CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: References to chronic illness, self-harm, and depression/anxiety.

I’m lying on the couch listening to the icy February rain slide down my living room window. Dizzy, nauseated, and suffering from a severe migraine, I can’t concentrate on anything other than its excruciating pain. It feels like ice picks digging behind my eye sockets combined with my entire head being squeezed in an unrelenting vice grip. The only thoughts that penetrate the fog of illness are half-formed and terrifying.

Maybe I should go to the E.R. Will that make the migraine worse? Will they believe me or think I’m seeking drugs? Should I go alone or make my partner come with me? What if we both get COVID at the hospital? Do I already have COVID? Am I dying? Would it be better if I died? Will this last forever? It’s definitely a tumor. I’m just being a baby. Should I smoke some weed? Call my mom? Take another pill? It’s definitely an inoperable brain tumor.

I don’t want to die, but I’m not sure I want to live.

I turn my head and focus for a split second on the view of our tiny Brooklyn backyard. Suddenly, I catch a flash of scarlet under the dripping trees. It’s a single cardinal with his unmistakable crimson crown and wings, seeking respite from the storm under our mulberry tree. 

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Breaking Is Easy. Healing is Harder.

CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: Reproductive justice issues including miscarriage and stillbirth and abortion rights, COVID-19, mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of self-harm.

“Just tighten your shoulders..just clench your jaw ’til you frown. Just don’t let go ’cause you may drown.” Rent, book by Jonathan Larson.

The skylight in the living room of our apartment shattered last October after a glass object of unknown origin fell from the sky. It took seven months for our landlord to find a contractor who had the correct replacement part and could install it. Seven months of staring at the hole in our ceiling, hastily covered with plastic and duct tape. Seven months of feeling frustrated and concerned every time the tarp flapped in the wind and seasonal rainstorms caused water damage to our walls and ceiling. After seven months of emails and phone calls to our landlord, we wondered why such a seemingly simple issue took so long to address. When the contractors finally came to install the new skylight last week, the entire process took 15 minutes. 

My partner and I were relieved, but there was also a sense of….“That’s it?” After months of phone calls, reminders, and promises, we suddenly looked up at the light streaming clearly through our brand-new skylight and marveled at how long we put up with the version held together by tape and crossed fingers. Houses break quickly and can be fixed just as easily. Human beings are different. Sometimes we break instantly, and sometimes slowly, over days and months and years. And putting us back together isn’t as easy as finding a suitable replacement part. 

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The Time Traveling Sweatshirt: A Pandemic Carol

“Things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, if not always in the way we expect.” Luna Lovegood, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

My grey Star Wars sweatshirt lay unassumingly on top of my boyfriend’s bed, wrinkled and unremarkable. And yet, the sight of it caused me to stop and marvel as one would at a religious miracle. I hadn’t laid eyes on that sweatshirt since B.C.–Before COVID–seemingly a lifetime ago. Somehow, it got sucked into the void under his bed alongside stray socks and dust, where it remained for over a year. In the simple act of disappearing and reappearing, this $25 dollar novelty item from Target had become an artifact, a visitor from the Before Times, imbued with the power of memory.

I thought the garment was lost, a casualty of the pandemic, two moves, and a job change. In fact, when I first noticed it missing I assumed I’d left it at the office sometime in March 2020 before COVID hit. I often left things at my desk in those days, comfortable in the knowledge that I’d return the next day to claim my sweater (or Tupperware or umbrella). Little did I know.

When I left my job in November, I finally went back to the office to clean out my desk. Reentering the space felt like returning to a long-forgotten world where coworkers easily shared gossip and germs, working elbow to elbow in a confined space. Jackets slung nonchalantly on the back of chairs reflected the casual attitude with which many of us initially approached the Great Pause. Though I found a few treasures among the detritus in and around my desk, there was no Star Wars sweatshirt. I subsequently forgot all about it, banishing it to the realm of lost things whose fates are forever unknown.

It reappeared on a cold, grey day in February, a few weeks shy of my two-year anniversary in New York City and the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. Some say a year isn’t very long in the grand scheme of things. But 2020 was. The last time I saw that sweater, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was still alive. Chadwick Boseman was still alive. George Floyd was still alive. Donald Trump was still president, and COVID was a vaguely worrisome headline. The terms insurrection, sedition, herd immunity, frontline worker, and quarantine weren’t part of our daily vocabularies. I thought I’d be attending three weddings over the summer, hanging out with my baby nephew, spending a few final days with my grandmother who’d just entered hospice care, commuting to work, going on dates with my boyfriend. In short, I was just like everyone else at the beginning of 2020: unaware and unprepared for what was about to happen. Little did we know.

The innocence of that sweatshirt as it lay atop the bed bowled me over. I don’t know how it ended up there in the first place. I can’t remember if I took it off in the heat of passion, after spilling wine on it, or because I got too warm snuggled up under the covers watching TV. Had I stopped by on my way back from some SoHo bar where I’d gossiped with work friends and complained about the loud music and expensive, lackluster cocktails? Was I just off the phone with my dad, planning a surprise visit home for my mom’s birthday? Had I come from seeing a movie in theaters, a formerly beloved ritual? It’s impossible to remember. What I do know is that after a year of having so much taken away from me, the people I love, and pretty much everyone else, my sweatshirt was the first thing the universe had given back.

The day I rediscovered it was a darkly ordinary day, a day epitomizing the creeping spiritual drain of an endless pandemic winter. Hours of Zoom calls, inscrutable client emails, watching snow fall from grey skies, missing my family and friends, bored beyond belief with routines and daily frustrations. A day like so many others. We’ve all become so accustomed to stress, poor mental health, grief, loss, and exhaustion. Anything surprising, anything even slightly unexpected these days seems magical, imbued with a life force that we barely recognize.

We’re going to start getting more of our lives back now as vaccines gradually roll out, our country returns to some semblance of the democracy we imagined it to be, and the weather turns warm. Slowly, tentatively, squinting at the light, we’ll start to venture out of our homes and sip drinks on patios, reunite with our loved ones, joke awkwardly about our discomfort with in-person meetings and pandemic weight gain. We’ll meet babies born months earlier, celebrate missed birthdays, mourn lost friends and family members. We’ll pick up some of the pieces of our shattered plans and dreams and remain desperately grateful for life’s small pleasures, knowing how tenuous it all is and always was, and how easily it might be taken away again.

But I think it will be much longer before we as a collective and as individuals process what was truly lost, and just how much has changed. I’ll never be the person I was the last time I wore that grey Star Wars sweatshirt. There are so many things I will never again take for granted. This wasn’t a lost year, a mere blip on our collective radar. It was a profound reimagining of what it means to be human, to live in proximity to and apart from our communities, a year of learning the difference between wants and needs, between merely surviving and actually living. A year of profound, improbable joy and profound, incomprehensible sorrow.

My hope is that instead of donning our old lives like a familiar, cozy sweater, we instead see our continued existence for what it truly is: an absolute, fragile, and astonishing miracle.


The Long Pause

Because we’re holding our own in a great big storm
And though we’re cutting it close
We won’t let go
Oh no I can’t believe
Everything falling down around me
But now we’re holding our own
And won’t let go

“Great Big Storm” by Nate Ruess

I’ve been hesitant to work on my personal writing during the recent “long pause” and while stay at home orders remain in place. For one thing, my job in nonprofit communications requires me to write constantly. Since New York State officially began to close down in mid-March, I’ve written or edited over 50 emails and 200 social media posts. I spend my workday typing into boxes in Slack, Microsoft Teams, Asana, email, and the various other platforms required to maintain a remote workforce. Understandably, like many other people, at the end of the day I’m tired of screens, tired of typing, and lucky if I can rouse the energy to text friends and family to check in. 

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Filter Bubbles and Close Encounters: Reflections on City Life

“Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding—seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions—and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known.”― Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

I’m coming up on the one year anniversary of my move to New York City, and have been thinking a lot about how where we live impacts our perspective on life and how we interact with the people around us. I just finished reading “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell. The premise of Odell’s book is that “in a world where our value is determined by our 24/7 data productivity…doing nothing may be our most important form of resistance.”

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My Other Self: Shame, Perfectionism, and ADHD

“I’m afraid of disappointing the people in my life.”

A minute or two after I said these words, I realized they weren’t true. I was trying to explain to a friend the sense of free-floating anxiety and general frustration I’d been feeling the past month. With a few glorious exceptions including my sister’s wedding, a memorable 4th of July in the city, and a weekend getaway upstate, I’d felt myself starting to stagnate. It was an odd feeling because even though moving to NYC  has had its challenges, I’ve mostly been happy (even elated) since I arrived in early March. 

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One Year Later

I was alone so long
I didn’t even know that I was lonely
Out in the cold so long
I didn’t even know that I was cold
Turned my collar to the wind
This is how it’s always been

All I’ve ever known is how to hold my own
All I’ve ever known is how to hold my own
But now I wanna hold you, too

– “All I’ve Ever Known,” Hadestown

Me on my 30th birthday, right before I moved to NYC.

In one of my favorite episodes of Parks and Rec, City Councilwoman Leslie Knope holds a city council forum to ask her constituents a simple question: “Are you better off than you were a year ago?” Unfortunately for Leslie, the residents of her town unleash a barrage of complaints instead of answering the question thoughtfully. It’s hard to please everyone, especially because the human brain is not particularly good at remembering how unhappy we were in the past or predicting how happy we’ll be in the future.

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