There is rarely a bad year that stays confined to the perimeters of January to December; hard times don’t respect the calendar, and we all know 2021—the early months, at least—won’t be much different from 2020. So why do I feel so annoyed every time I hear someone say something like “you know, the pandemic’s not going to end on New Year’s Eve, next year’s going to be just as bad.” I understand that what they’re saying is true, and that they’re trying to find an outlet for their grief and frustration and fear in the same way we all are, but I also catch myself rolling my eyes because: We do, actually, know that. Nobody thinks of the end of the year as a magic reset button, even if sometimes we talk about it like it is.
At the same time, we need some arbitrary point that separates one year from another, both from a practical, time-keeping perspective, and from a psychological one as well. January gets its name from the Ancient Roman god Janus, and the first of the month was dedicated to him; he was the god of doorways and transitions, endings and beginnings, and was depicted with two faces—one looking to the past, and the other looking to the future. A few thousand years later, and that’s still more or less the spirit of the day. It feels useful and important to have a time when we honour the possibility of change, of fresh starts, of closing out one chapter and beginning the next. The pandemic might not be over, but 2020 is, and every day, week, month that we make it through takes us one step closer to brighter days. Even if you don’t believe that—and I certainly don’t always—then it’s at least worth celebrating that you’ve made it this far.
But how do you start writing that next chapter when things still feel so bleak? Sure, there’s a vaccine on the way, but we have no idea how long its roll-out will take or when it will be safe to return to normal-ish life. Many of us are struggling with pandemic-related issues that also won’t immediately be resolved: Our streams of income have shrunk (or disappeared), our housing situations feel precarious, we’re bored, we’re lonely, we do not want to do one more single thing on Zoom. We’re stuck in the darkest, coldest part of the year, and no matter how many people try to convince me that outdoor winter activities can be just as fun as summertime ones, I simply cannot believe them. Some days I just don’t know how I’m going to make it through with my faculties intact.
Added to this, a lot of the lists on how to cope with the pandemic winter involve buying things, telling you to “invest in” a good winter jacket, a good heated blanket, the equipment necessary for a new hobby. None of that is bad advice, exactly, but many of us don’t have the resources to be buying extra stuff right now, especially during a holiday season when we have to budget not just for gift-buying but for shipping, since many of us won’t be able to give gifts in person. Also my experience in trying to buy my way to happiness is that it’s an endeavour whose success is limited.
Two things, though, that have consistently improved my pandemic life? Routines and rituals. Without the old structure—or chaos—that my weeks used to have, I’ve had to invent my own, and sometimes I’m surprised at the tasks I look forward to now. I used to hate doing the dishes, but now I do the first round every day (or, almost every day) at 1 p.m. and that means the workday is half over. When I make dinner, I know I’m only a few hours away from when I can start my bedtime rituals. After dinner, I go for a walk for an hour. At 8:30 p.m., my son and I sit in the living room and read a book together. After that, I take a shower or bath, light a candle, get into bed (sometimes with a drink, usually with a snack) and read for a few hours. It doesn’t sound like much, but these things anchor me. They help me break up all the hours that I’m awake, which sometimes overwhelm me with their vastness and emptiness even when I have plenty of things I need to get done, into manageable pieces. It’s not perfect, but it gets me through.
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So my suggestion for how to look forward to the New Year would be to ask yourself if there is one routine and one ritual you can add to your day. (I would consider a routine to be something that’s useful and a ritual to be something that nourishes you, although at this point in the pandemic the boundaries have really blurred for me.) Can you commit to doing a household task more regularly? Can you set aside some time every day to have a cup of tea and write in a journal? Can you add a tiny bit more structure to your day somehow? It’s not a fix-all, by any means, and even with the best of intentions you’ll still have days when, for whatever reason, you just can’t, but I do find that it makes a difference.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the part in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn where, on especially bad days, Francie Nolan’s mother would help them get through their meagre dinners by pretending they were explorers stuck in a blizzard on the way to the North Pole, and they just had to ration their food and survive until help came. Sometimes I feel like all these routines and rituals I’ve created for myself are a similar sort of make-believe where that structure is the magic that will save me. In a way, Mrs. Nolan was right: Even when you don’t know where relief is coming from or even if it’s coming, the only thing you can do is try to survive.
Here’s to 2021, to strange new beginnings, to light, to hope and, especially, to endings. The only way out is through.