Never in a million years did I think that five letters and two digits would change my life so drastically. That I would ever understand what a coronavirus is, how it affects the human body, and feel such a strong mix of emotions every time one strain, in particular, is mentioned.
But here we are.
COVID-19 and the global pandemic that ensued changed the way many people around the world experience life. Plans were cancelled, studies interrupted, families kept away from each other, and the future became more uncertain than it has been in our lifetimes. Coupled with an economic downturn, a civil rights movement, and a presidential election campaign–this summer has thrown everything it has at us. Now it seems as if we’re living in limbo, this in-between place where we’ve grown accustomed to living in this never-ending uncertainty yet always feel stressed about that same uncertainty and what it means for the future, for our “normal” lives.
I can’t pretend to sit here and have the answers to what seem like some of this century’s biggest questions. After all, I have never lived through a global pandemic, and I’m not (unfortunately) a time-traveler from the future ready to tell you everything that happens (trust me, I wish). I can, however, share with you my experiences over the past five years months in the hopes that you may have felt/feel similar things. And maybe, together, we can begin to find ourselves again amongst the chaos of this time in history.
When I think about COVID-19, a mixed set of emotions comes to mind: fear, sadness, loss, confusion, anxiety… to name a few. I had the incredible opportunity and privilege of studying abroad in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, this last semester and was there when COVID descended upon the world. My classmates and I watched from afar as this real-life movie played right in front of us: infection rates spiked in the US, apocalyptic images of empty store shelves and jam-packed hospitals flashed across our new feeds, and other study abroad programs were sent home one by one. A Friday call with my sister studying back home in Minnesota started to open my eyes to the severity of the situation. Up until she was sent home from college, COVID didn’t regularly cross my mind. At the time, there were only 11 cases in South Africa, and all of them had come from travelers returning from Europe.
Little did I know, that was the last Friday I would spend abroad.
We got the email on Sunday, March 15th, 2020 at 7:30 PM. Earlier that day I had been surfing in the rain, wondering how I could be so lucky to be living somewhere so extraordinary, marveling at how beautiful life is. All of that is now overshadowed by three words that sit lonely at the top of my journal entry from that night: “We’re going home.”
The next week was a blur of saying goodbye to the new friends I’d made and 30 hours of traveling all boiling down to a hug-less welcome from my family (not because they didn’t love me but because of said 30 hours of traveling) and a world standing still. A country that was already foreign to me upon my return was made even more so by stay-at-home orders and a virus full of so much unknown.
Like so many, my world flipped upside down. I stayed in my basement for the first two weeks quarantining in case I’d caught COVID in an airport on my journey home. When I started classes again, with my professors in South Africa seven hours ahead of me, I was left to teach myself the material via PowerPoints, articles, and independent research. I felt abandoned as a student, but because no one was prepared to teach remotely–let alone remotely across 8,000 miles–I didn’t feel justified with my anger. I didn’t know what to direct it at other than the circumstance.
Throughout all of this turnover and distress, I felt as many others have: a longing for normalcy and a sense of hopelessness at the situation. I didn’t want to be in the country, let alone in my basement disconnected from my friends and all that I had begun to build while abroad. The confidence and understanding that I discovered slowly began to fade as the weeks went by with no end in sight. It was like I was trapped in Jello, stuck in time yet constantly jostled about by forces outside of my control.
What started as weeks turned into months of stay-at-home orders and fluctuating infection rates. Frustration at my reality and feelings of loss and loneliness began to boil over until I no longer felt them at all. After a while of hurting, feeling defeated, trapped, and angry about being home and all that I’d lost, I suddenly felt nothing. Life began happening to me without my intervention, and I didn’t care to stop it. I felt numb.
I love and connect deeply with art and poetry (although I’m not particularly great at either one), and I gravitated towards them amongst the turmoil. While mindlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed one day, I came across a post by someone I forgot I followed shortly before I left. Morgan Harper Nichols is an artist and poet whose words and style instantly voiced what I was feeling. She put words to what I thought was indescribable, and I slowly started to come to peace with what I went through and the trauma that I experienced. Her words of comfort gave me agency to fight the stuck-in-Jello feeling and apathy that had taken over my reality; they spoke to my soul. I learned to honor what happened, to hold onto the parts that felt magical, and to believe and acknowledge that even in my current state, I was growing. Her words helped center me during a time of chaos, a time when I felt as if I was just floating through space and time, just existing. They helped me refocus and root myself in reality.
Jump to present day: August 2020. It’s now been five months since the world as we knew it disappeared, and although I have begun to move past the initial struggles I had with loneliness and loss, I now worry more and more about the future. What will the next five months look like? How will they affect me, both physically and emotionally? What can I possibly do when all I see and hear are stories of what I can’t do, what I won’t be able to for a while? How can I stay centered in this time of continuing chaos?
One way that I’ve started tackling these questions is by shifting my mentality. Instead of focusing on the negative (which I found myself doing more than I’d like to admit over the past few months), focus on what you can do. This step may seem oversimplified and easier said than done, but it’s where we have to start. Think about all of the little things we can do now that we couldn’t before: we can get food from our favorite restaurant and enjoy the summer weather while eating it; we can successfully get through a Zoom meeting at work without someone’s audio mistakenly being left on; we can work and collaborate from home and in new ways that five months ago were not second nature or comfortable for us at all.
This mental shift may also mean finding that little piece of clarity in the chaos. Clarity for me came from the art and poetry of Morgan Harper Nichols and daily walks around my neighborhood. For you, maybe it’s hearing your children laugh, working out, or listening to music whose lyrics speak directly to your soul. Everyone’s clarity comes from something different; we’re experiencing and internalizing the chaos in different ways. It’s vital that we look for light, however, and don’t let ourselves get swallowed up and tossed around by the circumstances we’ve been given. We need to grab onto something, and each other, to center ourselves and focus on who we want to be.
It’s also okay just to be.
Life is overwhelming, and life during COVID is so much more so. One day you may feel on top of the world, like you’re ready to move past all of the feelings and memories brought up during the last five months and the next you may be back to square one. That’s okay. That’s normal. We’re not designed to “be okay” overnight. It takes time.
And while it’s okay to go with the flow and take each thing as it comes (sometimes that’s even necessary), don’t blindly accept the circumstances COVID has given you if you’re not happy with them. Evaluate where you are right now, and if it doesn’t match who or where or what you want to be, take action. Honor what you went through, the things and experiences that you lost, and center yourself in little things that bring you joy despite all of the difficulties. Plan a weekend trip to the park, daydream about a vacation you want to take when we can travel again, reorganize your bedroom or kitchen, etc. Move your body every day, look at plants (they increase happiness!), and feel the sunshine on your skin. Start with little things and create a reality for yourself that sits within the greater world reality.
Don’t settle for what has changed because of COVID if it makes you feel trapped/helpless or doesn’t bring you joy. Take back your life, plan for the future, and create your own reality outside of COVID’s confines. No matter how much it may seem to, self-growth doesn’t go away during tough times. It increases as we have more time to slow down, reflect, reevaluate, and recenter.
This reality creation does not mean pretending that everything is okay in a toxic, unnatural, or unquestioning way. It means evaluating your circumstances/state of mind, honoring that, and then with that understood and in mind, moving forward to make the best of your situation and reclaim your sense of purpose, motivation, and happiness. This process may not (and will not) happen right away, but it’s important to start making slow progress where you can so that you emerge from this time stronger and more confident in yourself than when it began.
As this time of unknowns continues, reclaim your life from what COVID made of it, and shift your mentality towards focusing on what you can do with the situation you’re in. Find what brings you clarity and grab onto it; center yourself in the lights found amongst the chaos. Even if you need to step back and just be, don’t blindly accept circumstances that don’t fill you with joy. Create your own reality inside of this crazy world of ours, and don’t settle for anything you wouldn’t have before. Although it doesn’t feel like it, you are growing right now. It just looks different. So give yourself the time, space, and forgiveness to foster that growth; find, hang onto, and center yourself in little things that bring you light; and continue your small steps forward through the chaos.
Looking for a place to start? Check out more of Morgan Harper Nichols’ poetry on her website: https://morganharpernichols.com/ or follow her on Instagram @morganharpernichols.