This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
I am not yet ready for The New Normal. I’m so not ready for it that I had to crop the actual image from the ad campaign for Suit Supply before I put it at the top of this newsletter, because the Suit Supply New Normal is….ravenous. Too much. I’m overwhelmed, just looking at it and what it implies.
I’m old enough that I’m past Prime Wedding Season, aka the years of your life when your bank account and Spring/Summer/Fall calendar are handed over to other people’s weddings. But a few friends had them planned for some point during the pandemic and are gradually, tentatively, beginning to reschedule. One just texted the group thread to get our current addresses for the new Save the Date. “People are going to lose their minds at this wedding,” a friend texted back. “We have been cooped up for SO LONG.”
I am very much looking forward to losing my mind at this person’s wedding. But perhaps you are like me: overjoyed at the prospect of seeing your friends in a celebratory setting…and gripped by a weird, overarching hesitancy about the month of, oh, June, something like obsessing over the first day of middle school and then refusing to get out of the car when you pull up to the entrance.
Here’s where I remind you that we have endured nearly a year — a year! — of sustained, slow-motion collective trauma. Some days might not have felt recognizable as such, but our brains are very adept at flattening trauma, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, into something survivable. We have borne witness, in some way, to deaths in our close community, in our homes, in our online circles, in our kids’ schools — to half a million American deaths and 2.56 million deaths globally. We have lived with some level of fear, for ourselves and for those we cherish, for a year.
And then there’s all the other, compounding trauma. Depending on your situation, you have endured unspeakable loneliness, deep anger at those who couldn’t be bothered to care about others, enduring financial precarity, and the feeling like your body is, quite frankly, disassembling under all that’s being asked of it as a parent, worker, partner, person.
And you have had to make it survivable in some way. The brain and the body do not simply bounce back from sustained labor. Going to a bunch of weddings and getting toasted might be part of a strategy, but it is not the strategy. And yet few people are actually making room for an actual strategy. Americans in particular are very, very bad at grieving. We don’t allocate space for personal tragedy and we don’t allocate space for national tragedy, other than brief displays of televised political grief theater, generally with lots of flags.
We are not ready, not in any form, not for this still-growing mountain of grief. As David Perry argues,
It's not just about health and guidance though; there's also bureaucracy. The shape of most of our lives does not permit a long and retroactive wave of memorials and wakes and funeral masses and the other rituals that soothe the pain of loss. We already struggle in our work-life culture to gain time away for bereavement, operating in managed human resource systems that measure our minutes and grudgingly yield a day or two of paid leave in the immediate aftermath of a death, and then only for an immediate family member. These bureaucratic systems are not ready for the coming cycles of delayed mourning.
You might already know what happens when you refuse to acknowledge the parameters, the sheer consuming hunger, of loss. You convince yourself you’re ready to rejoin the world, you’re doing pretty okay, and then, days, weeks, months, even years down the line, something breaks inside you. Grief metastasizes when neglected. I have experienced it in the form of full body-wracking sobs when a song comes on the radio, and in dreams I wake up from with tears streaming down my face — but also in shitty behavior towards boyfriends and friends, in steaming, misdirected anger, in embarrassment and jealousy and shame. Processing loss entails acknowledging so much more than sadness.
I don’t know what our grieving process will look like as we emerge from this pandemic, but I do know that it will require patience and grace with yourself and others. Not in the “forgive your anti-masking co-worker” sort of way — more in the “I still can’t concentrate, what’s wrong with me” or “why did I just bail on this party I really wanted to go to” or “I am so angry at this random person in the grocery store” sort of way.
You’re probably going to feel exhausted when you want to feel exhilarated, panicked when you thought you’d feel safe, combative when all you want is to feel soothed. Your social skills have atrophied and you’re probably going to get in some big fights that will seem like they’re about nothing but are actually about everything. You’re going to crave some of the parts of quarantine life you swore you never would. You’re probably going to over-plan and over-schedule and feel an alarming and unexpected need for solitude and have to pull back and re-evaluate.
It’s going to feel periodically awful in new ways, and it’s going to be a continuing struggle, but it’s also going to be amazing. And, most importantly, it’s not really going to happen for several months.
We can start clearing trail for our paths away from this pandemic year. We just have to make them meandering, with ample stops for rest. We will be collectively discombobulated and bewildered, working through layers of bittersweetness, anxious and angry and thrilled. Our post-pandemic selves will contain multitudes, and I cannot wait to get reacquainted with myself, with all of you. But it’s okay that I’m not there, not quite yet.
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Am I the only one who still just can't commit to things in the future? My partner wants to buy season tickets for our local symphony that start in September, and I just can't envision myself sitting in a concert hall surrounded by other people in six months. Intellectually, I know that we will likely be vaccinated by then, but it's just been so long in this "new normal" that I get panicky even thinking about a transition to the next "new normal."
I fundamentally don't believe that I'm going to be able to get vaccinated. I realize this is totally irrational: at some point, they'll have enough vaccine for everyone, and even my fucked-up state can't manage to mess up distribution forever. But deep down, I don't believe that I'm ever going to be able to leave my house. I honestly don't know what's wrong with me. I think that the thought of reintegrating into the world is a little overwhelming, and I'm dealing by pretending that it's never going to happen. I'm also feeling a little envious of people who have been vaccinated, or who live in states that aren't run by incompetent and malevolent people and therefore can expect to get vaccinated at a fair and reasonable time, and maybe it's partly that I'm feeling sorry for myself and wallowing a bit. But yeah, I'm not planning for the new normal because I haven't internalized the fact that at some point it's going to happen.
I'm dealing with specific grief and trauma, relating to a specific, traumatic death, and I actually think that maybe pandemic isolation has been a little helpful for processing that. I appreciate that nobody has expected me to go on like everything was normal, and I think it helped me to have some space to process. But I have been really bad at predicting how I was going to react to things, and maybe I'll fall apart once I have to interact with people and whatnot.