This is the Sunday 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.
Sometime in the last few weeks, I realized that I was slipping. Or rather, that parts of my life that I thought I had kinda figured out — feeding myself lunch that isn’t just pretzels and hummus, dedicating actual time to hobbies, legitimately walling off parts of my life from work — felt like they were slipping. Like a lot of feelings, it manifested as a blob of amorphous unease. Everything was fine, but less so.
There are reasons for this slipperiness, most of them directly related to the change in the season. I am a summer person; it makes me feel most like myself, in part because it provides daily invitations to a world outside of work. In my case: the garden. But now the garden is faded and, with the first frost, much of it will soon be slime. I know I should reframe it as my plants hibernating for spring bloom, but hibernation doesn’t require my care.
A teacher recently told me that there’s a rule in her department: no major life decisions in October. The same holds true, she said, for March. But March is well-known for its cruelty. I didn’t realize it was the same for October, even though it makes perfect sense: the charge of September, those first golden days of Fall, the thrill of wearing sweaters for the first time, those are gone. Soon it’ll be Daylight Savings, which always feels like having the wind knocked out of the day. People in high elevations are already showing off their first blasts of snow. We have months, months, to go.
As distractions fade, you’re forced to sit with your own story of how things are going. Maybe you’d been bullshitting yourself for weeks, for months. It was easy to ignore my bad lunch habits when I was spending most of the day outside. Now it’s just me and my angry stomach and scraping the tub of the hummus container yet again. Or, more seriously: now it’s just me swimming against the familiar tide of burnout, not realizing how far it had already pulled me from shore.
Some people figure out that they’re feeling a certain way only when directly asked. Some can only articulate it when pushed to a breaking point. Other never actually want to know what they feel, and I get that, too. For me, I often don’t know the parameters of what I’m feeling until I write about it. I tried to articulate the corners of my unease earlier this week on Instagram, and, because feelings are lonely, asked if others were familiar with the same sort of slipperiness: that you thought you had something kinda figured out, but in the last few weeks or months, realized you very much did not.
I received hundreds of responses — some of which I saved in my Stories, which you can find in the left-hand corner here. There was a lot about the overwhelming logistics of daily life (lunch, “fucking laundry,” childcare, how to actually divide the mental load, how to dress oneself for spaces outside of home, how to be around one’s own mother without exploding) and a lot about work (thinking you could tolerate a boring or mildly toxic job). People thought their relationship with their partner was stable and maybe it isn’t; people thought they had figured out their relationship with disordered eating or alcohol or their depression but turns out, nope, not at all, or at least not in the way they thought they had. Some people felt totally overwhelmed by emotions, or the realization that they are deeply lonely, or grief at the loss of their faith or their dream of motherhood.
And then there were those who felt totally betrayed by their profession — just deep, pounding disillusionment. It’s so much. It is so much. It’s the sort of so much that you’re scared of what might happen if you take a series of deep breaths, or a walk at dusk, or see someone being unspeakably kind to someone else. And part of it is ambiguous grief, and part of it is slow-motion trauma, and part of it is enduring exhaustion — and part of it, too, is the enduring disorientation of a pandemic that will not end.
Is this the part of the pandemic when we’re happy? When we’re angry? When we’re hanging out or pulling back, when we’re hopeful or dismayed, when we’re making plans or canceling them? The calendar moves forward but we’re stuck. In old patterns, in old understandings of how work and our families and the world should be. That’s the feeling of regression, I think. It’s not that we’re losing ground. It’s that we were too hopeful about having gained it.
Which is why teachers aren’t supposed to make life decisions in October: it’s the time, particularly in a place like the United States, when it becomes clear that the problems that plagued public education, that made educators feel unvalued and underresourced and demoralized — that none of that had been erased by the brief rest and quick spark of the summer and new school year. October, in other words, is when you remember that nothing has changed and nothing likely will. The waning moon keeps promises to wax but never does. There’s just the after-image of promised full self, taunting you.
The swirl of the holidays distracts from that bleakness just long enough for it to descend again in March, only to be lifted, however slightly, by the promise of Spring. And so the cycle repeats itself, and you settle so deep into the track of resignation that it feels inescapable.
COVID made the bleakness even starker, but there was a promise, I think, that this Fall, with basically all kids back in school, things would be better. This belief clung to people who weren’t educators as well: this Fall, kids would be out of the home and parenting would feel easier; this Fall, college students would be back to quasi-normal on campus and recent graduates would get to begin their lives; this Fall, your job would’ve figured out how to work from home, or how to make the office feel safe, or how to mix the two. When you hold yourself together with a promise and it falls apart, it’s no wonder you do, too.
Instead of masking that brokenness, lean into it. Give the wound some oxygen. Be vulnerable and needy with one another. Go ahead and consider or even make big life decisions. You’re not acting emotionally; you’re actually listening to your emotions instead of blunting them, and there’s a very real difference. Refuse the rut and your own complacency with it. Life is hard and will always be hard in different ways, but given our advances as a civilization, there’s no reason it should be this hard. Be mad about it. Acquaint yourself with how you’re feeling and refuse to be embarrassed or ashamed with those realities. What feels like a personal regression is usually your mind and body reacting to an ongoing societal one.
The best way to feel comfortable doing this? Remember or recover or discover your community. I lug that word around a lot here, but the last two years have made me understand just how fundamental it (and its absence) is to so much of our solace and suffering. If your community has atrophied after Covid rebuilding: reactivate it. If it’s held together by text or calls, send or make them, and say something real, even if it’s just voicing your need and appreciation. If you don’t have it, and are terrified of what it says about you that you don’t — don’t be. Our society has become actively hostile to it. But you also have to take the steps, however mortifying or nerve-wracking, to find it. You might not make best friends, at least not at first, but you will remember how to use the muscle of care.
Community, as Casper ter Kuile reminds us, is hard. It means giving a shit, and acting when called upon and even before. It means listening to each other in generous ways. And it can be a very real antidote, I think, to regression. I oscillate between dark pessimism at the intractability of our current world and an overwhelming delight at its possibilities. Community has allowed me to make both realities speakable — and give shape to action plans for both.
I am still navigating my own October feelings [OBVIOUSLY] and what they mean, but they feel so much less swallowing when shared. I’m cultivating community in the physical spaces around me, but I’m also humbled and awed by the space we’re building — in threads, but especially in the Discord — for this newsletter, where we talk a lot, naturally, about the contours and roadblocks to community itself. Your place and people might be elsewhere, but it’s time to make it, and them — and, by extension, yourself — a priority.
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I just described myself to a friend this way: "You might want to take everything I say with not a grain but a whole sea of salt because it is Fall, which is, for me, the slow descent into a bleak winter. It's my hard season." I feel like my skin is see-through, and everything gets under it because I am that sensitive. And yes, I am wearing a sweater, and it's nice to wear a sweater and mostly athleisure, but I know that the line is so thin between this luxurious laziness and feeling like I just give up on everything. Because even the daylight is giving up. Also, I'm not sure if anyone else feels this way, but it seems even harder because I KNOW this season is coming. It happens every year, and yet, I am ALWAYS surprised by how it affects me. The surprise is a real one-two punch.
I'm a teacher and at our school's start up days, my principal did a half day session on teacher resilience and burnout. She told us that October is the number one month for teacher burnout and for teachers to leave the profession. We were all shocked but... now that we are in it, I can't see anything but the truth of that fact. As a kindergarten teacher, I am very accustomed to the insanity between the start of the year and Halloween when teaching 5 & 6 year olds how to "do school." I cannot count how many times I have told myself and others "just give it until Halloween, it gets better!" This is my 10th year and 3rd at this school with my current team, I consider myself to be highly skilled in my profession, I have an extremely supportive administrator, I'm provided with easy to use and highly effective curriculum... and I'm still barely keeping my nose above water. I see that the "just get kids back in the building" promises have both born fruit (my current students have now had more in person days than my last year kids had all year) but also where it has fallen short (so many missed preschool and the accompanying opportunities, parent anxieties are at an all time high, don't get me started on Covid protocols and reactions to my state's teacher vaccine mandate). As my self-prescribed Halloween deadline approaches, I can't help but wonder what lies ahead in winter.