Pandemic Brain and Life Lately in Brooklyn

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On the day that I’m writing this, Brooklyn’s heatwave has broken for the first time in a month and today feels like it’s passing more slowly under the steady drumbeat of raindrops and storm cloud. My windows are all thrown open and perhaps I’m just imagining it but I keep catching the faintest smell of Fall in the air, that unmistakeable crispness. Today has felt special not only because it feels like the city is finally taking a deep breath for the first time in a while, but I feel like I am doing the same.

I’ve been calling it “pandemic brain.” It’s that underlying feeling of constant anxiety that accompanies every hour, making every task just a little bit harder without me even realizing it’s there. A few weeks ago I was sitting writing an email on my couch, trying to push through the looming exhaustion wall I had so far attempted to ignore for the sake of productivity, when it hit me, “Wow, this entire situation is hard. Like hard hard. And I think I’m really struggling.”

It’s funny how something like that can sneak up on a girl. One minute I’m drinking my fifth cup of ice tea, typing away on my laptop, and then next I’m staring at my cat whispering, “Um …. are you okay? Are you sure? Am I okay? How am I supposed to be okay when I have access to so few things that help me stay balanced!”

For months, I’ve been talking myself out of my own anxiety and upset by comparing my situation to those around me. Because I am so lucky! I have a stable job being creative, I have health insurance, I am healthy, my loved ones are healthy. I have access to food and ways of safely seeing my friends and Victor in person. I’m working from home but not responsible for simultaneously caring/teaching children. I live in a city where the vast majority of people wear masks everywhere. I mean, I think I’m anxious, how is any parent coping with life during this time?! This context and perspective has been important in centering me in many moments, but it’s also important for me to remember that my own anxieties, my own hardships, are also valid and hard and upsetting.

Right now, the city is sad. I feel it during my walks around Brooklyn and the few times I’ve traveled into Manhattan. While walking around new neighborhoods used to be my self care go to, I now stick mostly to the parks which still hold a sense of normalcy. The number of for rent signs in store windows grow with each trip and when I visit my favorite coffee houses, or pass by favorite bookstores, I take an extra minute to fully appreciate them, afraid we might be saying goodbye sooner than I’m ready.

I’ve walked through Time Square once since March, shocked by how desolate it is, chest tightening seeing all the Broadway shows dark and boarded up. During that trip I kept walking until I hit Central Park where I found myself wondering: What will New York City be without the things that make it New York City?

When people ask me about the city, I almost feel the urge to tell them to wait a while before visiting or returning because I feel a protectiveness of outsiders seeing her like this. This side of her, a time where she is both is her strongest — the communities advocating and adapting for a better life within her — and her weakest as she grieves the loss of so much that makes her her.

In Brooklyn, outdoor dining now crowds the sidewalks and the patio-converted bike lanes, and are constantly busy. I’ve eaten outside a couple times and there is a certain magic about it, getting to taste a small piece of normalcy before masking up and heading home. Park dinners and walks have become a regular thing amongst my friend group — as long as a public bathrooms are somewhere nearby and open. I’ve learned nothing ends a picnic quicker than closed bathrooms.

While I thought with all this time at home I would have gotten so much more writing done, figured out my 10 year plan, and read half the unread books on my shelf — along with learning Spanish of course — I’m learning the importance of taking care of myself as a daily practice instead. It feels radical, this new action of unlearning the coping skills of productivity and surrendering to slower living. Today I slept for nine hours — which for me, someone who doesn’t sleep particularly well, is A LOT. I did a circuit training workout — which I’ve never done before. I cooked healthy, full meals and planned out my week with mandatory breaks scheduled in. I wrote my weekly letter to my grandma. I watched a movie in the afternoon completely unplugged for everything else. It felt so delicious,  turning my love language inward and showering it upon myself because it’s a bit backwards to expect my body to work like a superstar when I’m putting only the minimum into it.

What I’m learning is that it’s hard to advocate for myself — pandemic times or not. It’s hard to say no to projects that will force me to work overtime. It’s hard to not compare myself to others and their life journeys. It’s hard to feel like I’m in any way moving forward when my days feel like a repeat of the one before. And it’s hard to often allow myself to experience the good stuff, the happiness for no reason stuff, the joy of being a human stuff — especially when society tells me there is always more work to be done. I’m seeing more and more how radical it is (and also how much work it takes) to stand in my own truth and tell the productivity cycle not today, today I will rest. Today I will heal. Today I will make bad art and read in yoga pants and have a spontaneous movie night. And tomorrow my fire will be even brighter than before.

The silver lining of this time has been my growing appreciation for tiny moments and finding my center amongst the noise. It’s a slower pace of life, with lower stakes productivity — as the New York Times would call it, and this has allowed me to move forward with things I’ve wanted to do for a while, like looking into volunteer organizations and making over my home in little ways.

Life lately in Brooklyn has been moments of surrendering into the blueness and curling up for a moment, trusting that it won’t last forever. It’s been falling asleep every night with Hemingway on my chest as I read and waking up to Fitz snoring softly at the end of the bed. Somedays I’m horrible at keeping my promises to myself to go on a good long walk and will find it’s 8 p.m. and I haven’t left the apartment. Somedays I am up and out first thing, feeling like an habit building champion.

Weekends are for adventures with the boyfriend and being in the sun and grabbing tea with friends at new coffee shops around the neighborhood. Weeknights are for calling loved ones on the west coast, working on my family cookbook, and reading. And my ever elusive morning routine is shimmying in and out of place. Maybe I’m growing more than I can currently see, but I’m trying to let go of the pressure to hit any milestones, besides basic survival, during this time.

Through it all, one of the biggest things I’m trying to work towards is to inject more moments of joy into my everyday. To make time for rituals and not de-prioritize everything below work. To give myself time for things that restore me. Things that are just for the joy of them.

I hope you’re gifting yourself the same. I hope you’re extending the same patience to yourself as you are to your coworkers having anxious days or impatient moments, and your family members that are up, down, and all around. I hope you’re encouraging yourself to go grab a treat and turn off your phone, just as you do for your friends. And I hope your pandemic brain is also finding its way — because all we can do during this time is our best and that’s more than enough.