Panic and stress are contagious. So is peacefulness.

Young man wearing orange beanie closing eyes in peace.
Young man wearing orange beanie closing eyes in peace.
Photo: Brianna R/500px/Getty Images

There will be no shortage of ways to remember 2020, but from our bodies’ collective point of view, the most vivid memory may be one of panic. The sirens, the hand sanitizer, the darting across the sidewalk when someone moved too close. The virus wasn’t the only thing that was contagious this year — our extended state of high anxiety was, too.

But now that the Electoral College has voted, and the vaccine is being administered in the U.S. and U.K., the tenor of life feels slightly different. Calmer.

It would be easy to write this off as mystic nonsense (or at least confirmation bias), but it’s deeper than that. Panic and stress and fear are contagious, but so too are calm and rest and release. A deeper understanding of this dynamic — which has to do with our autonomic nervous systems, and how we evolved to live with and respond to one another in groups — can perhaps help us live more grounded and generous lives. And if some sense of “normal” descends upon life during the next four years, it can also help us find more compassion and support for those who always live life in a hyper-vigilant state. …

The main thing that strikes you in a garden, surrounded by life, is how much death there is.

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I’ve been working in a garden recently. When I say working, it’s more like I’ve volunteered my meager labor skills to help out in a garden under the supervision of people who actually know what they’re doing.

It’s quite an embarrassing position to be in, really: A lapsed urbanite who has few practical skills to speak of, but yearns to work with the earth anyway. Nevertheless, every Friday, it feels damn good to squat atop some soil instead of sit before a screen. Working on the task of, say, pruning a fruit tree requires the use of both my body and brain in a way that makes editing a word document feel dull by comparison. …

There’s a hidden power in recognizing all that we’ve lost

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A few days ago I walked past a central London office building I used to work in.

I indulged in that time-honored urban past-time: revisiting a life I used to live by re-enacting a daily routine that’s now long gone. …

Unhinged optimism isn’t healthy.

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Photo: South_agency / Getty Images

Is there anything more American than a redemption narrative — the idea that deep down, we know we’re right? That the right guy, the good guy, our guy, always wins in the end if you wait around or watch for long enough?

During election season, this belief becomes something like an addiction, with the New York Times needles and the Nates (Silver and Cohn, that is) serving as our dealers — offering up hope, horror, tweets, and forecasts long after our twitching eyeballs beg us to look away.

As things stand right now, with Joe Biden looking victorious, one iteration of the redemption narrative may well take hold: “Ah, yes, America is America. We knew she would pull through. …

The pandemic and climate crises make working ourselves to the bone in service of our own ambition seem a little silly. Let’s change that.

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Illustration: Ana Galvañ

Earlier in the summer, while picking up trash on a beach near where I live, I had a revelation: Engaging in this rather mundane activity was the most useful I had felt in a while. The idea was both unsettling and freeing at the same time.

We’ve all been spending more time lately on activities that feel immediately useful: cooking meals, moving our bodies, making and mending things, growing gardens, and — like me with the beach rubbish — serving as stewards of the places where we live.

But while the litter-picking was initially a way to fill my time during the long pandemic summer, it also got me thinking about the very notion of how I spend my time. In February, right before the world fell apart, I was diagnosed with burnout. I had been working too hard, and despite taking some time off, I didn’t have a strong sense of how I was going to avoid repeating the cycle again in the future. …


Before the pandemic, stepping off the treadmill always felt impossible

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Photo illustration, sources: Ronnie Kaufman/The Image Bank/Getty Images, Abstract Aerial Art/DigitalVision/Getty Images

In the first sentence of Joan Didion’s iconic essay, “Goodbye to All That,” on leaving New York City, she wrote, “it’s easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends.”

No offense to Joan, but I actually can remember when it ended for me — the moment when I decided to leave London, the place I’d lived for nearly a decade.

It was late April, several weeks into the UK’s lockdown. I was lying on the grass outside, taking a break from reading a book. I watched an ant crawl up my leg, and marveled at how different I felt compared with just a few weeks before. Back then, I had a constant, low-grade sense of dread that was impossible to name or find a cause for. I always felt busy. And even when I pared down my schedule as much as humanly possible, I never seemed to have enough time to do what I wanted (namely, read, write, and lie in the grass). …

Dismantling structural capitalism may be unrealistic, but there are practical ways to reframe our relationship to it

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Illustration: Laurie Rollitt

No matter how I face each of these strange days, something feels off. On days when I feel creative, lucid, and even thankful for some of the side effects of this great global pause — usually on weekends when I ignore the news — I also feel a twinge of guilt. I should be thinking about death counts, government failings, and wealth disparities instead of reading about ancient Indian breathing techniques or delighting in the scent of wisteria on my neighborhood walks, shouldn’t I?

And then, on the days when I’m despondent, low, and depressed, I chastise myself for feeling that way, when I have what so many others don’t: health, a supportive family, a job, food. …

Whichever personality type you identify with, there’s something to glean from the experience of self-isolation

Friends waving to each other during a large video conference call on a computer screen.
Friends waving to each other during a large video conference call on a computer screen.
Photo: SolStock/E+/Getty Images

If the great lockdown’s memes are any indication, this global pause has introverts finding out they’re extroverts — and vice versa:

Carl Jung first proposed a psychological theory on introverts and extroverts as personality types in 1921. Since then we’ve come to think of it like this: Introverts gain energy from solitude, while extroverts recharge by being around other people. Psychology broadly recognizes that introversion and extroversion happens along a continuum, but in the popular imagination it’s often perceived as binary.

The idea that people can get all their energy from one source or the other is looking less convincing, however, amidst the mass quarantine that much of the world is now under. We’ve all been forced to sit with ourselves more. And with that mandatory stillness comes an opportunity to examine our relationship to social interaction. …

It’s brutal but reassuring

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Photo: Patiwat Sariya/EyeEm/Getty Images

When you tell a medical professional that you can’t sleep, they tend to reply with a familiar script: How’s your sleep hygiene? How close to bedtime do you check your email? Have you tried yoga or a mediation app?

How quaint, I think to myself. If all it took were a bit of lavender oil and foregoing an afternoon cup of coffee to ward off my recurring bouts of serious insomnia, I wouldn’t have found myself — after about three weeks of little to no sleep — at an emergency doctor’s appointment in February.

Begging for some way — any way! — to find sleep again, I tried to preempt the script by making the case that I’d already checked all the usual boxes: regular exercise, putting my phone away long before bed, cutting back on caffeine. I was there strictly for pharmaceuticals, preferably strong ones. …

Every so often I get an email from someone asking me how to be a journalist. Over the years I’ve responded to these emails with varying degrees of depth. Often, I want to help but feel overwhelmed by the gravity of the question, so these emails sit in my inbox for too long. Other times, I spend time crafting a thoughtful response only to never hear from that person again. (Apparently, other writers experience this too. It’s unbelievable. Don’t be like this.)

However, I believe in being generous with my time and knowledge, just as plenty of people have been towards me over the years. With that in mind I have resolved once again to write down what I know about succeeding in this strange and fun profession. …


Rosie Spinks

Journalist ||

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