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Slowing Down and Relearning: 4 Things that Helped Me Thrive During the Pandemic

Arriving back in Canada at the beginning of 2020 to finish off my last semester of my bachelor’s at McGill University, I had envisioned a semester that, I imagined, would feel something like slipping on a pair of old, comfortable sneakers: walking back into a life that is familiar and very much “home” to me. I was looking forward to taking smaller, seminar-style classes where I would be more comfortable about raising my hand in class and running around Montreal with friends that I had missed while abroad. Maybe I’d finally gather up the courage to introduce myself and ask my professors questions after class too. Of course, the semester took a very sharp turn midway through, and it became abundantly clear that the “normal” lifestyle that I led would no longer suffice in these new circumstances. Whether conscious or unconscious, I had arrived back in Montreal with a plan of what I wanted the upcoming months to look like. 

So, what happened when those future plans were completely obliterated, leaving me with nothing but a heap of uncertainty, and no real capacity to plan anything long-term? I was left with a sudden feeling of loss, a sense of grief for the experiences and moments that I had once felt to be within my reach, now gone. I was left feeling anxious. I found myself immersing myself in more information than my brain could absorb and understand. I found myself listless, irate, and mentally drained when I hadn’t really done much all day. But amidst all those broken plans, I think that this pandemic has also brought into sharper focus the things that matter the most, whether that be personal things such as time with family, or community-level things such as the inequities embedded in so many of our social systems. In some ways, this pandemic has rinsed off the busy, immediate, or “more pressing” concerns that often sit at the top of our priorities list, to reveal the foundations that lie beneath. 

This pandemic has also allowed me to reflect and act on the activities that bring me joy. Normally, I’m consumed by all of these busy thoughts in my head, telling me that I should do this to advance my career and ensure future success (whatever “success” means), act like this to leave a strong but amicable impression on so-and-so, read this to educate myself so that I have something intelligent to say the next time this topic is brought up in conversation. This pandemic really gave me the time to “stop and smell the roses”, to remind myself where I should be looking to find my self-worth, and to remember what it is in my life that really makes me smile. Below, I’ve summarized a few activities that have helped me to thrive during the past few months indoors. 

    Baking

    When given enough time to prepare, bake, and clean up, baking is definitely one activity that I look forward to doing at home. Like many others, I spent a few of my afternoons at home mixing copious amounts of flour, oil, and sugar together to make various baked goods and pastries. I tried baking lemon squares three different ways (my favourite recipe, I decided is this one, which has a lemon cheesecake base). I tried making coconut loavesbanana loaveslemon loaves, and zucchini loaves. I tried baking a coffee-flavoured cake using a recipe from @munchcollective, and although my final cake didn't look nearly as pretty, it was a pretty good morning treat. There was also that day when my friend and I dedicated an entire afternoon to bake 5 batches of various vegan cookies. Making delicious food definitely makes me happy. Sharing that delicious food with friends and family makes it ten times better. 

    Writing letters

    Spotting a letter addressed to me in the mailbox always brightens my day! I think it’s because a letter is a very tangible way of knowing that a loved one was thinking of you. I find that writing letters also helps me to sort my thoughts out and generally slow down my otherwise busy mind that’s always trying to focus on the fifty other things on my to-do list. I also like to tuck in a few stickers or other extra goodies into the envelope before I seal it (like these stickers from @anko.mame)! 

    Finding fun accounts to follow on Instagram

    No, I don’t mean those accounts with the gorgeous feeds that make you seethe with travel envy (I’m looking at you, @london). I’m talking about accounts that are funny and wholesome, accounts that post pictures that make you smile without leading you into an hours-long mindless session of scrolling down their feed. Recent accounts that I’ve started following include @ai.noodle, a foodstagram that posts recipes and creations based on the captions of an AI bot, @livefromsnacktime, an account that posts adorable and relatable quotes overheard from school children (“I’m just here in case you need me to eat anything”), and @blairimani, a US-based educator and author, whose “Smarter in Seconds” reels teaches followers social etiquette skills, such as what to do when someone comes out to you, or how to ask someone for their pronouns. 

    Picking up reading again

    I always do tend to read more books in the summertime, and true to form, this summer has been another summer where I’ve made significant progress on my reading list. I love reading, because it really gives you a glimpse at different perspectives, perspectives that may not be represented in the people that you normally surround yourself with. I’ve found that reading is a lot more fun when you borrow and lend books between friends, because then you can have someone to talk to about the books that you’ve read. I’ve also tried joining a handful of book clubs this summer, which is not something that I normally do. I found that book clubs do help to add a bit more structure to your reading (by implementing a reading schedule, having discussion questions, etc.), but similar to other extracurricular activities, you really get out of it as much as you put into it. In other words, you won’t find much benefit if you just float around the periphery of the discussion without actually engaging very deeply (this is from personal experience). A number of celebrities (including Emma Watson and Malala Yousafzai) have their own book clubs. Maybe they’re a cool place to (re-)start your reading journey and connect with new people over a shared experience. 

    As an aside, here are some books that I’ve read this summer, and would highly recommend:

    Know My Name, Chanel Miller 

    A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, Alicia Elliot

    Inferior, Angela Saini (and its follow-up, Superior

    Aside from the above-listed activities, I’ve also dabbled in some other activities (which I’ve found to be helpful in some cases, mindless in others):

    • Leaving reviews on Google Maps or Yelp of restaurants that you went to pre-COVID or that you’ve had delivered during the pandemic. Plus points because I'm supporting community businesses. Minus points because sometimes I’m actually just avoiding doing other important tasks.   
    • Mask shopping. Plus points because purchasing a reusable mask means less waste while supporting local creators. Minus points because this can quickly turn into any other online shopping spree where you keep scrolling down the product feed. As an aside, Etsy is a good place to start browsing, if you don’t already know of a local mask-maker.
    • Listening to podcasts. Plus points because I’m learning about the world around me. Minus points because sometimes I don’t actually retain the information very well, and I find that I have to replay the podcase to remember what points were actually covered. 
    • Scrapbooking. Plus points because looking back at photos and memorabilia really do make me smile. Minus points because whenever I look at the mountain of memorabilia (read: ticket stubs, receipts, and other general tourist-level trash), I feel discouraged about the idea of sorting through all of it and end up stuffing everything back into the closet. 

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    For me, this sudden lock-down has given me time to slow down, re-evaluate and relearn, to declutter my mind which is always trying to keep itself busy. Just because so many of our plans have gone through doesn’t mean that there is no opportunity for personal growth, right? What are some activities that have been helping you to thrive amidst these extraordinary circumstances? 

    Michelle is a graduate student at McGill University studying the intersection between diet and cancer. In her free time, she enjoys reading, sampling poutine restaurants, and taking pictures of flowers. 
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