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From the Phone Booth

A few weeks ago, I had just taught my first journaling class. I was excited to start working on journals with a lovely group of students interested in self-expression through artwork. There were hugs and hellos. We were happy and eager to get started. Everything seemed to be working out…

The next day, everything imploded. I was watching a slow train wreck in total confusion and disbelief. The whole thing just derailed.

This experience must have been similar for millions of us. The proverbial rug was unceremoniously snatched from under our feet. Nobody knew what came next.

In truth, my timeline was slightly different. Since I was keeping in contact with my family overseas, the news was less of a surprise and more of a confirmed fear. I had been receiving updates almost daily from Europe, which was about three weeks ahead of us into the pandemic. I knew it was bad and I knew it was coming. Now, it was finally here, and it was our turn to face it.

I’m a visual learner and I can recall images better than written or spoken words. With all the changes and contradictory directives incoming from every direction, my memory jumped to Tippi Hendren inside the telephone booth in The Birds. The iconic scene where she is watching the disaster unfold right in front of her terrified eyes is the perfect metaphor for how we have been forced to follow the spread of this ghastly virus.

In the movie, Hitchcock trapped poor Tippi inside an old-fashioned telephone booth. She takes refuge in this glass box when the birds start attacking bystanders indiscriminately. She watches in horror as the gas station across the street turns into a fireball while the seagulls are crashing against the walls of the booth.

(If you have never watched it, this might not be the best time to do so. It has many parallels with the situation we are currently living through. It is, by design, anxiety inducing, so if you have enough with your daily grind, skip it until things get better. Here's a little preview...)

During the first few days of confinement I was lost. Then I understood that I needed a routine. I am a big proponent of schedules, and I always keep several lists around. They help me focus and give me a sense of accomplishment when I get to cross items off them. Since I was feeling overwhelmed by the anxiety, I needed to shift gears quickly. I could not just flinch, pause, or indulge in self-pity. Though it was difficult to pull it together in a hurry, I needed a roadmap.

That was when collage gave me the direction I needed.

During this strange interlude, we have been thoroughly disavowed of the idea that artistic pursuits are something you do on the side as a mere hobby or when you feel bored. It turns out that few consider the fact that the skills needed to create art are firmly embedded in our daily lives and constantly at play. Finding art interesting, having curiosity for artistic pursuits, and appreciating its message is not unlike expressing delight in a well-cooked meal or a carefully decorated space. In every instance, we require an ability to self-reflect and consider what emotions one is experiencing. Most people feel comfortable doing the latter, but hesitate to dive in when it comes to art.

In reality, it is particularly beneficial to spend a bit of time with artwork that we don’t actually like that much, because it teaches us to develop multiple perspectives and expand our window of tolerance for things we are not fond of. The experience of being in front of a work of art examining it in detail, puts us firmly in the present moment. Your brain registers that as mindfulness or even meditation, and it can help manage minor episodes of stress. Simply being a spectator can build up resilience, and emotional well-being, and help people feel more in control even during times of chaos and uncertainty. Imagine what sustained, active practice can do for your emotional brain…

So, while we all experience collective trauma as one, it has become plain that we must revert to a structure, a schedule that suits each one of us as individuals. Everyone should design a self-imposed set of personal guidelines that will keep their feet planted on the ground. An anchor to sanity. Especially if you feel very overwhelmed, creating a little trail of crumbs that guide you towards stability is the only way to get through this.

What does it look like for you?

It doesn’t have to be collage or even art. It can be cooking, knitting, writing, walking, or keeping an informal record of what you do each day. If your nervous system has been hijacked, a structured activity of any kind will help you avoid long term problems associated with trauma and prolonged anxiety…and the best part is that you can still have a good cry whenever you feel like it.


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