The cemetery was golden, green, and gray—the colors of October in Massachusetts—and the mourners were dressed in black. It looked like something from a film, quiet and somber. But instead of huddled groups, we were spread out awkwardly, our chapped hands shoved in pockets and our faces obscured with fabric masks. Few people cried, though there were some misted glasses. For the most part, we weren’t terribly sad. We were happy to be with each other, grateful to have this day together, to be able to bury my grandmother next to her husband, to be able to stand under the maples and oaks and to say goodbye. So many people weren’t afforded this melancholy joy, so many people had to go without.
For the past 10 months, I’ve been following the suggested pandemic protocol and spending my time away from family and friends. When I look back on this year, it’s amazing how much the days bleed together. The rise and fall rhythms of workweek and weekend, on hours and off, sunlit and moonlit, have all blurred together into a stream of sameness. I remember there was snow early on, but was it March or April, I couldn’t tell you. I do remember when my daughter took her first steps—June, I think?—and I remember the day I went for my first swim of the season—April, it was terribly cold—but other than that, my hindsight is fogged, blurred by repetition. The funeral stands out like a glint of metal in the sand, unexpected treasure.
I used to dread holidays and gatherings. I’m a bit of a loner by disposition, and I’ve never been one for weddings or raucous birthday parties. I don’t think I understood, before the pandemic, why we need so many “special days.” I rather smugly thought I had moved beyond that desire, as though finding contentment in the patterns of the everyday meant I was more evolved than my peers with their birthday weeks and monthly anniversaries. But I see now the value that events serve as landmarks in the vast terrain of memory. They feel real and solid against the soft pull of routine. I read once that people built cairns in snowy Iceland to keep travelers from wandering off of cliffs in bad weather. This year has been full of metaphorical bad weather, and I find myself grateful for my cairns, however shoddily built they may seem.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I focused on creating daily rituals and healthy habits. All of my usual markers of time had gone. My yoga studio—where I spent hours every Monday, Thursday, and Sunday—had closed down. My husband was no longer leaving the house to teach and my daughter was no longer able to attend daycare. Every day, we were at home, a never-ending weekend with never-ending chores. To combat this feeling of sudden loss and the rising swell of dread, I downloaded an app that let me create a daily checklist for the things I deemed essential. Every day, I pledged, I would eat one meal of raw fruits and vegetables, meditate for at least a few minutes, practice 15 minutes of yoga, take the dogs for a walk, read a book with my daughter, and clean a nebulously identified “something” (this is the box that missed the most ticks). I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember, so my list was informed by decades of surviving black moods and big sads. I knew what it took to get through a period of darkness, but I wasn’t prepared for how, when one repeats the same tasks, day in, day out, with little variation, time begins to disintegrate. I knew how to fall apart emotionally, but I wasn’t prepared for this.
My brain, which I was trying to protect and serve with my regimented wellness checklist, was suffering from a lack of novelty, as was my mind. The brain (the physical structure) had been flooded with stress signals, which decreases its ability to complete more complex functions, including the formation of memory. When all your energy is shuttled into worrying, there’s little brainpower left to remember even nice bits of mundane life, like sunny days spent in the yard planting bulbs or starry nights spent learning constellations. Not only that, but my brain has been having trouble finding memories because of the lack of landmarks. In an interview with the BBC, Catherine Loveday, professor of cognitive neuroscience from the University of Westminster describes the phenomenon as akin to “trying to play a piano when there are no black keys to help you find your way around.”
The “black keys” on this metaphorical piano could be anything, but Loveday stresses the importance of geographical locations. Going somewhere new, seeing something different, even driving to a place you know well but taking another route—all these things tax your brain in just the right way. Or rather, it taxes the right part: the hippocampus. While other parts of my brain that deal with stress and threat have been getting a daily workout (the amygdala and the brain stem), my hippocampus has been… quiet. Lazy. Atrophying. Researchers believe that the hippocampus is where we store new knowledge, where we learn. It’s a part of the brain that keeps my mind (the conscious portion of myself that thinks) happy.
And that’s where events come back into the picture. An event typically requires going somewhere new, wearing something different, eating something unusual. It often means you are seeing people you don’t normally see, following codes of behavior you might not normally follow. It makes sense that I remember the funeral—I drove for hours to be there, navigating suburban streets I had never seen. I wore black trousers and leather loafers and a silk blouse that felt good and cold against my clammy skin. I made small talk with family members I hadn’t seen in months. I was thinking, hard, the entire time about where I was in the world, how I was in the world, what I was in the world.
I’m grateful for the funeral because it was a meaningful tribute to someone I loved. But I’m also grateful because it reminded me of the fact that I want to do more than just survive this time; I want to remember entire days of my life.
I hope I won’t be going to another funeral for awhile, and sadly I don’t have any socially distanced weddings or baby showers on the horizon. But I can make my own special days for me, my husband, and my daughter. I can celebrate the shortest day of the year with blazing candles and big bowls of soup. I can drive new roads, listen to new albums, and greet strangers with an exaggerated smile, one that makes the most of my newly entrenched crowsfeet. I can break my habits and routines to celebrate anything I deem worth it, from death to life to love.