In Case of Emergency / Break Glass

This essay went out through my newsletter on 3/29/2019.

I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a lot to panic about these days. Things are very bad! Like, existentially! I could list some of the many, many, many reasons why, but no one needs that. You know all the global reasons, and then I'm sure you have your own, private ones, too, things that haunt you in the middle of the night. For me, those private things include my continued and agonizing unemployment, a difficult relationship that I know I'm navigating all wrong, half a dozen emails that I am afraid to send, and just generalized regret for lost opportunities and lost friends and bad choices, the almost unbearable recognition that time only moves in one direction, the fear of change but also the yearning for it, and WHOOPS it's 3:30am and I am fully awake and losing it. 

Panic, at least for me, is always the result of feeling out of control. As a rational person, I recognize that I cannot control climate change, or the election, or the plastics industry (and there I go listing all the things I promised not to). And this feeling of helplessness tends to bleed into my normal life--suddenly I become sure that I'm going to lose everything, that I can't hold on to my husband or my cats, that I'll never be able to find a job, that nothing I do matters and I can't make a better life, much less a better world, and WHOOPS I'm no longer in the present but drifting in an unbearable imaginary realm of eternal loss. 

When that happens, I find it helpful to call up this list, which I made after one particularly bad night. It is a list of action items, to-dos that manage to help EVEN THOUGH all the bad things are still bad and tend to visit one in the middle of the night (which is really fucking unfair and, frankly, seems like very bad planning on someone's part). Reading this list pulls me out of that terrifying shadow realm and back into the present. If that's a place you know at all (and I'm so sorry if it is), I highly recommend making your own emergency list. Here's mine.

The Things That Help
1. Working. Even though it's stupid and the world will likely end in ice (or maybe fire? Probably both!), it does make you feel the teensiest tiniest bit better to be working towards something that will keep my busy and engaged and doing good work. This is very annoying.

2. Reaching out to your people. Your mileage varies on this! Sometimes it's very embarrassing! You don't always want to do it! But it's always a good idea. 

3. Telling yourself, over and over and OVER as necessary, that depression lies. Depression lies! Depression LIES. Depression. Lies. We know this! It is known.

4. Recognizing the things that made you sad, but also taking a minute to think of the good and consistent things, for instance:

  • Art (even--maybe especially--art about sad and scary things)

  • Architecture

  • Art Museums

  • Bullet-pointed lists

  • Marina Abramovich

  • That Icelandic artist you love so much and can never remember the name of

  • Novels

  • History, which includes the history of lots of sad things that people sort of mostly get through!

  • Flowers

  • Cockroaches and pigeons and raccoons and rats and other really fucking resilient animals

  • Tattoos, and the possibility of always getting another one

  • The moment you're actually in, which is almost always okay, really

  • Breathing

  • Your beautiful friends

  • Mary Oliver poems about grief, for example:


I am in love with Ocean

lifting her thousand of white hats 

in the chop of the storm,

or lying smooth and blue, the

loveliest bed in the world.

In the personal life, there is

always grief more than enough,

a heart-load for each of us 

on the dusty road. I suppose

there is a reason for this, so I will be

patient, acquiescent. But I will live

nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting

equally in all the blast and welcome 

of her sorrowless, salt self. 

-Mary Oliver, from Red Bird

  • The Ocean itself, big and unfathomable and yes, it is very sick, and that makes you feel in a horribly literal way like you are sick, but it is also consistently surprising and you do not know, maybe things will get better, the future isn't actually written yet even though it feels like it is

  • Water of all kinds

  • The mathematical poetry of birds

  • The work you've done

  • The work you haven't done yet--the sentences you're going to string together and fall in love with

  • The next TV show, movie, song, restaurant that will surprise and delight you

  • Cats, all of them, literally every single cat

  • Most dogs 

5. Remember that even though you feel sick and sad, you sat down and you made this. On a different day, the next time you're sick, maybe you can make something else, like cookies, or a terrible drawing! The important thing is that even in the thick of it, you can do things to remind yourself that you are not living in the terrifying future. You're living right now, in a moment that is almost always pretty much okay, really. Take a breath.

Haylie Swenson