Life

What We Wish We Knew at the Beginning of This Mess

Some of the advice we’d send our March 2020 selves is still all too relevant.

A Magic 8-Ball that says "Buy the Damn Desk."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus and Amazon.

One year ago, Slate’s employees were sent home—“for a week or longer,” as Slate’s CEO put it in the email announcing that our offices would close. If only we knew! Like workers around the country who were lucky enough to have jobs they could do from home, we grabbed our laptops, waved goodbye to colleagues, and left the workplace to navigate our own confusing little hells. We didn’t know when we’d be back—and still don’t.

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I keep thinking about what would have made me more prepared for this pandemic year, what I had wished I’d known going in. If I—the Shannon of right now—could tell myself one thing that would make the year a little easier, what would it be? It’s admittedly hard to pick just one: Should it be practical (“masks really do work”) or a message of hope (“Grandma will be vaccinated”) or some specific personal advice (“move to an island somehow!”)? What would’ve made the crawl from March 2020 to March 2021 a little less awful? What do I know now that I wish I’d known then?

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I asked my colleagues to share what kind of message they’d send their own past selves. Some of them underline how little we understood back then, a reminder of how dramatically this year upended everyone’s expectations. Others, as we face months more of distancing and uncertainty, are still all too useful. And though no one said it here, I think we’d all agree: It was a waste of sanity to even consider Cloroxing our groceries. —Shannon Palus

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“Don’t panic-buy canned goods.” I don’t like to eat canned goods. —Torie Bosch, Future Tense editor

“Cancel the flight. Don’t tell your husband.” My husband and I spent six tortured days fighting about whether we should cancel a March 12 trip to England to see our friends get married. At the height of the argument, I was sending pointed emails linking to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard. My husband was replying with his own entreaties: “Can we follow the CDC’s recs on this? … They aren’t recommending canceling travel right now.” By March 11, the U.S. suspended travel from Europe, and we agreed to stay put. But of course, by then, there was no canceling the flight. The airline was swamped. —Mary Wilson, producer

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“Pack more than just a backpack’s worth of clothes when you decide to head home for one week one year.” I’ve done far, far too many loads of laundry for clothes I got rather sick of by mid-July. —Rosie Belson, associate producer

“Stick to your plan to go hiking at least once a month.” This was one of my 2020 New Year’s resolutions. I did it in January and February, but in March, once the pandemic hit, I thought it was unwise to stay the course because of fears about encountering strangers outside and early reports that trails and parks were overrun with people lacking indoor alternatives. I feel dumb about the hikes I did not take, and even dumber that I spent months wrongly thinking it was wiser to not venture into the woods. It made me less sane and healthy than I might have been. —Seth Maxon, associate editor

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“Your kids can go to the playground.” It would have released a lot of the tension on both them and their parents! —Ben Mathis-Lilley, senior writer

“Go hang out with your friends outdoors!” The first few months of the pandemic, I stayed completely isolated from my friends and partner. I thought that this was the best way to ensure their health and my own, and my mental health really suffered because of it. If I could go back, I’d aggressively reassure my past self that sitting outside together in the park or taking a walk around the National Mall is not only safe, it’s going to be essential for getting through this time. —Madeline Ducharme, production assistant

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“You’re not getting married this year.” I spent March to August worrying about what to do about my September 2020 wedding. In August, we made the final decision to postpone until September 2021, and it lifted a weight I had been carrying since the beginning of COVID. If I could go back to the beginning and have avoided all the COVID wedding planning stress, I would in a heartbeat. —Molly Gallagher, programmatic ad ops

“I know you work in media, but it’s OK to skip cable news most nights.” On top of the stress of having to keep your family in solitary confinement due to a deadly airborne virus, 2020 was also the year that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by police. The protests will be energizing, but the ongoing discourse about the value of Black lives, as well as the violence against peaceful protesters, will take a mental toll that you will not realize until it’s too late. —Derreck Johnson, designer

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“Use your vacation days this summer.” I put off taking my accumulated vacation days for most of 2020 because I wanted to save them for a time when I could actually go where I wanted and do what I wanted. But by fall, due to the approaching election, it became harder for me to take time off. By the time I could finally take a break after inauguration, I was severely burned out, just in time for it to be freezing outside and even harder to do fun stuff. I should have done a massive summer road trip or something! —Christina Cauterucci, staff writer

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“Philadelphia is a great place to take a vacation.” By great good fortune, we generally take vacations in faraway places, and we spent a lot of time at the beginning of the pandemic wondering if we’d ever get to use the expensive tickets to Tokyo we’d bought in January. I still worry a bit about whether we’ll ever get to use them—but in the meantime we had a really nice vacation in Philadelphia, which is not at all far from our home in Brooklyn. Vacations are about a change of scenery, a bit of spoiling yourself, and not working. Three stops on the train (or whatever it is) is all you really need for that. —June Thomas, senior managing producer of Slate podcasts

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“Hug your mom this summer. Let her hug the baby.” I was so (mentally) locked down with fear going through the spring in New York that I didn’t realize or appreciate how low case numbers—and, thus, risk—got over the summer. I saw my mom a few times outside, but we stayed distant. At our last visit, a trip to a petting zoo this fall, I saw her sneaking tiny grazes of her hand on my toddler’s head when he walked by her, and it broke my heart. But by then, cases were rising again and we were about to hunker down for the holidays. I feel like we missed an important chance. —Jaime Green, Future Tense associate editor

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“This is going to last a long time—you should seriously consider moving to a horse farm.” I just think I would have been happier being more surrounded by nature. And living in a house with a yard, I was already pretty surrounded by nature! —Susan Matthews, news director

“Move into a place with more windows.” Living in a house with very little natural lighting was as bad in the pandemic winter as I feared it would be. —Molly Olmstead, staff writer

“You’re not going to be rescheduling your birthday party for a while.” I had my 24th birthday party scheduled for the day before a state of emergency was declared in NYC. Needless to say, I didn’t end up having it. But I held out hope that maybe I’d have a jokey half-birthday party in September, which, again needless to say, did not happen. In fact, the place I was going to have my party at ended up closing permanently. Giving up the idea of quickly returning to normalcy probably would have helped me more in those early days than holding on to hope. —Rachelle Hampton, staff writer

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“Buy a damn desk right now, and also those pricey but amazingly comfy sweatpants you’ve been eyeing forever.” I agonized over both purchases for months, particularly the desk, since it meant getting rid of my dining table to make space. (I live in a very small apartment.) When I finally pulled the trigger, I only wished I had done it sooner. —Megan Wiegand, managing editor

“Trump loses.” There are aspects of the pandemic I wish I’d prepared for better, but it would all have been easier without also having to reckon with the possibility that the country might slide irretrievably into the abyss. —Sam Adams, senior editor

“The kids will not be back in school until one year from today.” Over half my angst this year has been about this question, and the answer has changed 100 times. If I had just known this result at the beginning of things, I would have been bummed, but it would have been much healthier for me overall. —Dan Kois, writer

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“You will lose a lot of things, but not to death.” I was so afraid my parents were going to die. Instead, I didn’t get to go to Hawaii for my girlfriend’s 40th birthday as planned, and actually our eight-year relationship ended. My house, which I co-owned with friends, broke up. So I lost a lot of things, but not what I was most afraid of losing. —Erin Nichols, chief software architect

“Don’t buy that used microwave.” I got COVID just under the one-year anniversary mark, and instead of blaming myself, I had to direct my frustration toward someone else—in this case, the kid I found on Facebook Marketplace who sold me his crappy microwave for $25. He was the only person I don’t personally know that I came into prolonged contact with before I tested positive … so he must be the culprit. Also, that microwave sucks. So: Treat yourself to a new microwave instead, Past Allegra. —Allegra Frank, senior editor

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