20 Things I learned from 2020

Pippa Gleave (2018, DPhil Pharmacology)

2020 was no ordinary year. In between finding out during the holidays that it might be a long time before we got to come back to Somerville – twice – and having to get used to all-new ways of doing even the most basic academic and social tasks, there was plenty to get to grips with.

But amongst all the challenges, I also learned a lot more than I expected. Here’s 20 things I took away from last year:

1. How to dance in a tiny space

Lockdown led to dance teachers all over transferring their classes to Zoom and modifying their classes for participants who were short on space. Ever since I returned to Somerville in July as the first lockdown drew to a close, I had to battle with my room’s very wonky carpeted floor. However, I still managed (despite falling out of even simple steps) and my dance classes were a saving grace throughout the year that brought me a lot of joy. 

2. How to be on my own

Being alone doesn’t mean loneliness. After getting very ill when I started my Master’s degree at a new university 4 hours from home, knowing no one, I found being on my own difficult. I finally made peace with myself in lockdown and found lots of things I enjoyed doing in my own time, like painting. 

(Side note – I really could have done with Oxford’s collegiate system when I did my Master’s. It is excellent for graduate students who may otherwise only get to know their supervisor/research group.)

3. I am an extrovert

I always thought I was introverted, but it turns out that I am a highly sensitive person and an extrovert. I get energy from socialising, but only when I feel comfortable; and I am easily overstimulated. When I mentioned this revelation to some of my friends at Somerville they looked at me incredulously. Apparently, I come across as very extroverted.

4. Ditching fast fashion

My 2020 resolution was to not buy any “new” clothes, only second-hand clothes, unless I really needed something and was unable to find it elsewhere. I stuck to it, gaining a new wardrobe of pre-loved clothes. 

5. Making my own clothes

I caught the sewing bug in April, got my mom’s old sewing machine fixed and have been learning dressmaking ever since. It’s been great for my mental health and work/life separation when working from home. I also got a wellbeing grant from Somerville’s MCR towards my sewing efforts. 

6. My need for nature

Nature helps me feel peaceful and relaxed, gives me a change of scene and somewhere to go. I really notice how I feel when I haven’t left the house all day. Being so close to Port Meadow and University Parks at Somerville, as well as having the college green spaces, is very helpful. 

7. Having outdoor space is a privilege

When we all were told to stay at home I was already back at my parents’ house. They are fortunate to have a lovely garden, but sadly far too many people have no outdoor space at all. Access to green space is often linked to income and the pandemic has made this clear what a privilege this is. 

8. Quizzes make group zooms more fun

Zooms require a lot of energy and there is no natural flow of conversation. Quizzes really helped make my family Zooms less painful! 

9. Learning a new (sign) language

My mom has suffered from glue ear her entire life thanks to dodgy eustacian tubes. When lockdown hit, she decided my family would all learn BSL to make her deaf periods more bearable for her. I can’t claim any fluency yet, but I think it is a skill we all should lean. 

10. How to say goodbye

My beloved neighbour, Bob Hill, passed away on the 31st of March 2020 from covid-19. I met him when I was 3 by singing to him across the road when he was working in his garden, and was a regular visitor until I went to university. 

11. Getting through when my illness flares up

I entered 2020 during a flare up of my autoimmune disease/chronic illness. This took months to bring back under control with medication. I was well versed with pacing, but pacing is hard when you have no idea how much physical and mental energy you’ll have on any given day. I gradually got my capacity back and found that the next point is key:

12. I need food, specifically enough protein 

Ever heard of hanger? I had more than that. If I didn’t eat enough or regularly I would sometimes collapse, a lovely shade of grey. Chicken broth (Jewish penicillin, as my mom says) was a lifesaver. 

13. Baking treats I can eat 

I’ve found that various foods trigger my autoimmune flares and I went on an elimination diet to identify said triggers. Finding and making recipes that suited me was a lot of fun and reduced my feelings of missing out. 

14. How to express my emotions in a healthy way

I was dealing with a lot of pain and anger from the beginning of 2020. I wasn’t letting myself express it and so it was coming out in unhealthy ways. Thankfully, with help, I identified triggers, did a lot of processing and work on expression, and grew to understand myself and how my emotions worked. 

15. My value is not determined by my productivity 

I struggled a lot with feeling like I had to use my free time well. I had to learn to ignore my over-ambitious ideas and perfectionism to acknowledge that downtime is essential to wellbeing. 

16. Routine keeps you sane

With the blurring of home and work, it became difficult to know which day was which. Routines helped to define the day, helped with productivity and my expectations. 

17. Flexible working is almost always possible 

Being chronically ill myself, I’m aware of many chronically ill/disabled people who have been denied flexible working for years, making the workplace inaccessible for some. I’m hopeful that from now on accessibility will be at the forefront of workplaces. 

18. I cherish my independence 

Being stuck for an undetermined time at my parents’ house after not having lived with them full time for 5+ years was … interesting. It was nice to be looked after when I was unwell, but I felt like I had no space of my own and no independence and it was stifling. 

19. People communicate in different ways 

To my slight frustration, I found that some of my good friends were difficult to converse with using messaging, and never wanted to video chat. It didn’t mean anything about our friendship, they just didn’t communicate well that way. Once I saw them again in person it was like we’d never been apart. 

20. You cannot control others 

From frustration at people flagrantly disobeying rules to stop the spread of covid-19, to anxiety at others walking too close to me, I learned that I can’t control them, only how I allow them to affect my feelings. 

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Pippa Gleave

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