As lockdowns around the world continue for weeks and we face long-term uncertainty, we’re all finding new ways to cope with isolation, trauma and grief.
While the pandemic is unprecedented, people around the world have long been facing upheaval and isolation. We turned to seven women whose lives and work have included tumult and taken them far from “normal” — whether through geopolitics, work, or feats of endurance — about the rituals that have helped keep them grounded, connected and going.
They talked about the ways in which they started and ended their days, the small things they look forward to and the ways they remain connected with themselves and their loved ones.
Blair has sailed more than 50,000 nautical miles, and in 2017, she spent 184 days sailing around Antarctica alone.
“On a long ocean voyage, my average day would start to feel like the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ where I would go through the motions of eat, sleep, sail and repeat. It is a simple life but it can become monotonous over time,” she said.
Her days were spent reading, making sail changes when needed, writing her blog and communicating with family. Most of the time, it was too cold or the water too rough for her to be on deck, so she spent about 95 percent of her time inside the boat, with less than 110 square feet of space and small windows.
At one point, the ability to send text messages from her boat broke down for about two weeks. Email was still working, but required more effort — booting up, connecting to satellites, downloading emails, replying and then uploading her responses.
For Blair, her mornings offered the rituals that helped set the tone for her days.
“I always started with a hot bowl of porridge and at least 30 minutes of reading. … [It] would set me up for the day. If I couldn’t get that time I would feel frustrated almost all day,” she said.
It’s a habit she has maintained since returning to land.
“I still read for 30 minutes each morning with my breakfast,” she said, “That is probably the biggest habit I have.”
Caldwell Dyson has spent 188 days in space, about six months of which were spent living and working on the International Space Station with a small crew of astronauts.
During her time in space, every version of life as she knew it existed on a planet she was no longer on.
She lived in a small crew quarter a little bigger than a phone booth with her personal items, which included clothes, photos of her family and the like. Her days had routines — waking to an alarm clock (but no sunlight in a living quarter without windows), followed by work, meals, conference calls, exercise, dinner with the crew and talking to her parents about once a week.
Caldwell Dyson was newly married at the time and her husband, who’s in the Navy, was deployed on a ship. Their exceptional circumstances meant even having a conversation required coordination between the U.S. Navy and NASA. Sometimes, their calls would happen at 3 a.m. and suddenly drop. Sometimes, they went weeks without being able to talk.
“I wanted to talk to [my husband] all the time. … We were never in the same time zone. In fact, we didn’t get to text until three years into our marriage when we were on the same land mass. So my expectations were set,” she said, “My desires were one thing, but my expectations were another.”
What helped Caldwell Dyson most were the things that helped her with a sense of perspective — prayer, managing expectations and understanding what she could and couldn’t control.
“If I have a clear view of what’s under my control and what isn’t, then I can move on. … If it’s not under my control, then I got to let go of it,” she said.
Her nightly ritual of looking out the space station’s “bay window” — the seven window cupola which is generally oriented to be facing Earth — also helped to ground her.
“Most every night that I could, I went into that cupola for an entire orbit, which is 90 minutes,” she said. “We call it pre-sleep. Had dinner with my crew, made my phone calls, answered my emails, got in my comfy clothes, got my face washed, then I went and nestled myself in that cupola.”
In 2014, Thomas cycled solo across the United States and Canada — a trip that racked up to about 6,000 miles over the course of six months. In 2017, along with a friend, she cycled from northern to southern India, a trip that took four months.
“There are a lot of knowns about what’s going to happen: There’s the fact that every day I’ll need to eat, I will need to plan for water and I’ll need shelter eventually, in some point in the day, and that’s actually a lot,” she said. “All you have to do every day is eat, drink and move forward in some capacity,” she says.
While cycling across India, she woke up at 4 a.m. and started cycling early to avoid the heat of day, stopping for the day by early afternoon. While cycling, tea breaks along the route became their ritual and reward.
“We'd usually have infinite chai breaks. Chai was basically how we maintained our moods,” she said.
At chai stalls, they would have “a thimble of chai” and have the chance to interact with people. It was a predictable break she could look forward to.
The pair would also record a voice memo every evening about the day they had, what they saw, the people they met. On the road, they cycled at their own pace, often miles apart — moving through the landscape and their thoughts alone, even though they were on the trip together.
“When we were biking, we’re biking together, but we’re not next to each other for most of the day. And we’re pretty much only communicating when we’re sitting down at chai stalls and at the end of the day when we’re exhausted. We really weren’t processing anything together during the day, so it gave us an intentional space to go like, ‘Hey, here’s what happened to me today, and here’s what I went through,’” she said.
Mallot spent a year living at the South Pole.
While in Antarctica, Mallot lived and worked with 40 people. She lived through months when the sun doesn’t set, and also months of constant darkness. During the winter months, no planes flew in and out, and even the windows were boarded up for their experiments.
While she was able to make phone calls, the Internet was only available for a few hours a day, and the connection wasn’t strong enough to support video calls or streaming.
One of the rituals that helped Mallot feel hopeful and connected is a South Pole tradition called the “midwinter package.”
“You send a couple of friends $60-80, and tell them, ‘Buy stuff you think I’ll enjoy and send me a package.’ Because we don’t get post for half the year, you just label them and say I’ll open this one in March, this one in April, this one in May. Every month or so, you get something new,” she said.
The care packages, which often included things like cookies or small treats, gave her something to look forward to.
Gift-giving was at the core of another ritual that helped Mallot: She regularly spent time thinking about the gifts she could buy for the friends and family in her inner circle.
“Spending the time thinking about these people and wondering what they might find enjoyable made me feel connected and gave me a lot of joy without anyone else being involved,” she said.
Alexander has worked as a humanitarian aid worker in regions across the world facing conflict and tragedy, including Darfur, South Sudan, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Haiti.
Alexander’s work often took her to places where she witnessed and engaged with a lot of suffering, lived in isolating and difficult living situations at a distance from loved ones — from a 5:30 p.m. curfew in Haiti to living in a compound in Darfur with very little freedom and regular power cuts.
Small pleasures and rituals gave her something to look forward to — in Darfur, it was Nescafe and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, and stopping at a shop on the way back from her office that sold mango juice in baby food jars. “It was this cold, sweet syrupy juice that I would look forward to all day.”
In Rwanda, it was delicious chocolate nuts she bought from the market. In Haiti, it was jump rope and an ’80s aerobics class she taught.
When heading out into the field, Alexander also packs familiar things: “Your favorite shirt, your favorite shoes, things that make you feel like you, that remind you where you come from.”
Shabayta is a Palestinian refugee who lives and works in the Ein El Helwe Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. She was born in the camp and now works as an education field coordinator in South Lebanon for Anera, a development and relief organization supporting refugees.
Shabayta’s days in the field are hectic and varied.
“I wear my sport shoes since morning, getting ready to be in many places with many people, listening to all the challenges, providing support at the same time,” she explained.
But what grounds her are rituals all rooted in connection and coffee: Her mornings start with her mother and her evenings end with her family.
“Usually I start my day with a cup of Nescafe with my mom, talk to her about what I'm going to do today, what bothers me and what is pleasing me. My mom is my psychological comfort. I derive my energy from her and then I get ready to start my day,” she said.
Shabayta's big family all live close together in the camp, and they spend their evenings chatting and drinking coffee together.
“This connection and familiarity is a real happiness, joy and comfort. This is how usually I end my day.”
Potter is a photojournalist who has worked extensively in Yemen and Iraq, both documenting humanitarian crises and conflict, and working as a health care professional. She also spent two years as a wildland firefighter in Idaho.
Potter’s days are different depending on what she’s doing: from 12-hour shifts as a nurse, to working as a medic in Iraq, to highly structured days when fighting fires.
But she tries to start her days with coffee and reading for 10 minutes. It’s the same in Rhode Island where she works as an ER nurse now, or in Yemen or Iraq.
“I know it’s difficult to keep a routine when the world is in chaos,” she says. “I know what’s good for me, helps me feel on an even keel — that’s exercise and reading.”