Pandemic Journal: The Woes List

There is a thing I do that I call the woes list. I’ve been doing versions of it for a long time, but during the pandemic it has become more distilled and more frequent. It’s very simple: I just start listing everything that’s bothering me, and see if I can get to 100. 

Handwritten list on ruled paper

The woes list is not for all the time. I can’t — and shouldn’t — do it — when I’m grappling with anything that’s too close and too big, like when dear friends recently tested positive for COVID. It is a woes list, not a consuming-dread list; it is not a tool for acute crisis. Most of the time, terrible as the world is right now, I don’t need a woes list. I turn to it only in a very particular mood: when everything feels overwhelming but diffuse — laughter and good news don’t touch it; bad news and setbacks don’t significantly worsen it — and the mood has lingered for days. 

I’ve made woes lists with paper and pen, and I’ve done them digitally. I prefer to do them in one sitting — because new woes have a way of cropping up in the interim — but I have a 4yo; interruptions are a way of life! If I had to come up with one rule for the process, I would say: make it fast and make it personal. Include whatever comes to mind, from the bogglingly huge to the mortifyingly small, from the highly specific to the atmospheric and general. I always find the first 50 or so flow very quickly. After that, it goes a little slower, but is still pretty stream-of-consciousness. (My guess is, if it’s a struggle to come up with 100, this list isn’t something you need right now.)

Sample items:

  • Trump
  • X hasn’t responded to my email and I’m afraid they’re mad at me
  • My ankles are cold 
  • I have a meeting later that I don’t want to go to
  • I miss Y even though I just talked to them two days ago; why doesn’t that feel like enough
  • I don’t like my desk lighting 
  • Fucking COVID 

The list is global. It is granular. It is petty. And it is powerful. 

A hundred woes is a lot. The first time I tried it, I was surprised by the number of seemingly trivial concerns that made it onto the list (like the clutter on one particular corner of my kitchen counter). Before I wrote them down, I wouldn’t even have registered how much those things were bugging me — especially because so many of them were completely within my control! Immediately tackling those things had a disproportionate positive impact on my mood, and built momentum for addressing some of the bigger problems. The list shines a light on what’s fixable.

The list also holds space: for the emotions I can’t process right now, for griefs and pains I can’t change. Friends I’ve lost touch with during the pandemic, for whom I don’t actually have time or bandwidth; they may not be my closest, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sad for what we’ve (temporarily!) lost. My worries over xyz medical/health thing, which are on my mind, but not serious enough that I feel good about going to the dentist/ophthalmologist/whoever right now. The fact and impact of whiteness within even some very dear friendships. 

Similarly, the list holds space for troubles that aren’t really mine, but that touch me nevertheless. Friends’ relatives who are sick or dying. A stranger whose tragedy I read about on social media. An acquaintance going through a hard time. Situations I can’t do anything about — where reaching out might actually be inappropriate, given our relationship (or lack thereof). In the moment of writing them down, I think of the people who are suffering, and I send them my love and care. 

And the list shows me which dimensions of the huge, overwhelming, global things distress me most deeply. This morning I wrote “fucking attempted coup” at #12 but then, more than a dozen unrelated items later, my brain dug deeper: #30 AOC in danger, #31 Ayanna Presley in danger, #32 Nancy Pelosi in danger, #33 Andy Kim cleaning up the Capitol rotunda. Later still, #59 a Black Capitol police officer facing down a white supremacist mob, #60 Black non-law enforcement staff, same. I have so many political/structural/procedural fears around what’s happening, and yet what took up space on the list is what haunts me hardest personally: the impact on Black and brown people, male violence against women.  

I have always been a list-maker and a feelings-namer, so, the woes list is a good exercise for me. I don’t know how well it would work for anyone else. If you try it, please share how it goes. 

I wish ease and safety for all of us. I wish comfort and support. If my sharing this list process with you offers any benefit, I’m glad of it.