During my session at the Social Prescription Pharmacy, Emmer Winder tells me that her inspiration for the project is her feeling that the ‘official’ narrative that the pandemic has been a time in which “we’re all in this together” is bullshit. Hard to disagree, right? And I can’t be the only person, surely, who would feel awkward trying to universalise my experience of the last twelve months?
Winder takes the approach of putting her personal perspective into the background, and instead becoming a conduit for other peoples’ points of view. Anyone can contribute to the Social Prescription Pharmacy by sending in your own label- you’ll find them in the Independents Biennial newspaper on on their website. The idea is to collect a range of advice which people have used to get themselves through the pandemic, and create a resource which should provide the visitor with something they need. I like the acknowledgement that we’ve all got through the last year in our own unique ways.
Personally, the thing which kept me grounded was routine. With work drastically reduced and nothing in the future to plan towards, I often struggled with the aimlessness of it all. Setting myself routines – things I had to do every day, every week – gave me something to grab onto in the sea of empty days. But these routines weren’t towards big goals, or life-changing plans. Instead I set myself a routine of small things. I kept up language lessons, dusted off some long-forgotten piano pieces, picked up a sketch pad.
I had the good fortune of working with Winder in a one-on-one Zoom workshop to come up with the wording of my label. Afterwards, I wondered if my advice should simply have read “it’s good to talk”. I know how much luckier I’ve been over the last year than so many other people, and I’ve felt – not guilty, but certainly careful – about sharing my feelings. But it’s nice to get things off your chest from time to time; to talk about the sense of absence and the ways I’ve tried to fill the void.
Anyway, my eventual label is wordier than some of the others on the shelf that is the Instagram page. I overthink it, you see. I’ve spent too much time in the wellness world (to purposes which will one day turn into a thing…) and read enough trite slogans to last a lifetime. So many pieces of ‘advice’ which make it sound like life’s struggles and traumas can be easily overcome with a bit of positive thinking. Not that my advice is earth-shattering, but I don’t want to fall into those ranks. I’m more concerned that my advice is true to what I’ve felt, and that’s complicated. Many of the other prescriptions in the Pharmacy are more straightforwardly what you’ve expect from advice, and I’m sure they’ve been of help to the people who submitted them. I think I come across like I’m denigrating them and I don’t mean to – different things work for different people. I’m just sharing my personal concerns around mine.
Which ended up as:
“Practicing your own mundane actions will progress your earthly connections”.
“Mundane actions” – those hobby-like activities which filled my days. I spent longest thinking about this word “mundane”, but in the end it was the only word that felt right. “Everyday” was too homely, “repetitive” too focused on drudgery. “Mundane” is the small things, not just the tedious ones.
“Progress your earthly connections” – the realisation that all those small things were adding up into a bigger picture of ‘accomplishments’ which gave me something to cling onto.
Because I did a workshop I got a tote bag featuring my advice, which I’ll be wearing out with pleasure. Who knows- maybe it’ll change somebody’s life in the supermarket. I also got three postcards to fill out and send to other people – though I confess, I’ll actually be keeping one for myself. One of the main daily “mundane actions” was to practice my Russian language skills every day. So on one card I’ve translated my advice. All by myself! It was the perfect exercise to reaffirm that for all its wordiness my own advice was, at the very least, right for me. That in those small sliver of ten-to-thirty minutes a day, I’d actually achieved something. That what I’ve clung to all year was actually something real.
One of the things which intrigued me most about the idea behind Social Prescription Pharmacy is that it combined two things I’m not at all convinced about. I’ve said my piece about advice: I’m also watching the development of the genre of “art about the lockdown” with my cynical hat firmly on. How will artists interpret this time: who will stick with the idea that this was a time to ‘grow’ as a person and who will reflect that a lot of it was fucking awful in so many different ways? Winder’s project is one approach to navigating this dilemma, creating a body of work which may stand as a record of how people actually felt in this strangest of times.
Does the project succeed in being a ‘pharmacy’ to turn to for support? I see two ways that it could be. Words are powerful things to both absorb, but also to speak. The therapeutic qualities of The Social prescription Pharmacy aren’t just in taking advice, but in giving it. The process of working through my feelings to distil exactly what’s got me through is at least as soothing as contemplating somebody’s wise words. As we begin to return to a more normal life, both aspects could be important to our collective healing. Both have the potential to make us understand that we haven’t been as isolated in our feelings as we might have thought. As more people contribute their different experiences, the chance only grows that everyone will find something of value here.