Labor Day in the Pandemic Year of 2020 has come and gone, and by the day after, Tuesday, something had changed. You could feel it and hear it, some shift in the light and the air and the mood, changes that in a normal year we might associate with going back to school and the end of summer pleasures.

But this is no normal year. For millions of kids, back to school means back to the computer in the kitchen or the bedroom. The waning summer doesn’t resemble any summer we can remember.

These post-Labor-Day rituals — back to school, summer’s end — may bear some relation to the familiar, but they don’t mark time in the usual way because the pandemic has upended the way we process time.

On that Tuesday morning, I took a walk in what is still technically summer. The flowers, though bedraggled, were still in bloom. The trees were still full of green leaves, despite the yellowed few that floated to the ground. The cicadas were still squawking.

But the breeze was newly cool. I sidestepped dead cicadas on the wet sidewalk, heard a couple of pleasantly melancholy autumn songs float through my mind — “oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few” — and from out of nowhere came a voice.

“Winter’s coming,” the voice said, “and this is only mile 14 of the marathon. Pace yourself.”

Pace yourself. It’s advice we apply to long runs and hard work, to any endeavor that risks exhausting us before we’ve done what we need to do.

To pace yourself, according to one definition, means “to do something at a speed that is steady and that allows one to continue without becoming too tired.”

Figuring out how to pace ourselves through the pandemic has been one of the big challenges of the past six months. How do you pace yourself when you don’t have a clue what the course looks like, or how long it is?

In the early days of the pandemic, we could kid ourselves that we were in for nothing more than a hard sprint. Anyone who was paying attention, of course, knew that this would be at least a 10K. But who was paying that kind of attention?

We were too busy racing to the store for Clorox wipes (sold out) and toilet paper (sold out) and stocking up on whatever weird vegetable was left in the supermarket freezer, meaning frozen riced cauliflower.

Back in the early days — March, April, into May — few of us could imagine we were embarking on a marathon. It’s hard to imagine what you’ve never experienced, and we’d never experienced a pandemic.

But we began to find a new rhythm, not always comfortable but sometimes steady. The days settled into a new structure. We stopped worrying about toilet paper. The frozen cauliflower sat blissfully untouched in the freezer. Summer came, and we could go outside, which distracted us periodically from life in lockup.

But anyone who was paying attention could deduce by July that this was no sprint. It was no 10K. This was a marathon, and we weren’t even halfway through.

And now, with summer waning, a lot of us — most? all? — have realized that we haven’t paced ourselves mentally for such a long haul, and we are very tired.

It’s still hard to know exactly where we are along the pandemic route, but the little voice that spoke to me on Tuesday says mile 14 so, for the sake of pacing, I’m going to believe it, for now.

The idea that we’re only halfway through the pandemic may be depressing, but it’s also liberating. One key to proper pacing is to set proper expectations. Pacing yourself means not going too fast or too slow. It means resisting the urge to push ourselves to pointless fatigue, and it means resisting the urge to give up. We have to keep seeking mental and physical practices that will get us to the end.

Yoga, walking, meditation, prayer, Zoom gym classes, Zoom music classes, (your-practice-here). It’s not easy to stay steady, but we have to keep seeking ways.

I once read a set of tips for marathoners. In addition to proper pacing, it recommended enlisting friends and family to stand along the course to cheer you on.

We have a long way to go before this pandemic’s done, but we can do this. Even with winter coming on. Besides, what’s the choice? Think: Steady. Steady. Steady. Cheer someone on.

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

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