Shortly after moving away from China in 2014 I wrote a blog post titled “The consequences of smog“. Beijing was suffering severe pollution and I was experiencing it not in person, but through news articles and friends’ posts on social media. It was a reminder that that place was no longer my place, and writing about how smog had affected me over the years was a way for me to process that aspect of my transition.
“It’s strange to be here in Cambodia while reading about the smog in Beijing – rather than being there in it. This is the most distant I’ve felt since leaving.”
Since returning to Beijing this year I’ve been amazed at the difference in the pollution levels. It is markedly cleaner, with far more blue sky days, and far fewer “hazardous” days. Things I wrote that were true when I wrote them four years ago are no longer true:
“…turns out the WHO guidelines recommend no more than 25 for constant exposure. Yeah – Beijing doesn’t get a whole lot of that. There are rarely more than 2 days a month averaging under 50.”
Here I’m referring to AQI (Air Quality Index) numbers, a way of measuring the level of pollution, combining levels for several different pollutants – both large particles (PM 10) and small particles (PM 2.5 – most dangerous to health). This year, I think at least 50% of the days have been under 100 AQI. That would have been unthinkably clean to me five years ago! In Sydney, by contrast, I’d say at least 50% of the days are under 50 AQI, and the only time I saw it top 100 was due to bushfire smoke (which is largely driven by PM 10 particles, rather than the more dangerous PM 2.5).
With that background, I want to write a post that is almost the opposite of my previous post. This time I want to reflect on the impact of blue sky days. While the last couple of days have been around AQI 150, before that we had SEVEN CONSECUTIVE DAYS OF BLUE SKIES! For seven days, the AQI never topped 100, and most of the time was under 50. The sky was clear and deep blue, regularly decorated with patterns of small clouds.
In the past month only seven days have had an average AQI over 100, and three of those happened in the past four days. 17 days in the past month averaged under 50 AQI.
Shortly before this past week of blue sky days, I felt like my life was taking a turn for the better – I was feeling more hopeful about many aspects of my life, feeling more settled and at home in my new life. But when the blue sky days hit – oh! The lift to my spirits was instant and incredibly powerful. And when that lift happened, and kept happening, and kept happening – wow! I was very busy that week, lots of appointments and errands, yet I still felt encouraged and energised.
Blue sky days bring hope and energy. I guess this is more obvious when they are rare, but I really think the effect is true in any circumstance. Or, more to the point, the drain of living in smog is always true.
“It’s amazing how smog affects your mood. I remember well opening curtains in the morning, seeing the yellow sun of a clear day – and feeling an instant lift of my spirits. I also remember days where I woke feeling refreshed and energised and ready to start the day, only to look out upon a smog cocoon and feel that enthusiasm slowly fall under the weight of grey.”
Having a full week of blue sky days in a row reminded me what life can be like when I don’t have to expend emotional (and perhaps physical) energy coping with the consequences of smog.
And today, when I woke up a little tired, and felt the extra drain upon opening the curtains and seeing a wall of grey, I stopped. I spoke kindly to myself. I acknowledged the very real consequences of smog – that it makes me feel more tired, less hopeful. And remembering that, telling myself that, being gracious to myself in that moment – it helped.
Blue sky days remind me what normal is.
Knowing what normal is means I recognise the not-normal of smog days.
Remembering it’s not normal helps me show myself kindness, allowing for the energy drain.
It’s the same effect of having a run of good health days – when I’m not in pain – and realising how much more energy I have and how active I can be on those days. It reminds me that pain is not normal, and to give myself grace for the things I can’t do.
The same goes for a run of good mental health – remembering that how I feel under the cloud of depression or anxiety or a difficult transition is NOT who I am! That I am labouring under a heavy burden, and it’s okay that I need to go slowly and rest.
Blue sky days bring hope to the grey days. Blue sky days are a reminder that grey is not the way life should be – whether it is the grey of depression, or pain, or the literal grey of smog.