Imagine yourself on a sunny beach, is what they say to do when you find yourself in some way worse scenario, like standing on a frigid subway platform with a dead phone battery and dashes on the “next train” clock. I like beaches as much as the next guy but this has never worked for me; I’m unable to summon warmth from within, and simply stay miserable.
Instead, I close my eyes and imagine myself cruising around my suburban hometown in a big honkin’ SUV (one of those 11-highway-miles-per-gallon deals), PSL in my cup holder, ten-gallon quilted purse on my floorboard, Yankee Candle Spiced Pumpkin air freshener dangling from the rearview, Top 40 on the radio, trunk full of groceries for baking muffins (also pumpkin spiced), completely at peace in my oversized cardigan and black leggings. Yes: my ultimate bliss scenario has long been succumbing to the siren call of Christian Girl Autumn.
The trauma of the ongoing pandemic has many pining for the past, feeling nostalgic for times that are firmly “before” and are, in contrast, much simpler and safer. The meme of CGA is new, but its traditions have deep roots. For decades, certain women (“Girls”) have been counting down the days until fall, and I grew up in a place filled with such women (the suburbs of Houston). The faux nostalgia I feel for CGA is both homesickness and projection; the CGA-enjoyers always seemed to have access to a feeling I would love to feel, right now: effortless happiness.
As Valentina Stoycheva, a clinical psychologist specializing in traumatic stress and the author of The Unconscious: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications, told the New York Times in July, nostalgia is a common impulse amid trauma because “it increases your ability to self-soothe during a stressful time.” It’s a “transitional object” between the before and after, a la baby blankets. As we float through the bleak and awful “during,” pleasant memories from the past are a special comfort.
“That’s one of the techniques I’ve been using with many of my clients—let’s go to our ‘safe place’ right now,” Florence Saint-Jean, a trauma specialist and the executive director of Global Trauma Research, told the New York Times. “Right now, we may not necessarily feel safe, but we can take our minds to a safe place, which will create a chain reaction in our body.” In other words: my Christian-girl-autumn fantasy is some kind of safe place/coping mechanism my brain is clinging to as I try to mentally weather the absolute chaos of the present.
In a typical year, I’m completely resistant to embracing Christian Girl Autumn. Everything it represents (political naivete, being Christian, floppy felt hats, flavored coffee) are completely the opposite of my normal ethos. But now (more than ever) the simpleness I associate with the sort of person who enjoys CGA is irresistibly alluring. How good it would feel to cover my empty brain with the largest hat available, drink coffee that’s mostly steamed milk and syrup, write Bible verses in calligraphy, and be totally pacified in a cozy bubble of my own making. I want something achievable to look forward to (PSL season, lighting new candles). I want for simple pleasures to make up the fabric of my entire world, even if only for a season.
The appeal of Christian Girl Autumn lies in what we can project upon it. The original image—two white women smiling with their Chiclet teeth, enveloped in the world’s largest scarves—exudes easy living and effortlessness; the kind of life one might blog about beneath a pastel banner image. It was initially mocked for its basicness, until the tide turned, and many realized that the line between basic and happy is often short and direct. Now Christian Girl Autumn exists as a fictional aspiration point; how big a scarf would you wear, if you had no worries in this world?
Like so many others, I’ve already spent this year warming up for a whole-hog CGA: I baked biscuits and bread; I got really into baseball caps; I started saying “athleisure” without irony or pain; I began growing out my hair; I burnt candles like there’s no tomorrow (and maybe there isn’t!). The next natural phase in my personal 2020 journey is a fall filled with artificial pumpkin and cozy vibes. And who am I to deny myself these ephemeral pleasures, in a year like this? This fall, as we stare down the barrel of a pandemic winter, I’ve decided to allow myself the pleasure of living it.
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