In the gap between Christmas and New Years, I had planned on finding the words – an angle – from which to reflect on the remarkable year that has just passed. At the center of it, regardless of angle, stands the spikey ball image which has become so familiar to us of a virus, crowned in thorns, which has transformed our lives, our deaths, our relationships and even our wardrobes. It has come as a destructive force, wreaking havoc, loss of life and health, creation of fear, division of peoples, cessation of normal living and so much more. But as with all destructions, it has also created space for new things, previously unimaginable amidst the crowded ecosystem of our lives. A tree has crashed in the forest of our days, destroying all it hit, but opening a light in the canopy for a new thing to grow, too.
To focus solely on either side feels wrong, and dishonest. We risk despair if all we see is what has been lost, damaged, destroyed. It seems ungrateful to the small gifts of the year, suddenly so precious, to cast them aside against the greater weight of tragedy. But to talk about the gifts of such a disruption, without also sitting with the grieving and unemployed, seems like a wicked use of good luck and privilege.
By any measure, 2020 was the hardest and most difficult year of my life. I am an extroverted adventurer, who revels in novelty and people and treasures relationships above all. I bounce between the desire to be with people and doing things to the need to be quietly alone with myself. I have held on to as much as I can, but there are friends whose silence fills my heart. There are the people I did not meet this year, and have not come to know. And while there are no gatherings, there is also no solitude. This would have made me cranky if it were my only trial, but that is hardly the case.
I have also had an extremely serious, extraordinarily time consuming, heart-hurting challenge within my family this summer. It’s not for speaking of in a forum that is Google-searchable, but many of you know (and if you’re dying to, drop me a note and I’ll tell you). For the vast part of this year, desperate fear has overshadowed any chance of peace or joy. At times, I could not even see hope from where I stood. It felt like the air I was breathing was increasingly stale, and as though I might at some point run out of oxygen and smother altogether. I am very happy to report that from the depths of that fear, we have gotten a breath of fresh air. Hope has returned, even amidst the hours a week we need to spend doing hard work to nurture and sustain it. I hold my hope and joy lightly – knowing that it is fragile – and treasure the lightness of my heart in this moment.
These twin challenges: the darkness in my life, and the crushing weight of pandemic, have been so much. But they are not all the sorrows. Starting with November of 2019, it has been a season of loss for me. My godfather died. My cousin died. My friend’s son was paralyzed, and in hospital for six months. My friend BJ died. I broke up with my church. At work, I worked crazy hours under crazy pressures to launch three medical devices in a matter of months (and am still working under intense pressure). My plum tree died. My uncle died. And on New Year’s night, just as the year turned, a mother of a friend of mine – a woman I know and will miss – died of COVID. It has been a year of aching.
But that is not all the story. The bleakness above would be unsurvivable. But in the midst of it all, there have been consolations great and small. My loving husband has brought me breakfast in bed every morning of this pandemic. I am so fortunate in the company with which I have been trapped!! Our cats have draped themselves over us as loving scarves – Data is sitting on my knees at this very moment. We have been keen participants in the changing of the season, with no blossom or scarlet leaf escaping our rapt notice. There has been less hiking and camping than I would wish (almost all my camping trips got messed up this summer), but still I have seen the summits of: Field, Tom, Moosilauke, the Tripyramids, Chocorua, the Moats, Owl’s Head, Flume, Liberty, Willey and Moriah. I ran and hiked and walked closer to home, in the familiar paths of the Fells and streets of Stoneham. The Greenway for which we fought so hard is filled with families and art.
All summer, Adam and I would share a fresh and crisp salad under the shade of my dying plum tree at lunch, watching the rabbit we dubbed “Hawk Food” menace our plantings. We gardened and mulched and trimmed. I took up, for the first time in my life, the pencil and brush and learned the very basics of drawing and watercolors, giving my mind some new ways of thinking and new thoughts for having. The art has been a great consolation to me, not because it is good but because it is both new and deeply satisfying. We have baked and cooked through over a hundred pounds of flour, with bread and cinnamon rolls and pies and cakes and all manner of delicious recipes not possible to pull off while you’re commuting. We hung out as a family in the attic on Saturday mornings, playing Breath of the Wild on our Switches as the snow fell. We replaced all our windows, built new bookshelves, renovated our living room and took long baths in the bathtub. We bought a new car, had it be a lemon, and replaced it. (Ok, that might belong in the “bad things” list.)
Finally, in many ways we have been so very lucky. None of us in my family – immediate or extended or pod – has gotten COVID or even been all that close to it. For all the people who have died, so many have remained safe and well. Adam and I have kept our jobs, and have been able to safely work from home since March – with no pressure to return to an office until summer or fall. Our children are of an age where they can handle most of the remote schooling without detailed hourly supervision from us, and we can work as we need. Our home is safe and comfortable and our wifi is very good. We have been lucky to be in a pod with dear friends with similar risk tolerances, kids the same age, and enjoyable company. We have enough rooms in our house that all of us can be on virtual meetings and close a door and not be crammed together.
And this to me has been 2020: sorrow, fear, joy, wonder, fortune, misfortune, loss, gains – all together under the broad shock of great disruption. It has both been the sameness of the days, melding undifferentiated into each other, and the vast changes which have gone from inconceivable to normal to inevitable as the long weeks have turned into months.
I do not know what 2021 will bring. There is ahead of us possibly the most dire 6 – 8 weeks of the whole pandemic, where disease and death are rolling across our country unbridled. The first symptoms from Christmas exposures are showing now for those who will be dead by Valentine’s Day. But racing towards us like a rescuing angel is the work of exhausted but dedicated scientists, medical professionals, lab workers, project managers, FDA regulators (absolute heroes – you have no idea how much work they have had to do this year), pharmacists, doctors, nurses and other nameless but hard working folks who have spent this year of their lives to buy us a way out of this. We have three vaccines at maturity and more on the way. Behind them are antivirals and therapeutic treatments, to rescue those who fall ill. I have hope that by spring we may start to see the tide turn, that this summer outside may be close to normal, and that by fall we will all be finding our places back in a world remade, but ready for the next chapter.
However, if 2021 has taught us anything, it is that we simply do not know. We must stand ready with hands to help and hearts open. We must look to protect the most vulnerable among us, whose list of blessings is so short and list of trials is so long. We must treasure those things which are good, and support the fight against the things which cause harm. And if on the way we can climb mountains and paint pictures, then so much the better.