I was just about to leave work for the day when my husband called me.
“Class has been canceled. They’re sending everyone home,” he said.
Skylar was deep into his second year of medical school when the university announced that due to reports of coronavirus reaching certain parts of the United States, campus would be closing.
Minutes later I scrolled through Twitter to find an endless stream of virtual fearmongering from the online masses about impending shutdowns of nearly every supply chain. “The state liquor stores are going to be closing soon and we don’t know when they’ll open again, so everyone plan accordingly,” one friend announced on Facebook alongside a picture of a line of people that wrapped up and down the wine aisles.
I drove home. Over the next two or three days, Skylar and I doomscrolled through article after article about what a lockdown meant, worst case scenarios for the global pandemic, photographs of Italian hospitals with dying people strewn about hallway floors, and predictions on how long this would last.
“I just read something that said this could take 18 months. A lockdown for 18 months,” a friend texted me. My heart sank.
I ran into the living room in mismatched socks, a block of cheese with teeth marks on it in my left hand, and a sloshing glass of red wine in the other. It was 2:00 PM. “I don’t know if I can handle this if it goes on for 18 months,” I remember yelling at Skylar.
A few days later we woke up to an earthquake. We spent the rest of that day trying to work despite several unsettling aftershocks.
I don’t know if anyone who didn’t live through it will ever really understand how much those early weeks of These Unprecedented Times truly felt apocalyptic. The lack of answers. The conflicting reports about whether or not we should be buying masks. The inaccessibility to testing, and the concern that the testing might be inaccurate anyway.
Once it became clear I wouldn’t be working in my office again any time soon, I decided I should probably go pack up my computer monitors and some other supplies and bring them home. Skylar and I had a long conversation about whether this was safe and what precautions I should take during my short journey, as we wiped down with Clorox a three-week supply of groceries I had just bought.
I headed downtown that afternoon. The streets were empty. All businesses closed. No other cars on the roads. I had to stop to get gas on the way. I used my pinky to push buttons and then drove the rest of the route to my office holding it up, like I was at a British tea party, until I could access some hand sanitizer.
My workplace was dark and quiet. I loaded some things into a box and then drove home. Skylar made me leave my shoes outside, immediately change my clothes, and then scrub my hands and arms.
A lot of that sounds silly now, of course. And maybe it would have sounded silly to a lot of people even then. But hearing there was a deadly disease spreading across the earth, that it was easily transmitted and we didn’t quite know how, and that if we got that disease there was a decent chance no hospital would be able to help us, made extremism feel reasonable. Maybe it still is. I don’t know.
After two weeks of this, I found myself at an emotional low. Skylar noticed that I was spiraling and he responded by issuing a weekend moratorium on accessing the internet. “This is for your own good,” he told me as he collected my devices, like I was a teenager who was being grounded for getting a D in algebra.
That Saturday I painted the garage door, a household chore I had been neglecting for two years. I made cocktails and cooked while listening to several pop culture podcasts. We ended the evening by taking the dog for a walk and then watching Airplane! in our basement. The social media cleanse did the trick, and for the first time in fourteen days I started to feel like I had some perspective again.
Over the next several months things sort of changed and sort of didn’t. I stayed home, working, and finding new ways to use my time since so many of the old ways weren’t possible anymore. We learned that the virus was mostly spread through the air, and that wearing masks made a massive difference on transmission rates, but there was still no vaccine or foolproof treatment and social distancing would remain crucial. So I kept staying home.
I knitted every evening while Skylar lay on the floor under a pile of blankets, studying and complaining that the house wasn’t warm enough. I ramped up my covid-safe hobbies and even tried to invent some new ones. I went for 15-mile runs every other day. I learned to cook Indian food. I became a vegan for one week. Well, four days, if I’m being honest, and I’m not sure I am.
I tried to keep busy with my work despite an omnipresent pit in my stomach warning me that I might be the next victim of the quickly dissolving economy. I tried to write more. I tried to fix things around the house.
I didn’t feel like I was doing any of it well.
And because of that, each day I found myself marinating in something of a subconscious guilt. Negative self-deprecations became my unwanted mantras.
“I’m such a slob.”
“I’m not eating as many vegetables as I should.”
“My social skills are atrophying.”
“I need to wear pants more.”
“I can’t believe I just wasted two hours silently sitting on the front porch with the dog.”
I felt these things about myself, apparently under the impression that back when I used to drive to work and see other people, I got much more done and had much more to be proud of.
All year I tried to force myself to give myself a little more room and grace for what I perceived to be my failings. “Give yourself a break,” I would think. “This is a hard year for everyone. It’s ok that you aren’t accomplishing much. Give yourself a break.”
I braced myself for a disappointing end-of-year reflection. I planned to consider 2020 to be a wash. To just accept that I had failed it according to any normal metric. To not be too hard on myself when I looked back and realized I didn’t have much to be proud of. Would any of us, really?
On Thanksgiving morning I sat in the kitchen chopping some potatoes as Skylar checked the temperature of our roasting turkey. The dog was lying by the front door because it’s warm there during the day in our south-facing house.
Skylar was in the middle of telling me some story—a memory of a childhood Thanksgiving gone bad. He was only about halfway through it when a rush of warmth came over me. I don’t know how to explain it. Maybe it was because it was Thanksgiving and I was in a grateful mood. But it suddenly just hit me how much I loved him and how incredible it was that I got to spend so much time with him without distractions during 2020—the first year of our marriage.
“Well, I’m thankful for that, at least,” I thought. There was at least one good thing to come out of this year.
I know. Gag.
But as I keep reflecting on what this year has meant and what is worth valuing, I don’t know. I wonder if, in some ways, we’re about to slide into home with something of a skewed perspective. I hear friends talk about closing the chapter on 2020 with a shrug and a mass discarding of all rearview mirrors. We’ve collectively acted like these recent months have been nothing other than a tragic waste, best forgotten as quickly as they were sometimes devastating or stressful.
Whatever anyone is feeling about this year, I have no doubt it’s fully justified, especially if your experience has been much more tumultuous than mine. At the risk of jinxing myself, I admit my family has stayed healthy and mostly employed and I know so many ache for the luck I’ve had, even if I still experienced some pains along the way. Who am I to lecture anyone about what they should think about their own experience?
Even still, I have been wondering if maybe instead of giving myself “a break” for all of my perceived failings, a more careful review of what I’ve been through might merit some small round of applause. And I wonder if that might be true for you, too.
If you’ve grown closer to your family this year, maybe that’s cause to celebrate.
If you’ve set needed boundaries with your family this year, let’s raise a glass to that, too.
If you’ve learned this year to cut out distractions so you can focus on what actually matters most to you, maybe you have even more reason to be proud of yourself than usual.
If you’ve ended this year with more compassion and love for your neighbors, I mean, really, what measure of character and grit could mean more than that?
Hell, if you’ve got anything good to say about yourself at all at the end of a year like this, I’ll high-five to that. Or, I would. If there wasn’t a pandemic. Or if I was a BYU student at the end of a date to the Creamery and Color Me Mine.
I suspect that if we all held up an honest magnifying glass to our lives right now, we might find that we were a lot more “productive” during 2020, and in the most meaningful ways, than we would have been in any “normal” twelve-month period. It may not have felt so along the way as we stayed home and worried and cried and struggled in our homeschooling and fought off the occasional panic attack. But I’m starting to wonder if the only way many of us really have failed this year is in our ability to see how proud we should be of ourselves for what we’ve managed to be and become when it really wasn’t fair to demand much from any of us at all.
And even that failure is understandable. Who could expect any of us to engage in some accurate self-reflection when the world feels a little apocalyptic?
This morning Skylar and I took the dog for a walk around the neighborhood. He told me about the medical school rotation he just finished. He gave himself a hard time, joking about how useless he feels around physicians who have been practicing medicine for decades. “I’m sure it’s not that bad,” I comforted him without any evidence beyond my belief that he could never seem useless.
He reached into my jacket pocket to clasp my hand that was already there. “I’m freezing,” he told me. “How are your hands always so warm?”
We walked that way for a while, chatting, laughing, adjusting the beanie hats I had recently knitted, not really in a rush to get anywhere.
We talked about what we wanted to cook for dinner—something with vegetables—we really should be eating more vegetables. We resisted the temptation to give one another too many clues about what we had each planned for the other for Christmas. I forgot to be proud of myself for putting on pants.
There’s a quote in the series finale of The Office I think about often. I tell you this at the risk of sounding like someone whose personality is based on The Office, which, I don’t know. Maybe that’s accurate. In any event, Andy is reflecting on his nostalgia—the good times he had in the workplace he always kind of hated, because that workplace really sucked.
“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them,” he says, fighting back a tear.
I, like you, I’m sure, certainly never plan to think of 2020 as “the good old days.”
As Skylar gripped my hand and giggled to himself about a truly godawful pun he had just made up—I mean, really. Godawful. I realized then that these are probably the moments I’ll most remember and choose to cherish from 2020. The quiet neighborhood meanderings. The quality time. The conscious decisions to worry more about the things that matter and shed the things that don’t.
I don’t want to forget these moments, or what they represent about how much we’ve changed for the better. Throughout the rest of my life, when I look back on this time, I want the pride in my scars to overpower the angst. I’ve earned that. You’ve earned that.
Even if the Pandemic didn’t quite set the scene for any kind of “good old days,” here I am, stupidly hoping that very small pieces of it might be just that. Because, I might as well?
That may be a naïve perspective, or one that fails to fully grasp or be sensitive to our collective trauma. But it’s the one I decided to strive to have as we wandered the neighborhood this morning.
The neighborhood where we smirked and sighed and spoke and strolled.
At our now normal pace.
In an ongoing place of some kind of pause.
With a new kind of peace.
(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)