March 16 was once a date with no particular features or attachments. The 2020 pandemic has officially submitted a nomination of the date for a spot on my calendar.
Posts have been popping up this week, some with reflections on a completely different year than expected, to say the least. I don’t consider my experiences during this pandemic to be particularly unique. Unlike with my 2020 birthday, 2021 New Year’s Day, or any other marking of my calendar, for whatever reason, I’m sitting here, reflecting and writing on the eve of March 16.
A part of me doesn’t want to join the conversation, driven by instinct to protect my memories and false hope that silence would not give them permanence. A part of me wants to hold in my own words because words that once were just words, casual stories, now have a way of becoming incendiary in an atmosphere where so much air has been sucked away and only the slightest energy can cause a blaze.
In searching for this date in 2020 in my phone photo album, I am met with snapshots depicting a cautious existence, joined by an uncertain thread of optimism tied to dread. I made a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel topped with everything but the bagel spice blend. I had my latte. I worked. I read the news. I ate, slept, dreamt, and was among the lucky to wake the next day, and every day thereafter.
Cherry Blossoms would make their annual appearance, yet the nation’s Capitol and the world would stay home and learn to watch and wait as beauty continued, unphased, unfussy, blooming according to its own time.
Like many of you, my personal universe seemed to grind to a halt. The earth indeed kept spinning and the laws of nature continued to act.
Today, my memories are filled with all the “lasts.”
The last time I went out for dinner with my friends, the last restaurant I went to, the last friend I hugged.
The last ride on the metro.
The last happy hour with colleagues that I almost didn’t go to.
The last time I saw a movie or tv show and did not flinch, concerned to see people in close proximity on screen.
The last airplane trip.
The last time I visited more small, local businesses than I can count that have now shuttered for good.
The last time I saw my family.
There are also the pandemic “firsts”.
The first time I went to the grocery store, alone, in the midst of a deadly pandemic with a bandana for a face covering that would not stay up on my face.
The first time I regretted not restocking hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes.
The first time I refused to play the board game, Pandemic, because real life is not a game.
The first time I wore a face mask, so that even if my breathing is more labored, it would not be my last and would protect others.
The first COVID-19 test.
The first time someone I knew had COVID.
The first time someone in my family died during the COVID pandemic.
The first time I realized there is a huge list of things I won’t soon take for granted.
There is also not the first time I worried that someone would look at my outsides and think hateful things.
Not the first time I would wonder what they saw peering through hats and glasses and masks and coats.
Not the first time I would walk past army tanks and soldiers brought in to protect the city I live in.
One whole year later, and the common understanding and expectation of normal growth in a year has taken on a whole new meaning. How can one see past the many endings, and see how what will yet emerge could be better somehow than before, better than the prior universe?
A post-pandemic future, coming into focus
Yet, my constant chorus line of encouragement keeps telling me, reassuring me, and imploring me to believe that what is coming can be better than what was before. I can’t see it clearly yet. It is just out of focus for this moment – like in the photo above where the Washington monument is blurry while the blossoms are in focus.
A year of pandemic semi-stillness has somehow shaken out and brought to light what has been there, mostly hidden, mostly under the apparently easily broken surface of busyness and commerce of the day to day. What emerged includes light and dark.
Although the daily news is rarely so light as puppy dogs and Hamilton, love put on a different look as people learned to use their voices on all platforms. They modeled standing up in the light for their friends, families, and neighbors. As for the light, they are the few things and people that we can hold onto for safety and security. We turn to these sureties, sharing the triumphs or fails of the first Thanksgiving Turkey in a new home, loaves of banana bread, or sourdough starters patiently waited for, and the shared experience and normalization at once of continual connectedness with exhausted retreats from technology.
There will always be firsts and lasts. I used to celebrate the fun firsts with a big smile. I still do, in a quieter way, and in a way that doesn’t need to be flashy or seen by everyone.
There’s also the spaces between firsts and lasts. Make of these pockets what you will. Maybe a part of growing up is seeing that the things that used to be a big deal aren’t worth sweating. Persist. It is hard. It will be harder. It will be easier. You’ve survived every day, including today, and you matter.
If you’ve read this far, make sure you tell someone that they are important and no one else is like them in the whole universe.