Whenever I page through old journals, I am not surprised to see my blind spots. These are the expected symptoms of growth.
What does surprise me is more often the coherence of my former self in seasons that I’ve often since written off in monochromatic swaths of simplistic remembrance. Looking back inside the struggle is always enlightening for me in that it humanizes my former self, blind spots and all, and gives me a more holistic perspective of the human journey. My human journey.
This is especially pertinent in 2020, a year many of us would like to abandon as simply hard, unprecedented, and unwanted. And truly, much of our condemnation of the hardship of 2020 is merited. This year is likely to be historic in the challenges it has pressed upon people all over the globe. Everyone has a 2020 story.
For me, the year strayed from being embroiled in the first U.S. epicenter of COVID while my then-fiancé was trapped in Nepal, to a beautiful simple COVID wedding, to freelancing in the Southwest in a new dawn of growth and change. It has been a widely disparate experience of a complex year. The many seasons of 2020 have been separately agonizing, beautiful, perseverant and glorious for me – and I imagine for many of us.
A year ago this week, my now-husband Joshua proposed to me in a joyous day that allowed us finally to look forward to the end of a two-year cross-country long-distance, and the beginning of a new season. I still had six months left in New York wrapping up my fellowship in Public Health, and then I would relocate back to Tucson where we had met and where we would begin our marriage together. Our time apart had been beautiful and determined, while also being complicated and hard. New York was complicated and hard, at least for me, who felt like adapting to survive in the city required either constant effortful defiance or else shrinking into a person I did not recognize or particularly like. I had chosen defiance, to holding true to a deeper sense of the self I knew, but the cost was too high to be sustainable. New York’s price was too much for me, not in cost of living but in mental and emotional perseverance.
I was already in a state of survival when COVID hit. Joshua and I laugh now at having perfectly scheduled a wedding-planning week where we could knock out all the major decisions before he shipped off to Nepal for a several-month medical service trip and I went back to wrap up my work in New York City. We did it all: planned our venue, set a date, made a 240-person guest list, bought a dress. This week was in the middle of February. Joshua touched down in Nepal on March 1st.
On February 24th, hours after Joshua had left the States and still before we understood just how much novel coronavirus (as it was then called) was going to explode over the coming weeks, a sweet friend whom I don’t often get the chance to speak with sent me a text:
“I…just felt so overwhelmed to ask God to be like a blanket of presence over you. I prayed that you would find sweet communion with him in this season, and that your heart would be saturated with his love for you.”
The message came only hours after Joshua’s plane departed, and I was feeling a bit on my own in light of the yawning months of distance. From the stirrings of anxiety, I interpreted the comfort of this prayer at the time in light of my relationship. When I think about this prayer now, in light of the season that was about to unfold over me in New York, I regard it with a different gratitude and awe. What it said to me then and what it says to me now is the ever-needed reminder from our good God: I see you, and I am with you.
On March 3rd, I left work at the public health lab around 6pm. On March 4th, I left after 2am the next morning. And I wouldn’t leave before 10pm (often midnight) for weeks to come. The concept of weekends or lunch breaks disappeared entirely. We were suddenly and comprehensively engulfed by the COVID response. What characterizes this season is the quiet: Not a quiet of solitude and rest, but of unease and unrest – disquiet. The streets were emptied. Shops closed. People eyed one another with unease on the sidewalks.
As everyone who could stay home did, many who remained on the trains were those who had nowhere else to go. Some of these riders were mentally unwell or abusing substances. The subways had always had unwell people on them, but it became much more acute in the absence of other people. Late nights, which were always riddled with service interruptions and aberrant train schedules, could be unsettling. One late late night after work I remember clutching my umbrella tightly – for defense if needed – alone on the subway platform as an unwell man paced and raged nearby. My train was delayed for another 30 long minutes and I was still an hour away from home. After that, I started taking cars home for the latest nights.
I never had time to go to stores in those days. I heard about the hoarding. When I tried to go to the grocery store on my lunch break to pick up some precious vegetables, the line was often too long for me to get in within the hour. Our work was generous to provide meals for us, but they were entirely carbs – bagels, pastas, and the like. The body is not meant to subsist on refined flour 24-7. Combined with the 14 hour days of sitting at a desk and the extra 2 hours per day of sitting on a commute, all of our bodies began to take the toll. I had been training for the Brooklyn Half Marathon when COVID first broke, with my last run clocking a clean 8 miles. By the time I left New York in June, after months of this grueling pace, someone asked me if I was pregnant. A lifelong slender person accustomed to being active, this was a new low.
Then there was COVID itself. In those days, many of us got sick at work. It was before we were allowed to wear a mask (back when we feared shortages for healthcare workers), and it was before testing was widely available. We’d hear rumors of our coworkers being hospitalized, or we’d notice the absence of some for weeks on end. They’d come back but still not be at full capacity. Almost everyone in the poorly-circulated room I sat in had a fever at some point. Some lost their sense of smell. It was hard to know whether the headaches and myalgia were from stress or sickness. All of us were stressed, all of us were fatigued. We all kept coming in unless we got a fever, which looking back now, seems likely to have only spread the disease further. We felt like we had no choice. There was too much work and too few people to do it. Meanwhile, across the street we watched as the hospital erected an outdoor treatment space to accommodate overflow, and the medical examiner nearby began blocking off streets to accommodate the bodies of the deceased.
It’s amazing what we can get used to in a short space of time.
Joshua, meanwhile, had trekked up to a remote village in the Himalayas called Manang, where he would be running a small clinic to assist local villagers and mountaineers traveling through the area. Just before he arrived, a snow storm had taken out the receiver, and almost no messages could get in or out. It was just as everything around the globe was beginning to shutter, events cancelled, cities going into lockdown. He and his team had no idea. As some news began to leak through, he said he and the other expatriates would meet at a local coffee house to discuss any scrap of gossip they could get their hands on from the outside world, and the news was increasingly outlandish. He would spend the next months locked down – and for a little while trapped – in Nepal. The distance between us felt further than ever as the world unraveled.
There’s also the small part where I didn’t have an address for a few months. My lease had ended months before my fellowship, and for reasons beyond my control was not extendable. On the one hand, this meant a bit of chaos and living out of a suitcase in various AirBnB’s while attending to the COVID response. On the other, it was the first chance I’d had in years to have a space to myself. Privacy was a deeply appreciated luxury in New York; one that as an introvert in a crowded city I had slowly been starving for. It also gave me the chance to see New York through the lens of different neighborhoods. I reflected on how a person could have such a wildly different life in New York from one block to the next, and was able to recognize much of the stress of my time in New York as attributable to a perpetually unpredictable living situation over the previous couple years. It gave me, in short, context. And context is always an invaluable tool in the constant quest to understand our inner selves.
Through all of this time, I felt in one sense, more alone than ever. And yet, in another sense, I felt a different kind of strength emerge. I had plenty of uncoiling that would need to be done to recover from this, and I would get to that later, but in the day-to-day of the never-ending crisis, I found presence, strength, and words of encouragement to give. I found my voice in a new way during this time; a voice that was stronger, firmer, and yet still compassionate. It was a voice I had never felt so much certainty in.
I stole away to Maine for a couple days in the summer. I’d been wanting to see it before I left the east coast. Per regulation, I tested negative for COVID before I left and arranged my trip so that I wouldn’t have to come in contact with another person. I stayed in a little cabin by myself and hiked through Acadia alone. I was transfixed in the best way. Being in such hauntingly beautiful terrain, I felt for the first time in a very long time, a breath of peace. It was the first taste of what would be a very long and deeply needed unraveling.
I arrived back in Tucson on July 1st, both in a state of deep disbelieving relief and a bit of shell shock. I got to be in the same city as my beloved, I got to be out of the unhealthy environment I had been persevering in, and I suddenly had access again to healthy activities that had eluded me for my entire time in New York. I hiked and ran with abandon, eager to return my body to a state of normalcy. I had never been so physically unhealthy, and that carried with it a special sort of shame and disappointment, especially on the eve of my wedding. What I remember from this time was a sense of being coiled, angry, tense. I hadn’t realized how much I was carrying. I could finally drop the survival mechanisms I’d been clutching for months (and in some cases, years), and yet I didn’t know how to right away. I picked fights with Joshua. I felt angry at the news. I felt angry at everything. I didn’t know how to release and relax. My body and mind didn’t know that they were safe yet.
Recovery was a long slow soak. It was meeting my emotional and physical needs. It was getting enough sleep. It was being close to my partner again. It was praying through and working through the built up toxins in my emotional system: the anger, the constant sense of fight. I felt in this time like I had no capacity. Things felt in flux. I felt unproductive, distracted, afraid of challenge. I gave myself a hard time for these things, not appreciating the bigger psychological picture of how transition, burnout and stress can all impact our sense of being. I think this has really stuck with me as I’ve unwound from the first part of this year. I’ve had the chance to escape an overwhelming reality. Many healthcare workers I know are still in the thick of it, and I feel deep compassion and appreciation for the toll they are taking in their bodies and minds to serve us all. I pray all of us appreciate them for this.
Joshua and I postponed our large ceremony in favor of a tiny outdoor gathering on our original date to say our vows. It was not what we originally planned back in February. But it was rich and beautiful with significance and love. I never pictured such a small wedding, but I feel so so grateful for the one we had. It was perfect, serene, overflowing with joy.
Our original honeymoon plans had been to explore New Zealand by camper van, which obviously fell through. For the longest time we didn’t really make new plans. Why try in 2020? But then, with the time off and a little inspiration, we decided last-minute to rent a camper van to explore the western United States instead. It was the most beautiful foray though Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and home in Arizona. We went on glorious hikes, climbed in Durango, did a via ferrata over Telluride, hiked the Tetons and explored Yellowstone. We skydived over Moab and saw almost all the national parks in Utah. We sat on the empty floors of a dear friend’s new house in Flagstaff (yes, we wore masks). Then we did perhaps the most fun thing of all: settle into our new lives together in our little haven near downtown Tucson, where we go for hikes or bike rides, walk our old dog Chaco, eat brunch together, play games, and enjoy our quiet first months of marriage.
In the end, 2020 has been so utterly kind to me. The last six months have been taking care of my body, building my marriage, finding solace and inspiration in my favorite activities, pushing my mind, and growing in my craft of writing. These days I ask myself every single day why I get to be so fortunate. Joy is still a controversial concept for me. My therapist once called me an “orphan spirit,” a person who feels unworthy of blessing and good fortune. When I look now at the joy I get to experience every day with my husband and our dog in the little life we’ve created in the Old Pueblo, Tucson, I don’t feel entitled to any of it, but deeply and emotionally grateful for all of it. For me, half of 2020 was survival and grit, and the other half was restoration and growth. When I look back on this year, I hope to remember its complexity. I see now that my tense New York self was giving the best she had to offer. I am grateful now to have more at my disposal to give.
They say that how you end one relationship affects how healthily you begin another. I wonder if any of that psychology carries over to our relationship to a year. I don’t know what 2021 will hold any more than the next person, but I invite us all to end 2020 with the complexity it deserves. That way hopefully we can enter an uncertain 2021 with grit and grace alike. The truth is, we don’t know what the next year holds. Given the precariousness of our world these days, what makes us believe that it will be automatically better? This year needs our engagement too. If we abandon 2020 like a trash fire, I worry that we won’t extract the lessons and growth it has to offer us. Yes, this year has had hard moments. I hope that each of us gets an opportunity to pull back and rest this holiday. Mindfully. Intentionally. Rest and rejuvenation are vital for health. I pray we get the space we need to heal from loss or trauma, as this year has unduly given. But I also pray that, as applicable, 2020 makes us better. It can only do that if we let it; if we invite creativity into our spaces of fear and hope into our caverns of despair. I pray we do this too.
What is your 2020 story?
*Wedding pics were taken by the WONDERFUL Laura K. Moore. Featured image taken by Megan Talbot. All others were taken by myself or Joshua