“Reality continues to ruin my life.” –Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
Last weekend, my daughter had her State Basketball Tournament. On our way home on Sunday afternoon, we got off the highway and were heading down the frontage road when she chimed in from the back seat: “Hey Dad, there’s the last restaurant we went to!” It took me a second to jar my memory, but finally it clicked in. She was right: there beside the road was the T.G.I.Fridays we had gone to with her teammates and their families on the day her State Tournament ended last year. The realization was a sobering one.
With my daughter’s words, my mind was transported back to the first few weeks of March 2020. The quickly escalating tension and concern. The constant monitoring of the news for case updates and closures. The immediate fear of contracting the virus and losing loved ones. And what seemed like the worst at the time: the overwhelming sense of dread and inevitability as I watched the two biggest things occupying my mind head straight for each other like two runaway trains on the same track: my long-dreamt-about family beach vacation and the exponential spread of the coronavirus toward the point of national lockdown.
I remember how desperate I felt to get to that sunshine and warmth so I could immerse myself in the saltwater that always seems to make me whole again. I remember how irrational my thoughts became as the numbers rose to the point where it should have been obvious that the vacation was simply not going to happen. Things were beginning to shut down, and the dominoes kept falling. My son’s State Tournament, scheduled for the weekend after my daughter’s and just a couple days before our trip, was canceled. I begged the Universe for some loophole to appear that would allow us to go. I was willing things to be different, so obsessed was I with that vacation.
When I finally faced reality, I remember sitting on my bed, breaking the news to my kids. It was a heavy night in our house. They were so disappointed. We all were. It was terrible.
And that was only the beginning…
As we got deeper into March, a bizarre new way of life emerged at my house. School was shut down, only to be later restarted in a less-than-ideal way at home through devices. I scrounged for toilet paper, but otherwise we avoided stores, restaurants, and even our own jobs (which we were grateful to keep as others were losing theirs). It was a surreal new world to occupy, but the sacrifices made sense in order to quickly move out of the danger zone and back to our version of Normal.
From this view now, it seems odd that we imagined that the return to Normal would be quick. But we did.
One memory of those very early days that stands out in my mind is of watching a news show and hearing projections about the damage the novel coronavirus could cause if we—as regular citizens and our elected leaders–didn’t take the right steps early on in its days in America. I specifically remember them saying that it could potentially kill 70,000 people here. I thought, “NO WAY!!! That will NEVER happen! (But maybe the outlandish number will scare some people into behaving well for others in their communities.)” Seventy thousand. What a fantasy that sounds like now, as we recently blew by the half-a-million milestone and are still allowing 2,000 Americans to die every day from the virus, even as we continue to loosen our restrictions on gatherings and mask-wearing in many states. Oh, America…
After that crazy start, April arrived and seemed to stay for about 87 days. As an introvert, I felt like I had spent my whole life preparing for the forced isolation and quiet. It was just fine with me. At first, the “family time” and “break from organized activities” were relatively easy to sell to my kids. It grew less easy over time. They understood the seriousness of the virus and how each person’s behavior affected the entire community, so they accepted how disciplined my wife and I demanded us all to be. Still, seeing the unmasked neighbor kids wrestling in their yards with friends and other too-large neighborhood gatherings of adults made them wonder (justifiably) why other people got to cheat the rules. We can see now where all that cheating got us.
May was much like April—long and solitary—except that the warmer weather made getting out of the house for family walks and bike rides easier. We all appreciated the diversion. And outside, we could actually see other humans walking and riding as well, evidence that we were not alone on the planet, even if we couldn’t interact with them.
Summer is totally my season, and I had long been planning lots of adventures for my family for the 2020 Summer. We were going to take camping trips and many trips to the lake. To top it all off was to be a huge, cross-country roadtrip that included tons of sightseeing as well as visits with family and friends. The kids were the perfect age for it. It was to be one of those trips we would always talk about when we got together over the course of our lifetimes, forever family memories. NOPE! Canceled, canceled, canceled. Thanks to some family members committed to keeping safe, we were at least able to get to the lake to be with people we love. As I look back on the year, that time at the lake was the closest thing I have felt to Normal in the last twelve months. It was fantastic, and maybe something I will never take for granted again.
For my kids, other than their four-guest, outdoor birthday parties, if they wanted to spend time with friends, they had to stay on their bikes and talk while riding around the neighborhood. A far cry from the “just go out and play” days of the past. Childhood, interrupted.
Despite the rolling disappointment of the muted previous seasons, Autumn came around too soon, as it always does for me. Things like school and organized activities kind of halfway started, at least for some kids, including mine. It was like coming into the kitchen as a full batch of cookies is coming out of the oven but only being offered a single bite. Unsatisfying. But it was something. For the beggars we had all become over the previous several months, we clung to it desperately.
But then, of course, it ended. Schools and activities shut down again as cases and deaths skyrocketed. We were back to a fully muted life again, this time just more accustomed to it. Holidays that we have always celebrated heartily, like Halloween and Thanksgiving, came and went with just the four of us hanging out at home. The kids got lazy and addicted to screens in the absence of school and sports. We were determined to still get outdoors whenever we could, searching for energy and inspiration in a time when those were in short supply.
Winter continued the theme, as our lives seemed a bit frozen in time for a while as the virus kept us under its thumb. Slowly and tentatively, activities resumed. Eventually, games began to be played—fully masked and short of breath–and talk of a return to in-person schooling in some form. When school did resume recently, it was still the partial version. Half-schedules and no lockers for older kids, eating at your desk for the younger. There is no doubt the kids were glad to be back, but of course, it is not the same. Not as free. Not as fun. Just like everything else.
And now, here we are again in March. A full year into this COVID lifestyle and about to miss yet another Spring Break family beach vacation. I cannot think about this past year without shaking my head. It is involuntary. I cannot even begin to explain how deeply disappointed and frustrated I am with everything about this situation. The fact that we are a year out from the first deaths in this country and are still erasing 2,000 more people every day just makes me sick to my stomach. The fact that I have essentially lost a full year in my fleeting life feels thoroughly wasteful. I feel like I have been robbed. I’m sad about it. But I am also angry. I am sick and tired of shaking my head. At spineless or inept politicians failing their moral duties. At yet another milestone marker in cases or deaths. At people in the grocery store with their masks down below their noses. Or people going on vacation. Or going to bars and restaurants. Or refusing to get vaccinated. Or leaving the house when they are sick. Or complaining about how tough the guidelines and restrictions are when they aren’t even following them anyway. My neck is sore from all of the shaking, I swear.
Let me be clear: I am well aware that my family and I have been extremely blessed during the entire pandemic and over the course of this awful year. We have been healthy and connected: never got the virus and didn’t kill each other. We have had paychecks and food on the table. We are lucky, and I am deeply grateful for that. I have made the best of a best of a bad situation. And I can honestly say that I have been happy all year.
But not fulfilled. Not enjoying my work the way I normally would. Not getting all of my itches scratched for adventure, travel, laughter, and human connection. Not free. Basically, just not living my best life. Pandemic living is just so awfully dimmed and muted. I resent the dullness of it, how little there is to look forward to. It is so unlike glorious, regular Life.
That stinks. Because like I said, I am not getting any younger, and my years are flying by. I don’t have any extras to just throw away anymore. There is too much I want to do and feel, and too much I want to share with my kids while they are still kids.
So, I feel like I’ve been cheated this past year. Every day going forward from today in which it still feels unwise to travel and play and hug and look deeply into a friend’s eyes while we share our deepest thoughts, I will feel even more cheated. And not simply because there was a global pandemic. Bad things happen; I get that. Things don’t always go my way. So yeah, the coronavirus has been a bite in the butt. But I feel more cheated by my fellow countrymen. My neighbors and co-workers, my family and friends. And yes, my elected leaders. Collectively, we Americans have behaved horribly regarding COVID, completely failing the exam. Our federal policy was nonexistent (though I must say we did well in developing a vaccine quickly). Our state policies were not strong enough. But mostly, it was just the regular folks in our communities—our friends and neighbors–who were unwilling to sacrifice for one another. As my co-worker likes to say, ”They never should have told Americans that wearing a mask (and wearing it correctly) was to protect others. They should have led with, ‘The mask is only to save yourself.’” Other countries were amazing. There were plenty of examples to look to. The keys to beating the virus back were not secret. We just didn’t do it. And we are still, a year later, not doing it. That really makes me mad. Sad, too, because I hate to think so poorly of my country and my countrymen. But I do. Because we could have beaten this thing by now. We should have beaten this thing by now. It disgusts me that we haven’t. And that I am still counting. I am thoroughly disappointed. I have been that way all year long.
How about you? What are your strongest memories and takeaways from your year dealing with the coronavirus pandemic? Open up your journal and your heart, and wander back through the last twelve months in your mind. Go ahead, begin at the beginning. What was happening in your life in March of 2020 as things started to get real with the virus? What were the first things in your world to get disrupted? Which plans did you have to cancel? What was your level of fear and tension around the virus itself? How upset were you with the sudden changes in your lifestyle? Do you have a personality that flows well with change and chaos? Which aspects of “lockdown” living did you appreciate at the time? Did you miss your routine? Your loved ones? Stimulation? How was your job affected? In those early weeks of the lockdown, how long did you expect your life to be significantly disrupted by the virus? How many people would you have guessed would die in your country? Did those expectations of length and severity color the way you have viewed the pandemic the rest of the way? At what point in the year did you feel optimism about the possibility of the virus getting under control soon? Mid-Summer? Early Autumn? Ever? How disappointed are you in the way things have gone? What would you say is your distribution of disappointment, anger, frustration, umbrage, fear, and sadness? How wildly does that distribution vary from day to day? At whom do you direct the bulk of your ire regarding the duration and depth of this fiasco? Elected officials? God/the Universe? Regular folks not following the basic safety rules? Does your answer vary from day to day on that one as well? When I look back now over this letter to you and how I have described life in the last year, I see words like muted, disappointed, desperate, bizarre, dimmed, wasteful, sick-and-tired, frozen in time, tentative, slow, quiet, solitary, halfway, sad, and surreal. What adjectives come to your mind when you think about your lifestyle of the past year? Ten or twenty years from now, how do you think you will look back on this time? Will this have been the worst year of your life? Where are you with it right now? Does the presence of the vaccine, even if you haven’t received it yet, make you more impatient about getting back to the life you once had? What are the things you will try to keep from this COVID lifestyle? If you could give some advice to the person you were one year ago about how to make the best of the year that would come, what would you say? If you are like me and mostly feel like you have been robbed of a year on Earth, what will you do differently when we finally emerge from the pandemic to either make up for lost time or just make the best use of the time you have left? What is the most important lesson you have learned? Leave me a reply and let me know: What will you take away from your year with the coronavirus?
Onward and upward,
P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with your community. We must learn in order to grow!
P.P.S. If you like to examine your life both broadly and deeply, consider purchasing my book, Journal Of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.