Next week, it will have been one year since the pandemic hit and everything changed. Like many others, I’m remembering where we were last March and what we’ve learned in this strange year that’s followed.
Early last March, we were preparing to embark on a road trip through Savannah to the beaches of North Carolina for a travel partnership I had accepted for spring break. The virus had just hit the United States in a way that made us slightly cautious for travel, but no one could have known what was coming. We chose to drive instead of fly. I packed hand sanitizer and made homemade bleach mixtures in travel-sized spray bottles which I intended to use on restaurant tables, but that was as severe a definition of precaution my brain could come up with at the time. No one in the country was wearing masks, and the term “social distancing” hadn’t quite made its 2020 debut for us yet. So off we went, doing what we love to do best on trips. We explored the old riverfront streets, tried the recommended shrimp boil in Savannah, the fried pickles in Wilmington. We stopped at every charming bookstore in between—there were many—and walked the neighborhood blocks near our rented house like they were our own. The memories we made on that trip are glorious and little did we know, a last hoorah before the chaos.
Somewhere between Wilmington and Savannah, I got nervous. We had stopped at a Target on what we had hoped would be a drawn out and enjoyable trip back home, but I sensed the shift. You could feel it in the air—this cloud. People were scared. I had picked up enough bits and pieces of news on our trip to think to grab some Lysol and hand sanitizer to bring home, but the cleaning supply aisles were stripped bare. Two more stores in Savannah confirmed it—sanitizing products were wiped out and slowly other necessities were dwindling. There’s something eerie about seeing rows of completely empty shelves, especially when you’re away from home.
It was clear from the news updates, we needed to return home quickly. Friends were reporting grocery store chaos, and our home was in no way prepared for the overwhelming advice of “stock up” we were hearing. We didn’t know yet that our kids would never return to school that year, that all our planned trips would be canceled or that Brett would later lose the job he loved. We wouldn’t have believed if anyone told us a year later we’d have lost over 500,000 Americans to this, that half the country’s kids still wouldn’t be back in school in a year or that trips to the grocery store would someday mean connecting with strangers only through eyes that peer over masks.
We came home and stocked up the freezer, ordered puzzles and card games and crafts. We watched Wuhan on the TV. Then Italy. We cried seeing footage of Italian villagers singing from their rooftops, eerie empty streets between them, and the exhausted health care workers breaking down in overcrowded hospitals. I called friends, and we commiserated about our fears. “What if this lasts a long time? What if Brett loses his job? What if someone we love gets really sick?”
School was cancelled for another two weeks. “We can do this!” I told myself. “I was made for this!” And like everyone else, I didn’t realize my reserves of optimism, creativity and can-do-it-ness would have to last as long as they’ve had to, so I spent it all in the beginning and then borrowed more against my future self. We made forts, watched movies, created pretend restaurants. I attempted bread making, hosted courses, started a book proposal. An adorable classroom was erected in our dining room, and I wrote positive quotes about home learning on a chalk board with a special teacher chalk holder I bought because—get this—I was so excited about teaching my kids from home.
When the e-mails came from the district announcing virtual learning for the rest of the year, we were asked to pick up our kids’ belongings in an organized operation that would keep everyone safe. I wore sunglasses because I couldn’t stop the tears from spilling as I pulled my car up to the line of masked teachers who handed me plastic bags filled with Dash’s text books and Nella’s folders and crayon boxes stuffed with all the little treasures my kids had kept hidden in their desks that year—Shopkins, smelly erasers, hair ties and pencil toppers. I whispered to one of the teachers “We miss you guys so much” before I drove away, and I cried again in the garage when I returned home because I knew this was a much bigger deal I thought it would be the first time Publix ran out of Lysol. I thought about all the kids—yours and mine, and how this had become something they’d never forget. And our school—the thought of it empty during what was always such a vibrant time of year broke my heart—like driving by your childhood home where all the neighborhood kids used to play in the sprinkler and seeing it boarded up and neglected.
It’s been a year now. My kids are back to school, and the desk and chalkboard I was once so excited to have displayed in our dining room have been removed and relocated to other areas of the house. Given the heartbreaking reports of so many spent mothers still supervising virtual learning while juggling job duties and tending to stressed screen-weary kids, I’m grateful my kids are back in their classrooms with teachers who are showing up in this brokenness the best way they can. But school is not the same, and it shows in a multitude of ways. I send them off every morning more covered—in masks, in sanitizer and in prayers; and yet it feels the opposite—like they’ve never been more emotionally exposed in a colder environment behind walls I haven’t seen in over a year.
I am acutely aware of our privilege and the ways we are lucky this year. We have a roof over our heads, food in our pantry, beaches to visit and healthy grandparents who are are now getting vaccinated. Brett and I daily affirm our gratitude for all the little ways we’ve experienced joy this year—that’s important. And yet it is naive to assume that those spared from the pandemic’s darkest clouds aren’t still hurting, breaking under the weight of collective loss and making their way through the aftermath of stress and loneliness, relationship and mental health challenges. We are all faced with monumental effects from a year’s loss of the everyday constant vibrant connection we didn’t even realize was stitching us all together.
Travel, work trips, healthy distractions, changes of scenery, spontaneity, events, promising opportunities, bustling communities and the freedom from exhaustion of making decisions about what’s safe and not safe, responsible or ill-advised—I took it all for granted and the way it provided a current of constant forward motion I felt a part of and an inspiration that continually sparked my creativity. Personally, I’m spinning my wheels without them, feeling a little bit lost; but I know I’m not alone.
As more light peers in from the end of the cave for all of us, I continue to cling to gratitude for what we have and to gentleness for myself—letting these feelings exist without pressure to perform and hustle or the need to constantly feel enthusiastic and inspired. We’ll take baby steps out of this slump of a year, cherishing the good moments that sustain us and showing up throughout the less inspired ones as best as we can.
Lately what’s helping me: working out (something about lifting heavy weights makes me feel like I’m conquering something), making lists (planning for the anything in the future feels good), painting things that have need to be painted in our house, new recipes (two last week!), small donations to worthy causes, signing up to help (signed up for Lasagna Love this week and can’t wait to make our first lasagna), thinking about summer, leaving the house for small adventures to clear our minds and reporting the small tasks I completed out loud at the end of the day as if they are huge accomplishments that required loads of effort: “I sent two e-mails!” (pause for clapping) “I put my makeup back in my makeup case instead of leaving it spread all over the counter!” (pause for parade) “I put more than $5 in my gas tank!” (holding hand out for trophy).
Holding lots of hope for the world as it slowly reawakens to normalcy and love for all those who are tired, lost and beginning again.
There is more. xo