Every year I put together a family photo calendar with photos from the previous year arranged in chronological order month by month. 2021’s January page features pictures of us at the Chicago Botanic Garden Lightscape show and February features my younger son’s birthday party at a trampoline place that I doubt is still in business. Then, in March is a photo from our last dinner out at a restaurant on Friday, March 13, after we’d gotten word that schools would be closed and that the first positive cases had been reported at the University where we both worked. Images from the before-time that seem impossibly distant, like years ago, not mere months.
The virus still seemed far away and abstract back then, like an enemy visible over the horizon, but whose impact was difficult to discern or prepare for. Ten months later, with schools still remote and my husband and I still working from home, on the last day of this most bizarre and tragic year, I am struggling to comprehend it all, both what’s happened to us personally and to us as a nation, and how much is still left to endure.
Even though these socially constructed markers of time won’t change many things – Jan. 1 will be pretty similar to Dec. 31 for most of us – we all seem to be making a bigger deal out of these milestones now. “Good riddance, 2020!” people are saying with varying levels of intensity and exhaustion. Does it feel like we’ve crossed some finish line? Ringing in the new never felt more necessary, the symbolic having to do so much work for us as reality itself seems fractured and broken.
Part of the strangeness of the pandemic experience for me has been the juxtaposition of the stasis and monotony of our daily life in semi-quarantine against the roiling violence of this crisis that comes to us through headlines, news feeds, and images: the threats and protests against public officials trying to do the right thing; health care workers pushed to the brink and hospitals at capacity; the obscenity of spiking unemployment and homelessness numbers alongside the additional billions raked in by the country’s billionaires; and the grim statistics of daily infection rates and death toll. The politicization of a public health crisis is the accelerant that, if it finally burned a cruelly inept and corrupt presidency to the ground, is also burning down so much along with it. 338,000 dead and counting. How not to become numb to the suffering while still carrying on with life, even enjoying it sometimes? What does a pandemic ethics look like for those of us who make it through intact?
It’s not surprising to me that so many of us turned to nature for solace in our physical isolation. The outdoors is less dangerous than the indoors; having the time to take notice of the wild life around us is itself a luxury not to be squandered or taken for granted. Nature seems unmoved by our troubles, and maybe that helps put things in perspective. Seeing friends and strangers alike post their encounters with nature – birds, insects, flowers, trees, clouds, water, sunrises and sunsets – made me feel connected in our collective human impulses.
There is no adequate way to sum up the year. It has been one lived in increments and moments, with tests of patience and reassessments of expectations I didn’t even know I had of my children, my spouse, and myself. Getting through a day without the children in tears, or having gotten a week’s worth of groceries, or having vacuumed all the rooms felt like a success. A well-stocked snack pantry made up for so much.
Tonight we’ll let the kids stay up late and toast the new year with Martinelli’s and champagne. And tomorrow, I’ll insist that we drive to a forest we haven’t yet been to for our annual forest bathing ritual to kick off 2021. The kids may protest that it’s too cold, and we may not last more than a few minutes as the forecast warns of mixed precipitation and wind. I have come to accept that as much as part of me wants us to be an outdoorsy kind of family, we are not that family. But we will go anyway, because this pandemic has only reinforced my belief that nature is healing and that rituals, whether passed across generations or invented on the spot, are tools for survival. Here’s to surviving together.