One thing that grief has taught me is that even the most horrible experiences can change us in ways that are positive. The year 2020 was bad for a lot of reasons I don’t need to talk about. We all know.
Instead of reflecting on the bad, I’d like to spend some time thinking about what changed this year that I’d like to keep with me as I move beyond this time in my life, both on a personal and more collective level.
So, an end-of-year list:
“What I Plan to Keep from 2020”
1. Using outdoor public spaces. We live in the city and are used to our daily life involving built-in movement: the walk to school, to the park, to friends’ houses, to the grocery store down the street, etc. When everything shut down, we had to make a conscious effort to get out and move. Especially as the weather improved, we noticed so many more people were out for walks and bike rides, out at the park with friends and family (at a distance). It was amazing to see these spaces being used, and I hope we all keep up this appreciation for our outdoor public spaces.
2. Knowing my neighbours. When the pandemic hit, I found that the people I was coming into contact with each day had shifted from my pre-pandemic days. Instead of everyone rushing off to work, we were out for walks or sitting on porches. I would see the people living on my street a lot more than I ever did, and I’ve gotten to know some of them, too. When the weather was nicer and the infection rates lower, we chatted with each other in our driveways and backyards. Now, we check in through texts and holiday cards, keep an eye on one another’s package deliveries and recycling bins. It’s lovely to know the people we live near.
3. Adventuring with my kids. When a carless friend rented a car for a month, she made a concerted effort to go out on fun day trips to get the most use out of their rental. We became day-tripper adventurers with our kids of similar ages, and had an amazing time picking conservation areas or beaches along Lake Ontario to explore. Many of our usual summer activities were off-limits in the pandemic, but we managed to discover new places and had a very memorable summer in the end.
4. Supporting our local economy. My husband and I owned a retail store for a while, so we are keenly aware of the challenges of running a small business in the best of times. We have felt so bad for our local businesses, and made an effort to order out more frequently to support our local eateries. I also made a point of leaving reviews, especially for newer shops, on places like Yelp and Google. For the holidays, I’ve been determined to buy as many presents as possible from our local businesses. I want them to be there when we come out of this pandemic.
5. Reading. Now, I have loved reading ever since I could. But as an adult, between school and the early years of parenthood, I haven’t been a particularly voracious reader. That need to escape the mundane day-to-day of the pandemic brought me back to reading in a way I haven’t in many years. And oh man, books are thrilling. I’ve read everything from old favourites like Jane Austen, to new best-sellers (Sally Rooney has liquified me in the best way), to commentaries on white supremacy, and I am re-re-re-hooked on reading.
6. Listening to podcasts. Finding “me” time has been a challenge, with everyone home all the time. I’ve long wanted to listen to podcasts, but never fit them in. Forced to get creative, I realized that when I’m making dinner and the kids are watching TV, I have a window of opportunity. So I started putting in my earbuds and listening to a few amazing podcasts during this time every afternoon. Brené Brown’s “Unlocking Us;” “SmartLess” with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett; and Jared Rizzi’s political commentary in “At the Table,” are a few favourites. This podcast practice has become a habit now, and I’m loving it.
7. Appreciating my kids’ resiliency, and also their fragility. So, my kids have been in school, but they wear masks all day. And you know what? They hardly ever complain. They are demonstrating more resilience and maturity than many adults are lately! Honestly, their ability to adapt is inspiring. I will remember this whenever I worry about them. At the same time, they keep their fears close, and I keep reminding myself to be aware of that, too. They’re still scared or worried, even when they don’t say it. Overall, this has been an interesting time to observe my kids and try to connect to their emotional world.
8. Renewed self-confidence. 2020 presented all of us with many hardships, and we’ve had to adapt. After becoming a parent, I realized that I’ve held a low but present level of anxiety throughout my life that has probably impeded my progress over the years in a variety of ways. With 2020’s particular challenges, there were a lot of things that I just had to do. And I did them, without really having the option to dither or question myself. It also helped that expectations for just about everything pretty much evaporated and people have been rather forgiving as we’ve all shrugged and said, “2020!” It’s been a real boost to my confidence to just do scary things, and I feel capable of things I didn’t feel capable of before. (Um, homeschooling my kids was not one of these accomplishments, though, just… for the record. Still never homeschooling by choice! But, I could see myself starting a podcast soon, for example…)
9. Goals met. Along with facing new challenges, I gained a lot of confidence by realizing some goals. 2020 will always be the year that I published my first book. In all of the years spent writing essays and papers when I studied writing and political science, and then writing this blog or writing for SEEK, the idea of publishing an actual book still felt like a remote goal, something very far away, maybe never to be reached. While it didn’t happen quite the way I’d envisioned it, there is a book on my bookshelf with my name on the cover. It’s pretty amazing, and that sense of accomplishment is definitely something I’ll keep with me forever.
This list is not meant to downplay the shitty things that happened this year, in particular, the tremendous loss of life. Embracing the positives doesn’t mean we ignore the terrible things that have happened and the acute losses we’ve accrued.
But. To me, grief is the process of integrating a loss into our lives. One of the stages of grief is meaning. I don’t mean the trite platitude that “everything happens for a reason,” but the idea that in order to live with loss, we can find elements of the experience that change us in positive ways. The loss doesn’t inherently have meaning; rather, we have to create meaning out of it. This enables us to accept the reality of the loss without getting stuck in it.
So there’s one more takeaway from 2020 for all of us.
10. Appreciating and building community. In the aftermath of 9/11, I believe we faced a collective grief and trauma. But I don’t think we managed it well, and it left us scarred in ways that have divided us ever since. This election year exposed those divisions more than ever. At the same time, the forced isolation of the pandemic has reminded us, bluntly, how vital our connections with others are. We’ve learned that while digital tools can help bridge our distances in amazing ways, there’s no replacing the ways we’ve always come together to be present with one another.
I hope, then, that instead of getting mired in the grief and trauma of this experience, as I think we did after 9/11, we find the kernels of meaning and the simple, essential truth of our need for connection, so that we can come out of this changed for the better.
What are the positives from 2020 you’d like to take with you. I’d love to hear them!