I just celebrated my second pandemic birthday. I’m at that stage of life that I honestly have to think for a moment if you ask me how old I am. The early major milestones are long passed; the second set of transitional ones are still far enough in the future that it’s too soon to start counting down. I celebrated at home with my family the same way I would have if we weren’t still living in corona-verse (the one exception being that my husband, John, still isn’t going into physical stores, so he continues to make his way through the box of literary cards he’s been relying on for the past year). Some years, I look back and I'm not sure how much has changed in the year just passed. This was not one of those years. I'm far from immune to the pandemic-induced sense that time has no meaning or that every day is Groundhog Day.
But the distance from last year's birthday to this is palpable. So much has happened in the past year, nearly all of it seemingly from the same corner where I’m drafting this column…
John bought me new running shoes for my birthday -- to replace the pair I got just after lockdown started. In a year, I've worn out a pair of sneakers (while going almost nowhere), but I haven't even driven 5000 miles. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there, but I’m equally as sure that I’m too tired to look for it.
Last year, my birthday was on Good Friday, and I wouldn't let my daughter, Nora, make me a birthday cake – the Easter lamb cake had to do double-duty. We were in the throes of food shortages, and I was rationing flour until I could buy more. Looking in my pantry now, with 3 kinds of flour (4 if we count the almond flour), it's surreal to remember how many months last spring and summer it was so hard to get flour (and so many other staples). This year, Nora decided I needed an angel food cake, and so I baked my first ever angel food cake, grateful beyond words for the flour and eggs in my kitchen, and everyone who labors to provide our food.
As we start the next transition stage, there is so much to process. We have traumas to heal from, We are faced with losses to grieve in numbers difficult to fathom, devastating metaphors to enable us to grasp them. There are weighty decisions to make.
Kristin van Ogtrop (Col 1986) confesses in a recent Washington Post opinion piece, “I suspect I was losing my sense of joy long before the pandemic began, and now I may never find my way back after a year of, among other things, avoiding interactions with all other humans.” Our individual and collective coping strategies have been stretched, challenged, and deformed over the past year. Last March, we “went home” for two weeks, many of us wondering how we could ever pause for two weeks, others wondering whether we would ever pause. Now, we wonder, what will life on the other side look like?
In this column last spring, I optimistically extended to readers this coping strategy that I shared with my staff in the earliest days of the pandemic:
“’I encourage you each to pick something in the near future to look forward to. I’m going to be playing a lot of Billy Joel in anticipation of this calming down by June (my daughter and I have tickets to see him play at Notre Dame Stadium in June, and we’re looking forward to what will be our family’s first trip back to South Bend since moving here…). This is also the moment that your self-care plan becomes crucial. May you each have something this evening, and each day moving forward of this altered reality, that brings you joy. Just yesterday, Wynne asked me if I was really trying to finish 20 needlepoint projects in 2020 and I laughed – no way would that happen. With enough social distancing, maybe I actually will.’
While the seriousness and duration of our current situation have increased exponentially since I chose those examples, I stand by my wish for you to find small joys each day. For me, muscle-memory kicks in from when John was hospitalized. When you enter a new normal, maintaining a schedule, taking care of yourself, finding little moments that bring you joy and comfort – those are the actions that support you to endure an ongoing challenge.”
I’m sure none of you will be surprised to hear that the concert did not happen in June 2020. As we were cresting the initial wave of infections, the concert was rescheduled for June 26, 2021.
In the past month or so, I began to make cautious plans to travel the Midwest this summer, excitement building that we would get to see some dear friends along with anxiety about what it would feel like to travel that far and be around that many people. Could we, my little family of three, do this? Well… the night before my birthday, I opened my email to see one from Ticketmaster with the subject line “Billy Joel Has Been Rescheduled.”
My initial thought was, “Why’d they move it back a day?” Such is the capacity for hope.
The next moment I read more carefully and realized, no, not back a day but rather forward 364 days. It’s now scheduled for June 2022. Until then, we will continue to adjust, exercising our capacity for hope and our gratitude for the small joys and comforts found in the day to day.