A smattering, disjointed collection of thoughts on 2020 that, in retrospect, reflect how this year has felt for me. There’s alway so much more to say.
“I hope it’s okay but there’s a slight tear in the straw. I can get you another one if you want but, from what I can see, it’s not actually ripped through…”
A week ago a barista I’ve become friendly with said this to me before placing an iced latte on a table a few feet in front of me. As she backed away, I stepped up to snag it in the usual coffee retrieval at a distance dance laughingly asking if I seemed that uptight that a slight tear in a straw would cause great strife. “No, no! You just never know in 2020” was her response.
“Hmm you’re right. That would be wild if a straw is what caused me to finally break this year.” We both laughed knowingly about the idea before I left. The reverberations of even small events feel so much stronger this year with our collective capacity for handling big changes already capped out.
I’ve never seen her face nor the faces of anyone else working there. I make assumptions about smiles from strangers now. I find myself nodding more emphatically to the point of being worried I’m nodding too much, saying “hmm” like a refrain as I listen to the few others I must interact with when I venture into the world, and using my hands as if I am pretending to be a conductor of connection. At one point a few months ago, I genuinely thought about getting a laminated card that said “I’m smiling” to carry around and flash when I wanted to let someone know. I’m finding too that my short few years playing rugby prepared me to be aware of spacing and how to find gaps in groups of people. I’m a pro at staying at least 6 feet away from others. Add it to the resume of useless skills.
As someone who is highly attuned to my mental health, I worried that three things would break me this year outside of the general chaos of the world: the isolation, the winter, and being rooted to one spot. I nervously moved to Salt Lake City in June from San Diego which is why I’ve never seen most of the faces here. I carefully calculated the move: easy access to nature, solid hospital system, extended family somewhat nearby in case I got sick, a trip I could make in a day from San Diego (felt safer), and a small crew of friends in the area in case something really bad happened. I’ve truly never stayed this long in one concrete place since I was 18 (perhaps even before then due to club soccer requiring me to travel regularly). Even in college, I traveled home for holidays, for rugby games/tournaments, and to visit my girlfriend at the time in San Francisco. Post college, my adventures grew as I ebbed in and out of “full time nomading” and nomading with a home base to ground me.
In many ways, this time of stasis brings me back to my younger years adventuring around Winter Park, Florida only able to go as far as our bikes and bodies would allow with my best friend, Steven. We made a very small area of the world feel like the world full of possibilities and exploration. Even now as adults, we still return to one park in particular that both has an awesome set of pull-ups bars and a decade worth of memories. I’m reminded in this time that having an adventure is not about traveling far away. It’s about your approach. Rather than this being something that I thought would break me, it’s only been reaffirming of how adaptable I am and the power of what I bring to the places I do go.
Winter felt like a different beast—nature asserting herself and not caring about whether you were ready for it. My memories of cold weather include everything from a rugby tackle practice where it started snowing before I begged our coach to let us stop, sitting in the dark at a train station in Long Island hardly able to form sentences because of how cold my face was by the time my girlfriend’s (at the time) train arrived, and playing in soccer tournaments in North Carolina where I couldn’t feel my feet as I ran. Even when I thought I was coming prepared, I never seemed to be and assumed winter was something everyone just suffered through as a result. Turns out this can be added to the long list of things I’m thrilled to be very wrong about. With the help of a lovely older gentleman at REI who seemed to instantly understand both what I needed and how I interacted with nature, I stocked up on winter clothes and now relish in hiking through the snow with only fleeting moments of being truly cold when I take too long to snap a photo or spend too much time happily kicking the snow around me. I thought winter would be an end only to find it to be a beginning of seeing the same landscapes in a new way.
Have I mentioned that I hug trees now? Well, I mainly hug this one tree I found along a trail I’ve frequented since moving here. It’s the perfect size. I can wrap my little arms around it fully and give a good, long squeeze. It’s on a part of the trail too where I can glance around to make sure no one else can see me as I sneak a hug. I started this habit mostly as a joke upon realizing how long it’s been since I had hugged another person. The idea came to me when I was out hiking and remembered a trip to a national park in Mexico with a dear friend. As we were hiking together, he got so excited seeing a particular tree that he hugged it and I snapped a quick photo to celebrate the moment. My sometimes dark humor loved it. As I write this, I’m nearly smirking thinking about it.
Like a placebo, what matters is that I believe in it and I do believe hugging trees has helped. Still though, the isolation remains ever looming in my mind. In many ways though, I’ve been prepared for this reality of loving others deeply at a distance. Have you ever been forced apart from a loved one due to societal norms? Like many queer kids, I loved someone I wasn’t supposed to love and couldn’t show it very early on in my life. Add in going to rival high schools and playing on rival soccer teams, there were many years where my only interactions with this person were brief sightings from afar with many text messages to follow or marking each other during a game. We loved each other at a distance and with restraint. I have a memory of our high school football teams playing each other and never getting anywhere close to 6 feet near her. It simply wasn’t okay and the current state of things feels oddly familiar.
Right now, I’m thankful I learned to love, connect, and feel deeply without in person interactions. Compared to the years of my youth of separation due to homophobia and societal expectations, I can handle a more valid reason like a pandemic keeping me from those I love the most. It feels righteous and legitimate compared to the agonizing and nonsensical feelings I’ve felt before when separated.
Because I am such a values driven person, it clicked early on that the way I could best serve those around me was to embrace the privileged spot I was in as a remote worker with health insurance living by myself and stay put alone. It’s rare in life for the answer to be so obvious and simple. While others in similar positions continue to behave in baffling ways to me, I’ve found great meaning in being so careful or, as my dad referred to me once, “COVID shy” (don’t get me started). Even if it often doesn’t feel like enough, it’s the way I can best take care of my community, my loved ones, and myself. It’s also what will help this pandemic subside and, if more people behaved this way, we’d be in a much better spot.
This hasn’t been the worst year of my life nor the hardest and that comes both from a place of privilege and from a place of having had some fucking horrible previous years of existence. As Viktor Frankl is famous for saying, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” In all of the exhausting and heartbreaking moments of 2020, I have honestly relished in having such a clear cut reason for no good very bad days. My scariest and worst periods of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation have often happened without one I can cling to. I can’t begin to tell you how scary those months of what felt like senseless suffering were. When there’s no clear reason, it all feels endless. Now, when bad days come, I gleefully point to the long list of reasons that are societally sanctioned and well known. I recite them to others at work marveling out how simple these moments are to communicate now. It is easier to bear suffering with a reason than without one and we’ve had so many reasons ladled onto our society this year. Ahhh so many reasons! What a twisted relief to have something tangible. What scares me is feeling this way again but without a pandemic and without a strong “why”. I’m always working on that latter part.
I’ve spent many hours proactively preparing myself and walking through situations of loved ones dying. This isn’t a new ritual for me but it’s one I took on with renewed vigor this year to mentally prepare. I’d run through scenarios like a football player learning plays. “Okay, what about if [enter loved one’s name] gets sick but they do allow visitors? What do you do? Is there anything you would for sure need to tell them?” Side note: A genuine goal of mine is that by being so honest, vulnerable, and explicit in my day to day life that I remove the need for any sort of intense death bed conversations. I want boring, run of the mill death bed conversations because all that needs to be said and needs to be known was shared many years ago. My mom and I had a lengthy conversation about ventilators and whether she’d want to be put on one knowing that it was likely if she got COVID she wouldn’t handle it well. I outright refused to come to my brother’s wedding months before it was finally cancelled/downsized into a small backyard affair. I’m currently in a battle of the wills with my 93 year old grandma trying to get her to promise me she will get the vaccine as she seems to prefer to be taken out by COVID. I still wake up from time to time in a panic from dreams of my best friend dying alone from COVID after contracting it in the hospital where he works as a first year resident. My loved ones have been spared though thus far and I carefully add their names to the list of things to be grateful for knowing not to get too comfortable.
I had knee surgery in college (I promise this is relevant) and now have a lovely scar snaking across the front of my knee where they hammered and stitched me back together. As I hobbled and then walked around campus in the subsequent months, I started noticing the scar on others more and more. It’s almost like when you want to get a car and then see that same car everywhere. A new world of depth and connection opened up before me as the scars came to symbolize a shared suffering. Even now, if I see an ACL scar across someone’s knee, I’ll speak up because it’s so rare to have something so obvious to connect you with another person. In coming out of this pandemic, it’s as if we all have an ACL scar now. We all have a shared “where were you when” reference point that’s horrifyingly global and persistent. Our experiences will be different of course but it’s a starting point of connection and this gives me great hope. In the same way every LGBTQ+ person has some form of a unique coming out story, we all have our pandemic stories and I hope they bond us even as they are bound to be wildly different.
For those of us who have suffered from trauma before this, if you’re like me, you have carried the lesson that everything can change in an instant with you. For me, it’s made me double down on vulnerability and not waiting to do/say/be whatever I need to. It’s been the driving force behind so much of my nomading and connecting even when I grew up as a fairly safety oriented, black and white thinking, risk averse kid who saved pennies in case I needed them in the future. For a few years, I pitched the idea of “Queersgiving” to two friends desperate to have us all gather in a shared space around the Thanksgiving holiday only for them to not really get it. I genuinely believe after this year, they do. Our collective shared trauma reference point is going to change us all in different ways and I hope it pushes us beyond the status quo. I’ve heard from so many friends how much insight and clarity they’ve gotten around their priorities during this time. The key is letting yourself be changed and in discerning what needs to be done differently going forward. I’ve written about this in the past but it’s the difference between being trauma informed vs trauma driven. I worry the magic and momentum coming out of this period of suffering can be lost in our desperate desire to return to a normalcy that was a delusion anyway. As the Buddhist perspective might say, “the glass is already broken” (highly recommend reading this very short piece on the concept).
I forgot I went to therapy for about 6 months over the last year until this week. It’s as if I had wiped it from my memory, another victim of the time warping nature of this year. I switched jobs in April after 5.5 years as a happiness engineer and going through an additional, intense hiring process. I moved to a brand new city that I had only visited twice signing an obnoxiously long lease for an apartment I had never seen. I’m experiencing my first real winter in my life after only ever having brief introductions to winters in the past with trips to places like Chicago, NYC, and Des Moines. I jumped back off of all social media in June when I left instagram in pursuit of more meaningful ways to connect. To do so, I started sending out prints of my photos with scribbled messages on the back to 50+ people. I’ve sent over 130 letters/photocards/postcards since I started being a bit more organized not including the weekly letter to my grandma that I sit down to write ritualistically nearly every Saturday (I’ve spent many hours finding creative COVID related cards to send her to bring a laugh or smile). I started wood carving and dove deeper into baking despite my lack of proper tooling to help connect me more to the physical realm after spending so many days typing away at my computer. I completely changed how I workout without access to a real weightlifting gym opting now for cold (to me) runs, yoga, circuits, and long hikes. I learned how to do headstands and have some hilarious videos from attempts at the beginning. Since April, I’ve run what started as a weekly turned biweekly (sometimes I cancel) “queerantine” call with random LGBTQ+ friends from across my life. I kicked off letslifechat.com to share all of the questions that seem to swirl through my head and the philosophy behind which I try to approach interactions with others. I watched my brother get married on zoom and discovered the existence of a half brother about a month later. I went to a car protest over the summer to be more visible in my support for Black Lives Matter knowing that white people need to show up and do the work. Weeks before the pandemic started, I had an incredible lifechat with someone in San Diego that I now swap thoughtful letters with. I reconnected deeply with a childhood friend and worked to rebuild our friendship. I bought a skateboard on a whim after a once local friend did and we skated around at a distance pretending to know what we were doing (she more successful than I). I nervously learned how to cut my own hair and now find myself using this new skill likely too often. I facetimed and zoomed with friends more than I ever have in my life including some marathon hangs that left me genuinely socially exhausted the next day. I introduced friends and got introduced to dear friends of friends. I saw too many moose and a few mountain goats. I captured loads of photos. I reached 10,000 minutes of meditation and am on a current 45+ day meditation streak. I have rested in a way I never have been able to before with empty days and nowhere to be.
Finally, somehow in the midst of it all, I managed to connect deeply with new people. If I can do that in such a horrible year, how expansive will my heart be once this is over? How many more ways will I be able to love someone and show up for them? Even at the edge of myself and in the midst of society fraying, connection found a way. It reminds me of the image of a plant growing amidst the concrete. So much remains uncertain and I know that leaving 2020 behind won’t leave behind the problems 2020 brought to the surface. Let 2020 be our collective scar and starting point for connection. Rather than giving into increasing isolation that was present even before the pandemic, I hope we cherish and prioritize community even more. I hope we create spaces to facilitate connection. I hope we build more parks and protect nature knowing how much good the outdoors are for the soul. I hope we see each other differently after only being able to see into another’s eyes for months on end. I hope we have a renewed sense of how interconnected we are and the impact we have on each other. I hope we begin to see work as just one facet of who someone is and not all they are. I hope we embrace rest. I hope we demand more for the most vulnerable to be protected. I hope we leave space for grieving because there is much grief to be processed and will be for many years to come. I hope we carry this year with us.