When school let out for winter break of 2020, I finally started to lose my shit. It wasn’t the holidays, a possible election coup, my kids off Zoom school for a couple weeks, writing deadlines, managing my newsletter, or having to ready my online classes for a January 4 start date that had me at a breaking point. It was the upcoming vaccine rollout.
Everyone was starting to plan their vacations; schools were talking about bringing the kids back to campus; my partner was talking about going to a fall 2021 concert. Yet, I felt anxious. At the culmination of a year when we were all put on a public pause, but were expected to fully function digitally, after I’d figured out how to bedazzle my kids’ quarantine lives, and to some extent, my own, I realized we’d have to pivot from our new normal into a new new normal. I’m a dancer, and even for me, that’s a lot of pivoting.
On a beach walk with my therapist friend, I vomited my fears for after the vaccine, explaining that I didn’t know what kind of life I wanted anymore. She said, “This is the perfect time to get rid of anything you don’t need. Marie Kondo the crap out of your life. Stop doing extra stuff that doesn’t bring you joy.”
“We’ve busied ourselves in 2020 to continue to matter, but this was just to fill time so we’d stop feeling,” she added. Now that the vaccine rollout is (hopefully) on pace to whisk us back into dinner parties and our kids’ soccer tournaments, “we need to think about what we want to retain from the lessons of lockdown,” she said. “You get to decide the kind of life you actually want to live.”
“Cut out everything for a week and see what you need to feel good.”
“But it’s hard for parents to do this in the pandemic,” I argued, not sure she understood that I didn’t have time for a true elimination diet for the soul.
“Just be gentle with yourself and see what happens.”
It was easy to deduct what nonessentials didn’t give me joy. I deleted my social media apps from my phone, set up Freedom to halt my compulsive email-checking, created an automatic email response explaining I was on a technological diet, and sent an announcement to my newsletter subscribers that I’d be taking a break. I told my family that we’d be ordering out for much of the week, then tried to ignore the glee on my kids’ faces. As for work, I couldn’t completely shut down, so instead, I scheduled limited work time to pound out any pressing tasks.
I hope we’ll always continue to gather outside around the fire pit, hugging ourselves as we welcome the chill of dusk.
Instead of waking up to write, my friend recommended that I spend some time each morning meditating on the question, What do I want my life to feel like post-pandemic? Unfortunately, my distracted brain couldn’t focus. Most thoughts zoomed into what meals I’d want to cook for visitors, what trips I longed to take, then inevitably I’d spiral into what I’d post online about either. When I observed my mental gymnastics, I pondered if any of this brings me joy. These thoughts spun me to acknowledge that my greatest loss in the pandemic has been the energy of people. I needed to be with humans, in the flesh; the question was, how much?
Divorced from my screens for the week, I spent more time than usual in my garden. As a hummingbird darted between the bottlebrush and the honeysuckle, I felt this deep sense of safety. How sacred our home had become in the last year. Only our closest family and friends had laughed, played music, and connected here under the strung lights. My closest relationships had deepened not in spite of the pandemic, but because of it. I didn’t want to sacrifice these connections in an effort to overextend myself for strangers as I had always done before the shutdown. After we’re all vaccinated, I know I’ll invite people outside my bubble over more regularly, but I hope we’ll always continue to gather outside around the fire pit, hugging ourselves as we welcome the chill of dusk.
On another bright California day, I took a walk through my neighborhood, the only place I’d explored this year — a grand feat for a travel journalist. Over this year, I’ve noticed how certain plants, like springtime jasmine, or flowering succulents, drew attention from the larger texture of my neighbors’ gardens. My ambition functioned like these flowers. Too often, I’d nurtured my imagined legacy, sacrificing my mental and physical health, and even, I’m embarrassed to admit, my attention toward my kids. I’d always thought being busy equated with productivity, even success. I’d seen studies hyping the cognitive benefits of busyness, and I’d long constructed a self leveled upon my accomplishments, my plans, the future Michele I’d imagined.
My nature likely won’t change. I will always put myself out into the world — a performer needs applause. Yet, this quiet has shown me I can, and should, set up protections against giving 200% to my public life. Would I continue to wear so many hats as a dancer, a writer, a teacher, and more? I didn’t know. But I could enforce regular elimination diets; I should take a tech Shabbat once a week and build boundaries for my digital life. And, most of all, when I get too caught up in what’s not right here, right now, I could create a reminder to be as kind to myself as I am with others.
This pandemic has made us all cling so hard to surviving that we sacrificed a year of being out in the world. By acknowledging our mortality, we’ve dialed in on what matters and devoted our days to attending to what’s most important — our mental and physical health, and that of our kids or partners, parents, or dearest friends. Teachers like me are next in line in California to get those coveted pricks in our arms, and when we’re back at commuting to work, jetting off to far-flung locations, when our kids in school, I still want to appreciate the little things, like giving our friends a hug, or singing “Happy Birthday” in person. I want the habits of this precious year I’ve had with my kids and husband to remain. And I don’t want to march into this new normal with Goals(!) and stop being present with the people I love. Instead, I intend to be gentle with myself. The question I will have to sit with when the world cracks back open is how.