My year began in quarantine.
An aggressive bout of RSV hit my grandmother, my niece, and my then-two-month-old son in speedy succession. Meanwhile, I was sick with not-the-flu—per the negative test I received—and my then-two-year-old was vomiting at erratic intervals with an ear infection that, apparently, two of my nephews were also suffering. As soon as I’d recovered, my husband Kevin got sick.
In between administering doses of amoxicillin and albuterol, we wondered how in the world we’d all been hit so hard, and how long it would be until we were healthy again.
“And so we wait,” I wrote in my journal, in an entry dated January 3, “we eat toast, and we hope nothing worse happens.”
Of course, we had no way of knowing then that “quarantine” would be the buzzword of the year, that this was just the beginning of long stretches of isolation from family and friends, that the “something worse” we’d hoped against would manifest itself time and again not only with the rapid spread of a different virus, but in countless other ways.
I’m glad we didn’t know how difficult a year it would be. At the same time, one of the year’s biggest trials has been precisely that: uncertainty. And learning to muddle through months of difficult days and anxious nights has been the lesson of a lifetime.
Finding new coping mechanisms
“Look, Mommy, I have a face mask!”
I looked over at my firstborn, grinning under the T-shirt he’d pulled up over his nose and mouth.
“You’re right!” I replied, smiling at him. ‘He thinks this is normal,’ I thought to myself, with equal parts incredulity and sadness. I’ve often wondered what he’ll remember of this time. The face masks? His grandpa reading to him over FaceTime in the early days of lockdown? His preschool closing?
Since he’s so young, of course, Kevin and I have shielded him from the endless, tragic news cycles. So, aware though he is that “people are sick,” he won’t understand the gravity of the year’s events until he’s much older. But even if he knew how unusual and difficult this year has been, I doubt it would have changed his perception of the world very much. In his very nature as a three-year-old, he lives in the moment. He lives for his routines, for life’s little pleasures.
And this year, I’ve found that his way of viewing the world—that is, with simplicity and immediacy—is a powerful antidote to uncertainty.
Cleaning, of all things, helped bring this to light. Amid our full days of working from home and taking care of the kids, I’d slip away for an hour to tidy our house. With no time for real leisure, it was the best form of self-care I could find: the hum of the vacuum cleaner, the satisfaction of restoring just a little bit of order to chaos. I’d even listen to music or an audiobook. That hour was sheer peace.
But it didn’t take long to realize that cleaning wasn’t just my solace amid my day-to-day responsibilities; my day-to-day responsibilities were my solace in the uncertainty of the state of the world.
Uncertainty is a heavy burden, it’s true, but as author E.L. Doctorow observed (of writing, but surely applicable more broadly), “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Just as my little boy rarely thinks farther ahead in the future than the next hour or two, I only needed to proceed one day at a time—one task at a time, even.
Despite whatever happened outside my doors, there were dishes that still needed washing (even, somehow, on the nights we ordered takeout). There were still two little boys who woke up every morning needing love and care. There were still work emails and tasks to attend to; meals to be cooked; bedtime prayers to say. And while I often wished my sphere of influence wasn’t so small, especially in the face of tragedies beyond my control, I also felt a deep peace in my limitations.
All I could do was that day’s work, and that knowledge was liberating. The anxious knot in my stomach started to loosen as I stopped my unproductive hand-wringing. It was as if someone had said, to borrow a line from one of my favorite Anne Lamott novels:
“Relax. Try to stop flapping around so much.”
Struggling to hope
This epiphany, important as it was, didn’t solve the very real problem of how exhausting our days were and would continue to be.
Our circumstances have changed a bit since March, now that we do have some help with the kids, but most days Kevin and I are still shouldering a much larger-than-usual burden. It’s still grueling, and I’ve often wondered, “How long can we possibly keep this up?”
The longer it’s been, the more my relationship with hope has come to the fore. Hope does not come naturally to me—or maybe it did once, and I’ve become quite practiced at squashing it. Hoping and being disappointed is worse, I’ve long believed, than not hoping and not being disappointed. And, really, I thought, what good is there in living in some future dreamworld?
It’s a strategy that I’ve used in the past to great success whenever a situation is out of my control, but it didn’t work this time. As the months wore on, I began to feel an even heavier burden than the endless workload from dawn till night: despair.
Somewhere, deep down, it felt a little unfair. Despair?! I didn’t want that. I was just trying to protect myself from unmet expectations!
But as time marched on, and I struggled to find the motivation to do what I knew I ought to—even my self-care cleaning during my little breaks in the day—I understood. Hope isn’t some kind of escapism, living and dreaming in the future. It’s fuel for the present.
As such, I couldn’t opt out of it without putting myself at the mercy of my present difficulties. When a day went well—I got a lot of work done, or the kids were sweet and docile, or I made it outside for a run—I felt good, if still tired, at the end of it. But when it went poorly—the kids were cranky, or naps didn’t go as planned, or my husband and I snipped at each other over stupid things—I felt inescapably sad.
Ultimately, I had to choose: hope or despair?
Looking to the future, living in the present
I chose hope. And I’m still choosing hope, because as it turns out, it’s a decision I have to make day in and day out. I still find it difficult; in fact, I can only manage vague hopes at this point—I hope that things will get better soon, whatever “better” looks like, whatever “soon” looks like. I believe now that our lives will go back to normal, somehow, sometime, and that alone feels like a big step.
But far from pulling me into the future, as I’d always thought it would, hope enriches the present. It’s easier to bear this season’s difficulties when you know they won’t last forever—which, in turn, makes its joys that much sweeter.
“These are the days,” I captioned a photo on Instagram of me with my two little ones sitting at our piano. This was February, and we were still blissfully ignorant of the events to come. But even now, I still remind myself: these are the days. Just as my three-year-old can get the thrill of his life from seeing the UPS truck outside our house or a helicopter pass overhead, without any thought to what he’ll be doing in an hour, let alone in six months, so can I find real joys—big and small—amid uncertainty.
I don’t know what next year will look like. But I have hope. I have hope that our world will find the healing it desperately needs. I have hope that, one day, we’ll look back on this time and see how much we’ve grown. And I have hope that, no matter what, we can find joy along the way.