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A Unique Year of Hidden Treasures

The memes about the utter awfulness of the year 2020 are many and widespread. They pop up regularly on whatever social media channel you like to use. Here are just a few:

Marty and Doc Brown from the movie Back to the Future with accompanying text. "Marty, whatever happens, don't ever go to 2020" Top image shows rapper Drake recoiling from 2020. Bottom image shows Drake nodding approvingly to 2021. First image is a ceramic mug with cat ears. Text says "Ah yes, a nice cup of 2020". Second image shows person drinking from mug with cat ears pressing against their eyelids.

As memes go, they ring so true!

I’ve come to believe that the human condition somehow programs the great majority of us to complain rather than look at the bright side. And the collective revulsion when we think about 2020 is driven by real hardship and tragedy. Many have been affected very badly by the virus and almost all of us by the consequences of the lockdowns. The memes truly cannot capture any of that.

But as 2020 finally crawled battered and beaten across the threshold of the new year, it struck me that this justly maligned year offered many treasures that might be overlooked in our future recounting—and we might find we miss these treasures. Yes, I said miss!

Time home with loved ones is at the top of my list. As I anticipate the reopening of schools at some point in 2021, it dawned on me that my 15-year-old and I have spent quite a lot more time together since March than normal. He has lived in a split household since 2012, but for the first few months of the pandemic, he was at my house daily as his mother, a medical professional, and I decided he should do his remote schooling at my house while I worked from home every day. Seeing him practically every day for months was truly a gift. Sure, I worried that remote learning left him lacking a full understanding of chemistry, U.S. government, math and English, but seeing him and hearing his voice every day for large swaths of time is so unique, it softens those worries. On top of that, my son plays trumpet, so I have been audience to daily jazz concerts. All of these are treasures I will cherish until he returns to school.

Traffic—where’d it go? If you live in a big metropolitan area you know exactly what I mean. For months after the pandemic hit, there was zero traffic. After the passing of the initial shock upon first experiencing the barren roadways and the sinking feeling that the zombie apocalypse was nigh, I quickly learned to enjoy the absence of traffic. When will I ever again be able to zip my bike across major intersections without stopping at red lights? When will I again not hear the honks of horns and squeals of brakes as endless rivers of cars pass by my neighborhood nightly? When will the air seem so clean? When again will a trip to the store five minutes away actually take only five minutes? Well, unfortunately, traffic has come back. Since October, I’ve noticed a staggering increase in commute times, and I now need to wait at red lights on my bike and plan for a ten-minute drive to that store that is only five minutes away. But the disappearance of traffic for five months or so was a gift while it lasted.

DIY dream year! For anyone like me who enjoys do-it-yourself home improvement projects, remote work has been an unqualified dream. Never before could I install a new light between staff meetings. In the days before work-from-home, I would never get a chance to check my newly seeded lawn daily. I believe I even saw a few blades of grass grow a millimeter or two one day. Then there was that new thermostat I’d left in a drawer for three years. Yep, it now controls my heat and air conditioning. Bare walls behind me on the remote meeting screen? No longer. New pictures hung. I won’t list all the actual DIY projects I’ve accomplished the last eight months, but they are many! When you spend a lot more time at home than usual, you find all kinds of ways to improve your living space.

Daily walks. When you live in an area like Washington, DC, commuting to work and rushing children around to activities eats up so much time, it is easy to not experience the outdoors for the entire work week. But with work-from-home, I started walking daily, and not quick little walks, but full hour-long lunch walks! This is one of 2020’s hidden little gifts that I might miss the most when the full return to the office occurs. Breaking up the day with a relaxing stroll is not only a healthy way to spend lunch, it provides me a boost to close out each day feeling fresh—much better than a fifth cup of coffee.

Finally, one more gift from my perspective—connecting with neighbors in my new neighborhood. With no place to go and not much to do for most of the last eight months, I started hosting neighbors for “happy hour on my deck.” For some, knowing neighbors is not unusual. But for me, and I suspect many in the busy Washington region with kids, most of my non-work life is centered around carting around kids to activities, limiting time at home. It is hard enough keeping up with existing friends, let alone making new friends among new neighbors (I moved in 2017). Since the lockdown, I made a concerted effort to talk more to my neighbors and invite them over for drinks on the deck, always monitoring, of course, the current viral caseload in our community and maintaining a safe six-foot distance (masks were optional). I appreciate this treasure as much as all the others I mentioned.

Maybe you already have a list of the small treasures you discovered in the face of the pandemic and lock downs. I hope your list is as long or longer than mine. But if you haven’t, I hope this message prompts you to start reflecting on 2020 and identify your own hidden treasures.

The challenge once life returns to normal will be how to incorporate some of these treasures into our lives to create our “new normal.”

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