2020: A Pandemic Year

As we begin 2021, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on a year like none we’d ever seen before. While the press described 2020 as ‘unprecedented’ or ‘unimaginable,’ many of us chose not to sugarcoat it, instead opting for descriptors such as ‘clusterfuck’ or ‘dumpster fire.’ No matter your word preference, though, one thing was certain – the pandemic year of 2020 would indeed be one for the history books.

Ten, fifty, one hundred years from now, what will our pandemic story look like? Will U.S. history books be rife with images of barren grocery store shelves? Perhaps the deserted streets of lower Manhattan at rush hour? Will they show the ignorant defiance of staunch anti-maskers, or highlight the benevolent toil of healthcare and other frontline workers?

While it’s somewhat tangential to the blog’s focus, I thought it would be a missed opportunity not to share what the last twelve months have been like for us. Like everyone else, I’ve run the gamut of emotions – from anxious, pissed off, depressed, listless, stunned, and helpless to coping, content, and even hopeful. No matter how stressed or shitty I felt, though, I tried to hold onto a feeling of gratitude. As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the globe, we remained healthy and financially stable. So did our families. I endeavored to help others where I could, and tried extra hard to relish in the small joys. At times I succeeded proudly; at others, I failed miserably.

In the end, regardless of how satisfactorily or poorly I did, it seemed important to document my own pandemic story. Perhaps it will serve as a permanent reminder of just how fortunate we were. Maybe we’ll chuckle at the true ridiculousness of the Great Toilet Paper Crisis. At the very least, maybe my niece will think her Auntie Jenn’s Cookie Monster chalk art was pretty rad. And with any luck, none of us will experience another year quite like it.

In tha beginning…

In 2017, we moved back to North Carolina after spending a year traveling overseas. It was a joint decision, but one I subsequently cried over daily for months. I’d turned the final page on the North Carolina chapter of my life 14 months prior, and had no plans to return. From the day we set foot back in Cary, I was counting the days until we could move somewhere new. Nearly three years later, I was convinced 2020 would be the year.

The first week of February, Stephan got permission from his boss to work remotely. I was elated. I was stunned. I instantly felt like someone had cut a pair of shackles from my wrists. Breathing a deep sigh of relief, we began pondering our next move. Colorado? Montana? Washington?! The mountains were calling and we couldn’t wait to go.

Three weeks after receiving that amazing news, my first niece was born. She was nearly a leap-year baby, but ultimately decided to enter the world at the speed of Usain Bolt. Less than an hour after she made her debut, I had a boarding pass pulled up on my cell phone. I told no one I was coming, and at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, I was wheels up for Boston. The look on my brother’s face when I knocked on their maternity ward door was priceless. After having a parade of nurses visit that morning, they thought they would finally have a few minutes of peace. His face went from annoyed to stunned to thrilled in about two seconds as he begrudgingly swung the door open.

After a weekend with my family and some snuggles with my new niece, my heart was full. As I sat on the plane back to Raleigh, I thought about how glad I was that I’d made the trip. At the time, however, I had no idea just how lucky I was. Just two weeks later, all hell would break loose.

There was crap

Isolated cases of a mysterious new strain of virus had begun popping up around the western U.S. in February. This novel coronavirus had been transported by unwitting travelers from mainland China, a country that was now under a strict lockdown as cases soared in major cities. We knew very little at this point – about the virus, about disease severity, or about the impact it would have on our country. Just weeks later, at the beginning of March, most states began reporting their first case(s) of COVID-19 – the disease caused by this novel coronavirus. By March 11th, the WHO had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. On March 13th, Trump declared COVID-19 a national emergency.

Like many other states, cases were rising rapidly, and North Carolina declared its own state of emergency on March 10th. By March 17th, most local businesses had suspended services and office buildings were closed. Less than a week later schools closed their doors indefinitely. On March 26th, the governor issued a mandatory, month-long stay-at-home order. Residents were instructed not to leave their homes for any reason other than essential tasks – walking the dog or going to the supermarket, pharmacy, or doctor. The term ‘social distancing’ was coined, and staying at least six feet from the people around you quickly became the new norm. Like China, major metropolises in the U.S. turned to ghost towns, and it was like watching the plot of an unnerving Hollywood thriller unfold.

People across the country began stockpiling toilet paper like a bunch of insane squirrels hoarding acorns for a 10-year winter. Within days, the paper goods aisles of nearly every grocery store and Walmart across the country had been annihilated. It offered a horrifying glimpse of the American individualism that would come to define the pandemic. Rather than hoard ungodly quantities of toilet paper and canned goods, I admittedly did amass a somewhat generous cache of fair-trade dark chocolate and green tea. If the world really did come to some sort of calamitous end, I’d much rather enjoy my two biggest vices than guarantee I could wipe my ass with a wad of floofy bath tissue. That said, by our second quarantine extension in mid-May, we’d come to find our TP situation looking pretty bleak.

As COVID-19 cases rose and more states began mandating similar quarantine orders, it became clear our move was going to be delayed for the foreseeable future. My heart sank as we stopped searching for apartments, and my anxiety skyrocketed as I worried more and more for my family’s health. With the oldest populations most vulnerable, I grew terrified for my parents. Additionally, I wasn’t sure when I’d next be able to see my new niece. Boston was a quick, 90-minute flight from Raleigh and I wanted nothing more than to go back and spend some time with her (and everyone else). As domestic air travel plummeted, I watched dejectedly as Frontier’s prices tumbled to $19 each way. I suddenly felt like a trapped rat on a sinking ship. We’d been quarantined for just 5 days, and not only was my morale sinking, but my social distancing BINGO card was filling up surprisingly fast.

‘Where flowers bloom, there blooms hope’

When it felt like the walls were closing in just a few days into quarantine, I knew I had to devise a plan for my own sanity. The already melancholic news reports were growing more and more demoralizing by the day. Watching small businesses close and hearing stories of people struggling to make ends meet tugged at my heartstrings. I was grateful for my situation yet simultaneously felt tremendous guilt about my circumstances. Thus, I put together a few goals for the 30-day lockdown: (1) to help those who were struggling, however small; (2) to brighten my community; (3) to find my own ordinary joys; (4) to stay active.

I quickly assembled my survival kit: my yoga mat, dark chocolate, a brand-new box of sidewalk chalk, a Brené Brown book, an awesome new puzzle, and enrollment in Laurie Santos’ Coursera course, The Science of Well-Being (not pictured). I was determined to find ways to stay busy when, seemingly, there was nothing to do.

I figured I’d first take some time to work on myself. I thought this was the perfect time to learn some new skills for cultivating happiness, so I enrolled in Laurie Santos’ 20-hour online class. Struggling with the destructive effects of excessive perfectionism my whole life, I also ordered Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. It was a start. My favorite splurge quarantine purchase, though, was Clemens Habicht’s 1000 Colours CMYK jigsaw puzzle. Each piece is a slightly different color, creating a mesmerizing gradient when assembled. Building puzzles was a favorite pastime at my grandparents’ house growing up, and quietly assembling it on my living room floor brought back such nostalgia. It was pretty much the coolest puzzle I’ve ever put together. I immediately wanted to upgrade to the 5000-piece one, but at $175, I couldn’t justify the price. I also didn’t have any 6’ x 4’ surfaces on which to build it.

Having taken up yoga in 2018, I was super bummed when my amazing vinyasa studio closed for the pandemic. Yoga’s been life changing for me. It’s the first activity I’ve found where neither my fiercely competitive nature nor my neuroticism overtake my workout, and where I can truly detach from life. If I’m running, hiking, or biking, my mind’s still constantly whirring with anxieties, to-do items, and you’re-not-good-enough thoughts. For some reason, though, the intense focus needed for vinyasa really helps me stay present, tune out the noise of my own mind, and not dwell on any unnecessary bullshit for an hour. Consequently, I was thrilled when Yoga Mojo‘s classes went online shortly into quarantine. Like many others around the globe, Zoom quickly became my new best friend.

I also used the stay-home ordinance to get back into running. While public indoor spaces shuttered, the empty sidewalks remained the perfect place for a socially-distanced run. Between my new yoga obsession and a ligament tear in my forefoot, running had largely fallen by the wayside. However, after receiving a COVID fundraising email from a local running group, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to get back on the pavement. A small group of women in Charlotte started the CLTgivePPE movement to raise money for local healthcare workers. With personnel across the country severely lacking in PPE during the worsening COVID-19 crisis, their goal was to raise funds for facemasks and other personal protective equipment. Their plan included a virtual race – 19 miles for COVID-19, run either all at once or over the course of seven days, at each runner’s discretion. I was in. My old, five-mile route was still totally deserted, the spring weather was perfect, and I couldn’t believe how I was able to jump right back in. Better still, the race raised nearly $55,000. An additional $41,000 from outside fundraising brought the total for community support to $96,000, which bought thousands of pieces of PPE.

While they were by no means grand, my proudest moments of the early pandemic days were the small gestures to try to make a difference for others. For the duration of lockdown, each week began with ‘Monday with a Mission.’ For several weeks, I did grocery runs for the Interfaith Food Shuttle in downtown Raleigh, hoping to provide some relief to the community’s soaring food insecurity. Stephan and I were also able to continue working Saturday mornings with Brown Bag Ministry, packing meals to support those who are homeless or hungry. Additionally, I donated to both local and international causes that resonated with me, including the NC Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, Captain Sir Tom Moore’s NHS fundraising efforts in the U.K., and both Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Nature Park’s Dog Project in Chiang Mai. I volunteered twice with the Thai sanctuary, and it’s where we met and adopted Sanchez back in 2016. With international borders closed to tourism and, in turn, any volunteers, hundreds of animals at the rescue instantly became even more vulnerable.

Finally, I decided to take up sidewalk chalk art – an increasingly popular pandemic activity. With a couple boxes of rainbow-colored chalk stuffed into my Patagonia backpack, I strolled the pavements of Cary like Dora the Explorer. Just around the corner from our apartment, Ritter Park became my favorite location to ‘Chalk the Block.’ Typically, the rudimentary designs included a favorite inspirational quote. But as a die-hard Muppet lover, I had to regularly incorporate one of the kooky characters into my drawings.

I tried to visit the small park during off-peak hours, attempting to maintain the mystery as the sidewalk chalk phantom. Inevitably, though, I’d always run into a couple of passers-by. Surprisingly, they typically effused gratitude, saying they looked forward to finding the next illustration and claiming it indeed helped to lift their spirits. One day, a woman approached me excitedly. She was a counselor at a local middle school, and apparently had shared one of the sketches on social media. Her colleague, an art teacher, loved one of the quotes so much that she painted it on a huge boulder in front of the school’s entrance. I was so touched that my efforts to encourage a community in darkness were spreading.

A pandemic move

With the lockdown in full swing through the month of April, the greenways around our apartment were becoming more and more congested. In the decade we’d lived in Cary, we’d never seen such heavy use on the walking/biking trails. While it’s great that people were getting some fresh air, we found the extra traffic super frustrating and began longing for movie theaters and sports venues to reopen just so we could regain some peace and solitude outside.

As the foot traffic increased, we became totally uncomfortable with the lack of physical distancing and dearth of mask wearing on our neighborhood greenways. With a super active little mutt, we were forced to find another place for our walks. With our local state parks closing due to crowds, we were feeling more and more trapped. In a last-ditch effort, I finally suggested we check out Harris Lake County Park early one Sunday morning.

Located a few towns over in New Hill, the five-mile Peninsula Trail skirts one arm of the Shearon Harris Reservoir, the source of cooling water for the adjacent nuclear power plant. The trail was completely empty when we visited. I was shocked. And while parts of the trail were pretty enough, the intermittent view of Shearon Harris’ cooling tower was a wicked bummer. It was nice to have a little quarantine haven away from people, but as hiking lovers, we were totally disheartened that our only trail had a view of a friggin’ nuclear power plant. It was just one more frustration that made me to want to run as fast as I possibly could from North Carolina.

In the middle of May, our eight-week lockdown was finally lifted. While it in no way meant the pandemic was waning, we began to weigh our options for a move. We were paying a ton for a month-to-month lease, the hellish summer temps were already settling in, and we thought we could safely handle a pandemic move. Having halted our research during quarantine, however, we were back at square one.

Daunted and disorganized, I reached out to a friend I hadn’t seen in twenty years who I knew had moved to Montana. When I asked how she liked living there, she replied that she loved it. I passed the word onto Stephan and went back to whatever rabbit hole I’d fallen into online. Ten minutes later he said he found a short-term rental in Whitefish beginning mid-June. He showed me some photos and asked if we should just go for it. Figuring we had nothing to lose, he sent an inquiry. Within an hour, he declared that we were booked for the summer. I couldn’t believe it. With one impulsive mouse click, I could finally close this nagging chapter once and for all… and in just a matter of weeks.

The next five weeks were a bit of a frantic blur. We quickly sold or donated most of our belongings. We rented a small storage unit to stow the rest. Unsure if a Subaru with 234,000 miles would be able to handle whatever journey might be ahead of us, we bought a new Crosstrek and sold the old Outback. Regrettably, we also canceled plans to visit family in New Hampshire as we were terrified of making anyone sick.

Stephan went to work to clean out his desk in a dark, vacant office building, as his company converted to fully remote when the pandemic started back in mid-March. While he was staying with the company, he’d hoped to see his coworkers one last time. Three months later, there were no farewell hugs or handshakes. There was no celebratory sendoff. Rather, he came home indifferently carrying his Bills mug and a potted plant. We said goodbye to friends largely over email, with pandemic restrictions keeping us apart. We didn’t get to visit any of our favorite spots one last time, and I was unable to say bye to my small yoga community.

While I’d dreamed of the day I’d finally get to leave North Carolina, I didn’t see it coming to an end like this. There was no closure, and it almost felt like we were making a secret escape. But I guess that was the definition of everyone’s 2020 so far – nothing was going as planned or desired. With one last anticlimactic slam of our apartment door, we climbed into the new orange Crosstrek and headed west for Montana.

Social distancing 101

We never thought we’d be attempting to adopt our semi-nomadic lifestyle during a pandemic. As a scientist myself, I was committed to being as careful as possible, not wanting to jeopardize our health or anyone else’s. We were well-stocked with facemasks, hand sanitizer, and lackluster microwavable meals, and we made our way across the country with as few interactions as possible.

When we finally arrived in Whitefish, we settled in quickly. We were in a rural, in-law apartment in a sparsely populated state, and our closest neighbors were cows, deer, and ground squirrels. As we got out to explore our new home, our outings were largely confined to deserted hiking trails. With so few people and so much outdoor space, social distancing was effortless. The nearby Flathead National Forest became our weekend playground. With a reduced number of summer visitors largely flocking to nearby Glacier National Park, we typically found ourselves alone or sharing the trail with just a handful of other hikers. It was incredible. We had real mountains and real trails – no nuclear power plant, no river park with fifty feet of elevation gain, no congested city greenway. During the week, we’d pop over to a lake just a few miles from our rental and have our own isolated strip of beach. I felt happy, I felt (pandemic) safe, and I felt largely fulfilled.

For about a month after arriving in Montana, I continued to search for jobs online, longing to get back into science as a writer or editor. Finding remote work as a doctoral-level scientist is challenging, though, even under the best of circumstances. In the time of a global pandemic when jobs are temporarily remote and unemployment has climbed to an all-time high, it felt hopeless. I grew increasingly frustrated. The jobs were few and far between, and my experience was limited. I’d spend an hour on an application only to find out at the end that I’d be expected to relocate to New Jersey or Pennsylvania when the pandemic finally waned. After my umpteenth, tear-filled breakdown, Stephan suggested I just take a break. I felt awful. I felt guilty that I still wasn’t contributing to the finances. I felt ashamed that I was letting my doctorate go to waste. I felt like a failure – both as a scientist and as a person.

Finally able to let it go a bit with Stephan’s unwavering support, I really started to embrace our new lifestyle. After spending three months in Montana, we moved south to Durango, Colorado for a month. We then headed to southcentral Utah for two months. We traveled only by car, stayed in stand-alone AirBnb units, restricted occasional meals to carry-out service, wore masks unfailingly, and tried to stick to lightly trafficked trails and parks. With hiking really earning the distinction as the original social distancing activity, we were able to make it all work.

Home for the holidays

After six months of extreme social isolation and outdoor exploration, we headed back to the east coast to try to safely see the immediate family members we’d missed so dearly for the last year. The time passed surprisingly quickly and before we knew it, we were back on I-70 for the 31-hour, 2,200-mile drive east.

Since we had to visit our storage unit back in NC before the holidays, we made a battery of doctor, dentist, and vet appointments while we were in town. With ample COVID testing available in the Raleigh area, we also made appointments for our drive-thru nasal swabbing. After wrapping up our appointments, we hunkered down in Cary for a week-long quarantine with PCR testing, per CDC guidelines.

After the freedom of six months of isolated hiking, quarantine was a bit of a challenge. We were stuck in a small apartment, and the anxieties associated with attempting to see family safely only compounded the stress of confinement. We’d chosen a stand-alone unit with its own HVAC system for proper quarantine, but one without its own washing machine – a decision we soon regretted. After a four-day drive across the country, we were already low on clothes. When we ran out completely, we finally attempted a small load of socks and underwear in the kitchen sink. Clearly, we forgot how much the east coast humidity affected drying time. After two days of going both barefoot and commando, we were finally able to put on some stiff, semi-clean socks and underpants.

A couple days after receiving our negative test results, we were finally able to get on the road for the 12-hour drive to New Hampshire. Not wanting to use gas station restrooms and compromise our careful quarantine, we opted instead to use nature. Luckily, Sanchez was willing to share her poop bags with me, as I ended up really having to go in the middle of central Pennsylvania.

Around 6pm, we finally pulled into my parents’ driveway with Christmas music blaring. The house and fence were illuminated with the warm glow of hundreds of white Christmas lights, and the ground was blanketed with twenty-two inches of fresh powder. While it was still anxiety-inducing to get near other humans (especially ones we care so much about), it was so nice to get that same old festive feeling.

With my brother and his wife, me and Stephan, and my parents all able to do a full quarantine, we were able to safely enjoy Christmas together. I am so grateful we were all granted circumstances that allowed us to do that, and that everyone stayed heathy through the holiday and over the course of such a devastating year.

To 2021!

For a year that was so trying for so many, I am endlessly grateful for all that we had. Most importantly, we had our health and Stephan had his job – two things that made it easier for us to find a bit of joy. There were certainly worries and stresses, there were things that didn’t go the way I wanted, and there were missed opportunities. Above all, however, there was so much good, so many adventures, and so much to be thankful for.

For the last ten months, people around the country have vehemently wished away 2020, naively optimistic that the clock ticking to 2021 would initiate some sort of magical reset. While the new year itself won’t bring the pandemic to some sort of abrupt and miraculous end, there’s reason for hope. We have two recently approved first-generation vaccines and more in the pipeline. We have a new administration that is committed to prioritizing pandemic control by way of fact-based science. We have the knowledge and experience of the last twelve months. In just a few days, my parents will be receiving their first vaccine doses. I am beyond thankful and beyond relieved. It feels like someone is lifting a fifty-ton weight off my shoulders.

In some ways 2020 majorly sucked. In others, it was a gift – at the very least in that it showed us just how much we take for granted. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to take those lessons into the new year with us and hopefully in a matter of months we’ll all regain a smidge of normalcy. After a challenging 2020, we have a lot of reasons to give thanks and have hope.

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