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Lessons learned in the first year of a pandemic

How to sum up the year 2020? My writerly self is always dependent on finding the right words. However, this has proven to be a year that is not so easy to tidy up in a sentence. I remember being in New York in January for my graduate school reunion. The weather was unseasonably warm, I had brunch with old friends and saw a couple of Broadway shows. It was a truly lovely weekend.

I’d had plans to do a lot this year. Between traveling for leisure and work, plus all of the articles that I was slated to write, I was feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the beginning of March. Still, I had no plans to slow down.

I remember I was off of work on Friday, March 13. I had taken my laptop home on Thursday because one of the associate deans said we probably wouldn’t be back in the office the following week. I had been feeling sick due to my seasonal allergies and asthma that week. I had completely lost my voice. That weekend, I went out for drinks with a couple of girlfriends and reviewed The Brothers Size at Actor’s Express. By Monday, the world had shut down.

At the time, I thought it would be temporary. Something we did for a couple of weeks or a month, not nine months. The time it takes to birth a baby is the time we’ve been in the house.

Those first couple of weeks at work were absolutely chaotic and my supervisor was out of the office sick. In the midst of so much uncertainty, as an institution of public higher education, we were expected to do more to increase admissions numbers. My freelance writing gigs and speaking gigs evaporated– almost $3,000 worth of work gone in the first two weeks of the shutdown. Critical Minded offered grants to BIPOC critics who had lost work and I won one. God has never left me out or without. 

There was talk of furloughs and layoffs. As I saw friends lose jobs one after another, I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach. But, there was also relief. When I looked at my planner, at all of the places I had committed to go and shows I’d committed to see and things I’d committed to do, I wanted to puke. I was about to have a great year, career wise, and no time for sleep, dating or family. The pandemic slowed me down and forced me to re-focus and take stock of whether my priorities aligned with my values. 

Somewhere around the end of March, it became clear that we were in this for the long haul. It was going to be lonely. A group of friends– we call ourselves the Womanhood group– scheduled weekly virtual happy hours on Thursdays at 7 p.m. The group started after the 2016 presidential election as a space where we as Black women could tell unbridled truths and ask uncomfortable questions. We had been getting together every month for almost four years, and now we were having weekly conversations about more than just dating woes. I can truly say that the community of these happy hours saved this year for me. 

Then, George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis for allegedly using a fake $20 bill at a convenience store. I’m so happy that Harriet Tubman’s face wasn’t on it like it would have been had the president not delayed the transition from Jackson to Tubman. I’m so happy he actually didn’t do what he was accused of. I’m happy that his living and dying were not in vain and forced the world to reexamine policing as a concept as well as how we treat imperfect people. I am deeply saddened and troubled that George Floyd is dead.

The pandemic, canceled plans, people getting sick, people dying and the economic devastation were all enough to deal with, but I had no time for racism.  I started with a new therapist at the end of last year. I remember in our first session after Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, we were just two devastated Black women.

(Though, I am happy to report that as our sessions have gone on– and so has the pandemic and the endless staying at home– I have forgiven myself for who I wasn’t in my 20s and let go of regret. You can only grow up as fast as you can. You can only be as bold as your fear will allow.) 

In July, to get some reprieve, my bestie and I went glamping in Hot Springs, North Carolina. For four days, we had no internet, television or cell signal. We colored, journaled, made s’mores and hiked. It was a Balm in Gilead. We took another trip in October to the driftwood beaches in Jekyll Island. More reprieve.

By the fall, I had not seen a play in months. I usually see about 75 shows a year as a theater critic. Before the shut down, I’d seen maybe four. My friend Bridgette and I were saddened by this and we applied for a grant to produce a virtual theater series. We were awarded almost $10,000 by the Fulton Co. Board of Commissioners to produce “Interface: An Evening of New Virtual Plays.” I would have never applied for that grant had the year gone as planned. I would’ve never had my first short play produced. We would’ve never employed those 22 artists. We would’ve never reached almost 1,000 people online in one weekend. This is what it is to make lemonade.

Around this same time, more work started emerging. I was asked to speak to college classes, young writers groups and facilitate conversations about race and art. More assignments came through. But, what I had to accept, and am still struggling to accept, is that my pre-pandemic productivity level and my productivity level in these times are not the same. Running on fumes no longer works for me, so I just have to be more deliberate about what and who I say yes to.

There are some things I started doing this year that I want to keep doing. I need a weekly happy hour, not to drink but for community. I write for me for several hours every Saturday and Sunday. I date. I talk to every member of my immediate family at least twice a week. I go for long walks outside and exercise. I cook meals and eat them. I give money to arts and social justice charities. My work is not a measure of my success. My relationships are. 

I can’t remember who is responsible for this quote, “One person’s flood is another person’s baptism.” I have been baptized by my experiences this year. Baptism is such an act of faith, because it requires you to trust yourself to be submerged in water and lifted up. You have to trust that you will not drown or be drowned in the process of your own renewal. Life always requires that we take the good and the bad in stride, but that seemed a compounding necessity this year. The year might be over, but the life lessons remain.

As it says in 2 Corinthians, in all things, at all times having all that you need you will abound in every good work. Have a Happy New Year everyone!

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