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The one that got away

On two separate occasions over the past week, I’ve been asked to reflect on what I’ve celebrated over the past year. Both times, it has sent me spiraling.

My personal “pandemic moment” — the moment I realized that COVID-19 had altered life as we knew it — was flying home on my 21st birthday in mid-March 2020. Spending the day with my mom in my childhood bedroom in Florida was a far cry from what I had anticipated, but it was … fine. It just felt like another day. Of all the things people were losing to the pandemic, this felt incredibly trivial.

So began the mentality I’ve maintained throughout the past year: nothing matters. Nothing was interesting, let alone celebratory. Every day was a rinse-and-repeat cycle of disenchantment. I got the occasional lunch with a friend and then forgot to text them for another three months. I could count on one hand the number of Zoom class sessions where I didn’t have a second window open to mindlessly scroll on social media when I got bored — roughly every seven minutes. My room is littered with a graveyard of hobbies I gave up after two weeks: cheetah-print roller skates, an empty sketchbook, a half-finished embroidery piece.

About halfway through my year of being 21, two of my closest friends got married. It was the first thing I had looked forward to in months. I took the day off of work and even wore a dress for the occasion. And then, after a 30-minute Zoom that was only audible half of the time, it was over. The highlight of my year. As I shut down my computer and changed back into sweats, it felt vaguely disturbing to realize how easily I could revert to listlessness.

Then, about a month ago, I turned 22. Prior to that, I’d spent two weeks in isolation after a positive COVID test, and almost a week in isolation under Duke’s stay-in-place order. I had nearly forgotten that my birthday was coming up — mostly because I’d largely lost track of time altogether.

It didn’t concern me much to be having a second pandemic birthday, but the realization that a full, quantifiable year of my life had passed and I could account for so little of it did not sit well.

I could have tried harder — I know this. I could’ve used the past year of my life to learn new skills or eat better or at least keep in touch with friends and family. But I didn’t. Frankly, I have no idea how I spent those 12 months. My lackluster staff profile will tell you I have not been a particularly prolific writer, and the bags under my eyes indicate that I’m not sleeping especially well. Somehow, a year of my life got away from me.

The thing is, I do not want to be — and simply am not — someone who measures their value based on productivity. I don’t feel like a lesser human being because I didn’t start a business or write a book (or even because of all of the smaller things I committed to and failed to deliver on). When I look in the mirror, I do not see a bad person, but I do see someone I am unhappy with.

As I’ve aged, I’ve tended to look back on my younger self as a source of cautionary tales, a person I can learn from but would never want to emulate. This year, though, I would like to become a little bit more like my pre-pandemic, 20-year-old self. She was dedicated and reliable and passionate and never, ever would have let 59 iMessages pile up in her inbox. She would always find something to celebrate.

It’s become very easy — often even necessary — to convince yourself that nothing matters except for life and death. Of course you’ll miss a birthday party, a wedding, a deadline — we’re living through a global pandemic. The virus has made every choice so simple: is it worth risking the life of myself and those around me? Inevitably, under those parameters, nothing is that important.

Under those parameters, even the most inert iteration of my life seemed preferable to literal death, which I guess is why I was okay living it for so long.  But — hot take — life is not simply meant to be the alternative to death. It’s meant to be felt, changed and celebrated.

I am writing this to hold myself accountable. I want to write more, celebrate more, care more. The vast majority of this year of being 22 is still ahead of me — I don’t want to let it get away. 

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