After the news of Covid broke and the world seemed to shut like a door, someone jokingly tweeted, “What did you do to cause this?” My reply, one of many: “I said out loud that I was happy.” And I was.
I began 2020 a pretty newly divorced single mom; I’d been on my own for over a year, but I wasn’t alone, not really. I was focusing on myself and my kids, cultivating my friendships, traveling, writing. I was making a new life for myself, and I was surprised by how at home I felt in it.
For most of my life, I’d been a planner – driven and organized in my work; wedded to a schedule as a parent. But both the divorce and the pandemic meant a loss of control. So many of the things I had planned for were no longer possible, and I had to let go. I loosened my white-knuckled grip on my life and instead of feeling panicked, I found myself being more playful, more spontaneous, less tethered to order for order’s sake.
My thinking now: this year has said no over and over, so I’m saying yes as often as I can. Sometimes yes looks like ice cream for dinner or an 80s dance party in the living room or water fight in the backyard past bedtime. My first and best lockdown purchase was a pair of aqua and pink roller-skates, and in the first weeks of my state’s shelter-in-place order, a friend and I met for what we called “Quarantine Skate Club”. Sometimes yes looks like a couple of middle-aged women roller-skating at a safe distance from one another in a driveway, listening to disco, laughing too hard despite quizzical looks from the neighbors. It saved me some days.
Sometimes yes looks like meeting someone when you least expect it – in those last weeks right before lockdown, when we were still able to go to coffeeshops and concerts. On one hand, the timing could not have been worse; on the other, it could not have been better. Being in a new relationship now feels like growing a plant inside in a small terrarium. We can tend to it in a protected environment before planting it outside and seeing how it fares in the elements.
In July we drove 11 hours from Ohio to the North Carolina coast, just the two of us, our first trip together. After being cooped up and landlocked for months, we both desperately needed to see the ocean. The world felt so changed, part of me doubted it would still be there.
But it was there. I swam and bobbed in the waves, despite years of a reticence that bordered on fear. The thing about the ocean is that when you’re in it, you’re not in control; you can’t even see what’s moving all around you, beneath the surface. But this time, I was not afraid. We saw a pod of dolphins. We stepped, shrieking, on the same crab, one after the other, and laughed until we cried.
I did not forget the global pandemic or my government’s slide toward full-on fascism. I did not leave behind the stresses of being self-employed or my concerns about keeping my children healthy – physically and mentally – during this time. But I let myself feel something other than all that.
Sometimes yes looks like reminding yourself of what is still possible.
In many ways, Covid changed the stakes. It reminded me that life is short and the best thing I can do is live it – not endure it, but really live it. Even though days in isolation often feel very long, this life is a one-off. It’s not ideal, but it’s all we have.
I know this year will be the year of the masks, the year of the hand sanitizer, the year of Zoom. But what I want to remember of this time – and what I want my kids to remember – is unselfconscious joy, tenderness and togetherness. I want them to remember that their mother was happy, not that she had dinner on the table at 6 o’clock every night, or that bedtime was always at 8. I want them to remember all the things we did, not the things we weren’t able to do.
Yes, the world is broken, but the beauty is still there. I go looking for it, and it’s there.
Maggie Smith is the author of four books, most recently Good Bones and Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change