The Content of Contentment: A Year in Review
Updated: May 2
I turned 25 on March 18, which means a lot of things. For starters, I’ve celebrated two birthdays in the pandemic. It also means this time last year we were on full lockdown. Remember that insanity? No one knew what the hell to make of life. Out of work for an indefinite period, newly dumped, and very disoriented, I spent my 24th birthday in Jersey with my parents and sister. They did their best to make the day special but everything was so tense, borderline joyless. What was going to happen? Had we been exposed? How long would lockdown last? I obsessed over how unlucky I felt to have my birthday fall on the first week of this experience. Birthdays as an adult are already twinged with a harsh sting of reality but this feeling I had reinvented the concept of a “pity party.” My birthday was so early in the #covidexperience, we hadn’t even figured out Zoom parties yet so any expectations I had for celebrating with friends meant nothing. I felt selfish and bratty, so I tried to find some joy. I made a list of fun things to do during my lockdown, including “yoga everyday,” “make pasta fagioli,” “sew Turtle Pillow,” and “WRITE!” The mere act of crafting that list excited me! I haven’t had extended time-off since my last college winter break in 2018. At the time of said list-making, I imagined the pandemic lasting a couple of weeks, maybe a month. There was a certain romantic appeal, never mind that my anxiety was slightly quelled by this huge first step toward snuffing out the virus.
Within all that romance, those first weeks of quarantine were riddled with constant and contradictory Instagram posts and reposts on productivity. Stuck at home frantically buying puzzles and getting wasted every night, we were lapping up guidance wherever we could get it. There was the “use this time to get ripped, improve every relationship, become bilingual, start farming, reinvent the wheel” rhetoric on one hand and the overly soothing “you should be proud of yourself for even remembering how to use a toilet <3”! To tap totally in or totally out? The main problem is that both sound equally appealing! Maybe we all have undiscovered 21st-century pioneer potential à la cottage core; maybe we do all deserve to become takeout-ordering vegetables in the name of self-care.
I spent half of the first week at my parents’ house where we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day and my birthday. Manhattan and Brooklyn shelves were wiped clean of provisions so my mom passed along large cans of whole tomatoes, beans, a giant jar of Skippy, coffee, and some fresh produce. Symbols of survival. She kept asking if I wanted to stay there with them, and I kindly declined. Retreating there indefinitely seemed like a lame admission of defeat. I wanted to be a “real grown-up” and weather the storm in a space I had control over. I feared falling into teenage habits of sleeping in, eating junk, fighting with my dad over politics. Plus, I hate being away from my own bed.
I waited about a month before I sought comfort there. At that point, my roommate/best friend and I were getting stir-crazy. We had watched dozens of movies and raked the leaves in our backyard and completed a huge Wizard of Oz puzzle while watching The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. Once you’ve reached that pinnacle of quar activities, what else can you aspire to? With only one other person’s energy to feed off of, if one of us was sinking low, it was easy for the other to fall into the sinkhole too. I wanted the idyllic quarantine of my list, to be content with staying in, to not be developing a slight substance dependence, to actually give a shit about puzzles or bread or FaceTiming a stranger from a dating app or anything at all. I was constantly chasing a rhythm, but like the singular moving patch of sun in our yard, I would catch a glimpse for a few hours and then the chill would set in.
My mom rescued me in her Jeep a couple of days before Easter. I stayed there until Memorial Day. My roommate also went back to Jersey to see his dad and sister for a little while. At home there were moments of mental suffocation, as I feared, but being so cocooned in the home where I grew up allowed me to unlock pieces of myself I thought were long gone with childhood. Back then I was content with sleeping in, eating waffles made from a boxed mix, and spending the period until dinner swimming small circles in an inflatable plastic pool with my sister. At some point during lockdown, sitting with my sister out on the deck, pretending we’re at the beach on a freak-warm day, I realized I had become seeped in suburban contentment for the first time in maybe a decade. I had no plans to conquer, only time. I did yoga outside. My sister and I perfected the breakfast quesadilla and took walks so long I forgot where I was. My dad found his stride in endless outdoor projects and kept his mouth shut about how Trump “actually was doing a good job” most days. And at night I would whip up a meal that mediated all of our dietary preferences and earned me enough praise to make me feel like I could go on.
I was never alone, which at first I loved and then I started to despise. I missed my apartment and how my roommate and I could watch Chopped for hours and make each other laugh hysterically with absurd commentary. At some point in May, he called me to say he was thinking about moving in with his dad to save money for grad school. I nearly had a mental breakdown. Selfish, in hindsight, but at the time I couldn’t stop thinking about how those four people were all I had in the world and now one was leaving me!! A panic attack ensued. No solution could soothe me. I didn’t want new roommates, I didn’t want to live alone, I didn’t want anything but what I already had. But did I even want that? Did anything bring me long-term joy anymore? I started to look for apartments I could afford alone and my mom and I were having these weird arguments over the crowd in Hoboken. Then, suddenly poof! The entire plan fell through. And I was going back to work. And life would resume some form of its fragile normalcy.
Much like the salvation-promising Instagram infographic, buzz phrases like “the new normal” became intolerable. It also deeply stung to think that could be true, that living like this could be at all normal, that there’s no end in sight. And since we are wired to survive, we create routines to operate in this hell. But rather than forgetting any normalcy I once knew in favor of an entirely reinvented lifestyle, I searched for similar results from different sources and feel affronted by the life’s blatant mundanity. Are the thrills of life really gone? Do I really have to choose between being safe and being happy?
I signed up for an online therapy service and started to think about my black-and-white thought patterns, my attachment issues, mediation, journaling. I started to think of my daily routines as though I was a child I was caring for: have I eaten enough fruits and vegetables? Am I comfortable? Am I playing, learning, giving myself a hug and trying to stay calm when I need me to love myself more than I love feeding the monster that lives for my pain?
Months of the calendar faded away into the COVID-19 abyss without feeling like any time is really passing at all. We found out the election results first because we heard someone scream and then checked our phones. Soon after, the streets were filled with cheering, dancing, pan-clanking, music, pure abundant joy. But those extreme feelings are hard to maintain.
I try to remember pre-covid life with clarity. Recently it occurred to me how many nights I went out feeling hot and didn’t get hit on once and how crushed I was going home. And the Saturdays I had to waste because I was hungover. All the little ways even a non-pandemic life could be totally unfulfilling.
I saw someone walking in the rain with their dog in a bag. “I want a cute dog I can carry around in a bag,” I thought to myself. I also want a good night’s sleep, maybe to wake up in the arms of a lover, and then to make them pancakes. If I had these things, I would feel happy. Yes, probably. I tell myself. But only for a little while. Eventually you will feel sad or angry or ambivalent again. And in those moments you will wonder “what happened?” I dig in the dark for what might make me content, for something I can cultivate that cannot be taken away. Maybe what I’m asking for is too big to solve in one weird year.
Let’s say I found an enlightenment on my parents’ deck back in deep lockdown. And that it came from sitting with my own stagnancy and seeing in it slow-growing buds within and without me. “Everything is always in flux,” my therapist offered onesession. Even as you sit still, even sleep. There is no stopping, only changing pace. The feeling that life could ever be on pause is but another illusion. So I walk around, go to work, sit in various places (the subway, parks, even my very own pink velvet couch), and try to find a connectedness to this great spinning earth.
In late September, I took a walk under a crisp blue sky to a nearby farmer’s market. I bought cider donuts at a stall and took them to the adjacent park. Survival is nothing without celebration. This is how we are meant to live, buying greens from someone who knows what they carried in their heart on the day they plucked these leaves from the earth, looking into people’s eyes and wishing them well. Despite being back at work, sometimes seeing friends, I still neglect the very important realization: all of these strangers are people and I’m a person too. And seeing them as humans with lives and sorrows and joys makes me remember there’s more than “before the pandemic” and “after the pandemic.” There’s right now.
It’s very easy to isolate mentally as we isolate physically, viewing strangers only as people who could infect us while rationalizing that people we know couldn’t possibly do the same. My therapist suggested that when I feel my brain burrowing in on itself that I should reconnect to my senses and I always love to start with what I see: two neighbors share a pot of tea on their festive stoop around Halloween. Children walk behind their mother holding hands. Lovers share a bottle of wine on a blanket. What I encounter is connected to what‘s within me.
What will the post-covid world look like? Who will the post-covid me be and how will she see the world? It doesn’t matter if I “took the time” to learn how to bake bread or perfect my French or gained or lost weight. I will be changed somehow, though. Twelve months have passed; we’re all already different. I keep thinking I miss my life but this is still my life, no matter how out of control I have felt in the last year.
Very little happened to me in my 24th year and yet I am a world away. Maybe more than very little. I was promoted at work, I started regular yoga and spiritual practices and therapy, I adopted a cat, I made new friends. And those events were catalysts and reflections of my inner growth that cannot be measured. At times I saw my heart be ravaged by ferocious anxiety and loneliness. I was lucky to have my health and steady income and though everything felt precarious in this topsy reality not every American had my luck. I look back on the notes I’ve scribbled down throughout this year and some were shockingly bleak. Hopelessness can fill you up like a balloon. What’s the point? I often asked myself. I exhaust myself at work to have money to live so I can...work?
In the stillness of a year spent in this alternate reality, life managed to shift. What did I miss out on? What did I gain instead? The paradox of this year was that I had more time to myself than ever and yet so much of it felt wasted, like it didn’t even belong to me. I’ll never know what my life would feel like without the experience of the past year. I can’t lament “wasted youth” any longer; I have to live however I can. Side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine include new-found positivity.
The writing process for this started in May. And I revisited it around the holidays, thinking I could finish it to ring in the new year. Still stuck. And then I figured by my birthday I would have the right words to share. But I didn’t. I was overthinking it all too much. If I had to make a colorful little social media info-graphic meant to be reposted with reckless abandon, I would have to quote the great Sheryl Crow: “it’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.”
Wanna hear my last piece of unsolicited advice? Accept the discomfort of a more slowly paced life. Do something (anything!) that gets you out of your head. Don‘t forget to ground yourself, text someone you haven’t heard from in a bit, ask for help when you need it! Foster a relationship with yourself; it’s the longest, most vital one you will ever have. I could say a million more little tidbits; maybe we’re all full of infinite, repost-able wisdom, maybe not. Because you are alive, infinite possibilities exist for you. And everyday is a winding fucking road.