“It’s the year of cliche conference names! The year of too-easy cable news slogans! The year that will produce endless ‘hindsight is…’ memes!”
That’s what I was saying this time last year.
So here we are, and it really wasn’t. Something as frivolous as a year’s round, meaningful number just… barely came up in 2020.
I don’t really review years. They are arbitrary counts of time.
But, like every late night show host, news anchor, or celebrity tweet has pointed out – we’ve aged a lot more than a year throughout 2020. And the experiences we’ve handled are so diverse – for some, this year feels like financial ruin, for some a moral bankruptcy, for some a trial of mental health, for some an opportunity, for some a political struggle, for way too many a grave loss, for most, a combination…
Here we are, the artificial year of 2020 is coming to a close.
I wasn’t in a great place kicking off 2020. On the outside it probably seemed great, but as this case with, I’d guess every single person in the planet, I was juggling a bunch of dilemmas, choices, risks, and fears.
My year kicked off at my hectic, exciting job, focused in January on planning our upcoming annual global conference the next month.
Underlying that was the fact I was still experiencing phases of my post-last baby life crisis… a condition I have seen so common amongst peers. I was seeking answers but hadn’t found them yet. I used to secretly, guiltily, wish for something big to happen to shake me out of it.
Meanwhile, coronavirus was creeping up on us only in the sense that we had to start preparing for the eventuality that many of our East Asian guests would probably back out. The weeks leading up to the event week held an added stress of not knowing if the conference would – or could – even take place. So working the requisite 14-15 hour days in the month leading up to our biggest project of the year felt really useless when we weren’t sure it wasn’t for nothing.
It felt like… when I’d be past this conference, things could only go up from there.
Actually, the conference week went off without much of a hitch; many of our guests did in fact back out – especially from East Asia – but it was otherwise a success, as far as my efforts. You could spot a handful of masks here and there, and a couple jokes about corona conspiracies but things didn’t feel… wrong just yet.
What helped keep me going in my most challenging season of my professional year was knowing I’d be flying for a family visit soon after. An Australian nephew with a wedding in New York meant we could see the majority of our extended family on both sides in one trip – a rare opportunity.
It also meant a short break where I could think, come home, and make some choices. Climb out of my rut.
March kicked off with our 3rd election in 12 months. It was already a national joke but I felt still worth taking seriously. (Ah, the good old days.)
As the day of our flight crept up, the pandemic was becoming a… pandemic. The first cases had been reported. Flights were slowing down, debates about locking down had started… at least, here in Israel.
I remember being on the phone with my mom a few days before the flight, while attending my last professional in-person event to date. Israel was already discussing pretty drastic measures – preparing for the eventuality of businesses being shuttered, schools being closed. It was about to get ugly here, and we knew that flying back home would mean flying into ‘quarantine’.
But in the States – nothing. I was horrified by how the government wasn’t saying anything, and about how my parents didn’t seem informed or how my American social media feeds were operating as ‘normal’. It felt foreboding. It felt like the literature you read in high school – parables, warnings, but never applicable. It felt ghastly. Like betrayal.
The airport was deserted, it was an eery atmosphere. Our kids could run anywhere and bump into no one. The facility was one giant echo. By the time I sat down in my upright seat, my hands were red and raw from alco-gel.
The two-week trip was chock full of relief that we made it, anxiety that we wouldn’t get to finish it, stress that someone we love dearly would get sick, and constant looking-over-our-shoulders. Looking back, I am really glad we didn’t back out. It was a cusp, it was teetering on the edge, it was insane. But it was ten months ago and it was the last time we got to see, be with and hug our families abroad. Our timing was as perfect as it could get.
The pandemic fallout indeed caught up with us as we rescheduled our flights to escape the crumbling United States and slip into the locking-down Israel before no other taxi could promise us a ride home. It was terrifying to leave; like running from a burning building knowing your mother was still inside.
Upon our exit from baggage claim, we left the airport driving directly through carless highway, a country in lockdown, rain falling over silent streets, the front door shutting behind us in quarantine.
I wasn’t going anywhere. Not physically, not professionally. Only my emotions had space to run wild.
In the meantime, people we knew – family, friends, acquaintances – were starting to catch COVID-19.
I learned a lot in April. I was grateful for a lot in April.
- On long distance. We have been expats for so long; technology has gotten incredibly better in all this time; it took a global pandemic to celebrate birthdays over video chat with extended family who are never usually in the ‘picture’. It only even the playing field as far as being an expat – suddenly everyone was, all of us far from each other, in long distance relationships. Everyone was left out, no one was left out.
- On work. Working from home in a lockdown, with school-less kids everywhere, when your jobs have somehow become even busier than they ever were – even in conference season – is a test of so many wills. I hated it, I loved it, I clung to the having something to do as I watched friends lose one-by-one their day-to-day. Tour guides, teachers. Halat – furlough – was a new term I had to navigate as a manager. Salary cuts. Overtime. The scales were all over the place. Some of us had too much to do; others had nothing.
- On siblings. My kids have always had a strong bond with each other; they seem to actually like each other which I consider a gift and do not take for granted. It’s present underneath the brotherly bickering or sisterly sniping. It’s deep. And the lockdown time both brought it out further and made it more necessary than ever.
- On nature. Out of quarantine, taking life 100 meters at a time, we got to explore our surroundings in a totally new light. Lots of April sunlight, lots of springtime energy. We live across the street from a nature preserve, and we combed through it for every blade of grass, every boulder, every bee. We renewed our vows with our apartment, we expressed a loyalty to our shared patch of Earth.
- On national experience. After a total tearing up of our local cultural norms – a social people, a risk-taking people, an impatient people, penned up in their homes – Pesach was the next major test for our country. People kept to restrictive public health guidelines and others didn’t. It was disappointing but unsurprising to watch our highest leaders fail this test so spectacularly – one of many examples of this for the rest of the year, where pandemic politics has steered our daily lives with more force than public health policy. I’ll add that Zoom Yom HaShoah had a weird air of meaning in people hiding out in their own homes while trying to stay true to ourselves.
We tried going back to school in May; everyone was impatient. Wrong, right, the fact is – everyone had an opinion, and don’t we all still. As a country we were going to take baby steps, put out feelers, establish phases. As a country we know we are excellent at defense operations, at protection. As a country we definitely do not have the self control and far sightedness it takes to execute a months-long public health plan of ideal proportions.
As humans opened their front doors, got in their cars and began to catch up with what we’d all left behind, I was more clear headed to acknowledge, name and contend with my increasing depression and anxiety. Depressed by day, anxious by night. The United States was falling apart in more directions than we could have imagined; the pandemic was just the final Jenga block enabling the crash. The majority of my family was stuck in that environment, the worst of it New York City, where I knew my mother was still sticking it out and going to work in an environment where a lot of people just didn’t care. My father, living in a state I had seen in the news as a Spring Break hub of apathy. Since before I left, I had been cynical about the US but 15+ years later, anything resembling security was melting away like an ice cap. Momentum like a fatal viral video.
Closer to home, I had dealt with professional challenges and frustrations for years but this was the first time I could not muster the will to power through. The internal whispering of January and February instructing me to move on got louder. It was a matter of time, and time was up. In a pandemic… there’s no time to waste when everything around you is swirling with change.
I gave notice and opened a google doc which became my job search diary. I told my kids and their curiosity about this decision and process gave me new perspective on what it means to run a family and have ‘dependents’. I struggled with the idea of willingly entering unemployment at a time like this. I felt incredibly sad and angry and terrified at having made such an enormous decision. I also felt I could breathe.
Magically, we had planned another conference at work – an online virtual experience – which we executed in under six weeks and it was actually quite energizing. It was my favorite parts of my job on hyperdrive, so I combatted the creep of depression with my fantasies around TV producing and content hacking. I was not always successful, and even my deep sighs were exhausting. It did help stave off the inevitable roller coaster deep dive I was heading up towards. In other ways, it confirmed my choices.
I also had started interviewing at a few places that popped out of nowhere; they were journeys in themselves as far as showing me what’s possible, that my skills and experience are suddenly even more sought out amidst an economic turnover and work culture revolution. It started to feel that leaving my job was not a financial mistake. Not a career blunder.
The summer was a two-sided coin; closing up at work proved harder than imagined but I could muster my remaining more time, energy and attention for new projects with my kids.
Informal, DIY education was the best trend of the year. The last few months had given us space to try so many things. We sewed. We baked. We dyed. We exercised. We strummed. We painted. We rode. We upcycled. We sprayed. We submitted. We remote learned. We jarred.
Most of all – we beached. The summer was a newfound understanding of the beach. Understanding. It was deep. It was a connection. We went, and we went back again. Like the reserve across our building, suddenly we understood how we had taken this for granted for years.
In the meantime, I found less painful ways to part with people I truly enjoyed working with and being close to. I found ways to support my team while supporting myself. I wanted to badly to be helpful, and where it wasn’t taken up, I poured it elsewhere.
What surprised me, genuinely, was how much other people – people from my professional past, people with whom I have light acquaintances – reached out, offered me virtual coffees. Gave their time – felt it was worth investing in me. I was shocked, and I was touched, and I decided I was going to pay it forward… opportunities did start showing up very soon after.
My first month of freedom/unemployment/feeling lost included a strong dose of hiding from society, for both pandemic and professional reasons.
The highlight of this time was doing everything else.
I subscribed to a Nature Parks membership. Gates opened, terrain unlocked. It was a passkey into everything ‘under my nose’ minus the excuse of no time to do it.
I did day trips with my older kids. The time I have gotten to spend with them has been invaluable, this all on the edge of their pre-teen full moon… Any other year, any other conditions I just would not have had the opportunity to do more than remind them to put on deodorant in the morning… Now I got the chance to take that ‘later on maternity leave’ I always wanted. Keeping communication channels open, investing in their opinions and questions.
Our family took a 4-day trip up north. Simple times, simple pleasures, a beautiful beach preserve, a quiet Haifa, a full Kinneret… it felt like weeks on the pandemic timetable.
We eyed Dubai, we celebrated a future with normalization, but to be honest – the freefall of local relations didn’t get the attention or energy it would have deserved from me in lighter times.
Back to school, again. Education continued to be accomplished out and around classrooms:
I protested and taught about protesting. We learned remotely with a new teacher… Grandma. We visited a dog shelter to understand what that responsibility might look like. We learned how to take beloved things and evolve them into something else. We followed the moon.
We also rounded the corner on holidays, experiencing the most meaningful and critical time of the Jewish year, at a distance. Some in bidud (quarantine), some sick, some out but standing apart.
Davening outdoors on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur was actually lovely.
Plus, wearing sunglasses could hide the tears.
My second election of 2020; this one different but actually the same. I always vote by mail for the president of the United States. I typically don’t bite my nails down to stubs over it though.
I also don’t typically have to reserve a spot at the post office days in advance or risk standing in line in a Red city for over an hour to get a letter delivered.
Otherwise, I had assumed October would be for job hunting but I was not ready. I emerged for coffee with some (on Zoom); was open to feedback or advice from others (on Zoom); participated in live chats and podcasts; and accepted a few interviews (on Zoom). I felt disconnected and hyperconnected.
…But that was between all the TV. I was never a huge TV watcher before; TV is my depression hiding place, a place where I go to escape. In this state, I binge TV to not think about the present and I realized I was literally doing that. Tuning out the voices in my head, the voices around my house, the self doubt, the anxiety, the uncertainty, the dim view of the near future. Whereas binging Tiger King at the beginning of the pandemic felt like a move towards unity – yes, Netflix has accomplished a lot this year – by October, it was different. It was shutting everything out.
And so among other things, I managed to down the entire 12 seasons of Big Bang Theory in exactly a month. I am not proud of it.
Through those clouds, I also revisited my writing self, started writing again, and signed up for a class in a totally different zone than I was used to.
The career seeds I had planted in the months before were now in full bloom and I was energized as I awoke from that slumber. Self doubt was easier to suppress; my job search diary was doing its job – recording the ups so the downs don’t seem hopeless; recording the downs so I could understand how to climb out of them. Interviews were becoming more frequent, like dating two people at once at the same sitcom restaurant.
I celebrated my success at preserving my self esteem despite the mirage of self doubt and undervaluing after leaving my job. Now I could appreciate the opportunities in front of me, people who wanted to hear and learn from me. That all that investment in experience actually pays off. My sense of self had thawed.
Maybe true in America, too – while death tolls rise and the sick spreads, on the outside many of us around the world breathed sighs of relief as the election was finally called. Wary, worried that it could be grabbed back in some twist, I still managed to feel lighter about a slightly better near-future for the American side of the pandemic.
It helped that I took a 2019 hobby to new heights in 2020 – and started a D&D campaign with my kids. Indoor, boundary-less fun that has given me insight into who they are and how I can continue to tickle their imaginations as they battle with teening me out.
And even as we knew a third lockdown was inevitable – no matter how much vaccine headlines we read – we managed to get out with friends for nature hikes. Friend bonding saw new heights this year; almost like a sifting happened and with your limited time and exposure, and you could figure out where you end up.
As the third wave crept on us in Israel – and waves engulfed Europe, and the United States – I felt on a personal level I could breath lighter, if not necessarily without health risks.
My job search had come to a head, with the final figuring out direction, priorities and pathways… and I signed on my next job, whose description matches what I had originally been describing in June and July… it came around, after google doc diary, after ups and downs, after dozens of virtual coffee dates, Zoom and masked interviews, phone calls and Whatsapps.
After a year of turmoil, of seeing suffering from a distance and up close, of feeling powerless while grasping for any sense of control… my December granted me a choice that would be considered a luxury in any other year: I got to choose between job options. The universe empowered me to act out the priorities I had set for myself on my job search – with amazing opportunities in different directions. The fork in the road wasn’t a choice between good or bad, but the choice to play out the next few years how I had imagined them while getting through the last year leading up to now.
Despite the hours of sleeplessness, of chewing on melatonin, of stressful phone calls, of slogging through the day… I end 2020 with a lot:
A pre-job vacation. Strengthened bonds with certain people in my life. A marriage that survived. Kids who thrived and became even better friends. Kids who are more open than ever to new experiences. Faith in what humans can do on a global scale for the common good. Hope that I’ll get the vaccine before Pesach this year. Hope that my parents can get it in the next couple months, as botched as the American rollout appears to be. Hope that many of us can remember kindness towards each other this year over the rage and impatience and frustration. That there is a place for collective society and greater good in our future, via our younger children, who have had to adapt to an alien but mindful life.
The final week of this incredibly divided year ended how I predicted it: my last week of ‘freedom’ was upended by a national seger (lockdown) and my huz and daughter going into bidud (quarantine). I had plans canceled, I wondered if I should feel sorry for myself, but I didn’t. I felt lucky. I felt a sense of duty. Collectiveness. I took care of my isolated family, and my other kids, too. I took it easy. I breathed. It was slow. It was restful. It was just… another week in this crazy year. And at the end, when I could hug my youngest after the longest time I’ve gone without her, when I could reunite with my life partner after days of legit missing, and as I watched the siblings hug out after missing each other so greatly… I just know everything else is extra. Who we’re close to in this time of distancing says so much.
It’s been a year of learning a lot about myself, my friends, my neighbors, my country, its leaders, the world, humans as a collective, humans as individuals, my tolerance levels… And, let’s face it, when isn’t that true? Every year we get hit with challenges, with waves of good and depths of bad, of surprises pleasant and unfortunate. There are good TV shows, there are bad politicians, there are must-haves and pitfalls.
The difference is this year there was an undertone of global awareness, human awareness, self awareness that was heightened, that pushed me to make some choices I was hesitant about, pushed me to see things differently, urgently, more lightly, more deeply. And being pushed in those directions made me confront myself, made me see other people more clearly, made me accept some truths and alter some others.
I was more clear-eyed while feeling completely depressed. I was more self-aware while wanting to avoid it all. I was conflicted and doubtful while clinging to confidence and trust.
I’m entering 2021 with a lot more information than I had in 2020.
There it is, the last page of the calendar torn off, 2020 in hindsight.