We need to break up. I know you’ve probably been expecting this ever since Christmas, when I stopped returning your texts and emails. Maybe you realized I’d blocked your number. I want to explain why I haven’t reached out—and why I won’t be.
I met someone new. I was trying to describe our relationship to him, and it suddenly struck me that I was doing it all wrong, starting with the ending, forgetting everything that came before and all of the in-between that held us together, at least for a while.
Remember that New Year’s Eve party my ex threw last year? I was surprised he invited me; we’d only just broken up. He’d never mentioned that you worked together. Maybe he knew I’d lose interest in him the moment I saw you.
We danced together in that crowded living room, everyone laughing and spilling their drinks. We snuck out onto the balcony right before the ball dropped and clinked our glasses. Someone put on Auld Lang Syne, and when you kissed me, the night let out a great sigh.
As the magic of midnight unspooled and someone broke a glass inside, I thought I felt in your quiet something ominous. I never imagined that party would be our last, or that we’d lose touch with most of those friends before we’d run our love to its inevitable end.
It’s easy to blame what happened in March for everything that would follow. At first we banded together. We chalked “hang in there” on the sidewalks and swapped our hard pants for athleisure. We started meditating, kept a gratitude journal, made color-coded homeschool schedules. I started a podcast called Shelter in Place to help me find metaphorical shelter in a time when I was stuck in my own physical place. I thought it would be a small project, that all of this would be over in a few weeks.
And then one morning in May we woke up to a different world–or rather, it was the same world, but its shiny layer had been peeled back to reveal the decay underneath. We took to the streets, a new kind of rallying. Our protests were layered; we didn’t just want things to be different–we wanted history to be different. Some days we wished we could erase ourselves from the story.
I had not anticipated how my daily podcast would force me to take a long hard look at myself. There was no hiding from the death and destruction all around me—or inside me. I still wrote episodes six days a week, but now I sought out other voices and stayed as quiet as I could. Some days I wanted to stop talking altogether.
I called friends and had awkward conversations. Even the trying marked a stark division. My friends were sad and discouraged and angry–but they were not surprised. For every person in America who was finally waking up, others slumbered on, lost in dreams of a world that had never been. Meanwhile my friends kept the midnight watch; they’d been wide-eyed and overtired all their lives.
Now my nights were restless, with twitchy legs and patchwork dreams. Sometimes I’d get up in the middle of the night and do the work I hadn’t been able to finish during the day, when I was officiating kid fights and administrating Zoom schedules. It was unmanageable, but there seemed to be no other option. It was surprising how we could all go on living half-dead.
I kept writing and recording, fighting my instinct to shut down. Each day was a refrain of losing hope and finding it, losing it and finding it again. They were not sequential events, but rather parallel tracks. There was the hope and the loss, the loss and the hope, always there together. Optimism was no longer a simple thing.
Summer came. For months I’d held a secret hope that we could get the old life back. I even thought about calling my ex. But now the kids would not be going back to school. The coming year stretched out like a long impenetrable fog.
And then one day the fog wasn’t fog, but yellow smoke blanketing our skies. The sun turned red. The air smelled of burning plastic. Ash fell like dirty snowflakes. We formed a new faith in the apocalypse. We weren’t suicidal, just so very tired of living.
The smoke cleared for a few hours and I sat on the back porch crying, wanting and not wanting you to find me. When you finally did, you surprised me by agreeing that we were not okay. We needed to do something drastic. For once I didn’t micromanage you. I let you take me wherever you thought we should go. We set out on a month-long road trip across the country, not stopping until we reached family on the opposite coast. We let go of our shelter, of our place that felt like home.
It’s been four months since you took me to Massachusetts. The kids are doing better with grandma overseeing school. I’m lonely sometimes, but I’m okay. I still don’t know when we’re going home.
I tried not to think about you on New Year’s Eve this year. There were no parties. I didn’t see midnight this time around. The kids and I sang Auld Lang Syne at 8 p.m. and I finally taught them what it means. It begins with a question: is it right to forget days gone by?
Remember that terrible fight we had in November, when you screamed questions I couldn’t answer?
Would I erase you from my life if I could? Some days I think yes. You broke me again and again.
But as much as I want to hate you, I can’t. You stole so much—but you also gave me a life I hadn’t known I’d needed. You made me uncomfortable—but in the process I learned to live with less. I learned from you that it’s okay to ask for help, that relationships take work, that the best things in life usually aren’t easy. That process of crumbling all of my previous self-sufficiency and–I’ll admit it, selfishness–has revealed something quite unexpected: it’s no easy answer or silver lining; it’s insecure, and not fully-formed. It’s fragile, but solid at its core. It’s small, but it could grow.
What you gave me, dear 2020, is hope. It’s far more expansive than I’d imagined; it doesn’t require us to agree before we can care for each other. It laments the past and casts a vision for the future. It can say I’m sorry; it can learn to forgive. It’s got joy and pain tangled around and inside it. It doesn’t mind the contradiction.
This person I’ve met is nothing like you. He says exactly what he means. His expectations are low. The kids are still getting to know him. I am, too. But for as many times as I’ve wished this year away, I won’t forget you, dear 2020, whom I have loved and hated. It’s a cup of kindness I raise to you tonight, because you taught me that, too.
This post was an excerpt from an episode of Shelter in Place podcast. Listen below or visit shelterinplacepodcast.info to read the full transcript.