Taking Back 2020

On January 2nd of this year, I turned 40. I had one overarching goal for my 40th year on the planet: live with intention. Basically, decide beforehand how I was going to spend my days, choose my reactions to setbacks, make some purposeful changes in how I was spending my time, etc. etc. etc. I bought a 365-day journal with the intent to record this very intentional year.

It was going to be a big one. I had a full calendar of writing and book events lined up. I was anticipating making a little extra money from them, garnering a little extra name recognition, building a little bigger network of fellow writers. I thought to myself, in my delightful naiveté, that this would be a year of building my career. This is where I would lay the foundation for future success.

And wouldn’t you know it, things didn’t go according to plan.

I abandoned the journal in early February because it was straight-up boring. I mean, who cares what I did each and every day? If I didn’t, certainly posterity wouldn’t. Gone.

And then…well, you know. Everyone’s plans went up in smoke. Our family trip to Yellowstone was canceled. The writers retreat I direct in Albuquerque was canceled. Nearly twenty events at libraries, book clubs, bookstores, and conferences were canceled.

I thought, well at least I can use that extra time to write more. [Insert sick, desperate laugh.]

There’s something about a pandemic and a 24-hour news cycle and the dumpster fire that is social media that really hijacks one’s concentration if you let it. Add in a kid suddenly home from school 24/7 and you’ve got a recipe for slow writing. Or, no writing for awhile.

Instead of being intentional and proactive, I, like many of you I would imagine, found myself in reactionary mode for about six months. My schedule, my comings and goings, my very thoughts felt like they were not my own. This was the most unintentional year I could remember.

And yet…

There were some things I did manage to make happen. I finally got the new fence I had been needing/wanting for the backyard. I lost fifty pounds and starting fitting into my old clothes. I spent a lot more time outside over the summer, reading, working, and yes, even writing a little. (Thank you, Lord, for such incredible summer weather this year.)

And there were some things that happened to me that were good. Because everyone in the world now knows how to use Zoom, I was able to talk to a number of far-flung (as well as local) book clubs and libraries, the furthest afield being a book club in Honduras. I won both the debut and general categories of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s 2020 Star Awards for my debut novel, We Hope for Better Things, which also had the honor of being selected as a Michigan Notable Book for 2020.

But the thing that I think has really been a turning point for me, mentally and emotionally, is that I kept something precious to me rather than losing it to a virus. Instead of loosening my grip and accepting that in this world, in this year, I will not be able to do this, I squeezed a little tighter and did something anyway. Even though there was some risk involved. Even though it meant spending money we should have saved. Even though it would invite public censure on social media (see my last post for another positive, intentional action taken in the wake of that).

What I kept was my annual writers retreat in Albuquerque. Not the retreat I’d carefully planned for nearly 100 writers. Not the retreat with the notable speaker and all the great food and all the socializing with writer friends. All I kept was a plane ticket and a hotel reservation. All I brought was some clothes and my laptop and my intentions of getting some writing done. All I wanted was time alone in a place I had grown to love and to need in my life over the past six years.

And I got it. Well, perhaps I should say I got it and then some. Not only did I get precious alone time after a season of everyone being stuck in the house; not only did I get time and mental space to write; not only did I get to spend five days in a hotel that feels like a second home to me…I also got community–unexpected, unintentional, and unequivocally soul-restoring community–at the best cigar shop I have ever been to.

An acquaintance local to Albuquerque told me about it and then, when Uber was uberexpensive, was kind enough to drive me to it in order to pick out some gifts for my husband. This friend smoked his first cigar as I perused the largest humidor I’ve ever set foot in and pawed through a gorgeous selection of pipes. I made my purchases after consulting with the very personable owner of the store (the third generation of his family to run it) and chatted with some other patrons–members of the store’s private cigar club–as I finished my own cigar and the glass of bourbon the owner poured for me. Then I figured I had imposed upon my driver long enough and was going say my thank yous and have him drive me back to the hotel.

Instead, one of the cigar club members invited me on a tour of the private lounge. After the tour, another gentleman who was in the lower level (yes, this amazing lounge had multiple levels and rooms) of the club invited me to sit down. I had already finished my cigar and my bourbon and I felt I had abandoned my ride, so I demurred. But the thing is, I didn’t want to leave yet. And these guys didn’t want me to leave. I was handed another bourbon, another cigar, and prevailed upon to stay. Eventually other guys came rolling into the room until I was holding court with five men, only one of whom I’d ever met before that afternoon.

Full disclosure so that you can gauge how incensed you should be at me right now: no, we were not wearing masks (hard to smoke a cigar through a mask) and no, we weren’t a full six feet apart. Probably we managed an average of four feet of distance. Yes, we were inside. Yes, I had shaken every one of their hands (at their initiation), as well as the hands of nearly every man who had entered when we were just standing around talking and smoking in the non-club portion of the store. These men ranged in age from their mid-20s to around 60. They worked in law enforcement, health care, the film industry, the news industry, in finance, for the military. And every single one of them made me feel…welcome, at ease, happy.

In a year of hunkering down and not even seeing the people I’ve known for years (or in some cases, for my entire life) I was introduced to this new community of instant friends. I was made to feel utterly welcome in what has become a very stand-offish world. The things I said were not met with raised hackles and links to articles to show why I was wrong/careless/borderline evil/probably a murderer. I was not walking on eggshells about how I worded things or anticipating the objections or arguments to come. I was not dreading the fallout from simply being myself.

I was just…there. Amongst people who were in all ways generous and gracious to each other and to me. They gave away pieces of themselves to a stranger in their midst, sharing their stories, trusting me to be gentle with them, to take them at face value, to simply derive enjoyment from them. We had nothing to gain from one another beyond a few hours of congeniality. But I don’t think you realize how truly precious such a thing is until it has been stolen from you, first by an invisible virus and then by the near-constant piling on of guilt that accompanies your every action in a world where everyone is watching and feels they have a sacred, self-appointed responsibility to judge and condemn you for each and every small way you deviate from their impossibly high expectations of you.

We had such a great time chatting, six hours flew by. We all missed dinner.

Over the remaining days of my trip, I was able to get together with a few of the guys again, and each time I discovered that a little piece of me was being put back together. A little confidence in myself that had been chipped away by listening to too many people was being restored. A little boldness I once had came creeping back in. (I know that someone reading this is horrified that I accepted rides and drinks I didn’t see poured from men I had just met, but why the hell should men have the freedom to hang out with anyone they want while women are taught to be afraid of everything and everyone? It may shock you further that the reason I saw any of these guys again was because I invited them to join me for drinks and dinner in the days that followed.)

Here’s the thing about meeting someone new in the context of having no “mutual friends.” When you meet someone new, apart from your previous relationships and work and accomplishments, apart from your carefully crafted online persona, you get to see yourself in as pure a form as you are likely to get in this life. They are meeting you, undiluted, unadulterated you. Not you the student or you the wife or you the mother or you the writer or you the former football star or you the once prom queen or you the executive or you the mechanic or you the failed artist or you the real estate mogul. Just you. You’re an unknown quantity. You’re a risk. And when they take that risk to spend time with you, and then have the exact reaction to you that you wish everyone would have–they find you interesting, charming, intelligent, fun to be around, worth their time and attention–it feels good. It feels like maybe there is something more to you than all the stuff about you.

We all want to feel that we are worth something in and of ourselves, irrespective of who we know or who we married or who we gave birth to, regardless of what we have accomplished and what we have failed to accomplish. And when someone sees that pure spark of you inside and wants more–more time, more stories, more eye contact, more of your attention–it’s intoxicating. It’s the kind of thing that makes you miss a meal and yet never actually miss it. It’s the kind of thing you want to share with other people even if it means you’ll get raked across the coals for daring to leave your house and deciding that social niceties like handshakes are still important and are worth a little risk (and a lot of public censure).

Reader, something important that I realized during this “inessential” trip is that I’m still essentially me. I’m still me, in and of myself, the me I’ve always been. The me that prefers hanging out with guys to hanging out with women. The me that loves hearing other people’s stories more than telling her own. The me that is not afraid to get into a car with a man I just met to go get some waffles. The me that is done being acted upon by distant forces and judged by distant people.

The me that doesn’t actually care what you think of me.

2020 has been a trial of a year, for sure. But I am taking it back. I am accepting with open arms the unexpected gifts it has given me. There are three months left in the year. Those are my months. I’m going to live them intentionally, without fear, without second guessing, without explaining myself to people who hold no power over me.

How about you?