Around the end of June 2020, Ben and I heard a group of people singing “Happy Birthday” outside our window. We live at the top of a fifth-floor walkup on 80th Street in Manhattan, and our apartment looks out onto hundreds of stranger’s back patios and fire escapes.
The first few nights we heard the song, we chalked it up to an enthusiastic Zoom call. But when we started hearing it every night–sometimes multiple times–we were bewildered. In a time when isolation stretched on for the foreseeable future, this imaginary group of revelers started to frustrate me. Why did they get to gather and sing when we were playing by the rules?
By the end of August, our metal and rust-covered rooftop had become our greatest respite from our overheated one-bedroom apartment. One evening, when the singing started up again, Ben carefully leaned over the edge of our fire escape and spotted a group of beautifully set tables and strands of decorative lights. “It’s an outdoor restaurant!” he yelled, “That’s who’s been singing happy birthday!”
No one was breaking the rules, no one was flaunting their social distancing. It was a small pocket of joy outside our window in the back patio of a restaurant we had no idea was even there.
The Tricky Part About Hope
In spite of this cynical misunderstanding, Ben and I have somehow held onto a sense of hope from the very beginning–perhaps foolishly. I personally gripped onto hope so tightly that it took months to get over my anger at others who hadn’t. Even when I spoke to my therapist on the phone–who is paid to ensure I am living in reality–I raged about the lack of trust and hope during such a traumatic time. Every time my positive attitude was met with a “But things will never be the same, ” or a, “Yeah, but we’re gonna suffer a lot before then,” set me on fire with frustration. This feeling, I admit, was unfair.
Hope–quite understandably after this horrific year–has been linked with irresponsibility. I get that. In many parts of our country, a hopeful tone is paired with a flippancy that this pandemic is not as serious as it is. It can be linked with denial, with a sense of–let’s face it–selfishness. But Ben and I never doubted scientists, we wear masks, and we intend to enthusiastically get vaccinated when our time comes. So where did our cautiously hopeful attitude fit in? And why did it bother me so much that we felt alone it it? And why did it take me a year to write this blog post?
Days and Days and Days
Until I was eleven-years-old, I grew up in a very dangerous part of Plainfield, NJ. By dangerous I mean our house was broken into, our family was threatened multiple times, and when we did move, we weren’t listed in the phone book (this was pre-internet). Eventually, we managed to move to the tip of New Jersey so far back in the woods that they’d only recently put up street signs.
The move–which happened on July 15th, 1998 (an anniversary I celebrate every year)–was my end to a metaphorical pandemic. Even as a kid, I knew deep down that Plainfield would end, I just wanted us all to survive to see the day.
When I tried to immediately embrace my new life in my new town, something felt severely off. Imagine driving an hour from your house and finding a town of people that had never heard the term Covid-19. They’d had a perfectly normal year. They went to school, won some achievement awards for good grades, joined a softball team, and regularly hung out with a group of friends. This was me moving at 11. No one else had been through what we’d been through. That whole time, the rest of the world had carried on while we’d remained frozen in time.
A large part of me throughout my teens and early 20s silently resented the people around me for not losing those years. I assumed–incorrectly–that they hadn’t had challenges and that my awful reality was the truer reality–the way the world “really was.” They were the naive ones. What I didn’t realize is that these people, these loving people in my life, were the “Happy Birthday” singers out my window. They were the distant reminders that joy had prevailed somewhere, even briefly, during my dark years. In the end, it was my college group of friends–who were not part of my childhood story–that helped me get to therapy and pulled me out of despair.
The trickier thing today is that we are all in the shit together. There’s no group of people living without the knowledge of our shared trauma. Our trauma has all been different–very much so–but I use the word trauma deliberately. My therapy journey eventually took me to a PTSD specialist in 2016. I never pegged myself as someone with this diagnosis because I hadn’t been in a major accident, seen combat, or been physically attacked. My therapist explained the concept of complex trauma–PTSD that develops over a period of time when the threat remains constant. It is better explained by professionals here. Not all trauma develops into PTSD, but in my case it had.
My work with this therapist made me realize that the way I’d been living my life was not the only option. I always knew this on some level. I moved, after all–life had “returned to normal.” I read all the self-help books, became a Buddhist, went back to Catholicism, gave up both, walked 500 miles across a country, but still, a part of my body was still in Plainfield.
Most importantly, I couldn’t leave this trauma at the top of a mountain in Spain, I couldn’t leave it in a church, I couldn’t even leave it with a therapist. It took a long time to fully believe my world had changed and that the threat was not always waiting outside the front door.
A Complicated Ocean Metaphor
As I’m writing this today, even the NYTimes is admitting that hope could be on the horizon. We have vaccines, we have a president with a plan, and scientists are feeling hopeful. But what about us? I keep feeling like we’re all standing on the shore of hope–please excuse the long metaphor to come. Some have already swum out into the sea while others are on the shore yelling at them to come back. I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle, right in that place where the wave tries to pick you up but you have enough contact with the ground to still walk back.
If this had happened ten years ago, there is no question I would be on the shore. The weight of this horrific year would have proven my greatest fear–that things are “never going to get better.” That’s what depression and trauma love to tell you.
And yet, somehow, this time, perhaps because I’ve been in these waters before, I know we will be swimming again together eventually. It will just take time.
So, why am I finally writing this? Let’s start with why I am not writing this. I am not here to say that there is a silver lining to any of this. Fuck that. It was terrible. It can be terrible. I am not here to say that this pandemic is something that will be easy to get through or get over. We may never “get over” it in the sense that we think. I will never be over Plainfield. Instead, the experience for me has become a comparison tool.
Every now and then, I think back to the girl crossing off days on her bedroom calendar until the big move, terrified that something would happen before then that would hurt her family. Nowadays, even when I’m having a crappy day, I can think “Look at this! I have normal problems!” The world and all its flaws becomes much more vibrant.
When I hike the Camino de Santiago (something I talk about a lot on this blog), I spend most nights in hiker hostels or monasteries with anywhere between 5 and 100 people in each room. People snore, beds creak, and sometimes the air is so thick and smelly that you think there is no way you’ll be able to sleep enough to walk 18 miles the next day. But I’ve learned a trick. I think back to my trapped Plainfield days and ask myself if I’m trapped now. The answer is always no. The cynicism and frustration melt away and it all becomes a big adventure again. By this point, I’m snoring into the church rafters.
We may do that with Covid someday–perhaps not–but maybe. Maybe in a long line at the grocery store, on an over-crowded boardwalk, or when you’re tucked into one of the small wooden seats in a Broadway theatre. What was once frustrating may feel different, like a part of the adventure that was once taken from us.
Now for the reason I am writing this–finding hope after Plainfield took me 16 years. And honestly, the pain is still ongoing, it’s just far lighter than it was. But I moved through it with time, patience, therapy, and a lot of steps forward and backward. The people in my life that remained in the ocean proved that there was still hope out there somewhere–they reminded me that life could go on living when I felt safer on the shore. It helped me to see them, even if I wasn’t ready to join them.
We can hold hope and reality in the same hand. We can wear masks, follow restrictions, and be hopeful that things are improving simultaneously. And when Covid is controlled, we can feel fearful and relieved simultaneously as well.
I don’t have answers about what will happen in the next few months or years, but I can say there is another side to this pain and there is no rush in getting there. The voice that says “the world may never be the same” may simply mean that you will never be the same, and of course you won’t. I definitely won’t. But different doesn’t mean worse off, it’s just different.
I hope to be in the water most days, showing those on the shore that it’s possible to have hope. Other days, I may be back on the shore, safe in my worry. Wherever I am metaphorically, on my 35th birthday this October, I hope to eat at the restaurant outside our window and tell them all about how their singing made a difference in our lives when the world felt so far away.