When I was fourteen or so, I was the ugly duckling in my group of friends; I still had my braces on, a really unflattering haircut, zero self-esteem, and I had never been asked out the way every other girl had seemingly been the summer going into high school. I felt like a freak! I got stuck with the chore of doom in our household one summer afternoon; helping my Mom clear out clutter from the basement. For reference, I love my mother, but she has a tendency to get very bossy very fast, and at fourteen, a parent being pushy while you’re being angsty is bound to tip the scales, and it happened about an hour into the cleaning session; I found the envelope.
For reference, I had only found out about a year prior that for the first two years or so they were married, my parents lived on opposite ends of the world, with my Dad being here and my Mom being back home. (They’re rather good at keeping secrets! Just not the ones I tell them…) Of course, the early 1990s meant what I considered at the time to be primitive communication, like the rare international call, and the more frequent air-mail letters. And here I was, the ugly duckling fourteen-year-old, insecure about everything but especially the things I know now don’t matter as much as I thought, holding part of someone else’s love story in my hands. Talk about riveting! The envelope, the perfect size for a greeting card, was still smooth, after being pressed between two photo albums, and the information and stamps to send it were all over the outside. My mother raised her head, and her eyes widened when she noticed what I was holding in my hands, and she started to speak frantically, and stand up from her spot across the room.
Her reaction spoke volumes to me; clearly, I was holding something that was akin to a tangible memory. I’d always had more questions than answers about a lot of things in life, and especially about what happened between my parents before I came into existence, so I knew I had to capitalize on the few moments I had before my Mom would cross the room and the envelope would be lost forever; I dashed around her, got to the foot of the stairs, and lifted up the never-sealed flap, slid out the card, decorated with a snow angel on the front and opened it to read:
My Mom’s name on the top with a comma, a standard Christmas greeting card phrase, and my Dad’s signature underneath, with a date corresponding to sometime in December 1990.
Any excitement, any adrenaline, and all the expectations I had about what could have actually been in that card came crashing down harder than a sledgehammer knocking down a kitchen wall. My Mom proceeded to place the card back in the envelope and file it away while telling me she was trying to stop me, for my own good, so I wouldn’t be disappointed with what I found. At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around it, but now? I’m glad my parents showed me that its OK for things to go unsaid sometimes, that actions like holding back can be better than baring your soul, and to be ready to occasionally be disappointed; that lesson came in handy about seven years after the fact when the year was 2020, and it wasn’t the summer of me being the ugly duckling while love was in the air, but the summer of lockdowns and COVID-19, a different type of airborne disease.
I took this walk down memory lane while listening to the TED Talk, “Gen Z: How a Generation Defined a Pandemic” by Darcy Dixon. So much of what Dixon talked about is relatable to me, a member of this uniquely shaped generation; after all, growing up in the world post 9/11, through an international war, during a recession, through a school curriculum that was just as much about not being killed by a gunman as it was about learning, and now a global pandemic that shut everything down and led to a second recession tends to lead to both resilience and a perspective that is complexly constructed.
The idea of showing others we care by leaving them alone that Dixon talked about is one that I struggled with a bit early on. Just like how my Dad held back from writing anything personal or mailing that card, I handicapped myself from slipping in too many, “It’ll all be over soon,” and “I can’t wait to see you’s!” when the Hangouts video would connect and I would briefly be united with Jamie. We’re still close as ever, if not more bonded than we were prior to the pandemic, but there’s a lingering understanding that yeah, we’re still sad and this still sucks a little a very much so. It was tough not to let the effects everyone saw out in society affect me personally; like Dixon pointed out, there was the dissolution of families, of relationships, of careers, of all the things that many of us were brought up to believe were the things that keep the world turning and ultimately shape what becomes of us and who we are. I’ll be honest; yeah, I had a bit of a meltdown when I found out that in-person graduation wasn’t going to happen. What in the world did I work so hard for if there was no payoff? But then the moment came, and all the folks who mattered the most to me still found a way to be there, to sign and send a virtual card, and prove something; real human connection thrives on emotions. Maya Angelou was right about a lot of things, but especially about the fact people will never forget the way people made you feel.
Always the wise guy in more ways than one, my Dad looked me in the eyes that day and told me, “You’re feeling what your Mom and I have felt every day that we’ve been separated by an ocean from everyone and everything we call familiar. You can let it get worse for you, or you can try to face it. Make your choice.” In a weird way, the pandemic gave me a sense of autonomy and connectivity running like railroad tracks in my mind; if I didn’t react the “right way” there was a chance my charcoal skies would darken up someone else’s blues. (Also, it’s no secret that mental health is really important, and it’s always been a struggle for me. Early on, and even at times now, there are meltdowns of all magnitudes, there are days when the isolation is almost paralyzing and there are times when I feel hopeless. Point blank: sometimes I can’t find any reprieve and it feels like life is rushing past me and I’m missing everything. But, there’s also a lot of writing and reflection, and self-forgiveness. It’s a see-saw of emotion, but being alone has helped me sort out a lot on my mind.)
I’m not scared to admit out in the open that I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love and have a family and all that jazz, and now that I’ve lived a lot more life compacted into this one year, I’m OK with that. Maybe it just isn’t for me, or maybe I’ll hit that curve at a different time and place. Ironically enough, I think that being separated from other people over this last year has been more instrumental in helping me unravel the ugly, gnarly, and nuanced parts of myself than any amount of “exposure therapy” to different types of folks in school or the world at large has ever been. I know that if I died tomorrow, for whatever reason, I wouldn’t look back in anger or regret on too many things; the pandemic has brought the “if I die young” thoughts to the forefront of my mind. Dixon didn’t touch on it as much, but Gen Z is the generation that never quite had the age of innocence, so to speak. There’s always been something horrific going on in the world that we’ve been tuned into, so that’s another factor in why a global pandemic was more of a “GPS recalculating” than a lost-in-the-woods endeavor.
Contrary to popular belief, I’m not the extrovert people think I am; I always feel guilty not being outgoing, since I’ve been told that I come off as cold otherwise, but the truth is I have a very tiny circle of close friends, and I do my best when it’s just us and soem good music, and some books or a movie. I do my absolute best when I’m alone; whether running or stretching or just laying back staring at my ceiling while some music plays and I just think and vibe out. Those solitary moments are what keep me going! But, you guys have been a group of folks that I’m OK with being open and more of myself with, partially because I’m behind a screen, and also because I know that no matter what happens come tomorrow, this work will stand on its own, long after class has ended. Thanks for always letting me share parts of myself, like my love for the Devils and Mets in my daily-create six-word stories, my memes, and my awful sense of humor in the chatbox during class!
To condense this TED Talk and blog post into one sentence: We aren’t leaving footprints in the sand or cement; we’re dancing all over our souls and others, making a sidewalk chalk picture of humanity, humility, and connectedness. (And it only took a pandemic!)
Oh, and before you think I forgot about a soundtrack to the blog, check these fitting tunes out while you read through some of my best Tweets of the past week; “Twenty Something” by Nightly, “Learning to Fly” by Tom Petty, and “Don’t Get Me Wrong” by The Pretenders.
And for more content, follow me on Twitter and scroll through my page because there’s a ton of good stuff and if I tried to paste it all in, this blog post would never end!