silhouette of two children along the lake shore as the sun sets in the background.

What We Found in the Fire

2020 was a strange year. Our hopes and excitement for the new year were quickly dashed when SARS-CoV-2, better known as COVID-19, showed up. The virus behaved like a boorish, uninvited guest. It gave no thought to our long-ago-made travel plans; it turned our friends away from our door, ruined each holiday, and transformed active kids into screen-time zombies. 

The 2020 dumpster fire

Popular imagery for 2020 is the dumpster fire, a massive metal bin filled with the things COVID-19 put asunder. One Edmonton marketing agency’s interpretation of the 2020 dumpster fire is an hour-long holiday yule log parody where toilet paper, sanitizing wipes, travel gear, and open signs are set ablaze.

If I could paint a picture to symbolize this year, it would also be a dumpster fire image. But mine would be a bigger dumpster filled with the things that we've become accustomed to: stable finances, job security, family road trips and trips abroad, in-person meetings, fitness classes, team sports; for the kids, after-school activities – music, art, and dance classes, hanging out with friends; and all the grown-up stuff we used to do – holiday get-togethers, backyard barbecues, office parties, coffee or wine meetups, and date nights.

But the picture isn’t done yet. In the foreground, people are watching the flames. They are standing there, shoulder to shoulder, in shared grief for what is lost. In my picture, as the onlookers wipe away tears and lean on each other for support, something else is happening. They are processing – denying, accepting, rejecting – the implications of their loss. And with that comes other aspects of grief – anger, bargaining, and maybe even depression.

These emotional ebbs and flows occur naturally when we mourn something we perceive as valuable to us. But what if we changed the narrative about what was lost in 2020?

From dumpster fire to fire ritual

When I take a moment to look past the dumpster flames to see the items being consumed by the rapidly spreading COVID-19 fire, I imagine that instead of taking away, the flames are, in fact, clearing and cleansing. The dumpster fire becomes a fire ritual that allows me to re-evaluate, reassert, and remember that what I lost in 2020 was important but not of great value.

For instance, the pandemic caused school closures and forced us into online learning modalities. It was hard for teachers and learners to make the shift – I felt it a great deal in my household, where I needed to be a teacher to my online students and the sole learning supporter to my children confined with me at home.

But look closer. My daughters and I had lunch together every day, and we talked about nearly everything during lunch. I was no longer waiting, with anxiety, for the 5 to 9 chaos to begin (working parents know this; it’s the part of the day when you try to squeeze as much parenting into the 5 PM to 9 PM window, all the while struggling to leave everything from your not-so 9 to 5 workday aside).

Suddenly, my children were no longer the little beings I raced home to at the end of the day to cook for and ask obligatory questions about their school day. With group activities shut down, there was no longer the mad dash to eat supper and run out the door for our next happening.

Instead, our chaos started early. It involved hanging out on the deck or walking around the block if the weather permitted. It was spending too much time watching rabbits and squirrels, and different kinds of birds do their morning rituals. It included me teaching the girls how to clean up the kitchen after they ate breakfast. It was a picnic lunch in the park, just because.

The chaos was different, and it was terrific. Far more beautiful than the race to shove them out the door for school so I could schlep to campus in time to begin my classes. Our lockdown chaos gave us new ways of being together. We biked more, walked in the park more, threw balls and frisbees more, and walked our neighbourhood sidewalks more.

By the time in-person learning resumed, I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to rushing the girls out of the house for the morning school bus. So, I began walking them to school. Our walk took us past cute little homes nestled among mature trees and a winding creek. Each morning was a new conversation about the random, the idiotic, the wondrous, the intentional, and the heartbreaking. And my solitary walk back home was a chance to take things in, to inhale joy and exhale gratitude.

I inhaled the joy of more peaceful, less traffic-congested streets and seeing neighbours out for their walks. To say “hi” to a passerby and hear “hi” in return. To feel the sun and watch the changing leaves in real-time every day.

I exhaled gratitude for the milestones I reached this year: 10 years of parenting; 18 years of marriage; 10 years in Canada; two incredible children; one fantastic husband; two countries to call home; two places to lay our heads; and another day to experience it all.

Embracing a different kind of chaos

Do not for a moment think that 2020 suddenly changed us from harried working parents to stay-at-home gurus. The benefits and costs of the new chaos were not evenly distributed. One-half of our parenting team works full time outside the home, and two kids to one parent working from home are all kinds of challenges. Plus, the things set ablaze in the dumpster fire, the state of our finances and the burden of maintaining job security in these worrying times still cause angst.

But even for the one of us that cannot fully take part in the new, lovely chaos, there are still benefits: happier children, tales of mini adventures, and a more relaxed home. Daddy, guess what we did today….” became a call to action, a new way of inviting him to join us in embracing the unscheduled, unintentional, unregimented way of living. He cautiously leans in, and before you know it, we all take little moments to, with each other, inhale joy and exhale gratitude.

This kind of joy and gratitude accepts that the things that held us in check are now gone, set on fire in the dumpster blaze. Together, our family is taking stock that what is most valuable to us is still with us and will be with us in 2021 and beyond.

This is how I am choosing to remember 2020 – as a year when the fire of COVID-19 hastened the need for personal and collective introspections about what we value most. My year-end thought is that what I love is always with me, and no crisis, except one of my own making, will take that away. Like everyone, we lost a lot in 2020, but we still have the most valuable things. We are walking away from the dumpster fire, smiling, for we know that we have exactly what we need to build back better and stronger.

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