Six lasting lessons from a slower, quieter year
Like pretty much everyone I know, the speedometer of my life took a steep nosedive beginning almost exactly a year ago. It’s not what I would have chosen; not for myself, and certainly not for anyone else, many of whom have endured far greater hardship than myself.
Despite the title of this article, there’s been plenty of time over the past year when it felt to me as if I were merely surviving. It’s not like I’ve spent the past 12 months in a state of curiosity and gratitude for everything it had to teach me. I mean, I’m annoying, but I’m not that annoying. But I’d be lying if I didn’t learn a thing or two. What follows are the lessons I hope to carry with me as we collectively emerge from what is arguably one of the most difficult periods in modern history, and return to the routine busy-ness of our pre-pandemic lives.
1. Being more intentional about maintaining my friendships is worth the effort
As a died-in-my-woolen-long-johns extrovert, I’ve rarely felt the need to create intentional space for socializing. For me, it often happens on the fly, and often in the context of groups of friends and acquaintances. Though I’m fortunate to have a handful of close friends, I’m also one of those folks whose social cup is happily filled talking smack on a group ride or jawing about the weather on the porch of the local general store. Of course, the pandemic changed all that, and as weeks of near-isolation turned into months, and my poor family made it increasingly clear that they couldn’t be the sole target of my extroverted tendencies, I realized something needed to change. Even the cats seemed to be avoiding me.
Fortunately, I had a friend who was in a similar boat, and we soon arrived at a mutually beneficial solution: After years of only occasional in-person socializing, we’d commit to meeting every weekend for a physically distanced bike ride on the back roads of northern Vermont. And then, when the weather turned, we switched to our backcountry skis. The result was the rekindling of one of my oldest friendships, which had always been strong, but which benefited greatly from our pandemic pledge to share one another’s company at least once per week. And even with the metaphorical light at the end of the COVID tunnel shining bright, we’re already plotting all sorts of weekly adventures together.
2. My privilege is bigger and deeper than I ever realized
As a white male who embodies pretty much every dominant trait a particular culture can bestow upon a human being, it’s not as if I was previously blind to all the ways in which I’ve long benefited from entrenched biases. But as events over the past year have made crystal clear, not being completely blind is a long, long way from being fully aware. Truth is, I know I still have a lot of learning to do, and I’m fortunate to have the support of an employer that’s willing to invest in this education. I suspect a big part of my path for a while will be the uncomfortable realization that even after the past year, there is much I don’t know that I wasn’t even aware I needed to know. But that discomfort feels like a very small price to pay, given what others have paid, and what’s at stake for us all.
3. The outdoors is where I feel most alive
Ok, so this isn’t exactly a revelation, but there’s nothing like a global pandemic coupled with a crisis of American democracy (my home country) to renew one’s appreciation for the moments when life feels most, well, alive. And for me, a significant percentage of those moments occurred when I was outdoors, using my body in one manner or another: Riding my bike, skiing, splitting firewood, and even performing the mundane tasks that don’t typically imbue me with a sense of vibrant well being, such as weeding the confounded kale patch (is it just me, or does kale actually taste like someone’s idea of punishment?) that my wife makes bigger and bigger with each passing year.
4. I’m more resilient than I thought
I suspect this one is true for many of us. Think about it: If 14 or so months ago we’d been told what we’d be facing for the next year or more, I suspect many of us would’ve shaken our heads in disbelief. Not merely for what we’d be facing, but for how we imagined ourselves coping with it. And while it’s true that many have suffered hardship and loss far greater than my own, it’s also true that my own capacity to adapt and to weather circumstances I’d have previously thought untenable is far greater than I ever imagined. There’s no doubt that life still has a few curveballs to throw my way (if only because that’s what life does), and I’m not suggesting that I’m impervious to whatever challenges I might face. Still, I know for certain that I’m at least a small amount stronger than I thought, and that offers some small degree of comfort.
5. It’s ok to not be ok
In my experience, it’s always been true that sometimes things just suck, and that sure didn’t change over the past year. Here’s what is changing: Everyone around me - from my friends, to my family, to my co-workers - is more comfortable simply acknowledging that they’re struggling. With each of these shared acknowledgements comes the awareness that it’s actually ok to not feel ok. It is, in fact, entirely normal, and perhaps the only sane reaction to the myriad challenges of being alive. And the cool thing is, realizing that is sometimes that’s all it takes to feel a whole lot better.
6. My backyard is even bigger I ever imagined
Last year I drove about half as many miles as usual. Among myriad other benefits, this meant I had a lot more time to explore my own backyard. And what I realized is that my own backyard has more to offer than I’d previously thought. Over and over again, I discovered new routes to ride, or found new ways to piece together old routes in ways I’d previously missed because I was too busy seeking adventure elsewhere.
And I learned that even familiar terrain - the sections of road and trail I ride over and over again, the ridgeline I ski at least a couple dozen times each winter - are always changing. Maybe it’s a new season emerging, an encroaching weather front, or just a shift in my mood. Whatever the reason, I learned that there’s always something different happening; I just needed to slow down enough to notice.