More Pandemic Life, and Light, One Year Later

Last Passover I thought the Jews might break the internet. I did not yet know that this “Zoom” thing could handle our bandwidth. Miraculously, it could and did. Some fifty relatives waved at each other from our own homes, believing surely we would be together this year.

That was not to pass. Rather than resume our pre-pandemic mass gathering, our familial organism divided into smaller cells spread across counties and states. Even so, I felt a real liberation from the narrow places of last year: for the first time in a year I was sitting with my parents inside their house, eating at their dining room table, maskless, and vaccinated. We chose to open a laptop to Zoom as our rabbi led a Seder from her home and we joined a congregational family of hundreds. She closed the Seder with “Next year in Jerusalem,” and we affirmed, “next year in Tarzana.” Even this felt like a step forward.

More signs of light? For my 2020 birthday, one month into the shutdown, my friend left a very special gift on my porch, rang the doorbell, then hightailed it to the safety of her car.

My birthday month has come around again, and last night we walked to this friend’s house, rang her doorbell and did not back up but stayed on her welcome mat. Five of us went up to the roof in time to see the sunset, and toast how far we have come; the world isn’t talking about where to source toilet paper, but vaccines! Earlier in the day, I had told my son that I sensed a light coming — though I hedged, acknowledging that my feelings could change in a day or an hour. Last night on that roof, with darkness settling over us, Christopher summarized the sentiment of the moment, saying, “I don’t know what comes next.”

We have never known what comes next. The last year has taught us that. I hold at bay the knowledge that anything could happen still, a fourth wave might crash over us and wipe out plans for summer or even fall. And it might not. I focus on the light streaming through my window right this moment, as real as anything.

Reinvention

Reading about author Kristin Hannah’s newest novel, The Four Winds, in this New York Times article (“Kristin Hannah Reinvented Herself. She Thinks America Can Do the Same.”) got me thinking about the word reinvention.

Reinvention is the essence of who we are. It can be as frippy as a changing a hairstyle, or as significant as starting over, as with the Depression-era single mother in Hannah’s new work. Reinvention can be born of pain — when “what is” isn’t working and something new must take its place, or born of circumstance and adaptability — think Zoom college reunions and restaurants-turned-grocery stores.

Reinvention can stretch over decades, from childhood to adulthood. One moment playing Barbies with my best friend and tape recording ourselves singing, “There’s a land that I see, where the children are free.” Then, seemingly the next moment, graduating from college, focused on answering The Question: “what should I be?”

Twenty years and one day ago the answer to that question changed for me, when I became a mother. The most fundamental reinvention of my life, a transformation from individualistic, self-reflective, vocationally-defined, to protector, nourisher, and gobsmacked baby-obsessor. Everything changed — down to the extra deliberate care I took crossing the street. I was now someone’s mother; my life was important beyond the borders of my own skin.

Not long after becoming a mom, I reinvented myself from lawyer to a mom who sometimes writes. Other times, like now, I am a writer who sometimes lawyers. I still struggle with the push and pull of my writing and lawyering vocations, with how to honor both in a culture that wants you to choose, which loves the question “what do you do?” and also loves a pithy answer.

I have wrestled with this professional tug-of-war for years, but over the past pandemic year have come to a greater sense of peace with my duality. We are all more than one thing. Carving a path where we can be all of who we are starts with giving ourselves permission to be all of who we are. And recognizing that we are works in progress, always reinventing.

Or perhaps the word I need is not so much “reinvention” as it is “becoming,” in the sense Michelle Obama wrote about in her memoir of that name. If “reinventing” imagines a shedding of one skin for a new one, then “becoming” envisions a layering of our next choices over our existing selves, adding their sheen to our lives. “Becoming” recognizes the magnitude of what we have done, where we have been, and who we can be.

As a country, maybe the question is not can we reinvent ourselves, but can we become who we want to be, and what the world needs us to be?

I like to think we can, as the words of inaugural poet Amanda Gorman urge:

“When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

“The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman

May you recognize your power to reinvent, if need be, and to become whatever it is you dream of becoming.

Word of the Week: Resilience

A week ago, the word “resilience” might have conjured in my imagination a bowlegged toddler running down the sidewalk, colliding with gravity, and pushing herself back up, scraped knees and all.

Suddenly I am thinking of resilience more expansively. It is every one of us who made it through last year — and, yes, last week — renewing daily our commitment to carry on. Resilience now conjures something as deep and wide as American democracy, maimed but still breathing, still marching.

Resilience is individual and communal. It is the collective decision that what we have inherited — “a republic if we can keep it” — is worth preserving. Resilience is not knowing how to proceed in the face of an unthinkable situation, but committing to figuring it out. It is stepping forward without knowing if you can save what must be saved, or if you have the strength to. Resilience is my friend spending the weekend writing letter after letter to the nation’s elected representatives demanding simply that they tell the truth, because she needed to say that.

Resilience is opening the shutters in the morning and being comforted at the sight of the trees and sky still there.

Resilience is seeking out wisdom, like: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight,” and this excerpt from Optimism, by Helen Keller, found in one of my favorite resources, Brainpickings.

Keller wrote,

I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.

Resilience is foundational. Resilience is a struggle. Resilience is an act of faith.

May we remember that resilience is in us.