2020 YEAR IN REVIEW | Helen Tran, Journalist

Resolved: No resolutions

For me, the year 2020 began with a post-divorce to-do list from my therapist. It seemed pretty standard: get a new hobby, live more in the moment, read a pile of self-help books, travel, practice regular self-care, and maybe go on a date or two.

This seemed doable enough. As I rung-in the new year, I closed the chapter on a ten-year relationship and was about to hurl myself with frenzied optimism into a new decade. Now that I was a single parent of a baby and a toddler, with hours of therapy under my belt, I felt like I had no choice but to welcome 2020 with open arms. After my rather tumultuous 2019, things could only get better, right?

On my kid-free weekends, I practiced self-care by cooking a fancy breakfast for one, enjoyed with a cup of tea as I read the daily news. I focused on lighter fare: celebrity tabloid fodder, the wardrobe of the Duchess of Sussex, reviews of the latest Hollywood blockbuster releases, and so on and so forth. Admittedly, my awareness of COVID-19 during this time was vague, and every time I encountered an article about it, I scrolled past with a dismissive, “Well, that’s worrisome but at least it is happening somewhere else.”

Looking back, I marvel at my obliviousness. Little did I know, but even in January, COVID-19 was already at our doorstep. My newly acquired photography hobby took me to Toronto every other weekend to catch sunsets, and with each subsequent visit I noticed more and more people in public transit and the streets wearing cloth masks. Hmm, I remember thinking. How odd.

In March, on assignment for the Voice, I attended a dinner event honouring local author Michael Jacques. I shook hands with Councillors Ron Kore and Mike Ciolfi, and laughed as they traded jokes. Everyone was free with their hugs and handshakes and cheek kisses. Only a week later, Justin Trudeau would announce a lockdown in an attempt to contain the coronavirus outbreak and “flatten the curve.”

As the initial two weeks of lockdown stretched into eight months of social distancing, I would remember the dinner event with a mix of nostalgia and sadness. Physical contact and indoor social gatherings could no longer be taken for granted. Life itself seemed more fragile than ever—Ciolfi would pass away in April after testing positive for COVID-19.

As I continued to cover events for the Voice, I found myself slowly but surely adapting to the “new normal”: trying to smile with my eyes from above a cloth mask, conducting interviews over the phone (“Sorry, you might hear my kids and my cat in the background”), and using a longer telephoto lens to maintain social distancing. My journalist adventures were varied and people’s reactions to the pandemic vastly different, but one thing became very clear— many people had never experienced this degree of isolation from others before.

One thing became very clear— many people had never experienced this degree of isolation from others before

As lockdown continued through April, then May, then June, then July, it seemed as if time had lost most of its meaning. Weeks would go by in what seemed like a blink. Yet a day would drag on for what felt like years. I cancelled my post-divorce travel plans. My self-help books collected dust. I would call a friend in the morning, then talk to them again in the afternoon with as much excitement as if a week had gone by. I would dress in my work clothes at home to trick my brain into being more productive, but as I juggled online teaching, freelance work, and being a mom, I often felt less like a professional working mother and more like a crumb-covered court jester.

Now, I was reading every single COVID-related article I came across. In my worried mind, I felt that if only I could learn enough about this mysterious, invisible foe, perhaps I could conquer it, or protect myself better. If only I could keep on top of the numbers, of the scientific developments, I could predict when the ordeal would end.

My daylight hours were devoted to my children and assuring them through word and deed that despite the changes in their life, everything was “fine.” At night, I would grieve alone for things big and small: for those I knew who had passed away from COVID, for the visits my parents should have had with their grandkids, for birthday parties, for going to the movie theatre, for shaking hands with strangers, and for hugging friends.

There were good and bad moments during lockdown.

My best friend, who is high risk and immunosuppressed, has barely left her house since March. Her mother has had to walk past anti-masker protesters more than once.

My own mother would cry after video chats with her grandkids. “I just want to hold them,” she would say, before and after every Zoom call.

One time when I went grocery shopping to acquire the precious trinity of toilet paper, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer, I realized I was actually excited to see strangers!

One morning, during a period of particularly low spirits, I spent two hours photographing dewdrops on my front lawn.

Another time at home, my three-year-old daughter congratulated me for putting on real clothes instead of pyjamas.

During one sunset-chasing adventure, I had a spontaneous conversation with a masked stranger as we shouted greetings at one another from opposite ends of a bridge. She told me a story about a swan and a fox that I will never forget.

I created a special “pollinator” garden with my daughter, and we spent many happy hours planting flowers and observing bees and butterflies.

I perfected the art of wearing a work shirt and blazer on top and comfortable lounge pants on the bottom for work Zoom calls.

Trump was voted out.

I contacted friends, family, and fellow parents far more than I would have prior to COVID, and also reconnected with many old friends from my past.

I even managed to go on a socially distant date. As I sat on the opposite corner of a picnic blanket and watched my companion point out constellations, I marvelled that I had waited 30 years to gaze at the stars, listen to jazz music, and be told that I was lovely.

Overall, I found that the pandemic slowed down time for me and forced me to pay attention to the little things. I had to learn how to balance my anger at all the injustices the pandemic brought to light with compassion for my fellow humans. The pandemic brought out many things in people, good and bad, but it also emphasized the need for physical connection, to see the ones we love, and to hold them. Everyone I knew was dealing with the pandemic in different ways, and in different circumstances — I had to remind myself frequently not to judge others, and to focus on doing my (admittedly small, compared to the endeavors of front-line workers) part to stay in, wear my mask, and to help keep the community safe.

With nothing to distract me, I threw myself into my hobbies and discovered a passion for landscape and macro (close-up) photography. Over the course of the year, my camera would take over 240,000 photos of sunsets, flowers, and my children.

As for my children, as much as they drove me crazy with their constant requests for snacks, Paw Patrol, and The Lion King soundtrack, I was also aware that normall, they would be in daycare from 9-to-5. Due to lockdown, I was blessed with eight more hours every day with them than I normally would have had. Although my sanity took a hit, I was there for my son’s first word and his first steps. My daughter learned how to plant flowers with me before she could speak a sentence, and then months later once she could speak a sentence, she asked me, “Mommy, are we going to plant flowers again next spring like we did before?”

There are only a few days left of 2020. There is a vaccine, and possibly an end in sight. Going forward, there are many things I will try not to take for granted ever again: hugging my family and friends, chatting with coworkers in the office, striking up conversations with strangers, getting together with family for holidays, going to the movie theatre or shopping. I look forward to the day that my parents can hug my children without fear and I can shake hands with my coworkers without smelling of Purell; to the day when people can mingle, mask-free at local events, and stand next to one another instead of staying six feet apart.

I have no resolutions for 2021, except to carry on, to live cautiously where it concerns the virus, but to let life surprise me in all other ways, and most of all: to plant new flowers with my daughter and son in the spring.