On new year revelry
Two years ago, before The Time of the Virus, my husband and I spent a wonderful New Year’s Eve ringing in 2020. We drank prosecco and played charades with good friends at their country house surrounded by sparkling snow. Our two kids were off at parties with dozens of their friends, as one would expect from young adults.
Celebrating the start of 2021 was more like a hastily-assembled family meeting of Neurotics Anonymous. How swiftly times had changed.
Although he would rather have been stuck in an elevator with bees, Geoffrey, our 20-year-old, came to stay for New Year’s Eve because he had literally nothing else to do without breaking the law. No gatherings allowed. Our 24-year-old daughter, Clara, who hasn’t lived with us in years, spent the evening in our guest room recovering from having wisdom teeth yanked out of her head. While one moped and the other moaned, for my husband and me, the presence of two other humans in our quarantined home several months into the pandemic was alarming, like we’d been invaded by bears.
The only thing I could think to do for the evening was contribute to the war effort, so to speak, by supporting local restaurants, which were desperate for takeaway orders. But Clara could only imbibe baby food through a straw; my husband, Ambrose, is a diabetic vegetarian who had just gone off flour, potatoes and sugar; and Geoffrey wasn’t focused on food at all. He yearned for something unobtainable, like a girlfriend he might meet at a party, or, failing that … I don’t know … a bowl of opium.
Everyone was miserable and short-fused. Even I, a mother who prides herself on being calm, burst out with an uncalled-for bellow: “Fine, I GIVE UP! Fend for yourselves. I’ll support local business by ordering triple amounts of steak-frites for myself”— after which, not knowing what else to do, I marched in a confused and guilty huff down the dark, empty road with our dog, who had doubtless just scarfed down the cat’s renal-support kibble. At least she was happy.
Towards midnight, my son and I were reduced to watching, via livestream on my laptop, the midnight countdown from New York’s Times Square; my home in Canada is in the same time zone. But the scene was populated with ‘air dancer’ balloons rather than people. And then we finally noticed the ‘celebration’ was airing with a one-minute delay. Ten, Nine, Eight … oh wait, never mind.
We counted our blessings, though. We were healthy, more or less. There was an uptick of hypochondria and germ phobia, with Clara having been terrified of opening her mouth at the dentist’s office, and Ambrose refusing to leave the house due to the target on his back; diabetes and high blood pressure were Covid-19’s favourite vulnerabilities. Geoffrey, a robust young man, grew convinced that a mole on his stomach was cancerous— it was not—and I actually have generalized anxiety disorder. So, maybe we weren’t mentally healthy. But we were together, and we were alive.
It’s hard to imagine what the upcoming New Year’s Eve will be like, since we have all learned to lower our expectations to almost nil. But maybe that’s a good thing. There’s something to be said for finding small, unexpected moments of joy when, seemingly overnight, the story of your life changes.
One thing I observed is that people stopped trying to be glamorous. Women stopped wearing mascara, and what was the point of lipstick if you wore a mask? Bra sales, surely, dropped. I got so unused to wearing mine that I drove to the city for a meeting and realized I’d forgotten to put it on. And then there was the day I went to the corner shop and suddenly noticed that all four of us standing in line for the cashier were wearing our pyjama bottoms.
Many attempts to seem polished and ultra-successful at work were comically undermined by how few of us understand technologies like Zoom. A lawyer in Texas appeared before a judge with a sad-faced-cat image over his own face, and he couldn’t figure out how to switch it off. The national political director for a US-based advocacy group held a video meeting and accidentally turned into a potato head. Working parents tried to present themselves formally to colleagues during meetings, but pets, children, and neighbourhood noises crashed through their façades.
In other words, we all became much more human. And the most celebrated moments of the pandemic weren’t driven by celebrities, but by ordinary people all around the world just trying to see the funny side. Like the popular young Vietnamese choreographer promoting proper handwashing through a dance challenge on TikTok, and the bored BBC Sports broadcaster. Unable to do the play-by-play for real sports, he began publicly broadcasting his dogs Mabel and Olive as they simultaneously ate their bowls of food—providing colourful commentary in the style of an Olympics race. It all reminded me of something attributed to the ancient poet Rumi: “If everything around you seems dark, look again. You may be the light.”
I’m an old hand at anxiety, and one thing I’ve learned is that the catastrophe never unfolds in the way you think it will. If, as has been said, anxiety is fear in search of a cause, we sure found cause these past two years. But we also found humour, and humanity.
This December 31, as we ring in 2022, are we allowed to shout ‘Happy New Year!’ this time? I say let’s just do it. Let’s also knock back a drink and—dare we?—maybe even hug our friends.