BDN writer Emily Burnham kept note of her highs and lows (mostly lows) throughout 2020. Here’s a look back at one weird, awful year that we’ll all be pretty happy to say goodbye to.
December 31, 2019
It’s almost midnight, and I’m bundled up and standing in a crowd of several thousand people in West Market Square in downtown Bangor, waiting to watch a light-up beach ball get thrown off the roof of Paddy Murphy’s. I always get a little sentimental on New Year’s Eve — surrounded by friends, in the community I love, filled with hope and anticipation for the coming year. What exciting new developments might 2020 bring? Where might I travel? What fun things will I get to do with family and friends? 2020: the possibilities are endless!
February 7, 2020
My husband Zach and I are on a plane headed for Florida, where we will visit with family, sit on the beach and spend a couple of days at Disney World. We are aware that a pneumonia-like illness called the coronavirus has been ravaging parts of China, and that as of late January the virus has spread beyond Asia and into North America and Europe.
To that end, we’re both wearing masks on the plane. We’re the only ones to do so. We get strange looks from people. Nevertheless, we both come down with a nasty flu the day after we return to Maine. I’m as sick as I’ve been in years with a fever, cough and body aches. I mostly recover after five days, though I still feel kind of crappy for another week or so. I chalk it up to my predilection for getting sick after flying. That’s what it has to be, right?
Things are getting very weird. Grocery stores begin to resemble a “Mad Max”-style dystopia, with toilet paper and cleaning products our new currency, and shopping carts our fearsome chariots. The scenes out of New York and Italy look horrifying and heartbreaking. In a futile attempt to convince myself and others that everything will be fine, I post the “Don’t Panic!” art from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” on Facebook, which is met with a generalized response of “You Absolutely Should Panic!” from most of my friends.
After Maine’s first COVID case is confirmed on March 12, the aforementioned panic does indeed begin to set in. On Saturday, Zach heads out to play what will turn out to be his last gig of the year with his band, and I stay home, terrified that he’ll somehow catch COVID even though there have been hardly any cases in the state at that point. I watch “The Great Muppet Caper” before falling asleep on the couch.
We visit my parents in Waldo County, but since visiting indoors is, by all accounts, wildly unsafe, we decide to meet up at the causeway at Sears Island, where we stand around next to our cars, peering suspiciously at anyone getting close to us, like we’re about to exchange information at the parking garage near the Watergate Hotel.
An incredibly thoughtful neighbor leaves a mason jar of her sourdough starter on our porch. I know #quarantinebaking is super trendy right now, and I envision Instagram-perfect loaves of tangy bread steadily coming out of our oven, not unlike that produced by my colleague Sam Schipani. The starter is stowed in the pantry, next to the flour, in anticipation of some upcoming weekend baking.
I am gently washing a butternut squash with soap and hot water to remove any virus particles that might have landed on it at the supermarket. I place it next to the freshly washed oranges, bananas and avocados, which have received the same tender treatment. I later learn this is probably not necessary since the virus doesn’t appear to live on surfaces for long, and you don’t eat any of those peels and rinds anyway. I imagine what I would think if 2019 Emily had seen me bathing a squash like a newborn baby.
Wine consumption has reached its apex in our household, as have Instagram stories featuring my husband and me dancing to Abba and Mary J. Blige and Lizzo. We’ve had Tuesday happy hours on Zoom with friends for the past three weeks. We understand that this is just masking the low-key anxiety that pervades every waking moment. We’re pretty glad we don’t have kids, given the seeming nightmare that is remote schooling.
A random spring snowstorm drops 8 inches of heavy, wet snow on eastern Maine, like some kind of cruel joke that nobody laughs at. The power goes out at our house in Bangor for over 36 hours. Why? Why now? Why not some other time, universe? Was now the best time to do this? Did we betray a witch and are all cursed now? Are we being punished for our hubris? What did we do to deserve this? Wait. Don’t answer that, universe.
We cautiously visit with friends outside on their deck, 10 feet from each other, wearing masks. We have to yell a bit, but that’s fine. It’s nice to feel a little bit normal.
The big excitement around these parts is deciding which local restaurant we’re going to order takeout from on Takeout Tuesday, which is a thing now. Thai food? Tacos? Barbecue? What will we shove in our faces while watching TV tonight? Remember the Freshman 15, in which new college students gain 15 pounds from the constant supply of food from the dining commons? This year, it’s going to be 20 in 2020.
The jar of sourdough starter so kindly given to me by my neighbor back in March is excavated during an archaeological dig in my pantry, while looking for something else entirely. The starter has hardened into a terrifying gray mass of very much dead bacteria and flour, with a thin film of weird brown liquid on top. It is shamefully thrown into the trash, along with other big plans for productivity (taking up running again, learning to sew, finally watching “The Americans”).
While shopping at a local store, where I am, of course, wearing my mask, I find myself encroached upon by a group of unmasked women, who begin looking at the stuff I was looking at. I glare at them as I move away, but before I’m able to do that one of them COUGHS, LOUDLY, NOT TWO FEET FROM ME. I am unable to keep a “Jesus, lady!” from escaping my lips. She laughs at me and rolls her eyes. I scurry out of the aisle, just barely able to crush the overwhelming urge to start an altercation next to a display of baking pans.
In the same afternoon, we attend our nephew’s Zoom high school graduation, and then our friend’s Zoom baby shower. Nephew will later attend the University of Maine remotely, while the baby arrives six weeks later, in a world irrevocably changed from the one he was conceived in. He’s pretty darn cute, though.
Remember back in March, when we thought “OK, no Memorial Day, but we’ll surely have the Fourth of July!” It’s the Fourth of July, and there’s nary a parade to be found. I am very fortunate to have close friends with camps, however, so we spend this holiday — along with most weekends this summer — at the lake, swimming, sitting by campfires and sleeping in tents. If anything, 2020 has given me a newfound appreciation for how lucky we are to live in Maine, with our pristine, easily accessible outdoors.
I celebrate my birthday by playing croquet and drinking gin cocktails in our backyard with a small group of friends, wearing the fanciest summer outfits we own. Given that, generally speaking, for the past four months my sartorial choices have tended toward pajama bottoms, t-shirts and maxi dresses with no bra, the chance to wear heels and makeup seems almost unimaginably glamorous.
For our 10-year wedding anniversary, we were supposed to be either road tripping down the East Coast, or exploring the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec. Instead, we grill up steaks and eat outdoors and are asleep by 10. We’re pretty much OK with it.
Today marks six months since I and my colleagues at the BDN began working from home. To mark the occasion, I put on a stain-free sweatshirt, and once again inform the person I’m interviewing over the phone that my present officemate is a dog that may, in fact, have the loudest bark in the greater Bangor area. They will undoubtedly hear him make his presence known to all passing postal workers, pedestrians, birds and light breezes as we chat.
You can take away handshakes, and my reason to wear real pants. But you will never take Halloween away from me. We put our spooky decor out, and prepare our costumes even if hardly anyone will see them, because if we don’t, COVID wins. And the amount of innovative safety measures people in my neighborhood take to have trick-or-treating is both reassuring and heartwarming.
Things are getting weird again. Toilet paper with mysterious brand names like “Majesta” and “Sweety” begins to reappear in the stores. Gov. Mills orders a 9 p.m. curfew for all stores and restaurants. Cases are rising across the country and in Maine. It’s going to be a long winter.
The first COVID-19 vaccine is approved for use in the U.S., the best Christmas present you could ask for. Though I will, of course, wait my turn after all the essential workers, folks in nursing homes and people with comorbidities get their shots, I will literally get any vaccine Dr. Fauci says is all good. Give me all the vaccines. What do I need to do, people? I just want to go to a concert or, I don’t know, hug people? Eat in a restaurant? Not watch millions suffer, and hundreds of thousands more die?
In just a few short hours, this wretched year will be over. I’m incredibly grateful that, this year, my family and I have been spared much of the worst effects of the pandemic, but as a society, we’ve lost so much. We’ve learned more than we ever thought possible — not just about how we as a society react to a global pandemic, but about ourselves. I’m a different person now than I was a year ago. You’re probably different too, for good or for bad. I know more about what I care about, and what I don’t care about, and most importantly, whom I care about.
I don’t know what the future will hold. I know “normal” is just a concept, not a reality. I know things will get better, eventually, and we’ll look back on this year as a struggle we all bore together. I still get a little sentimental once a new year rolls around, even if the outgoing one was basically a disaster. I’ll happily say goodbye to this year, and welcome the new one with open arms. Even if it’s a few more months before I can hug anybody.