On Birthdays & Other Special Events During the COVID-19 Pandemic
As my birthday approaches during the current pandemic, I am spending time reflecting on what it means to not necessarily feel special at this time. Me, like so many others, are experiencing what it feels like to have a meaningful event get put on hold, or worse, completely washed over. Others are postponing the weddings they’ve been planning for years while some high school and college graduates experience the anti-climatic culmination of their education with an online ceremony and zero house parties. As lay people, that is, those not currently involved in healthcare, the least we can do is cancel our events and continue to physically distance ourselves.
This year I am spending more time reminiscing on my two most recent birthdays during my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru than I am planning for this years extravaganza. I am vividly brought back to what were probably some of the best birthday celebrations I have experienced:
My first birthday during my two year service I spent time with my host family, co workers and community members. You know it’s a special day in the Peruvian Andes when you wake up to your host father peeling the fur off dead and blooded rabbits. Although jarring, I knew what the process culturally signified. At the school I worked in, the teachers all pitched in for a cake and other yummy goodies to share while we all escaped from the duties of teaching for a short while. I was always surprised by when the teachers would hold meetings and let the kids go unsupervised. Well, this time it was my fault and I felt glad for it.
For lunch, my host mother and father prepared the rabbit and cuy (guinea pig) from their personal stashes. We ate with our hands and drank loads of my favorite soda, Inka Cola, a beverage whose color most anyone would compare to battery acid. Later that night some friends came over and we all sat around drinking beer and listening to music. We ate more cake and shared some slightly borracho (drunken) speeches.
My second birthday in Peru, although much less Peruvian or culturally significant, was equally as meaningful for its own reasons. That year, I decided to spend my birthday with fellow volunteers and beloved friends.
We were a small screw, with an extra large tent, posted up at Laguna Antacocha in the Peruvian Andes, about an hour South of the city of Huaraz. We spent the days hiking and rock climbing. We went to climb a boulted, four pitch 5.10b. It was my two friends first time on a multi-pitch. I hauled one buddy through the crux and we all hustled to top out before the storm arrived. As it were, it never did arrive. We received this as a birthday gift from the apus (mountain spirits). We walked off, enjoying the the multiple vista points along the way and the explosive colors of the blooming wildflowers at our feet.
We ended the days with happy-hour walks during sunset and deliciously intricate dinners as rain pitter-pattered on our circus-like tent. We were still living through turbulent times, as we do always, and as is so blatantly obvious during the pandemic, but things and problems seemed to melt away up there, if not just for a few days. We had all we needed. Our gear, food, water and beer, but not necessarily in that order. More importantly, we had who we needed.
I met Lesia in Miami, FL during the staging event before our cohort of bright and starry eyed volunteers left the country for their services. We quickly became friends and spent almost everyday of pre-service training together. Lesia is an artist and would let me color in her doodles. A blatantly untrue rumor was even started that we were seen making out behind the local pharmacy. We went our separate ways when we got sent to our individual site placements, but our bond still lasted. Later in her service, when Lesia got moved closer to my site for security reasons in her old site, I quickly indoctrinated her into my shenanigans once again.
Sam was also there. Sam was a mystery. I had only heard of him from other gringos and was intrigued to become his friend. He had already been in the country for years working on a film documenting climate change in the surrounding mountains. He spoke Quechua, the local indigenous language, kept a large beard and played music at one of our favorite local bars in the capital, Huaraz. That’s where we met. We bonded over cold beer and hand rolled cigarettes. Sam quickly began treating me like a brother and would invite me to stay at his home. Sam’s house then became our basecamp for all of our adventures. I slept there often and would wake up to go climbing. Only after enjoying a brew of local coffee and some breakfast.
Through Sam is how I met his partner Renata. I still remember the first night I met her. Sam came to meet me at the bar, but this time with two new friends. One of them was Renata. She is from Uruguay and at the time was backpacking through South America. Over the loud music I struggled to connect with Renata. Normally a few beers makes my Spanish better but this time it was different. I wasn’t sure how Sam was getting along with her. It felt like I could never say the right thing. I would learn about Renata’s complexity throughout our friendship. She is critical of men in general, but especially of white men like me. She is a passionate feminist and vehemently participates as an activist one behalf of many disadvantaged groups. Through her critical lens, Renata is not afraid to call anyone on their bull shit. Through that same lens however, Renata sees immense beauty in the world and cares deeply for other people. This translates into her unwavering loyalty as a friend if you survive her first few rounds of fiery dissection.
Lastly, there was Preston. Preston was and is a wild card. He arrived as a volunteer about halfway through my service, and boy was I glad he got placed close to Lesia and I. Preston and I immediately bonded over both being alumni from CU Boulder. The first night we hung out we stayed out late and sung karaoke with other volunteers. We both had similar memories from Colorado and a genuine lust for the mountains. Preston was a psychedelic dude, literally. He processed his own san pedro, a cactus that contains mescaline, and spoke often of the beneficial components of using psychedelics in therapy. His experience with this part of reality opened his heart and made him a true joy to spend time with.
That was us. The crew for my 26th birthday. Like every birthday girl or boy, I was secretly enjoying the special attention. I was flattered that these people wanted to celebrate my birthday with me. In a world where we so often feel meaningless, it was great to feel like the center of the universe. I would be happy to revolve in infinite galactic space with these people. The memories I have from that trip will stay with me for a long time.
So what do we do when those instances that normally come around a few times a year in the form of birthdays or other special events can no longer come to fruition? How do we find positive meaning in the little things when something so encompassing like the pandemic is squandering our efforts, both physically and emotionally?
Well for one, we can be grateful. We can be thankful for the past and for the memories that stick with us. As our monetary economy crumbles during the pandemic, and as many are caught without employment, perhaps instead of counting dollars we should be counting memories. In those, so many of us are richer. Sure they may be a thing of the past, but their value endures. They help us stay humble and make us feel special. We can also be thankful for our friends and loved ones. Yes, what makes us feel happy as social beings currently may make us sicker, but that will not always be the case. I look longingly for the day I can hug Lesia, Sam, Renata and Preston again. And for the day when I see my family and so many other beloved friends.
Second, we can be excited for the future. Despite how grim it may look, especially considering how most news sources emphatically present exponentially increasing numbers of death and dying before us, we know that there is a solution. We know that what goes up must come down and that their is always light at the end of the tunnel. We can allow ourselves to remain excited for those postponed weddings and graduation celebrations. They will come. We will see family and friends. We will raise our glasses and cheers in celebration. And if not for the special events that have passed us up, but for the medical workers all around the globe that helped humanity become healthy once again.
The past couple weeks I have repeatedly been asking myself, “how can I show up positively during a time of crisis?” I wasn’t always ready to ask myself that question. I spent the first month or so of quarantine really sad, feeling helpless and lost at sea in a soup of anxiety and unempowered uncertainty. I allowed myself to feel that, to be that. Eventually, to begin to answer that question I found out that I need to let go of things I cannot control. I become filled with anger and resentment when I harbor negative feelings towards things or other people. For example, the inadequate, if not completely non-existent, response to the pandemic on behalf of our government. Harboring that emotion has negative impacts on my own self-talk and my relationship with myself, along with my relationships with other people and how I communicate with them.
What helps me detach from those negative emotions is the process of putting things into perspective. This essay, for example, at its core, is about how I once selfishly felt upset that the pandemic was going to ruin my birthday, a day I had been crushing for the past couple years and was stoked to crush once again. Placed into perspective however, I realize that my birthday is not really that important, especially when stacked up to the effects of the pandemic on our health care system. It’s another day on the calendar. This shit ain’t about me. It’s about us.
The point isn’t to trivialize my birthday, or someone else’s special event or any other problem for that matter. The point is to say, “If I was capable of creating all these expectations about how I wanted to carry out my birthday in a world not stricken by pandemic, than why can’t I recreate that process and redesign a day that is still meaningful and still beautiful but that fits within the confines of my current reality?” The answer is that I can.
That thinking can be extended to other negative emotions and problems we are so quick to take personally when things are not going our way. And in a privileged country (and for me, in privileged skin and gender identity), where we are so used to getting what we want, that can happen a lot. By thinking this way, I have regained control over something that I previously thought was taken from me. Simultaneously I have decided to let go of the negativity related to feeling robbed. I am now learning to fill that space with positive thinking, planning and intention.
My birthday is important. It matters. The other weddings, graduations, funerals, family reunions and house parties all are important and matter. Let’s not diminish the cultural significance we assign to people, places and problems, but let’s reorientate ourselves, our thinking and our perspective on things, especially in times of crisis. The pandemic may control the calendar at this time, but it cannot control how we choose to react.