When uncertainty strikes, can a search for adventure bring solace? One writer looks back at how trying new things became her way of coping with 2020.
There’s a video on my phone of me trying to hula hoop at 1am with a glass of Prosecco in my hand. I’m wearing a mini dress with a skirt made of black tulle, which is flickering around my thighs when I move. A fake stick-on moustache, that a few minutes ago stuck to my upper lip for festive selfies, has now slid down to my chest. I’m laughing as the hula hoop whirls briefly around my hips and then drops to the floor. It’s New Year’s Eve, and none of us has any idea about what’s to come.
That video, which I’ve been on the brink of deleting several times – damn you, storage limit – but in the end always opted to keep, depicts a sort of blurry, happy calm before the storm. We’re all stumbling into the unknown, drunkenly and merrily, blissfully unaware. Each one of us thinking, this year is going to be My Year. Just like every 31st December, as fireworks dazzle and Champagne fizzes, promises were made and resolutions were born.
I didn’t make any resolutions. As 2019 faded away, I wistfully noted it in my mind as one of the best years I would ever have. The year when my first book was released. The year of wildest dreams coming true. And so when 2020 dawned, I had no expectations. Clean slate. Come what may, I was ready.
Except that none of us was. As we were all plunged into the unprecedented, dreams and plans were laid to waste. Lives were put on hold. Hopes were broken. And for many, 2020 was the year of loss. Of tragedy. The year of many lights that went out too soon, like candles burning out all over the globe.
But as we leave this peculiar year behind, what I’ll remember isn’t the fear, the frustration or the strange sense of being held captive in my home. It won’t be standing two metres from my friends, the awkward Zoom parties (can we all agree that online parties should be left in the past, never to be revived again?) or the novelty of incorporating face masks into my outfits. What I’ll take with me into 2021 is the human mind’s wondrous way of adapting to whatever life brings. The unexpected paths to serenity, albeit fragile, that we carve out when life throws us curveballs. To me, it’s miraculous to observe how the human spirit always finds a way.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been addicted to living life to the fullest. Even pre-pandemic, I’d gotten used to cohabiting with an ever-present niggling feeling that I want more out of life. More adventures, more experiences, more breathtaking moments. More life. Which doesn’t necessarily have to mean bungee jumping off cliffs – my hunger for living (or my FOMO, if you prefer) was more about saying yes to every opportunity and creating opportunities where there seemingly weren’t any. That Pinterest cliché “don’t count the days, make the days count” may sound trite, but to me it’s always held some truth. So when lockdown struck, I felt like my hunt for adventure, which was already marred by a constant sense of not enough, was shut down, leaving me feeling like a captive animal pacing incessantly around my cage. Without travel, plans, and without even being able to see friends, I felt like life as I knew it was over. There was not enough Netflix and Deliveroo in the world to alleviate this novel, crippling sensation of not living but merely surviving. To add to that, there was the guilt: the idea of people losing loved ones, some not even being able to say goodbye, made my malaise appear negligible and privileged. And so I tried – and failed – to ignore it.
But among the doom and gloom, things started to emerge. New things. Fascinating little wonders. Like that Sunday my husband and I spent covering our living-room floor in plastic, mixing paint together and letting it swirl wildly over little blank canvases. Colours mixing, mingling, creating new hues, floating to cover white surfaces. Each canvas different. Vivid greens, deep blues, fiery reds, cheerful yellows, somber purples. Leaving marks on our living-room floor, and on us – as I type this I look down on the leg of my pyjama bottoms, the same I was wearing on the day, and the stripe of dark pink is still there, a faint reminder of that first Sunday in lockdown. Other reminders, in bright and unexpected mixtures of colour, are scattered all over the walls of our home.
Or that time this summer when my husband convinced me to try archery. How he patiently instructed me on how to stand, where to look, how to hold my hands, and exactly when to release the arrow. That sense of complete and total focus was something I had been missing in this frenetic world of always being connected, always reachable, always ready to answer a million questions. Here, away from it all, there was only me, the bow and the target. Which I hit, not once but twice, the second time even outperforming my husband – a former archery instructor. That was a good day.
My husband, a keen adventurer himself, continued my discovery of all things new by convincing me to do something that I had sworn that I would never do – get on a skateboard. Now, don’t get excited: get on it was pretty much all I did. I barely managed to get both feet off the ground, failing spectacularly to connect with my inner skater girl (I quite like her, she’s a cool one. Wears lots of tartan shirts) while kids less than half my age sniggered, whizzing by on their boards. But what mattered was that I had tried. I had chosen to let go of the mentality that branded me as someone who would never skate and braved the board. What matters isn’t how good you are at it. What matters is doing something for the first time. That’s literally what adventure is.
Something else I was hilariously bad at was salsa dancing. I sincerely hope that the notion of good dancers also being good lovers isn’t true, because if it is, I pity my husband. If Shakira’s hips don’t lie, mine are embarrassingly honest. Staggering around stiff like a broom, I did my best to follow my husband – as a musician, he possesses that innate sense of rhythm that I so desperately lack. What can I say, jumping and sweating at a rock gig is much more my style than trying to swivel my hips to achieve South American-style sultriness. But excelling was never the goal. On that balmy July evening, I laughed off my clumsy moves and had another sip of wine, enjoying the blush-hued sunset and finding contentment in the fact that I had tried something new today, once again. The mere action of moving my body – and my mind – in a new way helped me feel alive again.
Living by the sea provided the perfect antidote for the stress of the captivity of my home: the open waters. For many summers, I had been watching paddle-boarders float serenely across the mirror-glaze waters, thinking, “I must try that!”. And this summer, I finally did. Pushing the heavy board away from the shore, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The ground disappeared from under my feet, a swaying wobble taking its place. Infinite blue, just the sea and the sky. The sounds of the crowds and children playing in the surf quieting as I paddled further out. Finding myself adrift among the vastness of the sea, I could breathe again. The four walls that had surrounded me for so many identical days were gone, as if they had been torn down. After what seemed like an endless lockdown, I felt free from the imposed confinement of dutifully following #stayhome recommendations for days, weeks, months.
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That feeling of openness and freedom followed me into another new thing I tried this year, which was also the birth of a new passion: hiking. One of my most memorable days of 2020 was that Friday in August when I took the day off work, turned my phone off and spent the day reconnecting with my innermost wilderness in the greenery, the steep hills, the birdsong. Looking back at my very first few hikes, I believe my favourite thing about hiking is that you cannot be good or bad at it. There is no failing or succeeding, which also eliminates the fear of trying. Sure, you can set yourself goals and turn the whole experience into a sport, but if that feels daunting, you don’t have to. Like David Duchovny once said in an episode of Sex and the City, “Hiking is really just walking.” That’s not always the case, but if you want it to be, it can be. Hiking can be as straightforward – not easy, but straightforward – as walking. Breathing. Being. The simple, but sometimes so elusive freedom of just being.
Over the course of these bizarre weeks and months, trying new things became my drug. My way to stay alive in a world that felt stagnant with fear. And as I prepare to pop open the Prosecco and get my party dress ready once again, I know that what will remain of this year is just that: the many adventures I managed to have, even in this new, strange world. I’ll carry with me into 2021 the many colours on my walls, the tentative uncertainty of my feet on a skateboard, the determination behind a perfectly shot arrow, the laughter after a particularly clumsy salsa move, the vastness of the sea underneath my paddle-board, the contented exhaustion after a day of hiking, and so much more. Hoping that next year will provide ample opportunities for adventure, but knowing that even if it won’t, I will probably end up creating them anyway.
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Cover image by Amy Shamblen.