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What a Difference a Year Makes

So, how has your life been after a year of pandemic standstill? While our family is managing okay and feeling fortunate in the grand scheme, it’s our daughters’ experience that pains me the most. One is a senior in high school, missing the activities that bring her the most joy—theatre, singing in the choir, hanging out regularly with her friends. And our younger daughter entered a new high school where most of the kids already know each other, and where online school makes it difficult to build any meaningful connections or friendships. It pretty much sucks for them, yet we know it could be much worse. We also know we will look back at this strange, highly charged time as pivotal in the ongoing quest to change the world for the better.

My family experienced a version of this before, when we lived in Italy. It wasn’t like the current “Year of the Groundhog”—where our external stimulation hasn’t changed much day-to-day—but actually quite the opposite. Our lives had been humming along here in Portland when we made a choice to uproot ourselves and live in Genoa for a year. There, every day was an unfamiliar whirlwind around us filled with struggles, delights, and a fireworks show for our senses. We were fish out of water, and when we returned home we realized we had become different animals.

It turns out that when you change all external stimuli for an extended period—language, vistas, people, food, sounds, and almost everything else—you can’t help but internally transform. After this past year of the opposite, monotonous ordeal, I fully expect it will also spur the reverse: an external transformation. Our lack of novel personal experiences (seeing, hearing, dressing, and interacting with minimal variation day in and day out) has forced most of us to live more of an interior life. Yet when we emerge from this collective cocoon, I think there will be a transformation in the world around us. At the very least, we will look at the world in a whole new way.

Our post-pandemic emergence might feel jarring at first—some of it exhilarating and some of it sobering. But these initial impressions will start the wheels of change turning, just like when we landed back in the US at the end of our year in Italy. While we knew our time abroad would be eye-opening, the new perspective upon returning was just as remarkable. The immediate visible differences we took in upon “re-entry” were stark, such as the sheer size of things: the streets, the buildings, the food portions, the cars, even the people. Everything was bigger here. Yet it was over the many months following that we noticed how we had changed. This revealed itself in the choices we would make, and I don’t just mean preferring espresso instead of drip! A year immersed in a different country showed us a different way of being. What mattered to us before didn’t quite resonate for us like it used to, and we couldn’t just take up where we’d left off prior to our year overseas. We started making better, more thoughtful choices in our lives.

This same kind of foundation for change is already happening in my pandemic-oriented world. I don’t think any of us will return to so-called “normal life,” because we all know we are in the midst of a transformational shift. It’s evidenced not only by this modern-day plague, but in the chaos that has been swirling around us in recent years. When I’ve ventured out in my little American West Coast urban corner of the world, here are a few examples that I’ve noticed:

1) After a summer of wildfires and a choking economy here in Oregon, tents-as-living-quarters have popped up at the sides of open roads, on sidewalks, in clusters or as isolated “shelters.” Houselessness is not new, but I’ve never seen it to this degree. It’s a stark and depressing reminder of rampant poverty in a wealthy nation—and of our dysfunctional socioeconomic system.

collage of BLM and racial justice signs