This street is lined with dozens of houses decorated with Christmas lights in mid-November. I wish you could see them. There is a whole row of homes, glowing multicolored in the night. My wife and I are on a joyride hunting for lit-up houses this evening.
Decorations abound. We see plastic Santas in front yards with electronic arms waving at us, which is creepy. There are enormous plasticized snow globes with artificial blizzards. Fiberglass reindeer, grazing in yards. And oh, the bright, twinkling, blinking, flickering lights.
I never knew Christmas lights in autumn could bring me such joy. Never.
That’s 2020 for you.
People are doing festivities earlier this year. Everyone’s getting in on the action. I know a guy who put up his tree three weeks before Halloween. And I know a lady who let her kids open some of their presents this week.
This pandemic has changed everything. And everyone.
Take me. When I began writing this column years ago, most of my writings were intended to be funny. I love humor. I was always the clown in school, and I could make milk exit the nostrils of even the most hardened fourth graders.
But then along came a pandemic and I turned into a big sack of blubbery emotion. Being humorous just felt irreverent in light of mounting death tolls, mortality rates, and sad headlines. It would have been like bringing a whoopee cushion to a Saturday night prayer meeting. Which I have never done.
The COVID era changed me as a human being. But also as a writer. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. And I shudder to think about what my current critics might say about that last sentence.
Because, heaven knows, that’s another thing that’s changed in this world. Some people have become hyper-critical. I receive a handful of nasty emails each morning from disgruntled people I’ve never met who, for some inexplicable reason, keep reading my stuff.
But I can’t hold it against them. Because it’s been a hard year for everyone. Including me.
When the pandemic hit, I basically lost my job, same as millions of other unemployed people. If it weren’t for this column, I would be a mental shipwreck. This small stretch of whitespace on your screen became my sole occupation. And you became my primary friend, whoever you might be.
I’ve been writing about COVID for the better part of a year now. And what a bizarre and oddly poignant year for being a writer.
I wrote about a 100-year-old man who flew planes in World War II, and managed to beat coronavirus. And about an elderly woman who survived the Dust Bowl, but died from the virus.
I wrote about nursing-home residents, sheltering in place, who started an internet radio station so they wouldn’t feel like prisoners.
And about a guy in Michigan who stood outside a gas station and offered to buy free gasoline for medical workers until he drained his bank account. And the total stranger who joined him in this because she thought this sounded like a good idea.
I vigorously shook hands with men who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Then we smeared sanitizer all over our palms.
A few days later, I visited 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and met a homeless man who had memorized a few of Doctor King’s sermons. He preached one for me.
I received hordes of letters from kids, trapped in isolation, who were so desperate they wrote to an average middle-aged Floridian (yours truly).
And I’ve interviewed dozens of mental health experts only to realize that this nation has a dedicated army of professionals who are willing to fight tooth and claw for the well-being of your brain.
And just when the year couldn’t get any weirder, one summer day, while rummaging through my attic, I found a cardboard box containing an infant’s baptism gown and a certificate stating that I’d been baptized in the Catholic church as an infant.
I almost passed out. This was staggering news. My parents raised me as a Southern Baptist, even though my father had been raised Catholic. I took the gown out of its shrink-wrapped plastic and I felt warm all over. I have no experience with Catholicism, but this is one more valued link to my dead father.
Since then, I have been to confession a few times, for journalistic purposes. The priest assures me that, if I keep my grades up, Saint Peter will consider letting me in.
I watched a baseball game played by Latino children who formed their own underground league in the middle of COVID.
I saw the sunrise over the Appalachian Mountains on a bicycle with my wife.
I fell in love with my little hometown library again, and the people in it. God bless the Walton County Library system.
What a year.
My mother used to say that you can’t change your circumstances, but you can change yourself. And I think that’s true. I have really changed this year. I’m not the same person. Neither are you.
I get more excited about tiny things than I once did: a greeting from a dog, nice weather, a new pair of brake pads, a conversation, a postcard from my dear friend, Helen.
And I never knew how much I loved people before they became off-limits. I never realized how much I enjoyed seeing their wide open smiles, free and unhidden. I can feel that I’m a different person inside. Slightly more damaged than before, but also a little less judgmental.
I only pray that I’ve changed for the better. I hope I’ve become more grateful. Grateful for life. For other human beings. For you. For all this. For the wind in my lungs.
And for all these twinkling Christmas lights.