The email came last last night. A 14-year-old named Alessandra sent me a message containing only four words—four words. After reading her message, I wore a large smile because I needed those four particular words.
Yesterday I looked over my pre-pandemic photos because my phone began throwing old memories in my face. And do you know something? My life was once so full.
Before the virus, I was traveling, doing fun stuff, eating at restaurants, going to ballgames, dancing the Mashed Potato with officially licensed team franchise mascots while holding a 24-oz beer can. Those days are over—at least for now.
On my phone I saw photos from the work trip my wife and I took to New York a few years ago. What a trip it was. I couldn’t believe how wonderful the tomato pies were, or how the cab drivers cheerfully drove upwards of 120 mph on sidewalks.
There were photos from our visit out West. My wife and I were posed beside various mountains, canyons, and rust-colored hillsides.
I have photos taken in Texas. We pulled over at a barbecue joint. There were no structures around for miles. Only a tin shack on the plains. A waitress came to our table, she had no menus, she simply said, “Food or beer?”
“Both,” we said.
And that was that. When our mountain of brisket arrived, it came served in zinc motor-oil pans. The beer was so cold it hurt your teeth. “Welcome to Texas,” the waitress said.
We have photos from our extensive travels through Alabama. Alabama is the state that adopted me when nobody else would. And although I am not a native son, the Yellowhammer State lies a few dozen miles from my hometown, and our preachers often quote Bear Bryant from the pulpits.
So I miss seeing the U.S. I miss the way things used to be before we humans had so much fear to deal with. Before the pandemic, I had written columns on location from the Canadian border (eh?) to the Mexican border (como?). And I miss it.
And this is why scrolling through my old cellphone photos hurts. Because I realize how empty my pandemic-era life has become. And by “empty,” I mean that I’ve become pathetic.
Oh, believe me, it’s my own fault. I’ve let myself go stale. To confirm this staleness I merely pull out my phone to browse photos and it’s official: The exciting pictures on my phone stop, chronologically, after last year.
In one photo, for example, my wife and I are at the rim of the Grand Canyon, smiling beside several Czech and Russian tourists who are perfect strangers we randomly ate dinner with one night.
Within the next few images are more recent pictures of things like, meatloaf, toilet-paper memes, and a photograph my aunt sent of 5-year-old me in a cowboy hat. That’s about it.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not complaining. There are people out there who have truly suffered during this pandemic. I haven’t. I have been fortunate. I have never missed a meal. Nobody in my household has died. And not once have we been in danger of running out of toilet paper.
Plus, being stuck at home hasn’t been all bad. For starters, I’ve learned to enjoy touchless shopping and other online deliveries. Also, there are a lot of things I DON’T miss about my old routine of endless traveling for work.
For one thing, I don’t miss airlines. I was a frequent flyer pre-pandemic, and I hate to fly. I’m not afraid of airplanes, but I dislike the hellish nightmare that is commercial air travel. I was spending entire geological periods in airports with nothing to do but play on my phone.
When you’re trapped in an airport, you spend hours on an electronic device until your thumb muscles seize. You also develop keen eyesight for wall outlets to recharge your near-dead phone battery. Electrical outlets are like Peruvian gold among air travelers.
I once saw two frequent-fliers in the Philadelphia International Airport nearly get into a kickboxing match over a wall outlet. Their disagreement had to be broken up, I swear, by an old guy wearing a colorful shirt that read, “Beach Hair Don’t Care.”
So I am grateful for the time I’ve spent at home this year. Really, I am. I’ve enjoyed going to bed early. I’ve fallen in love with vinyl records on the old hifi. I love to read novels for hours.
But I’m not going to candy coat things, either. This year has been no cinch. Not for me; not for anyone. I have had some friends get REALLY sick. I have even more friends who became unemployed.
Also, I have had old depressive feelings rise to the surface. Sometimes I’m worried that I’ve lost my spark. Sometimes I worry I’ve lost that easy smile I used to have. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just another big bag of wind behind a keyboard with nothing meaningful to say. Sometimes I wonder whether I should keep writing.
Meanwhile underneath it all is the persistent fear that normal life might not return to being one hundred percent normal.
But do you know what? Whenever I get low, something always—always—happens to pick me up. A miracle of the tiniest proportions. Something I never see coming. Something beautiful. Something like a letter from a 14-year-old named Alessandra. Who wrote: “Keep on going, Sean.”
And just like that, everything is okay.