I sip aged tequila from a miniature clay mug as the exuberant notes of the Mariachi band fill the warm air. In front of me, couples twirl and sway around the gazebo floor and those of us standing at the perimeter watch with smiles and laughter, moving our hips or tapping our feet in our small act of participation. Beyond the gazebo, the dry landscape filled with blue agave plants drifts into the distance to meet mountains and blue sky, graced by the warmth and unhindered rays of the less-ambitious winter sun.
It’s just one day before the end of this calendar year, and here in Mexico, escaping the frigid cold of Colorado and daily demands of grad school, I let my thoughts wander and reflect on this year and the never-ending pandemic we’ve had to adjust to. And in this joyful moment and pause of reflection, a second in time of this difficult and sometimes depressing year, I know: Life continues. Of course, life hasn’t continued for everyone – tragically, we’ve lost so many people these two years. We must desperately mourn them, vigilantly remember them, and grieve our immense losses in this pandemic that has changed all our lives. But for those of us who are blessedly fortunate to still be living, life continues, and we must figure out how to live it in these new times.
In my first 24 hours of Peace Corps, before even leaving the United States, we convened in a hotel conference room in Houston to discuss what we must know before departing for the next two years of our lives. In this rapid-fire training, we had to develop phrases for our service to understand our commitment and new expectations. One of the phrases we created was "life on pause", but I pushed hard against adopting it. I argued that our life wasn't on pause, we were still living - perhaps more so - despite leaving our U.S lives, it was just a new life. In the end we changed it, although now, three years later I don't remember what we changed it to.
And during that tumultuous and blissful year of Peace Corps, my life didn't pause, instead, it expanded, grew, and changed. But in 2020, when the pandemic hit us with the force of a freight train, it felt like life didn't just pause, it stopped. Of course, it didn't truly stop for most of us, just slowed to a depressing crawl. But in that time of slowness, I slowed too, taking that time for the healing and slow pace I needed.
But I could not wait for the end of the pandemic for my life to speed up and move on. If I had, I would still be waiting - living in a limbo of grief, immobilization, and melancholy stillness. Instead, at the start of 2021, I plunged, like when I left for Peace Corps, into a new life. I applied last minute to a grad school program that tugged at my gut and listened to those same intuitive whispers when I was accepted to the program two months later. In June, just half a day after watching one of my best friends get married, I packed up my new, still unfamiliar car, and drove 1,032 miles to a new home I had never placed eyes on, where no one would recognize me and only a few people knew my name.
Even for my nomadic soul, it wasn't easy. There were many days this summer, and still sometimes now, when I felt alone and stranded in this isolated mountain town. I worked hard to create community, meet people, and feel a sense of belonging despite the lack of corn fields, Mississippi River, or even Panama scenery that I am familiar with. But life moved, shifted, changed, and each day I felt more and more a sense of place in this woven community, growing into a new me in my new life.
This year challenged me - physically in hiking my first 14er and living at 7700 feet elevation, and mentally with grad school, where I spend my days reading pages of peer reviewed papers, accurately citing my sources, and most importantly, listening to and considering viewpoints that are not my own. I've created community here, with the church I attend, the places I volunteer to spend time with kids, and the university staff and students who have become dear to my heart. I've made friends, developed professional connections, and found meaning and belonging.
And despite the challenges, this year has been good to me. I've backpacked in the wilderness, slept in my car on a mountain on my birthday, sashayed among aspens. I've sweated my way up wildflower graced mountains, rolled down sand dunes, and cried on my favorite scenic peak. I've spent all my energy playing with a full-of-life 12-year-old, learned and taught ecology to middle schoolers, and planted sagebrush. I've attended conferences, written papers, and voiced my thoughts in discussions. I've taken a dip in the cold water of the Gunnison River, flipped a coin for a free drink at Powerstop, and enjoyed more desserts from Jermaine's than my pocketbook cares to remember. I've watched the water level in Blue Mesa Reservoir recede, breathed in the gray wildfire smoke, and worriedly watched the skies for snow that is weeks late. I've been silly, happy, depressed, embarrassed, joyful, frustrated, enchanted, angry, and a million more emotions for which spoken words don't exist. I've grown, changed, and lived in my new life.
Now, just a day before the end of 2021 and the new start of another circle around the sun, I stand listening to the joyful singing, happy dancing, and proud music of the people around me, and tears fill my eyes. It's been a tough year, again. Almost two years after it started, we still live in a pandemic, a time we thought naively would pass in months, maybe a year, but that is still upon us, after taking millions of lives and disrupting almost everything.
But with death and disruption constantly around us, perhaps we have learned how fragile life is. Life promises us nothing – not happiness, prosperity nor love. Acknowledging the bleakness of life and our inevitable death is perhaps how we truly live.
So in this moment, during my restful winter holiday season, I am so deliciously grateful to be living and so joyfully grateful for this past year of life. Among the mountains that don't look so different from the Rockies or Appalachians that I know, between the rows of blue agave, I breathe, sip tequila, and watch the people around me dance. I don't know what demons hunt them, what sorrows have broken their spirits, what life stories they could share around a campfire. But for this moment in time, I see the joy in their eyes, and I share it. We share smiles, laughter, and life. Here, we live, gratefully and fully. Death is inevitable, in a day, in a month, or in years. We pray it doesn't come soon to any our beloved, protect each other as best we can, and mourn those whom it claims. But in this moment, for now, we are alive, and life continues, even if it's not in the form we're used to, desire, or once had.
So we lift our tequila filled clay cups, we ask God to excuse our playful tipsiness, and toast each other for happiness and health. A new year is coming, promising us absolutely nothing but a new four-digit number. Here we leave and here we arrive, exchanging this ending year for a new one. And maybe, we'll accept a new life as well, because life, despite the expected and unexpected, continues. Salud!