by Emmy Belcher
When quarantine first began there was a sort of excitement about it, at least for me. It was announced that classes were to be online for just two weeks, and my best friend and I decided to go to my house in Florida for the duration of that time. It seemed like a little mini-vacation; a fun, unexpected surprise. We spent the first few days care-free on the beach, getting some much needed sun, and feeling lucky we had time off for seemingly no reason. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, my vacation ended, and the reality of the situation began to sink in. My best friend flew home, fearing that he would not be able to return to his home state of Texas with everything escalating so quickly. The moment I saw him walking away from me and into the terminal, my heart unexpectedly broke. Hot tears suddenly began streaming down my face, despite my best efforts to halt their flow. Not only because I didn’t know when I would see him again, I didn’t know when I would see anyone again. I didn’t know how to feel. As far-fetched as it seems, it felt like saying goodbye to someone as the end of the world approached. I felt so empty, and so very scared.
As someone who thrives on spending time around others, I worried that being literally states away from any of my friends would immediately send me into a dismal mental state. The idea of being lonely has always frightened me. It is, at times, completely unavoidable, yet I have gone to great lengths in my attempts to avoid feeling it. Loneliness seemed imminent at the beginning of quarantine, and trying to look forward into the unknown days and months ahead was just as daunting, if not more. How would I fare through all of this? What would become of my spirit, and how was I going to come out on the other side unscathed? Now I know; I would not emerge as I had entered at all. Ironically, and quite wonderfully, a little, unexpected thing called joy snuck back into my life during quarantine.
You don’t realize that joy has left until you can’t seem to recall what joy means, or what joy feels like. Joy is whimsical. The personification of joy in my mind involves ribbons, ruffles and lace, the sunbeams of golden hour cascading onto the trees, hues of white, pink, and purple, a soundtrack of frank sinatra and laughter filling the air, and probably a cold glass of prosecco in my hand. Joy seems impossible. Joy is sneaky, because you’re so busy enjoying it that you don’t realize it’s been gifted to you until you’re reflecting on your experience.
I was hit hard this summer by the realization that I didn’t have very much joy in my life. I was three quarters through my junior year of college, pursuing a degree in something I loved and was so lucky to be doing. I thought I was having a “good” year… but where was the joy? As someone who struggles with anxiety, I often find it difficult to be present in my day to day, moment to moment life. I’m always thinking of my to-do lists, focusing on what’s happening next, or worrying about something I need to accomplish three Tuesdays from now. My anxiety sometimes prevents me from really enjoying and taking in where I am at any given time. While I may physically be somewhere, my mind is usually miles away, fussing about something that doesn’t much matter at that particular moment. Experiencing quarantine however, allowed me to take a reality check and realize that I want more presence; more joy.
COVID has warped my sense of joy in a positive way. If I allow them to, simple little things now illuminate the brightness in me. I used to feel like I needed to go out to a restaurant, see a show, or be at an event to feel excitement and have things to look forward to. Oddly enough, more than a dozen times during quarantine I found myself excitedly leaping out of bed after one pang of my 5:45 AM alarm to get to the beach and see the sunrise. The sun was rising literally every single day prior to March, yet I never stopped to notice that, when observed properly, it can bring me to joyful, silent tears. I also never explored how absolutely fulfilling sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, without my phone, enjoying the company of my family, or just being with myself is. You don’t need a huge parade to evoke joy, just a little awareness.
I think I can explain the absence of joy. When you are never fully present in the moment, you simply can’t experience the kind of joy that makes you feel like you can power a light bulb just by touching it. You might experience a spark, but never real joy. I know because for the first time in years, I’m present. I’m living my life. Numbing out is simply not an option anymore. I want to feel the wonderful emotions, and I want to feel the soul-crushing; life isn’t a buy one get one free sort of deal. For so long I felt ordinary. Why did everyone else seem so happy? Didn’t they realize how awful things were? I mean, really. I lived in anger and bitterness thinking that everyone somehow had a secret key to the whole being happy thing, and I was standing outside in the rain watching from the window.
I am not ordinary. I’m chuckling to myself right now because I am so freaking far from ordinary it’s laughable. I wish past me could see present me – she would be utterly shocked,. We are living in a pandemic, and it’s my senior year of a musical theatre degree. I am the happiest I have been since I was a child. There are no Broadway shows to attend, no nights in Manhattan to look forward to, no themed parties to scrounge the thrift store in search of ridiculous outfits for, and no hugs from friends in between classes. Yet, I have mustered up the most joy I have experienced in years. Every day has a bit of joy in it.
While COVID is unfortunately still raging, true quarantine, as I experienced for six months, is over for me. I’m back at my house in New York with roommates, interacting with my peers in class, and living a much more “normal” life. There is something new about waking up each day, though. I noticed a new tree outside my window that I suppose has always been there; I just never bothered to look. Each morning as the sunlight streams through my window I gaze out at this beautiful tree. It’s usually the first thing I see as my eyes open. It’s lush with leaves and reflects the sun’s rays, and serves as a little reminder to stay in the moment during the day. Had I not discovered what I did over the last six months, perhaps I would never have noticed its beauty, and the little spark of joy it supplies me as I wake.
I now have a meditation practice and also strive to journal daily, as I have found both ground me in presence for the day. I take time to do things like reading, and yoga that I used to place in the “time permitting” category. I’ve learned that I need to fill my own cup before trying to pour into others’. Quarantine has not been ideal in any way, shape, or form. That being said, I feel that it was a true gift to me, and I plan to carry the joy I created into the next chapter of my life, whatever that may be.