My area is no longer under a strict lockdown, but I’m still working remotely, juggling my workload with the needs of my family, including three children who have not seen their friends in person in almost five months. These are minor sacrifices to make to protect ourselves and others from the ravages of COVID-19, which has killed more than 600,000 people world-wide and may result in a range of long-term complications for survivors. Where I live is not a COVID-19 “hotspot” in the United States, but the number of cases is growing.
It’s hard to find happiness at this time, and yet, I’m often faced with the task of telling a screen of people I barely know what’s bringing me joy right now. This question is a common “icebreaker” in Zoom meetings these days.
The answers I hear at these meetings often highlight differences in privilege, such as when someone describes an expensive experience, or differences in how seriously we’re taking the health and welfare of our communities during this public health crisis. There are plenty of people willing to admit to engaging in large group activities without masks and physical distancing.
No answer feels good right now. Happiness has been in short supply for a while.
A few years ago, shortly after the 2016 election, I read Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, which addresses the despair activists feel during challenging political times. She writes:
[A] part of the Puritan legacy [of the left] is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia.
But, as she explains, “Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited,” and it sustains us.
When I read this book in 2016, I focused on an example about an activist who took breaks from his investigation of human rights abuses in South America a century ago “to admire handsome local men and to chase brilliantly colored local butterflies.”
It struck a chord with me because my children, then only eight and five-years-old, wanted to counter Donald Trump’s terrifying win by doing something good for the planet. They decided to replace a patch of grass with pollinator-friendly flowers, and we’ve been chasing butterflies ever since.
This year, because of the pandemic, I was able to get my hands on only one packet of seeds for this bed, but it has been enough to draw an enormous amount of wildlife to our slice of suburbia.* Every day, we see butterflies, bees, and other insects, as well as hummingbirds and goldfinches enjoying our zinnias. The goldfinches (not the type on the cover of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch) pull the petals apart, but I don’t mind. There are plenty of flowers left for everyone.
The amount of joy one packet of seeds can produce is amazing. This little garden is full of life, and there’s nothing more important to celebrate in a pandemic than that.
*The other parts of our garden are almost all shade, limiting the range of flowers we can plant there. Right now, those areas are mostly foliage.