What Brings You Joy During A Public Health Crisis?

(goldfinches have been here)

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.


  1. Wow, that seems like a potentially difficult ice breaker question and not one I would go with right now! I’m glad you and your kids are finding some joy in your garden though and I’m finding some joy in how wonderful it is that you’re raising children who’d respond to Trump’s election by adding something good to the world. How kind!

  2. You write creative nonfiction so beautifully, giving me hope and often causing me to squeeze out a few tears when I read your work. Perhaps a memoir made up of essays is on the horizon?

    1. Thank you! I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me before. I love reading memoirs, but I’ve never considered writing one before (or a collection of essays). I’ll keep it in mind.

  3. Aw, your flowers are beautiful. I love that y’all planted them. I have been thinking about maybe looking into some shade-friendly plants to plant in my front garden this season, just to make a change and see how things go. In the meantime, what’s making me happy is my planner format (I’ve never been able to keep a planner before!), my niece and nephew who are in my quarantine pod with me, and picking up holds from the library.

    1. Thank you! It’s nice to hear what’s making you happy right now. Good luck with your shade garden. Most of my garden is in the shade, and there are many wonderful plants that love those conditions. My bigger challenge is the deer, who don’t share the plants.

  4. This is a really beautiful post. I’m still working on ways to find joy in my little corner of the world right now. But I’m grateful for the fact that it sneaks in unexpectedly sometimes, when I’m not even looking for it.

  5. I’ve been really struggling with that ice breaker on Zoom calls, especially because most people’s answers tend to involve family time and I live (and now work) alone. I know it’s important to look for joy, though, and I have two tubs of very beautiful dahlias on my balcony, and some healthy tomato plants, which I am really cherishing.

    1. Your dahlias and tomato plants sound lovely! I have a couple of tomato plants, and I love them not only for their fruits but also for the scent of their leaves. I give them a little squeeze whenever I’m in the garden!

  6. Living alone makes everything harder. My dog had to be euthanized in April, and I haven’t seen friends since February. I dread to think how much worse it would be without internet. But there is joy in my life. I have feeders in the backyard which draw a variety of birds, and I go to isolated places with my camera and take photos, which always makes me happy.

    1. I am glad to hear that you’re finding joy during these very dark times. I shudder to think about what a lockdown would’ve been like when I was a kid, when the internet didn’t exist.

  7. This is lovely. Within the past 18 months my sweet husband and sweet dog have both passed away, so there’s not much joy around here. Not looking for sympathy, just relating to the search for small bits of joy among chaos or grief or a pandemic or all three. Watching the wildlife in my yard is top of my list as well.

    1. Hi, Elizabeth. It’s so important to look for joy wherever we can, as difficult as that is right now. I am sorry for your losses. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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