Frayed: An Elegy for 2020

Early in lockdown, my husband stocked up on some essentials, as well as some treats, via Instacart. For those of you who have used the service, you’re probably aware that the results can be…well…patchy. In addition to 3 pounds of sweet potatoes that was supposed to be 3 actual sweet potatoes, we received this box of oversized waffle cones that we set aside for later. A few weeks ago, desperate for an ice cream receptacle, we busted out the box. As I sat contemplating my cone, I took a careful look at the detailed photo gracing the entire back of the box:

What the actual heck is going on here?

No, your exhaustion-addled eyes are not fooling you. That is a salad. Served in a waffle cone. I can’t really think of a more fitting culinary metaphor for this dumpster fire of a year. It’s baffling and disgusting. It’s horrifying, yet banal. You can’t look away, hoping that if you look longer, it will somehow make sense. And yet, in spite of its utter nonsensicality, it exists, mocking and taunting all of us in all its unexpected wretchedness. The only way this food makes sense is if you can no longer taste or smell, which makes it a perfect option for anyone recovering from the plague whose presence has brought our lives to a standstill this terrible year.

COVID’s signature symptoms–loss of taste and smell–comprise a fitting malady, one that, for far too many, has robbed life of its flavor: both the everyday pleasures of gathering with friends and loved ones, as well as the grander delights of having a rudimentary faith in the government to care for its citizens, or at least pretend like it’s doing so.

The truth of so many things has been laid bare this year. The preciousness of so much that we once took for granted. The centuries-old systemic inequalities that are baked into the very foundation of this country, inescapable for all except for the obscenely wealthy (and White). The insane power of greed, corruption, and misinformation to turn us against each other, science, and the U.S. Post Office. The utter unfairness of it all.

It’s left me feeling like an aged Bilbo Baggins, kept artificially youthful by the ring of power, but beginning to feel the wear of time. He laments to the wizard Gandalf,

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I’m stretched. I’m frayed. My neck hurts from constantly craning to view my computer screen. My face hurts from alternately smiling gently in my Zoom sessions and grimacing through my children’s never-ending barrage of fighting, crying, complaints, whining, and demands for snacks. My kids and I are bored of gel pens and colored pencils and crayons and markers and tempera paint, making bath fizzies and lip balm and crayons and salt dough and slime and oobleck, baking pita and banana bread and cupcakes and crepes and cookies, face and nail painting, tea parties, walks in nature, unexpected gifts from our local buy nothing group, working puzzles (sticker and cardboard), playing board games, beading necklaces, midday baths accompanied by an entire can of shaving cream, and making random stuff out of sculpey. There’s a deep, deep tiredness behind my eyes, one that no amount of sleep feels like it will ever satiate. My heart is heavy with sadness and anger at the mounting death tolls, divisiveness, and utter desperation that have now become the stuff of daily headlines, and to which too many of us have become increasingly numb.

Yes, the vaccine has given me hope, as have the results of the presidential election, but it’s a bittersweet hope. The vaccine is literally the only way our country can get out of this mess, because we sure as heck aren’t going to do it by believing in science, wearing masks, paying folks to stay home, or generally looking out for one another. It’s an embarrassment so colossal–resulting in the loss of over 325,000 lives, 22 million jobs, and 100,000 small businesses as of this writing–that it’s hard to imagine feeling truly hopeful about humanity, and my family’s place in it, for a very long time.

And yet, I know we have so much to be grateful for, more than many. We are all alive and healthy. In spite of many of my family members and friends having caught this virus, none have been stricken badly, and none have died. Neither my husband nor I, nor anyone in my immediate circle, have lost our jobs or businesses. If anything, we’ve been busier than ever, although largely sans childcare, pivoting our various therapeutic and educational offerings online to support kids and families in various ways during the endless boredom and stress of lockdown. Although they are a bit stir-crazy, my children are young enough to be getting most of their needs met at home (but definitely not all, not by a long stretch). As parents of young children, we weren’t partaking in many of the activities of which lockdown has deprived us anyway (movies, dining out, bars), so we’re not missing those things so much.

It’s hard to know how to end a piece like this, just like it’s hard to know how to end this godforsaken year. The “2020 in Review” specials in the newspaper and seemingly every magazine to which I subscribe feel too raw, too painful to look at. “I don’t need to see that,” I tell my husband, “I was there. Couldn’t we get some puppies or dinosaurs or something instead?” Maybe it’s hard to say goodbye to 2020 and the pain it brought because the pain isn’t over yet – the virus has no idea what January 1 is, and although Dr. Fauci just recently offered hope that things might look normal as of next fall, we are certainly not through the worst of this roller coaster ride yet.

Maybe the only way to end this piece is how I started – with waffle cones. Take another look:

Upon closer inspection…

There at the bottom, right below the inexplicable salad in a waffle cone, is something that actually seems sort of ingenious and even, dare I say, tasty. Sweet and salty trail mix, perhaps? Now this doesn’t seem like a horrible idea. Even the fruit salad lurking in the background offers some cursory interest. These strange novelties sit side by side with the unspeakable.

So, too, have the unforgivable, inexcusable abominations of this year cozied right up to the unexpected joys and delights.

  • Of witnessing my younger daughter learn how to walk and talk, never missing more than a few moments’ worth of progress, hearing each new word learned.
  • Of watching my older daughter begin to learn how to spell, write, and read, one word at a time. Of bearing witness to her strong, sensitive, imaginative self as it experiences everything at 11.
  • Of getting a front row seat to the budding relationship forming between my two sweet daughters, their gradual, joyful, and often fraught negotiation of their shared existence.
  • Of learning–and having time–to roast a whole chicken and cook a proper Jewish brisket, the way my mother does.
  • Of getting to know everyone in my little family a little better, making memories and having (safe and masked) adventures in beautiful Southern California, for which I am incredibly grateful.

The worst is definitely not over, people. Yes, let’s take the needed sigh of relief that the calendrical end of this nightmarish year might offer, but remember that, in some ways, the nightmare is just getting started. Hold on for dear life to whatever joy you’ve got left, and please, please, please, if you’re reading this: stay home as much as you can, if you can. Wear a mask. Avoid gatherings. Do it for all of us.

And when it’s all over, let’s celebrate with waffle cones.


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Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track. Virtual visits now available!

Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!


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One thought on “Frayed: An Elegy for 2020

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  1. 😘. It is going to take time, of this I am certain, but we will conquer and thrive and oh, what stories the girls will have to tell their children and grandchildren!I remember another very scary time some 65 – 70 years ago.  No social media, a plus in many ways, when as children we spent the summer from noon through the rest of the day confined to the one air conditioned room in our home for fear of contracting a mysterious disease that was attacking the lives of children and young adults.  Kids dropped like flies the world over.  Victims were left paralyzed, living in “iron lungs” fighting for their lives.  Even when school started back up in the fall long naps, rest periods after lunch.  Then came the miracle- a cure in a sugar cube. And we survived and polio faded away with time – but living through it, I remember. Keep the faith kiddo – you are doing great, and this disease too be but a memory! I long to hug my kiddos and grand kiddos, to go to a movie theater or a live opera, to get dressed up and go out to eat – or just shake someone’s hand.  And I will, sooner rather than later! Your thoughts are beautiful-I ❤️ IMom

    Sent from AT&T Yahoo Mail for iPhone

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