In more ways than one, 2020 was the exhale I needed. The crack in time that offered a chance to stop doing and simply be. The tower moment that brought real, deep meaning to things I thought I understood: like self-care or grief. And while this historic year took so much from many, if not all, of us, it did have its silver linings. In more ways than one, 2020 gave me, me. // NB – Trigger Warning: Death
2020: The Slow Brew That Became A Tornado
I started off 2020 slow, but optimistic. 2019 had been a trying year, although now that I think about it, I can barely remember why. The difficulties of the previous year pale in comparison to what 2020 brought. As I always do, I chose my word/phrase/goal for the year: to invest in meaningful relationships and ‘declutter’ / prune my life. Yeah, sounds quite esoteric, but that’s what found me while I went hermit with a social media break in January. Not hosting Sisterhood Matters 2020 was the other thing that cropped up – surprising, considering I had been excited about planning Circumspecte’s annual event since November 2019. Nevertheless, I went with my gut, focusing instead on strategy and Circumspecte’s digital services. Thank goodness, I did.
I had seen news reports of a “strange virus” in China, but didn’t think much of it until February when I started poring over news articles and scientific reports on what we now know as COVID-19. Fresh off the ‘Year of Return’ fervour, most Ghanaians were oblivious to what was brewing. Until mid-March, there was no official communication and little online discussion on the CoronaVirus in Ghana’s public sphere, except maybe on Twitter and from health professionals. In a matter of days, everything changed. Following what was happening abroad, I went full-on “DC snowcapolypse” (read, panic) mode: I made a list of essential items and went to the shopping mall to stock up. The plastic gloves I wore to carry the shopping basket might have felt weird, but it was standing before the empty shelves of alcohol-based hand sanitiser that gave me real pause. It’s funny how something so easily ignored can become essential at the drop of a hat. By the time the price on hand sanitisers had more than doubled in Ghana’s capital Accra, I had been self-isolating for at least a week. Through it all, I continued monitoring the news and sharing details on COVID-19 prevention tips through my social media channels. At the time, I joked that I was a week into the future, and hence could report back on what folks could expect.
"It was standing before the empty shelves of alcohol-based hand sanitiser that gave me real pause. It's funny how something so easily ignored can become essential at the drop of a hat." – @jabdulai #Circumspecte Click To Tweet
Like most things in life, the real impact of COVID-19 started out as more concept or myth than reality. That is, until it hit close to home. Finding out that my friend had succumbed to the virus was, needless to say, hard. I remember repeating, ‘no, no, no, not him’, when the news came through. We had been in communication before his demise and I had shared some COVID-19 travel information with him at his request. In a matter of seven days, we went from “Jemi, what’s the COVID-19 situation in Ghana?” to “I tested positive,” and finally: “The family is doing well. I myself feel terrible.” That’s the last I heard from him; he passed on three days later. Gone in a space of 10 days. My sister tells me I went through all the emotions in the 24 hours that followed, but what I felt the most was sadness, guilt, anger and helplessness. Guilt, because maybe I could have given him more information; anger because why him? Helplessness, because really, what could I do?
What could I do? At the tail end of that question was a life vest of sorts; something to anchor myself to even as I felt wave after wave of sadness wash over me in the days, weeks that followed. I latched on for dear life. I guess a part of me reasoned that helping provide useful, verified information to more people could help quell what, by then, was deemed a global pandemic. Later, my therapist would help me realise it was a coping mechanism. I was avoiding the full gamut of emotions which lay just beneath the surface, ready to spill out like a droplet of blood from a needle prick. Of course, I ignored her suggestion that I feel it all; opting instead to stay pre-occupied. That is, until Ramadan. Ramadan offered another anchor, as it always does. “Allah knows best,” is the common saying when some misfortune shows up. In the weeks that followed, I would tag on, “but does He? Really?”. Human questions and inclinations. By month’s end though, I had some semblance of acceptance. I found peace in the Quran verse 94:5-6: “With hardship comes ease”; a verse found in the chapter Ash-Sharh – “The Expansion”.
True to that initial whisper of a resolution for pruning and meaningful relationships, 2020 stripped away the distractions, while expanding my notions and understandings of who I am, how I relate with myself, the people around me, and the world at large. After a series of Circumspecte digital skills trainings and countless webinars, and while most people resumed post-lockdown life in our new normal, I finally gave myself pause. The fact that laughter can find me in the midst of angst is one demonstration of grace that always astounds me. I observed and danced between the expansion and stripping away happening all around me: in the simple, but profound moments with family and friends; the shaky but bold steps many of us have taken towards owning and/or transforming who we are; the many triumphs friends have shared through their timelines; the courageous calls for (a return to) humanity; the decisive actions of healthcare workers and (some) leaders around the world. The fact that, as Rupi Kaur puts it, many of us are still here, despite it all.
2020: The Silver Linings (And Lessons) To Take Forward
At some point during Ramadan, I decided to focus on finding the silver linings – the slivers of ease that are promised with each hardship – or to put it simply, to practice gratitude. To be quite honest, I would have gone half-mad otherwise. And so, as this our crazy year wraps up, I thought I would share some of my reflections and realisations throughout the year. The common thread between them all is that they are simple, yet essential tools and truths; many of which may come in handy moving forward. Why? Because something tells me we’ll look back on 2020 and appreciate it all the more.
- Let things go and be in flow: In case you missed the memo, 2020 was the year that turned “normalcy” on its head. With change ever in the offing, the only rational thing to do was to let go and let things flow. If you didn’t realise this in April, then you probably did by August when June came and went and COVID-19 was still here. Letting go may be scary, we may even panic, but we can adapt, re-center and ground ourselves. We’ve done it time and again. If all else fails, remember that despite all the near apocalyptic events of 2020 and prior, the earth still spins. There is more to it all than meets the eye.
- Rest is productive: And even if it is not or doesn’t seem to be, it is essential. The trajectory our modern world was on was simply unsustainable. This desire to always be on, on go, team no sleep, to achieve, be and do everything at once and so on. It’s one entrepreneurial school of thought I’ve never subscribed to and do not plan on. Pressing pause is part of our natural makeup – whether it is sleep, taking a nap or break from work, being in nature, indulging in our hobbies, sitting in silence, meditating or just deciding not to participate or give your energy to something or someone else. Whatever rest is for you, take the time to find and embrace it. NB: Productivity isn’t just restricted to work.
- You already have what you need: The alternate title for this point is coping mechanisms. Regardless of who we (believe) we are, we each have what we need the most to cope – and if we don’t, we have the capacity to learn or at the very least, to ask for help.
- Vulnerability is (or can be) empowering: One of the ironies of modern living is that we are more technologically connected than we have ever been, and yet, in so many important ways, still so isolated. 2020 turned the headlights onto this fact. Naked to the virus, each of us faced our vulnerability in varying degrees. So many of us assume that the people we come across – on our timeline or walking down the street – are doing well, and simply scroll on, when the reverse may be true. Vulnerability – or being open, baring your soul if you must – is what helps nurture connection. This year, more than ever, I have reminded myself that it is okay to ask for help and to invite another into a shared experience. As digital becomes more ingrained in our day-to-day, being conscientious about reaching out, being present and staying open to those who matter to us will be key, as will be nurturing our digital wellbeing. Take a moment to really ask someone (or yourself), how are you? Then pause to listen. And if someone asks you, have the courage to tell the truth. It could make all the difference. To those who held space for me when I needed it, thank you.
- The journey to knowing and accepting oneself is never-ending: This one was a real kicker for me personally, especially since it’s something I know. I woke up one day and realised that my ideas of who I was (becoming) were outmoded and/or no longer served me. We are always evolving and each of us has the opportunity to be many people in one lifetime. Recognising that gap between our personal transformations is essential, for without it, we live in angst. Trying to fit a round peg into a now square hole. Hence, the need to periodically self-review, reflect, declutter and prune one’s life, and to make sure we are staying true to the essence of who we are. Like most essential things, it does not happen easily. Be both unapologetic and gentle with it.
- Progress over perfection: In 2020, I had to start over more than once, with many things, fitness especially. There were days I just couldn’t find it within me to achieve a, b, or c – and yet it turned out okay. Looking back, I did end up checking off a whole lot on my to-do list for the year, including disappointing a few people. I even garnered a few wins to make this year – dare I say it – a good year. And yet, what stands out to me is that I succeeded at simply being me; being imperfect, pacing myself and moving the needle bit by bit, instead of all at once. In the end, 2020 was less about what I did or didn’t do, and more about who I am (becoming).
- Self-care is both light and shadow: I’ve been a big proponent of self-care since I discovered traditional hammams (spas) in Tunis in 2013, but until 2020 I had largely associated “self-care” with the things you do to make yourself feel good. The little moments you take to nurture yourself. That is still true, but also true is the fact that self-care is sometimes uncomfortable. It’s the tough love you dish out to yourself. Therapy. The less-than enjoyable emotions you sometimes have to sit with. The ‘dark night of the soul’ valleys you may sometimes have to painstakingly walk through. It is accepting and loving yourself and all your flaws – accepting every bit of yourself beyond the roles you ascribe to yourself or take on. Holding space for who you are at your essence. Recognising your vulnerabilities. It is the very hard, yet fulfilling work of self-acceptance and becoming.
- The simple things matter: At the heart of it all? The fact that the simple things matter. Whether it is family, food, meaningful moments spent with loved ones or alone, being out in the green earth, feeling the wind on your face, being able to take care of yourself or your loved ones – whatever you deem important to you – it all matters. The simple things are in essence, the essential things (surprise, surprise!). Counting one’s blessings, however small, makes a huge difference as does showing compassion every chance you get. If nothing at all, give thanks for this very breath you take and the fact that the Creator found you worthy. Alhamdulilahi.
I still have moments when I realise that my friend, and many others, did not make it to December 2020. I’m still achingly aware of how much has been stripped away this year. But in equal measure, I am hopeful that things will only get better. That everything is not in vain, and that just maybe, 2020 contributed to a universal understanding, an expansion, of who we are as the human race and the choices we have in deciding who we (each) become. May those who have gone before us find peace and may each of us always find what we need most for the journey ahead.
Got any reflections or lessons from 2020 to share? Leave a comment below.
Photo: OAB Photography. This article was initially published on Circumspecte.com.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.