Before We Move Forward, a Look Back at 2020



Am I the only one who really struggles to even come up with words to adequately describe the challenge, the horror, and the disruption this year has presented to us? I look back at pictures and posts from this time last year and I’m almost stunned by our collective naivete. How did we not know what was coming? How could we possibly believe that 2020 was going to be OUR year – our “perfect vision” come true?

And yet, we know that when we are challenged the most, we grow. This was not a sweeping year of achievements for me – or my family. In the workplace, our goal was mostly to remain steady, remaining thankful for work when so many struggled terribly. The only certificates we received were ironic ones that I printed on our home printer. But through growth, we did achieve.

Here are the biggest things we learned (or, in several cases, relearned) this year:

  1. We can’t control our circumstances, but we can control how we react to them. For the most part, I am reasonably proud of how we handled ourselves this year. We definitely had our days of staring blankly at the wall or the TV screen or social media, in shock about how quickly our lives were derailed. That’s a natural response to trauma and there is no shame in that. But after the shock, we did a good job of analyzing the situation and agreeing as a family about what was important and how we believed we should conduct ourselves. We were (mostly) kind to each other, and that may be our greatest achievement this year.
  2. We don’t need consumeristic distractions as much as we sometimes believe we do. Before the pandemic, I often felt “busy” on the weekend. Much of this busyness was because I was swinging into stores to check for sales and new items. The pandemic highlighted some of these bad habits and helped me to correct them (again).
  3. Taking the time to assess what we are doing is essential – even if we think everything is OK on the surface. The pandemic and resulting school closures in the spring helped our family to realize that, as happy as our teenagers seemed on the surface, traditional school was not working for them as well as we thought. Both expressed a desire to accelerate their high school education and to continue learning online. This was a dramatic shift for us, and it meant saying goodbye to things like two years of high school soccer and three years of high school band. But in listening to our kids and adjusting, we are realizing that they are even happier and more “themselves” than they were before. While this does not work for everyone, it works for us – and has allowed our daughter to finish high school 1.5 years early. One of our greatest joys of 2021 will be seeing her start college.
  4. Helping those most in need is always the best way forward. Because we had more time to talk as a family and were less distracted by things like consumerism, we were able to ramp up our efforts with our family effort to support people who are homeless or living in extreme poverty. We held several canned food drives, taking carloads of food to MADCAAP, an organization in Madison County that helps provide food and other supports to people who need it. We ramped up our efforts to distribute pizza, toiletries, sleeping bags and other items to people who are homeless. Somewhere along the way, people in our neighborhood and beyond started sending us items to use in our various efforts. This has been one of our greatest joys this year, and we are committed to continuing to honor this commitment in new ways in the coming year.
  5. Focusing on what we can give instead of get in relationships sustains us. At the start of 2020, I was feeling isolated – a little emotionally hollowed out, really. Since moving back to my home state five years ago, some relationships here have admittedly disappointed me. (This is a common experience, it seems.) This year – both before and during the pandemic – I focused on being open to connecting with others, asking, “What do they need and how can I be there for them?” I stopped worrying so much about recriprocation and also focused more on making new relationships, with zero expectations attached. In doing that, I have cultivated several new friendships that have sustained me this year. I am in a very different place now and feel more connected to my home state than ever – even with the social limitations of the pandemic.

What did you learn in 2020? How did the year change you? What lessons will you take with you into the new year?

Friend’s Financial Gift Challenges, Humbles, and Inspires

The notification on my phone made me stop talking, mid-sentence.

$500 had been added randomly to my Venmo account by a close friend who wanted to invest in the work of 55 and Love, the soon-to-be-nonprofit that my family is establishing to help provide needed resources to people who are homeless or living in extreme poverty in Central Mississippi and beyond.

Because I know this friend well and we often talk business together, I have a sense of how much money she is bringing in at work this year. I knew that the gift, while not bankrupting, was certainly generous – sacrificial. 2020 has not been a great year for most small business owners, including those in education.

The gift of my friend, Marina Gilmore, silenced me for several minutes. It took processing, somehow.

Then, I walked around the house, quietly telling each member of my family about her generosity.

“Wow!” my daughter said. “We really need to make sure we have a clear plan for how we want to spend that and when.”

“Should she have done that?” my son asked, brow furrowed. He sat quietly, his brown-green eyes searching my face for several seconds. “I mean, I love Marina. Does she need that money? It seems like she might need it?”

My husband, ever the caretaker of my female friends, expressed similar concerns. “She’s sure this is what she wants to do?”

After I adjusted to the news, I set about with intentionality. There was something about such a sacrificial gift that made me want to make sure I gave it the attention it deserved. It’s a feeling I have felt previously, when others also dug deep to donate.

We have talked as a family about wanting to establish 55 and Love as a nonprofit before the end of the year, but honestly, other pressing things have taken priority. I wasn’t so sure it would happen – or even begin to happen.

Not anymore.

Tomorrow, we are meeting with a friend who has established several nonprofit organizations. We will talk to him – and among ourselves – about exactly how we want to establish ourselves and about our ultimate vision for this group.

Then, we will set to work, establishing the nonprofit as economically as we can. It will be a renewed focus in the new year, regardless of the challenges of the pandemic and our own lives.

My beautiful, bright, generous friend also sent me a second gift – $300 to give to someone who I believe can use it. For some reason, I immediately knew I wanted to give it to a small business owner and classmate I know in Meridian, Mississippi.

She will use part of the money for her business, and part to get a graduation dress for her precious daughter, who is a senior this year and faces some unique challenges.

When I told my teenagers about this gift, which came rapid-fire after the first, they both paused.

“Wow,” my daughter said. “How does Marina know that we will do the right thing with the money? She really trusts us.”

And I think there is something very revealing in those words. There is something about a financial gift that is especially humbling – almost to the point of being mildly uncomfortable. It’s an expression of faith and trust, and I plan to continue working to honor and even extend it.

Because of the example Marina set, we also have been more intentional this week in our own giving, sending a few financial happies to people we know could use them.

If I’m honest, financial giving has never been a strength of mine. I’m far more willing to give my time or my talents than my money. On some level, this comes from a scarcity mentality, where I fear not having “enough” for the things we believe we need.

I’m going to do better in the new year. And whenever I think of the establishment of 55 and Love as a non-profit, I will think of its beautiful start, and the deep, abiding faith of my dear friend.

Thank you, Marina. You make me – and all of us – better.

20 Things I’m Thankful for in 2020

It’s been a wild year so far, and the next few weeks promise to continue be challenging. That’s why it feels even more important than ever to pause at Thanksgiving and consider blessings. Here, in no particular order, are things I’m thankful for today.

  1. The changing of the seasons. There is something soothing about the way no matter what, time passes, the leaves turn, and life goes on.
  2. Technology that allows us to continue connecting. I watched my church’s children’s choir perform this morning from their individual homes. They were able to be apart, but still lift their voices together. How awesome is that?
  3. Dogs. No matter what the current headlines are, my dogs can still be immediately overjoyed when I walk through the door.
  4. Schools. From Zoom to Canvas to Google Classrom to hybrid to face-to-face, educators have been rock stars this year. Never again can we say educators aren’t flexible and innovative.
  5. Scientists. We have not just one but several vaccines on the horizon. They give me great hope this year, as do additional treatments that have been developed to battle COVID. I can’t imagine a world without scientists.
  6. Artists, musicians and entertainers. Their talents in these strange times have managed to unite us and give us hope, while also making us laugh and cry.
  7. Non-profit organizations. Many non-profits are serving more people, with less money. I’m thankful for the way non-profit organizations are able to offer food, housing, Christmas gifts and other items to people in need.
  8. My church community. I’ve often had a tense relationship with my faith communities, feeling like I couldn’t truly be myself. I’m thankful for the way my current community encourages and inspires – and reminds me I’m not alone in my weirdness.
  9. Coffee. Every morning, I have a heaping cup of magic beans that help wake me up and inspire me to do good. How awesome is that?
  10. Children. Honestly, many of the adults in my life have been a smidge disappointing this year, especially when it comes to public health. But children? They have adjusted beautifully, wearing masks, social distancing, and still learning and loving with their friends.
  11. Democracy. The state of democracy around the globe has arguably seen better days, with so many countries now trending in the direction of authoritarianism. And yet, here in America we have seen that our systems are still intact and operating as they should.
  12. Clean water. We had a boil water notice in my community a few weeks ago. That will definitely make you stop taking safe drinking water for granted.
  13. The ability to connect. One of my themes for 2020 was connection – a word I obviously selected before realizing we were headed into a global pandemic, where we would actually celebrate distance. Before the pandemic, I found myself feeling the need to see others, having dinners and connecting for walks with a number of friends old and new. Happily, I found that my connections continued in lockdown. I will never take those connections for granted again.
  14. The ability to be of use. Every day of the shutdowns, I woke up and asked myself, “How can I be of use today?” Each and every day, there was a good answer to that question – whether it was reaching out to people several states over, or creating materials for my work, writing, sending cards, or listening intently to the needs of my teenagers.
  15. Opportunities to reassess. In the spring, as we listened to our teenagers more, we realized that while we thought their school environment was working, they were thrilled to be away from it. This got us thinking about alternative ways to educate. I’m thankful we listened and I’m thankful for options, even while still supporting our public school system and wishing them much success.
  16. Friends who support our efforts to help others. We intensified our commitment to 55 and Love, our mission to serve people who are homeless and otherwise in need, this year. It never occurred to me this would be an effort others would want to give to, but they have – and generously! It’s inspired us to do more and be more and we will forever be grateful. (Look for us to develop it into a non-profit in the coming months.)
  17. Family. I’ve taken a hard look at who family is and is not in the last few years, including as I have found and gotten to know some of my biological family. If I ever tried to map out my family tree, it would be an admittedly dysfunctional one. But it’s mine, and I’m thankful for all of it – biological and adopted.
  18. Difficult times. This year was not the first time I faced heartache and hardship. And while there have been plenty of times in the past that I have questioned the “why” of my experiences, I’ve been thankful this year that 2020 wasn’t my first forray into disappointment and even destruction. Without my previous experiences, I could never have helped my kids to navigate this season.
  19. The rituals of food. I got my eating (mostly) in order this year, shifting to a diet with an anti-inflammatory focus. And yet, despite giving up some of my “comfort foods” this year, sitting around the table as a family in the evenings has been extremely soothing. When this whole pandemic is over, I can’t wait to have more people around our table.
  20. New traditions. This was a year to re-examine everything and do what works best for us. This week, I did something that a year ago I railed against – putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. No one died – and I honestly just might leave them up until we all are vaccinated. If traditions don’t serve us, why do them?

What are YOU thankful for in 2020?