In a normal year, I dread the chore of putting away Christmas decorations. Not only does it take a while, it also feels like we're packing up joy and shoving it into the storage closet to sit in the corner for the next 11 months.
But this time was different. Once the first few decorations were put away, I felt ... better. I wasn't happy the holidays were over, but I felt ready to clear the way for something new. Something better. I felt the magnetic pull toward a fresh start.
After a year cluttered with crisis and chaos, we all crave something clear and calm. So I put things away with more energy and anticipation than I usually do. Tom caught the fresh-start fever, too, and helped pack decorations into boxes, applying labels and then directing our teenagers to schlep them into the storage closet.
We played Motown music on the Alexa speaker as we worked. And as Tom and the kids did their parts to transform the house back into "normal mode," I wiped down countertops and vacuumed pleasingly straight lines into the living room carpet. I hoped our efforts would somehow help usher in the reset we all so desperately need.
When we were finally done, it felt like we, along with the house itself, had taken a big, cleansing breath. We're officially ready for 2021, having survived and cleaned up after a messy, mind-numbingly slow 2020.
The feeling of finishing that annual chore reminded me of how it felt to finish a puzzle the kids bought me for Christmas. I'd started it on Christmas Eve but didn't finish until several days later. It was a tough one, with wide patches of dark blue night sky. There were moments when I was working on it that I wondered why I'd ever hinted that I'd like a few puzzles as Christmas gifts. Why didn't I just ask for a kick in the teeth instead? It would've probably been quicker and less painful, I mused.
Often the tiny puzzle pieces seemed to fit -- but not quite right. Or I'd search for what felt like eternity for a piece I was sure would be easy to find only to be eluded by it over and over. It was just so frustrating, so hard.
But eventually -- with occasional assistance from whoever happened to be wandering through the kitchen -- the maddening puzzle started to come together. There were mistakes along the way that had to be fixed to get the pieces to finally lock into place, but it happened. And when it did, I felt like I'd run a mental marathon and had finally burst through the finish line tape.
I knew immediately I never wanted to do that particular puzzle again. So, I bought some puzzle glue to cement the pieces together and then slid it into a frame. Because it was a holiday-themed puzzle, we packed it away with the other decorations.
Next year, when it emerges from the storage closet, the kids will probably look at it and say, "Oh, hey! Look at this. It's the Christmas puzzle that almost broke Mom's brain last year!"
But for me, it's a symbol of 2020 and all the frustrations, wrong turns, disappointments, and weary waiting it brought with it.
Even though the calendar now reads 2021, the pandemic puzzle is certainly not done. Based on what we're hearing from doctors, we may be working on the toughest part of it now -- the dark gray storm cloud part of the picture. But for the first time in a long time -- with the bright light of vaccinations on the horizon -- I feel hopeful this will be the year we find the elusive pieces that finally put our disordered world back together.
When we do, I hope we glue this sucker together so we won't ever need to repeat it.
Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at [email protected] Her book is available on Amazon.