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With Thanksgiving here and Christmas and Hanukkah on the way, we’re being told to stay separate from our extended families. At one point, this seemed like a jokey blessing.illustration by hanna barczyk

“We’re going on an awe walk,” I said to a friend, and to her credit she didn’t answer “Are you nuts?” or “I’m staying in to watch Love Island.” She just said “okay!” because frankly the options for passing the time are pretty limited these days.

We met in a ravine where I had formed many childhood memories. I explained the concept of an “awe walk,” which I’d read about it in The New York Times. A group of researchers found that, when seniors were told to observe and marvel at ordinary things on their walks, they reported an increase in positive feelings. Which, you may have noticed, are in short supply.

We began our walk. I pointed to a bridge that had once been the site of a well-known suicide. She pointed to a pond that was covered in a potentially toxic green algae. A stuffed toy angel lay face-down in the dirt of the path. In a box of garbage, Hello Kitty sat next to a comically huge wine glass.

“I’m not sure this is working,” I said. We passed a young man on a bench who offered to exchange jokes for cigarettes. We didn’t have any cigarettes, but he told us a joke anyway: Why did the policeman carry an umbrella? Because he was undercover.

“I think that inspired awe,” my friend said.

“Yup,” I said, “I’ll take it.”

I feel like we’re all grasping for any hope at this point – more so for people who have lost loved ones, or jobs, or homes. The World Health Organization says countries around the globe are suffering “pandemic fatigue,” posing dangers for mental and physical health (or, should I say, “even greater danger”). The initial thrill of watching your neighbours bang pots on their balconies got old fast. No one ever really liked Zoom, least of all for cocktail parties. There are only so many puzzles you can do before you turn into Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.

And now, with Thanksgiving here and Christmas and Hanukkah on the horizon, we’re being told to stay separate from our extended families. Once, this might have seemed like a jokey blessing. Phew! No family gatherings. It had become a badge of honour to pretend to loathe holiday dinners, or at least it was before the pandemic forced families apart. You may remember George Costanza in Seinfeld, boasting “I once told a woman I enjoyed spending time with my family.”

But now, all the things that once seemed like a drag have magically acquired the allure of the rarest precious metal. I would happily peel a hundred potatoes for the fiddly Hasselback gratin if it meant I could see my family. I would make separate, delicious meals for the vegans, the dairy-intolerant, the carbphobes, and that one weirdo who’s afraid of tomatoes. I would make cranberry sauce, even though it’s vile and resembles a pulsing, living heart. I would curate a playlist bound to make everyone happy. I would possibly sweep under the couch.

Perhaps there’s a familial equivalent of the “awe walk,” which is using this moment to remember all the things you actually adore about the family you can’t currently see (unless you’re among the rule-breaking scofflaws, in which case please stay away from the rest of us). There’s always somebody whose dad jokes cause the table to groan – but get retold over and over. There are the young folks who want to eat by themselves in the basement, after nicking wine bottles from the fridge. And always, there’s the person who makes the family join hands and list one thing that they’re grateful for, which makes everyone roll their eyes – at least until we all burst into tears.

The dad-joker, the kumbaya lady, the hungry college student who takes your last Tupperware home, crammed with pie and turkey together – I miss all of them. If we were able to join hands this year, I’d say: I’m grateful for all of you, and I can’t wait to see you in the flesh (though if someone tries to make me do this on Zoom, I won’t answer for the consequences). It is only when the theoretical became reality that we understand the words of that seer, Joni Mitchell: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Because so much is gone. People, jobs, homes, health. Beyond that, the little comforts of routine and ritual. The simple pleasure of holding a new grandchild or your sister’s hand. Gathering together to admire an engagement ring or a graduation photo. I don’t know about you, but I’m so pandemic-fatigued that I’m tired of searching for a silver lining. Which is why I like the concept of the awe walk – it’s a gratitude journal for people too lazy to write things down.

My awe walk with my friend ended up in a playground near my childhood home. The sign told us that only children aged 5 to 12 were allowed on the equipment, but having spent the last seven months obeying rules we decided to be rebels and took two swings and waited for the police to show up. We wondered why there were no playgrounds for middle-aged people and then decided that there were, and they were called casinos.

Without even talking about it, we took swings several feet apart. Then we swung for a long time, trying to focus on this moment of happiness and not the lonely black tunnel of winter ahead. I have to say, it was pretty awesome.

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