An Open Letter to 2021

The year 2021 written into the sand on a beach in the foreground with a wave approaching in the background.

Dear 2021,

My letter to 2020 ended on a hopeful note. However, what little hope I had going into the new year was spent on the page. I have little joy in reporting how miserable I felt throughout, 2021. It’s laughable now looking back at my full list of intentions for the year because so few things were accomplished.

There are some intentions on the list I was able to accomplish, for instance, staying smoke-free. To be completely honest though, that’s a small quick win. All I needed to do was nothing. Not go to the store, not spend money on poison. Year three as a non-smoker was easy.

The other accomplished intentions were also small. Gutters got installed on the house. I renewed a passport without the means to or destination for travel. Finally, after 17+ years, visited my parent’s cabin. Oh, and I didn’t catch Covid-19 and/or die.

Another year at home, 2021, felt like more of the same we saw in 2020. We remained inside and each new day felt a lot like the old one before. Now we’re here and as much as we want 2022 to be different, I’m not sure different is where we’re at yet. After all, the year’s most read story in the New York Times: There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. Ugh. Not a great recap on the year.

That’s not to say there weren’t changes, 2021.

In early January we watched in horror as an insurrection, led by Trump-supporters, unfolded at the US Capitol. That was new and terrifying. Of course that was only the first week of 2021. There were a lot of other things that happened. Like a week later… President Donald Trump was impeached. That was new too, because he’s the only US president to be impeached twice. Yet he wasn’t removed from office…

Which brings me back to why it was difficult to be hopeful, 2021. The pandemic’s death toll is above 5.5 million. Our collective mental health is in critical condition. Our planet is dying. Lies are relabeled as “misinformation” and the truth is “fake news.” Fear, isolation, suspicion, depression, anxiety and a host of others continue to grow in this shitty fertile soil widening already gaping divisions…

Before I left China some 6+ years ago, a student gave me a postcard with this simple expression: “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” While I didn’t know it until I searched for attribution this week, the quote comes from author and St. Paul native Melody Beattie.

(While it feels silly I had to go to China to learn what someone from my adopted hometown wrote, I’m grateful to know it now.)

The postcard continues to hang on the refrigerator. A little reminder to meditate upon. This year, 2021, I’ve oscillated between feeling like I am enough and not enough.

But at the end of things, I am grateful to be here. To breathe in and out, to gesticulate and mosey, to think and feel and be. It’s that simple: I’m grateful. Because it could be a lot worse…

I’m not on a ventilator. I’m not in the hospital or ICU. I did the laundry today. Despite being confined to the house, life is seemingly moving forward stitched together piece by piece despite the eerie feeling that it’s also standing still.

I’m still here. Some of us, like our friend/neighbor Jason Sowards, weren’t so lucky.

On July 5, Jason was returning home from a long 4th of July weekend in Wisconsin on his motorcycle. At 10:12PM his motorcycle clipped a car being towed — without lights — on the interstate. Jason was thrown from the bike and killed instantly.

Twenty minutes later I passed the scene of the accident. I was returning from a solitary poetry picnic at Kinnickinnic State Park where Alex Dimitrov’s Love and Other Poems was the main course. The second to last poem in the collection is “Notes For My Funeral.”

I met Jason in the fall of 2016. We were housemates starting new chapters. I was recently divorced. He was closing Harriet Brewing, the pioneering taproom, which led the way for every brewery and brewer in the city.

At the time I remember being so taken aback by his fire and intensity. His passion and excitement and zest for all the things the living do. He was the embodiment of the poem’s last line: “I loved being alive.”

When I passed the scene I didn’t know the motorcycle on the ground belonged to Jason. The last time I saw his bike, April 2021, it was disassembled in our garage. He was a tinkerer, too.

In the far left lane on the interstate, the line of cars slowed to squeeze by the accident. Looking past the flashing emergency lights I saw the faces of the first responders.

Then I knew what they knew. The crash was fatal.

While I didn’t know who was involved in the accident then, I drove home in tears. I can’t explain how palpable that pain was because I didn’t understand it then and I don’t now. I ached for the victim and their family and their life.

The next morning Jason’s partner and my adopted sister, Christi, informed me Jason was killed.

Death is powerful. Death turns the whole world upside down. Everything stops for death. In the process it’s difficult to not become consumed by the pain of living in a world without the person you’re missing.

As such, July was a blur. All we could do was show up and cry together before driving to Ohio for the funeral. When we returned home we spent a week packing Jason’s life into boxes, moving his possessions, and selling the last of his brewing equipment.

Christi and I loaded Jason’s brewing equipment into a buyer’s box truck. Beakers, tubing, carboys… Everything he used to build his business and in the process start a craft brew craze… We tried to tell Jason’s story to the buyer, but every word we worked to share got caught by the lump in our throats. As the buyer drove away we were again confronted by a reality without Jason. More tears came. When I started the car to drive home, the radio played this ditty. It felt like a direct message from Jason. Tears of sadness replaced by tears of love and appreciation…

When you know and love a person, saying goodbye is difficult. Especially if their death is unexpected. The problem with knowing and loving many people is that the more you love, the more you lose.

On Christmas day, our family gathered at my brother’s house for a meal and to exchange gifts. Dad brought along a few pounds of sunfish our family friend, Eugene, caught and filleted for us. We breaded and fried Eugene’s fish and they were excellent. Not only because of the large meaty portions, but Eugene’s fillet skills as well…

But two days later came the final kick in the pants, 2021, when our friend Eugene Grimm died. His family has been part of ours since before I was born. From camping trips and snowmobiling excursions to concerts, and anniversaries, we have many memories together. In fact, the first funeral I remember attending was for Eugene’s father, Norman. Our stories are intertwined.

But if you asked Eugene how he was, a reassuring smile returned, “Finer than frog’s hair.” For a long while I thought it was just Eugene’s way of being a smartass. As I’ve grown older, I can finally see that he embodied and modeled the message for everyone. I want to carry that forward into 2022.

Because while a lot of time was spent working (and not) on the house, in the short 2.5 years I’ve owned the joint I’ve learned multitudes. As a result: I have less money, my patience is shot, the leaks keep dripping, the corners aren’t square, the floor isn’t perfect, but I’m learning how to make what was better. Slow going, but better.

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the forest through all these trees of progress. That’s when the negative self-talk starts taking my mental health down dark paths where self-care is too afraid to follow. Yes, the pandemic is lasting longer than anticipated, but in 2022 it can no longer be an excuse to not take care of oneself.

If anything, 2021, you reminded me to be gentle with myself. Looking back, it’s been a tough year for all of us, but there were still moments of growth. Choosing to celebrate those small successes offers just a small glimmer of light to shine through this darkness reminding me being “finer than frog’s hair” isn’t just a silly phrase, but an entire mentality to shape and change me.

As you’ll see below in the 1 Second Everyday video diary, that’s the feeling I end 2021 with and crusade in 2022: Maybe everything isn’t hopeless bullshit.

Much love to you, yours, and the struggle to keep on keepin’ on. Let’s connect again a year from now and see how things landed.

1 Second Everyday Video Diary

Enjoy this snapshot of 2021 one second at a time.

Noted Happenings & Intentions Met in 2021

  • Participated in a ‘fun run’/bet with family
  • Started a podcast, Thoughts Ahoy, with my friend Everett and produced 1 entire episode (Ep 2 coming soon!)
  • Volunteered at the Morels & Memories Alzheimer’s Fundraiser
  • Appeared as a model for Sportsman’s Guide
  • BFF and I won first night of back-in-person trivia
  • Worked a LOT on the house
  • Received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine
  • Went to brunch at least three times
  • Portrayed a Russian General in an episode of a History Channel program
  • Volunteered as a precinct election judge in 2021 municipal election and appeared as “Michael Vense” on the University of St. Thomas news channel
  • Walked 261 miles playing 127 rounds of disc golf and in the process scored an ace and reduced the average score from 9.53+/par (2020) to 6.43+/par (2021)
  • Participated in a disc golf tournament in February during a blizzard
  • Helped free a random motorist stuck in the snow during the first epic snowfall the Twin Cities received in 2021
  • Bid adieu to coworkers as they resigned
  • Helped friends move westward
  • The day job company sold and spun colleagues in multiple directions
  • Haven’t caught Covid-19

What were your intentions in 2021? How’d you do?

And what are you most looking forward to accomplishing in 2022?