End of Year Review 2020

I, like many others, have lived a few different lives this year. By necessity, by surprise, through the persistent drift of time over new strange currents of grief. I think if I’d skipped this exercise of reflecting over the past year, trying to outline its shape as I have done for the 9 years past, no one would have faulted me for it, no one would have been surprised. There was room in me to allow it, to let one (more) thing slip by in a year of too much.

I don’t know what I’ll end up with at the end of this review, but I know I want to try writing it anyway. This year has been too remarkable to go by unremarked, even as I have been drained and filled, drained and filled, over and over again in the relentless spin cycles of 2020. So here we are. I am not here to answer the usual questions of years past. I want to try and tell the story – or the stories – of this year for myself. To see if I can. 

I find myself thinking a lot of the Syar of December 2019. Finally serving the final dregs of my notice at a difficult job I’d spent a year struggling with, a job that eroded my mental health and concerned my loved ones. Buoyant at the sight of the finish line fast approaching and then swiftly being put behind me. I cooked a big meal for about a dozen people that helped hold the troubles of that year with and for me, as a thank you. I observed a solar eclipse in the garden while holding and being held by my partner of three years. I wrote letters to connections long silent to sever the last energetic cords between us, and burned the letters in a pot in my back yard. I wondered what it would be like to be unemployed in 2020, to spend time on my creative pursuits before I had to get back to working, what working might even look like. I wanted to spend time on a long-running, long-dormant project on my family history, on memories, on stories of growing up and growing through death and loss from my biological family.

In February of 2020, my country’s government is…I hesitate to use the word, but I don’t think overthrown is overstating it. It’s a bloodless coup and the prime minister, the cabinet, the ruling coalition is replaced by the deputy prime minister and his cohort. I start interviewing my father about his childhood, about fatherhood, about the early days of his relationship with my mother. 

In March of 2020, the day after the WHO declares COVID-19 a global pandemic, my partner and I end our relationship of three years, after a quiet and core-rattling conversation and days of deliberation. A lot of things end on that day. They do not continue, they live in a story where the year is two and a half months and no more. Three years, three months, twenty days and no more.

And yet other things continue.

Malaysia implements a Movement Control Order (MCO) that sees the country grinding to a halt to “flatten the curve” of the virus. My now-ex partner moves out of the house we’ve lived in together for a bit more than two years. Our temporary new housemate settles in for a slightly less temporary stay, as borders close and flights become scarce. I stop my interviews with my father. 

Through April and May, I sew, I bake, I attend therapy, I try new things like an energy work session with a dear friend, like life coaching with a stranger I spot through a mutual friend’s social media feed. I Skype with my sister and my best friend, I video call people on various platforms, I do a Zoom pub quiz for a friend’s birthday, I work little jobs and get paid in little amounts. I steadily spend a lot of my savings, and new money doesn’t feel real. It certainly doesn’t make any kind of dent, but I’m grateful. I have more than so many other people. I cry. I cry a lot, and I feel very alone. I grieve my relationship, and my ex-partner, and the futures we dreamed and didn’t tell each other about. I think I’m doing better. I carry hope.

In June, I get some renewed force. In my notes I write that I emerge from a funk – I barely remember May now, but I guess it was bad. I put out a notice that I am available for work, and I get some promising leads. I do a bit of data entry work for the website of one of my favourite artists, I get asked to facilitate a fully virtual camp on online gender based violence. Malaysia’s MCO ends, replaced by either a recovery MCO or a conditional MCO or both it’s hard to keep those straight. We are more free to move. The curve is much flatter, our cases go down to low double digits a day, the days between deaths lengthening. I remember feeling smug, triumphant, relieved.

One of the first things I do is see my ex-partner. In the preceding months, we had agreed to take space but still keep in touch; a message every now and again, every few weeks, to check in. Experiencing the physicality of our two bodies being in the same space after that quiet time, that distance, was an aching exhale. We met in a McDonalds because sitting down to chat in other cafes had become more of a production. I carried fragile hope for the future of our connection, whatever the new shape.

A beach photo with me in the lower third of the photo lying on my stomach on the sand, propped on my elbows to read a book. Behind me is the calm turquoise blue ocean, a small sliver of green of the opposing island on the horison to the left, and the light blue sky filled with flat white clouds filling up the rest of the background.
thank you nez for this picture of me in perhentian <3

I go to the beach with my best friend. My glasses break. I go to an island with my housemates, by car and by boat. My phone breaks. I slather myself in sunscreen and swim in the clear blue sea every day, bake in the sun on the hot powdery sand. I kayak in the sea and it goes better than 2018. I cry amongst the big rocks as I watch the waves lap at the sand, missing my ex-partner. I write bad sentimental poetry about heartbreak and yearning on my phone right before it broke. My tan deepens, I cut my foot on coral, I see sting rays and a giant monitor lizard and white-goggled monkeys. I feel incredibly lucky, incredibly privileged. When it comes time to go home, I go with the feeling like I’d always have enough. I buy a new phone, new glasses, and I interview for a full time job. 

In July, I read tarot for other people. I work with my co-brain to facilitate a completely virtual camp, our first. We fall in love with Miro. We have a lot of fun, a lot of struggles, a lot of Zoom calls. We collaborate with an ace team of organisers, tech support and facilitators, we learn and share a lot, we meet a lot of great people. Each good thing of that experience still glitters like diamonds in the frenzy of this year. 

Our temporary new housemate moves out, moves countries. I see my ex-partner a second time after the break-up, I see their new apartment. Saying goodbye is fraught. Again. An old friend gets married half a world away — the world continues, our lives continue. I get offered the full time job at a local women’s rights organisation. I consider my previous bad experience with a full time job, with a larger, more corporate organisation. It seems like there could be more money than there is, but I’d been earning nothing for more than half the year so any money was more money. I take it. 

I gear up for August, I want to honour my favourite month of the year. I read more tarot for more people. I plan a Zoom call for my birthday with as many of my friends as possible from all over the world — there are too many time zones so we do two calls. I dress up and take a hundred selfies, I make my friends do a quiz about me, a bingo card about me, they say beautiful things and I cry with happiness. It’s a joy to see all their faces together on a screen, the togetherness a dream come true for me even if it’s a facsimile of the physical, which seems more real, more coveted. After midnight on the 9th, after I hang up with my two best friends who stay back after the big call, I get undressed and collapse into sobs at the thought of celebrating my birthday without my ex-partner, for the first time in more than three years. It feels impossible to feel so sad after feeling so happy, but it happens anyway. 

Photo of the screen of a black PC laptop, featuring a Zoom screen with a 5 x 5 mosaic of people's smiling faces (most cameras were on in the call), the chat box open on the right. In the background on the left is a simple silver vase holding small peach coloured flowers.
thank you victoria for this picture of my bday zoom!

I have dinner with my best friends on my actual birthday and I tell them, I think it’s time for me to move out and set up my own place somewhere, whatever’s available within my means. I don’t quite want to leave this home we four tried to build together but I also really want to. The house has too many memories, and I’m hungry to make new ones on my own. 

I start at my new job the day after I turn 32. In less than two weeks, our team doubles, half of us new recruits. In less than two weeks we are running an in-person workshop. It feels surreal to be in a room with about 20 other people after months of being at home. It feels surreal to work a new job. It’s busy and a blur. I see my ex-partner for a third time, for desserts at a place we liked to go to, in the before times. We share plates. We gossip together and laugh. We go to another place after the first place, same as last time. I wonder at what’s shifted and not, what feels the same even when I know it isn’t, it can’t be the same. I wonder what it means, what I’m feeling. New realisations occur to me out of time. Things that feel late, like a misplaced parcel arriving in my mailbox after being given up for lost, but I know they are things that could not have come to me without all the things between now and March, when things ended and things began. 

September is terrible and stressful, so hectic and fast paced and packed. I get to know my team. The endless stream of work means we don’t have much of a choice, but thankfully we like each other. It’s been a very very long time since I’ve felt part of an actual team for longer than a temporary freelance gig. We travel (locally) for work, which already feels now — where I am in December 2020 — like an impossibility. I sleep in beds that are not mine and miss home. We manage a day trip to an island — ANOTHER island, more of the sea, the sun, the sand. I feel like a glutton. The nine of us hold hands in a circle in the ocean in a hard-won empty patch of sand past the pointy rocks, and we laugh at ourselves.

We get a new housemate. I read more tarot for more people. 

A view of the back of me (sleeveless white top, loose black pants, black and grey backpack, face mask slightly visible as my face is turned to the right) as I walk on a wooden jetty towards a sandy beach lined with palm trees, a dark green hump of a mountain in the background with the blue sky behind it, a wisp of white clouds just smearing the right side. On either side of the weathered jetty is turquoise water darkened by rocks
thank you hannah for this picture of me at pulau babi besar aka big pig island

Amidst all this I tell my ex-partner the things I have now realised I want for myself and for us, the things that suddenly make a second try, a second chance, feel like they’re things to reach for. I tell my close friends I want to put it all on the table, to not be scared or hold back like I didn’t know I was before. It’s a lot for my ex to process. We talk and talk and look at each other, and talk, and hold hands, and say goodbye with sad, lingering hugs. I have to remind myself every day that my heart is broken, not because I am okay, but because my body hurts while my minds tries not to hurt, and I have to broker peace between them. Remind myself I am not functioning normally because nothing is normal, because things are broken. My ex-partner asks for more time to think things through. I feel brave, I despair, I hope. 

By early October our numbers spike back up in Malaysia. A local election in and an outbreak in a prison in Sabah pushes the number of cases and death higher than we’ve ever seen, and the fleeting feeling of triumph is completely erased. Some of my colleagues and I see each other for the last time on the last day of an in-person workshop — a tense time in a too small space with too many people — before our office shuts down. A week later, the country re-implements CMCO. I cook, I sew, I look for a new therapist to help me work through my childhood experiences of loss. I wait, I cry, and I dream of a future of trying again, building something better and stronger, more honest. Not being alone. My hope in 2020 is a wild, wild weed. 

I can’t believe we’re getting closer to now. There are details that feel too close still to sketch out but they unspool as I touch through them, unfolding like petals blooming. 

November at work is for everything we postpone in October aka it’s a hot fucking mess. Nothing is certain, and everyone scrambles. There are funders and deliverables to answer to, from proposals made in a time where no one could imagine what we’d be dealing with now. Our cat Sandy has trouble eating and we send him to the vet — blood tests, X-rays. They come back seemingly fine, they tell us maybe it’s his jaw — the one that got broken the first time he ever left the house, that has rehealed but maybe not quite set the way it should. We make our usual jokes about his bad luck, his perpetually sad face and pitiful meows. We’re given medication to give him for a week. 

I read more tarot for more people. I hear from my ex-partner right before my first one for the month, the waiting and the thinking through seemingly reaching its end. Renewed grief arrives on my doorstep like a thief in the night. 

Everything crawls too slow, and the brokenness feels sharper and softer both, the sadness too much to bear. I ask for silence and time. I do not know how to stay connected to them while I tear down the hope of the past months, brick by brick, with the aim that I can emerge less haunted by what I desired between us. I do not regret my gamble, but the loss is another deep cut in a year of battles.

A week goes by and Sandy is still not eating, despite a quick surge in appetite after the first day on meds. Another vet visit, another blood test, and a new diagnosis. Sandy has an incurable disease and is dying. I rage and fight with my new therapist, who is a man and I did not ask for man and yet here he is, telling me about myself in ways that prickle and bristle, the trust between us so tentative and fragile yet, tenuous from week to week. The pain of 24 years ago, of the biggest loss of my life, settles in next to me like it’s just popped out to the shops. I remember, for the millionth time, that grief is never ever linear.

I am reminded, by this man, that it was not humanly possible for a child my age to hold and bear everything that happened, the enormity of losing my mother, the impossibility of making sense of it at that age, and I should never have been expected to. I nod like the adult I am now: of course, of course, and my heart rattles like an animal against the bars of a cage. Really? Then how did I bear it? How did I get here having borne something I couldn’t have, shouldn’t have borne?

The routines fill me with despair — the different trials with wet food, raw food, cooked food, soaked kibble, lactose free milk, tube treats, twice daily attempts to force enough food in him so he doesn’t waste away, so we can give him his medicine. I am bitter and full of resentment that I am going through this, all of this, as I feel as alone as I’ve ever felt this whole god forsaken year. I look at myself from the outside attempting to hand feed raw chicken mince to my dying, sad, soft cat, all the hope I’d held in the past two months of waiting at the front of this new path for better, stronger, more honest feeling like a cruel joke. 

I remember that once upon a time, when we were still together, I used to tell my ex-partner that forever is an impossible standard, a word I wouldn’t use because relationships end, and it was on this rejection of forever and the impossible that I would make my choices to navigate what was between us. What did I fucking know then, I wonder, as I contemplate clawing my goddamn heart out of my goddamn chest, absolutely steeped in rejection and regret, my eyes suddenly clear enough to see the fear I tried to hide from even myself. I am mad at myself and what I see as my past mistakes, the things I missed and didn’t know, the things I didn’t say or didn’t do, I am full of rage at how everyone else seems fine, how everyone that isn’t me gets to have everything I don’t get to have, and everything feels

u n b e a r a b l e. 

I make focaccia. I attend an online session on exploring “authentic body movement” and shake and twist and shimmy and writhe alone in my room, my body my dance partner, something else moving my limbs. In the midst of all this!!! I try to write a story, the longest most involved story I’ve ever written, every day, in the hopes of getting close to 50,000 words. I sacrifice Twitter and my newsletter as a pledge of commitment to this goal, and I actually do it every day up until that last week of November, a source of pride, a form of delusion. Being off Twitter feels great, as it always does.

Two weeks after the diagnosis, three after the first vet visit and the text from my ex, Sandy dies on our couch, two of us witnesses for his final spasms and breaths. It’s devastating, and it’s a relief. We spent the day with a knowing. We told each other we were worried he would not last the night to the morning when we would pick up morphine for his pain. My housemate had just hauled her pillows and blanket to the living room to sleep with him. The others come just a bit too late to see him before he’s gone, but we head down the road to bury him together in a patch of land by the side of our road, with the help of a kind neighborhood guard who pitches in with the digging, even when our shitty shovel bends out of shape. Our last look at him was his soft, orange body tucked into the dirt, before we all move the soil over to cover him, with the shovel, with our hands. 

Our ginger cat Sandy lying on his side on a white towel on a white tile floor, a floor cushion behind him. He has his chin rested on the towel, and he looks slightly sleepy. This is my last photo of him before he died

When we were finally all four with Sandy’s body, my ex-partner — too much to describe with that label, too much to give away with other words — and I shared a long, tight embrace at the front door. They sat on the big cushion I had placed at the foot of the couch just in case Sandy rolled over or fell, and I sat next to them, itching to be closer and also thinking, both of us looking at the still body of our ginger boy, that there will always be things bigger than our relationship, this current distance, this pain, my pain. We will always be part of a larger history and story. We can sit together as part of that larger story, even if we are not together, even if time takes us apart, even if we take ourselves apart from the other. In that moment it felt good to hold that thought, that feeling. 

This year I try not to hold myself to any feelings I feel beyond the moment of feeling them. I try to become a terminal, a thoroughfare. I am just a place for them to sit a while and pass through. I allow that no feeling is a permanent inhabitant, not even the good ones you’d like to stay with you. 

The very next day I post about Sandy on Instagram, a memorial and the acknowledgement of a full stop, and a request for love, which I receive in spades. I cry at every message. I cry thinking of him alone down the road, away from us. I clean the house a couple days after. I rinse the litter box with bleach. I wash the towels he died on and hang them to dry.

I start December desperate for the month to be over, for the year to be over. I am desperate for the meaning found in symbolism. Our second new housemate gets a job out of the country, moves out. Work is easy at first, automatic almost, and then relentlessly demanding and seemingly endless. Contemplating work in the continuing uncertainty feels futile but we’re asked to keep doing it, and dutifully, we all do. My team and I try. We build sandcastles and keep an eye on the tideline, on the shifting goalposts. We snort at ourselves as we carve intricate details into the sand as if we want these creations to last. We do. 

The sadness shifts, as it has been shifting — constant and restless — since the start of the year when everything ended and began. I am able to think about and see the future in a different way, I am able to think about and see the past in a slightly different way. That can always seesaw; it often does. I am still heartbroken, and I have to remind myself of that less. It feels perfectly reasonable and expected that I would be heartbroken still in a year’s time, although I leave space for the possibility that it might feel different. I still feel alone but that aloneness doesn’t feel as strikingly hard, and every chance I get I try and get better at asking for what I need and at receiving from others. 

To get through December, I make a list of things I want to do to call this year’s journey to a close, to do it in a way that does not rely on any notion of a clean slate or fresh start, more so focusing on what I need to set down to make more space for more uncertainty, more mystery, more possibility. In previous versions I would list the things I’ve done, the things I faced, actions and acts, and tallies of aspirations versus realities. All the different things I’ve done in this hodgepodge year, alone and not alone, glitter along the skin of this year like scales. But the story of that skin matters less to me than the story of who lived under it. The story of everyone I’ve been this year, the story of who I am at this part of the walked path. 

Last year I ended my review with this sentence: “I do not think of it as a start (although it might well be), but a continuation”. I look back at the Syar of December 2019, and she sees a lot of possibilities but she doesn’t see me. She couldn’t have. She might have been scared if she could see, and her unedited wild hope feels precious. I look forward to December 2021, and the idea that I cannot imagine the Syar of that time, where she will be, who she will be, what she will want, opens a space inside me that didn’t feel present before — a curiosity at the possibilities contained in the unknown. Anything can happen, and many things will happen. 

So here we are at the end again, at the beginning again. Here is what I will set down to mark things, to remember, to move forth: I am at the mercy of this world, the others in it, our obligations to one another as kin, to nature and how it cannot be controlled, to higher powers or a magnificent absence or both. I am at the mercy of my own desires, which I am working on allowing myself to want in full, moment to moment. I am at the mercy of my own power and resilience, which will help carry me through the person I was, I am, I want to be, I will be, through the life I live, the life I want, the life I dream into being, and all the challenges and surprises that life will contain.

I hope I’ll see you in a year, wherever we are, so we can do this all over again. Take care, my friends.

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