For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction. – Cynthia Occelli
2020, am I right? There’s bound to be endless words shared around this time trying to expound upon the ways in which our lives and our worlds were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as several other historic and seismic events of the year.
My own person timeline is a little different. The ground beneath my feet gave out in the summer of 2018, and it hasn’t really felt steady since.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The first three months of 2020, I started to feel like I was finally, precariously putting the pieces of my life back together, Jenga-style. I chose to cope with the grief over my mom’s death by throwing myself head-first into my work, rebelling against the feeling of being trapped I’d experienced for the past year by jumping enthusiastically back onto the road, and barreling with gusto into a new relationship.
I spent January running a retreat in the Dominican Republic, the first of eight Wander Women Retreats my brand new retreats manager hire and I had planned for the year. In February, I did a whirlwind tour of the US visiting friends and family in New York, Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania before flying to Israel to be with my new love.
Finally, I was on to Thailand for a long-awaited aerial yoga teacher training, the birth of one of my best friends’ babies (being in the delivery room — wow!), and another incredible retreat.
For a while, in Thailand, we felt like COVID fallout was something happening elsewhere. On our tiny little island, we were fine, we were safe, we were protected. It was during what I had no idea at the time would be my final retreat of 2020 that the intensity of the global situation finally begun reaching Koh Tao.
During the day, I put mind, body and soul into creating the most calming, positivity-manifesting experience possible for my girls. At night, I panic-scrolled through the news, checked in with our guests’ embassies, obsessively monitored their flights, and sometimes broke down and wept with the weight of the responsibility I felt to get these women home safely. To my enormous gratitude, they all did, but as March drew to a close, I watched those carefully placed Jenga pieces of my life crash down — and wasn’t sure where I should land.
Early in the lockdown, I had tried in vain to return to Israel, where I’d just left my boyfriend. Their borders were some of the first in the world to shut down, and we quickly tried to file the exception paperwork for me to re-enter after my retreat wrapped. The Israeli woman working in the Bangkok embassy was exceptionally kind to me, considering I was not an Israeli citizen, and when she called to tell me that the paperwork I’d been assembling was no longer relevant, she asked me gently, “can I ask you, do you have anywhere else to go?”
I was shuffling in the surf at the time, and stopped in my tracks. Did I?
When I tried to get my very new partner to Thailand to spend the lockdown with me, he told me, “I need to be with my family.” And it was in that moment that I had a realization I’d never quite had before, after a decade of always keeping one foot out the door of every commitment I’d ever made: I wanted to be someone’s family, the person they couldn’t live without when the world shut down.
In April and in May, with every creeping new lockdown restriction in Thailand, I shuddered with traumatic memories of a year I spent as a caretaker for my mom, unable to see friends, to move freely, and to enjoy basic freedoms. Would I ever have control over my life again?
Times turned dark: cancelled work, closed borders, panic over my decision over where to be, fear over the future of my business, months of separation from and strain with my partner, and the deeply lonely, empty feeling of being told “go home” when you don’t have one; of realizing that while everyone locked down with those they loved most in the world, you were very much alone.
It made the loss of my mom tangible in a way it hadn’t been before.
The seed, which had been coming undone since summer of 2018, cracked open a little deeper.
With enormous uncertainty and almost indescribable anxiety, I chose to stay in Thailand. I was hearing horror stories of those stuck in transit countries trying to get home as the world slammed shut around them, and I couldn’t fathom getting trapped in the unfamiliar UAE or Oman, the layover countries I would need to pass through to get back to the US. So I stayed, and sometimes, when the US embassy sent out its weekly email listing the dwindling number of flights back to the states and warning us to return or prepare to stay abroad “indefinitely,” my friend Janine and I would hug each other and cry and voice our deepest fear that we could truly become stranded. Could it be years before we would see our families again?
Soon I was living under a strict curfew, driving by the watchful eyes of police on a locked down island, making plans for how I’d survive if the boats from the mainland stopped bringing us basic food supplies. Some of those fears sound hysterical in retrospect, but at the time reflected the very real uncertainty we felt.
Those of us who chose to stay balanced the deep primal fears that crept up and scary news reports that beamed in from the outside world with simple, fundamental joys and realities. We were lucky, we told each other, and we meant it. We embraced the island as our playground, scrambling along deep jungle hikes, swimming in empty beaches, going back to barefoot and knee-scraped and sunkissed and salty-haired simplicity. I rediscovered my old home in a new way, felt more tightly bonded to those I stayed behind with, and experienced a popular tourist island… with no tourists. Like many, I experienced deep dichotomy in 2020 — in the scariest, darkest times, I have some of my happiest memories, too.
And some proud ones. After a thunderbolt of inspiration, I threw myself into an ambitious project to launch a virtual retreat with guests and collaborators from around the world, using my limited technological know-how, and the shoddy wifi from a router at the top of a papaya tree in my new yard, that of a luxury villa discounted by ninety percent. It was one of my greatest accomplishments as an entrepreneur, and the feedback we received from guests from around the world brought me to grateful tears.
In June, I returned to the US, a leap of faith taken in order to reunite with Gil, who, after we’d painfully parted ways, had come to the conclusion he regretted not getting on a plane to Thailand when he could. I knew I was giving up my chance to be in my safe haven of Thailand for a long, long time — but I craved a change and I couldn’t seem to convince my heart of what my head did know: there was no outrunning this pandemic, it was everywhere. Still, hope springs eternal.
And the pandemic had changed the island that I had for so many years called home. The economic strain on Koh Tao was immediate and visible. I was left counting my blessings when I saw families line up on the hot sun for food banks sprung up seemingly overnight. Friends who had lived in Thailand for a decade told me they ached for their home countries in ways they never had before. Many were out of work and anxious about the future — my heart ached as I helped two sets of friends move their families out of their long-term homes and into smaller spaces.
We didn’t know when Koh Tao would recover. After three months back in Thailand, the girl who has always solved her problems by getting on a plane was itching to move.
We arrived in New York just in time to watch a revolution take place in my own country, our first venture out of the house after voluntary quarantine being to march in the streets in protest of the murder of George Floyd. Maybe everything had to come undone, to emerge better. Like many, it was time of enormous reckoning, soul-searching, listening and learning for me.
It wasn’t long before Gil had to return to Israel — as the country emerged from their own lockdown, he was needed back in the office in person. Things were looking up everywhere, and as we embraced goodbye on the sidewalk at Newark we felt confident I’d be just weeks behind him. A few days later, the visa type he’d been in the process of applying for for a year, which would grant him the ability to live in the US, was cancelled in a sweeping move by the Trump administration.
Those two months were spent putting talk of a second wave far, far into the back of my mind and diving back into the logistical challenges of trying to settle my mom’s affairs in Albany, a seemingly never-ending project that I’d pressed pause on the previous winter when I was overwhelmed by the heaviness of it all. I made slow progress in between gulps of fresh air to explore my home state and region.
Road trips to our family home in Martha’s Vineyard, trying to navigate a new normal there without my mom. A much-needed girl’s trip to the Poconos for a twice-rescheduled bachelorette weekend for one of my best friends. A weekend up at Lake George enjoying the great outdoors with friends and family. A few days in New York City, seeing my old home embrace new rhythms. A farewell weekend with Gil in Long Island. Camping with college friends in Long Island, a trip to Saratoga to help my childhood best friend plan her future wedding.
The small joys of sitting outside at a winery, laying in the sun with friends, talking to a shopkeeper through our masks — I felt gratitude for them in a new, present way. Personally, I allowed every precious moment of joy to wash over me.
Yet it was a time filled with uncertainty and fear, professionally. After months of hope and disappointment and indecision, we made the inevitable move to reschedule all our remaining retreats for 2020, effectively wiping a year of income off the map for my fledgling new company. My flagship business, this blog, was also struggling as affiliate programs closed, display ad income shriveled, and campaigns and projects were cancelled or slashed indefinitely.
I decided not to scale back on hours for my assistant or any contract workers, knowing it would make turning a profit impossible with my sharp lack of income, but not wanting to put them out nor have to struggle to replace them in the future. I felt like I was treading water, just constantly playing defense to the whims of the COVID crisis.
Our first virtual retreat had been an enormous success, and my new plan for keeping one of my businesses in black for the year was to run quarterly virtual retreats until we could resume our destination trips. I was even hired by a dear friend to teach for her virtual retreat, a huge honor. I also tried putting myself on the schedule at a local studio to teach outdoors in Albany so as not to lose my in-person teaching momentum, but it is a tough time to work in the fitness or wellness industry, needless to say.
Unfortunately but understandably, our second virtual retreat was sparsely attended. While I’m incredibly proud of the product we produced, the warmth we fostered, and the causes we supported, we realized our community was burnt out on virtual — and it would not be financially viable to keep producing events like this. It was back to the drawing board, again.
Another fracture in the seed.
In August and September, I got back in the air. I had never intended to stay back in Albany long-term, and I needed to figure out what was next for me. After being crippled with indecision over the ethics and logistics of travel in this era, I made the decision to embrace moving forward in the best way I knew how, knowing that many would not support nor understand this choice.
I vowed to follow all local guidelines, to promote responsible travel the best way I knew how, and to do whatever I could to support those in more precarious positions in the travel and hospitality industry.
I went to Mexico to start researching for our 2022 Wander Women Retreat there and scout possible locations to spend the winter. I visited Idaho for a rescheduled work campaign. I felt so grateful to feel like I was back in the drivers’ seat of my own life, and to be doing what I loved.
Finally, after months waiting for the border to Israel to reopen, I reunited with Gil in French Polynesia, one of a handful of countries willing to accept both our passports. It was three weeks of magic, and an exciting model for how tourism may safely resume in other parts of the world.
After, Gil was able to reactivate his US work visa, allowing him to re-enter the country, and I accompanied him on a work trip to Arizona. We hand-made cactus Halloween costumes, joking that it was the perfect COVID costume — stay six feet away or else! Except from each other, of course.
I’d stopped in Los Angeles on my way in and out of French Polynesia, as was necessitated by the PCR test requirement to enter the country, which meant seeing my dad — a precious, precious gift in 2020.
Some of my happiest mid-pandemic moments were moments of discovery and adventure during this era, though I laughed that in the middle of a massive global pause, I’d managed to schedule myself into a tizzy, and started fighting feelings of being burnt out and overwhelmed.
I have been lucky this year that my family has remained largely personally unaffected by COVID — the few scares relatives have had have blown over, the positive cases recovered. However, during this time I experienced a traumatic event I’ve yet to write about where one of my closest loved ones fell backwards down the stairs and I found myself once again calling 911, once again riding alongside an ambulance trying to control my breathing, once again changed by the experience of thinking someone you love is dying in front of you. Unlike all the 911 calls I made for my mom, this story had the best outcome we could have hoped for, a few skull staples and a concussion and a fractured vertebrae. Still, the terror-smeared memories of it all — the blood, the certainty that death or paralysis were the only outcomes, the hysteria of trying to get into a locked down hospital — gave me nightmares and flashbacks for months, and reminded me how fragile life is and how big a gamble love is.
In October, the one year anniversary of my moms passing came and went. After much careful consideration, I spent the day doing a smattering of things she loved, which felt wonderful, and in turn made me proud of the work I have put into processing her death and learning to find joy in her memory. Not long after I had a conversation with one of my best friends about grief. About how at first, you feel like you won’t be able to live with how acute it is, until one day you realize you have in fact been living alongside it for a long time and just think, wow… they missed so much. And then you start to grieve that, too. I’m not sad that my mom has had to miss seeing the suffering the world has experienced this year. But it feels wrong, almost, to live through something so core-shaking that she didn’t experience too. How would she have felt? What would she have done this year?
October and November brought me back to a slower pace. In Albany, I completed another aerial yoga teacher training with my mentor. In Philadelphia, I visited my sister’s new home for the first time since we did a walkthrough back in February, and was overjoyed to collude on her surprise engagement to my future brother-in-law. Gil and I spent the next few weeks in New York City, where I turned 31, went through the anxiety and then ultimate joy of the election, and contemplated if I might make the city my home again, someday. I felt a brighter future ahead for my home country, and swelled with pride that we’d made a firm statement and change on November 3rd.
In the Finger Lakes, I completed my final work campaign of the year, stopped in Rochester after to visit my sister, and in Albany, after a flurry of PCR tests and self-isolation, I spent Thanksgiving with my stepdad and my cousin and her family, who drove from Illinois, a week full of warmth and sweetness. Another silver lining — I’ve never cherished my loving relationships with my family more.
I used the time back in Albany to tackle cleaning out a huge portion of the basement at my mom’s house, a task made more poignant by having family there to reminisce with and keep me focused when it became overwhelming. Over a year later, it’s a task that feels somewhat never-ending, a symbol of sorts for the endless road that grief appears to be.
Then came the final crack.
As November dwindled and the end of my pencil-ed in, fingers-crossed plans came to a close, I found myself at a crossroads, a growing sense of unease and uncertainty over where to go and what to do with myself for the next six months, until my retreats hopefully restarted. I hadn’t re-established a home base since I moved out of Koh Tao when my mom got sick at the end of 2018, and this year made that starkly apparent.
And so in December, COVID’s unrelenting border restrictions having taken their toll on us, Gil returned to Israel and I found myself fleeing to Mexico. And it is here in the Yucatan Peninsula I admit, despite the beautiful weather and the breezy vibes, that I have found myself confronting one of the lowest emotional lows I’ve ever experienced. Unsure where to live, how to love, and what my purpose is without work, I have grappled with some of life’s hardest questions. I realized, in the stark and quiet stillness of a shut-down world, that I had been avoiding a significant portion of my grief by being on the go go go.
And now, alone in a way I hadn’t been in a long time, I had nothing but my thoughts and regrets and my painful memories to keep me company. The time and space has forced me to assess some of the trauma I’m still processing from 2019 — moments when seeing a precarious stroller gives me a flashback to a disturbing memory of losing control of my mom’s wheelchair, or when a friend not calling me back for a day makes me wonder if they died.
December has been an extremely difficult month the last several years, most significantly the last two with my mom gone. The dread I feel around the holidays can be overwhelming, waking up with a jolt of anxiety as I eye the calendar and how many days are left until Christmas, a day I’m always certain will bring unbearable pain.
Back in March, when the global COVID situation escalated, and the year truly began to spiral out of control, I’d sometimes go for a swim in the sea to get grounded again. Floating with my face to the sun, I’d close my eyes and envision Christmas. Surely the world would be back to normal by summer, I’d tell myself. Christmas was so far off it was an unshakable goal to look forward to. I’d be there, standing hand in hand with my sister and my dad, singing Silent Night by candlelight in a church at midnight. The world would be exactly as it should be. I just knew it.
Instead, I spent Christmas alone, for the first time in my life, and I did light a candle and listen to Silent Night, a rare exception to the ban on holiday ephemera that I’d enacted to protect my tender heart. What had once seemed unthinkable was an undeniable reality, now.
It’s one I hope we have crested the mountain of. I cried, alone on a sidewalk in Mexico that I didn’t really want to be on, but didn’t know where else to go, when I read the news of the first vaccines being administered in the US and Canada. A beacon of hope.
I end this year completely undone, my shell cracked open, my insides out. The pillars on which I have built my life – family, career, travel, relationship and even friendship, have shifted seismically, leaving me feeling I have little to stand on. I have thought to myself many times, wow, I had everything. And it’s hard not to feel, in my darkest moments sometimes, like I’ve lost most of it.
Life is deeply unfair and I think one of my greatest goals for 2021 is to find some peace with that, because in 2020 I saw my anger at this fact, one that I recognize many people have known on a deeper level for much longer than I, spiral out of control.
I’m blessed. I feel like that’s a disclaimer a lot of people put out there when sharing their hardships. But it’s true. This difficult period in my life has also opened my eyes to all the ways in which I am safe and secure. I have friends that love me so deeply and know my soul so truly. I have a healthy body and a sharp mind. I have never gone hungry and due to the generational financial security my parents created, a privilege many of us became aware of in a new way due to the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s extremely unlikely I ever will.
I’m going to fight like hell for it, but if my business does unravel, I have an education and a foundation of skills that I know will allow me to create something new. Despite the brutal challenges I loved seeing the way this year pushed me creatively, and intuitively, as a business woman. I loved the way I grew as a student and teacher of yoga.
Nothing felt better this year than, when things got tough, giving back — I did a spontaneous Instagram charity giveaway donating to any cause tagged by my followers, I funded a food drive that served hundreds of meals on Koh Tao, Wander Women Retreats made a donation to help black women finance their dive educations, and we donated to local charities for each of our retreats. Continuing my parents’ legacy of generosity has been a guiding light in a year where I, like so many, looked around and felt helpless to the suffering of others.
This year has been hard for different people in different ways. Some have even thrived, perhaps guiltily, embracing the slower rhythms and the new routine. I heard someone say recently that while we are all riding the same storm, we are doing so in different boats. That resonated with me. And I guess this post was a little tour of mine.
So there it is. Full of beautiful photos and heart-wrenching words, recalling one of the most difficult years of my life. But one that too was full of undeniable gratitude and joy, of opportunity and growth, and of love. Because of course, they find a way to shine through every crack — it always does. Even in the darkest days. And maybe it was all exactly as it was meant to be.
After weeks – months? more? — of allowing myself to feel the greatest expression of my pain and truly acknowledge and honor it, I have started to lift myself back up. And I recognize I had to hit emotional rock bottom to get here.
Perhaps one of my greatest losses of the last two years has been the loss of my unshakeable sense of independence, the overwhelming confidence I once had in my own resilience and greatness, the volume with which I heard my own voice. If I had to come completely undone to emerge in the next iteration of that woman, then I embrace that fully. Maybe it only looked like complete destruction.
One of my dear friends who overcame a crippling depression told me recently that she now felt happier than she ever had, before life delivered terrible turns to her doorstep. Back then I was just lucky, she told me. This happiness? I earned it.
I’m ready to earn mine. And I think the world is ready to earn theirs, too.
After the Spanish Flu came the roaring twenties.
I am ready for our own roaring twenties. I’m ready for festivals with my friends. For teaching sweaty yoga classes full of hands-on adjustments. For showing women the world. For love. For time with family cherished in a new way. For dancing until sunrise. For discovering new countries.
I know we have a long way to go. This virus uses our humanity against us, I remember an expert saying on the news one day. I realize now more than ever how deeply humans crave connection. But also how resilient we can be. I’ve accepted my dad’s 75th birthday will likely be celebrated over Zoom. I realize that our first two retreats of 2021 may, once again, be rescheduled. I acknowledge there will be stumbling blocks as I work towards building the life of my dreams.
My resolutions for 2021 were to ground myself. To re-establish a home again. To feel rooted in my relationships. To regrow my business in this changed new world.
Get grounded. Plant myself. Grow.