The night before my birthday this year, I lay in bed and shed a few burning tears while thinking about what I would write for this annual occasion. Typically my process for writing these birthday posts consists of reflecting over the past year and trying to find a simplified narrative of a) what happened and b) what I want next, but for this fifth consecutive post, I struggled with looking back on the year and finding words for what I wanted to say.

My twenty-second year was perfectly divided between the pre-COVID and COVID eras. When I try to remember the first half, a hazy dream-reel plays— I’m traveling, working, and everything is as normal as it can be. I’ve never seen my memories in third person the way I do with those ones. Then, in early March, we all know what happened. Suddenly, our lives became centered around adjusting to “unprecedented times” and learning to bake sourdough bread. I spent a few months at home and picked up some new hobbies. With the flexibility of working from home and inability to go anywhere else, I felt myself partly regress to my childhood self, who found endless activities to keep me occupied.

As the cycle of heightened unrest and everyday drudgery continued, time began to feel irrelevant, worthless. Summer came and passed. While adapting to the new circumstances, I began to numb out. I could no longer feel myself getting older or growing. We were all insects encased in resin, suspended in time.

The strangest thing about being in this type of era – the waiting-for-something-to-happen era – is that it makes us unwilling to admit that things have already happened as we’ve waited. It feels like we’re all trudging through a child’s video game, where the game only saves at certain checkpoints, and we keep hoping that our final destination (a vaccine) is around the next corner. But as we eagerly anticipate this appearance, we forget to acknowledge the things that we’ve encountered as significant or worthy. Because things stop feeling real in limbo, we have to work extra hard to make our actions and decisions feel authentic and valuable instead of automated and disingenuous.

I also think we’re wrong to believe that the advent of the coronavirus vaccine will take us back to normal. I think this experience has taken us too far, and we cannot go back. This belief can apply on both personal and societal levels. On a personal scale, the pandemic recently led to the downturn of the company I worked for, and I no longer have a job there. For our society, I refuse to believe that after everything – 205,000 deaths, countless protests, the rise of activism both legitimate and performed – we can simply return to what we were before. I understand the desire to do so and see that impulse reflected in the state of our country’s politics and priorities, but I cannot accept the flat-out lie that a resolution to the novel coronavirus could heal all of the wounds that existed long before we had to stay at home.

More than ever, my birthday this year marked a turning point, the start of something new. I’m reassessing what I want and need in my professional and personal life, and I’m pursuing only the things that bring me value or fulfillment or simple joy. In a practical sense, I am unable to ever go back to who I was and what I was doing at this time last year. But on a more cerebral level, I doubt that I even want to. Twenty-three is solidly “adult”, uncomfortably close to mid-twenties. The past six months have convinced me that I must live as an adult beyond simply hosting dinner parties or baking pies. I hope to work on behalf of real people, effect meaningful change, and continue growing into someone I’d like to become.

To read my birthday posts from previous years, check out Chapter Twenty-Two, Chapter Twenty-OneChapter Twenty, and Chapter Nineteen.