As of this month I am fully vaccinated against COVID-19. I’ve been joking with friends and family that I can finally go to all my raves, but the truth for me is that I’ll begin going (masked) to the grocery store.

I’ll go inside with other vaccinated people, and I’ll travel to my stepdaughter’s high school graduation and see her in person for the first time in about a year.

I’m thrilled about this. Yet, I’m simultaneously reticent about yet another big shift. I find myself thinking about what I want to keep from this time. This is fascinating and unexpected.

What could I possibly want to hang on to from such a horrible chapter?!

These are the things that come to mind:

I have kicked and screamed about presence. I have shaken my fist at this beautiful snow globe in which I feel quite trapped. Yet, I’ve always craved staying in one place long enough and deeply enough to more fully know it. I’ve spent much of my life skittering across various landscapes, loving them for what I’ve experienced, and then up and leaving. I’ve had this nagging thought for years that at some point I want to stay in one place long enough to fully inhabit and understand where I live.

Enter: an entire, uninterrupted year in Alaska.

I couldn’t jostle my senses into awareness by traveling somewhere new. I had to make here into somewhere new.

Recently on a bike ride I felt cold, and a little voice in the back of my mind told me to simply sense and appreciate the cold as a sensation. How amazing is it that as a human I have the capacity to feel at all?

Who is this person?! Pre-COVID, I wasn’t having those thoughts — I was thinking about my airfare out of here; I was stressing over this logistic or that.

But during the pandemic, when I needed a vacation my only option was to go further into where I was. I explored more trails right in my backyard. I spent hours and hours on cross country skis. Sometimes, I simply stepped out my door to feel fresh air for a few moments and breathe. I’ve heard this is a thing people do. Now I do that, too.

I want to continue, even when life speeds up again.

My typical orientation is “yes.” Yes to this opportunity, count me in, I’m along for the ride.

Like a small child, the pandemic got me into wielding “no.” I was hesitant at first. It was difficult in those early days to say no to in-person meetings; no to elaborately staged plans to do something supposedly socially distanced (I called it COVID contortionism, where in a desperate attempt to create some semblance of normality while adhering to the rules, the rules are bent to meaninglessness).

What made it easier for me to say “no” is that I have an underlying condition that makes me more susceptible to complications from the virus. I was clear from the get-go that I didn’t want to risk contracting COVID-19. So “no” was always clear for me, it was just harder in the beginning to relay it to others.

But it got easier. Here’s why I want to keep it:

My “no” creates choice. Over the last year, I’ve had autonomy over myself and my time. I’ve felt far less stretched than I did pre-pandemic. I’ve also felt more dignity in the way I choose to spend my time. In short, saying “no” has made me feel and behave more like me. I say “no” to an opportunity and I choose how I’d like to spend my time instead. When I do, I become more myself. It’s a positive cycle.

Oh, the ruts I’ve been in. Many times, my experiences outdoors pre-pandemic were in direct proportion to what was required of me at work. I used exercise to keep myself at a baseline of sanity and burn off whatever was knocking around in my brain. Being outside was a kind of complementary work, to work.

Turns out, the level of mental health required to endure a pandemic dwarfs even my demanding 9-to-5.

I had to level up my outdoor experiences this past year. Being outside couldn’t only serve a “dose” of something I did in order to function in other areas of my life. I couldn’t focus on ramping up the duration or intensity of what I was doing like I might during “normal” times to counterbalance my volume of work. I had to increase the fun.

Many experiences began to feel more like play. This is in part due to a greater variety of activities I did, from ice skating to sledding to gardening. But it also had to do with how I approached my usual roster of outdoor experiences.

I started going on walks with friends and spouting off about whatever had happened over our respective weeks. I took particular enjoyment in watching the sunrise on my runs. I went for quick bike rides around my neighborhood, just to stretch my legs out and breathe good air.

Perhaps all that I’d like to hold onto from this time of my life comes from a gnawing feeling that I don’t want to have lived any of my life in vain. It would be a shame to have a full year simply blotted out as a zero.

But I don’t think this year has been a zero. In many ways my life is richer for it. I’d give it all back if I could, but I don’t have a refund option.

Instead, I’m thinking about the things I would like to hold on to as my life pivots back into a world that is starting to expand once again.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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