The Year That Was
As horrible as 2020 was for all of us, I will remember it as the year I realized my life is short. Like many, I spent the early days of the pandemic indoors, with my eyes doomscrolling through grim statistics and depressing headlines. I diligently washed my hands for 20 seconds whenever I could, I bought and wore masks whenever I went outside, and I made sure to social distance when around others. I listened to the scientists and got angry at those who questioned them. I was afraid, anxious, and unsure about the future, and I didn’t know what to do.
I was fortunate enough to keep my job and to not have lost anyone I cared about, but I know many of us weren’t as lucky. Many of us lost our jobs, lost friends and family members, and lost a piece of our lives we will never get back. All I lost was my sense of time. Before the pandemic shut the world down, I felt like the Red Queen, always running but never going anywhere. As the pandemic raged throughout the world, I felt like time didn’t matter anymore. Each day was worse than the one before, with more and more people dying and more and more people not taking the virus seriously.
I had stopped running and stopped caring.
It didn’t have to be this way. The weekend before Montana closed down its schools and forced many of us inside, I drove down to Missoula with my camera and tried street photography for the first time. I had purchased The Art of Street Photography course from Magnum a few days before, and I wanted to both expand my walls and improve my photography. Unfortunately, there weren’t many people walking the streets that day, but I figured I’d go on another weekend and try again. So far, that weekend hasn’t arrived.
In April, I bought my Gibson G-45 acoustic guitar. Along with photography, one of my goals for the year had been to learn to play the guitar. It had been one of my goals for a very long time and lockdown proved to be the perfect time to learn. Fender extended the free trial on their Fender Play course to three months, and I thought this the perfect opportunity to learn from home. I eagerly went through the first few levels and spent the next few days and weeks practicing and building up my calluses. I had a lot of fun during this time, but like most things, it didn’t last very long.
By May, I was back at work full-time, and where once I had all day to play the guitar, now I barely had any time for it at all. I’m trying to remember all that happened during this time, but the memories won’t come. I woke, I went to work, I slept. I barely played the guitar. I barely took any photos. I barely wrote.
I barely did anything.
Once school ended and summer break began, I started to work on myself some more. I had stopped feeling like myself during those first few months after lockdown, and I hated how I felt. After the governor ordered all schools shutdown and forced everyone to work from home, I reopened my Facebook account. I had deactivated it years before, back when Donald Trump was elected president, but I figured I needed to keep in touch with my friends and family during this time and Facebook felt like the answer.
I admit, I missed it. I missed checking in with my friends and family, learning about their lives and what they were doing to keep themselves safe and sane. I friended a couple dozen people I’d met over the previous years the first few days after I returned to Facebook, and that provided enough novelty to keep me coming back. As much as I knew Facebook was bad for me, I didn’t care. It gave me a release from the world, a world that kept getting darker and darker.
But this honeymoon period on Facebook didn’t last. Almost as soon as I returned to it, I felt that same growing unease building in the back of my mind that I felt when I last deactivated my account. Friends and co-workers started to post memes and updates stating that the virus was a hoax, that masks were bad for you, that Bill Gates created the virus so he could get rich selling the vaccine for it. I ignored them but they didn’t disappear. I tried filtering my news feed to only show content I liked, but that only created a filter bubble that made Facebook even more vapid.
Once I realized Facebook stopped making me feel good, I knew I needed a change. I needed something that would not only keep me connected with my friends and family, but also keep me sane. I had been an on-again, off-again blogger dating back to my high school years, but for whatever reason, I could never make it stick. From 2014–15, I started a blog where I wrote an entry every day for 365 days. It was a great success, but since I had hosted it on Squarespace and their $99/year price was too high for me at the time, I cancelled my subscription and ended my blog.
I felt like this was the perfect time to create a website again.
Regardless of all the pain and anger I felt, the summer of 2020 was one of my most creative and fun seasons I’ve ever had in my life. Starting in mid-June and ending in late August, I wrote an entry and took a photo every day on my brand new blog. I wrote about my father and realized what he taught me, about my desire to expand the boundaries of my world, and about my identity and who I wanted to be. I discovered my love for macro photography and for the simple act of walking. I also drank. A lot.
But then I broke my Fujifilm X-T20 camera and things slowed down. I bought the Fujifilm X-T4 in early September to replace it, but the pace I kept during the summer stopped. I was back at work, and I had some thoughts about that. My mom came to visit from San Diego, and I got to spend some time with my nieces. But mostly I spent the fall quietly.
In October, I hurt my back and spent most of it in pain. I felt lucky for having a job and that my community escaped the worst of the coronavirus, but I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I had stopped writing, reading, working out, taking photos, playing the guitar, and anything else that made me happy. But that changed in November when I decided to participate in Microblogvember, Micro.blog’s annual blogging challenge. This was exactly what I needed to regain control of my life, and I’m glad I did, because it worked.
I wrote every day in November, and I loved every minute of it. I met some great people during the challenge, and I fell in love with my website again. I spent an inordinate amount of time customizing it, but I’m really proud of the result (as of today).
In December, I started to work out again, and that made each day better. Health is the foundation for everything I do, and I’m glad I spent the month rebuilding this habit because it made everything else easier. I began to rebuild each of my other habits, starting with writing. Writing is all I ever wanted to do, and even though I stopped writing fiction in 2020, I didn’t stop writing.
Toward the end of December, I wrote what is perhaps my favorite thing I’ve ever written in my life. In over 1,500 words, I described a recent visit to my local clinic. It was fun and weird and a little bit gross, but I loved writing it, and I loved that I had a place of my own to share it. I messaged it to a few friends and received an eclectic mix of reactions, but I came to the realization that this is the social network I want, and I’m glad I have it.
If anything, 2020 felt like a big reset, not just for me but for the whole world. I’m proud of how I finished 2020, and I’m eager to see what 2021 brings.
The Year That Can Be
If 2020 was a big reset, 2021 will be the year I lay the foundation for the rest of my life. Because of this, I feel that 2021 will be a transitional year. It’ll be a year where a new administration is set to be sworn in soon and a year where millions of people will be vaccinated against the coronavirus. I don’t expect life to be back to “normal” anytime soon, but I feel it’s safe to expect something close to it by year’s end.
So what do I want to do in 2021? Like with most things in my life since I graduated college, it starts with my debt.
Pay Off My Debt
As of January 3rd, 2021, I have 9 more car payments and 11 more student loan payments. That’s it. That’s all I have. In total, I have a bit over $10,000 in debt, and I’m on track to pay it off by the end of the year. I’ve never laid this all out so clearly in my life before, and it feels amazing. I haven’t been debt free in 13 years. 13 years. That’s 13 unlucky years of being burdened with a debt I promised to pay off, and in 2021, I will finally do it.
I can’t even imagine what life will be like without this weight on my shoulders. It’ll mean an extra $1,000 a month in my bank account. It’ll mean I am free to do whatever I want. This is something I’ve never experienced in my adult life before, and I can’t wait to get there.
Because I don’t want to lose sight of this one overarching goal, I plan to live as simply I can this year. Even though I have some pretty expensive tastes, I’m very minimalist by nature. I didn’t grow up with much, and I’ve never been happy owning things I don’t use. One of my favorite books I read last year was Spark Joy by Marie Kondo. I love donating things I don’t need anymore, and I love owning only those things that spark joy in my life.
Over the last few weeks of December, I went through all of my online accounts and deleted those I either didn’t use anymore or didn’t want anymore. Some of those included services like Dropbox and VSCO, while others were sites I signed up for on a whim but never used again. I deactivated Facebook and Instagram with the goal of actually deleting them sometime this year. I intend to use only those services I actually value and enjoy, and I hope this culling will help me simplify and make my life feel leaner.
I plan to wean myself from Amazon this year, too. I don’t think it’s possible to outright delete my account and never shop from there again, but I think I can get close. If I’m being honest with myself, I really don’t need anything new this year. I have everything I could ever want and need in my home right now, and I plan to make the most of them this year.
To do that, I hope to fill my days with things I enjoy doing. In 2021, I hope to write more, to take more photographs, to keep playing my guitar, and to keep learning. During the heart of the summer, I loved writing and taking photos every day, and all that cost me nothing. Nothing but my time and my energy. When I’m in the middle of a project and I hit that flow state, it feels like time both stops and goes by too fast. I hit those moments a few times last year, and I want to fill this year with as many of those moments as I can.
I don’t know if I want to start a new book this year, but I know I want to continue writing. Writing is my one true love, and without it, life ceases to have meaning. I do have a few book ideas, as well as a few unfinished books, so perhaps I can work on one of them this year.
I want to keep taking photos, but I want to improve my craft more this year. I tried street photography last year, but my experiment was cut short due to the pandemic. Maybe I’ll have a chance to start it up again this year. It’s okay if I can’t, though, because I plan to improve my macro photography, too. I want to go on more hikes and explore new areas this year, and I hope to experiment with landscape photography. The world is literally out there asking to be explored, and I hope to capture as much of it as I can.
Over the last week, I’ve been re-developing the callouses on my fingers playing my guitar again, and all I have to say is: why did I ever stop? I love playing the guitar, and I love learning new chords and songs and musical concepts. Since a life without music is not a life worth living, I plan to play the guitar as much as I can this year.
Lastly, I hope to keep learning languages. I first started learning Japanese in January of 2019, and my progress slowed considerably in 2020, so I hope to pick up the pace in 2021. I not only plan to finish Genki I, but I also plan to start learning French again. I took three years of it in high school, so I hope getting back into it won’t be too difficult.
Those are my plans for 2021. I wonder what the universe will say about that, but if 2020 taught me anything, it’s that I know I have it in me to adapt and focus on what matters.
I have no idea what the future holds, but I’m very eager to find out. Let’s go!
Hey, my name is Mario Villalobos.
I am a writer, photographer, and IT director living in western Montana.