Paper Chains

8 years ago today, I was living in the Northeast part of Malaysia, right alongside the South China Sea where the border of Malaysia and Thailand meet. Most of my days there felt quite isolating, to be honest. And my dear roommate and friend, Nina, and I learned early on that it would take some mental grit and focus to fulfill our 11-month commitment there.

I dreamt of earning a Fulbright Scholarship for so long. Yet in the midst of pursuing my experience overseas, it sometimes pains me to recognize how much time I spent there wishing the time would go faster. A lot of the days were tough – I certainly had some reasons to literally be counting down the days until my return to America – and, at the time, I did not think there was any way I would ever miss my life there. Yet, somehow when the time came to return home to the States, it became bittersweet and almost sad.

The mixed emotions of that time came flooding back to me this evening, when I changed our little block-by-block calendar on our kitchen counter to read “Wednesday, April 1,” which is tomorrow. I thought, “Wow, we still have 30 days of quarantine to go.” It wasn’t necessarily a negative tone of thought, but it wasn’t a positive one either.

I immediately remembered the paper chain my roommate and I built in Malaysia in June of that year (we weren’t leaving until November). We made a paper loop for each day left of our time there and strung them together with tape and hung it along the wall of our home. Each day we would rip one of the loops off, signaling one day closer to our return to the States.

The ritual was truly therapeutic at the time. Yet, looking back, it seems to me that I wished those days away; I wanted to make them go faster. Ripping off those paper loops, along with the “Time-Rationalization-Mind-Games” I would play with myself (Example: “Only four months left. That’s the time from when you would come back to your dorm after winter break to leaving for summer; it goes so fast!”), was my way of mentally wrapping my brain around what was ahead and what was a required. It helped me feel like I was making sense out of a situation that was not normal. Yet, at the same time, I also knew I needed to appreciate the small things and find the small joys there, because I would never get that time – that experience – back.

And, ultimately, when the paper chain had its single loop left that November, I not so surprisingly found myself torn inside. My anxiousness was replaced with relief, but yet, I was overwhelmed with sadness. My life “after” Malaysia had arrived, but yet, I looked on my “during” experience with a new lens; a lens of immensely bittersweet emotions.

Time is a weird concept. It’s a weird gift. So often we find ourselves praying FOR It, bartering WITH It or even at war AGAINST It. And now, so many of us, are trying to figure out how the heck to MANAGE It, because well, oddly enough, there seems to be a lot of it.

There is so much uncertainty, and there is enough drastic change to cause even the coolest and calmest folks severe anxiety. And, we let that anxiousness and uncertainness propel our desire to speed time up and just get to the Post-Quarantine Life already! But what if, somehow, in the midst of tough and challenging times, we took that uncertainness and anxiety to craft this time into something meaningful?

I had a harsh realization in the shower about three weeks ago, right when my company decided to suspend travel indefinitely. For months I had said, “Oh, it’d be so nice not to travel for a bit.” “It would be so nice to just slow down for a bit and be able to devote more time to school and take more time to write.” “Oh, if only I was at home and could actually have a schedule and regimen.” I said those things, to others and myself, for months.

Well, now…I guess in a round-about way, I got what I asked for – definitely not in the way I wanted, but none the less, my wish was granted. And, I believe it’s my duty to take this time – no matter how chaotic and unknown – and do something beautiful with it.

So, I am going back to my paper chains. But a different kind of paper chain.

I am not going to build a long, paper chain and rip off loops, because I do not want to wish days away, and well, quite honestly, we do not know when all this will end. But starting tomorrow, April 1st (Day 17 of quarantine), I am going to begin building a chain.

Each day – no matter what happens – I am going to write down one positive thing OR one thing I am grateful for OR one thing I was able to do at home that otherwise I would not have been able to do.  I am going to write it on a piece of paper and make a loop each day.

And, at the end of this quarantine – however long it may be, I will have built a chain of gratitude and perspective. Perhaps even a chain I can even look back to during future struggles in order to remind myself, and others, that anything is possible when you look at a situation through a different lens.