The Christmas Letter

Evan and Vivian were sprawled out on the lawns of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Jo and I had just finished our last bottle of wine. The smoke from thousands of fireworks was still rising up slowly over the Harbor Bridge into the midnight sky. We joined a river of a million spectators leaving the Sydney waterfront, each of us wondering what this new year held. I bet not one of our combined 100 million billion neurons on that first smokey early morning of 2020 imagined how the year was going to turn out.

A few days later we left for the Land of the Long White Cloud. After New Zealand we traveled to Bangkok, Angkor Wat, and Vietnam. On January 31st, they handed us free masks at Da Nang airport when we board our flight for Tokyo. The virus was just beginning to cast its long shadow across our path and over the world. But these were the early days and in Tokyo we wantonly wandered the city of thirty five million people, eating street food and hopping on packed subways without a care. Three weeks later we left Asia and flew to our final destination, South America.

Looking back, the first two and a half months of 2020 were close to perfect. We finally hit our stride in New Zealand with her scenic lakes and craggy mountains and cottages by the sea and in Hoi An during the Lunar New Year celebrations over steaming bowls of pho and in Japan at the start of the cherry blossom season in Tokyo and the ramen houses and the temples and bamboo forests of Kyoto and at the towering snow capped volcanoes and the black sand trimmed lakes of Chile. The chaos of travel had settled into a nice rhythm. Vivian and Evan were like pros on our travel days, deftly managing checkouts and airplanes and immigration and checkins. And we loved the easy days in between, exploring and eating our way through places. Vivian’s and Evan’s schooling was mostly on auto pilot, which is to say that Jo was taking care of it and they seemed to be learning stuff. We toyed with the idea of doing this for another year. Or five.

One morning in mid March we drove halfway up Volcan Osorno and enjoyed the striking beauty of the Lake District from up there while snow crunched under our boots. Then we hiked around Saltos del Rio Petrohue. This was our last photo on the road. We drove back to the cottage on the shores of Lake Llanquihue, packed our bags, and set off next morning for Austin. International flights were being cancelled. Countries were starting to shut their borders. It was now or not for a long while, and overnight we made the decision to leave Chile and end our traveling. Months later Jo and I still wonder what this year would have been like had we picked not-for-a-long-while instead.

We enjoyed our travels. We didn’t have a lot of glitches, never got ripped off, and rarely ran into assholes. People everywhere were mostly nice and helpful. We barely scratched the surface of the places we visited, and left thousands of places just around the corner unexplored. It takes years of staying somewhere to understand and appreciate a place, its people, and their culture. We can’t lay claim to that. But the places we visited, even briefly, have become a part of our neighborhood. When I tell Vivian and Evan about the pro democracy riots outside the royal palace in Bangkok, or the flooding on the Gold Coast of Australia, they relate to it more personally. Vivian wrote an essay for school a couple of weeks ago in which she recounts an experience from Hiroshima. Evan did a project on migration last month and added his first person account of the migrating wildebeest crossing the Mara river in Serengeti. To them the world feels a bit smaller and bit more wondrous. Their moral circles are a bit bigger.

When we returned to the US, we set up camp at Carol’s old residence because our White Wooden House was rented out. The house on Lariat Ridge is miles from anywhere and was exactly the sanctuary we needed for Covid quarantining. Jo and I worked outside where there was endless trimming and chopping and mowing and raking. The kids continued with their math and writing. We learned to do quarantine things by the bucketload. We baked, swam, drew, played monopoly and chess, bicycled, walked, cooked, and binge day-drank or maybe that was just me. Our outdoor and socially distanced visits to Carol and Nicolle and her family were our only non-virtual interactions with other humans. We went into town only to grocery shop. And occasionally to the drive-through boba tea place. Masks and distancing became a part of our regimen. We tried to enjoy the little things. Then we got the animals.

People say having kids changes your life. That is true. But getting a puppy and two kittens will do that all over again and in a much nicer way while costing you less. When we were traveling, Evan fantasized about cats. And Vivian would imagine what breed of dog she’d get. In a moment of weakness I promised them both that when we got back to Austin they would get their pets. Jo wasn’t fully on board, but she was the one that made it happen. On a Monday afternoon late in April and then the next morning, we picked up a rescue dog and two tiny kittens and now eight months later they are as essential to us as the air we breathe and a good deal more enjoyable. As I type this, Ouiser is fast asleep on my feet, farting gently and lethally. Skittles is rubbing her face on the side of my computer and trying to type with her tiny paws. Zeus is delicately licking bacon grease from the bowl by the stove. I haven’t a clue where Evan or Vivian are.

Spring changed to summer. And summer reluctantly gave way to fall. We came back to the White Wooden House after a series of slow and long (both of which are synonyms for “expensive”) repairs. Evan and Vivian went to sleep-away camp and then returned to school after a year long break, though school had changed drastically. Evan rejoined his soccer club. Vivian colored her hair flaming red. We had missed Austin. While traveling, Evan had created a schedule of the order in which we would eat at our favorite Austin restaurants. And Jo and I had planned to grill with neighbors and friends every weekend. All that will have to wait. We are back in Austin but we rarely socialize. When we do, it is always outdoors. So far we seem to have dodged it.

We watched the rise of social justice awareness, paid in advance by needless murder. Then came a vicious election season that left everything politicized and everyone deeply divided. Around us, the world witnessed death and pain on a massive scale. If you are looking for a silver lining, it took the dumpster fire of 2020 to muster the few extra tens of thousands of votes in places where it counted for what’s that guy’s name to beat the ass. If you are a Trumpie, cry into your beer because fate dealt him and you a bad year (and then let it go). Any other year and the National Parks Service would already be busy doctoring photos of the crowds at Trump’s second inauguration.

In homage to this crazy year we don’t have a Christmas picture. Instead, I am using our Christmas picture from December 2019. Here’s to peace and joy in the new year. Here’s to fewer zoom happy hours and drive-by birthdays. Above all, here’s to hope. Here’s to 2021. Warm wishes and love from Evan, Vivian, Jo, and me.

Dec 23rd., 2020. Austin, Texas.

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