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The unexpected joy of the worst summer of our lives

Covid-19 made my world small and bleak. But I still found solace in the quietest places.

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Part of the Escape Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Last fall, I spent an afternoon in the fields of a nearby farm, planting garlic in neat rows. That garlic grew quietly underground through the New England winter. Right as their first shoots pushed out of the soil in March, my world — everyone’s world — suddenly got a lot smaller.
March. I spend the first weeks of lockdown in my apartment playing video games. I download Animal Crossing and decorate my island with bamboo. I give my friends flowers in cyberspace. Animal Crossing sells more digital copies in a month than any console game in history. It feels nice to know that millions of us are finding solace in catching virtual butterflies. We trade friend codes with strangers online, and briefly forget the distance between us all.
April. The weather gets warmer. My boyfriend and I bike across empty city roads to buy seedlings, pots, big bags of soil. We stack them tall on our bikes and pedal home unsteadily. We plant the seedlings in pots and shove them in the sunniest corner of the balcony. “Now grow big and strong so we can eat your children!” “HA HA!”
May-ish. One day, I go out for a walk. A stranger spots me from a distance and calls me over. “Look at this tree! Look how beautiful!” And he’s right — the leaves are fluorescent, almost neon. We stare in awe for a while.
Later, I wonder if this interaction might have happened in our previous lives. Between commutes, coffee runs, deadlines, would we have paid as much attention to the million leaves unfurling above our heads, as they do every year? And even if we did, would we have felt compelled to share that moment with someone, anyone at all?
June, I think? The days grow long. Trees only measure time with sunlight and warmth, and I’m starting to think their way makes more sense than ours.
The abundance of time makes me feel equal parts grateful and sheepish ... But the heady days of summer elide dark uncertainties ... and when the light fades, I often find myself retreating into fears old and new. Can we save each other from sickness? Can we save each other from hatred? Can we save each other, while also saving this earth we live on? We can’t answer these questions, but we can promise to remember why these things are worth saving...
The poet Mary Oliver once shared a great secret. “Instructions for living a life:/ Pay attention./ Be astonished.’ Tell about it.” My cat already knows these secrets. Now I’m learning them, too.
High summer (I’ve given up on months). Our balcony garden is thriving. Plants are alchemists! They have transmuted air, water, earth, and time into tomatoes and peppers. We harvest and eat them at lunch.
The farm where I planted garlic last fall opens for volunteers again, and I end up back on that same bed of garlic, pulling fat bulbs out of the earth. “Look how much you’ve grown!” Despite how strange and uncertain our lives have become recently, we can always find escape and comfort in the continuity of every other living thing.
On a sweltering summer evening, Jake and I search the sky with binoculars. There! Almost a straight line below the ladle of the Big Dipper: a perfect comet, its tail splayed out behind it like a catbird’s. Comet Neowise is 70 million miles away from Earth. It’s moving 144,000 miles per hour, but to us, it looks perfectly suspended in the sky.
The next time neowise will be visible from our planet is in 6.800 years, a number that feels absurd. Who, in the year 8820, will remember 2020? It feels good to surrender before the immensity of cosmic time. Looking at that small speck of rock, the world briefly feels very, very big again.

Christine Mi is a cartoonist and writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Nib, and more. She draws a webcomic called Sad Girl POP.

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