How My Patio String Lights Helped Me Huddle Against the Storm of 2020

When you have a year of missing so many things, you fixate on having one piece of something magical. And lights, to me, were magical.

On the last Saturday in September, I bought string lights for my patio. I happened upon them at the Ace Hardware in Deer Park while looking for a fire poker. I came home and announced to my husband, “I finally found the perfect lights!” He groaned. I understood. The theme of the summer had been Judi Has a Vision About String Lights That’s Impossible to Execute.

Illustration by Dola Sun

It started with me asking him for an outdoor plug in the patio area. After researching how to cut into the siding and hook the new plug to the existing indoor wiring, he installed it. Next, I showed him a bunch of Pinterest images of ways to secure and string outdoor lights. He cut four tall wooden posts, stuck them into four galvanized metal buckets, poured concrete around them, and covered them with river rocks.

Then we went to Menards to shop. Since it was the first time we’d left the house together without children in months, it felt like a date. It was July 4, so I giddily threw sparklers into our cart on the way to the lighting section. That’s where I found exactly what I was looking for: thick black corded lights with big Edison bulbs. “I think those are too big,” my husband said.

“No, they’re perfect!” I replied. They were too big.

Every time we tried to string the patio lights over and around the posts, the buckets threatened to tip because the lights were too heavy. They pulled in all directions, sagging like waterlogged jeans hung out to dry. So we investigated how to attach the lights to our house, ordering special hooks for the siding. Another fail. We tied the posts to bushes lining the patio. Fail. I offered up the soffit as a possibility. That was a step too far for my husband. A ladder may have been thrown.

I. Wanted. String. Lights. Because when you have a year of missing so many things, you fixate on having one piece of something magical. And lights, to me, were magical. I had a few strands of those battery-operated fairy lights woven through the rose of Sharon bushes around the patio, but they weren’t enough. I wanted to bathe our patio in light, to illuminate this 15-by-15-foot concrete slab of safe air for the kind of socializing that had become our lifeline to friends and family, our space for novelty, and our place for marking any kind of milestone.

It was the place where we had our end-of-the-school-year campfire, which featured s’mores and my kids throwing worksheets into the fire and saying things like, “Distance learning? More like distance burning!” and “Take that, fractions!” It was the place where I’d had my mom and four of my siblings over for her 85th birthday. We spaced the chairs apart on the patio, ordered food, and faced outward as we sang “Happy Birthday” to her, laughing at the ludicrousness but glad to be together.

It was the place where I invited a group of new neighborhood friends to have difficult conversations about race and equity. We burned through a dozen logs while discussing mobilization tactics. It was the place where my husband and I got into heated matches of Ruzzle on our phones (it’s an addictive word game that combines Scrabble and Boggle and that my husband always wins) while our son practiced spinning a basketball on his finger, trying to set a record, and my daughter did TikTok dances.

It was the place where we hosted popsicle night with our neighbors. The kids tried to eat them before they melted while the grownups talked about if school would start, what we could be doing to help more people, and what a fraught, strange, and eye-opening summer it was. It was the place where the weeks simultaneously stretched on, with long and bright evenings, and counted down ominously toward the even-longer darkness. Twelve weeks until the first frost warning. Sixteen weeks until the end of Daylight Sav­ings Time. Twenty weeks until the trees would be bare. And all of those weeks would mean more Americans had died from the coronavirus.

But then I found the lights in the Christmas aisle at Ace, a hilarious outcome since there would be no Christmas gathering this year. No matter, on that bright Saturday, when the trees were showing a strong hint of orange, my husband and I hung the much smaller lights around our patio. The poles did not tip. The sag was exactly right, the slightest bow-shaped curve.

We invited another couple we’ve known for a dozen years over that night. We ordered Thai food, I brought out my stash of cookies and Not a Cheesecake Cake bars from Sweets by LaDawn (on Plainfield Road; go there now), and then, as dusk threatened, I plugged in the lights. Some things you remember as perfect moments. When I got a 9.4 on balance beam in 1986. The night Barack Obama won in 2008. When each of my babies laughed for the first time. And now the site of these small round bulbs, illuminated above us, was on the list.

That evening, under the lights, I didn’t think about how it was only nine more weeks until my family wouldn’t gather for Thanksgiving.

The one thing 2020 got absolutely right was the weather on Halloween. Do you remember what a gorgeous day it was? What a clear, navy blue evening it turned out to be? I put up a table close to the sidewalk and set candy on it for trick-or-treaters. My husband and I scooted our patio chairs to the driveway and built a fire, so we could sit out and watch the kids come by (our own, ages 10 and 12, were already out with friends). The patio was lit behind us, and in front of us dinosaurs and goblins took packs of Skittles and Starburst. We mused about the year and about how lucky we were that Halloween at least worked out.

Sitting there, I thought about the novel I’d just finished reading that afternoon, Oona Out of Order. The premise is this: On New Year’s Eve, as 1982 becomes 1983, Oona suddenly wakes up in 2015. Instead of turning 19 (it’s her birthday), she turns 51. From then on, every year at the stroke of midnight on her birthday, she leaps to January 1 of a different year.

Some years, all she wants to do is leap away. Others, she doesn’t want to leave. One year, she can’t wait until December 31 to escape the pain of the year—only to land in the year right before the one she just left. All of her mistakes are ahead, and she’s unable to prevent them.

It was a thought-provoking little piece of fantasy to think about, especially as I’ve spent this past year trying to hold on to moments of 2020 and also leap the hell away from 2020. Did my cross purposes get me anywhere better? I don’t know. But I do want to make something of these months. Even Oona, who lives out of order, gets to take what she learns from one year to the next, cobbling together the pieces of her life. We’re all cobblers too, even if time moves only one way for us. Even if every leap is only forward.

What helped me endure 2020, from March onward, was the idea that I just needed to ask one question every day: Was I in the group that could offer help or in the group that needed help? If still in the group that was able to help, I should try to help.

Help turned out to be so many things: wearing a mask, helping my mom download a Kindle book (or use a Kindle in the first place), saying a kind word to someone, supporting a local business, hugging my scared kids, telling my husband he was doing great when I really wanted him to stop throwing ladders, sharing an idea, showing up for racial justice, and campaigning and voting. And money. Giving as much money as I could.

This daily question is the best thing I have to carry forward into 2021. Though I do have one edit, gleaned from the feeling of luminosity my patio provided these past months. My revised question for the new year is: Am I in the group that needs the light or in the group with light to spare? If I have the light, I must shine it. Especially in the cold darkness.

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