2019 was a lot. It started with me feeling pretty well-balanced and ended with a lot of anxiety. Particularly in the second half of the year, the grief I've been working through following my grandmother's death and later the death of a cherished pet were exacerbated by burnout from work.
But in between those parts, there were certainly some bright spots. I traveled to Poland and the Netherlands for the first time each, and this was the first time I'd ever traveled to a country where I didn't speak the native language. I visited some old haunts in Paris, and continued refining my French skills by reading more books in French and practicing on language apps.
I absorbed dozens of graphic novels and used them as fuel for my own projects. I practiced my ability to tell stories visually with mini projects and tried to ritualize comic making with my first ever stab at Inktober. I attended MICE (the Massachusetts Independent Comic Expo) for the first time and realized how vast an art form comics have become.
In terms of wellness, in the spring, I started commuting daily by bike for the first time in my life. It became a low-stress way for me to get exercise and tackle my commute at the same time. I had previously done this with running, but in the last couple years have experienced knee problems. I worry about having caused overuse injuries in both knees by not properly training for marathons in the past (I rarely incorporated muscle strengthening exercises), and don't want to make them worse. Biking keeps the muscles around my knees strong. Not to mention, it wakes me up in the morning and breaks down stress from a long day.
In 2019, I tried my best to prioritize spending time with my family whenever I could. In February, I attended my niece's baptism as her godmother, celebrated her first birthday in June, and visited her and her parents at Christmastime. On the other hand, I wasn't able to make it down to Florida in time to say goodbye to my grandmother before she passed away in August, following several health crises. But I have treasured the time spent with our remaining family remembering her and my grandfather in the months since.
Creatively, in 2019 I started working in earnest on a graphic novel about my relationship with my family. For the last couple years, it's been a hazy idea that I didn't quite know how to pursue, and I would sporadically spend time chipping away at premature ideas at the expense of real forward motion. In August, only days after my grandmother's death, I attended a Graphic Novel workshop at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT. The raw emotions that followed me there made the trip hard because there was no distraction from what I was feeling and the story that I had traveled there to focus on. But the workshop allowed me to channel the pain, and the guidance from instructors and fellow students allowed me to feel a creative breakthrough. It was the first time since college that I felt I had a mission laid out before me. This has made all the difference, and the motivation has allowed me to chug along with clear storyboarding and penciling the rest of the year. In past years, progress has meant spending one weekend day toiling away at a project that I then dropped for weeks afterward due to aimlessness. Having a vision has made bite-sized progress clearer and more manageable because I understand the big picture better.
Unfortunately, the last couple months of the year were a bit of a mess. I was overextending myself at my job, still trying to make progress on creative endeavors, and deprioritizing my own health. I took my pet guinea pig (/dear friend) Archie in for a check-up on cold symptoms and she was diagnosed with cancer. Her decline and treatment was agonizing and the diagnosis contradicted her continued joyfulness and energy. Plans for managing her recovery from surgery conflicted with my plans to get some closure by going down to see my family in Florida and visit my grandparents' graves at Thanksgiving. My trip ended up being abbreviated and the emotional heft of it was condensed into three days instead of a week. And despite trying to optimistically plan around Archie's recovery with a shortened trip and scheduling myself to work from home to monitor her, we had to put her down following complications revealed during surgery. I was devastated, having lost both my grandmother and my closest furry friend who had comforted me through grief. I spent hours at home curled up in bed panicking and crying in the weeks during my grandmother's decline, and this was repeated during Archie's.
Around this time, I was too tired to ride my bike and ended up collapsing on a train and being taken to the hospital. I was neglecting the simplest things like sleep, eating, and hydrating and my blood pressure and blood sugar were dangerously low. As much as exercise would have helped minimize my stress and anxiety, I had no choice but to stop my bike commute more permanently for fear that I would collapse again, but in the middle of traffic. Riding the train became scary as well because I continued to feel light headed and dizzy, and would sometimes have to get off a train and back on another several times while I monitored whether I could stand up without passing out. I occasionally had to take time off from work to manage my stress and recover from sleep deprivation.
Given the timing of these stress-related health issues and Thanksgiving falling a week later than usual, I did not end up savoring the ramp up to the holiday season like I usually do. Shopping for and creating gifts was frantic even though I had been assembling ideas for the last several months. I printed my greeting cards on cheaper paper than usual because I didn't have time to buy my preferred cardstock. I didn't even write cards until the 22nd. There were countless after-work functions that cut down on my time to prepare portraits that I had planned to do for family and friends. There were cookies to bake, gatherings to host and attend, gifts to wrap and send, decorations to put up, and reservations to make. These are of course all normal holiday tasks, but it all happened at light speed. I also tried to get in to see my PCP about my health, but because she had recently left the practice, I couldn't find any appointments before the end of the year. Ivy, my other guinea pig, also had multiple appointments for a hormonal condition. My check-off list in total ended up having almost 200 items, all planned out to the day, destination, or deadline. Meanwhile at work, I had nonstop interviews and coordination work on an executive-level search, which made everything feel very high-stakes and frantic.
The last couple weeks have been a welcome recovery. While I had hoped to spend a week and a half at home in New York, benefitting from peace and quiet that would fuel my productivity on the book, I ended up needing the peacefulness as a reset button. I finished reading a book in French, read several graphic novels, and sat with Ivy and my parents' cat Link. I ate comfort food and spent long hours chatting with my parents about family, pop culture, and old times. And I was able to see my niece and marvel at how she has started walking and talking since I saw her last, back in June. When I did work, it was on the most crucial scenes, and I ended up composing and thumbnailing the last pages of the book.
I'm not eager to go back to work tomorrow, but I'm relieved that I feel much more centered than I was when I left. And I hope that in 2020, I'm able to maintain that balance and build my resilience, so that when stress or tragedy hits, I'm not getting knocked over.
When I think back to where I was on this day in 2010, I was in a very different stage of life. I was still a sophomore in college, in the middle of a five-year relationship that ended in infidelity, and that person has since married someone else. At this particular time I 2010, we were broken up but got back together for another three years. When that ended, I managed to fall in love with my best friend and we have been living together for more than seven years.
Since 2010, I have said goodbye to my paternal grandfather, and both of my maternal grandparents. I have said goodbye to my childhood dog Dewey, my fish Phineas, my rats Maggie, Boo, Arthur, and Walter, and my guinea pig Archie. I have said hello to my beloved niece and goddaughter and held her on her very first day in the world.
This time in 2010, I was revisited by the same autoimmune disease that I had suffered from as a child, and was on medication requiring weekly blood tests for three years. It meant I could not drink alcohol, which likely meant I was far more productive in college than I would have been with lots of college partying.
I have been vegetarian the whole decade. I ran one season of college-level cross country. I rediscovered a love for running in adulthood and worked my way up from 10k to half marathon to marathon length. Running helped me rebuild after feeling broken down and rejected. I helped coordinate a weekly run club at work, until my knees forced me to give it up.
Since 2010, I have worked as a resident assistant, a photographer, a library clerk, a saffron farmer, a goat herder, a sales associate/key holder/assistant manager at a toy store, a community associate/specialist at a coworking center, and most recently a recruiter/lead recruiter at the same coworking company. I have learned how to manage shared living/working environments, process library books, provide customer service, manage sales pipelines, lead tours, and host interviews. I have lived in France on two occasions. I moved from upstate New York to Boston, and have occupied the same apartment since 2012. I started a 401k and I put away 14% of every paycheck for retirement so that I can one day devote myself to art and not have to worry about my bills. I have started saving for a house of my own, and have considered one day having a family of my own.
Since 2010, I developed a portfolio of oil paintings in my final year at school and had a "senior show" and sold my work. I've taken commissions after college, continued to sell my own work, and donated 75% of the profits of my most expensive sale to the Boston Children's Hospital after the Marathon Bombings. I've left oil painting behind me, at least for the time being, though I feel pangs of loss whenever I look at the paintings hanging on my wall that I have yet to finish. I've taken up making comics, and have found them to be a much looser and more comprehensive way of sifting through ideas and sentiments.
Since I was 11 years old, I've written myself a letter every few years and scheduled myself to open each five to ten years after it was written. In each, I express how I feel about certain things in that moment, my relationships, my likes and dislikes, and my hopes and dreams about my circumstances when I open the letter half or a full decade later. It has marked the time and many milestones in my life in a curious way. Sometimes I am tickled that my predictions were right on the money. Other times I laugh at how much my dreams and interests have changed in five to ten years. Other times I am struck by how much my priorities have been clouded by the present, and re-evaluate whether I am chasing and valuing what I should, compared to the things I thought I should chase and value in the past.
I hope that ten years from now, in 2030, I am engaged with people and projects that I love, that I am surrounded by family and friends that I make the time and space for, and that I feel secure with my choices in life. Beyond that, who knows.
Cheers to everyone in the new year and new decade. And a reminder to not be too hard on yourself.
Hannah Dunscombe is a painter and portrait artist based in Mansfield, MA.