The bright sunshine and the blistering hot air burned through my skin as I tried to open my car door in a hurry. Piling multiple heavy bags into both my hands, I clumsily tried to lock my car and speedily waddled to the spot under the large walnut tree by the fence at my neighboring park. My friend waved at me smiling while holding in her laugh from the way I walked, trying not to drop my overflowing backpacks and flimsy picnic baskets. She had her tote sprawled on the grass, next to her side of the oversized blanket that we used for our picnics. I dropped my bags on the grass next to hers, put on my mask and sat across from her on the blanket, apologizing for being an hour late.
My best friend and I have a tradition. Every week, we have a picnic at my neighborhood park. We formed the tradition during summer quarantine since we were only allowed to hang out with each other outside. I still remember every detail about our first picnic because I had not seen my best friend in four months. When the pandemic hit, I did not leave my house. My father was high-risk, so even when the rules first permitted small gatherings, I still did not go to any.
We talked for hours about anything and everything while crafting. Both of us enjoyed things like painting, making jewelry and using beads, so each week we dedicated the picnic to a specific activity. Channeling all our focus into that one activity was a nice distraction, and that’s why we both love it so much. We forget about the stressors in our lives that we spend so much time worrying about because in the moment, the only thing important is finishing that painting or bracelet, not the schoolwork I abandoned at home or the chores I didn’t do and ran out of the house before my mother noticed. Finishing the painting or bracelet or whatever other craft I was in the current phase of felt fulfilling like I accomplished something on my own. It was refreshing since I had the tendency to always leave things unfinished, getting easily bored and moving on to the next activity without looking back. Crafting at our picnics was nice, since it motivated us to actually do the activities and finish them, the things we love but lost touch with during our daily lives.
The occasional wind would blow through our set up under the tree and our paintings would fly away as we ran to grab them. The bluetooth speaker would play my weekly picnic playlist at full volume, a way for me to force my music taste onto my friend, and we would just lay there, working on our crafts in silence between the start of each new conversation.
Traditions like this felt like a pause in fast-paced life. Sitting under the tree, time wasn’t a concern for us. It was the final summer before college where we part ways, but quarantine turned off the countdown timer we all had running since freshman year. Leaving home felt so far away since COVID-19 stole any concept of time from me. We were just living in that moment enjoying the company and our surroundings while the Earth kept turning around us, the axis. A carefree feeling blew through the air all summer, a breeze I haven’t felt since early elementary school.
We saw the world change in respect to COVID-19 over time together. Our first picnic we were surrounded by quarantine walks. Families walked together wearing their homemade masks, crossing the pathway to avoid other families and social distance. Weeks later, the families walked together maskless, smiling while passing the other families around them. Then, those families no longer walked together, but separately. We’d see the kids hanging out with their friends in car circles at the parking lot and their parents walking on the other side of the park. Then the parents stopped coming, and it was only the kids. Then the kids disappeared as well. The park became more and more empty as COVID-19 got taken less and less seriously. The kids would hang out at each other’s houses instead of the park, the parents had to start going to work again and no longer had time for their daily walks. While everything around us changed so fast, we stayed under that tree in the same spot, just observing.
In June and July, we watched families celebrating birthdays at the picnic tables, grandparents spending time with their grandchildren, high schoolers taking graduation pictures by the trees. We even partook in our own high school graduation in late June at that same park and walked across the stage, getting our diplomas less than 40 feet from the walnut tree.
I said goodbye to people who moved away to college in early August and gave my farewells to some of my closest friends. But after the three months I spent in Ann Arbor before moving back home due to the COVID-19 increase in the residence halls, I continued those picnics and still continue to do so whenever I get the chance.
I was never a “carpe diem” kind of person and was always thinking about the future, wishing it would come sooner. But the uncertainty of the pandemic made me realize that we need to cherish every moment of our lives, even if it’s as small as sitting on an old blanket on the grass for five hours. I keep going to that park, even when my friend is busy, and sit in my car in the middle of the parking lot just as a break from regular life. I play my music loudly, but quiet enough that I can hear the birds and the laughter coming from the soccer field. Through the rearview mirror, I see fathers and their kids playing tennis on the courts, and I track the ball, watching it go back and forth, the same way it did years ago when I played with my family on that same court. The slight chill in the air slips through the cracked window urging me to leave. People come and go, but I still stay in my car, hesitant to reenter the road and diminish into nothing but a string of cars speeding through life. The world around us changes fast, so we need to find time to sit under the closest walnut tree, pause and take it all in.
MiC Columnist Roshni Mohan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org