Upfront: Filling your bucket

 In June 2021

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Like many people over the past year and a half, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home. For what reason, you ask? Oh, just this little thing called a global pandemic. It’s a strange, unprecedented feeling, being cooped up in your house for a really long time. We’ve been forced to limit our in-person interactions. Trips and vacations? Forget about it. I’ve likened the experience to that of a caged animal — it’s left me feeling trapped, isolated and a little fearful of the outside world.

So as vaccines have been distributed, stores and businesses reopened, and COVID restrictions lifted, I’m trying to reintegrate myself into a “normal” society once again, which feels difficult even after getting fully vaccinated. It requires some retraining of how we’ve taught our brains to function over the past year. It means consciously not crossing the street when someone is coming toward you on the sidewalk, feeling comfortable inside restaurants and bars, and being around large groups of people without panicking. It may require some metaphorical “dipping toes in the water” before taking a cannonball leap into the pool of normalcy.

But it WILL get better, and it WILL get easier. Last month, my husband and I headed north to Abingdon, Va., to brave the Virginia Creeper. What began as a Native American footpath and once served as a railroad, the 34.3-mile trail is a popular biking and hiking spot near the Virginia-North Carolina line. The idea of biking the trail was daunting: The lack of gym access over the past year had left me, well, a little out of shape. Plus, the potential of being around a ton of people? But I wanted to take the leap into the pool of uncertainty. And I wasn’t the only one. The trail was packed with adventurers looking for a beautiful ride through the Appalachians, especially after a year of being cooped up.

We happened to be there just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Roy Cooper lifted mask restrictions. It was the weirdest, most magical, joy-inducing feeling. I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing the lower half of people’s faces, their expressions and their warm smiles. I also didn’t realize how much I missed smiling back.

On our trip we stopped in Damascus, Va., which was holding a scaled-down version of its annual Appalachian Trail Days festival, welcoming both tourists and hikers that stop by while thru-hiking the 2,190-mile trail. The usual festival vendors were selling local wares and fair food. But there was also such an outpouring of love. Church groups and others offered showers, haircuts, Wi-Fi, food, blankets, clothing and other essentials for the weary travelers. Hikers who hadn’t seen each other since they parted ways on the trail greeted each other with grins and bear hugs.

It reminded me of a children’s book called Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud. The book teaches that you carry an invisible bucket wherever you go: When your bucket is full, you feel happy, and when your bucket is empty, you may feel sad. You can help fill other people’s buckets with kindness, appreciation and nice gestures. Those actions also help fill your own bucket. I saw a lot of bucket-fillers that rainy afternoon. It’s nice to know that after a really tough year, human kindness endures, and people are eager to show love.

There is still uncertainty surrounding the return to normalcy. But getting back to interacting with and helping our fellow humans, spending time with loved ones, meeting new people and exploring new places is worth it. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to be a bucket-filler.

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