The Ten Best Days of the Year (2020)

Hattie Jean Hayes
11 min readDec 16, 2020
Photo by Shannon Douglas on Unsplash

I’ve found myself in December again. At this time last year, I was pretty much completely fine: I was working a terrible temp job I hated, and I was constantly overdrafting my bank account, and I wanted to write a book and take some acting classes, but my lack of mental clarity or financial solvency rendered both of those “next year” projects.

As a matter of fact, in 2019, just about everything became a “next year” project. I’d spent a good chunk of my year isolated, out of work, pitying myself (for reasons valid and ridiculous), trying to figure out what the future could possibly hold. I’m writing this on December 15, 2020, so this scene may sound familiar to you.

People have asked how my pandemic is going and a couple of times, I’ve responded by outlining the dainty little mental collapse I had last year, affectionately nicknamed my ’19 Nervous Breakdown. If you read my end-of-year post from December 2019, you know. 2019 was horrible, for me. 2020 was horrible, and I was able to talk about it.

A more cynical person could probably look at my 2019, and our 2020, and think, Gee, two shitty years in a row, why bother. But I am basically a happy person. I like unicorns and bumblebees and sitting in the sunshine. I can make the best of any situation. 2019 was an anomaly, for me. 2020 was an anomaly, too, but I was able to muddle through somehow, and mined enjoyment out of it, which would make me feel despicable if it didn’t just make me relieved.

Earlier this week I found my planner* and in it, my 2020 Goals Sheet. Every year gets a sheet and every sheet gets a different name. This one was, aptly, “HATTIE’S GUIDE TO JUST GETTING IT UNDER CONTROL.” Some of these goals for 2020 — ha! I did not rent a house in Rhode Island with my friends, I did not spend the month of June “going to the gym as much as possible,” and I did not take any classes at UCB because it folded before the end of the first fiscal quarter.

Nor did I finish my first novel by January — but I did finish it in September, after totally restarting it and completing the manuscript in eight days. I didn’t release a second parody album — but I did write and produce a quarantine musical with my friends. I didn’t hit my savings goals for March or June or December — in fact, I have taken a bit of a break from the idea of “saving money” at all — but I paid off one credit card and in January I’ll pay off another, and what do you know, those two- and three-point gains to your credit score add up to a nice round number.

I did a lot of those “King Lear” things, a lot of those “You’ll never have another opportunity to create like this!” things. And I also suffered. That sounds dramatic: I am dramatic. I left my miserable temp job where no one had bothered to learn my name, and started a new job in mid-March, less than a week before New York City shut down. The sketch group I loved being a part of had its last live show and pivoted to video, and then pivoted to…nothing. People I loved hurt me. People I loved stopped being people I loved. People I loved, who hurt me, had to stop being in my life, but never stopped being people I loved. I started losing my hair in January and it only just now…seems to be…maybe...not falling out? I never said that, okay, don’t jinx it.

For the first time in eight years, I didn’t fly home every couple months to see my family. But I did get to see them. My brother turned eighteen and I didn’t get to be there, but I Skyped him from a house in New Jersey, where I was staying with a cat named Mr. Chirpy, writing my novel, and I minimized my Google Doc so I could watch my brother open his autographed photo of Jude Law. My parents and brother all got COVID, and there was nothing I could do besides pray from 1500 miles away. And by some miracle, they were able to recover and, belatedly, safely, celebrate my grandmother’s 94th birthday with her. There’s a lot I haven’t had a chance to mourn. There’s a lot I didn’t feel safe celebrating. Every single bit of it is the best I could’ve done.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year talking to my friends on Facetime, and in particular, my friend Chloe, who I met in 2013 when I toured Arizona State University. Chloe hosted me in her dorm. Now, she lives in New Jersey, and we talk on the phone every Sunday. I’ve known Chloe my entire adult life, and do you know what I’ve realized, talking to her about everything and nothing, all damnable year?

Direction is nice, in theory. But no amount of intention will undo the way you live your life. Yeah, I wanted to write a novel in 2019 — I thought about the story and the people in it every single day. But until I wrote the book, what I wanted had no impact on my every day. What you want will not supplant what you have.

When Chloe recommended a regular check-in call, I thought it sounded fun. We’re close, we don’t talk enough, it would be nice to have more than a harried update every few months. And it radically changed my life, is what happened. Dedicating time to someone I loved had the same effect as dedicating time to something I loved. Discipline and attention changed my focus. Adjusting the posture of my life improved the way it feels around me. Centering what I loved made it all survivable.

Last year I logged onto Medium and unrolled a breathtaking spool of personal turmoil, and concluded by essentially saying “I got through it, so will you.” Yikes. Sorry. Jinxed.

Although I wasn’t strictly incorrect, was I? At this time last year, I sort of thought it would take me decades to achieve a life that felt meaningful. Because, to some degree, I still bought into my own idea, that a specific version of success would imbue me, Hattie Hayes, with meaning. But here I am, making my list of goals for 2021. The title for this one is “HATTIE’S GUIDE TO HAVING IT ALL (FOR REAL THIS TIME).”

And, alright, some of them are tasks, homework, pass/fail situations, but look — here’s one that says “be happier than you are right now.” Well, I think we can manage that.

There. Now, I’ve vaguely alluded to all that good stuff that happened to me this year. Let’s actually look at some of it! Please enjoy the following list, The Ten Best Days of 2020.

*I only buy undated planners. God bless us, every one.

10. September 29, the day I got accepted into a novel workshop. Not just any novel workshop: a months-long workshop led by one of my favorite authors, whose book was a major influence on the fantastical world of my own. This was actually the second writing workshop I was accepted to this year — the first, in June, was also an incredible experience, and focused on short stories — but I remember getting the email acceptance for this workshop on the train, and bursting into tears. I finished my novel on September 13th, and found out about this workshop the following week. A friend looked over the first fifteen pages of my rough draft, reassured me that they were, in fact, complete sentences, and then I submitted, and hoped. As I’m writing this, I have a notebook on the table that is full of thoughtful, generous feedback from my classmates and my instructor. Always take the leap of faith.

9. September 20, the day my friend Rosa and I went to Greenwood Cemetery. We had talked about going to the park, I think, initially, and then decided it was fall, and we were in autumnal outfits, and we went to the cemetery. The cemetery! I was in Doc Martens and everything. When we walked in, some staff members asked “Are you here for the concert?” and we decided that yes, we were. It was a beautiful string quartet on a grassy hill overlooking the rest of the cemetery. The light and the grass were golden. The air was quiet and still, in the comforting way that New York is quiet, a quiet with sound just past the surface, if you need it. We got kind of lost, because you’ve seen 450 mausoleums, you’ve seen ’em all. And then we met up with our beloved friend Amy, on a street corner outside a grocery store, for a very quick catch-up and gift hand-off. On my way home, I read The Rules of Magic and picked up a big bag of fried chicken.

8. November 7, the day my friends and I went to the park with champagne. Listen, I don’t think elected officials are the end-all be-all of our well-being, and I try pretty hard not to hang my happiness on the people we put in office. There is something so cool about waking up from a nap to cheering, singing and dancing in the streets. There are moments in life where you open the window and crawl out on the roof, even though it’s strictly forbidden in your lease, and put Miley Cyrus on your little speaker. I’d planned on drinking in the park with my friend Gabe, for Depression Reasons, but suddenly I was in the park with Gabe and his partner Cailin and my boyfriend Matt, and we had a picnic blanket and a bottle of alcohol for each of us, and sometimes, everyone across the park would break into a wave of cheers, with no warning. A guy on a Jet-Ski went past and he cheered, too.

7. July 11, the day my family got a dog pool (really!) and sat in the yard. Wow, a lot of outdoor activities this year! Normally, I go home for the 4th of July. This year, I wrapped myself in multiple masks and eye gear, wore a full sweatsuit over my clothes so I could bag it up when I stepped out of the airport, and didn’t touch anyone in my family until I’d scoured myself under hot water. And then, I spent a lovely week at home, doing pretty much nothing. My mom got a badminton set for us, and we played a lot of that — my brother hit a bat with the shuttlecock — and we sat out on the front porch, and the back porch, and just looked at each other. But then my mom got a little swimming pool, a collapsible one meant for cooling down your large dog, and we put on our swimsuits and sat in the pool and drank. My mom and I had alcoholic root beers — a bunch of ants got in hers. We blared music on a speaker, and didn’t get any sunburn at all. My dad and brother played Frisbee, and depending on who you ask, technically I “played” “Frisbee” too.

6. April 9, the first Our Topic Tonight show (Androids). My boyfriend Matt and I met in Phoenix when we were co-hosts of an edutainment variety show. In April, we rebooted the show, in a sense, live-streaming it from our living room. Every week, Our Topic Tonight addresses a subject like unicorns, or kissing, or the Canterbury Tales, by inviting experts and wannabe-experts to talk, or tell jokes, or create an impossible quiz game. Sure, Matt and I have been involved in a lot of creative projects together over the years, but this felt like a return to our halcyon days, with all the added wisdom and confidence of our years working together.

5. September 30, my birthday. This was a lovely day for many reasons. It started with a video from my family: a spoof of “Our Topic Tonight,” featuring Hattie-centric trivia and games. My mother knows me very well. My brother and dad were very kind to participate. At the office, my beloved coworker let me pick my cake, and act surprised when it was just what I wanted. That night, I came home to Skype my family, and open presents, and eat the shrimp that Matt and I cooked six different ways, to replicate my beloved Endless Shrimp Fest at Red Lobster. I got a terrycloth nightgown and a Tiffany necklace and a cuckoo clock, and loved them all. Then, our Wednesday night movie-watching group deferred to my film choice, Notting Hill, and we all got to experience “whoopsie-daisies” and “surreal, but nice” and “the readers of Horse & Hound will be delighted” in real time.

4. February 29, my parents’ wedding anniversary. It was 28 years, or their seventh anniversary. My brother and I threw a party. My mom wore her reception dress, and didn’t get mad when I had photos of her in cutesy honeymoon beach outfits on display. My dad’s family and friends from work came and he got to show his family off to everybody. The only person who danced more than me was my mother. All of us dressed to theme, and the matches and napkins were a replica of the ones at the original affair. Best of all, after, we sat in a hotel, eating Taco Bell, and reading all the very nice cards.

3. February 22, the last in-person Infinite Sketch show. We sold out. We did amazing. We had great sketches. We hit all our beats. We danced at the end. We went to karaoke after. We stayed out all night. We were unstoppable.

2. February 2, the day the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl. There’s a great barbecue place in Long Island City, run by a KC guy, called John Brown’s Smokehouse. In the fall it changed locations, but in February, we were all of us crammed into a long, skinny restaurant down the street from MoMA PS1. Me and Matt and Joelle and Savannah and Kelsie got in line early, coffee thermoses tucked into our pockets, and waited in the cold to be let in. We ate a barbecue buffet. We sat on the back patio with space heaters. When the big-screen TV out back lost connection, we ran inside, cramming around screens inside, standing on tables in the fourth quarter. When we won, right on time in the eleventh hour, the way Kansas City always seems to win, tears spilled down my face and onto strangers as we all screamed along to We Are the Champions, impossibly close together.

1. September 4, my first day in the Palisades, the day before I totally restarted my book. I left work a smidgen early, ostensibly to beat Labor Day traffic, but really just to look at the trees and the water and listen to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And to get ice cream on the way. That night, I walked down the highway to the market, and bought a pound of pasta from a nice girl named Liz who lived around the corner, right near the cemetery. That evening, I sat on the porch of the big fancy house with a drink and the sound of birds and the shapes of deer in the trees. The next morning I woke up early and started writing. But that afternoon, I walked into a sunny bedroom and took a deep breath. I flopped onto the bed, and for a while, I lived my life exactly how it’s meant to be lived: within arm’s reach of everything I want.
I don’t believe it will be out of my reach again.