Disclaimer: This is not a happy holiday story and contains plenty of complaining about first-world problems. If that doesn't sound like your idea of a good time at the moment, I'd recommend skipping this one.
"I can just finish this stall," I tell my boss. I'm hot, sweaty, congested, sleep-deprived, headachey, and tears are streaming down my face. "I'm fine."
"I know work can be a great distraction, but this..." she's looking at me, a complete disaster half-wearing my respirator and holding a manure fork, "doesn't look like it's working."
"Yeah..." I manage. It's the day after Christmas, and I have to say that 2020 is the year that just keeps on giving. I've never felt like a year was desperately dragging me down a pit with it before, but here we are.
Spending the holidays alone? No problem. I consider myself an expert. Give me some days of isolation while my friends and family socialize, and I will fill it with distractions like the best of them. TV marathons, video games, books, delicious meals full of ingredients that other family members don't care for. Heck, I might even tuck in a bit of work and get ahead during the glorious, slow, uninterrupted bookend for the year.
I spent Christmas morning crying in a horse stall too. The difference was, no one caught me doing it. And it was more of a... tearful moment than a morning of blubbering so hard I had to take my respirator off to spit out gobs of mucus. Glorious isolation, where no one can see you crying and inevitably ask the questions that just make you cry more.
Christmas came early to Hawai'i this year: on the evening of December 20th, to be precise, with Kilauea's latest eruption. Billions of gallons of lava have flowed into Halemaʻumaʻu crater, and tens of thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide have ascended into the atmosphere since. This is the second time that 2020 has really pushed me not to take things for granted. You know, the little things—like breathing.
About a week ago, I had my Christmas all planned out. I would work Friday and Saturday, neatly occupying my morning. Then, I would retreat to my porch and sit down with some passionfruit ice cream, coffee, my geckos, and Overwatch. (For the uninitiated, Overwatch is an online game where you and a group of people you've never met shoot at a different group of people who have also never met for about 10 minutes at a time. Each match is very fast-paced, making it a perfect distraction.) After that, I might listen to an audiobook or talk to someone on the phone, maybe do a bit of work.
Over the course of the week, the skies were hazy, and I took it pretty easy: Tuesday was my only work day before Christmas. Thursday was mildly unpleasant. I woke up feeling like I had talked too much the night before, even though I hadn't—the geckos just aren't that chatty this time of year. In addition to the more literal haze that was creeping over the Kona coast, I felt an increasing sense of gloominess and dread. One of my favorite things to do here is simply walking around. Granted, I don't have a car, so that's mostly my only option for going anywhere unless I borrow one. But, I love walking. I love that it's warm and sunny in the middle of winter, and I can walk a few miles past all sorts of wonderfully unfamiliar plants almost whenever I feel like it.
Friday was when it really hit me. I think that was also my peak PMS day. On Christmas morning, I awoke to a burning throat and the lovely fog of sleep deprivation. Outside was the haze, and I'd also run out of the few vitamins that I do take, but no matter, I just had to make it through a morning barn shift, and then I could... sit on my porch wearing a respirator and enjoying the haze or something as I played some games.
I went down to the barn and got to work. Feeding breakfast is always a good time because everyone, especially Applejack—the pony who I once watched bust out of his paddock just to raid the feed buckets—is so darn happy to see you. Mostly, they're happy to see the buckets of alfalfa cubes, but I can pretend they're excited that I'm coming to say good morning.
There's a very grandmotherly woman who comes here to ride one of the horses a few times a week. She had mentioned she wanted to feed on Christmas even if she wouldn't be riding. So, I put off feeding the large barn for her. I went and fed everyone else, Applejack included, and came back to the large barn to learn that the other woman living and working here had fed them because the horses were acting up, and they'd have to go out early today for some reason or another. The older woman still hadn't arrived, and it was past when I would have fed them anyway, so oh well. Then, right on cue as I was starting to work, the older woman pulled up and was disappointed to find that I'd fed the horses. I felt a bit bad about it, telling myself that I hadn't actually fed them, but then, I would have before she got there anyway, so I might as well have. Seriously, I spent 15 minutes feeling guilty about spoiling her Christmas morning even though I didn't do anything. And also feeling guilty that the horses had disturbed the other woman, just to top it off.
Anyways, I set to cleaning the stalls. It wasn't long before the potent cocktail of vog, horse piss, and dust left me feeling lightheaded and nauseated. Respirator on, a bit of miserable guilt and discomfort-induced crying, and I wrapped up for the day. It was hell, but at least I'd get to blow off some steam playing video games like a responsible adult.
I plopped down on the porch with my laptop and a pot of coffee and spent the next hour trying to connect to the wifi: Forget the network. Reboot the computer. Wait a few minutes, rinse, repeat. Nope, nope, nope. That certainly put a dent in my plans for the day. I distracted myself by working on some art. Even listening to music was making me teary-eyed—thanks, PMS. The internet outage was valiantly persistent. And I wasn't about to call my boss on Christmas Day for a tech support trouble-shooting session as she enjoyed her first Christmas as a grandmother—I don't even like kids, but she is enjoying the grandma experience so much that I can't help cheering her on.
A nap would do me good, I decided. It was one in the afternoon, and I was feeling drowsy. Perfect. I curled up in the sun-bathed recliner beneath the window with a blanket and closed my eyes. I loosely focused on my breathing, falling into deeper and deeper relaxation. And then a familiar, high-pitched whining reached my ears: a razor-blade slicing right through the fog of sleep. A mosquito. A fucking mosquito.
Failing to kill the tiny bloodsucker, I pulled the blanket over my head and began to doze off once more, only to have that abominable whine slap my dozing consciousness right back awake. I was so pissed about the day at that point that I sat down at a keyboard and therapeutically rattled off 500 words about my abysmal Christmas.
The rest of the day passed in a mostly sleep-deprived miserable haze. I accidentally popped in on my best friend's stream of a Sonic Christmas special, which cheered me up a fair bit, and I talked to Zack for a while. I went back to the barns in the evening and cleaned up the stalls as best I could for the next day as the bleary magenta sun disappeared into a cloud bank for the day. I had made it through the day... Then the water pump that supplies not only the barns, but also the trailer I'm staying in started acting up. The pump grew warmer and warmer, making strange sounds until I unplugged it. I clearly don't need breathable air: what's running water, anyway?
If you're following Kilauea's eruption, you probably haven't heard much about "the horrors of vog" and the thousands of people struggling to breathe. That's because, for most people, the current air quality is just fine. As I learned during the wildfires this summer, even my lungs are "sensitive." Which is completely unsurprising given my childhood of asthma and allergies. But it is incredibly frustrating when everyone around you hardly feels it, and you feel like you spent the night huffing fiberglass.
Along with the physical discomfort and the ugly haze in the air, that dread was getting a bit stronger. The entire reason I came to Hawai'i was to avoid spending my winter cooped up inside dealing with my Raynauds and what likely falls under the categorization of Seasonal Affective Disorder. No, I would take advantage of the fact that I can work from anywhere and live (and work) it up on a tropical island! Because why the hell not? And here was nature itself in all its glory giving me a giant middle finger for Christmas. Ho. Ho. Ho.
The day after Christmas, I awoke to that burning in my throat and the now familiar feeling of sleep deprivation, like the world's most uncomfortable, smothering blanket. Oh, and I had also started menstruating, just to top it off. Cramps always make everything better.
I started work as early as I dared, wanting to get things over with so that I could retreat to the trailer or the porch and take a nap or just generally be unconscious, mosquitoes be damned. I went down to the lower paddocks and fed the ponies that were temporarily lodged there, along with the geldings. I returned to find the woman who lives in the house on the property feeding the barn horses, who had apparently heard me walking down to the lower paddocks and started raising a racket. I had intentionally put feeding them last, as I'd been told not to feed them before 6:45. This was the second morning in a row she'd been disturbed by them on my account, so I did what any reasonable, well-adjusted person would do in this scenario: I mumbled an apology, slunk off behind a barn, and cried for a bit, feeling like a complete failure of a human being.
The horses went out to the paddocks for the morning, and I put myself back together, more or less, hiding behind my respirator in the smaller day barn as I finished up the stalls while wrangling the occasional unprovoked bout of tears. Then I heard a question being asked. No one responded. Most likely because the question was directed at me.
"Huh?" I asked, my sinuses throbbing.
"So, are you going to learn how to ride Early while you're here?" asked the woman staying in the house. Early is a sweet little gray pony. Not quite as cute as Liberty in my opinion, but he seems to be a very mild-mannered pony. I pulled my respirator down and dissolved, yet again, into a mess of tears as I tried to explain that I wasn't sure I was going to be able to stay and keep working on account of the vog.
As someone who cries easily and cries a lot, it really does suck. Most people do not know what to do with a crying person. I cry at small things, while most people cry at larger things if they cry at all. And I hate being the center of attention—it's embarrassing, which just causes more tears and thereby more attention. So, if you're like me and start a new job or make new friends, you usually have this magical, surreal period of time where people don't know that you're a huge crybaby. (Note that sometimes the opposite happens: you start crying in a public place and make a new friend in the form of whatever kind soul was brave enough to comfort a total stranger. What a totally normal, non-awkward way to bond.) Inevitably, something happens, and you turn into a wet blanket in front of all of your new coworkers or companions over something small and the gig is up. Everyone now knows that you're a freakish living, breathing waterworks. And what does that mean? You guessed it! More tears.
The woman staying in the house was incredibly compassionate and went off to dig an air purifier out of storage. I reassembled myself for what felt like the twentieth time that day and went back to cleaning stalls. At this point I was determined to just get through this fucking day and then go hide from the world for two days until my next shift, hoping the air quality would improve. Oh, and because the water pump started acting up the day before, it was also impossible for me to actually finish my work early: filling and cleaning troughs would have to wait until that got fixed.
That brings us to my boss coming to talk to me as I miserably plodded away on Eden's stall. Three of six. I always start with the worst stalls (that's you, Moon!) if I can, just to make the last ones go faster. Instead, I got shooed out of finishing the day's work with an air purifier in hand and told that I could and should borrow the car and drive to somewhere with clean air.
I started by laying on my bed staring at the ceiling and ugly-crying with a roll of toilet paper for about 30 minutes. Then I drove to Waikoloa. The vog arrived within 30 minutes of me pulling into an excessively resort-like parking lot. I got back in the car and made it up to Waimea, the tank nearly empty, where I sat in a park being buffetted by strong, clean gusts coming up off the ocean 10 miles or so away as the crow flies. My phone kept dying, as it had been doing increasingly often since I arrived on Hawai'i. I sat under the twisted Christmas berry tree, thinking and watching little puffy clouds as they rushed in from the sea and twisted around a windswept green hill in the distance.
I thought about my childhood with asthma that I seemed to be revisiting now, and how bad I felt about being found out: I'd managed to stay in good spirits for nearly two months, only to finish it out with today's spectacular production. I was still wrestling with the fact that my boss and the woman staying in the house were picking up my slack while I sat in a park incapable of doing anything productive. I thought about what I could do to cope with these new circumstances; what I should do about Kilauea's eruption in the long and short term.
And eventually, knowing I still had to drive all the way back and run a few errands along the way, I got back in the car and filled up the tank, bidding farewell to the clear skies. I washed the windows because why not? Anything for a few more minutes in this serenely fresh air. Half a mile down the road, a gust knocked a bird right into the pristine windshield, leaving a smudge and a feather waving like a little banner notifying me that I'd surely killed the poor thing. Truly, 2020 has been a year of abundance.