On March 11, 2020, the coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a pandemic. The 12 months since have been filled with undeniable, ubiquitous reminders that life is short and unpredictable. Somewhere between “How could this be happening?” and “Is this what I want my life to be?” some people went ahead with life-changing decisions. Despite the global health crisis — or because of it — they didn’t tread water. Instead, they created the lives they’ve always wanted.
In our year of waiting, here are stories of people who didn’t wait.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
I quit the restaurant business and started my own art studio
Maria Milton, 34, former beverage manager, now owner of MarzDM Studio, Arlington, Va.
I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 16 and became a general manager at 24. I love the people, the camaraderie of regulars and industry workers. It just felt like home.
A lot of [customers] coming out [this summer] tried our patience. There were absolutely generous and amazing people who supported small businesses. I’m talking about the other people, who were like, “I’m not going to wear a mask even if I’m talking to you because I’m outside.”
“In a pandemic” was always in my head: “Why am I dealing with this in a pandemic?” “Don’t they realize we are in a pandemic?” The compounding frustrations of trying to keep myself, my 64-year-old father, who I live with, our team and other guests safe all while this person or group of people have little to zero respect for our health and safety really pushed me toward this decision to leave.
Throughout the summer, I was channeling my frustrations into art. It was healing to be able to have something beautiful at the end of the day. Once you start using that part of your brain, it just keeps coming.
This got me thinking about what my mother would do. She would say, “What makes you happy?” and [my job] was not making me happy. She passed away three weeks before her retirement [in 2017]. I hate that she didn’t get to do all the things she dreamed of with her retirement. I was watching the [restaurant] industry morph before my eyes, and I realized this is the perfect time for me to do something that makes me happy. When indoor dining started, the GM asked everyone: “Will you still work here?” My immediate answer was no. That was a line I was not willing to cross.
Since my last day on Nov. 1, I’ve been focusing all my energy and time into creating a shop to focus on my art and glass. I get up, make coffee and sometimes forget to eat. I just can’t stop when I’m in the studio. It’s an entirely different kind of stress — and I like it. I have so much to do, but I can’t wait to do it.
I got laid off and founded my own consulting firm
Julye M. Williams, 43, founder of Project 2043, Silver Spring, Md.
It was April 15 [of 2020]. I was working at an educational nonprofit when I got a call at 9:30 in the morning from our human resources department lead. Shortly after, my boss joined the line. They let me know as a result of the pandemic, and a loss of revenue, they were having staff layoffs. My position was being eliminated.
As soon as I hung up the phone, I started thinking, “I know there’s always an opportunity in everything. What’s the opportunity here?” It made me think back to a projection from the U.S. Census Bureau that in the year 2043, the majority of the U.S. population will be people of color. I can’t tell you when I read that, but it has never left my mind. It was always coming back to me, asking me what I’m going to do about it.
My years at the nonprofit showed me that while leaders often believe they have the best of intentions, they are often clueless about matters of race and inclusion. I worked in an organization where 98 percent of the time I was the only person of color at the table. I helped the organization develop a new revenue stream, create new educational products, and offered deep insight into matters of race. All of this made the company look great. However, I was continuously passed over for promotions, faced microaggressions in the workplace, and as the woman of color they often turned to, I felt tokenized.
I now hope to change [that]. U.S. demographics are shifting. Deciding to launch Project 2043 was a way for me to help individuals and organizations become more aware of the day-to-day actions and inactions that promote the inequities we have now — and learn about this demographic shift. We do this through training and educational support. We want companies, organizations, schools and individuals to hire us to prepare for this shift.
I’m a spiritual person, and I felt like getting laid off was truly an act of divine intervention. The call from the HR director opened a path for me to do this important work. It was [a] combination of being laid off, looking at my path, looking at this [demographic] projection, seeing what’s happening in society and the murders of Black people at the hands of police. I just had to do something. Being laid off finally gave me the time to address what was percolating in my heart.
I’m moving to Paris
Jamie Godfrey, 45, housewares designer and product developer, Dodgeville, Wis.
In 2019, I got laid off, was newly single and my dog died. I was basically a sad, gay country song. My cousin, who lives in France, said, “Why don’t you come here and figure out what you want to do next?” I put everything in storage and went for 3½ months. While there, my father needed heart surgery, so I came back to be with him in February . Then the pandemic happened, and I was basically stranded in Wisconsin.
During quarantine, I started drafting floor plans of houses I would love to build, just for fun. A light went off: “What can I do with my existing skills that is not completely new?” I thought interior design. I applied to [a local college] and was accepted but placed on a year wait list. If I have to wait a year, I thought, I should apply to a school that I really want to attend. I found the Paris College of Art, the one Tom Ford attended.
I’ve always known that I was going to get back to France; I just didn’t know how. The pandemic made the decision much easier. It was like a giant bear hug for my sense of adventure and wanderlust. My only trepidation was around the choice of interior design. It seemed so extravagant and self-indulgent with people getting sick and dying. But I started hearing news reports of Lowe’s and Home Depot recording record profits as people were taking on home improvement projects. We need designers more than ever as we reimagine our personal and public spaces going forward.
In the spring, I started selling the contents of my storage space. It was a way to say to myself: You have nothing holding you back in the U.S. No mortgage, no car payment, no children or pets, and not even a set of china or houseplant. If I don’t do it now, I never will. Had the pandemic not happened, I would be doing more of the same. The pandemic was the defibrillator that jolted my dream into life.
I fell in love
Russell Beyer, 35, bartender, Arlington, Va.
In 2016, I moved [from D.C.] to New York with my ex. When that [relationship] didn’t pan out, I stayed and eventually started online dating. I had some really good dates with this guy named Dan. But I wasn’t enjoying the city. I didn’t find it sustainable, emotionally or financially. Honestly, we’re both defeatists and didn’t think it would work long distance. So, I came back to D.C., and we stayed friends. We sent each other funny texts. He came down for Pride, but nothing more than friends.
In August, he was getting sick of the city and mentioned he was thinking of coming down to hang out. I told him: “Don’t spend money on a hotel. Come stay with me.” He was supposed to be here for two or three days. He stayed a week.
I think all of us reevaluated our priorities [last] year. We were like, “Do you wanna give this a try? We only live once, right?” He was gone for maybe a week, and I was already trying to get on a train to go see him. I went up in early September, and that’s when we told each other we loved one another. We’ve seen each other just about every other week since. I know my friends were worried about me traveling, especially to New York, but I’m already at a high risk working in hospitality. This is a lateral move in terms of risk exposure — riding the train vs. working in a restaurant — and it’s for me.
This has proven itself against all odds. I never thought we’d see each other this much, especially during a time when you’re not supposed to be seeing people. I don’t want to wait anymore. He’s already thinking about moving down here. It just seemed as if all the barriers we’d put up before were removed, oddly because of the pandemic. We had time to just be together. Things just hit different in a pandemic.
We started flipping houses — 1,200 miles from home
Samantha Green, 41, teacher, and Kevin Green, 46, HVAC technician, Pembroke Pines, Fla., flipping houses in Cleveland
Samantha: We took a big [financial] hit with covid in South Florida. My husband does air conditioning, and that just absolutely dried up. It was either continue to wait for something to happen or do something different. We’d dabbled in real estate as landlords, but even being a landlord during covid isn’t the brightest idea. So we sold a duplex we owned in Cleveland and made a good chunk of money. That got us thinking about flipping houses.
I always felt that there would be a “right time” to venture deeper into real estate: right amount of money saved, right connections. Then, in May, I listened to a webinar about investing and one of the speakers said, “skin in the game.” That shook me because I was doing the opposite. I was trying to time the market, but we had no skin in the game.
If there is one thing that 2020 taught us it’s that things are not always within our control and the best-laid-out plans don’t always work out. So why not just go for it?
Kevin: We had not worked together in any kind of business venture before. Let’s put it this way: We have learned a whole lot about each other. … We have to agree to disagree on some projects.
Samantha: It also helps that we delineate who’s doing what. My husband is on-site as the project manager. He goes up to Cleveland on Thursdays and stays on-site until Monday a couple times a month. I deal with design. He always says that I’m the boss lady, so when someone needs a firm talking-to, I put on my teacher voice and I deal with them.
Kevin: She’s the bad cop. I’m the good cop.
Samantha: We sold our first flipped house in December. It feels good, but it was hard work. We are on track to replace his income this year. Our goal is to flip three to four properties. We’re going with momentum.
I got divorced after 33 years of marriage
I’d been married since 1987. It had been a difficult marriage for a number of years. We were already living apart in March. But it was still a very, very hard decision to let go.
Perhaps, since the pandemic sped up technology and ratcheted up the pace of our lives, I went through the divorce 10 years earlier than I would have otherwise. Maybe that is what the pandemic did for me. It didn’t let me go back on my promise to myself. It could have taken me years! With all the threat of dying everywhere around, I get to choose to live? You’re damn right. I could not get mired in the moment — and, well, that moment was devastating at every level. The searing loneliness. If I stopped and looked around me, it was just me and everything I owned in boxes.
All I had was me. At some level, going through a divorce, that’s what it boils down to: All you have is yourself. You’re not defined by your marriage or your job. You have to conquer the world in a different way. The pandemic forced that on me. Any other year, I’d have likely started dating or at least going out, but that would have been, in some ways, a distraction. This year, I got to know myself.
When I finally decided to go through the legal process of divorce, the courts were like, “Sorry, no can do.” All the courts were closed. So, I was in this limbo of not even being divorced. We finally set the call for April 23. I was sitting in a room at home by myself. My ex wasn’t on the call. The judge got on and said, “Well, you’re our first. We tried one before and there was a glitch, so here’s hoping.” It took five minutes. It was so bizarre. I think we need a bit of that ritual of going to the courthouse. Like a funeral, the ritual helps you process everything. All I did was click “Leave the meeting.”
I had told myself I was going to drive to the ocean right after. And that’s what I did. I went for a swim. I flung myself out there. All I could think was, “I am alone and look at how good this feels.”
We built a house — on our own — in the woods
Lisa Gergets, 49, Web developer turned furniture maker, Grand Marais, Minn.
About three years ago, my husband [John] and I bought property in the woods, with plans to build a house there eventually. This [past] spring, we had a sense that covid was going to be bigger than a flu, [and] we started getting serious about getting out of town. Covid spurred us on.
Both my husband and I had done some basic remodeling, but [at the time] we had never built a single thing — not even a bench. We had to get this done in a very short period of time, before it got too cold. We started clearing the property in May. We both had the desire, the will and the good health to build a home. Every step of the way, we were panicking that we were getting it wrong. We needed to research every single step so the house didn’t fall down on us. We over-engineered this house, for sure.
We only hired three things out: excavations, electricity and the roof. If it [could] kill us, we [decided we] didn’t need to do it. We learned we could do [almost] anything. That inspired us to change careers. We’re now making and selling rustic furniture like we’ve made for our home.
It kept our minds busy during the pandemic. We saw a lot of people really struggling. When you have to get up and do hard physical labor every day, you don’t have time or energy to think about anything else.
We moved in [in January]. It’s incredibly surreal. I’m having a really hard time relaxing. I feel there’s something I should be working on. I’m trying to be conscious of getting myself to shut off and just be here.
I got gender-affirming top surgery as part of my transition
Frances Reed, 43, owner of Freed Bodyworks, D.C.
Before the surgery, every morning I’d wake up with this reminder that I was not living in a body that felt like my own. I could never just get up and get on with my day. I had these enormous triple-D breasts. I’ve hidden them well — by binding, by wearing sports bras — but that takes a lot of work.
In 2012, I was pretty severely injured working [as a massage therapist] in my binder. I knew beyond a shadow of doubt I wanted a change. But I was one year into this fledgling little business and there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that I could afford surgery. Fast forward to the end of 2019: The business was finally stable. I started planning my surgery for early 2020.
We went into lockdown March 16 and closed the business. The consultation [for my surgery] was canceled. That flipped a switch. There was something about this agreement I had made with my body, and now I couldn’t follow through on it. My body was like, “No, dude, you said we were done with this. You promised.” I was living pandemic life on Zoom, seeing clients and teaching. Seeing myself in that little window was making my dysmorphia around my chest out of control.
We set our reopen date at Freed for Aug. 2, [and then] they scheduled my surgery for Aug. 3. I wouldn’t have enough time to recover and get my business back up on its feet. Making that call to cancel the surgery was the lowest point of the pandemic.
They put me in the queue for the next available time, which ended up being Nov. 16. I wouldn’t even let myself get excited. This was not like a trip to Ireland was canceled: This was in my soul. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t talk about it. Then in October, I let myself start thinking and talking about it. When the [coronavirus] surge happened, I was like, No, I’m not giving up. I had the surgery as planned.
Now I feel amazing. Top surgery means finally not having this constant reminder of my body being not consistent with my gender. Walking past mirrors brightens my whole day. I can take selfies of my whole torso! I can run up the stairs without boobs hitting me in the face. Six weeks after the surgery, I pulled out all of my dress shirts and started trying them on for [my partner] Jessica. I would put on the shirt and just beam, like that innocent joy of a kid on Christmas morning — no brain, just all body and all emotion.
We started IVF
Christine DiPaolo, 32, pediatrician, West Grove, Pa.
After we lost our third pregnancy shortly before Christmas 2019, we decided that IVF [in-vitro fertilization] would be the best option. We agreed to start in March. The day we were supposed to start our medications, we got a call from our clinic encouraging us to postpone the cycle because of covid.
It was pretty devastating. It almost felt like the universe was telling us this wasn’t meant to be. I was very much traumatized by the repetitive losses and was worried I couldn’t put myself through another.
We got the notification in May that the clinic was reopening. We would be able to go in July. It was very anxiety-provoking. My husband [Brian] works in car sales, so he’s with the public. I’m a pediatrician. Our clinic takes all the precautions, but there’s still that risk.
Once we realized it was looking like there was no end in sight for covid, we had a heart-to-heart about what it would mean to do this during a pandemic. We knew we couldn’t put this off for another year or two. If we tested positive at any point during the retrieval or transfer cycle, it would be canceled.
While everyone had to limit their social interactions, we had to completely wall ourselves in for a few months. I didn’t even go to the grocery store. Our families have been being so careful throughout this, but we couldn’t risk seeing them. The social isolation eats away at you, but we reminded ourselves that we were doing this to give us our best shot and that lots of people across the globe were experiencing similar isolation.
Luckily, we had a good cycle in July. Then we did our transfer in October. When we announced our pregnancy to friends and extended family, it was a surprise for everyone. There’s never a perfect time to do IVF or have a baby, not even when there isn’t an ongoing global pandemic, so carpe diem.
I bought my dream restaurant
Mina Tawdaros, 30, owner of Ruffino’s Spaghetti House in Arlington, Va.
Since I came to this country in 2013 from Egypt, I’ve never stopped thinking about owning my own restaurant. I had worked in an Italian restaurant, and that’s what I wanted. I was driving a shuttle bus from hotels to the airport when the company laid everyone off in March. Why work for someone else if you can work for yourself? When I was driving that shuttle bus, I was plotting, reading, thinking about the menu, the marketing. I worked six days a week, as much as I could, saving.
When I was laid off, I had enough free time to focus on my dream. I knew that it was a tough time to own a restaurant, but a restaurant [called] Ruffino’s Spaghetti House was for sale. Before I bought the restaurant, I used to come to Ruffino’s to see how it was impacted by covid. Many people told me it wasn’t the right time, but I decided to take the risk and be confident that I won’t fail and things will get better. Better to try and fail than having regret of not trying.
I took ownership Oct. 15. Customers — some who have been coming here for a very long time — have been coming even more now. I do the dishes, I help in the kitchen, I plan the menu. I like to talk to the customers. I am enjoying every bit of it.
It’s a good feeling when you achieve something. It’s not about the money. It’s about feeding people. There’s just something inside of you that makes you proud of yourself.
I ran for school board and won
Kien Tang, 48, elementary school teacher, board of education president of the Alhambra Unified School District, Alhambra, Calif.
I had planned to run [for the school board] when I retired from teaching in seven or eight years, but I felt I should step up. There was an urgency to run. I’d seen a need for a focus on mental health even before the pandemic, but seeing what my students went through [from] March to May, when I decided to run, was devastating.
One student said, “Mr. Tang, I’m sorry I can’t do the work, because no one is home to watch me and I have to go to work with my parent.” I remember a third-grader apologizing that she couldn’t do the work because she was helping her mother sew masks so they could pay rent. That got me to partner with the school district and education association to get a food-assistance program started.
Students are learning to survive. They’re learning to problem-solve in a crisis. Teachers are building the plane while having to fly it. I want the public to know and understand what goes on in our classrooms and how hard our teachers and staff are working, no matter what is thrown at us. [But] when you don’t have a title, people don’t listen or want to listen to you.
That’s why I wanted to be a part of this school board. Those decisions are made at the top, and unless you’re at the level, there’s not a whole lot you can do. You can march, you can make billboards, but unless [you] have someone who understands what’s going on on the front lines, you can’t change a whole lot of that.
I moved across the country to live closer to my family
Katie Steele, 36, nonprofit finance director, Chelmsford, Mass.
I was living in Oakland, working as director of finance for a nonprofit. It was very isolating working from home and living alone in one of the most expensive parts of the country and not being able to enjoy any of the things that make the Bay Area great: the music, the queer community.
My dad is 71 and lives alone in Massachusetts in the house that I grew up in. My mom is 69 and lives in a nursing home two miles away. I wanted to be close, [so] the day my work decided to switch to remote work, I decided to leave.
I definitely had second thoughts. I love the friends and chosen family I have in the Bay Area. But what made it worth it was twofold. The first was that I was very worried about my mom, with the news of the deaths in long-term care facilities. The second was that I knew this wasn’t just going to go away in a couple months. It seemed like my life was going to be very isolated whether I stayed in Oakland or not.
I loaded up my RAV4 at the end of May and drove across the country. I’ve driven across the country before, at least seven times. This was easily the weirdest trip — barren towns, the difference in mask-wearing from state to state — and the fastest trip because I didn’t stop to do anything but sleep.
I’m the first person my dad got to hug since February. I’m a pretty good hermit, but it’s good to have a buddy. He makes me lunch every day, which my co-workers find delightful, and cooks me dinner most nights. In a stressful time, that’s been phenomenal for me.
At first, we were able to do outside, distanced visits with my mom. Her nursing home had an outbreak in April and another in October. She got covid in the second outbreak. She’s recovered. After that, though, they stopped doing outside, in-person visits. We’re able to call her from outside her window; her bed is right there. We go pretty much every day. She hasn’t hugged anyone. I think about that a lot.