LEWISTON — Since he started his Lisbon Street business 49 years ago, just after he graduated from high school, Paul Poliquin has witnessed a lot.

But he’d never seen anything like 2020.

“This was probably the toughest year, not so much financially, but mentally, physically, it was draining. It really was,” said Poliquin, owner of Paul’s Clothing & Shoe Store.

It’s doubtful there’s anyone sorry to see 2020 slip into the history books, with its deadly pandemic, vicious politics and stymied opportunities to partake in many of the simple joys we’ve long counted on, from weddings to holiday parties.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Auburn lawyer Adam Lee said. “The past nine months have been awful,” with many people dying or suffering long-term health effects.

Paul Poliquin will celebrate 50 years of working on Lisbon Street in downtown Lewiston in 2021. “When I was 12 years old, I had a bucket list with seven things on it. One of them was to own my own business,” said the owner of Paul’s Clothing. “2020 was a tough year physically,” he said. “We will weather the storm and keep going.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“Even more have been economically devastated and have had their mental health harmed by the difficulties of isolation and the absence of human interaction” during 2020, Lee said.

“Everybody wants it to be gone,” Poliquin said. “Everybody wants to forget about it.”

True. And yet, while nearly everyone feels sadness at what’s been lost, especially the death of more than 330,000 Americans from COVID-19 since March, some also look back on these strange, lonely months and see glimmers of something valuable, even comforting.

“A warm aura of strength continued to preside” even during this “year of turbulence,” said Fowsia Musse, executive director of Maine Community Integration.

A plywood present sits Wednesday on the front lawn at Hunter Sweet’s home in Auburn. The local physician made the gift as a way to offer hope to his community. “We always decorate for the holidays, but I wanted to do something more symbolic this year,” Sweet said. “…We get to decide what is in the present. We get to put whatever inside the box that we want to.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“The pandemic has demonstrated the resiliency of the human spirit, the generosity of people and the incredible will we possess to face the challenges of the day,” said Shawn Yardley, chief executive officer of the Lewiston-based Community Concepts.

Musse said nonprofits and others, “despite the feelings of being unheard” by government this year, managed “to provide for the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, friends and children in our towns.”

What she witnessed this year, she said, reminded her of what she saw 31 years ago when she “lost everything I had to a war that was entirely out of my control” in her native Somalia.

She recalled one day as a child there, when she was “so little and vulnerable,” waiting in a long line to get a hot meal, hearing that her life was not a priority, surrounded by trauma.

When she saw “fellow community members” in Lewiston waiting at food banks, she said, it brought back painful memories.

But now, as then, “the strength and resilience of purpose that is present in our neighborhoods and communities continues to keep our flame lit,” Musse said.

Peter Geiger, executive vice president of Geiger, said he associates 2020, bad as it was, with the word resilient.

“With all the twists and turns, everyone — individuals, schools, businesses, state and federal governments — have had to reinvent life,” he said, creating a “new normal” in the process.

Yardley said, “We were all forced to recognize that we couldn’t proceed with a business-as-usual approach, and I think this has provided us some lessons learned moving forward in a post-pandemic world.”

“The cool thing about this year is how much time there was to learn and reflect and grow,” said Alicia Rea, a Lewiston City Council member.

Lewiston City Council member Alicia Rea said that while “it’s really tough” coping with the pandemic, she’s also seen “light and hope.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

While “it’s really tough” coping with the pandemic, she said, she’s also seen “light and hope” in the mix, including some changes that perhaps should be embraced for the long haul.

Rea said the year brought out a creativity that challenged “traditional old-school space” like City Council sessions, which have shifted to online-only while COVID-19 rages.

All around, she said, she sees organizations finding “new ways to grow” despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic.

Bobbi Avery, chief administrative officer for the Lewiston schools, said that for all the “destruction and chaos” caused by the pandemic, it also “brought about a richness in relationships that didn’t exist before” its arrival last spring.

“With the hustle and bustle of public-school administration and all the beautiful complexities that we are afforded the opportunity to navigate,” she said, “taking the time to ‘sit at the kitchen table’ and just talk hasn’t always been possible.”

Now, thanks to COVID-19, it is.

“I literally get to sit at someone’s kitchen table or living room” with the help of Zoom, she said, having business meetings that would never have been possible before.

Avery said, “I’ve learned that setting matters. When I sit and talk to someone at their kitchen table, the atmosphere is peaceful. There are no interruptions from fellow colleagues or phones ringing.”

“Because we talk with intent and without distraction, relationships by default are built with richness in mind,” she said.

“Of course, all our pre-COVID meetings had intent and purpose,” Avery said, “yet somehow, sitting in someone’s living room just talking without pretense makes for a truly wonderful and productive conversation.”

“I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE NEW YEAR.”

Without disparaging the possibility that some good will come from the pandemic, state Rep. Bruce Bickford, an Auburn Republican, said he will look back on 2020 “without any fond memories at all.”

“I’m going to be really glad when it’s over,” he said. “It’s been tough. We can’t even have family gatherings. We just don’t feel safe.”

Lincoln Jeffers, director of Economic and Community Development for the city of Lewiston, said local businesses “pivoted to find a way forward.” Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Though COVID-19 made the year a struggle, his own health woes, including a 42-day stretch in the hospital that left him in a wheelchair after vascular surgery, didn’t help.

“I can’t wait for the new year,” Bickford said.

It’s not as though the coronavirus was the only agonizing aspect of 2020 after all.

Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston’s director of economic and community development, called 2020 “a challenging year, unprecedented in scale and depth to anything else in my lifetime,” including the year’s entrenched and “seemingly intractable” political divisions.

“All of the crises our country has faced in 2020 have magnified the extreme political polarization that currently exists in the United States,” said Chip Morrison, former president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce.

“We seem divided as to the existence of and verifiability of truth,” Lee said, “and distanced from the general assumption that our neighbors are acting in good faith.”

Yet in the face of all the difficulties that arose during the year, Jeffers said he was “struck by how resilient and adaptable Mainers are.”

Jeffers said local businesses “pivoted to find a way forward,” with some thriving and some “just holding on” for better times.

Geiger said there were many overlooked successes.

Schools at all levels, he said, “had to reinvent themselves” on the fly. And the state managed to get 28,000 students connected with broadband quickly so that children could work remotely just as many of their parents did.

Likewise, while Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer said he is “ready to see 2020 in the rearview mirror,” he noted, “I also look back with pride in how our community responded to this worldwide crisis.”

Cayer hailed “the many members of our community working tirelessly in health care, our first responders and front-line workers” and “our faith-based and nonprofit organizations who changed how they do business to provide for the most vulnerable.”

Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, said, “Armed with all we have learned and achieved this past year, I have a renewed sense of optimism as we say goodbye to 2020 and welcome 2021.” Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Yardley said the pandemic “highlighted the disproportionate impact (the virus has) on people who live day to day with little reserves in the best of times and who live on the margins, including people of color, people who live on fixed incomes, people who lived pre-COVID with food, housing and job insecurity.”

“In some industries,” he said, “stress tests are performed to identify weaknesses in structures. The pandemic has served as a stress test on many structures in our society, and should inform us so we can do things differently on the other side of this pandemic.”

Businesses that have come through the year have learned to adapt, often with help from customers keen to see them survive.

“I am most grateful to our community members who have found ways to support our small local businesses,” Cayer said.

“Businesses had to zigzag with everything all year long,” Geiger said. “It hurt many, but others have survived based on their own creativity.”

“COVID-19 can break us or we can break COVID-19,” Avery said. “We have glorious opportunities that have been uncovered through reflecting on this pandemic.”

She said the operations team dealing with the crisis for the Lewiston schools grew closer despite the “sadness, depression, worry and more” as they worked together to address not just the district’s needs but their own well-being.

“They are using COVID-19 as a reason to rise above the chaos it brings,” Avery said.

‘IT WILL BE AS GOOD A YEAR AS WE ALLOW IT TO BE.’

That notion of overcoming chaos may be an enduring lesson from 2020.

On one yard in Auburn, a small wooden present with a 2021 tag sits in front of Hunter Sweet’s home, remnants of a holiday that was unlike any in recent memory.

“2020 is the worst year that most of us can remember,” said Sweet, a local physician who made the 2021 plywood present that sits in his family’s yard. And it’s not just the COVID-19 pandemic that soured the year 2020, he said. “The whole year has been full of turmoil between politics and the economic impact.”

Still, Sweet is optimistic, and his small wooden present is more than a Christmas decoration.

“We always decorate for the holidays, but I wanted to do something more symbolic this year.

“Nothing changes with 2021. The pandemic is still here,” said Sweet. “But there are better things coming our way no matter how bad things are. The big thing is that we get to decide what is in the present. We get to put whatever inside the box that we want to.”

The pandemic socked Poliquin’s store like so many other small establishments in Maine, forcing it to close entirely for two weeks and then rely solely on “very, very difficult” curbside service for two months when it did reopen.

Fowsia Musse, executive director of Maine Community Integration, said she hopes after the pandemic is over to maintain the sense of gratitude she’s felt during these hard times for those “who wake up every day to work on the front lines.” Steve Collins/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Since then, Poliquin said, he’s kept the store’s front door locked, allowing no more than five people in at a time with a strict requirement that each wears a mask to minimize the chance of spreading COVID-19.

“At my age, you have to be really careful,” he said.

“We took control of it early, early, early,” Poliquin said. “We didn’t take it as a joke.”

Every time he touches cash or someone’s credit card, Poliquin said, he washes his hands as public health experts recommend.

During the Christmas rush, his hands would hurt “like a toothache” by the end of the day from all the soap and water, Poliquin said, but he kept up the regimen anyway for everyone’s safety.

He said he’s found, though, that most of his customers are happy he’s been so diligent at trying to keep the coronavirus at bay.

“Nobody ever complained,” Poliquin said.

Given that he wound up having a decent year financially despite the extra precautions he insisted on of himself, his staff and customers, he wondered why so many other retailers have been lax by comparison.

“It’s almost a year of our lives that’s been given to this COVID,” Poliquin added, and it’s not over yet.

Though vaccines are beginning to nick away at the raging plague, it will be at least a few more months before there is hope for anything close to normal life to resume.

What that means, Poliquin said, is that as long as people are careful, they’ll still be around to see an end to the pandemic.

“We’ll weather the storm,” he said. “We’ll get through it.”

Normal may not look quite the same when it returns, though, he said.

“Everything’s going to change for a lot of people,” Poliquin said, adding, for instance, that he doubts he’ll ever return to the traditional handshakes he’s always had with customers.

People gathered for a rally recently underneath the “Hopeful” sign on Main Street in Lewiston.  Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

For Musse, she hopes to maintain the sense of gratitude she’s felt during these hard times for those “who wake up every day to work on the front lines, to the people who stand on their feet for 12 hours at a time to ensure that you are able to go to the grocery store, the first responders, the essential workers, the teachers, and the people who keep this community running.”

“I am grateful to live in a state that handled the crisis as well as or better than most others,” Geiger said. “It is up to all of us to be both resilient and contribute to shaping 2021. It will be as good a year as we allow it to be.”

Yardley said Community Concepts’ staff “found ways to deliver on our mission every day, in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we welcomed in 2020 a year ago.”

“Armed with all we have learned and achieved this past year, I have a renewed sense of optimism as we say goodbye to 2020 and welcome 2021.”

Jeffers pointed out that on New Year’s Eve one year ago, Lewiston illuminated artist Charlie Hewitt’s new artwork on the side of Bates Mill No. 5 facing Main Street, not far from the bridge across the always-flowing Androscoggin River.

The giant letters in Hewitt’s sign beam day and night. “HOPEFUL.”

“I remain so” still, Jeffers said.

There is, after all, nothing more American than the hope that tomorrow will be better than today.

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