I’ve rarely been so happy to turn the page on a calendar.
I’m aware that our measurement of time is an artificial construct. I know that, in reality (or is it Reality?) the sun that sets on the evening of December 31, 2020 and rises on the morning of January 1, 2021 is the same star. I am also aware that even the idea of a sun “rising” and “setting” is an anti-Copernican illusion.
In other words, the line dividing 2020 from 2021 is a purely imaginary one.
But as long as we are maintaining arbitrary allegiance to Gregorian calendar, this New Year’s Day merits an assessment of the past 366 rotations of the planet.
There have been some other very bad years, of course. Just confining ourselves to the United States in the 20th century, there was 1963, from Birmingham to Dallas. There was 1968, from Memphis to Chicago to Saigon to the Audubon Ballroom in New York to the Ambassador Hotel in LA. There was 1980, from the Iranian hostage crisis to the murder of John Lennon to the election of Ronald Reagan.
Reaching further back, needless to say, there was 1941, 1929, or—or as some have noted—any year of the Civil War that you care to name. And all those were years of specifically American tragedy. Other nations have their own dark memories. Ask your Armenian friends about 1915, or your Rwandan ones about 1994.
But 2020, by contrast, offered an ongoing catastrophe on a global scale, one that enveloped the entire planet in a rare communal crisis, and for that it is destined to stand out.
It’s not alone in that league either, of course. The obvious precursor was 1918, which featured the emergence of the last global pandemic, one that killed 50 million people worldwide, as well as the final year of the war to end all wars (spoiler alert: it didn’t), an event that did, however, succeed in profoundly shocking Western civilization with its first taste of industrialized slaughter on a mass scale. It’s proven to have remarkable staying power.
Here in America, our experience of this latest grim plague was made infinitely worse by the criminal malevolence of our monstrous rulers, bringing on wholly unnecessary attendant suffering—physical, psychological, and economic. That part of the catastrophe was anthropogenic, which is a fancy way of saying man-made, and not a boozhy retailer that sells pashminas and pre-distressed housewares….exactly the kind of business that COVID-19 killed.
I HEARD TELEPHONES, OPERA HOUSE, FAVORITE MELODIES
2016 wasn’t a great year either. It began with Bowie dying, followed soon after by Prince, and it was just getting started.
For me, that year was terrible on a very personal level. In July 2016 my mother Nancy died at the age of 78 after battling ALS for almost two years.
When she was first diagnosed the doctors told us she had about five years to live, which we knew was only a guess, and we were naively optimistic that she would last much longer. But the opposite proved true, and her decline much swifter. My father and brother and I watched this kind, loving, beautiful, artistic woman suffer and degrade under the crushing force of this unbearably cruel disease until she was gone.
We buried her at Arlington, amid the acres of identical white tombstones dress right dress, the military compulsion for order even unto death, as some poet once said. My father put on his dress blues for only the second time in three decades, the previous one being my wedding fifteen years earlier.
There are two kind of people in the world, so they say: those whose mothers have died and those who have no idea what is coming. Even for an adult, the death of a parent leaves a gaping hole, and not only for the lucky ones like me who came from loving families. Those unfortunate souls who had absent or malignant parents merely suffered that loss sooner. In the familiar phenomenon, for months afterward I would catch myself—for instance, when my five-year-old daughter would do something wonderful and my first instinct would be that I must tell my mom, quickly followed by the cold slap of remembering. It still happens to me once in a while, even now.
I was still adjusting to this new, gray-toned world when we were all bludgeoned by a second tragedy a few months later, with the election of the most criminally unfit man ever to occupy the Oval Office. It is awkward to speak of these two events in the same breath, as each seems to dwarf the other in its own way: one so intimate that to measure it against something like politics feels insulting, the other so global and vast that it feels solipsistic to suggest that any personal tragedy compares. But that very contrast made it feel like a sadistic one-two punch.
Even then, I had no idea how bad the next four years were going to be; few of us did. And that was before the plague.
FROM THE BRIM TO THE DREGS
Inarguably, amid all the terribleness, there were two good things happened in 2020. Loyal readers of this blog, I bet you can guess what they were.
The first was the resounding defeat of Donald Trump, presaging his imminent eviction from the White House, a verdict delivered in no uncertain terms by a majority of the American people. Yes, he still poses a danger, and so do his bigoted, benighted followers, and yes there is much work left to do. But his defeat is cause for rejoicing, and for hope that repairs can now begin. Can you imagine how dark this New Year’s would be if November 3rd had gone otherwise?
The other good thing was the beginning of what my friend the filmmaker Peter Nicks calls the Awakening: a watershed moment in America’s long, slow, often grudging reckoning with the inherent racism that is in our country’s DNA. Tragically, that belated awakening was triggered by the unconscionable torture and murder of one of our countrymen over a period of eight minutes and 46 seconds, by an officer of the law no less, a crime that was only the latest in a long horrific parade of such crimes. The anger and outrage and demands for justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd were wrenching, but long overdue, and therefore not something to lament. They are a battle cry that ought to stir our hearts. The challenge now is to keep that passion up and carry it forward, and not let it be a moment but a movement.
Let me add another good thing that 2020 brought, amid all the shite. That was the consistent demonstration of human kindness and compassion at its very best, as displayed by people all over the globe—health care workers, first responders, essential workers, and ordinary people of all stripes who rose to the occasion during the calamity of the pandemic. In that regard 2020 was a crucible that revealed both the worst and the best of humankind, as adversity tends to do.
So good riddance, 2020. Your successor promises to bring pain and suffering of its own, but also the promise of rehabilitation, and therefore cause for optimism. Here in America, we will soon be under new management, with adult supervision for the first time in four years. The rollout of the vaccine brings the end of this ordeal within sight, and our return to competent leadership makes me believe that recovery is possible. But we will have to fight for it.
The one thing we’ll never say about this year is that it wasn’t memorable. Which isn’t a compliment when it’s something you’d rather forget.