Updated: Jan 17, 2021
I'm not a big newsreader. And my general knowledge is completely shit. I get most of my news from my partner and my parents, and posts and odd articles friends put on social media. So, my remembering of our "annus horribilis" is not informed details of a year in review, but rather some intuitive observations of my lived experience of it, and the experiences of those close to me. It's always the thematic undercurrents I am more interested in and perceptive to, and these are some of the things I wanted to voice and honour and grieve and celebrate with you as we head into 2021.
I think most overwhelmingly above all else, we felt the awareness of our fragility, the close, unchecked and indiscriminate risk life itself imposes on not just ourselves and our loved ones, but on the entire human race. This vulnerability has always been a reality; pandemic's, volcano's, global weather changes – we've all read about it. But I don't think it sunk into our generational bones. COVID-19 sunk this reality into our bones. And our collective fragility became real. The maltreatment of wild animals suddenly became a threat that we were inextricably connected to. Who believed the consequence of the pangolin (the most illegally traded mammal in the world) had any relevance for us before 2020? Sure, we may have hurt for them even advocated against their poor treatment, but feeling their life and wellness had much bearing on us, probably not.
Whenever I wipe ants off my kitchen counter, I think of this. We are but ants in a vast, and uncontrolled universe, and we're all going to die. By chance, or accident or malintent – no matter how good a life we have lived. That remembering, when I'm blessed (and cursed) with it, makes me pause to appreciate the sigh my dog makes when she finds the perfect spot on the bed, or the soft fall of rain, or the juiciness of a ripe pear all the more. Awareness of our collective fragility is perhaps for me, the greatest blessing of this year. And I hope it stays long enough in our bones, for real, systemic change.
Darkness and difficulty
I've spent more days in hospital this year than I have in all the years of my life combined. And have faced some of the most challenging concerns and seemingly unanswerable questions. Everyone I know has shared with me some kind of big and difficult change in their lives this year. Births, deaths, major health crises, job losses, relationships ending, fears for their children; the stories are overwhelming. Yes, these things happen all the time but not in a way I can recall before in these volumes and intensity in my closest networks. Or maybe it's just that given our greater awareness of our collective vulnerability, we're more willing to speak of our personal experiences of it.
All my favourite poets speak of darkness as a friend. A place where, if we allow ourselves to enter, if we relinquish resistance, all things culminate into source, suck you into a kind of black hole of presence and the emptiness brings answers or at least peace with the lack of them. This quote from Rilke is one that has many times provided me with a horizon in the moments when there doesn't seem to be one:
"Let everything happen to you Beauty and terror Just keep going No feeling is final" ― Rainer Maria Rilke
Our life force, this nature of reality that we are all a part of, has cycles and seasons, unavoidable birth, life, death, and rebirth. And while this past year may have felt like a collective 'catching up' of darkness and difficulty, the rebirth will come. And my hope is that then we might be more willing to step into darkness and difficulty without needing to be pushed. By this I mean the personal sacrifices, the acceptances, the letting go, the giving over to the natural world's rights as equal to our own, the fear that comes with offering ourselves fully into the world. And that when the inevitable suffering that makes its way into every life (whatever its biological makeup, or race, or religion or sexual preference), we might be more connected to that life's suffering and be a solace or an everyday guardian of justice for it, rather than a distant bystander.
Resilience and the human spirit
In all the flames this year brought, here we are. In all the disruption and grief and uncertainty, nurses cared for unknown loved ones, risking their lives and their families lives; women and men played violins and cellos on balconies and sang on the steps of cathedrals—sang of strength, and togetherness and hope. People marched, and raged a necessary rage, and wrote and made art and prayed for each other and for peace. Young people are becoming some of the strongest voices for change – demanding that we think beyond ourselves, that we zoom out beyond our "all-important" now's to the future you and I won't be around to suffer. But that they will.
I hope this year leaves, if nothing else, a deep remembering of it; a trail of fortitude, and connectedness, not just to each other but to the natural world, of which we are only a part, and on which we depend, wholly, and completely. This little spiked virus born inside a pangolin or bat or whatever little creature it came from, has made its way through more than 90 million human bodies to date. If we could spread equal parts compassion for all of life on this planet as quickly, human and non-human, we could make 2020 in some way - beyond the suffering and immense grief - matter.
May 2020 be a remembering that we are not me, or you, or it, or they, or she or he, but us. Us.
For more poetry from Rainer Maria Rilke, whose words I am finding particularly pertinent for this time, please visit: https://onbeing.org/poetry/, some read exquisitely by Joanna Macy.
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