2020 is ending, thank God. December has been a hard month for my extended family. We have endured two emergency hospitalizations, the sudden death of my ex-husband’s longtime partner, my daughter’s terrifying brownstone boiler explosion, and a Christmas celebrated via Zoom rather than as a three-generation tribe of people united sometimes by blood, sometimes by marriage, sometimes by simple choice. Through it all, we have each in our own way tried to stay positive.
I have always characterized myself as a glass three-quarters full kind of person. This is an act of will on my part. My instinctive reaction to any kind of drama is withdrawal. Introverted by nature, stoic by the circumstance of growing up in a dysfunctional stepfamily, my “go to” response to trauma is dissociation. Walling myself off from the ache of loss or the fear of abandonment or the worry of inadequacy to the tasks ahead has enabled me to survive parenting challenges, divorce, job loss and my husband’s battles with cancer, not to mention four years of Trump.
But to find the positive, the things to be grateful for, the path forward — it is necessary to acknowledge loss, pain, disillusionment. What is true for me as an individual is just as true for my fellow Americans, not just those who have suffered, but those who have relished in or at the very least ignored the suffering of others. If 2020 has taught us anything, it has taught us that these calamities are not a hoax. They are not capable of indefinite compartmentalization, not can they be simply wished away or ignored.
I have struggled to accept that my country is in the midst of an existential moment not unlike that described by several of the paintings of the Gothic Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Most people are familiar with the first edenic panel of the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, even if only through a jigsaw puzzle rendition or tea towel replica.
But Bosch was not an optimist, as the other two panels of that triptych revealed. He lived in a time of turmoil, both social and political, just as we now do. As I digest Senator Mitch McConnell’s refusal to put forward stand-alone legislation granting hard-pressed Americans $2,000 to weather a plague, I am reminded of Bosch’s lesser-known painting, Death and the Miser, in which a fifteenth century version of today’s “one-percenter” refuses to believe that his hoarded wealth cannot protect him from the mortality of everyman.
Thinking of my fellow Americans who selfishly traveled, gathered or worshipped — against all scientific advice — in this dreadful period of overstuffed hospital ICUs, overextended healthcare workers and overtired, isolated families, I also see The Ship of Fools.
The caption on ibiblio reads, “This is how we live, says Bosch–we eat, drin[k], flirt, cheat, play silly games, pursue unattainable objectives. Meanwhile our ship drifts aimlessly and we never reach the harbour. The fools are not the irreligious, since promi[n]ent among them are a monk and a nun, but they are all those who live ‘in stupidity’.” Indeed. The seven deadly sins are still alive and well in twenty-first century America.
But so is human kindness. And this is where I wish to end my meditation on 2020. Naomi Shihab Nye begins her poem Kindness as follows:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
In this year of the ferocity of Dan’s cancer, of the scourge of COVID-19, of our loss of innocence as a nation (and our near loss of democracy) — the desolation has festered like a boil needing to be lanced. Mercifully, we have ended the year with the wound dressed.
Dan is home again after so much loving care attended him in the emergency room, the surgical suite, the cancer ward. Our hearts have been filled by the kindness of these strangers behind their masks, our hands warmed by the love of neighbors who offered help. Each day brings us closer to a new administration, to the possibility of a national rebirth of empathy and civic kindness. We have not yet reached the shore, but it is in sight.
I’d like to close by wishing that all of you may find safe harbor and be blessed with kindness in 2021, as I have been by the many virtual friends this blog has introduced to me in 2020.