They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft tides of grass
Wincing away, the gold
Wind-ridden waves – all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we grow old.
—Philip Larkin, “Long Sight in Age,” The Complete Poems
* * * *
For me, the year that is about to end started inauspiciously. Two friends verbally included me in plans to attend a New Year’s Eve sober party that night, and each one forgot me, their promise, or the party. Perhaps each one forgot those things in that order, but by midnight the details were superfluous as were any apologies.
At a brunch the next day, all three of us were there, but no apologies were offered anyway. Perhaps that sums up everyone’s 2020 as we ring it out in gatherings smaller than last year’s parties or even alone (tonight makes a few consecutive years alone for your correspondent): “No apologies were offered anyway.”
The year that is about to open for business will not immediately offer new emotions or news that will change one’s day-to-day life, of course. The collective desire for tomorrow morning to bring something that we can only give ourselves—peace and togetherness—dominates the online conversations that I witness. The year we just experienced together in our collective aloneness, well, many people want to feel what it feels like to let something go; they want January 1 and the promise that that date represents to carry us away from this painful season.
We say that we are ready for something new, but it is likely that some of us said that very same thing last January 1, and something new is indeed what I experienced in 2020, again and again. This is true for many of us.
Much of what we have experienced this year, as a group and as individuals, is grief. Grief does not possess its own qualities: there are things that grief is like, but there is nothing like grief. It does not have “stages” or even chapters. It flows, like a river: the water may move, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, but the river remains. My father died of Covid-19 on May 10, which at first gave me a dark-humored one-liner that having “a ‘parent perish in a pandemic’ is more fun to say than experience,” but then a more simple but dark, dark mood flooded the landscape.
That dark mood is still the dominant one for me, I must admit. Just recently, I realized that the background noise in my mind since May 10 has been a sensation that something will not allow me to feel okay in my world until my father ceases to be deceased. Well, that’s untenable of course, but I only this week realized that this is nothing more than my old friends the inner critic and self-doubt using the loss of my dad as if it is a new musical instrument to play with. (They became so proficient with this instrument that one of them—either self-doubt or the inner critic—won a music scholarship with the local philharmonic.)
By mid-summer, the number of losses of family members, friends, and acquaintances had hit eight for me. (For others, that may be a number so low they would envy me the comparative absence of loss.) Several had died of Covid-19, two others in two motorcycle accidents, a couple of old age. The quantity may not have overwhelmed me, but the repetitiveness and the fact that it was experienced mostly alone in the quarantine under which we still live certainly whelmed me. This has been my first year in which the permanent goodbyes far outnumbered the new hellos. That sentence felt untenable, too.
There have been hellos, however. The recovery community that I have been lucky to be a member of for a while now adapted as a group to the reality of quarantine. Recovery meetings moved online. Quite a few people of my online acquaintances have celebrated months sober who have not yet attended an in-person recovery meeting.
There have been so many people whom I see so often online that it rarely registers with me that I have not seen them in person in almost a year (including the two New Year’s Eve friends). This continues to be an experience that sustains me.
A friend floated an idea that she wanted to start a website last spring and I grabbed it like a lifeline and indeed in this year of loss I found a reason to show up and to even write humor when I did not see much that was amusing for an audience of people not named me.
Thanks to Meghan Jenkins, I found myself a part of a group of creative writers and performers and was even given the opportunity to “host” a talk-show one night (the line drawing of a panda that you see below is by Meghan as well):
My gratitude list is composed of friends, and the beautiful thing is that this whole column could have been a list of their names and things I remember from this year that they gave or taught me. That is how many there are. Meghan is one who has encouraged me to grow as a writer and as a person, and her friendship is quickly becoming one that I cherish.
“All these / They say, come back to focus,” as Larkin says. Friendship—even on video chats and phone calls and text conversations—and gratitude are what have come into focus for me this New Year’s Eve. This is no different than in previous years, but perhaps I am holding it closer as 2020 becomes a memory with at least 366 adjectives.
* * * *
May we all enjoy a safe, prosperous New Year and a quiet 2021.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, publisher/editor of Meghan-Jenkins.com, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirtieth season:
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