One Sunday after church, when the world was still the world as we knew it, I cornered my pastor, Bebs, and asked him for a birthday wish.
It was September and we stood to the side of the auditorium, the hum of the crowd buzzing around us. He paused thoughtfully and said: "I hope you experience something that breaks your heart open. I hope you get to write about things that are gritty and raw and I hope you discover that God is in all of those things as well."
Amen, I said without really meaning it. The truth is that I did not have it in me to desire Bebs' version of personal growth. If the cost was grief then I'd just have to wash my hands clean of the blessing. But I had given my amen to the pastor's prayer, the one I had requested. There is no return policy for that.
Ask and you shall receive, it says. And, damn, did I receive.
This year felt like a Pollock painting or a Palahniuk novel except more mess than masterpiece. Swap all that pretty for pain. This year took my sparkle-tinted glasses and smashed them to the ground, angry heel pressed down on all the ways I used to look at life.
Kill everything you think you know about hope. You don't know hope. You don't know hope at all.
People will say that what broke me this year was death but they'd be wrong -- what broke me this year was dissolution. See, you think you know but you don't. Look closer, try harder.
What broke me was watching beautiful things disintegrate into ash knowing there was nothing I could do to save them. I wanted to salvage the year, do what I've always done, sand the rough edges down until they became a story I could swallow.
This year could not be tamed, consoled, or kissed into submission. This year was a bandit, an outlaw, a plunderer set to take and take and take. This year sliced a hole in the world's pockets so we'd all turn up empty. But it wasn't all of us, was it? There was no fair economy. Some of us lost more, some of us lost everything, and I -- well, I lost me.
Were you waiting for a soft place to land? Wait a bit longer. This isn't it.
When they held a mirror up to my life, I saw a shell of the girl I once was. My skin had deteriorated and my body sagged under the extra weight of all the grief I had been running from. It latched on like a needy child, sucking so much out of me that I no longer felt young or good or desirable.
And so I carved these things out of my system, crossed them out one by one -- not pretty anymore, not fun anymore, not happy anymore, not light anymore -- until all I was left with was a blank slate.
Now you are nothing and so now you can become anything.
I faced the mirror then destroyed it. If everything was gone then this had to go too. I lost sleep. I wept. I hated every box I was put in but none as much as the one I had put myself in. It felt like a coffin and in a year filled with more death than I could wrap my heart around I said no more, no more, no more. I felt a rage in the hollow of my being that I had never witnessed before. I got scared then I got intrigued. I felt alone and lonely and so terribly unlovable yet I also felt held by the warm hand of truth. I was no longer pretending to be fine. I was not trying to be sadder or happier than I actually was. 2020 may have felt like hell but if there's one thing I commend myself for it's that I let myself descend. I did it honestly. I did not fight gravity for longer than I needed to and this, I believe, is its own version of grace.
The year ending doesn't mean anything and that's the truth. There is no magic wand that'll be waved at the beginning of next year to absolve this one of all its horrors. And there is no promise that the horrors won't continue even after 2020 has been laid to rest. Tragedy will go on forever because that's part of what it means to be a skin-toting carcass on this dangerous earth.
But the other part, I think, is this:
For all our deep fragility, we can survive this life. We can make it through this world and all its losses. I believe this because I know that when we choose to survive, truly choose it, we make a way. It's who we are; it's how we do things. We dig at the dirt with our nails and claw our way through. We look for the surface. We build a ladder with our bare hands and reach from the ground up, from the heart of the Impossible Place. We commit to the act of rebuilding. We ask for help. We burn our cities, dance with ghosts, and when we're ready, we go looking for life again.
Hope is not a bird with a song or a light in the dark. You don't stumble upon it or buy it or earn it and even if you could, it sure as hell wouldn't be cheap. Hope is the ax or the spear or the ladder or whatever it is you need -- hope is the thing you have to build with your own bare hands just to haul yourself out of the hole that you're in. It is hard work and discipline and desperation and trying and failing and trying and failing and trying again and again and again until you finally feel like you're getting somewhere.
I look at where I am, here at the end of a very hard year, hanging just a little above rock bottom. I convinced myself at the beginning of this exodus that I didn't have what it takes to move forward.
But I am so glad to be wrong. I am doubly glad to be so goddamn stubborn.
What fuels me with the hope to keep going, you ask?
The fact that I'm here.
I'm here and other people aren't.
It doesn't escape me that I'm alive when so many good people didn't make it to this part of the timeline. Not my dad, not Kobe or Gianna, not John Lewis, not Chadwick, not RBG, not the numerous COVID victims, and definitely not Sonia and Frank Gregorio, shot mercilessly by the police just a few days ago.
I'm still here and I don't know why but what an injustice not to want it. What a gross disservice to go ahead and squander it. How sickeningly selfish if the choice I make is to waste it.
Is this the gritty writing you imagined, Bebs?
I am trying hard not to be bitter. I am trying hard to stay soft. It is my best work of 2020.
So here is my benediction for the new year that is upon us:
Be here with me fully. Build your ax and make hope possible. Slice your way through the mess. Invite yourself into terrifying terrain and be changed. Settle into your discomfort. Trade pretty for beautiful. Be so bullishly stubborn in your refusal to be destroyed. Have your heart broken open. Love and love good and when death comes around to claim what is yours, love anyway.
Say amen and mean it.
Illustrations by the wonderful Lari Gazmen.