What a strange year. Mostly, for me, the best to be hoped for in 2021 was stasis. Mostly, for me, the year hummed along, measured in (mostly) small highs and (graciously) small lows; treading water, staying afloat. Movement rarely felt like a step forward or backward; more like a shift to the side, stepping off the tracks and letting the world rush past. For most of the year I have been living with my family in the town where I grew up after many years in DC, and have felt charmed and challenged by it in equal measure. Time feels warped in this house; I think a lot about my childhood — how much that kid is still with me, for better or worse, and how much she’s gone — and a future that is coming at an indeterminate pace. I really, really miss my friends and I miss going to concerts (I miss going places, period!) and I miss getting to live a certain kind of life. But I enjoyed the space and seasons and certain kind of closeness in this respite, too.
I did good work this year, I think. I read and wrote and edited. I made this newsletter! I proofread my friends’ covers letters and side projects and Instagram captions. I kept most of my plants alive. I inched towards a sense of perspective. I made little insignificant goals and I met some of them and I gave up on some of them. (As of this morning, I ran one thousand miles this year!) On my birthday this year I asked: What is good enough? When is “good enough” not good enough? How can I know the difference? I’ve been holding those questions with me. Sometimes compromise is death, and sometimes a cut corner is the only way though. Sometimes you have to map the chaos and sometimes you have to leap before you look. I’m still working on it. But in 2022 I’d like to feel like I’m moving forward. I’d like to try to put things in their place. To know what dues need to be paid and when it’s time to cash out. Etc.
So overall, yes, the big badness of the world felt omnipresent this year, in a way that would have felt novel were it not for the overwhelming nauseous dread of 2020. But there were a few things that felt like lights, or anchors, or patterns worth pushing towards. Here’s an accounting of them, as is my habit (see: 2020; 2019; 2018; 2017), plus some other miscellany.
breakfast pastries: Blueberry ginger scones from Ellē and cherry almond scones from Wydown in DC; popovers from Pie In The Sky in Woods Hole; cinnamon buns from Seven Stars in Providence. All very good reasons to get out of bed on a cold morning and/or often the only worthy motivator for a muggy pre-work summer run. Pastries are the most important meal of the day!
cherry coke zero: My mom’s soda of choice recently, and thus my soda of convenience all year. I hate that I love diet cola but it’s my truth, and is definitely a family inheritance. (My mom also watched the first season of The Young Pope this year on my recommendation, which is a very pro-Cherry Coke Zero show.)
greenhouse: My parents started growing plants in a greenhouse in their yard right before I moved home: tons of tomatoes and cucumbers and peppers over the summer and into the fall; figs and citrus in the winter; herbs forever. It’s been incredibly nice to witness their hard work and happiness, as it has been to have fresh basil at my fingertips all the time.
love: My partner and I got engaged this year, but that mostly feels like a formality; the real theme is that, this past year, I have just felt very awash in love, madly head-over-heels, in a way that feels new and surprising and delightful and fulfilling, especially so many years into our relationship. (The other side of this, of course, is how realizing you hold something precious can make you feel terrified and vulnerable, and I have become so aware of that, too.) I keep wanting to write about this but don’t know how without devolving into cliché. But what a rush!
not knowing what other people are thinking: It is really easy to think, especially if I know someone well, that I know what they are thinking — but (hear me out here) I actually usually don’t. This year I kept misunderstanding situations and then having to re-learn this lesson (making assumptions about other people’s feelings/motivations/behaviors can be a bad idea; you should believe what people tell you, and ask them if you’re unsure), which was sometimes painful but still usually very useful. All year I also kept catching my reflection through other people’s eyes and not totally recognizing her, and then had to remind myself that this is a related phenomenon, and while it is painful it can also be useful.
reflecting, not absorbing: At the beginning of the year I read this 2020 profile of comedian Julio Torres. When he started doing comedy, he says he was “very monklike,” and vegan, and wore only black and white; he wanted to “thrive within limits.” But then, after some success, Julio, according to another comedian quoted in the piece, “made it a point to say, ‘I was wearing dark colors because I was absorbing, and now I want to reflect.’ ” I loved this quote, and it stuck with me all year (I even put it on a digital sticky note on my desktop). I love to thrive within limits, I gravitate towards wearing dark colors (also I’m a vegetarian) — and so I felt inspired by Julio’s shift. I kept wondering: What might it look like for me to reflect, not just absorb? (Incidentally, I splurged on two items of clothing this year: a big soft button-up shirt and a sweet silk dress, both of them off-white. So maybe I’m on my way.)
silk: A shortcut to a feeling of luxury. Synthetic fibers have their place, but in my life, that place is getting increasingly smaller.
spirals: Time hasn’t really felt linear this year; everything feels start-and-stop, and as I said before, it’s been hard to feel like my life is moving forward. But lately I’ve been thinking that maybe linear isn’t even the right framework; it feels better to think about patterns, cycles, things that repeat but change. Not everything is in bloom all the time (just ask the greenhouse); so maybe when my time comes up again, I’ll be somewhere else. And when I revisit themes or places or cycles, it won’t be regression if it’s always from a new angle; I’m just zeroing in. (This feels applicable to movements and moments bigger than me, too — and also true of problems small and large, something else I’ve been forced to confront. Sometimes problems look like they’re getting better, but they’re on their own cycle; they won’t just go away on their own.) So anyway, even if it doesn’t feel like I’m always moving forward, I’m still getting closer to where I need to be.
etc: being blonde; citrus fruits in winter; contact dermatitis (the true villain of the year: my skin allergies); dreading a social event in theory and then really loving it in reality; driving my car; Dylan, my parents’ perfect German Shepherd; “I saw this thing on TikTok…”; multitasking aka venting into the group chat during a meeting; noticing norms; singers who can pull off a really noticeable flip from chest to head voice; recommending things to my mom that she really liked; running; spending time with my siblings
five books I couldn’t put down: A Little Life; Detransition, Baby; No One Is Talking About This; Crying In H-Mart; The Final Revival of Opal and Nev
best sunrise of the year: January 18; Amherst, Va.
best sunset of the year: July 4; Falmouth, Mass.
Thanks for reading this. I hope you have had space to breathe at the end of this strange year, and I hope 2022 brings us all more joy and hope and generosity and beauty than we know what to do with. See you next twenty-fourth.