We have not touched the stars,
nor are we forgiven, which brings us back
to the hero’s shoulders and the gentleness that comes,
not from the absence of violence, but despite
the abundance of it.
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.
— Excerpts from “Snow and Dirty Rain” by Richard Siken
I’m sitting in the sunlight in a tiny town in Portugal with someone who is terrible at sitting still.
We are (attempting) to read our books while stretched out in front of the Mondego river. It’s been a day of driving with the top down singing loudly to Travis Scott and my hair is tangled, scented with sea. There’s this fountain that’s rising and falling in all directions almost comically, teasing us against the backdrop of the sun stubbornly continuing to set in one direction against the mountains.
“How do Europeans do absolutely nothing all day?” he asks me when looking up from his book.
I laugh and shake my head at my you’re-such-a-typical-New-Yorker friend. “Because maybe they are the ones that really know how to live.”
In New York City, I’m always writing things feverishly while walking up subway steps. There’s always such urgency, never enough time to sit still and do nothing. I think to myself: god, I could trip and fall and die. And there’s that part of me that thinks: writing is one of those few things that would make me fold my hands in my lap in the afterlife and say, “Well. Good thing it was worth it.”
A few months ago my friend came to visit, all memories and lines and bait — like a good fisherman. I talked like he was going to move back here, and he said quietly, “Man, New York City takes so much effort though. You seem like you love it. Is it really worth it?”
The good things are worth the effort. This past year, we’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies, relationships — everything — on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. But let’s remember: there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, not just this year. So many of my friends have faltered this year at the absurdity of fighting for what we believe in. Or what we love. We’d all like to lose ourselves in something big, gigantic; but more unfortunately, it seems, something we are absolutely certain we can win at.
We are here now. Even if the odds are (obviously) that we can’t win every time, struggling in our convictions for what is good and right seems to be a worthy cause.
I could go on about 2016, but I think everyone else pretty much has the negative side covered. Every blog post and tweet sums it up: “2016 was shit. Good riddance.” I thought about the posts I could write: summarizing the books I read, new jobs, new loves, my travels, how it felt to meet my goal of writing in my Day One journal every day, the number of steps I’ve taken since getting a Fitbit; while they are all things I’d like to expand upon, nothing seemed to fit for the final entry of the year. I thought about writing nothing at all. Or just quoting from the greats. There are endless relevant quotes from James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Hannah Arendt, Margaret Mead, W.E.B. Dubois, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, Junot Díaz, and on and on.
I don’t think I’m the only person who has been paralyzed about what to write (or what not to write) — what if people get angry with me because I leave out important issues? What if people get angry with me when I do write about important issues? Is it worse to be silent than to write incompletely? Is it frivolous to write about love and hope in a time of terror and despair? Is it ok to quote poetry instead of more politically-relevant works? (Many of the same questions I asked myself last year.) It took a lot of courage to act on the thought I had: What any of us writes will always be incomplete. Write anyway.
A year of struggle is also marked by the magic that occurs within it. Echoing Solnit, I still believe it’s important to let go of the certainty people love more than hope and learn to accept that we don’t know what’s going to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I’m terrible at this myself. But there is so much more work that love has to do in the world. We have so much more work to do in this world. 2016 has taught us this. Be humble, accept uncertainty, go forward. We must.
In life I’ve often renounced my belief in second chances (terrible habit: I don’t even revise my writing. I don’t write second drafts). I know I should write second drafts, maybe third and fourth drafts. Why do I always think, if it didn’t happen right the first time, well, so be it? But the first glimmer of the next train’s lights (after I’ve missed the first one) makes me wonder otherwise. Persistence is humanity’s special brand of making into reality the dreams we’ve pursued for years, decades. Centuries, even.
This past year has been, from a global, political, (and for many people, personal) standpoint, upsetting to say the least. In February, during my first ever solo road trip, I remember staring at the Pacific Ocean after both keys to my rental car had disappeared amongst its crashing waves, wondering: “What else could go wrong?”
A friendly Russian tow truck driver picked me up and hauled me all the way back to San Francisco in the end. In his thick accent, he thanked me for treating him with gratitude and respect while telling me to hold on to the hope that people can be good. “Let me tell you, if all this hadn’t happened, you would have continued onward to Big Sur oblivious, perhaps less appreciative of the journey, without a moment’s thought. But now you have a story about how the ocean swallowed the keys to your car, but you continued onward with cheerfulness. You’ll never forget this for the rest of your life.” He was right.
Despite the common habit of measuring ourselves against the goals we set at the onset of every new year, I can tell it may be tough for us to demarcate any sort of change that we have effected from the monumental list of objectives we have yet to accomplish — because we haven’t won yet. As if: if you did admit any progress, the structures of what you were building would at once crumble from merely having been observed. But what is winning?
This year I’ve stood in South Africa, Montana, North Carolina, Austria, Iceland, Florida, Louisiana, Portugal, Mexico, Spain, Nevada, California, tiny towns in Texas. I’ve watched the same stars unfold every night, steadfast in the face of constant and certain darkness.
We fall into the trap of eagerly awaiting some sort of “first place,” some sort of trophy, the next adventure, the next thrill, the next victory that feels big enough, the next ephemeral sense of completion. Many of us spend our lives expecting a finish line that doesn’t exist. There will always be more to do, more to fight for, more things we will miss, more wars and games to win and lose.
So here I am in Portugal, in a sleepy town. I look up, and he’s been quiet for the past few minutes now, grinning at the book he’s reading. Silent now from complaints of how small of an adventure it is to be still, to just be in the presence of peace.
It’s almost the last day of the year. Skeletal remains of Christmas decorations light up the streets. The birds are flying up into the blue sky. The sun is still going about its daily work steadfastly, as it has done every day we’ve walked the earth. The elderly couple sitting next to us have not exchanged a single word, yet seem more content than anyone else in the park. Sometimes sitting in front of a tacky fountain in a little town watching the light change while reading a good book is really what living is about. This luxury of existing sweetly together no matter our differences is what we will spend the next years (rather, the rest of our lives) protecting, fighting for: with our words, with our actions, with our political discourse, with our love.
Goals or no goals, resolutions or not, this life is it. One step after another. One sunset more.
You and me, making space for hope and each other, rather than (or in the face of) despair. This is the prize. This is the resolution and the revolution.
As one of my favorite people taught me to say last week, “What else could go right?”
On to the next one. Onwards, together. Happy. New.
but we are the crossroads, my little outlaw,
and this is the map of my heart, the landscape
after cruelty, which is, of course, a garden, which is
a tenderness, which is a room, a love saying Hold me
tight, it’s getting cold.
— Richard Siken