Others have taken on the more traditional “year in review” accountings, and so this essay is not that. What strikes me the most about 2020 for our community is that it was a year full of contradictions, of trying to reconcile who we are with who we want to be. Often the task was impossible, with no clear right way forward. But move forward we did, sometimes in struggle, sometimes in victory, and sometimes just because we needed to get to the next day.
What does a community like Wayne County, Indiana do in the midst of a global pandemic?
At once we tried to reconcile care for our residents and their health with care for our already delicate economy. We asked people to find the difficult balance between staying in when it mattered, and showing up when it mattered. We watched restaurants and retail stores struggle, and some close, knowing that they were sometimes already on shaky ground.
We tried to stay positive, while also being realistic. We asked what it meant to ask for help, and truly accept it, when we might otherwise put a lot of pride in doing things on our own. We turned to new kinds of leadership and partnership, and expanded our notions of what it means to be self-reliant.
Everyone thought they were being careful. We learned how many different interpretations there are of “careful.”
We watched our healthcare workers put themselves on the line, for the individual patient and for the greater community good. We watched our hospital innovate and adapt. We watched police, fire and ambulance front-line responders take on new levels of support and caregiving. We talk about heroes being out there and yet we probably won’t ever know a fraction of the stories of kindness and care that have been given in someone’s greatest hour of need.
We tried to protect our kids and keep educating our kids at the same times. We asked our teachers to be more than they’ve ever been, we asked our parents to make even more sacrifices. We came to new understandings about the way the pre-pandemic school day shaped our lives, from the rhythms and consistency it offered to its essential role in our economy. We discovered that online learning works well for some but not all, and that perhaps the classroom is a more sacred space than we realized.
We struggled to find our sense of common purpose. We were all in this together, until we weren’t.
Politics popped up in the most unexpected places, infecting our discussions and our decisions like never before. Friendships that were once able to dance around uncomfortable differences fell apart, while new ones were formed over shared endeavors to make it all work. New alliances were forged, while some people who have never felt truly included felt even more on the outside.
We talked about injustice, sometimes. We tried, again, to understand racism and the ways in which Black people and people of color are treated differently because of what they look like. We said we wanted change, equality, peace, justice. And we struggled, again, to make meaningful progress toward those basic goals.
We Zoomed, FaceTimed and Facebook Lived. And then we did it again and again and again. We did things over the Internet that we never thought were possible, or desirable. We learned new tricks and left behind some old ones. Reliable access to the Internet and the availability of a computing device took on new currency, sometimes making all the difference in how a family or household could operate. Some businesses and organizations have changed forever how they operate. Others are just itching to get back to the old way. Doors have been opened, ideas have been planted.
If we could not define ourselves through our special seasonal events and our parades and our festivals and our concerts and plays and sports games and gatherings and more, then who were we? If we are not county fair food eaters and business lunchers and melters-down and Veterans Day paraders and church potluckers and neighborhood gatherers, then who are we? We had to figure it out.
The grief was there all along. The grief of lost loved ones, people for whom it should not have been time. The grief for people who died alone, or in the presence only of strangers. The grief of lost health, lost mobility, lost energy. The grief of missing moments, unclaimed embraces, plans that could not be pursued and promises that could not be kept.
We went for more drives, just for the heck of it. We walked circles around our neighborhoods. We found new kinds of beauty and utility in our outdoor landscapes. Our parks and woods and waterways and bike trails all took on new meaning and value. We discovered new tolerance for the hot or cold if it meant we could feel connected to the wider world again, for just a bit longer.
We found out who was there for us, and who we could count on. We found out who we could help, who we could be there for. We remembered kinds of friendship beyond social media connections, neighborliness beyond the polite wave.
The entry into 2021 is a milestone, a marker in our history that reminds us where we are and where we’re headed. We can celebrate it, or at least acknowledge it. But we still have much to reckon with, much to process, much to grieve, much to figure out.
The passing of time will not take care of these things for us; we actually have to do them ourselves. There are some things that happen to us, but there are others where we decide what’s important and what’s right. We are the ones who can figure out how to move forward. We can use the events of 2020 to help us clarify what it is about life in Richmond and Wayne County we want to carry forward, and what we want to leave behind.
Having confronted all of these contradictions, some of them still ongoing, each of us can ask ourselves what we have to contribute to a new kind of greater good. If health, or a vibrant public life, or regular income, or gathering with friends, or being alive at all are not taken as a given, the answers may even change a bit.
This is the year. Now is the time. Let’s figure it out.
Happy New Year.
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