This was the best year of our lives.
It’s easy to be negative about a year in which all our flowers grew thorns, but in reality much more has occurred, some of it good: for starters, everything went wrong, completely wrong. The world shut down, our lives shut down, all the clever hopes we’d held a year ago expired one by one like stars at sunrise. We’ve made one mistake after another, practically since the year began, but yet there is an important thing to also remember: if all mistakes are just lessons in disguise, we’ve been given not disaster but education.
So, this is the year that we have lost, yes, but this is also the year we learned.
Editor’s note: B.A. Van Sise is an art photographer with the unusual practice of making one, and only one, photograph on film every single day. He provides a look back on the project at the end of every year for PetaPixel, and his previous entries can be found here and here. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
This is the year we have learned, a little better, who we love, and who we can’t live without, and who we truly miss most while tramping alone through a trammeled world. This is the year we learned the meaning of distance. This is the year we were ruined, and this is the year we learned that most great things are built on ruins, that our great cathedrals all have broken bathhouses in their basements.
This is the year we learned that our office wasn’t necessary, and that our commute wasn’t necessary, and instead learned what the Little Prince tried to teach us all those years ago: what is essential to the heart, and the society, and even the grocery store, is often invisible to the eye.
This is the year we learned who was necessary.
This was a year of vindication. All the employees who had assured their clucking chiefs they’d be fine working from home have been redeemed. All of human civilization, hooray, has learned how to make bread. We entered a year with a disease hardly any of us knew existed, and leave the year with three different vaccines to halt it.
For a year where none of us did anything, we sure did a lot: we learned that if some of us just manage to get out of bed in the morning, that’s enough, and we learned what it means to wait, our brumating bodies stuck at home, our intestines turned to telephone cords with worry, and that waiting, too, is enough.
We learned that the only cure for skin hunger is skin, and that staying at home has little to do with being at home. In a year of riots and protests and sadness and anger and clattering chattering internet robespierres, we learned that mutiny is rarely as attractive as imagination demands.
Still, in many ways, everybody did just what they’re supposed to do: the helpers helped, the yellers yelled, the artists made art, the lovers made love, and the living…well, we’re doing the best we can.
We kept our stores stocked with food, our roads open. We applauded our common heroes and we held an election, evicting from the highest position in the gift of the people a controversial leader.
And, yes, this best year has been terrible.
This year has not behaved like the others- no tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeping in their petty pace, but rather an infinite present that never ends, blending one today into the next, a sere landscape with only sorrow to decorate the silence. We’ve lost time.
Lost time is never found again, and lost people are never found again, and this year we’ve shed a great deal of both. So far, we’ve placed almost two million people into the womb of the earth, and we all did our part; in the home of my life I lost Ida, and Elmi, and Justin, and Nathan, and 300,000 people I never met, but would have liked to.
For my part, I spent most of my year on the road, trying to inhale all of ragged-breathing America as I logged more than 22,000 miles in a tiny Hyundai, slewing across the ptomaine of a nation. What I found was challenging: the America of ohlocrats coming for the national dignity with fire irons in hand, but also beauty, a great deal of it: after all, charm is not a thing you find, but which you forge. The sky doesn’t set out to be beautiful- it needs water and dust and light and rods and cones and wondering, wandering minds to do it. So, too, goes America, in the small towns that mounted across their lawns the portraits of seniors who would never see graduation, the crowds that roared with applause for tired nurses, the unnamed and unknown scientists who worked so hard to solve a problem none of us knew we’d have, or of the masked many committing a simple act to save strangers they’ll never meet and never hear of. This is the year we found our chance to be all the people we forgot to be, to show all the affection we possibly could with our hands and mouths and lips and hearts six feet apart.
We don’t know how to measure that. We have units of measure for infections and death and viral counts and vaccine effectiveness but not for thankfulness, but not for the joy in watching the face of someone we love, even through a screen, and knowing that we are alive and they are alive and that we survive to carry one another.
It is a high time for hope. New Year’s Day is normally a time for optimism, but nobody seems to have much spring in their step wondering what fresh hells the next year has in store: locust hurricanes, or parachuting alligators, anything the ACME Corporation keeps in their catalog of tornado seeds and dehydrated boulders and other violent sundries. Or perhaps it will be more pedestrian malice: garden-variety idiots, in a field with too many gardeners.
But, as always, we don’t know what’s to come, and it’s a high time for hope. The future is an invention, on which there is no copyright and for which we have no patent. So now, we’re to enter a new year and a new home, though all of it feels a bit like being handed the keys to Tara in 1866. It’s a testament to our time in this last year that we’re all here to forget and, maybe, forgive it: remember, too, that leaving is a kind of love.
It’s a new year. A new tomorrow, and maybe even a new day: a chance to replace don’t with doing and prepare for another best year of our lives and to try and forge beauty, right here, in the infinite present.
About the author: B.A. Van Sise is the author of and photographer for Children Of Grass: A Portrait Of American Poetry, winner of a 2020 Independent Publishers Book Award Gold Medal. His work as a photographer has been exhibited at the Center for Creative Photography, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Los Angeles Center of Photography, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. You can find more of his work on his website