Thursday, December 31, 2020

A New Year's Thoughts, and the old ones gathered.

It's 2021 in some places already, creeping around the planet. Pretty soon it will have reached Hawaii, and it'll be 2021 everywhere, and 2020 will be done.

Well, that was a year. Kind of a year, anyway.

When my Cousin Helen and her two sisters reached a displaced persons camp at the end of WW2, having survived the Holocaust by luck and bravery and the skin of their teeth, they had no documents, and the people who gave them their papers suggested to them that they put down their ages as five years younger than they were, because the Nazis had stolen five years from them, and this was their only chance to take it back. They didn't count the war years as part of their life.

I could almost do that with 2020. Just not count it as one of the years of my life. But I'd hate to throw the magic out with the bathwater: there were good things, some of them amazing, in with the awful.

The hardest moments, in retrospect, were the deaths, of friends or of family, because they simply happened. I'd hear about them, by text or by phone, and then they'd be in the past. Funerals I would have flown a long way to be at didn't happen and nobody went anywhere: the goodbyes and the mutual support,  the hugs and the tears and the trading stories about the deceased, none of that occurred.

The hardest moments personally were walking further into the darkness than I'd ever walked before, and knowing that I was alone, and that I had no option but to get through it all, a day at a time, or an hour at a time, or a minute at a time.

The best moments were moments of friendship, most of them from very far away, and a slow appreciation of land and sky and space and time. In February 2020 I'd been regretting that I knew where I would be and what I would be doing every day for the next three years. Now I'd been forced to embrace chaos and unpredictability, while at the same time, learning to appreciate the slow day to day transition that happens when you stay in the same place as the seasons change. I was seeing a different sunset every night.  I hadn't managed to be in the same place, or even the same country, for nine months since... well, probably when I was writing American Gods in 2000. And now I was, most definitely, in one place.

I had conversations with people I treasure. Some of them were over Zoom and were recorded. Here are the two conversations that I felt I learned the most from, and I put them up here because they may also teach you something or give you comfort. The first is a conversation with Nuclear Physicist and author Carlo Rovelli, moderated by Erica Wagner, about art and science, literature and life and death:

The second was organised by the University of Kent. It's called Contemporary Portraiture and the Medieval Imagination: An Artist in Conversation with Her Sitters, and it's about art, I think, but it's a conversation between former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and artist Lorna May Wadsworth and me, moderated by Dr Emily Guerry, that goes to so many places. I think it's a conversation about portraits, but it feels like it addresses so much along the way.

Each of the conversations is about an hour long, and, as I say, I learned so much from both of them.

At the end of April, on Skye, I had ordered a telescope, and then discovered that "astronomical twilight" -- when it's dark enough to see stars -- wasn't due until the end of July. The sun didn't set until ten or ten thirty.  And even once the sun had set, it didn't get dark. It would be late August before I saw a sky filled with stars.

My daughter Maddy came to stay with me for November, and was amused by my reaction to the things that now fascinated me: stones, especially ones that people had moved hundred or thousands of years ago, skies and clouds, and, finally in the long, cold Skye Winter nights, I had the stars I had missed in the summer. There's no streetlights where I live, no lights for many miles. It can get as dark in the winter as it was light all night in the summer. But then you look up...

(All these photos were taken on a Pixel 5 phone in Astrophotography mode. It knew what it was doing.)

I wouldn't want to give back the stars, or the sunsets, or the stones, in order not to count 2020 as a real year. I wouldn't give back the deaths, either: each life was precious, and every friend or family member lost diminishes us all. But each of the deaths made me realise how much I cared for someone, how interconnected our lives are. Each of the deaths made me grieve, and I knew that I was joined in my grieving by so many other humans, people I knew and people I didn't, who had lost someone they cared about. 

I'd swap out the walk into the dark, but then, there's nobody in 2020 who hasn't been hurt by something in it. Our stories may be unique to us, but none of us is unique in our misery or our pain. 

If there was a lesson that I took from 2020, it's that this whole thing -- civilisation, people, the world -- is even more fragile than I had dreamed. And that each of us is going to get through it by being part of something bigger than we are. We're part of humanity. We've been around for a few million years -- our particular species has been here for at least two hundred thousand years. We're really smart, and capable of getting ourselves out of trouble. And we're really thoughtless and able to get ourselves into trouble that we may not be able to get ourselves out of. We can tease out patterns from huge complicated pictures, and we can imagine patterns where there is only randomness and accident.

And here, let's gather together all the New Year's Messages I've ever written on this site:

This is from 2014:

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art -- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

...I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you'll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you'll make something that didn't exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.

And for this year, my wish for each of us is small and very simple.

And it's this.

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.

So that's my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

And here, from 2012 the last wish I posted, terrified but trying to be brave, from backstage at a concert:

It's a New Year and with it comes a fresh opportunity to shape our world. 

So this is my wish, a wish for me as much as it is a wish for you: in the world to come, let us be brave – let us walk into the dark without fear, and step into the unknown with smiles on our faces, even if we're faking them. 

And whatever happens to us, whatever we make, whatever we learn, let us take joy in it. We can find joy in the world if it's joy we're looking for, we can take joy in the act of creation. 

So that is my wish for you, and for me. Bravery and joy.


Be kind to yourself in the year ahead. 

Remember to forgive yourself, and to forgive others. It's too easy to be outraged these days, so much harder to change things, to reach out, to understand.

Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin.

Meet new people and talk to them. Make new things and show them to people who might enjoy them. 

Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.

Last year, sick and alone on a New Year's Eve in Melbourne, I wrote:

I hope in the year to come you won't burn. And I hope you won't freeze. I hope you and your family will be safe, and walk freely in the world and that the place you live, if you have one, will  be there when you get back. I hope that, for all of us, in the year ahead, kindness will prevail and that gentleness and humanity and forgiveness will be there for us if and when we need them.

And may your New Year be happy, and may you be happy in it.

I hope you make something in the year to come you've always dreamed of making, and didn't know if you could or not. But I bet you can. And I'm sure you will.


For this year... I hope we all get to walk freely in the world once more. To see our loved ones, and hold them once again.

I hope the year ahead is kind to us, and that we will be kind to each other, even if the year isn't. 

Small acts of generosity, of speech, of reaching out, can mean more to those receiving them than the people doing them can ever know. Do what you can. Receive the kindnesses of others with grace.

Hold on. Hang on, by the skin of your teeth if you have to. Make art -- or whatever you make -- if you can make it. But if all you can manage is to get out of bed in the morning, then do that and be proud of what you've managed, not frustrated by what you haven't.

Remember, you aren't alone, no matter how much it feels like it some times.

And never forget that, sometimes, it's only when it gets really dark that we can see the stars.


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