the sum and total of now

People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there.

-Cormac McCarthy

New Year’s resolutions have always been like Keyser Soze to me. I’ve never been able to keep up with them. I’ve tried, and sometimes I managed to stay with them for a month or so, but then I lose track of the goal and forget what I was doing. As I get older and less smart (wiser, maybe, but also aware of how little I actually know about life), I’ve begun realizing that the best way to know where the hell you’re going is to know where you’ve been. I don’t do retrospectives or lists of accomplishments anymore; that’s for award shows and television series finales. I’d rather discuss some of the things that defined what I’m taking from this year to the next one and into the years to come.

 

I met someone this year. Well, technically, we first encountered each other on a Facebook group late last year. She dropped her phone and accidentally friended me. I wasn’t sure what to make of her, so I went to her page and liked what I saw. I told her she was my kind of nerdy. We’ve pretty much been together since then. She’s a traveler, writer, adventurer, asker of hard questions, and lover of quiet. Oh, and a good human. She’s also a southerner (read: Northern Alabama), which is a place that, until late October, I knew next to nothing about. Now it’s one of my favorite regions in the American south. She challenges me, engages me, makes me laugh, and makes me want to be a better human. I think I’m going to keep her.

I left a place I’d lived for a long time. It was the longest that I’d lived in one city since before college. When you live in a place for that long, and especially a place as big as the largest city in the Midwest, you end up loving and hating it. You see its beauty, its draw, its intrigue, its nastiness, its difficulty, and its quirks. When you live in a place for that long, it becomes part of you, whether you like it or not. Chicago changed me. I can’t look at anything the same way anymore. One thing you learn living in a city like that is empathy. There are, depending on which stats you look at, 2.4 or 2.7 million people living just within the city limits. Everybody has a unique life that is just as vivid and as important as your own. There’s actually a word for that: sonder. It means that everyone has a story, and sometimes you’re just an extra in it.

My family got bigger. My middle brother got married, to a woman so right for him, I couldn’t have made her up myself if I tried. I’d had a shaky history in western Pennsylvania (I was bad accident on the turnpike there 10 years ago; walked away with seat belt bruises, a totaled car, and only one thing damaged: a broken blender pitcher), so I was a little anxious on the drive out there. I ended up really liking Erie, and the wedding, which I was in as a groomsman, was fun. It was a hot day and I’m not much for dancing in public (ask my prom dates), but everybody was in good spirits.

You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.

It’s been a complicated year in another way. It has been the year of the elephant in the room. Some of us have done a pretty good job of minimizing its presence, some of us engage with it sometimes, and some of us can’t stop talking about it, whether to poke at it or cheer it on. Look at social media. It’s everywhere. People are stressed, angry, burned out, exhausted, and divided. There’s been a lot of nastiness this year, from all directions. We’re all worn out from it.

There’s been a lot of talk this year about “the other.” What I mean by that is certain people who’ve been classified as “the other” as a way to separate them, demonize them, and make them monolithic. That’s certainly been the case this year. Governments make them seem this way to justify their beliefs and actions. We begin to identify a people by the crimes, actions, or positions of governments, or of very small but very loud and visible minorities of a population. Often, a government or splinter faction does not speak for the people, but for itself to justify an end.

The problem is, nations are not monolithic. Peoples are not monolithic. I’ve known a lot of people in the past year who have felt the elephant’s presence on a very personal level. They feel attacked, marginalized, and hopeless. And sometimes, that’s what an elephant like this does. It wears you down. You don’t feel like you have the energy to persist.

But maybe we’re paying attention to the wrong elephant. Maybe the first one isn’t an elephant at all. Maybe it’s a snake, pretending to be an elephant.

In Kenya, elephants are treated as sacred and as being in touch with the physical world and a higher, more spiritual plane of existence. They are gentle and quiet, until something they love is attacked or endangered. In other places, they’re tamed, by first being treated as sacred, and then abused, and then coddled again, which is why they sometimes go on rampages, because they’re confused and tired of maltreatment.

I’m reminded, as I often am, of a passage from a novel that has stayed with me for a long time (it comes from the same novel as the rest of the quotes I’ve used in this post):

You have to carry the fire.
I don’t know how to.
Yes, you do.
Is the fire real? The fire?
Yes it is.
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.

Maybe the real elephant is what McCarthy calls “the fire.” The fire is the sometimes subtle and dim, sometimes bright and blazing power of decency, kindness, and humanity that seems to have escaped much of what we have been made to believe is our world. The snake wants us to come down to its level, and to believe that this is all there is: That we have to be afraid of each other, or angry with each other, or that we should hate each other. That leaders are supposed to be bombastic and crude and dishonest.

Maybe the fire is us. Maybe it’s the people among us, for whom we experience a kind of obscure sorrow, that we empathize with them but don’t quite know them, who are doing their best every day to keep a little fire burning; however small, however hidden.

And then when the time is right, just as the natives of this land used to do, they’ll dig the smoldering coals out from the ground, turn the coals into a conflagration, and make the world as they want it. Like the man whose birthday we just celebrated four days ago, the person who carries the fire may not always look powerful. The fire can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time. But that’s the thing about fires: They always start small, and once they’re burning, they’re impossible to ignore.

 

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