My annual year-end failure list has gotten even more robust in the past two years as almost nothing happened the way I planned. Here's a modified list:
I failed at launching my book in a non-pandemic. “At least my book’s not coming out in 2020,” a statement I said that most likely rhymed with millions of other statements uttered at that exact moment: “At least our wedding’s in November,” “At least we planned our once-in-a-lifetime motorcycle trip around South America for April, not March,” “At least this will all be over by the time the show is ready to open.” Et cetera.
Welp, launching my book in 2021 wasn’t very different than launching it in 2020; I still did all my events virtually and couldn’t safely celebrate with friends. Or even friend, singular. I was alone in my apartment, gratefully receiving bouquets of flowers and bottles of champagne, with a strange feeling that perhaps I had made all of this up: Was my book actually coming out? Did I get the date right? Am I in the right year? Am I in the right life?
I would get all dolled up for the virtual events and pour my energy into a screen for an hour, then close my laptop and look around at my messy kitchen, and begin removing my makeup. Since the pandemic started, many significant life experiences (weddings, graduations, book launches) have a sheen of…fakeness…over them. I heard from a woman who graduated med school and, after years and years of study, heard her name called out from a phone during her school’s Zoom ceremony. “That’s it?” She asked.
Is “That’s it?” the question of 2021?
There were aspects I enjoyed about the virtual book events—the intimacy, for one—but for someone whose work is entirely solitary, the isolated book launch exacerbated the loneliness of my vocation. With many bookstores closed for browsing, I couldn’t even see my book IRL in stores: a little thrill I didn’t realize wouldn’t be available to me. The experience felt entirely abstract.
Because I spent so much time in my apartment and in my head, I found myself obsessing over external validation I’d never cared about before: lists, reviews, sales numbers. I got really jealous of other authors. I believed lies I told myself about how my work didn’t matter. I’ve not felt this way ever before, and it worried me: Did my values suddenly change?
I chalked it up to the world—my world—feeling more limited, with fewer ways to feel good about my work. After releasing such a personal book into the murk, I craved the nourishing interactions I so hoped to have, where I could hear stories from others and share similarities and marvel over connections (You did ayahuasca to heal from the trauma of your father’s abandonment too?!).
I only felt better when I allowed myself to mourn the book launch I’d never have. In a year of so much profound collective suffering, it felt silly to feel sorry for myself over something so clearly ridiculous: Poor me, all this champagne and no one to drink it with. But if I weren’t comparing my disappointment to the very real loss of others, it would still be a loss.
So I let myself cry a little, then forced myself to laugh. It really was quite funny to wear a gown I bought a year ago just to sit in front of my computer, and funnier still to pair it with fuzzy slippers. I made fun of myself for my jealousy, and giggled at the many technical difficulties of the ridiculousness that is a “virtual book tour,” and smirked at the absurdity that I get to have this glorious gift of a published book at all.
I failed at remembering to put extra keys in a lockbox. Had to buzz the neighbors more than once.
I failed at saying the right thing: “You’ll never say the right thing.” That’s what my supervisor told me over and over during our check-ins as I was training to be a hospital chaplain earlier this year. “There’s nothing you can say,” she’d insist.
“Then what am I doing here?” I’d ask, hoping against hope that at some point she’d come to her senses and exclaim, “You’re right, you’re so eminently wise; I’m sure you’ll make perfect sense of someone’s suffering and provide an exceptional explanation of their emotional journey through pain!”
She did not. I was stuck with my powerlessness. “You’ll never say the right thing, but what you can do is provide your presence,” Rabbi Ruth repeated. Harrumph, I thought. I wanted to be better at this.
There were moments when I did suspect that my mere presence was doing something, and there were many more moments when my presence was not doing a thing, except most likely being a great annoyance.
I did find that what most people want to hear when things are really hard is, “That sounds really hard.” Nobody needs a “Well at least you have your feet!” Or “Have I got a Bible verse for you!” Most people want to know that someone isn’t scared to sit with them. Most people are hoping that you’re not going to try to cheer them up, or figure it out, or recite a quote.
Most people bristle when I’d come in, and I could tell they were bracing themselves for an explanation from someone who knew absolutely nothing of what they were going through. I could tell they relaxed when I’d say “I’m just here to listen, if you feel like talking.”
The most profound thing I saw in the hospital was the way that loved ones would intuitively show up for someone who was suffering: simply with their presence. I saw many parents, spouses, siblings, and neighbors just sitting in their beloved’s room, not talking or comforting—only watching over, for hours, for days, for weeks.
When I made demands of God throughout 2020, I’d say things like “If you made the world, can’t you throw us a bone?” “Would it be so hard for you just to…PUT AN END to this?!” But witnessing the worried visitors accompany their sick loved ones was a different illustration of what divine love might look like in practice: Watching over, being with, suffering alongside.
There’s nothing we can really do for each other’s pain except be with it. Sometimes I would imagine God as one of these visitors in the great ICU floor that is our world right now: simply staying at all hours of the night, occasionally crying over the bed.
I still tried to say the right thing: when a young mother lost her infant baby, when a woman my age was diagnosed with a brain tumor, when a man wept for his wife pleading “Why can’t it be me instead?”
And I kept failing. But I kept staying.
I thought a lot about humility—something I started with absolutely zero of. I suspected that, as someone who had a long-term hospital stay once, I was an expert on the experience. I thought my emotional intelligence was off the charts and I thought I had enough of a fluid interest in spirituality to be able to offer my guidance to anybody on any journey. LOL.
Every patient is different as every human is different; we’re all grappling with a chaotic life that doesn’t follow directions and we’re all arguing with our different gods and we’re all questioning or reaffirming the meaning of it all every five minutes depending on the day and circumstance.
To walk into an ICU room with any intention whatsoever to “say the right thing” is an outrageous aim.
As a favorite writer Brian Doyle wrote, “All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference. Humility does not mean self-abnegation, lassitude, detachment; it’s more a calm recognition that you must trust in that which does not make sense…You must trust that you being the best possible you matters somehow, that doing your chosen work with creativity and diligence will shiver people far beyond your ken…And you must do all this with the certain knowledge that you will never get proper credit for it, and in fact that vast majority of things you do right will go utterly unmarked. Humility, the final frontier.”
I failed at learning the Jerusalema dance, but I did enjoy this video immensely (particularly Sri Lanka).
I failed at throwing dozens of garden parties. I had grand plans for my new garden, all of them involving dozens of parties celebrating a roaring, decadent, vaccinated summer. But summer had a lot of false starts, didn't it? At the end of August, I remembered wondering where exactly the season had gone, when it hadn't seemed to get going in the first place.
When I moved into my apartment during a blizzard in February, I showed photos from the listing to friends, promising barbecues and soirées and asked if they had any DJs in their rolodex. "Start planning your outfits!" I commanded.
I did have one party in early October for my birthday, and transformed the garden into an illuminated pumpkin patch with votives and gourds and twinkle lights. It was lovely. "I'll do this a few more times before it gets cold!" I vowed.
I seemed to forget, during my winter promises, that I'm not a person who throws parties very often. It reminded me of the times I come home from a grocery store trip and wonder, "Who exactly was I shopping for? Certainly not myself." My ambitions got the better of me.
Whenever I move (which is often), I have visions of becoming a completely new person with the auspice of new appliances, different views, and amenities I've never had before. "This kitchen island will be perfect for my new hobby creating murals!" "Think of all the Pilates classes I'll take in this living room!" and so forth.
But, one realizes a few months in, that we bring ourselves wherever we are. In the summer, I was just Mari, with a garden, and had yet to meet a DJ.
I failed at living up to my word of the year, Happiness. Instead of happiness, I sought out and sustained joy.
I failed at having any good answer to the question, "What's next?" Your guess is as good as mine.
I failed at replying back to that text. I'm so sorry. I really meant to. But now I waited too long and I think it might be unbearably awkward to respond.
I failed at going on a trip. A proper trip, one that involves passports and a downloaded movie for the plane.
To pass those thin grey days in 2020, I made halfhearted lists of places I'd go "when this was over" and occasionally feel a spark of recognition for my old self: the one I defined by my adventures and introduced with my dreams. A month in Guatemala, a bus down the length of Chile, a swim in the Turkish islands: these were how I'd reacquaint myself with the world I knew and loved, the companion to my lonely soul.
And then, borders opened, sort of. Vaccinations worked, for a while. I knew people who went to Paris, and traveling became less of a sci-fi prospect. Still, I felt a gravitational tug to my home. I reminded myself of a confused cat who remains in her carrier even when the door's open.
"Travel is such a big part of your life," friends encouraged me, as though they were trying to remind me of something I'd forgotten.
The truth was, my life felt different. I was more interested in strolling with friends in nearby towns than whisking myself away to a faraway city I couldn't visualize.
I spent my summer dozing in the back of a train car on a long ride east, losing a sandal as sea foam lapped up the warm sand of a New York beach in June, dripping my ice cream on the overgrown grass below, and shielding my eyes from the sun on an Adirondack chair as I lazily chatted with my friend about how his siblings have been doing.
I failed at getting sick. For someone with a pile of garbage as an immune system, this is actually unfathomable to me. So much so, that I strain to recall days when I suppose I might have been sick, just to confirm beliefs about myself and some laws of the universe. Needless to say, I am tremendously thankful to be in good health. Needless to say, health is random and follows no rules related to hydration, minutes of exercise a day, and diet. I’ve gotten very ill during years committed to veganism, teetotaling, and daily yoga. I’ve eaten like a teenage boy and been perfectly energized.
People desperately want health to make sense. I first learned this when I noticed that the first thing everyone wants to know when you tell them about your freak illness is, “How did you get it?” I suspect they don’t actually care about the bacterial origin story of your autoimmune disaster; they want to create an illusion of control for themselves, that they can prevent getting what you got—that they will be a little wiser, a little more cautious, and therefore avoid your pathetic fate.
This might be too cynical an interpretation, except I see the same impulse in myself: “Where do you think you picked it up? Did you know you were being exposed? Were you wearing a mask?” Tell me I won’t get it, I’m secretly pleading.
The thing is, we’re all doing our very best. Okay, most of us are doing our very best. And you can still get the flu, and you can still contract a bizarre illness, and you can still have some really bad luck and end up in the ICU, like so many people I met at the hospital this year. To believe we are fully in control of our fate is a fantasy, and this year I failed at resisting the illusion.
My mysterious heart beat right along with full vigor, for wild unknowable reasons, and all I can posit is gratitude.
I failed at cutting back on caffeine. I tried for a few weeks, benevolently tricking myself into replacing second and third cups of coffee with decaf. But that all stopped when I thought I might have to go to the hospital with a case of extreme fatigue, only to be reminded that I was weaning myself off a decades-long habit of gulping down a bucket of coffee every morning. I had work to do and a summer to enjoy, so I permitted myself to freely caffeinate as I desired. I’ll try again.
I failed at being a tree, and will have to settle for humanity instead. Better luck next year.