"What doesn’t kill you makes you really tired."

By Sloane Crosley
Nov 23, 2020 @ 9:00 am
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It’s raining. Might as well make like Gene Kelly and sing.
| Credit: Everett Collection

If I write anything, it will be from memory. This is what I told my agent over Zoom in September, referring to my lack of note-taking since March. Then I made a gesture meant to encompass all of 2020, but the connection was bad, and my smaller screen froze within his larger one. He said it looked like I was karate-chopping 2020. That sounds nice. But what to chop and where to begin? It is carved into the pyramid walls that each year should end with its survivors expressing glee over its conclusion. Those who’ve had professional and personal successes must sit by and watch as their beloved year gets told to go perform sex acts on itself. This happens every December, without exception. We have short memories. You know what wasn’t great? 2008. 2016? Also not our finest, politically speaking. But 2020 is special—unprecedented, some might say. I am writing this sentence in the midst of the most consequential presidential election of the 21st century, a source of medical-grade anxiety that has only begun to edge out the global plague that emerged less than 12 months ago, killing over 225,000 people in America alone.

Apologies to 2021 but: not alone, thus far.

Why is this year different from all other years? If you are reading this, your life has veered somewhere between moderately to severely off course. As for the world at large? You’ve got your wildfires; your impeachment (like an Oscar-nominated movie that was released in January—yes, that happened this year); your pandemic and its evil cousins, mass unemployment, supply-chain panic, quarantines, and travel bans; your persistent systemic racism and murders of Black men and women; your massive chemical explosions; your murder hornets (who at least had the decency to reduce their appearance to a cameo); your record-breaking temperatures; your orange skies; your RIP RBG; and your partridge in a pear tree (well, until climate change comes for them too).

And yet, on a day-to-day basis, this time has felt poorly defined. People call it the lost year (birthdays do not count in 2020! 2020 is canceled!) because daily life has ground to a halt (unless you are a cat or a dog: Laps to sit on 24/7! Adoptions up! Best year ever!). For humans, it’s felt not like we’re watching separate acts of a play but rather one interminable monologue. Perhaps this explains why I’ve avoided taking notes, on account of the paralyzing futility. Life is a moving target. We stopped asking “What fresh hell is this?” sometime in May, when we realized, “Ah, yes, same hell.” Behold, 2020: a pile of mush from which we attempt to grow moments of joy in modest pots only to watch as the dark cloud of current events asserts itself over every godforsaken corner of our lives.

But not to worry; it’ll all be OK.

This theory has some glaring empirical exceptions. Here are a few: the families of those who lost loved ones to COVID-19; the people who lost not just their jobs but their entire industries; the neighborhood-defining restaurants that shuttered their doors forever. They will not be OK, at least not in the way we’ve come to abuse that word. But herein, in the word itself, lies a way forward. We deserve stimulating and populated lives full of opportunity and love, but for now it helps to lower the bar a little. We have a tendency to use “OK” to connote thriving instead of being, as if once it’s been answered in the affirmative, everyone can move on. It’s reminiscent of the end of a cheesy movie. “You know what? I think she’s gonna be OK.” Wink, wink. Roll credits. The very American belief in the power of positive thinking has run amok to the point where we have turned okayness into a shorthand for “out of the woods” when it really means “out of bed.”

Okayness should not be considered a feat or be confused with progress. Adequacy is not exactly optional. Human beings are resilient creatures, and though it’s not readily apparent in all of us, we have the most complicated brains on the planet. Aside from sperm whales. And dolphins. And most squid. Point is, we are built to get ourselves out of jams. It doesn’t mean we get out unscathed. In 2020 our propensity for artifice, for “It’s all good!” has finally met its match. We want to close our eyes and make it all better, to go back to the old world, and, yes, parts will return. Parts never left. But it would be a mistake to assume that the Italians who sang so beautifully from their balconies or the health-care workers who saved so many lives or even the artists who produced work during COVID no longer warrant our concern simply because they found a way to survive. What doesn’t kill you makes you really tired.

When our cities shut down in the spring, we reached out to each other, testing each other’s okayness, asking if we were “holding up.” This well-intentioned question became ubiquitous to the point where brands were blasting out emails that led with it. Not well, bespoke home goods store, not well! What are you gonna do about it? Nice drawer pulls. By summer, the bar had begun to come back down to where it should have been. “Hope you’re keeping your shit together,” a friend texted me, not asking for too much. The idea that all I had to do was not be incontinent made me feel accomplished. It made me wonder what other triumphs might be achieved in a single day (at least now we don’t have to see those mugs informing us we have “the same 24 hours as Beyoncé” because we don’t see the insides of other people’s homes). In the fall, Kate McKinnon appeared on Saturday Night Live, playing a doctor having a breakdown on “Weekend Update.” Halfway through the bit, Colin Jost calls her “Kate” and asks if she’s OK. She faces the camera and says, with a nervous laugh, “I’m obviously not.”

There are not many perks to 2020 unless you count an uptick in scallion-growing and bread-making. There’s also the eradication of FOMO, the time to reflect on what’s important, the hands-on parenting. But while these things can be appreciated (imagine the kind of budget and permits required for a solo walk up Fifth Avenue under normal circumstances), they are poisoned by the horrible means by which we received them. The one legitimate benefit to this time is the air of humility, the sincerity in how we relate to each other. Who has the mental energy for surface questions anymore? Or, worse, surface answers? Our diseased president is ripping off his mask onstage as if he’s just robbed a bank wearing a Nixon costume. Are any of us OK? Obviously not.

In COVID, we have a collective problem that exacerbates whatever problems we already had. It’s gasoline poured on the fires of mental health disorders and extreme poverty, to name two. We are most certainly not all in this together—a bitterness has arisen toward people with lawns, and by “people,” I mean people I know, and by “arisen,” I mean within myself—but this is happening to all of us.

Our list of trials is long.

And this particular list is incomplete.

This was the year that Black Lives Matter became the largest civil-rights movement in history. For the first time, it felt like the nation was actually awake to the realities of racism, not just performatively woke from the glare of our own virtue signals. In June millions of people across the globe peacefully protested in the streets, standing in solidarity with those who have experienced the endless cycles of senseless death and prejudice that led up to this moment. Leads. That leads up to it. Here again, on the grandest scale possible, lurks the danger of okayness. The fading news story, especially when it’s inconvenient, requires constant resuscitation. Individual complacency looms as all those march videos and pictures of Rep. John Lewis drift down the time line.

Too often Black Lives Matter bears the burden of being the bright spot in a dark year. Not only did we not solve racism because we made prolonged eye contact with it, but not everyone has agreed there’s a problem to solve. One hopes that, for once, James Baldwin’s famous words about progress (“How much time do you want for your progress?”) might not be destined to fulfill their own prophecy, but we have yet to reach the necessary consensus. If 2020 is trying to teach us a lesson, it’s not a subtle one: We are responsible for each other’s lives. This is a concept as fundamental as the air we breathe. It’s also an argument we’ll have to take with us into the rest of the decade.

As I write this, preparing for an uncertain winter in New York, it’s something of a relief to say that I am only OK. No, I cannot fix the world merely by listing what ails it, but at this minute I have housing and health and am generally keeping my shit together. That makes me one of the lucky ones. Somewhere down the street, a woman is practicing an aria with the windows open. At least I think the windows are open. It’s very impressive if they’re not. So I take my first note, writing down the word “opera,” and smile. Because this singer, whoever she is, has had a hell of a year. She has been through too much. But it’s beautiful to feel connected to her. It’s beautiful to listen as she tries to sing herself sane.

Crosley’s new novel, Cult Classic, will be published by FSG next spring.

For more stories like this, pick up the December 2020 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 20th.