A simple enough question. A little small talk opener at a recent ‘bubble’ dinner. ‘So how do you like living in Oakville?’ Just the sort of query that invites a one- or two-word response, a quip, a tossed off but pithy answer. ‘It’s great’. ‘Guess I’ll have to keep working for another few years!’ ‘Really good time to trade in the snowblower for the Porsche.’ But nothing came out.
Our time in this newly adopted community has coincided with last calendar year: 2020. And I was speechless. At the very least, I was taken aback at how an innocent conversation starter could stir such deep and complicated feelings. And I was equally convinced that my son in law didn’t really want to hear the extended version. A little Reader’s Digest would have suited him nicely.
The early days of January are generally given over to resolution and resignation, expectation and examination. The twelve months stretching out before us are greeted with a blend of hope and anticipation; the year just closed demanding a definitive summary verdict, an indictment. Auld Lang Syne’s sentiments aside, the celebration that, in normal times, greets the stroke of is more attached to the relief of having put pay to a year past than to regret its passing; to the welcoming of a new and blank canvas.
At risk of shutting down the evening’s chat early on, I begged his indulgence and came up with a rework of one of my go-to’s: ‘It’s been neither the best of times, nor the worst of times. . .’ (with apologies to Dickens.)
On reflection, and having watched or read the piles of retrospectives of the year just past, I was struck by the parallels between what had unfurled as a truly ‘different’ twelve-month and the truthful answer to my son in law’s query.
Publicly, the villains (and victims) of the piece are pretty available targets. Covid has provided the most marvellous of search and replace opportunities. Name the context (a world-wide pandemic) and insert one’s personal experience of, one’s reaction to same— and you have the answer to the ‘how was your year?’. Equally, although a little less proprietarily for Canadians, politics have overlapped with the plague, preoccupied the media — and been personalized by most all of us. How was your year typically elicits an ‘I can’t believe this one. . . !’ The year when everything became truth or lies, black or white — well, blue or red — with precious little middle ground. And, in keeping with things of hue, the colour of one’s life underscored the polarities lurking beneath the surface. No shortage of issues to divide, to erase nuance, to push us into the tails of the curve.
But it seemed too easy, and more than a little unfair to hang a year — or for that matter, a significant geographic move — on the peg of a single word or two. To indict 2020 on it having had the misfortune of hosting a 100-year pestilence; or equally, the final quartile of a truly villainous administration.
Part of the New Year’s listen included a podcast my wife had found recently and, coincidentally one that offered a little balance and shading to both of these exercises in retrospection. My statistical antennae started to twitch excitedly as soon as I heard stratification, slicing the past year into sections, seasons of experience — instead of one, amorphous, distilled lump. And Dickens’ words began to resonate.
Leaving a city of some five decade’s residence, joining a ‘shared community’ (as condo dwelling is pleased to call itself) with all of the boundary infringements that accompany, downsizing by a factor of three, bidding adieu to professions (sort of) that had defined the whole of our working lives could easily be tagged as challenging disruptions. Stunning views, morning and evening, mere minute’s access to family, amenities, choral opportunities, and ‘banana belt’ (vs. snow belt) weather easily line up on the scale’s other pan. Time and venues to indulge one’s sport passion set up against a precipitous decline in physical function. Leaving old friends, being welcomed by new relationships. The ‘good news — bad news’ dichotomies stretch to the horizon. And really are not, in this view, what the exercise of reflection, contemplation is about.
Change, by definition demands adjustment, not adjudication; acceptance, not avoidance. To vilify (or, indeed ‘laud’) a year — or a move — is not where the learning lies. The Path (the experience), as my longtime mentor would say, is not right or wrong, good or bad. . . it just is. You’re either on it or you’ve wandered away from it. You’re either learning from it or resenting its existence. Closing the book on a year is folly, if we haven’t reflected on the lessons it offers. Codifying it as the crystal ball that predicts the next, equally so. These are indeed ‘the best of times and. . . ‘.