The 2020 photo book that I just made for my parents, as I do every Christmastime, had more pages in it than other years, and my daughter Sofia wondered, “Of what?”
The starting images seemed spewed from a bottle of champagne: birthday dinners in packed restaurants, a stageful of kids dancing to the Little Mermaid, college tours through Mardi Gras, cousin reunions, airports, and beaches.
Then, a grainy photo of empty toilet paper shelves at CVS. Stockpiling books at the library. Children’s art taped to windows. Hopscotch, puzzles, cherry blossoms.
But before all this, there was a picture that didn’t make it into the photo album. A swath of wet concrete and a group of kids walking away under a gray sky. It was March 13, the day schools closed, and the morning assembly had just ended.
I hadn’t taken enough pictures, I remember thinking as I watched hundreds of elementary school kids stream into the building. I fumbled for my cell phone, eyes tearing up, and managed to hit the shutter button once before Diana, with her pink and green frog backpack, walked into her 1st grade classroom for the last time.
Before the outbreak, I had been so preoccupied with my own worries and ambitions. I was never satisfied with where I was. I was always trying to get over there. Trying to become someone else.
You never feel more alive than when you are about to die. When the virus threatened to destroy everything, I felt awake. Everything in my life seemed to shift into order. All the jockeying to be accepted felt hollow, and the aloneness I had been trying to quash fell away. A thickness pressed in all around me, a feeling of togetherness much more subtle and steady than any acceptance from the world of men.
Dark matter is what scientists now call empty space. Invisible yet so powerful that it holds galaxies together. The great religions speak in parables and poetry of an indescribable something that contains everyone that ever was and ever will be. A oneness stronger than all the fleeting delights and disappointments of this life.
We have become very good at seeing what shines and burns — the stars and the supernovas, glowing cities and their arteries, the synapses firing between neurons. But our fascination with light has sometimes blinded us to the power of the dark.
When the lockdown dimmed the world, the empty space showed its aliveness. The distance between humans suddenly felt charged. Our similarities seemed so clear and poignant. And the space inside me, once seeming like a black hole, was filled with a magnetic force.
By the time you flip to the month of May in our photo book, the pictures have become more and more green. Instead of faces, monuments, and ceremonies, the camera lingered on the daisies and the blue hydrangeas in our garden, how they seemed to luxuriate in our attention. The lens paused over the grassy hill near our house that was always there to receive our screen-weary selves. Snapshot after snapshot captured the farm in Ohio, which welcomed us whenever we needed to escape the city.
There were still things to photograph in the fall — the tree that fell on the car, school desks at home, unrest around the White House — but the photos seemed to tell that 2020 was about nature: vicious beautiful nature. The virus that both ripped us apart and fused us together. The wind that sanctified, the woods that soothed, the plants and the animals, the puddles and the moonlight, the dirt and the rainbows.
It was a year of heartbreak. Seeing the world on its knees, my heart broke open, and in came all the sorrow, and all the love. For what was lost, for what we never had. For the downtrodden, for the departed. For all that I have been given, and all that will slip away.
There was also grace, there is always grace. I have been so full of effort and too poor in faith to notice it much, but this year was different. There were moments when I knew I was both nothing and a part of everything. There were gifts and sometimes, the wisdom to accept them. Moments that wouldn’t be captured in any photo. The script of a snail’s silver path in the morning light. Sleep that supplied the answers in a dream. A smile of forgiveness that was offered without being asked for.