I took a drive the night 2020 ended.
I had taken several drives before this. When the world went quiet--or at least quarantined, since many of us did not go gentle into that good night--driving on roads that had at least a few other drivers on it became one of my only avenues for human connection outside of my quarantined family. And gas was cheap.
Well, gas is no longer cheap, and slowly by slowly, I am re-recognizing the smiles behind the masks. The infamous 2020 is over, and slowly thinning its influence in our lives.
But on that night, December 31, 2020, I reveled in the year I had so loathed.
I have always celebrated New Year’s Eve with my family, so until that night I had not been on the streets for the celebration.
I also assumed the celebration would be smaller in the year of Unprecedented Times. I assumed wrong.
As I crept along semi-empty streets, I could see and smell the smoke of hundreds of individual fireworks shows. Business owners must eat, and the annual fireworks vendors seemed to be eating well this year. Everyone wanted to loudly ring out the old year.
Perhaps it was a sort of triumphant salute for those of us who survived the year. Perhaps, for some of us, it was a send-off for those we’d lost. Either way, it was not to be ignored.
I grinned to myself as I made a turn-around in an empty movie theater parking lot. I could hear whooping, I could smell fire. It felt like a revolution, a turning-around, a night of phoenix-like death by fire and rising from the ashes. I felt connected with the revelers--we are here, we shouted. We survived, we screamed.
And suddenly it struck me--all my assumptions about history were wrong.
I have always heard the phrase “make history” like it’s some kind of special club only a few get into. Maybe only the “greats.” Certainly not everyone “makes history,” just as not everybody makes the president’s list in academics.
But I realized, I was making history, right then. Driving around, yelling my existence and participation to strangers I couldn’t even see in the hazy, smoldering night. Taking the personal change that had come with surviving a major historical event and moving forward, bringing all of my own ideas and agency with me.
History is not the bricks that build the wall. History is what happens in the cracks, the chinks that let the wind through, the mortar that forms the shape.
I mean, really, think about it: bricks are shaped like bricks, but houses aren’t. Historical events are shaped like historical events, but they aren’t the shape of history itself.
History is people taking to the streets to shout and sing together with unseen strangers after a year of being separated. History is the healthcare workers who worked to treat everyone who fell prey to the historical event of COVID-19. History is the people who stayed at home and worried about what they would eat--and found themselves working with the owners of a local now-closed restaurant to give out food that would have been wasted. History is college students going home early, taking classes online, arguing with family they can’t get a break from and learning how to love in a tight space. History is--people doing their laundry.
These are not unprecedented times. These are human things, things we’ve been doing forever. Adapting to change, learning to live with what we have, working to change what we can’t live with. Fighting goodbye, cherishing hellos. Being loud when we have something to say, even when we are just one voice in a throng of a thousand.
People have been living and relearning how to live since the beginning. And those are the people whose opinions and ideas and lives set the precedent for what we do today.
So, congratulations. You made history, and you’re still making it.