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On 2020

It’s cold enough this week in Idaho that my tears freeze on my eyelashes when I’m outside. Tiny little crystals gather, cool and sparkling, at the edges of my vision. They melt within seconds of coming back inside from my evening walks: a mile to River Run and a bit beyond, to the open field used in summer as grazing pasture for the Sun Valley draft horses. The waxing moon rises high above it now; the horses are nowhere to be seen. I’ve been walking this same route for seven months of solo strolls in the gathering dusk this year, often on the phone with a friend. I’ve watched the poppies—searingly bright—bloom and fade, the fuzzy thistles grow tall and wither. I’ve watched the aspen leaves swell, glossy and green, and then crisp underfoot, hidden now by soft pillows of snow. I’ve watched the river flow and freeze into a sheet of blurry ice. 

Seasons change. So, as it turns out, do we. When I came to Ketchum last March, I expected to stay for a few weeks, maybe a month. I stayed for six. I was in London just a few days before, celebrating my friend’s 30th birthday in the neon-lit basement room of a karaoke club. We drank champagne and belted out ABBA tunes and glittered with hope and a little fear, a kind of festive desperation fueled by the looming crisis. I am grateful, now, for that last moment of joy. This year has been about living in memories, not making them. I would sit in the hammock on the porch this summer, reading Dune or re-reading Harry Potter, and a glimpse of something long forgotten would come lurching back: a raucous dinner at college, a heady evening in Spain, an afternoon spent in my childhood garden and its pungent scent of dirt and rhubarb and unripe strawberries. Faces, names, places. I spent a lot of time aching with remembrance: for people, some long gone. For youth, quietly slipping by. For feelings, of invincibility and hope, fading away. As the months wore on, something in me settled, though. The world seethed around me, around us, tearing sharp bits into our visions of community and healing. I helped craft obituaries, published pieces on protest and medical treatment, interviewed dozens of people dealing with the fallout of lives deferred. And isolated in Idaho, I sat, and I wrote. 

I wrote about the deer I saw outside my window. I wrote about loneliness. I wrote about birds, and flowers, and the color of the grass when the sun hits it in the early morning, and the way someone’s unexpected text could make me feel. I wrote about being lucky, and being sad. There’s no bigger lesson in any of it, nothing I can say here or anywhere that means something great. At the end of each year, I used to try to pull out a grand moral in these blog posts, to share a story to illustrate something true. (Blogging? In 2020? What a concept, I know.) I have no truths that are worthy of much attention this time. I am just one 29-year-old woman, lucky beyond measure, sitting at a table in the corner of a house in a small town in Idaho, dreaming of something else and enjoying the golden feeling of afternoon sun on her left shoulder. 

In the book Circe by Madeline Miller, the titular demi-goddess of Greek mythology is exiled to a lush but lonely island. (That list bit was relatable, for me.) “But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth,” Miller writes. “Such a constellation was he to me.” Circe is reconciling herself to the fate of a short-lived relationship, but I sense something bigger and more universal in the sentiment. The many kinds of souls that dip near me—stars of my past, hung in the night sky of my memory—wheel now near, now far from my thoughts. I am happy to have each of them, each of you, in my story, and I never want to lose a single one. In fact, I want more. 

Happy New Year.

Things I did in 2020: Read the complete works of Jane Austen, and about 40 other books. Watched every James Bond movie. Ran over 200 miles, a personal best. Moved out of an apartment (mostly) and in with my parents (for now). Published around 100 articles, including two cover features for TIME (Halsey and BTS) and profiles of James Taylor and Rick Steves and Anitta, personal favorites. Wrote a couple of essays I’m proud of: about dating, and about Austen. Interviewed Mark Ruffalo and Emilia Clarke and Ellie Goulding and Jill Scott and more. Published stories about transformative youth voting and early COVID testing and sickness on campus and the power of art and the slow death of nightlife. Drank a lot of wine, and then a lot of tea, at home with my parents. Ate a lot of pasta. Hiked. Attended a beautiful Zoom wedding and a Zoom memorial. Made plans that almost all went awry.

Things I’m working on for 2021: Getting vaccinated. Finishing the last few pages of War and Peace. Trying out my hand at crosswords. Cooking more, particularly with my mom. Dating, in person. Writing, writing, writing. Holding hands. Making new plans. Updating this website, which I haven’t really done since, oh, 2013?

On The Force Awakens

(A much-delayed review.)

We watched Star Wars Episodes IV, V, and VI over and over and over again. I was probably 5, or 6, or 8, and it feels like that’s all I ever saw, curled up on the grey couch in our low-ceilinged basement. Outside, suburban Seattle drizzled and traffic lights crawled. In the basement, though, we had adventure: X-wing fighter pilots on the move, snowstorms on Hoth, Princess Leia in her infamous golden bikini. Would I have chosen to watch these movies if my brother hadn’t monopolized the VCR? Probably not. But movies exert a magic, no matter if you intend to like them or not, and these ones became the fabric of my childhood.

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace came out in the year 2000; I was 9. Too young to be bothered either with Hayden Christensen’s relative level of hotness or the horror of Jar Jar Binks (and cringeworthy acting), I was more consumed with the spectacles of femininity I took in from Queen Amidala: her arresting lipstick choice (that stripe!), the stiff pageantry of her costume. I convinced my parents that I MUST be her for Halloween. I hunted down the appropriate costume, I wore a headdress, I painted my lips as best I could. As usual I spent the night sprinting door to door through the steady rain, costume obscured by a raincoat, hair and makeup increasingly disheveled. That summer, I went to space camp.

But although I had a thing for the Princess and the Queen and space travel, it turned out I wasn’t a Star Wars fangirl after all. I missed Episodes II and III. Life went on. I became preoccupied with more earthly endeavors—ballet, books, going to the beach.

Then signs of Episode VII: The Force Awakens began to emerge this fall, and even though I could barely remember the name of Luke’s home planet, I too felt that nostalgic tug to the Force. Preparation for full re-immersion commenced. (I wanted to watch all 6 movies chronologically, but iTunes rental is $20 a pop, so I sprang for Episodes III and Episodes IV—a mix of new and old, the introduction and conclusion of both sets of plot lines.) The re-watching was a bit boring, a bit painful. The old Star Wars turn out to be surface stories: all (simple) plot and no feeling. The highs (destroying the Death Star) are not made real by the lows (Anakin murdering all the Jedi trainees; Luke losing the only family and home he’s known; Vader blowing up Leia’s home planet due to her resistance). Grief and complexity have no place in the Star Wars universe; it’s a world of motion and momentum. That’s why the Episode IV scene of Luke looking out at the double sunset—one of the only moments of quietude in the entire series—stands apart, is so loved.

So on to Episode VII. It’s a more human movie. It’s a mash-up of all the previous character archetypes and plotlines. It’s basically Episode IV with better visuals and slightly better writing.

But when a nameless Stormtrooper smeared a handprint of bright red blood on the pristine white helmet of his comrade, my brother—seated next to me as we watched in the movie theater—whispered, “That’s the first time they’ve ever shown blood in Star Wars.” I felt a little thrill. In adulthood, it is the darkness in a movie that calls to me. Star Wars has never been truly dark, and has never made its own contrived darkness feel anything other than empty. (Whether that was an attempt to stay PG or a reflection of George Lucas’s own tendency to humor over depth is unclear.) Here, though, was a flash of pain that felt probable. So when the same Stormtrooper later removes his helmet in distress, it’s a sign: behind the smooth, hardened exteriors of our notions of good and evil, light and dark, lie consciences that agitate under the strictures of these stark narrative contrasts. Thank God. This iteration of the Force is flexible.

Because movie audiences today are not satisfied with just sharp plot and shocking special effects. No: we want sharp plot and shocking special effects undergirded by a grittiness, enhanced (and not undermined) by the realism of emotional depth. We want to be convinced that danger is real, that love is complex, that pain is present. All too often, our own lives clip along in the smooth, stifled tones of an Instagram filter, a muted routine of nameless gyms and neutral office desks, darkened bars and sterile apartments. Texts and small talk. Takeout and two-night-stands. In our blockbuster entertainment, then, we ask for vivid, messy color. We ask for consequences.

In The Force Awakens, the consequences are clear (perhaps, even, too clear). There are enough familiar faces to keep fans filled with nostalgia, enough shakeups to give us new heroes to admire, laugh with, root for. A new droid whose beeps elicit the kind of emotion I usually save for cute puppies. A new strong female protagonist to inspire the next generation of girls—and this time no golden bikini to bother with. A new baddie to rally against. The beats are the same, just better.

But is “better” good enough? It’s been discussed in critiques and reviews ad nauseum, and as time has softened the hype, consensus is that it will do. Nothing groundbreaking, just part of a science fiction continuum.

Is there even such a thing as an “original” story anymore? It’s hard to know what that would even look like.