In Defiance, And With Love – Moving Into 2021: There Is Joy In What Lies Ahead
Do not go gentle into that good night, …Rage, rage against the dying of the light. -Dylan Thomas
What lines could be more apt for the year that was? The one that came out of nowhere, and delivered chilling, stilling images of streets emptied of people across the world. Of endless streams of abandoned migrant workers walking home, of rotis left behind on railway tracks. Who sang the pathos of that moment better than Andrea Bocelli at the ‘Music for Hope’ concert in April. This was a year we all experienced together, even as its devastations were parceled out in order of privileges held.
And yet, and yet.
Yes, life-as-was no longer exists, and may never return unchanged. But, should it return unchanged? Was life-as-was truly serving or working for most of us? Have we not been on the brink of crisis-environmental, social, emotional, economic, health- for years now? For all the catastrophic upendings of 2020, and the tolls it extracted, when did we last encounter such an opportunity to refashion and rebuild, both, our outer and inner worlds? When did the clock last ground to a halt like this? When did we last have time to truly ask existential questions of work, and what we want from life, to dwell on leisure, pleasure, self-fulfillment?
Modern work doesn’t leave us with time and energy for such wondering; time is stolen from all, whether the factory worker, the corporate worker, or the academic worker (it is only the degree of compensation that varies.) Couple this with the fact that work also often has a frightening hold on our emotional selves-we are not free to feel joy, enjoy ‘unproductive’ activities- and we see perhaps the gift of the sudden illumination and democratising of this urgent question of our time- time itself. A gift we’ll begin 2021 with.
Some years back, in 2016, a dear friend, Sayori, took me to see a multi-media exhibition at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. (The ‘Christa Project’, co-curated by Eiko Otake and Hannah Wolfe Eisner, featuring the iconic Christa sculpture by Edwina Sandys and 21 other contemporary artists.) We walked in without having read up on it beforehand, and were stopped in our tracks by what ended up being a most visceral experience. It was unlike anything I’d seen before. Piercingly beautiful pieces that knitted together art and faith, corporeality and the ethereal, the political and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred. Art highly cognizant of and deeply empathetic to the human experience and the violence we do to ourselves, without ever collapsing into bitterness. I hadn’t known this was possible in the post- Enlightenment world.
I was particularly moved by Meredith Bergmann’s sculpture ‘Response to Random Murder I: September 11, 2001 New York City, 2,996 dead’. Raw grief. Arms raised as if in prayer, not entreaty, and the airplanes entering the back of the hands, marking them like stigmata wounds. Arms raised, articulating what mere words cannot, and in surrender. A surrender that can only be summoned from the deepest, longest nights of the soul. The wound- co-constituted of the external and the internal- is raised to light and laid bare, to be witnessed, to be experienced, to be fully felt. It beholds, and asks to be beheld, individually, and collectively, quietly, with unflinching gaze, even though a more natural position might have been a face turned away, scorched by the agony of it all. It is a gesture both helpless and immensely hope-filled. It echoes the raised arms of infants, who know what they are owed, what is rightfully theirs, before the bruises and battle scars of life shake that certainty.
It is Bergmann’s sculpture that gives form to my thoughts on 2020, and everything it brought with it, and all that it bequeaths to 2021. It is with those upturned hands, that I quietly watch it disappear over the horizon, rooting for us all to rage, rage against the dying of its light.
Just as my experience of that exhibition preceded knowledge and framing (I looked up the brochure later on the internet), so too our experience of 2020 sits with us, too soon to know what the history books will tell in a few decades. We are still in the moment, the ruptures offered by this past year remain before us as its biggest gift.
For long the coherence of our selves has been disrupted, never more so perhaps than in the rhythms of work and life forced upon us, and acquiesced to by us, by our post-industrial society. In varying degrees, 2020 forced an inward turning, returning us to ourselves, prodding us to grow our ability to gaze unflinchingly, lovingly, at our inner selves. To inhabit ourselves better. For, and we can never remind ourselves this enough, to inhabit our inner worlds better is to inhabit our outer worlds better.
In intuiting the truth of this, I’m taken back to yet another magical piece from the exhibition- Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s installation ‘Touching of Hands’, featuring an outstretched arm, palm open, as if extended for a handshake. And, unlike the usual practice of entreating visitors to ‘Please Don’t Touch the Art’, this piece seemed as if it was intended to be completed when you accepted the invitation of the gesture, and grasped the sculpted hand in your own. For something that was essentially the act of shaking hands with some bronze, brass and steel, it was a shockingly stirring experience. In that moment of contact, one felt starkly and tangibly the fluidity across the border of our skins, between our outer and inner selves and experiences.
The pandemic may have abruptly robbed many of us of touch, but in so doing, it perhaps reminded us even more strongly that there are other powerful ways of building enduring connections. In the joyous, life-affirming explosion of people’s voices and movements across the world and throughout the year, we are reminded that to be seen, to bear witness for another, to listen with deep attention, with respect and urgency, are all profoundly spiritual acts of connection. Ones that cannot be severed by any external event.
The flux of 2020 will not, of course, be magically resolved on 1 January 2021. The pieces remain in play. We cannot go gentle into the night, and the cosmos itself roots for us as we rage against the dying light.
In the early days of the lockdown, my dying pot of pink Dianthus, which had remained flower-less for weeks, threw out one last joyful bloom, as if to say, ‘remember this when the pandemic feels bleak’. So too the skies threw out rainbow after double rainbow, ending a year of spectacular displays with the magnificently rare great conjunction of Saturn-Jupiter- on December 21. Joyful talismans aplenty for whatever lies ahead.
May we take heart from how every encounter of joy and wonder persists, like lingering afterimage, ever alive, even after the outward event ends! May we learn to deepen our attention, so that the impressions left behind remain immortal, able to be summoned at will in bleak moments. For, such impressions, carried ever new in our hearts, defy chronological time and interrupt temporality, in the best possible way. When grief is tinged with joy, each matched measure for measure, then truly we will have raged against the dying of the light!
And so, as the year ends, I’m left with a strange sense of tenderness and compassion for 2020, a desire to hold its hand and walk with it as it takes its final few steps. Its day is done. Onward we go, and on and on.
Picture Credit: Figure 1 Response to Random Murder…,
Photo by John Bigelow Taylor, taken from Bergmann’s website
Touching of hands, by Genesis reyer P-Orridge, photo by Adam Stone, taken from the
Koyel Lahiri is a writer, trying to finish her PhD. The views expressed are the author’s own.