At the beginning of 2020 I resolved to be a better friend. My strengths lying resolutely in the realm of writing, I decided to define that work in terms of keeping in touch by mail with the people I cared about. I craved connection. I picked, for the first time, a “star word” – in my case, the very literal “constellation” – to guide my year. I planned out who I wanted to correspond with, with what frequency, and wondered if a year of letters, perhaps less sporadic than previous years, could make up whatever time I’d lost. Could it communicate my commitment to my friends?
By mid-summer I felt almost prescient. While other people were just discovering how to use the post office in the midst of a global pandemic, I was slapping on another round of stamps. I didn’t stick to my original schedule, but I was mindful of who and how often I had to reschedule a letter in my planner. I took baby steps, too, aiming to do a more deliberate job of texting, sending pithy post cards, shooting off “how’re you holding up in ALL THIS” emails to long lost relationships. As the world got smaller, I tried to take advantage of the ubiquity of Google Hangouts and Zoom, and felt guilty for not always taking advantage of opportunities that were newly available – online readings, virtual reunions, really any chance for connections that could be transformed into something on a computer screen.
I got really tired of computer screens.
Autumn rolled around and I realized I was losing my resolve. I didn’t want to answer emails or pen a letter to my pen pals or make a quick phone call to someone I hadn’t heard from in awhile. I didn’t have a lot to talk about: I walked, I worked, I worried. I read a lot. I hardly wrote. I had one long-distance phone call that boiled down to a recipe exchange of things we were making for dinner that week. It was both unsettling and reassuring: someone I cared about was also doing nothing much more than the bare minimum and musing about what was most important.
As the world shifted from a state of emergency to a new normal and toward new horizons, I tried to stay grounded in the connections that mattered and the stories that lifted me, even momentarily, out of the uncertainty of 2020. I stopped worrying about how much I was writing; I tracked what I was baking, where we were exploring, how often I did yoga. I took deep breaths, tried new things, and reminded myself that I could always return to my favorite books, the authors I knew I could trust to help me see the world in new ways. (I did not read NK Jemisin but was comforted by the knowledge that I could, at any time, take her new book off my shelf.) These authors and their books were, after all, a kind of old friend, a connection to a past self who had persevered through some previous difficulty or to a loved one I could no longer visit in person.
I don’t know if I am now, at the end of the year, a better friend than I was twelve months ago, but I think I understand a little better who I want to be and who I am when the chips are down and there’s nothing to do but wait, when staying apart is the safest thing to do to protect the ones you love.
I read 60 books this year – 49 by women and 22 by people of color (there was some overlap). I read 3 books written by coauthors and 5 books by people I went to grad school with (one of them twice, because I had the sincere pleasure of reviewing it). I read 5 books in the two-person book club with my best friend from college, and 3 books (plus one I didn’t finish) in the book club formed with my aunts after the pandemic finally gave us a chance to talk more often. (I read books I did not like and would not have read except that someone I loved had chosen it and I wanted to have something to talk about.) Our office book discussions on racial justice and equity covered 2 books (we switched to films as the pandemic roared in), and I got to introduce Toni Morrison (an old friend) to some of my colleagues. (I also watched a lot of Disney movies I had never before seen – new friends!)
I read books about New York and longed to go there; I finally read Agatha Christie by listening to short stories and the first 3 Poirot books while taking walks in our old neighborhood in New Jersey, and felt like I was time traveling. I read 3 books by Ann Patchett, 2 by Jacqueline Woodson (old friends!), and 2 by Laura Lippman (a new friend!), plus 1 book about Virginia Woolf and fell in love again; I tried very hard to like the work of Roxane Gay and Ibram X. Kendi and learned that while I don’t like their writing styles I am very glad they are widely read. I read books about hosting better meetings, about learning to listen better, about being a better friend, about making the world a better place for everyone one (especially those who have been systematically outcast, maligned, and anathematized).
I read some books because I felt I had to, some because I wanted to do so before discarding them, some because the timing of everything – this year, in all its challenges – seemed to suggest that there was no better time than the present to learn something about the past. I learned a lot; I think I did not learn enough. I wanted to escape; I was grateful that all it took was a book to release me from some of the anxieties of this endless year.
I don’t know what 2021 will look like, of course. I think 2020 taught me not to take the year for granted, not to plan too far ahead, not to let friendships unspool so far that I have to make a resolution to mend the tears.
- Imagined London, Anna Quindlen
- Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
- We Need to Talk, Celeste Headlee*
- Run, Ann Patchett*
- For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, Sarah Ruhl
- The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison*
- Transcription, Kate Atkinson
- Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- They Called Us Enemy, George Takei
- Green Almonds: Letters from Palestine, Anaele Hermans and Delphone Hermans
- God: a Biography, Jack Miles
- Tenements, Towers and Trash, Julia Wertz
- Dear Girls, Ali Wong
- Virginia Woolf, Alexandra Harris
- A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines*
- The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo
- Displacement, Lucy Knisley
- The Book of Forgiving, Desmond and Mpho Tutu
- The Girl in the Green Rainboat, Laura Lippman
- Electric Arches, Eve Ewing
- On Cats, Charles Bukowski
- Blue Iris, Mary Oliver
- Flight Path, Cynthia Neely
- The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker*
- The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel
- Half, Sharon Harrigan
- Harry Potter a l’ecole des sorciers, J. K. Rowling
- Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
- The Art of Death, Edwidge Danticat*
- A Hero of Our Own, Sheila Eisenberg
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
- The Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie
- An American Sunrise, Joy Harjo
- Colored, Emilie Plateau
- Life Sentences, Laura Lippman
- Half, Sharon Harrigan
- Atomic Blonde: The Coldest City, Anthony Johnston
- Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng*
- The Wife Between Us, Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
- The Dutch House, Ann Patchett*
- Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson*
- Parting Shadows, Kate Sheeran Swed
- Hunger, Roxane Gay
- The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamllo
- Murder on the Links, Agatha Christie
- Harbor Me, Jacqueline Woodson
- The Power Broker, Robert Cato
- Intimations, Zadie Smith
- Phantom Song, Kate Sheeran Swed
- Poirot Investigates, Agatha Christie
- Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen, Rae Katherine Eighmey*
- How To Be An Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi
- Caste, Isabel Wilkerson
- Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton
- This is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
- 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, Sarah Ruhl*
- The Lost Girls of Paris, Pam Jenoff
- Speedboat, Renata Adler
- This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett
* books I loved