I’m thinking about time on the last day of 2020.

We used to walk by a cute little house in Berkeley, and for awhile a project was afoot. They cleaned up the yard, moved things around, and painted 3 large sample colors. Then things stalled. As weeks and weeks went by, Jay was increasingly perturbed by the unfinished business. “Pick a color!” he’d mutter as we went by, which embarrassed me. I think he enjoyed teasing me with his possible-to-overhear complaints, and I enjoyed being teased, though my preference would have been to discuss it once we’d walked a few doors down. Isn’t the whole fun of gossip that it’s behind their back? Maybe the danger of being caught is part of it too.

Anyway, after many months of no action I passed the house one day. And it was gone. It had been demolished, a large patch of raw earth where just a few days before had stood this house waiting for a paint job. Over the next year the lot where the house stood was absorbed by the next lot over, that yard and fence expanding around it, that house bulging out into the space.

I was thinking of this as I approached on my walk with the dog this morning. The three possible colors, the fear someone inside might hear Jay’s heckling, the shock of the outcome. It was intense and present, until I got to the spot. There was a big, leafy yard, pleasantly lush, with absolutely no hint of what had been there. I couldn’t even bring it to mind walking by, my vivid memory a vapor.

I guess the longer we spend on the planet, the more we’re up against this problem of yesterday.

I was on a zoom Christmas gathering with friends who were in drama and band at my high school years ago. (Quite a few years ago. A few of them I hadn’t seen since our graduation in the 80s!) Such a lovely thing to see people from the past. But it was also inconceivable, being the person I am today, video chatting with people from nearly 40 years ago. I thought so much had happened to my 16 year old self, and many of them knew that me quite well. What can I say now? I came out, moved away, faced a pandemic, had about 5 different lives and then adopted kids and got married. It was the same for everybody on the call; they’d moved away, or stayed. Had adventures and troubles. Expanded their circle. Some are now grandparents. Everyone had lived. Our high school selves seemed both far and right at hand.

In Garth Greenwell’s novel of short stories Cleanness, a high school student wants to meet his teacher, the unnamed narrator, about an urgent matter, which turns out to be an unrequited crush. Its discovery has broken apart the kid’s life, and he’s inconsolable. The teacher listens, and nods, and explains that things will get better, that time will make it less painful, and new things will happen. But the student is furious, and cuts short the meeting. He doesn’t want to feel less. The narrator walks home. “How much smaller I have become, I said to myself, through an erosion necessary to survival perhaps and perhaps still to be regretted, I’ve worn myself down to a bearable size.”

This for me is the sadness at the bottom of the gift. It gets better, because more happens, and what was urgent matters less. We’re wiser. And yet, we feel less too.

In another book I loved this year, Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, she writes, “As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the Plateau I realized that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundation of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.”

This is so true for me; once I find the sadness, the joy and pleasure settles into place.

It was a year where I was especially grateful for the words and thoughts of others, who helped me figure out how I feel and what it means.

One more somewhat random quote. On living under quarantine, Zadie Smith writes in Intimations: Six Essays, “Still, it’s nice to have company. Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do ‘something,’ that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.”

On this, the last yesterday of 2020, I wish us all the beauty, and sorrow, and joy our hearts can hold. Happy New Year!