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For her college admissions portfolio, my niece has to answer this question: How would you describe the events of the past year to a young person twenty years from now. I’ve been thinking about this question ever since she told me about it, thinking about how I would answer it. But I don’t have any answers, only questions.
The past is a foreign country, they say. So, what’s the future? What’s it like there? Are we alive? Did we defeat the virus, or did it endlessly mutate? Do we still wear masks? Who’s the president? Is it a woman? Will it ever be a woman?
The world is vast, they say; we are all connected. But, this year, the world shrank, and we stayed home. We watched each other on screens. Separate. Apart. We never felt so small, we say. And yet, we say, we never felt so connected, so contagious. If I speak, if I step toward you, if I breathe. Will you die? Will I?
The virus wasn’t the only pathogen. Lies ran through us, spreading, repopulating. Hate ran through us, mutating. We stormed the Capitol. We tried to kill our own. This is not America, they say. This does not represent American ideals. We are exceptional, they say. We are a shining city on a hill. But look again. This is America. This is us representing ourselves. All democracies commit suicide, they say. And then they handed round the pitchforks.
Do you know who Donald Trump is? Have you heard of Jared Kushner? Stephen Miller? Stacy Abrams? Kamala Harris? Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Brian Sicknick? Does the name George Floyd ring a bell? Or Ahmaud Arbery? Or Daniel Prude? Or Walter Wallace? How about Breonna Taylor? History, they say, is written by the winners. So, who won? Who got written out? And who got written in?
Three hundred years on stolen land. Land we took, because we thought we knew better, because we thought we could do better. History repeats itself, they say. We started with a virus; will we end with one? We handed off the blankets, infested with smallpox, and watched a civilization die. We called it progress.
We are what we repeatedly do, they say. Excellence, they say, is a habit. What’s our habit? What are we repeating? Do we excel at anything? Maybe blindness. Maybe cruelty. Maybe forgetting. The shining city on a hill is in lockdown, surrounded by floodwaters, eating its young. Are you there, young-person? Did you get eaten?
We ask our elders (the ones left, the ones we didn’t kill) has it ever been this bad? And they say, No. Not like this. Not everything all at once. And then they say—We’re out. We’re ready to go. Good luck to you. And then they say—Wait, please don’t let me die. Not like this. And then they say—I want to hug you.
We started with a virus. Here we are again, shivering around small fires outside, afraid to go inside, afraid to touch, afraid to breathe. You look cold, we say. Here, wait, we say. Wait a minute. Let me get you a blanket.
Alison Smith is the author of the best-selling memoir Name All the Animals. Her writing has appeared in Granta, McSweeneys, Real Simple, Glamour and other publications