What Will We Leave Behind In 2020?

As we march toward a new year, what are the memories of 2020 we will seek to preserve? (Photo courtesy of Bridge Lake Photo Group).

When I lived in Washington, D.C. I loved to visit the National Museum of American History. The museum houses popular culture icons such as Dorothy’s ruby shoes from “The Wizard of Oz,” Archie Bunker’s chair, and one of Mr. Rogers’ sweaters.

I have a feeling that a host of 2020 symbols will make their way one day into the history museum — from our home-sewn cloth face masks and “Black Lives Matter” lawn signs to our Zoom screen shots and pandemic Christmas ornaments immortalizing the strange twists of this extraordinary year.

What we leave behind tells an important part of our life story — but only a part. The icons of 2020 speak largely of fear, uncertainty, challenge, illness and death. What they don’t tell is the story behind the story of the past year, made of moments that aren’t preserved in a museum, but in memory.

In a moving poem called, “Personal Effects,” Raymond Burns writes of a man nearing death who wants to distribute his prized possessions: a pair of binoculars for birdwatching, a fishing vest, its pockets filled with lures, a distinctive kayak paddle, a leather satchel.

Slowly, the man realizes that the items he most wishes to bequeath can’t be possessed: a Chopin etude wafting from his wife’s piano, the scent of morning coffee, caterpillars on a milkweed plant waiting to burst into butterflies, and “sunlit autumn afternoons that flutter/ through the heart like falling leaves.”

Looking back at 2020, what I remember is watching the trees bud bit by bit in early spring.

Feeling gratitude for our mailman Brett who returned faithfully each day, the only visitor we saw for months.

Learning to surmise the time of day by the amount of light coming in through the windows.

Appreciating the nurses and National Guardsmen who stood in an outdoor parking lot all day long administering COVID tests in our community.

Discovering new communities online through my daily Zumba fitness classes, an Italian language class, and the spiritual retreats I was able to guide on Zoom. In each community, I encountered unforgettable people who taught me so much about the resilience of the human spirit.

History will note that 2020 was the year our nation elected its first woman (and African American and Asian American) as vice president. May the white pants suit Kamala Harris wore on that indelible November night, honoring the Suffragettes, find its way too into our national history museum.

I think of the personal objects that took on greater meaning. The cooking trays I used to experiment with pizza-making at home when the restaurants closed, and the many variations of risotto I learned to make.

The notebook I kept of the daily three-line poems — Japanese haiku — I exchanged with a friend to remind us both of the wonder around us.

The works of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day that were my evening lamplight companions.

A friend of mine said this week, “I realized this year that people have to forge ahead no matter what. We can’t stop, even though change is dramatic and confusing and there is a sense that something has ended. Something else continues, changes and expands.”

What are the objects or memories that defined this extraordinary year for you? What would you like to preserve about this time? Like the man in Raymond Burns’ poem, what do you hope to pass on?

Lawn sign that says “In this house we believe black lives matter.”
Lawn sign that says “In this house we believe black lives matter.”
One of the lawn signs that cropped up in 2020 in response to tensions over racial justice, immigration, women’s rights and climate change.

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.