Years that ask questions

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

I saw this Zora Neale Hurston quote printed on an artist’s card the other day. It struck me, then picked at me a bit, and then caressed me. Cajoled me even. What does it mean? I kept wondering. Well, what do I mean?  it returned. I turned it round and round in my mind, and eventually decided on the meaning for myself.

Black and white photo of Zora Neale Thurston with hat and sweater standing in front of a wall.

This year has been hard for me, though I’ve had harder. This year has been hard for our family, too. It’s been hard, probably, for everyone; and for some of us it’s been the worst year of our lives. As artists and creators, we’ve been knocked around: plans dashed, motivations challenged, passions paralyzed, dreams diminished, and opportunities dwindled. To survive as artists, we’ve had to adapt or perish.

To survive at all …

People have died – from a virus, yes, but also from things like unchecked heart disease, untreated disorders, drug overdose, loneliness and despair. People have lost loved ones, their income, their jobs, the fruits of their labors, their plans, their motivation, their friends, their trust in things long believed, and their dignity. They’ve been denied access to their power, their agency, their connections, their security, their passion, and their hope. No, not everyone; no, not all. But hell, it’s been rough. Regardless of your beliefs around the how’s and why’s of the happenings of this past year and, potentially, of what’s to come, it’s been rough and there seems to be no definite relief in sight.

That’s not to say there’s been nothing good this year. That’s not so say there’s not joy and wonder to be found, sometimes unlooked for, all around us. Many of us have taken this difficult time and made the best of it, or even delighted in some of the novelties of fewer distractions, more quiet and focused time, being pushed to find new ways to connect, create, earn, and share. No, that’s not to say there’s been nothing good.

Regardless, this year has left many of us feeling disoriented, afraid, and uncertain. I don’t like these feelings: I like to know where I am and where I’m going, I like to feel safe, and I like to know for sure. Sometimes the best way to get back on track, to figure things out, is to ask questions.

Picture of woman sitting on a rock in the woods, surrounded by fall trees, with a deer in the distance.
Photo by Trevor Richards

OK, then.

Where am I in my life, right now? Where do I really want to be? What do I have to do to get there? What matters to me? What matters to me when it counts – when the shit hits the fan, when we’re down deep? Does my life – my actions, words, and priorities – reflect what I value? What do I love? What do I hate? What good am I capable of? What is my capacity for violence and destruction? What can I do to affect change inside myself, within my family, within my community? Am I willing? What’s real? What’s an illusion? What do I think? Can I think for myself, and do I want to? Can I survive, and how? What do I need, and what do I want? Who is my family? Who is my friend? What do I value?

What, in all this world, do I really care about?

As we start asking ourselves these kinds of questions, we begin to reorient ourselves and regain some of the ground we’ve lost. We start making sense and meaning out of the chaos, maybe even finding good in it. Make no mistake: these questions are not easy to ask, and they’re harder to answer. We might not like what we learn. Sometimes the answers won’t fit inside the illusive lives we created or planned on back in the time before now. Sometimes we’ll feel frustrated because, if we want to live truly, we’ll have to work harder and be braver. If we’re being honest, the answers may not make things more certain, after all.

But, still, the answers can be a guide, a light in the dark, to bring us back to ourselves and provide some security. Throughout all the hard times in our lives, and throughout this hard year, these questions and answers were waiting for us. They are a bittersweet gift, available for the taking. Those who have survived through this time have undoubtedly been grappling with these questions all along. When we’re punched in the face and forced to answer a question, we might actually be honest for once. And when we recover from the shock of it, we might finally have the guts to take action.

Top of a tall light post with several doves on it.
Photo by Trevor Richards

So what do you want? What do you value? What really, really matters to you? Over here, we’re asking ourselves these questions, and some answers have started to arise. We’re setting new goals, starting new projects, realigning our plans, and clarifying our values. I hope you take this opportunity to ask yourself some questions, and to listen closely to your answers. If “there are years that ask questions and years that answer,” then maybe this year does both.

Here’s a challenge: Whatever happens next year – despite the virus, whether or not we’re locked down, if there’s civil unrest or not – let your answers guide you, not your fear or some outside structure. Reclaim your agency, empower yourself, and do what you need to do. Take action to be who you want to be. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but I think everything – everything – depends on it.

Here’s to a brighter 2021! Be well.

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