2020; a fragile year. Time slipped by. It was March, then it was July. The world around was easily changed. Visits to see friends were possible in one season but called off in the next, haircuts were cancelled by a few words spoken by someone on the news. Things were held in delicate balance. When my grandmother died in the final month of the year, I found out through a Facebook message, sent seconds after her death. Her wisdom, wit, happiness, love, smell, sayings, anecdotes, laughter, breath: all cut short in a small message bubble on a cracked phone screen. Life in 2020 changed quickly. We were thrown into a new, uncertain digital terrain.
She died at 5PM GMT. I locked my phone and sat on my bed. After a few moments, I pressed the home button: it was now 5:01. Then 5:02, then 5:03, 5:04, 5:05, until almost ten minutes had passed. I was helpless, the minutes pouring from beyond my human grasp, unable to make time commemorate that moment of her passing. The phone sat before me, evidence of my knowledge of the event and yet utterly shallow in its plastic-glass construction: even if I could look at it to receive news, I could see no further, there was nothing behind and beyond the screen to enable me to reach into and participate in the event, to carry out my human function. With each minute that passed, the gap between my grandmother and me grew larger and larger. She became less familiar, more ethereal, less tangible, harder to call back to earth. And still, I sat on my bed.
In those unstoppable moments of her fading, my only guide out was the structure of prayer. The groups and pairings of words I had heard uttered on the occasion of someone’s death throughout my Catholic childhood appeared in my heavy mind and I automatically began to recite them. I felt myself then inch forward in motion, in time with time. The verbal arrangements of mourning prayer offered an onwards path for the words I spoke entered into the same linear trajectories and rhythms of the ticking time projected on my phone screen. The loss I felt, my lack of words, and unspeakable emotions were given articulation and understanding within the shapes of the images and words of the prayers: I was no longer ‘at a loss’, or ‘lacking words.’ All was there at my disposal. I was grateful, even comforted and connected, imagining as I spoke that each group of words I prayed was tightly bound up through my recital and then pushed up, up, up as if cloud-like puffs of encouragement floating towards her ascending soul. I was guided up and out of the flickering shallows of digital loss, following the lead of lines of prayer.
And this was true of much of the past twelve months. 2020 was the year of relying on these pre-formed templates. Prayer was the most transcendent and comforting of them all but there were so many others which I sought. They were all, as the prayers I remembered when my grandmother passed, pieces of knowledge I knew innately, passed down to me over time by those who surrounded me in the rituals and habits of life, shaken awake whenever I pleased. Ancient parables and tales told and read to me by older members of my family; folk songs I listened to and joined in singing around the table after the meal was over and my family leant back in their chairs; the routes and histories of pilgrimage ways and footpaths, which I studied in books and walked in times of less restrictions: these were the comforts I turned to throughout 2020.
Each folk song, people’s tale, Biblical example was so general and universal that I took them for my own, creating within their shape a frame with which to fit my own experience: they became like protective bubbles from within which I watched and began to process the world and its events. Yet even in the unique space I retreated to, I was aware of the history which stretched behind me as I inhabited the shapes of the templates. They had passed through the worlds of war, famine, celebration, plague, disaster, success, slavery; those who had called upon their structures had been present in those scenes and better and worse. If they could have survived and progressed through the guidance of those templates, I was offered the hope that I could, too.
It was fitting then that the Biblical figures of Mary and Joseph guided 2020 out by way of the season of Advent. The lives of both saints rise as among the most powerful, awe-inspiring examples of how to act and behave when called upon by God to undergo the impossible. But not only did they unravel a pre-prepared path for themselves when they humbly acquiesced and allowed God to act through them as He chose to, they also set a way and a template for all humans who would go on to consider their example in the ages that followed. The traces of those who have gone before, whether pilgrim footprints worn into the ground, phrases of sadness or elation encompassed in notes and lyric, images of acceptance and endurance had always been before me. But it took 2020 for me to turn to them. And when I did, I found the resilience prepared for us by those had gone before, a resilience webbing together a host of people, experiences, joys, sorrows, all present before us in a few words, no matter the isolation we experienced this year. In my most solitary of experiences, I found a company before me, one which reassured me of the ability to cope, conquer, even thrive in times of fragility. The wheels of Time and Fortune continued to spin; but there were stepping-stones lying ahead.
by Julia Lasica
All images are the author’s own