When I think back on 2017, I think about thinking back.
Like most people, at the end of the year, I revisit the year. (And like most people, it is the only time I revisit the year.) With the help of my calendar, and Word files (organized by “date modified”), and a ritualistic culling of photos on my phone and accumulated pocket-contents on the dresser top, I look back at what happened. That looking back is always inflected with happiness (no matter how sad the memory), and always with sadness (no matter how happy). The feeling of remembering often overwhelms the feeling of what is being remembered.
This year I looked back on trips to France, Italy and Sweden (and Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Tulsa); a weekend of attending Gettysburg Reenactments; a summer of cobbled-together day camps for my boys; a tree that split in a storm and was this close to crashing into the back of my house, end-of-the-year holidays and nothing weekends; a dozen more unevenly spaced markings on my children’s height chart…
When we were children, my older brother I calculated how old we would be in the year 2000. It required pencil and paper. We then figured out in what years we would turn forty. Those calculations were right at the limit of our math skills, and imagining ourselves as forty year olds was well beyond our conceptual abilities.
I turned forty this year, just as we’d predicted, but imagining myself as a forty-year-old is still somehow impossible for me. My little brother and I planned a party, which was going to involve a large group of friends camping in the woods, lectures and performances, barbecuing and bluegrass, and would culminate in my running through a bonfire. In the end — long after having sent out invitations, and just before needing to spend money — I decided I didn’t want a party. I could explain that as not wanting to be the center of attention, or suspecting it would end up depressing me, or simply being intimidated by all of the required logistics. Maybe I realized that what I really wanted was to remember the party, rather than experience it.
My year ended, as it often does, with looking back. But the year itself was backward-looking — if at times in a forward-looking way. It kicked off, or so it felt, with the Trump Inauguration, which inspired a great deal of revisiting: the efforts we made or didn’t make during the election, all that we took for granted about the previous administration (I watched far more of Obama’s speeches in 2017 than I did in the previous eight years combined), larger trends in American History. My political conversations with friends bounced from angry to fearful to inspirational, but usually landed on a kind of wistfulness — as if, when speaking about America, we were remembering someone who had died.
Since his inauguration speech, much of Trump’s rhetoric and agenda has had to do with undoing, rather than doing: undoing Obamacare, undoing our commitment to the environment, making America great again. This is no kind of “morning in America,” but a desire to pull the curtains to make it seem more like last night. It feels like a strange observation to make about a president who is so ignorant of the past, but we’ve never had a politician more obsessed with it.
The middle of the year was filled with different forms of revisiting: the UK voting to leave the European Union and return to its independence/isolation; the re-cooling of relations with Russia, the new outbreaks of old scourges like cholera and meningitis; the destruction of ancient mosques in Iraq, new old sanctions against North Korea, weather events that remind us so much of previous weather events (rather than terrifying us about the future) that we find it hard to keep them distinct; the new record price for an Old Master painting; the United States recognizing the ancient city of Jerusalem as its capital, opening a new wound in an old war…
The year ended, or so it felt, with the expansion of the Harvey Weinstein scandal into a broad revisiting of the treatment of women — broad in the sense of how many women and men re-examined their lives, but also broad in the sense of time. It’s hard to think of any other social justice movement, of any other collective experience, that was so reliant on memory. That is one of the peculiarities of this reckoning that hasn’t been talked about very much, given the immediacy of what is being talked about.
We usually think of the evening news as reporting the events that happened that day, but instead it has been filled with recollections of events, oftentimes from previous decades. Grappling with the ethics at stake has changed us, but this kind of remembering has also changed us. We have become so reliant on externalized memories — e-mail and text records, photographs and videos, digital calendars and Word files and artifacts on dressers — that we have forgotten what it is to remember with only our minds. Perhaps we have even lost some of our skill with remembering. This is obviously crucial when seeking justice, but it’s also crucial to our experience as people. There will always be situations in which we have to seek truth by navigating two people’s different memories, but as we move toward a future when everything will leave an artifact, those situations will become increasingly rare. It’s possible that that world will be more just, and feel less lifelike.
For now, the unleashing of awareness of the long history of sexual misconduct has created a present-tense that feels reflective in a way that most of us are only used to on such occasions as birthdays and ends of years. In that sense, it’s inspiring to imagine a future in which the present carries along so much of the past.