Essays & Poems

2017: The Upside Down Year

One of my favorite moments of 2017 happened right after the eclipse.

I was sitting outside the Barnes & Noble at Southpoint, and a woman sat at the next table and we started talking. It was one of those moments with strangers where you discover you have things in common, and you’re both kind of shy and nervous about saying something dumb, but both so excited about making this random connection.

I love those moments.

Things felt a bit back to normal that day. You could almost anticipate people lining up for Apple products at the store across the way, with excitement like they used to, instead of the obligation and low simmer of frustration that people had begun to feel in recent years.

That was the last time I had such an experience with a stranger.

For years before 2017, the space for these kinds of spontaneous connections to happen became more and more difficult to find. There were openings in late 2016 and a brief opening halfway through 2017, but by the end of the year, there was such a complete shutdown of everything, it was shocking. The winter of 2017 was a very empty, sad and dark winter. I wondered if we should just reconcile ourselves to never relating. We’ll all be like products on a shelf, for show with our witty Facebook posts.

It feels like there was a release halfway through 2017 that should have happened that did not. Or it was the wrong release, sending people down the wrong way. After years of dealing with crises and violence, young people were ready to go back to real relating, real people, real work, real competition and even real political dialogue. But what should have been there to catch us, what we expected to be there, was just not.

To put it bluntly: Millennials, I feel like we got completely snowed in 2017.

The beautiful things that happened 2012-2016 had nowhere to go. The imaginative energy that built up, what we learned, what we made, what we felt, all our knowledge, can-do, creativity, ability – that waited for the next step but instead were shut down. And halfway through 2018 now, I really worry that the bright, special things we have could become completely banal.

Why did this happen?

I think what happened was there was a spiritual collapse among the older generations, a giving up and the worst kind of falling into anger and resentment instead of rising above.

Gen X people became suddenly, inexplicably preoccupied with death with the book, “The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Death and Dying.” Is there a part of Gen X culture that was dying? And the over the top gushing literary praise from critics at the top newspapers made for an overwhelming, manipulative effect. What was actually going on with Gen X people that was not being written about? And then driving around this area, there was a hard, baked heat. You could feel it in some neighborhoods, this dry, hot anger from older people. Fears of obsolescence. By the end of the summer, this had devolved into a gothic rot and decay.

It’s halfway through 2018, and the wrong things are up, and the wrong things are down. There is too much structure in the wrong places and not enough structure where it’s needed. Among older people, the wrong people are starting to think of retirement, and the wrong people are not letting themselves relax and getting out there, taking vacations, having fun.

Even nature has become affected by all this. It’s summer 2018 right now, but it doesn’t feel like summer. Nature feels like our culture right now, exhausted and trashed.

What nature felt like in 2017 was very uncomfortable and strange.

The first half of the year was so claustrophobic. Driving through town after Trump was elected in 2016, the air was so still, everyone was alarmingly quiet. Then, everyone and everything reacted. Camellias bloomed too early and too full. Birds didn’t sing like they used to. Honeysuckle vines crawled everywhere. The summer was too full, and rain happened at the strangest times. Then, there was a mass scattering.

I’d say that after Trump’s first 100 days was when things immediately started falling apart. If I had to pinpoint the moment when this escalated, and we were sent into a downward spiral, it was when Trump suddenly decided in July 2017 to ban transgender people from serving in the military. (How much do you want to bet that was the moment Ivanka Trump realized, “Oh, he really doesn’t have my back. He really isn’t going to listen”?) This downward spiral didn’t stop for a full year, until the immigration issue was resolved this June.

Last summer was a dark storm: Charlottesville, Colin Kaepernick, Las Vegas, Hurricane Harvey.

Locally, it was the summer of the mob. There was an aimlessness in this area, people searching for meaning in public spaces. I saw these intense, aimless-purposeful crowds go through in Carrboro in June, Hillsborough and Chapel Hill in July and then finally land with the protests in downtown Durham in August.

After that, what happened was disorientation, a loss of perspective and even the loss of taste, desire. There was a terrifying lack of movement…

Walking through my neighborhood in the winter of 2017, I thought about 1937. The difference since then is what real progress looks like. In 1937, Fascism was on the rise in Europe. Adolf Hitler had rang in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Japan invaded China in 1937 and went on to the bloodbath of Nanking.

It had taken all the decades since then and everything we built in our culture to make sure that time would not happen again, to shore up so that we can say, “Below this point, we will not go.” And in 2017, common sense was enough to hold the anger, and make sure that people on both sides of situations like Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, the accused and accusers, are still seen as people.

But how much intellectual and emotional resources were wasted in 2017? There were movies and albums that I had expected that were never done. The artists that could have done them did not even know the culture was ready for them to say certain things, that it had already worked up to that point to meet them. That was how divided and pushed into our own little corners we had become. And what rose up to fill that vacuum was awful.

There is an internal cultural inheritance that young people have. Sometimes I wonder if we really might lose it. But by writing this, I feel like it’ll be ok.

What happened this past year has felt so artificial and manipulative, and the problem now is how much intentional doing and creativity it has wrecked. It has taken everything. What will the next few years feel like? A detour, a state of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” And maybe like putting together equipment in zero gravity.

The connections and work that was done for years before 2017 are still there and they should have continued this past year. How do we pick them up again? What does 2018 feel like right now? Like “Fake 2009.” Well, that’s probably as good place to start as any!

There’s a saying I stumbled across online a few years ago that I can’t find again. It said something like, “It’s when we are joyful that we are expressing our true selves.”

That’s the one that came into my mind as I wrote this. Maybe it will help in the detour years ahead.