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Can Good Things Possibly Emerge from 2020?

In real life, I’m not a Pollyanna personality. My eye goes to what needs to be fixed rather than seeing first what’s already shiny and bright. A misplaced modifier or coffee mug calls me quickly into critique mode.

But these past eight months, soon rounding into a year, have not felt like real life. And so, out of character, I find myself meta-phorically squinting to discern what few good things seem to be emerging from behind the dark clouds of this pandemic, with its grim losses and its miseries.

A few potentially positive developments are surfacing from our generally unwelcome experiences, and I note them while also recognizing my privileged perspective as a woman with health insurance, an adequate pantry, and fairly reliable internet with which to do my work and connect, gratefully, with family and friends.

The first change that struck me was that The New York Times, that daily arbiter of our reality, is reviewing unprecedented numbers of books and art by people of color, especially women of color. Perhaps the impetus is to right a wrong, correct an oversight. With so little to review in the performing arts––no live concerts, no Broadway––there’s room to open the arts coverage lens wider than usual.

Of course there’s more. Horrific hunger is becoming more widespread, even in lands of plenty. And everywhere, an acknowledgement of scarcity—both of funds and of access––from fridge- foraging posts on social media to shortages of canned goods. One consequence is that during the pandemic the upscale restaurants likely to have warranted publicity are now off-limits, and even the august New Yorker magazine has had to pivot its spotlight from indoor fancy dining to small-scale take-out joints, frozen foods you can make at home and local places feeding their neighbors that might have escaped notice in a more conventional time.

These may seem like small shifts relative to the vast problem of global hunger, but they suggest that a certain democratization is at work. Perhaps this small seed will grow into greater awareness of what’s really important, with empathy shaping food policy.

Another unintended, unexpected outcome from the pandemic’s necessities is less quantifiable, but this one holds lessons too: we have been forced to reimagine not only our mourning rituals (Zoom shivas, recorded funerals and eulogies) but also our simchas, those celebrations of life’s happy landmarks. People are finding ways to seize joy by all available handholds. The bat and bar mitzvah ceremony for a family’s twins, originally planned as a multi-generational tour of Israel, instead evolved as a masked outdoor service, the 13-year-olds prepared by their grandfather, in a service led by a great-uncle, with the few close relatives,

socially distanced, smiling together in a sunny backyard. The direct
involvement of the older generations, this family reports, brought
an unexpected resonance that would have been missing in a more standard-issue event. Or the decision made by an engaged couple to advance their elaborate wedding, scheduled a year from now, replacing it with a small outdoor chuppah ceremony this fall. Judging from the jubilant photos, no one’s happiness was diminished (except perhaps the caterer’s). The bride and groom could share their joy in the present rather than waiting a year through who-knows-what-uncertainties of health and fortune.

Look, these are not universally cheering panaceas, or anodynes for painful, significant losses—of loved ones, of jobs, of the chance to be with people we care about. But these glimmers of good news are reminders that we have points of connection available to us still, and that simplicity, born of necessity, brings its own pleasures and poignancy. They also remind us of the enduring ability to adapt to adversity.

For me, the enforced isolations bring both gain and pain. As an editor working remotely, with concentrated time to write and to process a complete, uninterrupted thought? A plus, mostly. But having to communicate via email or text when I’m accustomed

What good things can possibly emerge from our present circumstances?
to the pace of immediate, lively conversations in person? With people I’m accustomed to seeing in real life in Lilith’s office? Not very satisfying.

In a singular way, though, the pandemic has provided gradual easing into an anticipated change that would have been far more unsettling were it to have happened in Before Times: Naomi Danis, Lilith’s longtime managing editor, plans to retire at the end of 2020 to write more of her wonderful, perceptive children’s books. The pandemic’s work-from-home routine has become an accidental dress rehearsal for the separation when, after 30 years, Naomi will no longer appear under “staff ” on the masthead, although we look forward to keeping her close as a contributing editor. In addition to her tireless and creative work ensuring that Lilith’s humans and systems work smoothly, Naomi has modeled how to ask hard questions and how to smooth ruffled feathers. Rabbi Susan Schnur, Lilith former senior editor, once wrote that the women at Lilith operate “like teabags in a single pot,” steeped in one another’s quotidian lives. But beyond that steeping is Naomi’s own particular skill in honoring differing opinions while holding steady to the course of her own moral, Jewish, feminist, writerly compass.

I’m spurred to paraphrase Arlene Agus: May our dreams become our blessings in the year ahead.

Susan Weidman Schneider Editor in Chief susanws@lilith.org