The Rear End

THE REAR END: Grim Optimism

some people’s garbage is this man’s hope

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Eva Paulus |

I know you didn’t ask me about this, but I’ll volunteer some personal information: I’m not one of those people who so easily describes 2020 as a “garbage year.”

I understand why people say that. We need to vent. Months of disruption and worry and disease and injustice and violence and the crushing loss of life and livelihood? We need to direct our anger and frustration at … something. But for my part, the disgruntled, dismissive “garbage year” label is simultaneously too light-hearted and too heavy-handed.

It’s too-lighthearted in how it reduces so much death and sorrow, so much national unrest and division, so much fear and heartache down to one little word. Garbage. But all that horror? It means something. It has its own kind of worth. And it’s not yet time to throw it all away.

On the other hand, uttering “garbage year” with a shake of your head and a weary chuckle is too heavy-handed for me. Because good things still happened last year. Because I can’t ignore the triumphs. The bravery. The learning.

There are deep pockets of inspiration crammed between all the confusion and all the hate. I’d rather reach into those pockets – the places where the light breaks through – to find the story of 2020.

I don’t expect you to feel the same way I do. Especially as recent events in Washington, D.C., and a quick check on current COVID-19 death tolls provide us a grim preview of 2021.

On the other hand, uttering “garbage year” with a shake of your head and a weary chuckle is too heavy-handed for me. Because good things still happened last year. Because I can’t ignore the triumphs. The bravery. The learning.

Instead of a happy, feel-good movie trailer for the coming year, so far all we’ve watched is a disturbing deleted scene from the last installment. But how could it be any different? That calendar hanging on your wall doesn’t have the power to change a damn thing.

The pandemic? Still there. Systemic racism? Still there. That restaurant you love? Still teetering on the brink of collapse. Your favorite show? Still canceled. And it’s never coming back.

But lucky for us, all great stories include adversity. Bad guys and catastrophes. Misery and defeat. I don’t welcome hardships, for myself or anyone else, but I’ll take a hard-fought victory any day of the week.

A new year, a new trip around the sun, the next arbitrary set of planetary rotations, none of that nonsense holds any kind of magic to make life better. Because that particular brand of wizardry belongs to us, the human beings who survived. We’re the ones still crawling around the Earth, blessed by cosmic chance to forge meaning for ourselves and our communities.

And I choose to use that power for good.

Let’s be honest. I’m generally not a very positive person, not according to your classic definitions. I like to rant about the things I don’t like. I fixate on the stuff that goes wrong. I get mad at people. And while it may be almost impossible to believe, I’m sometimes somewhat whiney.

I am not very Zen. But, I am hopeful. I trust in our basic nature to survive by helping each other out. The meaning I want to create in this life involves being there for people when they need it. I’m not always very good at this, but it’s definitely my general goal.

That’s the big, bright, starry-eyed truth of the matter. Bad things happen. But we can make it better. Maybe last year was garbage, and this year is feeling pretty garbage too, but we can make it better.

In fact, pretend you didn’t read any of the stuff before about misery and fear and pain and whatnot and instead focus on this: We can all make things better. We can do this. We can.

Let’s just say that every paragraph before this one was an amazing series of inspirational ideas dragging you up a mountain of pure sunshine, and there at the top is a rainbow crafted from lasers beams and your favorite candy, and in a dazzling set of maneuvers that rainbow bends itself into the words We. Can. Do. This.

Let’s pretend you’re so moved by my words that you plan to cut this page from the magazine (or, for you online readers, print it out) so you can fold it into a delicate origami crane. You can place this paper bird, my words sprawling across its wings, upon your pillow. You can keep it near you as you sleep, and as you dream, it can whisper to you, softly.

It will say We can do this.

We can make things better.

We can.