A New Year, A New Digest

On change, comfort, and growth

Well, you almost made it. Goodbye 2020 and happy new year!

Thank you all, so much, for reading and commenting as I figure this thing out. Writing it has definitely been one of the best things about my 2020. <3

Where does one begin to write about, reflect on, 2020? The year the world came to a screeching halt? Where illness reigned, and death multiplied alongside the virus; the callousness and cruelty of our leaders boiled over, in every sector; politics was literal insanity; the thinnest of thin veils on the precarity of life for so many in this country was removed; we took to the streets; and lots of White people finally understood racism. Where we all became armchair epidemiologists and moral philosophers, newfound examiners of risk and reward, and bound by a social contract we viscerally understood for the first time. Where it became necessary to take n o t h i n g in your life for granted.

In short, there was so much pain to be had in 2020, because of so much loss, big and small. I remember gratefully reading an article in March by Lori Gottlieb, a therapist, that validated some of the smaller losses, reminding readers that “pain is not a contest.” And following this pain: comfort. We looked for it everywhere, seeking the mundanity of shows, songs, books, foods, and perennial truths that feel refreshingly unchangeable. (A friend and I discussed how the evergreen tyranny of the DMV and landlords are just such comforts, albeit unpleasant.) I know I’m not the only one who found it easier to rewatch favorite sitcoms or mindless reality television than to undertake a new show (that this was the bar for effort is…pretty deep). I could relate to a recent piece called “TV was my most reliable friend,” by Tara Joshi. It was the warm-blanket feeling of home, not asking too much of your brain or energy and providing life-affirming familiarity.

Familiarity was key in a year where the change was seismic and not merely unprecedented, but heretofore inconceivable. The pain of loss—grief—is fundamentally always about change; this year, the change whiplash was distressing. At the same time, it was a slow-going, lagged whiplash: everything was different, but you weren’t yet different. We all regressed in some ways, were forced to grow too fast in others, and yet, despite such swift adaptation, much of it felt depressingly Groundhog-Day-repetitive. It got me thinking about another time in our lives when such universal, previously unimaginable change occurs, simultaneously too slow and too fast: puberty.

Perhaps for this reason, I have been buoyed by (read: sobbing along to) TV shows and movies dealing with this confusing, terrifying, and exhilarating time. A perennial favorite, which I clung to back in early summer, is the animated movie Inside Out (Disney+) which takes place in the brain and emotional command center of an 11 year old, adjusting to a move to a new city. And two obvious standouts are the laugh-out-loud funny PEN15 (Hulu) and the animated Big Mouth (Netflix). Big Mouth is voiced by an all-star cast, including about 12 parts played by co-creator Nick Kroll. It is super raunchy—as critic Troy Patterson puts it, it’s “Extreme Puberty”—using the cover of cartoon drawing to portray all manner of organs and functions. It is refreshingly honest about absolutely everything, and cathartic to remember, re-witness, and laugh about such bodily and behavioral mayhem. (The hormone monsters that stalk the kids are particularly funny.)

Personal favorite PEN15 is written by and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, both 33, who play 13-year-old versions of themselves while acting alongside a brilliant cast of actual middle-schoolers. They are achingly good at inhabiting this tweenage: so awkward, self-conscious, anxious, and melodramatic. The storylines operate around their extraordinary friendship and various shared milestones (“It’s all happening!”) in dating, puberty, family, and friendship. Erskine and Konkle are so good and so earnest, and the late 90s/early 2000s aesthetic so complete, you hardly have to suspend your disbelief. Their being adults allows the show to treat subjects with brutal honesty that they otherwise could not with real underage actors. And among these real kids the conceit is doubly brilliant, getting at a fundamental aspect of puberty: the not-quite-right feeling of being either a child in an adult’s body, an adult in a child’s body, or somewhere in between.

The mayhem, the between-two-worlds, the barely controlled emotional range…it all resonates this year. But while puberty sucks, it’s a means to an end. It’s a huge relief when the mechanical parts are through, giving way onto the intoxication, scary though it may be, of inhabiting the powerful new you. Though it goes without saying that growing up is not at all the sum of puberty’s newly hairy, budding parts. The older I get, the more obvious it is that we are and always will be, beneath the trappings of adulthood, a version of pubescent us. New periods of growth, like this year, tend to recall the torment of earlier periods. Do we ever stop wondering what our peers are thinking of us? What new thing our body is doing? Where we should be versus where we are? Why we can’t be just a little different? Insecurities muted, but never banished. In that half-backwards, unpleasant way, this fact could be the ultimate comfort: the more things change, the more they stay the same (plus ça change…).

Plus ça change is in full, glorious display in the corny reality show Encore! (Disney+), produced and hosted by Kristen Bell, which reunites the casts of high school theater productions as adults to re-stage their original productions. As these responsible grownups pick up where they left off in high school, all the poignancy of growing up comes flooding back: crises of confidence, fitting in, (unrealized) dreams of the future. And you watch as the music and the make-believe reawakens something in their over-burdened, complicated lives; it’s deeply pure and sweet. (I dare you not to cry when they show the performers’ kids all lit up by the sight of mom or dad on stage.) In a similar vein, Samantha Irby wrote a hilarious essay about how her period remained “hostile, elusive, disrespectful” well into adulthood. And Stella Bugbee, editor in chief of The Cut, revealed in a recent podcast that she and her family have lived with her mother for the past 16 years—which she’d been embarrassed to discuss openly until this year, when tons of adults found themselves living with their parents again.

If this year taught us anything, it’s that growing and changing is constant, and a) mostly out of our control, b) awkward, and c) both welcome and not. Ultimately, when you grow up, in any way, at any time, you lose something. That is precisely what makes it so hard to do, even though it usually ends up being for the best, even life-saving. And while nobody tends to think of puberty in terms of loss—maybe because it is absorbingly weird and inevitable—it is one, and full of all the attendant pain: it’s the loss of your self as an innocent, whose whole small world used to make sense. Sounds a lot like 2020.

Choice 2020 stories about cool women (in publications starting with “New York” only):

Sara Softness is a curator and writer based in New York.