The problem with this course of action, is that children like fireworks. One of my preoccupations this year has been wondering how children will remember this time, and what they will have learnt from it.
Childhood memories often focus on moments of intense emotion and inexplicable adult drama, and there has been a lot of both this year.
Will they remember the boredom of lockdowns and the pain of separation from their friends? Or will they have more happy family memories than they would have otherwise? How will the election defeat of Trump manifest in their memories?
Small children now all wash their hands with the technique of a surgeon. They had months when they couldn’t see grandparents or cousins.
At one point during the lockdown my small daughter asked me if children would be separated from their parents. None of us knew what to expect this year, but this question made me realise that our children were watching us more closely than ever, depending on us.
We have all taken a crash course in stoicism. 2020 also brought Zoom, highly publicised incidents of Zoom disgrace, a reckoning with personal grooming, a renewed interest in home cooking, the life and death of countless sourdough starters, and the social paradox of extreme loneliness side-by-side with a loss of solitude for those of us living with others.
We have all lost personal freedom. We have gained faith in government, and in our collective ability to pull together to face crises. This has happened even while further evidence was served up about the ways in which governments and other institutions fail us – sports rorts, the drama of ICAC in NSW, the horrifying findings of the Brereton report into war crimes by the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan.
Overall our governments’ pandemic responses were excellent, and we were reminded of the importance of effective state government.
In many ways the federal government receded, important only insofar as it provided economic stimulus. It did this well for most industries, but failed the arts, which was shut down just as peremptorily as business, but with not nearly the same level of government support.
It seemed unfair, particularly as the arts (along with sport) were what sustained the spirit during the long months.
Some people found reading difficult this year, citing short attention spans, anxiety, or just the existential dread that clung to their hair like smoke.
I was in the other camp. At the end of each day I fell into a book like it was a warm bath. I started the year with Turgenev and am ending it with Somerset Maugham, determined to finish all 700 pages of Of Human Bondage before New Year’s Eve.
In between I read Maggie O’Farrell, Favel Parrett, Kiley Reid, Afia Atakora, Anne Enright, Jennifer Offill, Zadie Smith, Tolstoy and, of course, Julia Baird.
Tony Birch’s The White Girl (shortlisted for the Miles Franklin) was a beautifully wrought insight into the experience of a small Aboriginal family trying to stay under the radar of “welfare” authorities, and the de facto apartheid we had in this country until recently.
Like many others, I wanted the escape of the good story.
But I also read more keenly than before, seeking insight into how humans overcome adversity. I wanted confirmation of the universality of experience, and examples of how history repeats horrors on us.
It is strangely comforting to remember what terrible things have happened before, and how they have been smoothed in the collective memory by the passing of time.
I didn’t see many movies. Of the ones I did see, I cannot recommend Trolls 2. The best I saw was Corpus Christi, a Polish film about a young guy who is in juvenile detention for a violent crime. A committed Catholic, he wants to enter the priesthood when he gets out, but the prison chaplain tells him he can never be a priest given his criminal record. On leaving juvie, he skips out on his job in a sawmill, and ends up at the nearby village church. He pretends he is a visiting cleric, and after forming a friendship with the elderly parish priest, he is asked to take over parish duties while the older man goes away for medical treatment.
He alternates between having benders on the priest’s vodka stash, and delivering soaring, unconventional sermons on the power of forgiveness. But he cannot easily escape his past. It was an incredible, arresting film about many things, but mostly about redemption. Often, redemption is a very slim chance. But that is almost beside the point – it is in our continuing faith in its possibility that keeps our humanity intact.
I was reminded of this recently when watching the SBS documentary Addicted Australia, which follows a group of drug-dependent people as they go through a six-month treatment program (the kind of intensive, holistic drug treatment program that is rarely funded by any government in this country, because we prefer to shame and demonise drug users).
The treating doctor at the hospital tells the film-makers his starting point is that every single patient has the potential and ability to recover. No matter how bad they are. It’s a lesson I hope our children absorbed somewhere in this mess of a year.
On that note: come at us 2021. Show us what you got.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2020 she and Kate McClymont won a Walkley Award and a Kennedy Award for coverage of sexual misconduct allegations against former High Court judge Dyson Heydon. They also won the 2020 NSW Civil Liberties Council Media Award. In 2017 Maley won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards.