I overhear a woman outside chatting with two neighbors. She says, “Twenty-four years ago today, I lost my brother.” She slow-shakes her head. “It’s hard to believe, 24 years.”
One neighbor asks, “What are you noticing? What do you miss the most?”
“Having someone who cares.”
A year ago Thursday was the first day I kept my son home, one day ahead of the county-wide school lockdown. The previous evening, a Wednesday, we went out to our favorite Vietnamese place and sat down for bowls of pho. We knew something was coming to an end and that this could be our last time in a restaurant. For a year, now longer? I could never have imagined. Like the woman outside, I am slow-shaking my head.
Many of us are doing this now. Commemorating the year. The first COVID-19 patient, the first COVID-19 death. The last time in the office, on a bus or plane, in school. The first day doing church on Zoom. The last time we hugged our mother, our grandson. Before the loss of over 500,000 in this country alone.
Slow-shaking the head.
Anniversaries are embedded in who we are. We build stories — our own or those of our families, our faith, our nation — around these dates on the calendar. At first they come around every year. Then every 10, then maybe every hundred. Birthdays, Christmas, International Women’s Day. But they start somewhere with a beginning, or maybe an end. In 2020, for the first time, the Commonwealth of Virginia decided to make Juneteenth a state holiday — one that many Black Americans have marked in their own way for over a century.
These are not static anniversaries, and their existence invites an engagement which may usher in their transformation or even their demise. Because of a reckoning with the legacy of colonization and genocide, the October Columbus Day holiday celebrated in the US since 1934 is finally beginning to shift identity. Now in many states, it is officially Indigenous People’s Day.
We honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a nation first by calling up the prophetic words again and again. Each year, we can go a little deeper, not just reciting the “I Have a Dream Speech” but understanding more of his resistance to the war in Vietnam, his articulation of the interconnected struggles of race and class, and his support for the sanitation workers’ strike that brought him to Memphis in 1968. We’d almost have to work not to learn something new each year. The commemoration invites us to make connections between his calling and today’s incarceration rates of Black people, the organizing of Amazon warehouse workers, and the naming and fighting for justice in the murder of Black trans women. Because we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday collectively year after year — now in most places as a day of service — we allow his legacy to live within our unfolding story.
We have a tendency to mark each occasion as one isolated event. But Tyler Stovall, past president of the American Historical Association, says, “The arbitrary, coincidental nature of dates and anniversaries can produce comparisons both strange and meaningful… As dates on steroids, anniversaries permit us to consider the local and the global at the same time.”
When 2030 rolls around, let’s say you and your spouse want to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision which legalized same-sex marriage. You travel to New York City and choose to stay in the art deco Wyndham New Yorker hotel on its centennial anniversary. If either of you is mobility impaired, you’ll be able to book an accessible room and explore the breathtaking architecture, thanks to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act 40 years earlier. You head 2 ½ miles north through Times Square to the Dakota Apartments where they will be commemorating the 50-year anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Then back a little over a mile the other direction from the hotel for a lunch of moules-frites at BXL Zoute to celebrate the bicentennial of Belgian independence. Then, of course, down to the Village, where you’ll participate in the New York City Pride March, marking 60 years since the first Christopher Street Liberation Day in 1970.
What do we understand better about ourselves if we peer through these lenses placed next to — or even on top of — each other? What if we adjust that parallel perspective to focus in a whole new way on what’s come before? Will it allow us to see more clearly the details of now and also, what’s ahead? Might this perspective let us understand how these stories of our various communities give shape to the story of our world, and how we fit within it?
It sounds nice, but the process is not so clean. We also live whole chapters of our lives inside cacophonies of stress where demands on our attention stretch us thin. Engaging in issues beyond ourselves can feel impossible (which is, for those who benefit from the status quo, the point). The individualism that so pervades American life only adds to this sense of isolation. Many of us long to see ourselves as connected to a shared narrative. Even more, we’d like to know that our day-to-day choices are helping move these historic changes in the world, even if only by a hair. Sometimes, though, we are fumbling through days that feel solitary and small and all-consuming at the same time.
In the run-up to the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I had a conversation with my aunt. I asked her what she remembered about that day — a day I assumed all of us over a certain age had seared into our memories. She looked at me. Slow shake of the head. “Shannon, I barely registered what was going on.” Then it occurred to me that just a few weeks earlier, my uncle, at 55, had suffered a massive stroke. It left half his body paralyzed. It stole his speech and his ability to work. September 2001 was still the terrifying early days. The family was consumed by appointments, therapy, medical decisions, finances. Two teenagers at home. My aunt, a teacher, understood that she was now the breadwinner, and had to get ready to go back to the classroom. (What terrorist attack?) The thread of my uncle Jon’s stroke is a scar in my aunt’s narrative. It is a private one. It does not get a memorial or a national moment of silence.
Their son, my cousin, turned 37 this past December. He just moved out of the house for the first time ever. He had continued living with them for the19 years since the stroke, in part because the extra support he provided was always more powerful a draw than independence. 2020 is now the year my cousin moved into an apartment with his girlfriend and my aunt and uncle started their new chapter as empty nesters. We make the mark in the book of our family.
We carry these kinds of anniversaries like old bones rattling around in our chests. The dates might be as meaningful as birthdays or major holidays but no one is celebrating them with us. Maybe no one outside of a very small circle even knows they matter. The day of the divorce or the sibling’s early death. The year of an assault, an eviction, an arrest, a flight from danger. Psychologists recognize the Anniversary Effect, the way we can experience something akin to PTSD symptoms around the dates of these traumas. We may be reexperiencing the situation without even realizing it’s happening. Or maybe we do know, but are unsure how to deal with what’s coming up.
How do we mark these occasions in the life of the spirit with more than a slow shake of the head? Our stories of struggle are messy. They have strains of grief and pain, of toil and failures, of cowardice and self-pity. Sometimes forgiveness. Sometimes even redemption — or a version of it. Do we let these experiences of loss connect us with what is deeper than the isolated incident? What practices would allow us to release our grip on our private storylines, surrender some part of them to the currents that are more powerful than us? Let them belong to the movement of the world?
By lighting the Yahrzeit candles and saying the blessing, Jewish people will honor the anniversary of the death of a loved one. Yahrzeit allows the ones left to hold the memory of the deceased, to reflect and maybe to repent, and to ensure that the ones who came before are woven into the story.
When we honor the Equinox, or when we celebrate Eid or Diwali or Passover or Easter, we enter into a place of shared history. These dates that cycle around to now, year after year, began unfolding long before we did and will continue on long after we’re gone. But we are part of that unfolding when we carry on the traditions or share them, even in unconventional ways, with the people we care about. Many of these holidays contain pain. Rebirth involves death too. Yet somehow the people who came before us drew out of the experience a story that could tell us something about who we are and about how we are called to be in this world.
We have arrived at one year since the start of this horrible pandemic, and we are still in it. But we are also making the story of this time. We are choosing what the shared narrative will be. How we contribute to efforts that help others. How we live towards Beloved Community while adapting to a world of change.
The neighbor outside asks, “What are you noticing? What do you miss the most?”
It is in the asking that we stay connected even in the midst of sorrow.
On this anniversary, we are telling a story of how we are brave and also how we are weak. We are telling a story of how we keep learning to hold each other with tenderness.
There will be another anniversary next year, and one the year after that. What story do we draw from this experience to speak into the future? How do we call our tomorrow selves into the world waiting to meet us?