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Lines of Demarcation

Joseph Dougherty

There’s a joke in the Broadway musical Pippin.  It’s the year 1337, young Pippin sits on the apron of the stage, takes out his diary and writes in it:  “Today was the first day of the Hundred Years War.”  The laugh sort of moves through the theater, like a lovely breeze.


The point of the joke is that these clear lines of demarcation for events and historical periods are all arbitrary and established long after the fact.  Nobody told their mother they were off to fight in World War I.  Nobody woke up in October 1929 and said, “Yes, well, I’m depressed.  But is it really a Great Depression?”  Remember, the 60’s lasted into the 70’s and some people are still living in the 80’s.


When I try to get a handle on what living these past few years and this past year in particular feels like, I end up at a very California place.  I’m talking about the experience of being awakened by any good size earthquake.  To be shaken and jolted and wake to a room that’s in motion and making a hell of a racket.  You reach for the person you’re lucky enough to be in bed with and you call to the dog in the darkness and you hold on and wait and wait and wait for the shaking to stop.  And when it stops, your ancient brain comes to the surface, crawling up your spine.  


And you’re seized by the atavistic fear that comes from having no control in the moment, and realizing you never really had control of anything.  Ever. 


That’s pretty much what this year has felt like:  One, big, three A.M., rolling earthquake, that just won’t stop.


Combine all that terror with the human need to set time limits on things and you can see the trap we’re setting for ourselves.


So much bad stuff has happened in the last twelve months that there’s a very understandable desire to contain it, put a lid on it and be done.  I hate to say this, but that’s simply not how things work.  You know it and I know it.  Nothing’s been resolved, the ball has been moved, but so have the goal-posts, and on top of that, I don’t think we’re all playing the same game with the same rules anymore.  


The truth is, there’s an unmeasured amount of trouble and loss and fear waiting for us on the other side of December 31st.  If we don’t acknowledge that, even just a little, we’re looking down the barrel of the worst New Year’s hangover ever. 


The best thing I found out this year is that the world isn’t as fragile as I thought it was…it’s much more fragile.  We all live in a soap bubble and some of us are tramping around wearing baseball cleats.  We would be wise to tread softly and stop poking at things…including each other.  


I don’t like the way things have been peeled back and revealed this year.  It’s very sad to see what people are capable of.  The ability to make matters worse seems to be the only inexhaustible human resource we have.  I knew fear and ignorance were out there, but I’m embarrassed to admit I never thought it could be as bad as this.  I thought most people are pretty okay.  Now, I’m being forced to recalibrate, and, I’m very disappointed by the new totals.


Maybe I should sue for a recount.


But I’m starting to understand where western civilization came from.  I look at the events we’ve been through this year and I can see how a group of intelligent people could come up with the notion of a very pissed off Old Testament God who would look at the mess people are making and send a plague.  


This makes sense to me and I’m looking for sense right now.  This lets me take the things that have happened and filter them through our human desire to understand and contain and it gives me something that if I squint could be mistaken for hope.


Our mission shouldn’t be to shove the year into a box and nail it shut.  First of all, it’s not possible.  We can’t live moving from room to room like ghosts in a haunted hotel.  Life is a continuum, not a set of closets.  And all the mothballs in the world won’t keep us from remembering and worrying and, hopefully, learning something from what we’ve been through.  For good or ill, all the years belong to us.  And they run together, ebbing and flowing, good, bad, and really bad.


Thousands of years from now, long after we’re gone, but before the meteor hits, our descendants, anxious to make sense of things and categorize them, will look back at the spotty records we leave behind and say:  “Oh, this was the beginning of the Great Conflict, the First War of Reason that eventually lead to our present enlightened existence.  Boy, they must have been scared out of their wits.  I wonder how they managed to keep it together?”

Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.

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