In Defense of 2016

This past calendar year, known by many of us as 2016, was nothing if not […]

Stephanie Phillips / 1.12.17

meryl 2This past calendar year, known by many of us as 2016, was nothing if not controversial. Populated as it was by unexpected outcomes, celebrity demises, and global tragedies, the year stands out as, at the very least, memorable. And at the very most? Well, it may be the first time I’ve heard a quartet of numbers get accused of killing people. Who knew those four digits carried around a sickle and political machinations in their back pockets?

Whether the loss of Prince and Princess (Leia) ruined your year or just amounted to a footnote in it, overall apathy about the past twelve months has been in short supply. For my part, I was talking on the phone to a friend in late December who, after we caught up past our social media newsfeeds, told me, “Well. You may be the only person who had a good twenty-sixteen.”

Yes…and no. Which is sort of the point of everything, right?

No longer a slave to resolutions (maybe I’m just lazy, but I prefer the version of that story that paints me as having evolved beyond them), my way to punctuate the end of one year and the beginning of another is more just…reflection. And champagne. I didn’t have an organized method of reviewing time other than my poor memory, though–until I began writing regularly. Now I have a collection of essays here and elsewhere that allow me to remember what’s happened over the last dozen months. Also, there’s my Netflix history. And Facebook memories. So perhaps you’ll indulge a bit of a stroll down memory lane in my effort to provide a defense of some of 2016’s merits, Leonard Cohen’s absence notwithstanding.

This was the year I went on anti-depressants. It was the year my youngest niece was born. It was the year my two-year-old started preschool and the year my four-year-old went from uttering one word to being fully conversational. It was the year I saw Hamilton and spoke at the Mockingbird conference the next day. It was the year our youngest was baptized and we became members of a church we love. It was the year my husband informed me we may have the opportunity to move to Australia and I said “HELL NO” before…moving to Australia.

It was a mixed bag.

crownI’m writing this from Sydney, inside a waiting room at my older son’s therapy center. I drove here on the left side of the road while clenching eery muscle in my body–shout out to my clean pants!–after a day of tending to the constant needs of the two children I prayed for for years, from a house paid for by the company of a husband I waited for…forever, I believe? If there is anything characterized by more highs and lows, more ups and downs, more being all-over-the-place than 2016, I’d like to humbly submit that it may be me. The only thing keeping me from changing my middle name to Ambivalence is that I’m too lazy to fill that many boxes on paperwork. So here’s the thing, 2016–I get you. I know how it feels to be blamed, to blame yourself, for others’ disappointments, to be misunderstood, to be held accountable for things that may/may not be your fault. I know how it feels to be the year of Atlanta and The Crown one moment, and the effective ender of the role of General Organa the next. I know how it feels to be toasted with champagne on your way in and have the door shut on your ass on the way out. I know how it feels to be…complicated. I mean, I just described my typical Tuesday.

Every triumph of this year for me, and my family, was coupled with its share of hardship. There were the horse therapy visits for my son that reeked of excrement. There was the viewing of Hamilton through the anxiety of a stomach virus that had just destroyed a New York restaurant bathroom downtown. There was the church we joined and had to leave, the friendships that deepened only to have physical distance forced into them. The trip to The Nutcracker with my older niece and her tears at the airport when we left. The group of us standing, hands linked, in a group at the front of church then in a circle in our driveway as we were prayed over, and the ugly crying that ensued. There were all the goodbyes that made me feel like Tom Sawyer getting to watch his own funeral and finally feel appreciated followed by the excruciating letting go of our Atlanta home. There was the landing on New Year’s Eve in our new home, the ending of one year and many chapters to begin another. There was life, in all its degradation and glory, all its messes and beauty, and the fact that we are still here in it.

It’s hard to hate a year that’s been so unabashedly full of that life–so unapologetically real. It’s the same reason I often have such ambivalence toward God: it’s hard to maintain apathy in the presence of a being who makes blessing and struggle so inextricably linked.


This is not meant to diminish anyone’s sense of loss brought on by 2016, only to acknowledge that, if you look back, you might spot some of those gifts that attended the losses. Because there were some truly standout moments that 2016 provided for me, some undeniable beauty that I’d never witnessed prior to it. There was being an audience member for arguably one of the greatest musicals of all time (contrary tweets notwithstanding), part of a group in which everyone seemed to know the words to all the songs and, despite background or skin color or age or creed, we all sang along. There was the spooning on the plane over the ocean with my boys who slept peacefully beside me, the calm before the storm before the calm that is the cycle of life. There was the way grace, through some of its most reliable representatives (my family), pushed me beyond my own inclinations and past my own plans to open the world up quite literally. And there was the moment yesterday (yes, I know it’s now 2017 but this wouldn’t have happened without its predecessor) when I drove my two boys around our new neighborhood with its steep inclines and hairpin turns. George Michael’s  “Freedom” wafted fittingly through the speakers and, as I clenched every muscle in my body, my youngest slept and my oldest hollered directions from the backseat and I humored him, taking the turns while glancing at the GPS, knowing somehow that we’d end up at home no matter what, but not without a view on the way.

This was happiness. Not the framed greatest hits, but the moments between. At the time, I hadn’t pegged them as being particularly happy. But now, looking back at those phantom snapshots, I’m struck by my calm, my ease, the evident comfort with my life.

I’m happy in retrospect.

–Maria Semple, Today Will Be Different