Making sense of our 'dumpster fire' year

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(CNN)"It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered." That's how Katherine Anne Porter described living through the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic while working as a journalist in Denver. These experiences informed her semi-autobiographical 1939 short novel, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," a searing depiction of the twin ravages of a deadly virus and a world war on a country desperate to escape both.

Porter's account of normal life turned dystopian reality echoes with painful familiarity in 2020. We end this year struggling to mourn unimaginable losses wrought by a coronavirus pandemic and watching doctors, nurses and leaders roll up their sleeves for a vaccine while telling the stories, as Porter did, of those who survived.
This week we're highlighting some of the social commentary and cultural criticism that helped us process 2020, a year when dumpster fires appeared on holiday cards.

The painful lessons we learned from the 'great confessional'

    The "great confessional" is how Virginia Woolf referred to illness in 1926 -- and that was borne out in 2020, the year when Covid-19 cast America's longstanding sins of racial and economic inequality into newly harsh relief. Catherine Powell demanded attention be paid to the "color of Covid" and its disproportionate havoc on the health and labor of Black and Latinx communities. Wellesley College president Paula A. Johnson put a face to the tragedy in her remembrance of Rana Zoe Mungin, a 30-year-old teacher lost to the virus after she was unable to get tested. "The pandemic comes as a reminder of what we stand to lose when diverse voices go unheeded," Johnson wrote.
    As the weeks turned into months, Covid also became the "great confessional" of the difference in our social realities-- whether we were able to work from home or not, were single or had a family, lived or worked near the area of the latest outbreak. We grappled, too, with what should remain open and what should stay closed. "Parents, and particularly mothers, are shouldering most of the burden," of the pandemic's impact on the economy, wrote Jill Filipovic. "And it's going to do long-term damage to women's earnings, careers, and basic safety and security."
    The permanent mark left by this virus was also visible on the city streets; Carl Swanson and the editors of New York Magazine's Curbed paid poignant tribute in their list of "500 Goodbyes" to places "big and small" that closed their doors in 2020. Every community in America and many across the world could say the same.

    The 'Great Awakening'

    When historians assess 2020, March 13 and May 25 will be recalled as the dates when the names Breonna Taylor and George Floyd became synonyms for the demand for racial justice. After Taylor and Floyd were killed by police, a spasm of protest racked America and the world, one whose aftershocks created what Van Jones described as a "cultural tsunami that is sweeping through media, the academy, houses of worship, Hollywood and even corporate board rooms. This new, building force may someday change the course of world history. In many ways, it already has." Jones called it, in reference to waves of religious revival that have swept the US throughout its history, a "Great Awakening." Aunjanue Ellis wrote that the reckoning -- which eventually included the removal of Mississippi's Confederacy-inflected flag -- was long overdue for her home state and all of America: "The Confederate flag and its attendant horrors -- the massacres, torture and lynchings -- loom through every state of this country."
    Many Americans asked whether -- or how - this racial reckoning would be different. Jennifer Harvey suggested that for that to happen, many White Christians would need to replace their focus on "racial reconciliation" with a commitment to reparations as an expression of their faith.
    Amid the cries that Black Lives Matter, the calls to "say her name," another message emerged: silence is complicity. Silence in the face of bigotry is also a scar, reflected Jeff Yang, one borne by Asian Americans in particular even as it divides them from solidarity with Black and brown Americans. Yang observed: "Through silence, we allow others to control whether we belong and where we belong. Are we unassimilable aliens, or intrinsically American? Do we seek adjacency to whiteness, or coalitions of color? By speaking out now, we answer these questions for ourselves."
    Roxanne Jones wrote movingly of how a posthumous Pulitzer Citation in May for the investigative reporting of suffrage and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells was a reminder that because of Wells and others like her, "black girls like me dared to dream that our words could be used as a weapon against hate and fear. She taught us the power of telling our own stories."
    In a year when museums were closed and public space was an arena for demonstrations, but also a zone of exposure to contagion, artists used magazine covers and monuments to speak to these protests and the people whose shortened lives inspired them. With "Say Their Names" for the New Yorker, Kadir Nelson depicted George Floyd with his shoulders outlining the faces and bodies of Black men and women, forming a visual history of racism and activism.
    Amy Sherald, whose rendering of Michelle Obama hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, depicted Breonna Taylor on the cover of Vanity Fair in hues of blue-green reminiscent, for the artist, of Lady Liberty. Lighting artist Dustin Klein projected Floyd's image, the words "No Justice No Peace" and "BLM" onto Richmond's Robert E. Lee monument, an image National Geographic also put on its cover.

    Turning to Narnia and 'chickenality'

    During spring and summer lockdowns, many looked for home-based comfort. Holly Thomas started re-reading the young adult literature of her childhood. When Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis "made the world bigger," Thomas reminisced, "it stayed that way. There was no cozy -- or claustrophobic -- return home." I spoke with and heard from a number of CNN Opinion readers who shared what books they were reading to get by -- a decidedly eclectic mix, from "The Plague" to "Anna Karenina" to "Murder on the Orient Express."
    "People are stretched and stressed and heartbroken and thin. People are savoring joy wherever they can," observed Tess Taylor -- and for her and her family, that meant bringing home chickens. Something about their "chickenality" sustained Taylor and her young children as they struggled with isolation and chaos. "The chickens make me feel more connected to life," she wrote. "In finding this one place to connect, we've gotten some refuge, and laughter, and some courage to carry on."

    The surreal world of sports in 2020

    "Early this year, the loss of Kobe Bryant, a complicated hero, seemed likely to dominate the end-of-year sports headlines. Now that moment...almost feels like another lifetime," lamented Amy Bass. From a "biological bomb" of an Italian soccer match that became a superspreader event to a canceled Olympics (and stadiums emptied of fans) to a work stoppage that practically put the world on pause, sports served as a crucible--for Covid-19 response, the resulting economic fallout and racial justice activism, Bass noted. "Stick to sports" meant something very different this year, she wrote: "In the wake of a year of devastating loss, loss that has permeated every inch of our being, sticking to sports will tell us what we need to know."
    Peniel E. Joseph opined that in "finding his voice on the need for America to recognize the humanity of Black folk, [LeBron] James has helped an entire generation of millennial athletes and celebrities find their own. In this way, despite his boundary-shattering athletic brilliance, James' most important legacy is the one that is shaping up off the court. His co