I remember the hope I felt this time last year, my naive faith that a foolish and frightening decade was drawing to a close and something better must be on the way. I try to imagine my reaction if someone showed me some scenes from the year to come: Wildfires tinting the skies a Blade Runner shade of red. Thousands of cars queued outside a stadium for virus testing. Shuttered restaurants, silent streets, and an empty Times Square. Americans tear-gassed and sometimes killed by their public servants. Candidates delivering speeches before parking lots of honking cars. A president who discussed invoking martial law to overturn an election. And on Christmas morning, a man played Petula Clarke’s “Downtown” on a loudspeaker and detonated a bomb. All of this seems poorly scripted, as if the tropes from every dystopian movie had escaped the screen to mock our definition of entertainment. Yet even these devastatingly real events are swiftly packaged and glossed into stories, becoming grist for punditry while the death counts are tallied across our devices. From gunfire to overdoses and now pandemic casualties, America is particularly adept at making needless suffering seem like the natural course of things.

Nineteen years ago, on the morning of September 11, C. shook me awake and told me to look at the television. After glancing at the live footage of the first tower, I wriggled deeper into the bed. “I don’t want to watch a movie,” I said, thinking it was one of those 1980s thrillers where the hero would leap from the burning building in the nick of time. I could not shake this idea, not even when we climbed to the rooftop to watch the towers that were falling several blocks away. This is the closest reference point I have for the sensation of living through this year.

I’m fumbling here. But as this journal draws to a close, I want to record this feedback loop, one that is felt rather than understood: fiction bleeding into reality and back again without the time required to comprehend, let alone mourn. There’s also the question of how to mentally brace for the unthinkable—and whether this requires the cynicism I’ve been hoping to shed.

Each night in 2020, I wrote a short post for a series called Notes From the End of a World because I wanted to etch these days into my memory. Before the world changed completely.
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