Friday, November 13, 2020

Lessons to Be Learned

 As I work on my historical thriller set in 1939, I have come to think of the year itself as a character. 1939 is an adolescent. He is torn between his ancestors who want him to carry their banners and beliefs into the future and the voices that are calling to him to march into "the World of Tomorrow." 1939 attends a Nazi rally and sits on the stage with smirking schoolboys in their uniforms. But two months later, he is in the audience when over 75,000 people gather at the Lincoln Memorial to hear Marian Anderson's voice float out over the crowd offering balm on Easter Sunday. That summer he is off to New York City to join the millions attending the World's Fair. He especially enjoys Elektro, the Smoking Robot. Everybody smokes in 1939.

1939 loves movies and he sits in theaters across the country watching. Some of the movies are too sophisticated for an adolescent year, but 1939 is interested in movie-making. He munches on his popcorn and enjoys the masters at their crafts. 1939 is delighted that there are movies for every taste in his year.  Funny movies, romantic movies, western, mysteries -- history and adventure and love and romance. Sometimes all in the same jam-packed movie. Sometimes the history is terribly wrong and the love stories are ill-fated, but 1939 knows that Americans coming out of the darkest days of the Great Depression need to be entertained and distracted -- and sometimes even elevated and reminded of who they are when they are at their best. 

1939 gives America and the world Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Four Feathers, Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, The Rules of the Game, Wuthering Heights, Love Affair, Gunga Din, The Man in the Iron Mask, Ninotchka, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beau Geste, Drums Along the Mohawk, Stanley and Livingstone, Dodge City, Destry Rides Again, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Old Maid, The Roaring Twenties, Of Mice and Men, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Son of Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, Another Thin Man, Dark Victory, Union Pacific, The Women, Each Dawn I Die, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and The Rains Came.

In December, 1939 takes the movie-watching world to Atlanta, Georgia for the four-day premier of Gone With the Wind -- a sweeping saga of the Old South, a celluloid contribution to a mythology of a golden past now lost. In December, the African American descendants of the survivors of that past are not happy with that celebration in Atlanta. But 1939 is a clear-eyed adolescent who sees what is ahead, and knows that soon another battle will be joined, a battle abroad and at home for democracy.

Getting to know 1939 has helped me to make it through 2020 -- this careless, uncaring, cynical, often cruel year. I've imagined 2020 as the Devil, occasionally taking the shape of politicians and fanatics.  I've imagined 2020 smiling as he watches mourners weeping and protestors being gassed. I've imagined 2020 enjoying the chaos his henchmen (and women) are sowing in his year, knowing that his impact will be felt long after his time on the stage is over. 

I've imagined 2020 as evil, but as a writer I have found 2020 fascinating. He is much more sophisticated in his methods than 1939. Much more devious. Much more intelligent -- allowing us to destroy ourselves as if we were in an episode of Twilight Zone

But 2020 also has offered me some unwelcome -- but still valuable -- opportunities to learn. I've learned that if I hold on and keep moving, I can make it through moments that fill me with terror. I've learned to be patient. I've learned to be kinder to myself and other people. I've learned to think before I speak. 

I've learn to admire everyday heroes and the people who do the dirty jobs. I've learned to be grateful for all my privileges and what I have.

I will be glad to see the last of 2020. But as a character he is more nuanced than I at first imagined.

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