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What to say at the end of this extraordinary year? So far, I’m most persuaded by the words of Clarke Smith, age 9, of Beverly Hills, Michigan, who was quoted recently in the Washington Post describing the year as “Like looking both ways before crossing the street and then getting hit by a submarine.” Preach, dear Clarke. 

Even without COVID-19, it was a year of ecological disasters (weird that the fires of Australia and the Western US may rate so low in our memories), of bonkers political drama, and of much-needed racial reckoning (still much-needed). With COVID-19 added in, it has been a year of lack and loss, of disappointments and deferrals (we hope), of anxieties and aloneness. Of trips not taken, of family not visited, of friends not embraced. Screens and more screens, masks and sanitizer. No one needs a litany of how every part of our lives has been affected—and we know that, until the vaccine is widely applied, more remains for us to continue to negotiate.

How we all got through (and how we got each other through) will be instructive to continue to talk about. Looking back at this year of the “Great Reset,” I want to celebrate a few of things that bolstered me. Living alone, of course, I was grateful for those same screens (the ones that I spent too much work time on) because they gave me conversations with friends, my weekly Bible study, celebrations with my family. At least I got to see people—even in my childhood, the best I would have had was the phone. I was grateful for walks and time outdoors around firepits or massive long tables. I was grateful for grocery delivery and restaurant takeout, for friends who dropped off goodies on my porch. 

And as I think back over the year, I’m reminded of something I heard my friend Katherine Paterson observe in a speech once: “The consolation of the imagination is not imaginary consolation.” That feels like it could be my 2020 motto.

So I found solace in music—whether in all the artists who were so creative online with their streaming performances—or in new albums released during the year. At year’s end, I’m glad these joined my older favorites as companions: 

Albums of the Year:

  • Mary Chapin Carpenter, One Night Lonely
  • HAIM, Women in Music, Pt III
  • Indigo Girls, Look Long
  • Diana Krall, This Dream of You
  • Helen Jane Long, Vessel of Light
  • Sandra McCracken, Patient Kingdom
  • Postmodern Jukebox, OK Crooner
  • Resistance Revival Chorus, This Joy
  • Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You
  • Chris Stapleton, Starting Over
  • Taylor Swift, folklore (I liked evermore, too)
  • War & Treaty, Heartstown

Theme Songs of Year: 

  • Jenn Johnson, “Goodness of God”
  • Sandra McCracken, “You Are With Me” 
  • Dolly Parton, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”
  • Resistance Revival Chorus, “This Joy”

Most of all there were words. Of course, I read a lot with my students (that’s a whole other list). But here’s a few books I commend to you (with apologies for the eccentricity of the list and the fact that not all of these were published in 2020—it’s just when I read them). Maybe you’ll find something for your reading list in 2021:

Fiction and Poetry

  • Yaa Gayasi, Homegoing
  • Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings: A Novel
  • Amit Majmudar, What He Did in Solitary
  • Sigrid Nunez, The Friend: A Novel; What Are You Going Through: A Novel
  • Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
  • Shelley Townsend-Hudson, When I Got Drunk with My Mother

Mysteries

  • Elly Griffiths, The Lantern Men
  • Anthony Horowitz, The Magpie Murders
  • Louise Penny, All the Devils Are Here
  • Ruth Ware, One by One

Non-Fiction

  • Amanda W. Benckhuysen, The Gospel According to Eve: A History of Women’s Interpretation
  • Timothy Barringer, et al, Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts and Crafts Movement
  • Ada Calhoun, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis
  • Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (now in a 2nd edition)
  • Bob Hudson, The Poet and the Fly
  • Catherine Grace Katz, The Daughters of Yalta (well, I’m part-way through…)
  • Kathryn T. Long, God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martyrdom and Redemption in Amazonian Ecuador
  • Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet
  • Brenda Salter McNeil, Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now
  • Dinah Roe, The Rossettis in Wonderland
  • Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise
  • Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom, and London Between the Wars
  • Isabelle Wilkerson, Caste
  • Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home

Cookery/Food History

  • Abra Berens, Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables
  • Lizzie Collingham, A Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World
  • Nigella Lawson, Cook, Eat, Repeat
  • Toni Tipton-Martin, The Jemima Code; Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking

On the Nightstand for 2021

  • Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls
  • Catherine Fletcher, The Beauty and the Terror: The Italian Renaissance and the Rise of the West
  • Anthony Horowitz, Moonflower Murders
  • Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
  • Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
  • Mo Moulton, Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women
  • Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings
  • Guy P. Raffa, Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy
  • Marilynne Robinson, Jack (yes, I know—I’ve published on Robinson! I pre-ordered a copy, but I keep wanting to savor this so I keep putting it off!)
  • Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown

And one more thing lest it appears I only read books: I watched lots of great (and not so great) streaming content. My absolute favorite: Apple TV’s Ted Lasso. If you don’t have Apple TV, it is worth the $5/month just to watch this most charming show. Best of 2020 for me. 

On the 4th Sunday of Advent, I was asked to give some words of my own and lead the prayers of the people. Here’s what I mustered. Mostly what I wanted to say then–and to you today–is that whatever story lies ahead, may the perfect Word abide with and console you every day of this new year.


Gracious God:

What a year it has been! We need Emmanuel—we need you to come and be with us, more than ever. 

We name the many challenges this year has brought and the losses we have endured. 

We pray for the millions of people around the world who have had (or currently have) COVID19.

We mourn with the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost a loved one to COVID19. 

We mourn with those, too, who have lost loved ones to other circumstances and diseases. 

And we mourn with those who have lost employment or housing or relationships or health or whatever the losses are that we now name silently. 

Emmanuel, be near to the broken-hearted, and use your Church as a means of restoration. 

Lord, we pray for our anxieties, the worries that come with a fraught time, with a new year. We name them now to you silently.

Prince of Peace, bring reconciliation to your people, racked as we are by the sins of racism and partiality to our own self-interest, by selfishness and by greed. 

King of Kings, abide with us in a time of political transition. Give us charity and grace to one another. We pray for our leaders at every level: local, state, national. Lend them your wisdom. 

Lord of Lords, watch over the nations. Establish peace. May your kingdom come. 

God of abundance:  

We are grateful for our daily bread, our friends and family, our many blessings. We name these blessings now silently and with thanksgiving. 

Bountiful God:  

In this season of celebration, typified by rejoicing together, 

abide with those who live alone.

Abide with those who are sheltering only with a spouse or with their immediate family. 

Abide with our families and our friends and our communities with whom we cannot meet.  

Abide with those—essential workers, members of the military, those in prison—who are always separated from loved ones on holidays. 

And Bountiful God: abide with this church and your church universal. 

Empower us, through the Holy Spirit, to seek and to serve, as your body, to bring healing and wholeness to all to whom you lead us. 

O God our help in ages past, you are our hope for years to come. 

We rejoice in the incredible testimony of your work as the God of Sarah and Abraham, Isaac and Rebekah, Rachel and Jacob, Moses, Daniel, Hannah, David, Ruth, Ezekiel, Deborah, Isaiah, Esther, Peter, Martha, Barnabas, Lydia, Philip, Elizabeth and Zachariah, Mary and Joseph. 

You care for us by name. Each of us beloved, each of us deemed worthy of rescue, of redemption.  

God of the generations, yours is a testimony of everlasting faithfulness. 

In this week when we remember your birth, we are awed again at the magnitude of love, 

at the immensity of the sacrifice that brought you to earth to release us from the subjugation of our sin. 

Emmanuel, we praise you for your presence and for your providential care. 

We live in a world changed forever by your birth. 

Keep that truth ever before us to guide our every thought and action 

that we might have 

the joy abounding and 

the peace that passes understanding 

that only comes from abiding in you. 

Amen

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

6 Comments

  • Beverly Vandermolen says:

    What a delightful, inspirational and informative read. Such a great way to wake up on a snowy morning being reminded of “through it all” Emmanuel with us. Thank you.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jennifer, for a thought provoking article, and I might also say, life. In spite of a horrendous year you have given us a glimpse into your past year and the things that have carried you through. Thank you.

    I’m taken back by your “year end” prayer. Isn’t that the same prayer that someone prayed last year, if not in our present context, then in a different one? Isn’t that the same prayer that has been prayed year after year, in one form or another all the way back to Ecclesiastes and Solomon’s insightful comments? “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” How useless such prayers are, seen in the fact that such prayers have been prayed now for thousands of years, and nothing really changes. Some would say, Solomon’s sentiment is more about life lived apart from God. But such prayers, prayed over and over, year after year, demonstrate that Solomon’s insights are voiced in an especially religious and spiritual context. And what difference do such prayers make? Thanks again, Jennifer, for your thoughts which may be different from mine, or those of Solomon, but still valuable in the hearts of many.

  • Alicia Jager Mannes says:

    I echo “Ted Lasso”; wonderful show. Thanks for your suggestions. Now, where to start?

  • Sharon A Etheridge says:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post– every bit of it was great.
    Thanks

  • Dale Cooper says:

    Your reflections bless many, Jennifer; among them, me.

  • Shawn F says:

    Reading this in the first week of 2021 was much needed. Truly, thank you for sharing your gift of God in your writing as it has made a difference in my day and I am certain, will make a difference for days and weeks to come. Looking forward to hear from you in the coming posts.

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