Year's end 2020: looking back, taking stock, bumbling onward, ha!


It has been quite a year. A year like no other. Unprecedented. Or has it? I wonder. It may be that what we have endured these past ten months is more the norm for human experience than exception. This thought is prompted in part by my recent immersion in the life and times of Alexander Herzen (1812–1870) and a mystery novel I finished last weekend set in England in the spring of 1940 against the backdrop of the evacuation at Dunkirk. The norm for many of us has been the good fortune to go about our lives in relative tranquillity even while others in this country and elsewhere suffered from all manner of injustice and inequity, war, famine, storms, and other manmade and natural calamities.

Tulsa Watchdog for Science Holly


Yes, we are all touched by reminders of life's fragility. Each instance of loss and heartbreak is terrible. Not too long ago we could fall back on the comfort of friends and family, familiar routines, the ordinariness of daily life, all the things that with time help us move on. What is ordinary has been upended. The old, familiar routines have been wiped away. In their stead we are left lives more severely constricted that we would have imagined in that past time of an undeserved good fortune.


2020 was rocky from the get-go. How could it be otherwise as the country lurched into the fourth and what many Americans worked to make the final year of the Trump regime? I tried to do my part, contributing to the body count and taking photos at Indivisible Oregon Tuesday meetings with staff from the offices of Oregon's congressional delegation. Impeachment was atop the agenda in January. I supported it with reluctance, not because the president's actions did not warrant impeachment, conviction, and removal from office, but because it was a futile gesture. Trump could hand over the American nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for a Trump hotel in Moscow and some Senate Republicans would not bat an eye.


The Democratic primary season was in full swing. Bernie Sanders was riding high. The progressive faithful were convinced that this was their moment. I like Bernie Sanders and I agree in principle with much of his agenda, but I believed then as I do now that his prospects in the general election were, to put it generously, not good. The field on the whole was solid. I liked Kamala Harris and Cory Booker coming into the contest, and I found much to like about Pete Buttigieg. At the end for me it came down to Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. This may seem an improbable combo, one decidedly to the left, the other denounced by the left as centrist or even center-right. The Portable Bohemia endorsement went to Amy Klobuchar although by then it was clear she had no path forward, as they say. I had no reservations about supporting Joe Biden when he became the nominee or the Biden-Harris ticket when he chose Kamala Harris as his running mate.


Throughout the year friends joined me in Vote Forward letter-writing campaigns to get out the vote among demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic. The goal was to take back the White House, increase the House majority, flip the Senate, and flip state legislatures that would be in charge of redistricting based on the 2020 census. The outcome was disappointing, but we got the White House. That is a start. The real work is only just getting underway. Nothing is guaranteed. We do what we can.


In March I stepped away from politics while taking in the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF), which has been a high point of my year since 1999, my first winter in Portland. In keeping with the theme for 2020, the festival got off to a rocky start. NW Film Center communications left something to be desired with the rollout of the Cinema Unbound marketing campaign and a festival calendar that was five days shorter than in previous years, with fewer films and substantially fewer advance screenings open to Silver Screen Club members for whom these screenings are a prime benefit of membership. No rationale or explanation was offered. This precipitated unrest in the ranks that may have contributed to unfortunate friction between some film center volunteers and some Silver Screeners. (For more on this, see 43rd Portland International Film Festival (PIFF43): Take 1 and My PIFF43: Closing It Out). PIFF43 came to an abrupt end on Thusday, March 12, with cancellation of the festival's final days following guidance from the State of Oregon and Oregon Health Authority. The pandemic was upon us.


At this time last year I entertained vague thoughts about making 2020 a year for local trips by bus and train to places like Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River, Bend, Eugene where it is always a joy to visit my friends Sylvia and Pete, and Bellingham, a delightful town north of Seattle. The plan was to begin looking at dates and arrangements for spring travel after the film festival ended. That went nowhere. Maybe next year.


And maybe next year I can get back into the old Portland routines, breaking up the week with excursions downtown to browse through the stacks at the Central Library, check out exhibits at Portland Art Museum, enjoy an espresso and journal session at Park Avenue café at the Park Blocks entrance to the Portland State University campus. There is the Sunday farmer's market and the renovated Ledding Library in Milwaukie and the trek out to Oregon City to take in the view from the bluff above Willamette Falls. These thoughts prompt a smile that lightens my spirit for a moment.


You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on, as Samuel Beckett put it. What else after all are we to do? On Christmas morning I had a Face Time visit with the family, Trani, Candace, and Rachel in Tulsa, Dan and Maribel in Minneapolis. It was not the same as being there with them but better than not at all.


Those who come to this space regularly know that film has been a great source of pleasure in my life. When I speak of film I have in mind movies viewed in a theater. Watching them at home on my laptop is a lesser experience that I have come to accept for time being and maybe the foreseeable future. Along the way I treated myself to retrospectives featuring filmmakers Hong Sang-soo and Lina Wertmüller and actress Isabelle Huppert. It is not the same as watching their films in a theater but better than not at all.


You might think that deprived of distractions and diversions I would be a literary dynamo these days. Au contraire, mes amis. I dither more than ever and even less comes of it if that is possible. Yet I somehow stay busy. The days and weeks are full. They run away like wild horses over the hills, as Bukowski put it.


I do not put much stock in tracking the number of words, pages, essays, and poems written. What value is to be had in that lies in a measure of reassurance that I am keeping faith with that dream of being a poet and perhaps something of an intellectual I had when I was nineteen. I kept at it.


This year the blog was devoted largely to commentary on politics and current affairs, more than I would like although the year's events gave reason enough for it. The word count crept above 94,000, enough for a book of decent size, a slight uptick from 2019, down markedly from the 113,000 that came from somewhere in 2018. Last summer I hammered away for a time at a novel in progress (Until We Remember to Dream; note to the editorial desk: need to come up with better working title) before abandoning it again. I have twenty to thirty new poems in progress, depending on how I count them, some finished enough to include in magazine submissions, all subject to revision. I was by my standards diligent about keeping poetry submissions out in the internet aether. "I Will Dream Cellos" and "Tango Girl with a Pale Green Shawl" were published in Otoliths, issue fifty-seven, southern autumn 2020,


The journal project, begun in 2019, consists of typing up handwritten journals that date back to the early 1990s but were not kept consistently until 1998. The count stands at 270 single-spaced pages and better than 142,000 words. Most of that came this year and makes barely a dint in the record of the past twenty-two years. I pick up the journals haphazardly in no particular order because that is how they are stacked on a shelf. Much of the material is distressingly pedestrian and tedious. Sometimes I think the journals would be best consigned to a good bonfire and the computer files securely shredded. Nonetheless it can be interesting to see what I was thinking in, say, January 1999, to be reminded of books and films, who I was meeting and hanging out with, &c. On occasion something shines through.


The numbers serve as a marginally effective antidote to self-doubt. It is not about the performance principle, production, how many words, pages, essays, poems. Not everything is reducible to data and metrics, which after all have nothing to say about quality. The writing for me has always entailed a dynamic tension between discipline, going to the desk, putting in the time, the work, and afternoon wandering in the spirit of Wordsworth tramping about the Lake Country, Nietzsche composing books during morning and afternoon walks in Turin, the Surrealists in Paris in the 1920s, the flâneur, coffee shop espresso and journal sessions, museum, library, the cinema, wine and dinner with friends in a comfortable little restaurant of quality but never pretension, and on evenings when the weather is more inviting than it is today sitting on my deck after dinner with a glass of wine and a book of poems. This too is part of the writing.


At sixty-eight I get slower every day but I can still run and I still enjoy it. Mileage for the year was over a thousand for the first time since 2016 and the most since 2015, the year I ran the Portland Marathon. This was despite months of short, slow, cautious runs at the beginning of the year as I came back from a minor but slow-mending injury that sidelined me for the last quarter of 2019. I can scarcely imagine what kind of mess I would be if I could not run. Running is another thing for which I am grateful.


Tomorrow night we will usher out 2020 and bring in the new year. No one would say 2020 was a good one, but even 2020 had its moments with friendships nourished and renewed, books and film, the intellectual adventure, and always the family. Through it all remain those little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love that make up the best portion of a good man's life, as Wordsworth put it.


What lies ahead is a great unknown. It always is, but that is not always as evident as it is today in light of the past year. Perhaps we will cherish all the more the little, ordinary pleasures of daily life when we pass through the pandemic and come out the other side. Perhaps we will then take up other challenges that remain before us with renewed dedication and spirit.


For myself, I keep at it, encouraged by the kind words of friends and other readers and because it is simply what I do, who I am. My hope is that those who come to this space in 2021 will from time to time find essays and commentary of interest, informative, thought-provoking and provocative, in some sense pleasurable, maybe at their best exhibiting a certain flair and style. This does not mean that anyone should expect to agree with everything found here. I continue to think of myself as a man of the left while at odds with much of the contemporary left. Some progressive friends may think me little better than a damn centrist and in some respects they might have a point. I find elements of common ground with traditional conservatism and find in contemporary American conservatism little if anything of that traditional conservatism. I come at it as a romantic poet, realistic idealist or maybe idealistic realist, skeptic, scourge of puritans and the self-righteous who are without a doubt in their military minds, heretic in the eyes of the high woke, a party of one who tries to think critically and well, all too aware of how far I fall short. I keep at it. I bumble onward, ha!


When I finish a film, I feel like I have overcome a certain hurdle. It's really good for me as a human being, and I hope that for some people, my films will do the same thing.

—Hong Sang-soo

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David Matthews

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