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Coast Life

Wallace Baine: As we turn the page yet again, grief for the old year, hope for the new one

Usually this weighing of the changes that life inevitably brings is habitual, routine, even a bit ho hum. But there’s something about the passing of this specific year that feels different, as if we’re witnessing not just the changeover of years, but of eras, as if the real changes promised by the new millennium are arriving 20 years late.

Perhaps it’s just an illusion of the calendar, but the final days of the year always seem to bring a higher volume than usual of sad news when it comes to the passing of prominent figures. True to form, the last days of 2021 also turned out to be the last days of, among others, peace icon Desmond Tutu, writer Joan Didion, and painter Wayne Thiebaud.


These particular losses hit close to home when you consider that one of the final moments in the global spotlight for Archbishop Tutu came by way of the 2016 bestseller “The Book of Joy” written by Santa Cruz’s Douglas Abrams. And the deaths of Didion and Thiebaud are especially meaningful to us in Santa Cruz County insofar as they were both famously and distinctly Californian in their perspective and vision.

Or, maybe, like a leak in the roof on a rainy day, grief and loss always find a way to penetrate our consciousness in these dying days of a passing year. The bittersweetness of New Year’s Eve is as familiar as champagne and “Auld Lang Syne” to anyone with even a spoonful of self-reflection.

Joan Didion, 1934-2021

Usually this weighing of the changes that life inevitably brings is habitual, routine, even a bit ho hum. But there’s something about the passing of this specific year that feels different, as if we’re witnessing not just the changeover of years, but of eras, as if the real changes promised by the new millennium are arriving 20 years late.

Globally, nationally, regionally, and locally, we all seem to be emerging into a new world. The catalyst to all this change is, of course, COVID-19, and what the virus has not brought about directly, it has accelerated and influenced.

A year ago, at the end of 2020, with vaccines on the horizon, there was a widespread hope — naive, it turned out — that contemporary life with all its momentum and inertia would sooner or later snap back into place into something recognizably pre-pandemic.

To offer a personal analogy, it’s common for those who’ve broken a bone — as I did in 2021 — to expect, even against their better judgment, that the trauma is over once the cast is removed, and to not factor in the hard work of physical therapy, or the threat of reinjury, or the acceptance of some permanent diminishment. Healing is rarely absolute. It can never fully erase loss.

A year later, with the virus reemerging as an ominous new variant, we are all reckoning with the realization that 2020 was no “speed bump,” that a new way of life is going to call for new and more-or-less permanent adaptations as we gaze into a future of regular testing, periodic boosters, new wrinkles in mask etiquette, and the maddening, almost daily uncertainty about whether being with people is worth the risk.

The mural in the alleyway outside the former Poet & Patriot Irish Pub still greets passerby.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Wander around downtown Santa Cruz today and you’re engulfed with a sense of something having passed by. Empty storefronts exert their own kind of mournful energy, but long-timers (and even not-so-long-timers) can’t help but be haunted by all those touchstones of the Santa Cruz experience that have either disappeared (the Poet & the Patriot), been put into indefinite suspension (the Nickelodeon), or moved elsewhere in some other form (Palace Arts).

I think also of existing businesses which, having survived 2020, are now wondering what trials they’ll be facing next as they try to avoid becoming the next empty storefront.

It’s all too easy to discount such ruminations as just so much doom and gloom. And, sure, maybe it’s not a topic for your New Year’s Eve party. But the lesson of loss is that the only way to transcend grief is to face it forthrightly. Maybe now’s the time to properly assess these losses in hopes that a new year will bring a new resolve to tackle what’s to come.

Hope lies not in opposition to grief, but indeed on the other side of it. To get to the light, you have to go through the tunnel.

Mourning the losses will inevitably bring you to recognizing what still remains, and we’re fortunate in Santa Cruz County to have a lot to build on. This year, I’ve talked to too many locals to count who are greeting the uncertain future with creativity, energy, and optimism. All those empty storefronts suggest something else ready to emerge from this chaotic period.

There are no guarantees — yes, sometimes what doesn’t kill you does indeed make you stronger, but sometimes it just kills you later. Still, how can you not be hopeful about what may come next?

As for people, they are, of course, our biggest and most deeply felt losses. Virus or not, the years extract a toll on our circle of family and friends. As the new year beckons, I feel the pull to remember those now gone whom I interacted with this year.

Laurie Roberts

I remember the kind soul of Laurie Roberts, the chief Piggie over at KPIG-FM, whose warm and utterly unpretentious on-air personality was not an iota different from her off-air self. She was a woman full of love, for dogs, for music, for her San Francisco Giants. Journalist Lee Quarnstrom left behind an amazing life story, representing the kind of salty old newspaperman who has largely vanished from the American scene.

He possessed two keen talents that made him magnetic and forever intriguing. He knew how to throw a party, and how to tell a story. My friend and stand-up comic Fred Reiss got nose-to-nose with death nearly every day for years on end, but somehow, against an onslaught that would have destroyed many, he was always able to maintain a kind of ferocious curiosity and commitment to living that I found inspiring every time we talked.

Writer and artist Jory Post
Writer and artist Jory Post.
(Courtesy Hannah Hutton)

And then there was my friend, the writer and artist Jory Post, who received a bleak diagnosis of an aggressive form of cancer in late 2018. Jory was an accomplished poker player, which means he knew exactly what long odds were. He responded to what amounted to a terminal sentence like a man on a mission.

Despair never even got into the room with him. As an artist, he embarked on two years of hellbent creativity, the likes of which I have never witnessed. Instead of waiting for the Muse to inspire him, he went hunting for her and dragged her out from wherever she was hiding. As a result, his last two years were astoundingly fruitful for him, both in the creative process and in the recognition he received from the world.

Jory is gone now, but his example still inspires me and the many friends he knew and loved in Santa Cruz County. He leaves behind, among other things, a framework in which to think about the last days of the old year and the first days of the new one.

It’s not morbid to allow yourself to feel the weight of loss this time of year. It might in fact be necessary to marshal the strength to carry on. Meditating on loss can so often bring you to the insight that hope and joy aren’t soft things. They are forged like tempered steel through grief and experience. It can give you what it takes to flip the calendar and say, without anxiety or delusion, to an uncertain, even threatening world: “Bring it on.”

Happy New Year.