Ending an era, several times over
This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Annual Soundtracks

2023 felt like the longest year.

Or, more accurately, it felt like speedrunning through several decades in one go. Loath as I am to reference Taylor Swift, of all people, it’s a little fitting that one of the prevailing pop culture moments of the year stands on the concept of eras. Specifically, what sticks out to me is this mental image of eras as a patchwork: each a discrete period not necessarily conceived in direct connection with the others, but threaded together anyway by a common denominator.

In the case of the past year’s various eras, that would be, well, the person living through them. Though at various points, “living” might have been too strong a word, haha.

Each quarter of 2023 felt like a different life.

The version of me that suffered through March is not the same one that hurtled through August. Pick a month, any month; I could say the same about every other month of the year, really.

That’s obvious in this year’s playlist too. It’s more of a bricolage than any of the playlists that came before, swinging in wider and wilder arcs from mood to mood, genre to genre. These annual soundtracks have always been impressionistic, but on subsequent listens, previous iterations always felt held together by a prevailing theme — something that haunted or hounded me throughout the year, for better or worse.

I guess there were too many ghosts this time, real and imagined.

In many ways, 2023 was the year of living through worst-case scenarios.

In hindsight, this sounds a bit dramatic to say about the same year that saw actual worst-case scenarios happen on a global scale, be it in geopolitics, public health, the environment, or any other vector of devastation imaginable, really. But I suppose it’s human to get lost in one’s personal pain for a while, especially when that pain is at its most acute.

This was the year of unexpectedly ugly-crying to a friend over the phone on some random weekday; of dissecting any and every record available to try and identify how exactly something that felt indispensable fell apart; of cycling through guilt, resentment, anger, grief, regret, all against the backdrop of an unshakeable sadness; of powering through sleepless nights and short fuses to deliver near-impossible asks; of feeling further and further removed from whatever semblance of home I ever felt like I could go back to.

It was also the year of learning, through the relentlessness of the day-to-day, that many of the things that terrified me could happen and life would go on regardless.

Funny how that works, right? The universe can punch you straight in the gut, your reserves can be depleted twice over, but nothing about that will move a project deadline or a dear friend’s wedding date.

So you keep going.

Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to look the day dead in the eye, pick out what is absolutely non-negotiable about it, and focus your energies on getting through that — quite like how our bodies, overwhelmed by cold, will dial down peripheral blood flow to ensure the little warmth available keeps flowing to our core organs.

It wasn’t so much surrender or resignation as a dogged gathering and re-gathering of whatever pieces of my life still felt solid and manageable. And an acceptance, I suppose — easier and more unsentimental each time — of how much or how little each attempt gave me to work with.

It helped, of course, that this was the year where I put active, continuous effort into identifying, drawing, and enforcing boundaries. Maybe this is my Aquarius moon speaking, but having clearer boundaries helped me make peace with what I wanted or didn’t want, could or couldn’t control, would or wouldn’t get. In aggregate, I guess that constitutes a kind of peace with who you happen to be at any given time, too.

Here’s what really surprised me about 2023 though: it wasn’t all just soldiering on. The relentlessness of life, it turns out, can be gentle too.

Funny how that works, right? The universe can punch you straight in the gut, your reserves can be depleted twice over, and flowers will still bloom. Life can bring you hot tea, a walk in a park, a surprise birthday visit — comfort, calm, and even happiness, whether or not you feel equipped to encounter them.

What is there at the end of it all?

It turns out “common denominator,” in its most mathematical sense, is a surprisingly apt turn of phrase for the throughline that ultimately threads these eras together, no matter how unrecognizable some versions might have become.