by Terri Roberts
“When you’re worried and you can’t sleep Just count your blessings instead of sheep And you’ll fall asleep Counting your blessings…”
Happy 2021! At last, 2020 is in the rear view mirror, and the hope and opportunity of a new year are before us.
Traditionally, this is the point where people try to start over. They make vows to lose weight/stop drinking/quit procrastinating/give up cigarettes, etc. However, a December 31, 2019 post on Psychology Today.com refers to a Scranton University study that found just 19% of people who make New Year’s resolutions actually keep them. Most folks give up within a couple of weeks.
So might I suggest something different this year? Limit your focus on the negative, and consciously expand your focus on the positive. There are countless studies that show developing an attitude of gratitude has great mental health benefits. And when things get as dark as they did in 2020, it’s even more important for the stability of your head and heart to acknowledge those blessings and not take them for granted or ignore them.
Every winter I look forward to watching, once again, those classic holiday movies that remind us to believe in magic and miracles, and to be thankful for all the goodness in our lives – regardless of the darkness that may, at times, obscure it. A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas are not just great, inspiring movies, they are the reminders we need in the chill of winter that warmth still exists, that hope for the better is ever present, and that love, actually, is all around us.
More than any year before it, 2020 made it near impossible to believe any of those uplifting perceptual changes could still occur. The year was memorialized by death, devastation and incalculable loss as the result of, among other things, a raging pandemic, a crashing economy, exploding racial tensions, and a dangerous, defiant political landscape. Where could we possibly find magic and miracles, comfort and joy, goodness, hope and love in all that? Where were the blessings that Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney sang of so sweetly in White Christmas within the tragic year we have just left behind?
I think the very simple answer is this: like love, the blessings of 2020 actually were all around us. They were in the voices and music that rose heavenward from balconies. The drive-bys to celebrate birthdays and lift sagging spirits. The evening outbreaks of applause for first responders, and the celebratory cheers from doctors and nurses when their patients could finally go home.
Blessings were found in the kindnesses of strangers who secretly paid for our coffees, the essential workers who stocked, sold and delivered our food, and the folks who checked on neighbors who could not leave their homes. They were in the gratitude for the outdoors as we took our daily walks, the extra time we suddenly had to clean out closets, learn to bake bread, write a story, or to develop a new skill. They were in the new-found appreciation for the teachers of our children when school became a learn-at-home project, and for our children themselves – even when they clamored for attention while we were Zooming with clients or co-workers. And blessings certainly lived in the medical workers who held the hands of the scared and dying, and used their own cell phones to allow those patients to say goodbye to their loved ones in the only way possible.
Within our theatrical communities, blessings were evident in the sheer resiliency and tenacity of theatre artists everywhere to keep our art alive. Witness, for example, the moving rendition of “Sunday” from the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, Sunday in the Park With George, and how it affected both actors and audience. The surprise pop-up performance by out-of-work Broadway actors was staged on the red TKTS steps, and delighted unsuspecting tourists and native New Yorkers alike. Theatre can happen anywhere.
Back in March, when our marquees went dark and the only lights that shined were the ghost lights on our stages, theatres turned, en masse, to Zoom to keep connected to audiences, to each other, and to keep telling stories. Conversations, readings, previously filmed shows and newly created hybrid performances filled our screens and kept us going. Despite its challenges, Zoom emerged as one of 2020’s biggest blessings overall. Now clearly, watching a great play on Zoom or speaking to family members highlighted in their own Hollywood Squares, will never surpass the thrill of the live experience. But with social distancing a necessary part of life, Zoom became a safe, protective means for the literal, and metaphorical, show to go on. Businesses still met, doctors still consulted with patients, support groups were still able to be present for each other, friends and families still stayed in touch. How could that be anything but a blessing?
Personally, I think it is part of the work of every human being to observe and acknowledge such blessings every day, both the commonplace and the extraordinary. And it is also part of the work of the theatre to present such stories, among others, to an audience. (Even White Christmas was eventually adapted for the stage and is now a holiday staple for regional theatres across the country.) Storytelling is an innate part of the human experience. We’ve been sitting around campfires, drawing on cave walls, and creating ceremonies and traditions since the beginning of human existence. The stage is wherever we make it. Last year, Fountain productions started out, as always, on the physical stage of our intimate theatre. And as the pandemic took hold and changed our lives, we changed as well. We adapted. We shared our stories from our living rooms, in parks, in shopping centers, and yes, even on Zoom. The blessing is that theatres everywhere found ways to carry on. To keep art and creativity alive. To stretch ourselves beyond what we thought possible. Growth, perseverance, fortitude…these are all good things. They are blessings, every one.
As we leave the anguish of 2020 behind and step into the fresh air of 2021, let’s keep in mind that, as terrible as it was, 2020 was not all bad. In the midst of despair, there was still hope. There was bravery in the face of fear. There was beauty that rose up out of ugliness. There was strength to stand and adapt. And there was an urgency to create and make art that burned bright in the midst of chaos. That perceptual change was there for us to find.
So if you become worried or anxious and you find you cannot sleep, take a cue from Crosby and Clooney. Count your blessings instead of sheep. You’ll be asleep in no time.
Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.