What a year in this American life.

Those who thought 2020 couldn’t be topped in terms of tension, turmoil, tribulation, and tedium – because, yes, too much of that other stuff is just plain tedious – well, we were in for a surprise, weren’t we? The year started with a riot in the nation’s capital and is ending with a super-contagious new Covid variant. Needless to say, there were plenty of “good times” in between.

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, 2021.

But while I come to bury the past year, not to praise it, I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit where credit is due. Instead of wallowing in the misery that is behind us, I’ve decided to highlight a few of the forces – both great and small – that brought health, happiness and hope during this challenging year.

Covid Vaccines: True, the roll-out has been disappointing. As with everything else in this country, our angry, divisive politics – more infectious and destructive than any virus – poisoned the vaccination effort from the start. At this point, it does little good to dwell on what might have been – what if more people had been vaccinated, more quickly? – or on all the reasons that didn’t happen. But the evidence is now beyond clear: Covid vaccines save lives, not to mention hospital beds and healthcare workers’ sanity. As of now – and I always qualify Covid talk with “as of now” – they even seem to be largely protective against the new Omicron variant, especially if one is boosted. Who knows what the next few weeks will bring, as we all mix and mingle with a jingling beat? According to CNN, experts say we’re in for a “viral blizzard,” an ominous holiday forecast if ever I heard one. But a surge in cases doesn’t have to bring a surge in serious illness or death. Boost up if you can!

Singers’ Masks: Along with vaccines, masks – and especially mask mandates – have been a big source of disagreement roiling our communities this year. But within the scientific community, there’s been little disagreement about one issue: Choral singing is one of the easiest ways to spread Covid. So, my deep gratitude goes out the creator of the singers’ mask, a marvel of engineering made especially for those of us who sing in choirs. As the great choral composer John Rutter once said, “a church or a school without a choir is like a body without a soul.” Thanks to the invention of the singers’ mask, a lot of our “bodies” got their “souls” back this year. What a gift, to singers and listeners alike.

FAIR: Have you heard about the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR)? It’s a new organization led by an impressive group of scholars, journalists, and other public intellectuals committed to fighting current forces within our nation’s institutions that they believe are destroying the fabric of society. From the FAIR website:

“Increasingly, American institutions — colleges and universities, businesses, government, the media and even our children’s schools — are enforcing a cynical and intolerant orthodoxy. This orthodoxy requires us to identify ourselves and each other based on immutable characteristics like skin color, gender and sexual orientation. It pits us against one another and diminishes what it means to be human. Today, almost 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education ushered in the Civil Rights Movement, there is an urgent need to reaffirm and advance its core principles. To insist on our common humanity. To demand that we are each entitled to equality under the law. To bring about a world in which we are all judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin.”

This organization gives me hope for the future of our country. If, like me, you believe that the cure for intolerance and discrimination is not more intolerance and discrimination, check out FAIR’s website for articles, resources, programs, and ways you can be involved. www.fairforall.org

Braver Angels: I wrote about this group a few months ago, describing it as “a non-profit citizens’ organization dedicated to the Sisyphean task of depolarizing American politics.” Their official mission statement reads: “We bring Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic.” They do this by organizing debates, workshops, podcasts, and a host of other activities involving people from both sides of the partisan divide, daring to address the most contentious issues of the day. As far as I’m concerned, the most important thing they do is to model civility – respect, good will, friendship – across that divide, demonstrating for the rest of us that it’s not just possible, it’s instructive, productive and even fun. As befits their name, I have found Braver Angels to be an absolute Godsend this year. Check them out at www.braverangels.org.

The Chosen: Speaking of Godsends, 2021 was the year I discovered The Chosen. A filmmaker friend turned me onto this streaming series about the life and times of Jesus Christ, created and produced entirely outside the Hollywood system, via crowdfunding. I typically dislike – okay, loathe – “faith-based entertainment,” which tends to be short on artistry and heavy (handed) on messaging. But y’all, this series is extraordinary. The Chosen portrays the life of Jesus through the eyes of those who encountered him – mainly his disciples, but other Biblical characters as well – creating plausible backstories for those characters, while remaining true to the spirit of the gospels. The production values are impressive, the story-telling immersive, and the casting almost perfect. The actor playing Jesus of Nazareth – Jonathan Roumie – is a particular wonder. Excuse the hackneyed phrase, but he almost seems divinely inspired. The whole show does, frankly, which is probably why it has millions of followers around the world. It’s two seasons in now, with five more to come, and I recommend watching an episode early each morning before starting your day. That’s what I did, and it felt like a devotional. But don’t hear me saying it’s boring. It’s anything but! The Chosen would make an excellent holiday binge. You can find it on Amazon Prime Video, Peacock, or watch it for free at https://watch.angelstudios.com

Merlin: But if the Best Jesus Show Ever isn’t your thing, you might like Merlin, the app that facilitates my other religion, Birding. A free download from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Merlin helps you identify the birds you see around you. Designed to be “a birding coach for bird watchers at every level,” Merlin asks you to describe the bird you saw – color, size, behavior, location – then presents a shortlist of illustrated possibilities. When you identify your bird, Merlin saves your record to help improve its own future performance.

Last night, at a holiday party, I spoke with a friend who’s a bit newer to birding than I am, but all in. She told me that watching birds had literally saved her during the pandemic, and I knew exactly what she meant. We agreed that once you start paying attention to birds, everything changes. So profound is that change, in fact, that I sometimes think of my life in terms of BB and AB – Before Birds and After Birds. But birding brings a transformation that can’t really be explained; it can only be experienced. Downloading Merlin on your phone is a great way to start. And did I mention, it’s free?!

Merry Christmas.