Lights in the Dark Forest: 2021 in Review

wandavision-westview-hostage-torture

My journey through the dark forest of 2021 began with Wanda Maximoff. (Source: TVLine)

“Believing in rom-communism is all about believing that everything’s gonna work out in the end. Now, these next few months might be tricky, but that’s just ’cause we’re going through the dark forest. Fairy tales do not start, nor do they end, in the dark forest.”

I can’t write about Ted Lasso.

But every time I think about 2021, I come back to this quote.

(And maybe that’s why I can’t write about it.)

So much of the last two years has felt like a long walk through the dark forest. And in 2021 things felt like they got even darker. So it was hard for me to watch a show—whose first season had given me so much comfort—take its characters through that dark forest and not quite out of it yet.

I didn’t like that Ted Lasso had changed.

And I felt that way about a whole lot of media this year. From The Rookie’s decision to all but abandon the challenging storylines that had made the first half of its third season so compelling to Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s emotional farewell that took its characters in different directions, some changes were for the better and others less so, but it still seemed like a lot of the media I had used for comfort through the toughest parts of early pandemic life had changed.

And I hate change.

When I look at the only piece of scripted television that motivated me to write on an almost weekly basis, the only one that consistently moved me and stayed with me in a meaningful way, it was a show about a woman who resists change so strongly that she creates an entire new reality to escape the fact that her life had changed in deeply painful ways.

WandaVision is a show about a woman in the dark forest who spends so much time refusing to admit she’s in there that she builds herself a home and a life in the middle of it because even if it’s an illusion of control, it’s still better than the terror and unknown of the dark forest.

Control—however fake, however fleeting—feels better than uncertainty.

I don’t have a lot in common with Wanda Maximoff. I don’t have her powers or her tragic backstory or her tortured romance with an AI system turned sentient. But her need to hold on to some sense of control in a world that feels scary and lonely? That I get.

I spent the beginning of this year trying to build a world that I could control—a place that felt like nothing had changed even though everything had changed (both inside and outside of me).

There’s a reason WandaVision was the show that produced the most writing from me.

When I couldn’t control anything else, I wanted to control this little corner of the internet. I wanted it to be what it was when things felt better and brighter. I wanted to be who I was when things felt better and brighter.

Because, like Wanda, I didn’t want to acknowledge one of the truths of the dark forest: You don’t come out of it in the same place you were when you went in.

Slowly, steadily, my writing has started to move toward that truth. NGN has started to move toward that truth. Instead of being Westview—a place created to desperately hold onto a piece of the past because the present is sad and the future is scary—it’s growing into something that feels more real, something that feels more honest. It may not be sitcom shiny—a beacon of constant positivity where every problem is fixed and hurt is healed by the end of a post—but it’s stronger because of its messy reality.

I’m stronger because of my messy reality.

I’ve changed so much this year, and that means my writing changed too. And that’s part of life. Change is a part of life.

You can’t grow if you refuse to change.

Ted Lasso gets that—both the show and the character by the end of Season Two. But even then, even in October when that season ended, I wasn’t ready for that lesson. I wasn’t ready to sit with the hard truth: There was a Katie before the dark forest of 2021 (before depression and anxiety and burnout and breakdowns and lots of therapy), and there is a Katie who’s going to come out of it. And they’re not the same person.

WandaVision was what I needed at the start of 2021—a way to process my grief over a lost year of my life, a moment in time to connect with people I love, but also a show that allowed me to pretend. I kept describing the feeling of early 2021 at NGN as “coming back home.” But that’s the thing about the dark forest—you don’t come back to where you started.

And if you do, then you just have to go through it all over again.

And that’s exactly what I did when the collective catharsis of WandaVision was done. I hadn’t found my way out of the dark forest because no show, no movie, no impulse buy, no vaccine—no external thing—was going to magically transport me out of there and back to the version of me I was before.

It’s not about finding my way back to the Katie I was before 2020 happened.

It’s about embracing the Katie I am right now. Because 2020 and 2021 happened. Because I have anxiety and depression and they’ve gotten exponentially worse in the last year and especially in the last six months. Because I’m in the dark forest.

And because the dark forest changed me.

WandaVision spoke to the version of me that’s terrified of change—the perfectionist who wants to create the illusion that everything is fine all the time because there’s safety in that false sense of control. But after it ended, I found 7 boys from South Korea who change constantly—change hair colors, clothing styles, musical genres, and even the language they sing in.

BTS found me when I was trying to pretend I was out of the dark forest when I was actually back at the start. It was so much easier just to pretend I was “better”—that I had returned to exactly who I was before March of 2020. And I loved that. Because I loved who I was then.

It’s easy to love yourself in the light of an open clearing, a pretty mountain valley, or a beautiful beach. It’s a lot harder to love yourself in the dark forest.

Because the dark forest does things to people. It makes you suspicious; it makes you scared. It makes it hard for you to see others clearly. But more than anything, it makes it hard for you to see yourself.

That’s why I needed BTS.

Because I needed to see myself more clearly.

Because you can’t make it out of the dark forest until you believe you deserve to make it out.

I deserve to make it out.

And the lights guiding me through the darkness are 7 boys from South Korea who sing about learning to love yourself—your whole self. If WandaVision taught me about the dangers of making a home for yourself in the dark forest because you don’t want to face what might be waiting for you when you get to the other side, then BTS is the set of constellations guiding me to that other side—and reminding me that it won’t be exactly what it was before; I won’t be exactly who I was before.

And that’s good.

Earlier this month, I got a glimpse of what life outside the dark forest looks like when I saw BTS in concert in Los Angeles. The version of me who got the bottom of her new sundress soaked in the Pacific Ocean and danced with abandon along with 70,000 people and screamed “You can’t stop me loving myself!” at the top of her lungs wasn’t the same version of me that existed before this year happened.

She was braver. She was freer.

She was happier.

When RM (the leader of BTS for those who just hear about this band from my ramblings) talked at the concert I went to about the last two years, he described them as a tunnel, and when he said that, I immediately started crying.

Because I know a lot about tunnels. Every year when my family drives to Florida, we pass through a mountain tunnel that you enter in West Virginia and that deposits you in Virginia. It doesn’t look a whole lot different, but when you get out of the darkness, you’re in a new state.

One step closer to where you want to be.

And that was how RM talked that night—like he was one step closer to where he wanted to be. He called himself a stronger, better man and said he knew he would keep growing and getting better, and that changed something inside of me. Because for a lot of 2021, I watched him talk about the depression and sense of lost identity of the last two years, and I felt like he was right there in the tunnel—in the dark forest—with me. But watching him stand outside of it on that freezing but perfect LA night, it felt like he gently pulled me along with him, showing me how beautiful it is out there—when you embrace the changes that come from taking that journey through the darkness and get to stand in a new place, completely at peace with every part of yourself.

The me of yesterday, the me of today, the me of tomorrow … With no exceptions, it’s all me.

That’s been the hardest lesson to learn—that hardest thing to accept. The multitude of realities and identities and messy versions of me that all exist in this same small body. And that they all deserve to make it out of the dark forest. They all deserve to be loved enough to be seen.

I don’t have to be perfect to be deserving of a way out of the dark. I don’t have to stay in the forest—stuck in the tunnel—just because the forest changed me.

Time changes us. Pain changes us. There are a hundred different versions of me in this body all existing at the same time—and they all deserve to be seen and loved.

Which brings me to today—sobbing my eyes out and tears pooling in my mask as I watched Spider-Man: No Way Home.

[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!]

It wasn’t the big decision of the climax that got me the most. It wasn’t even Aunt May’s death. It wasn’t Andrew Garfield’s heartbroken reaction to his Peter saving MJ the way he couldn’t save Gwen.

It was seeing Tobey Maguire for the first time in so long in that role.

Because suddenly, I was 13 years old again, sitting in a movie theater with braces on and bangs growing out, falling in love with superheroes and embracing my nerdy side and learning to love that I was different from so many other girls my age.

I was 13 again. And I was 33. It was the same feeling I had watching BTS in concert and thinking about seeing Backstreet Boys when I was the same age. Twenty years is a long time, and so many versions of me have been created in those two decades.

So many versions of me have been created and discovered and embraced in the last 12 months alone.

And that’s good.

Today, watching Peter Parker see those different versions of himself and embrace them, I thought about how 2002 Katie and 2012 Katie would react to the me of today—standing on the precipice of 2022. Would they like that we grew up to be a writer like we always dreamed? Would they ask why we don’t have a husband or kids? Would they think our tattoo is cool or be enamored with the red hair we always wanted? Would they be happy that we still go to superhero movies and boy band concerts? Would they be afraid of our depression and sad to know our anxiety never fully went away? Would they think it’s embarrassing that we’re in therapy? Or would they think we’re strong for fighting every single day for every version of ourselves—the ones from the past, the ones being created every moment of the present, and the ones we still have yet to meet?

Today, I’m feeling hopeful. I think there would be a similar scene to what I just watched—with all the versions embracing each other, different in some big ways but all fundamentally good, all fundamentally worth fighting for.

And I’d like to think that—just like Peter and his counterparts—we’re working together to help each other find our way. Maybe not back to the exact same spot we left, but to something bigger and better because we know more, we know better.

Even when it feels like I’m alone in the dark forest, I’m not. I have all the different versions of me holding my hands and helping stay on a safe path. Because I love 2002 Katie and 2012 Katie, and I know 2032 Katie will love 2022 Katie.

And that love—the love that comes from all the parts of me that have changed and grown and walked through their own dark forests—is going to help me be brave enough to take the steps I need to take to walk out of this one.

I’m still in the dark forest—still in the tunnel. But I can see the other side now. Maybe I’ll get there in 2022. Maybe it’ll take more time, more steps, more lights along the path.

But I know I deserve to get there. All the versions of me deserve to get there.

And that’s enough to keep me walking into a new year completely myself—all the versions of me. Ready to be seen. Ready to be loved.

7 thoughts on “Lights in the Dark Forest: 2021 in Review

  1. I was going to do this in quotes but I’m just going to ramble at you. This is the year in review post you needed to write. It is honest and brave and you at your most settled and clear.

    “And I hate change.”/”You can’t grow if you refuse to change.”
    My lack of quotes lasted for a whole two sentences but oh well. This was your year summed up. You really do hate change. It’s uncomfortable and asks you to step into something unknown without any guarantee of the ending. Even when you hated it, you knew you were ready to change and that it was necessary for you to keep growing. And you did a whole lot of growing this year. I love how you framed both halves of that with your reactions to both Ted Lasso and WandaVision and then to BTS.

    You deserve to find your way out. You deserve to know that you get to keep growing and changing, not just for 2022 but for the rest of your life. You deserve to love all of the parts of you, the Katies of years before, the one right now just as she is, and all of ones that will exist in the future. Because all are you and all deserve the same love and support and care. I am so proud of you for this post and getting to the place where you can write it.

    • *burrows forever*

      You nailed exactly why I hate change. I hate knowing the outcome is never guaranteed. But I’m working on accepting that this also means things can be even better than I imagined they could be. Envisioning a better life outside of the dark forest isn’t always easy for me, but I’m very lucky that you are good at imagining it when I struggle. Because you’re right—I do deserve to keep growing and changing, even (especially) when it’s scary. Because i want to keep meeting new versions of me, and there won’t be new versions to meet if I don’t let myself grow, if I don’t let myself change.

      Thanks for holding my hand as I wrote this and as I took the journey that made me feel strong and settled enough to write this. It’s been a hell of a year, but I am looking back on it today with gratitude because it taught me that you’re always going to be my North Star, gently, steadily helping me find my way out of the dark forest.

  2. Katie, do you watch any K Dramas? My daughter turned me on to a few after I’ve been frustrated with US entertainment. Anyway they are very enjoyable and brought me back to when TV used to be an escape or even touch me but on a basic human level. One in particular that I’ve watched a lot is Reply 1988. It’s sort of like A Wonder Years type show but about these three families and their life on a small block in the late 80’s. It’s just beautiful. In any case, I’m sure you know this but you are not alone. Cheers!

    • It’s so exciting to see you back around these parts!

      I actually haven’t started any K dramas yet, but I kind of feel like it’s only a matter of time. 😉 And now that I have a place and a recommendation to start with, it might happen sooner!

  3. Katie, I love this. A lot of it resonates with the way I’ve been feeling while I’m visiting my hometown after so much change: the person I am now is meeting and making peace with the person I used to be. It’s jarring sometimes and natural sometimes. And kind of heartbreaking. I really click with needing to see yourself more clearly in order to see what you deserve, and I’m so glad you’ve found this perspective. You deserve this hope! Here’s to finding the light.

    • Thank you so much, Kelly. I hope your trip allowed you to make some peace with those versions of yourself because you deserve that. You deserve that clarity because you deserve the world. And I will be here to remind you of that when the dark forest gets extra dark.

  4. Pingback: Best of 2021: Television | TVexamined

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