"I'm not optimistic, I am determined."

Happy new year, such as it is

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Every year, on a grey day between Christmas and New Year, I perform the same ritual. I open a fresh diary and write in events for the year ahead. My usual conferences, perhaps a trip or three, a friend’s wedding… In big capital letters at the top of every left page, I write the city or country I’ll be in that week. This time I sat down for the ritual and found I had nothing. I jotted down a dozen meaningful birthdays and closed the book. The only date there is in 2021 is one the UK’s National Health Service will decide for me. Everything else is a waiting room.

Never in our lifetimes has the ritual change of diary been so longed for, yet never has it felt so trite. 2020 hasn’t really ended, has it? If anything it’s looping around, back to lockdowns and overflowing hospitals, global mayhem and private catastrophes. Belching out Auld Lang Syne won’t cover the sound of sirens.

Last week, I desperately tried to write you an inspiring new year’s letter. When the two paragraphs above were all I could come up with for days, I closed the draft and decided you’d be better off not hearing from me. I take back that selfless impulse. After yesterday’s events at the US Capitol, I find myself itching to write to you. I know you’re there, you sane, beautiful, reasonable people who believe in democracy, compassion and truth. Many of you are American. I want to reach across and embrace you, to gather in solace, to know in my flesh that there are more of us than them. But for now, a few words will have to do.

A tight curation of things worth paying attention to

⏰ A brief history of timekeeping [On The Media]
Bob Garfield’s essay of the futility of marking the passage of time sent me spinning.

📆 Our year of radical change [Jessiwrites]
My friend Jessi Hempel wrote the new year letter I wish I had. I recommend her occasional but always exceptional newsletter.

📰 #423 Ed Yong [Longform Podcast]
The Atlantic’s Ed Yong is the iconic journalist of this pandemic. Here he speaks honestly about what doing the best work of his life has cost him.

💉 Vaccine Confidence (with Heidi Larson) [In The Bubble]
I’ve been frustrated by the success of the antivax argument in France. Andy Slavitt and his guest offer a good toolbox for these tough conversations. His podcast has kept me sane and informed all year.

🕵🏼 The Tale of Franco A. [The New York Times]
Remember the German soldier who posed in blackface as a refugee to collect benefits and plan a terrorist attack that could be blamed on migrants? Katrin Bennhold tells the story of his plot and radicalization.

Global citizens’ corner

  • Welcome new Borderline members Dmitry Shiskin and Whitney Juckno. Thank you for your support!

I put together a 2020 review, excerpting bits of hope for the new year from nearly every Borderline interview. Because I won’t give up just yet. [Borderline]

Curious where your money is going? I broke down Borderline’s (modest) 2020 revenue in a Twitter thread. Tl;dr: Substack > Patreon. Not subscribing yet? Click the button.👇

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2020 hasn’t really ended, has it? If anything, it’s looping around.

How do you write about the past when it stretches ahead of you? I traveled even further back in search of an off ramp. I read my 2019 new year’s letter. Its first draft dates back to 2016 and it’s been more relevant every year since. In it I call on my favorite motto, from European founding father Jean Monnet: “I am not optimistic, I am determined.” When history throws you an endless task, all you can do is do. Perseverance is its own victory.

All I know about 2021 is I’m glad I’m still here and you’re still here with me.

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Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.