Your 2021 Tax Prep May Make You Cry
Of all the seasons, my least favorite is tax season. Every year, right around when February turns into March, I know it’s about time for me to dig out my receipts, ransack the Finances folder in my email account, and start accounting for how I made and spent my money over the past year. Nothing makes me feel more infantile than my yearly silent temper tantrum at the thought of tax time. Inevitably, I put it off in favor of work or Netflix or the NBA until finally the clarion call of April 15, or the polite reminders of my accountant, are too much to hold off, and I take the bulk of a Sunday to get it done. I compile my lists of donations and business expenses, sort all the tax paperwork that has arrived in the mail, and (shudder) determine how much money I made last year. It’s all fairly familiar and faintly terrible and less traumatic in retrospect, once the job is complete, than it feels like before I get started.
In any year, I suppose, the act of compiling your taxes is a kind of recap of the year that passed, albeit one funneled through a very particular lens. Anything not intimately connected to spending, earning, or consumption does not rate in this accounting — no pun intended — of your time. You are reminded, in searching through credit-card bills and bank withdrawals, of the places you visited, the restaurant where you celebrated your anniversary, the time you went to the theater or saw a concert.
I am not the first person to take note of how 2020 simultaneously felt endless (note how it appears to be continuing well into 2021) while also containing multitudes. In assembling the raw material for my taxes, I found myself getting oddly emotional, in a manner I could never have expected. Taxes are, in ordinary times, among the least emotional tasks one can imagine. They are bloodless by definition, seeking to calculate precisely how much of your money is owed to the government in order to provide the necessities — roads, armies, libraries, democracy — that only government can provide. In this year of heartache and loss and illness and anti-scientific lunacy, I felt relief at being able to give my money to a government that seemed far better able to provide vaccines and financial relief than the one that had preceded it, but my emotion stemmed from elsewhere.
In poring over my financial records, I was reminded of the markers of the year that had passed, which all blurred together in the memory — we were now in Month 13 of the eternal March 2020. The bills and W2s and 1099s were a collage that, when studied in unison, offered a refracted portrait of an ongoing crisis, and of the strategies — personal, political, psychological, consumerist — taken to alleviate the stress. There was the money given to support health-care workers and movie-theater employees in the spring; the donations to political candidates in the summer and fall; the board games and houseplants and artificial flowers intended to enliven an empty, fraught winter. There were movies that had been rented and books that had been purchased and meals for takeout and new iPads for remote schooling. How had I ever thought that buying a box of baseball cards for the first time in 25 years would alleviate the panic endemic to being an American in 2020?
And then, strangest and most fascinating of all, there was the window of financial activity from the brief 2020 window of the Before Times, which I consulted with the surprise and wonder of an archaeologist beholding the Rosetta Stone for the first time. I pored over the official record of these restaurant meals and movies seen in the theater and visits to Broadway shows with a commingled awe and terror. I had no recollection of ever having been the person who supposedly owed taxes on this life. Might there be a tax rebate for having lost touch with a prior version of yourself?
There is little in life as boring, or as necessary, as doing your taxes, and yet, after my own unexpected burst of emotion surrounded by 1099 forms, I am curious to know whether others have had a similar surprise on searching for deductions. We have not yet collectively grappled with the trauma of the past year. I wonder if tax time might be the first of many such occasions to come where we are reminded of all that we have tamped down in order to grind through one more day.
When I was in college, I was lucky enough to take a class on Shakespeare with Harold Bloom, and he liked to say (loosely quoting Nietzsche) that we only have words for what is dead to us. The book of COVID has not yet been written because we still live it each day, still watch its terrible repercussions unfold across the country and the world. One day, we may be able to start properly telling that story. In the meantime, I have my tax spreadsheets, full of blank spaces that the words may, some day, fill in.