I’ve been reluctant to join in the cacophony of New Year posts going around right now. Imagine, before the Internet, you heard maybe a few resolutions from family members or close friends; now, you are assaulted with literally thousands of resolutions from strangers to people you haven’t seen since first grade. Every publication seems to have some word of advice on what “one resolution every woman (or every person, or parent) should make.” And if it’s not one, it’s five or ten or twenty easy steps to an organized house, a healthy spending plan, or a detoxed diet.
Well, I’m afraid I can’t offer any pithy advice or inspirational words. I find whenever my writing veers towards advice-giving- I’m off track. I write to figure things out, and New Years always carries a particular malaise for me personally. My six-year old may have hit on at least part of the reason why this morning, January second, when she said, “I don’t get it, why is everyone basically celebrating that another year of their life is over?” Tennyson, expressed the same sentiment regarding birthdays, “If this life of ours/Be a good, glad thing, why should we make us merry/ Because a year of it is gone?” The celebration definitely is tinged with the sadness of saying goodbye to a year that will never be again- at least for those who are aware of their own mortality. There will not be an infinite number of new years proffered to us.
Surely New Years is more than just six weeks of enduring “Happy New Year,” as the small talk opener of choice. I spend a few hours last night wondering if I should bother with the topical New Years approach- if I can come up with anything decent to say. I look up the mostly unknown lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne.” “Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne.” Such a bittersweet tune about having a drink with an old friend, “for old times sake,” which is what auld lang syne means. Literally, “old, long, since.” It’s not about being super motivated to change or be a new man or woman; it’s about appreciating our past, about our shared humanity, and about irrationally taking time out for both for no other reason than “old times sake.” When George Bailey sings it at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it’s not because he’s determined to do things differently or better in the new year- it’s because he has been given the ability to see what he already truly is and has- a struggling business that has nonetheless helped so many, a drafty house, a broken banister- nonetheless- home. Most of it- genuinely hard- and also genuinely good at once.
I google quotes on the New Year. There are some great ones. “I wake up expectant, hoping to see a new thing,” says Annie Dillard. “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been,” writes Rilke. These are true- the idea of newness is refreshing. But what exactly makes January first new? Is there any magic to the space in time when the cleverly designed Google page display flashing “2014” with animated fireworks becomes “2015” with fireworks?
I’ve been quite taken with a physics theory on time called block time. So I research block time. I think about the possibility of time: past, present, future- all laid out at once. Even if we don’t experience it this way, I imagine it this way from God’s point of view- outside of time and space. I think about our primitive ordering of time, to manage it, get a grasp on this dimension we travel through so mysteriously. I look up the origins of January as the month when we start over. Although there is some logic to the choice astronomically, the New Year wasn’t always celebrated in January. It was celebrated in March, and at times in September for the autumnal equinox. January was chosen by the Romans because one of their gods, Janus, which January takes its name from, is the god of doorways and beginnings- a two faced god with one face looking back and one looking forward to the future.
The date is arbitrary, but the energy is real. I come back to Tennyson’s quote- we are one year closer to our death. Mortality. Could our newfound, albeit temporary, energy for living better stem from a tangible glimpse on the calendar in ink and paper- that we will not always be here? Suddenly, the whole celebration seemed like a bizarre science fiction movie to me. I look up Ernest Becker and his thoughts on humanity’s denial of death. I think about the power of seeing a year we have been so comfortable in, pass into the history books- and not just the year goes in the books- our very selves do as well. And I start to think of New Years like a biopsy with negative results in a short span of time. Faced with mortality, we often get a burst of energy, a new will to live better than we have, a second wind if we’re let off the hook. “The scan was benign.” “This year’s over. But here, have another one.” There’s a similar feeling when one is traveling, a shift in perspective about one’s own life. And often, when you return, you are energized to do things differently and appreciate what you have.
I’m so low-energy, I’ll take any burst of energy I can get, but…but I think all of the above bursts are quite short-lived because on some level they are superficial and on the surface. Going through health scares, shifts in perspective from traveling, seem to me only the entryway to real lasting growth meant for a lifetime- not a day or a week or even two weeks- the time they say it takes to establish a new habit. We forget our mortality and weakness again. We get too close to our lives, too comfortable writing that date that felt so foreign to write the first few days. Real growth takes past experiences with it. Real growth doesn’t consist of tacked on to-do lists or positive thinking. It is organic. It is patient. It often involves suffering.
Eli Wiesel references the Jewish prayer for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, in a recent book called “Open Heart.” Unlike all of our resolutions and declarations, it acknowledges our weakness, our lack of control over many circumstances, and to me, adds a very necessary quality of humility to approaching a new season. I look up the prayer and find it’s called Unesanneh Tokef Prayer:
How many shall pass away; and how many shall be born? who shall live and who shall die; who shall live out his allotted time and who shall depart before his time; who shall perish by water and who by fire; who by the sword and who by a wild beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by pestilence; who by strangulation and who by lapidation; who shall be at rest and who shall wander; who shall be tranquil and who shall be harassed; who shall enjoy well-being and who shall suffer tribulation; who shall be poor and who shall be rich; who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted.”
My final google search of the night- the etymology of the word “resolve.” When in doubt of where to begin in writing, I find looking up the origins of words enlightening. Resolve began its current use of “to determine, decide upon,” in the 1520’s, but its earlier use seems an important counterpart to me. In the fourteenth century, the Latin “resolvere”- came from “re” meaning again, and “solvere,” meaning “to loosen, unyoke, undo, relax, set free.” What if we viewed the new year as a time to loosen our grip rather than tighten it? What if we surrendered, laid down arms, and began in humility complete with all of the mistakes and brokenness that have brought us to this moment, owning them as ours. What if we let go of the economy of common resolutions- dieting and budgeting- calories in and out, income and expense- and left room for those things that lie outside of time, the things that don’t follow the standard rules of investment and return- like hope, love, and grace.
Like I said, I don’t have any inspirational medicine for you here- no emotional fodder to jumpstart your new gym membership. What I do have, however, is practice in regrouping. I have regrouped a lot since the day I received a phone call that my husband was dead. And I think after all of this New Year exploration, I prefer to think of it as regrouping. A friend who also lost her husband at a young age once explained to me that grieving was a lot like carrying around a suitcase all the time- and every time a grief wave hits you, everything in that suitcase spills out. It happens even years later- but you become better at packing it up again quickly and going on. “Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.” says Hal Borland. There’s a lot to be said, I think, for just going on.
Perhaps New Years is a celebration of time itself, and how it is a part of the human condition to slog through it year after year. It’s a hovering between two calendars, two dimensions- past and future-otherwise known as- the present. It’s a celebration of the now, a way of saying, “Here we are.” The counting down, together- with one other person or with millions. You feel your “hereness” for a moment at least. And people will feel different things when they say “Here I am” depending on where they’re coming from. Some feel sad or afraid, some excited or energized. It would be refreshing if we acknowledged that amidst our celebrating. We can’t necessarily make sense of what the past is- our memories belie us. We can’t predict or get a firm grasp on the future. But as Tennyson continues the sentiment my daughter echoed this morning, “If this life of ours/Be a good, glad thing, why should we make us merry/ Because a year of it is gone?” the tone changes, “but Hope/Smiles from the threshold of the year to come,/Whispering ‘it will be happier’…” We acknowledge the very real hope that things will be better. We acknowledge our “hereness” in the timescape. As we sing “old, long, since” we acknowledge and feel the eeriness that many have stood and sung these same words to this same melody before us. Our lives are genuinely hard, and genuinely good. We look back and forward. We loosen our grip. We regroup. We go on.