Thoughts at the Turn of the Year
I have ambivalent feelings about New Year’s. On the one hand, it is kind of exciting to see the ball drop, the clock and calendar turn over, and to start a year all over again. On the other, the whole event seems artificial. The whole idea of the calendar itself seems so arbitrary. The world we greet on January 1 always looks very much like the world we as we left it on December 31.
New Year’s Day is set aside as a holiday in our culture principally because the 17th century Calvinist Presbyterian Scots made it one. Calvinist, “Reformed” Christians were suspicious of Anglican holidays, especially Christmas. Therefore, the Scots Presbyterians (along with the New England Puritans) refused to celebrate the holiday. But they knew they needed some sort of winter festival to replace it, and so they developed New Year’s Day as a Protestant alternative to what they considered the “Papist” festivities of Christmas.
In our culture, New Year’s has developed principally into an occasion for thinking about change. Just as the year changes, we think, so might our lives. And somehow in our culture “change” seems to center on ideas of self-improvement. We might, of course, use New Year’s to think about social, cultural change. But in our world, New Year’s resolutions almost always focus on a change in personal habits. Beginning January 1, I’ll exercise and pray more; eat, drink, and smoke less. Gyms are always really crowded the first week in January. They tend to clear out by Martin Luther Jr. King Day.
So I’m a bit skeptical about New Year’s in many respects. Still, there is an important aspect to the holiday I think we can all appreciate. While it may not always be an occasion for life-changing resolution, New Year’s is an opportunity to reflect on what the poet A.R. Ammons called the “ongoing flux” that makes up our lives.
In 1965, A. R. Ammons published a book-length poem, Tape for the Turn of the Year. The lines in the poem are quite short. That’s because Ammons wrote the poem by typing it on a roll of adding-machine tape. Tape for the Turn of the Year is a verse journal that reflects on the change occurring between one year and another. For Ammons, human life is lived in the tension between freedom and constraint. (Hence the short lines enforced by the use of a narrow tape. Hence also the free verse written without the fetters of meter or rhyme.) For us, the calendar is a conventional way to impose order (days, weeks, months, hours) on something which is essentially fluid: time itself. By marking off time in the rigid arbitrary way we do, we’re essentially trying to channel a river or bottle lightning. In some sense trying to control and contain time is a fool’s errand. Time will relentlessly flow no matter how we try to constrain it. But we can’t help ourselves. Year after year, even though we know better, still we try to get the better of time.
In Tape for the Turn of the Year, A. R. Ammons asks us to think about how each of us finds a way to live in the now, perched as we are between the future (January, change) and the past (December, tradition). So New Year’s is also about the tension between change and tradition. As Ammons says,
we must keep the
so we stay resilient to
too traditional is a loss of
change: too changing is
loss of meaning & memory:
This is an important insight not only for the life of faith communities and bodies politic (we need to be both open to the future and mindful of the past). It is also vital guidance for us as individual people trying to navigate the flow of time. We each have histories, families, communities to which we are accountable. But we are also each individually free and unique. So our lives need both to respect tradition and to celebrate our unique selves. The desires for changelessness and total freedom are illusions. We stand with one foot on each shore as the river of time flows by.
Ammons wrote only a few book-length poems. Most of his output consisted of very short verses. Near the end of Tape for the Turn of the Year he compares himself to both forms and decides in favor of the latter:
I’d be like a short poem:
that’s a fine way
to be: a poem at a
time: but all day
life itself is bending,
Instead of making New Year’s resolutions, we might follow A. R. Ammons’ lead and use this time of year to think about the “ongoing flux” of time and how we each navigate it. Christianity takes time seriously. And while contemplating the long sweep of God’s time perhaps shows the futility of our arbitrary markings off of years and months, it is still important for each of us to stay mindful of how precious our own allotted time really is. This ongoing flux of time may be abundant, but for each of us it is finite. As the Evening Gatha of Buddhism admonishes us, “Do Not Squander Your Life.”