We all have rituals by which we bury the old year and unveil the new. I end each year fighting with my roof. I have a 100ft pine tree in the front yard of my Virginia house, and an oak of similar size out back, but somehow it’s always the end of December before I deal with the debris. Pine needles blow through the yard like snowdrifts and oak leaves poke out of the gutter like a haircut I had in the 1980s. I sigh and make a resolution to do better next year.
I don’t know that I handle life’s larger matters much differently. It’s difficult to remain attentive to the torrent of minuscule but unceasing alterations, both internal and external, that collectively comprise our lives and the lives of those around us. My six-year-old daughter’s tastes change as rapidly as clutter piles up on the flamingo rug on her bedroom floor; I’ve barely registered a trend before it’s lost, one archeological layer down. We drift comfortably out of touch. And if life jerks us awake and shows us things as they really are, we resent it; we yearn for a quick fix. So we are suckers for dramatic – especially New Year’s – resolutions.
Unfortunately, our resolutions are bound by the limits of our knowledge and imagination. And in matters of household maintenance, my limitations are severe. Our roof is pitched at a 45-degree angle, and my various resolutions will all end in a common result: I fall off the roof. One year found me high-kicking my way off the roof in baseball cleats, which I had somehow thought would help me hold on. Another year the ladder and I went down sideways and knocked a clip off the gutters. I patched it back on with tape.
A third year sees me trying to beat a wind-blown shingle back into its place while standing on the top step of an extension ladder. Each time I pound the shingle with the end of a very lengthy and very shaky tree trimmer, I pivot precariously back and forth like an extra from a silent comedy. The exact plot isn’t predictable, but the conclusion is. I will start January with frostbitten hands and an aching back, banged up from my attempt to wrap up unfinished tasks and begin anew.
I suspect that most of us begin a new year with this paradoxical mixture of hope and resignation. We long for different lives, but can’t imagine what that would even look like, and so deep down expect more of the same. Like Dante in the Inferno, we’ve wandered along without noticing the exact moment or location that we began to go off course. How could we dream up a resolution that has any real chance of changing anything? “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, KJV). Thanks, Solomon. Happy New Year.
In my book Numbering My Days: How the Liturgical Calendar Rearranged My Life, I suggest that the Church Year can help us begin to break out of these individual and collective cycles of futility.
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