More times than I care to count, I have been seduced into buying pocket size notebooks, leather bound journals and, God help me, the occasional fountain pen. I buy these things because of the reoccurring fantasy that I will finally make myself into the sort of person who writes profound insights onto perfect, clean sheets of paper, in beautiful script, alongside elegantly drawn sketches illustrating the details of my life.
It never works. Eventually I toss the mostly unused journal filled with illegible blather and stick figure drawings into the closet next to all the other notebooks I’ve bought. In the end there is just something about a clean slate that tends to defeat me.
Which brings me to the new year. So unblemished and filled with hope and promise. I hate it.
Not 2015, for which I have great hope. No, what I hate is the belief that human beings can be tinkered with by the force of our will. It’s not so bad when I’m thinking about what I’d like to change about myself. Yes, I would love to believe that this is the year I’ll finish Moby Dick, but I know myself pretty well at this point. I’m well aware that Moby Dick is my own personal great white whale since I’ve started it no less than 10 times without ever finishing. And so it is with all my bad habits, personal defects, and faults.
I find it useful to remind myself that change rarely results from gritting my teeth. And this is especially important to remember with regard to the people who surround me. You see, like so many parents, I harbor the not-so-secret belief that the best way to inspire my kids to change is to nag them.
I have three children, including my youngest son who we adopted from Africa when he was 5 years old. The fact that Nati and I didn’t speak the same language when he came home with me, and that he’d spent five years of his life living oceans away in a world beyond my understanding, gave me a pretty keen sense that people, adults and children change in their own ways and on their own schedules. If nothing else, trust me on this; you simply cannot turn a rambunctious 5-year-old Ethiopian boy into a quiet, neurotic Jew, no matter how hard you try. And so, though the new year is upon us, I will not insist that my youngest son vow to become neater, that my daughter resolve to give up needless worry, or that my eldest son become an earnest writer of “thank you” notes. I’ve already spent far too much of their lives believing that my job was to transfer qualities I deemed necessary into their brains, like a mad scientist in a 1950s horror movie. If my family and I spend all of 2015 with our personalities unaltered, I will be content. We are not perfect, and yet, I am perfectly fine with who we are.
Besides, I know that change does happen, but it is often unexpected, unplanned, and wholly out of my control. One way or the other, my family and I almost certainly will grow and improve this year, but we will do so in fits and starts and not under any self-imposed schedule. People are like that, I find. Indeed, if I’m not mistaken, this sort of change is what we mean when we talk about “grace”: unearned, undeserved, and the source of much of life’s joy.
And that’s fine. Because while I have never managed to fill an entire notebook with brilliant life-changing observations, written in flowing longhand, I have filled up hundreds of Post-It notes and pieces of scrap paper with all sorts unimpressive but wonderful things. I have written grocery lists for dinners I made my family and I have drawn lopsided-looking hearts on the bottom of birthday cards. I have written down directions to parties and reminders for school events. That is, in the end, what life is: sloppy and imperfect. The first day of the first month of the new year is but one of 365. My job is not to cajole, demand, and resolve myself, or my family, into perfection. It is, I believe, nothing more or less than to learn to enjoy the time we spend together as life slowly, and without our permission, teaches us all to grow and evolve.
Though it may not be worth writing about in any of the leather-bound journals cluttering my closet, I spent 2014 enjoying my imperfect family while procrastinating, eating gluten, and reading Facebook posts instead of Melville. I won’t resolve to do the same, but if it happens to work out that way, I won’t mind a bit.
Claude Knobler is the author of the forthcoming book More Love (Less Panic): 7 Lessons I Learned About Life, Love, and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son from Ethiopia.