I’ve made a tradition out of avoiding New Year’s Eve celebrations. It’s not the parties I particularly mind, but the sense of impending doom that comes with it: The notion that this is the final fling before the repentance begins.
I’ve often heard people wondering why New Year’s gatherings are so disappointing, and herein lies the answer: New Year’s Resolutions. There’s nothing much worse than spending an evening with a group of people who are about to start a diet, a punitive exercise regime, a detox or a fast. In a moment that calls for sparkling conversation, we obsess over our perceived flaws.
Standing on the cusp of one of the great symbolic moments of the year—a moment of rebirth, of returning light and burgeoning life—we waste it in atonement. Ashamed, we make a subtraction from the ledger of our lives and go on to spend January (already one of the dreariest months of the year) trying to convince ourselves that we’re better off without all of life’s little pleasures.
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But what if we made an addition to our lives, rather than a subtraction? What if we used New Year to invite in some expansive pleasures, rather than to impose stringencies?
I’ve been wondering, lately, how life could be more magical again—more full of that sense of fascination and connection that I felt as a child. It seems to me that this is what we need in these divisive times: some ways to mine for wonder, however hard things get. If we can learn again to, as the poet William Blake once wrote in the “Augueries of Innocence,” “see the world in a grain of sand,” then we might just be able to unpack the survival kit for this unsteady century.
There lies yet another thing that we gave up, probably one distant New Year, through a misplaced sense of penitence: All that noticing we used to do, which seemed like such a waste of time; all that naive excitement at the mundane.
There came a point in my life when those softer feelings began to look naive, and I rushed towards the adult cynicism that proved I understood the ways of the world. I wanted to understand the world as a series of hard facts, and to only concern myself with things that I could control and plan. It took a couple of decades for me to realise what a cold place I’d created for myself. My very grown-up worldview only allowed me only to skim over the hard surfaces of life, and never to comfort myself in its intricate depths, its profundities. By the time I realised what a loss this was, I had forgotten the route back to find it.
But this sense of enchantment was still there, waiting patiently to be remembered. It was stored in my muscle memory and written between the lines of the stories I knew, the facts I relied on. Any one of us could find it. We only need to resolve to be fascinated again by the intrinsically fascinating, to be awed by the undeniable grandeur of the observable universe.
Take, for example, the sky. Over the coming year (just like every other year), there will be a dozen meteor showers happening above our heads. Most people won’t see them, for the simple reason that they are regular as clockwork, and so there’s never a compelling excuse to stay up late to witness them. And yet, it is impossible not to gasp at the sight of a shooting star streaking across the sky.
But maybe even that is too rare. Every month, the moon is transformed by the earth’s shadow, starting with the thinnest crescent, and then growing rounder until she fades again. Step outside to drink in the light of the full moon, and you will be dazzled by its brilliance. It is so pale compared to electric light, but bright enough to cast a shadow in true darkness. It only takes a few moments of deliberate attention to feel part of this eternal, companionable cycle.
The moon marks time in a way that is forever escaping the clock and the calendar, and there, we find another beautiful place to rest our attention. When we start to observe the division points of the year—the solstices and equinoxes, the seasonal thresholds—we invite in the stories that come with them, from the meanings we connect to the different seasons, to half-forgotten saints’ days and dates that are personal to us, the births, deaths and marriages that we can’t forget. There is magic hidden in all of them, a sense of connection that runs across the ages and which is renewed by our own learning and retelling.
In Japan, seventy-two micro seasons are observed across the year, each one marking a small shift in the natural world; a plant coming into blossom or the migration of a bird. Every of us has our own deck of seasons like this, some that are specific to ourselves, and some that we share with our neighbors or far-flung friends. In my street, there is a distinct moment in the year when the privet hedges flower and drift their peppery scent along the pavements. That is now a season I look forward to, just as I anticipate the day that my neighbor’s ash tree dumps its leaves in my garden, a foot deep. I used to find it a nuisance, but now I rush out with my rake, ready to mulch my soil with its abundance. It’s by far my favorite garden task of the year.
All of those things are subtle, freely available, and the work of seconds to notice, but they light up a shadowy corner of my brain that rejoices in the ineffable. There are many more of them, biding their time until we reacquaint ourselves with small wonder. They gently add to our lives, rather than snatching something away. We would do well to remember them at this time of year. We have gathered, we have given, and yes, we have eaten and probably drank until we need no more.
But that is the nature of a feast. We have nothing for which to atone. Let’s open the new year sated, rather than sorry.
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