Saturday, January 09, 2021
12:12 AM |
Contemplating a New Year
I once read somewhere that the song we most associate with the New Year—“Auld Lang Syne
,” a poem penned by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of a Scottish traditional folk song—is not really about the year that’s still to come: it is a dirge for the one that’s about to pass.
The song is a nostalgic exercise in looking back, a trip through memory with old friends. In the standard longer version of six stanzas (including the chorus), it recalls various kinds of frolic with dear friends, and talks about days spent with them running about the hills, picking fine daisies, paddling in streams all day, drinking pints of beer—but their flimsy anchor is in ephemeral time (the past is always an unreachable country), which confesses an acknowledgment that what’s in store could be forgetting, or even separation (“but seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne”). Hence, a “dirge,” a funeral lament for untwining connections disguised as a merry anthem for New Year time.
It’s a sad song.
I think we mostly sing it now with some awareness of its subtly mournful nature—you feel it, too, right? those lilts in the song that maps a subterfuge of sorrow?
—but we have now embraced the “goodbye” in “Auld Lang Syne” no longer as a marker for forgetting ties, but as a marker for bidding farewell to the old year, which we have personified into some curmudgeonly phantom figure with four digits for a name, all pockmarked and crippled by the unfortunate events, misfortunes, and bad decisions we’ve met and wrestled with in the grind and heels of the immediate 365 days. This personification is a specter of our bundled up disappointments and recriminations, which then we are all so eager to scrap and to banish away, in the faith of wiping our slate clean.
It’s almost amusing to consider how human beings have developed this uncanny ability to draw a definite line to boundary time, and to attach psychic importance to their significations—that’s the “old year” [regrets and sorrows], this is the “new year” [hope, starting anew, the resolutions of becoming our better selves]. And we do believe in it, this psychic demarcation in time, even the most pessimistic of us. Culture and human psychology have thoroughly embedded these expectation in us, it’s practically part of our DNA. To be human after all is to know yearning—and January 1st has become a culturally established celebration of this. If you could bottle that collective yearning that bursts in the 24-hour cycle of New Year’s Day, it could power industries. I like to think of the fireworks we launch as kindling to that fuel, not just driving away old demons with noise and light but also as a glimpse into our collective yearning for better possibilities.
It’s amusing because we know, deep down, that life does not really work this way. There are no driving away demons, there are no clean slates—all continue as they are, both the good and the bad, a flow of things that know no invisible demarcations in time.
But you know what? There’s no denying the spring to our steps, energized by hope, as we scurry about in the first hours of the first day of January. There’s no denying the psychic lift. There’s no denying the eager want for the better, and our entry into still young possibilities. We will never begrudge ourselves this, even if we know it’s a crutch. Whatever works.
I am reminded of this recent wonderful cartoon
the artist Christopher Grady did for his Lunarbaboon strip just around New Year time. In it, we find a man in conversation with Year 2020, a gentle hulk of a creature rendered in blue. They’re both sitting on a curb, pensive in dialogue.
“You were awful to us,” the man tells Year 2020.
“That’s not fair,” Year 2020 replies, and then continues: “Stupid human decisions and bad luck caused your pain, not me… If you don’t take responsibility for some of your misery, 2021 will be no different.”
The man turns to him with pleading eyes, and says, “Listen… I’m exhausted... I’m angry... I’m sad… I just want something to blame.” A beat. “Can you just keep being a jerk?”
Year 2020 sigh deeply. “Fine.”
And then suddenly sporting an awful, villainous expression, Year 2020 blurts out: “I took Alex Trebek!”
Dramatically covering his mouth in horror, the man responds: “You monster!”
I love this installment of Lunarbaboon because it hilariously dramatizes our plight—but also goes for the jugular with various realizations succinctly illustrated. First, that time [i.e., years] is a neutral entity, which can be defined only by human decisions and luck. 2020 was not, per se, a bad year—it became a “bad year” primarily because a pandemic was unleashed, most likely because of factors figuring in climate change, exacerbated by a dictatorial menace of a country which values silence and strong man rule over transparency, and then compounded by bad governance everywhere else, complete with people ignoring good science to embrace denial [“COVID is a hoax!”] and misinformation [“Hydroxychloroquine is the cure!”]. For the Philippines and for the U.S., we are also reaping the political decisions we made in 2016, inheriting current leadership ineptness for the false rapture of populism.
Second, that if we not acknowledge our own culpability and learn from these mistakes, we’d only be dancing the old cha-cha of the old year.
And third, that sometimes we just want to vent and unleash our frustrations on something. The Year 2020 has become a totem for that, a ready scapegoat for our own shortcomings. It is our ready-made monster to be tarred and banished in the yearning for better things. So be it. In Lunarbaboon, at least Year 2020 is graceful enough to agree to play demon in our theatre of starting over.
I still like to think of 2020 as a necessary corrective to our complacencies. We needed the old world—which was hurtling so precariously into yet-unseen but most likely hellish repercussions of our unbridled greed—to stop in its tracks, and take stock. Stopping would have been impossible in the old normal. It took a rampaging virus to empty our airports, highways, and factories, and to force us into a prolonged communion with self in the lockdown. What have we learned about ourselves and our place in the world since? Did we even learn anything, or are we rearing to go back to the grind of the old, with lessons unlearned?
I’m still learning my lessons, comprehending—little by little—my life and my world in the light of necessary upheaval. I know 2021 is not just a “new” year; deep down, I’m gingerly embracing a new world, maybe a new life.
All that hopeful inchoateness I tried to distill to a kind of a ritual last New Year’s Day: I went to sleep at the stroke of midnight, having spent the eve on my own, by choice. I woke up early, after a good sleep, and then I went to see the first sunrise of the year off Piapi Beach. I knew I have not done such a thing since the year 2000—but what compelled me was the urgency of its symbolism: to embrace the new that’s to come after a hellish, albeit corrective, year.
I wanted to start the year walking, and the sunrise would be a good rest stop. On the Flores Avenue seawall, waiting for the sky to brighten in the horizon, I meditated, I prayed. And then when things were sunny enough around 6 AM, I stood up and continued on my regular walking route—and followed my feet to my mother’s house in Bantayan, utterly surprising her with my visit. We prayed for the new year, and then we had breakfast. As simple as that—but the reverberations of personal meaning from all these was resounding for me, and hopefully enough to light the path of the next twelve months.
We need our symbols, our songs, our singularly optimistic resolutions now, more than ever.
Happy New Year, everyone!
[Photo by Justine Megan Yu]
Labels: coronavirus, life, new year
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