Monday, December 26, 2016

Preparing for New Year's Eve

We are getting ready for New Year’s Eve. I’ll shop for yummy snacks and we’ll stay up late—or not. Go to parties, or not. We might dress in sparkles or just relax in flannel as 2016 officially ends. And then…

And then it is a new year and the very first day of 2017. A new year is a blank slate, and while we love that it is also just a little unnerving.

Maybe part of the over-drinking and over-eating we’ll indulge in later this week happens not so much because of what we are leaving behind but rather because of what lies ahead. Maybe, like me, you have been saying, “I’ll deal with that after the holidays.” 

And now, suddenly, January 1st approaches bringing this uncomfortable combination of agitation and malaise.  Expectation does that. The arrival of this delayed reality is also the arrival of what are, in the best sense, our ordinary lives.
In the Christian liturgical calendar the days that are not Advent, Christmas, Lent or Easter are called Ordinary Time. While we delight in holidays we know that our ordinary time is much more precious. Our ordinary days, though they don’t make it into photo albums, are the days in which we live our real lives. 

The older we get the faster time seems to move. We might assume that this is because we are more aware of our mortality, but there is also research that suggests that the shift in how we experience time is neurological and results from lowering dopamine levels in the brain which occurs as we age. On New Year’s Day we grab at time: If time is limited, and the slate is clean, how will I choose what goes into my new year?

Our fantasies run to perfection, and the new calendars we start now collude with us. A calendar is an organizational tool, but it is also a hedge against despair. For one day we enjoy the promise of those 365 empty, numbered squares. And then, pen in hand, we strike: How to fill it? (This is why using a phone calendar is so unsatisfying: there is no demarcation, no old versus new, and no regret versus hope.

Even if we don’t formally write out New Year resolutions, most of us hope for improvement to body, mind or spirit in 2017. Whatever our goals, what we hope for is always something better: better relationships, better health, better work, and we rail against the imperfect. But in ordinary time, and in our real lives, all that we have-- and that we can have-- is imperfection. 

Still, we try to wrestle time into submission. We talk about how we will spend time in the New Year and that metaphor is a good one: Time is precious. It can be served, stolen, borrowed and squandered. It flies and flows and runs out. Without time we can’t even tell the simplest story. All narrative depends on it. Beginning, middle, end. Past, present, future. 

When we choose a verb we are saying something about time. There is a bit of wisdom from the ancient Latin grammar that we can borrow for this day. It is the verb tense called “past imperfect,” used for actions still uncompleted, and for stories continuing to unfold. 

That is the tense--and perhaps the tension--of New Year’s Eve.   

And so for your New year’s Eve, whether in sparkles or flannel pajamas, let us welcome 2017 by relaxing our vigilance and allow our stories to unfold in blessed, imperfect, and ordinary time.

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