The GPS of Life
Happy new year to my friends out there. As I write this, it is 2 a.m. on the first of January, 2011. Up here on the hill, it is a fairly mild night, dark as pitch. I am not up at this hour because I’ve been out reveling. If I were not connected to the rest of the world by internet and television, I would not be aware that this night is different from any other. But it is that strangest of holidays wherein we demarcate the passage of time. Just knowing that other cultures have different calendars should be enough for us to know that ours is by all means arbitrary, ours being based on the Roman calendar laid out more than two thousand years ago, not particularly relevant to today. The Chinese, the people of Middle Eastern cultures, the Celts, all have a different time when they celebrate the passage of another year. Most of these calendars are based on something in the natural world: lunar cycles or solar cycles or, closely related, the cycles of the seasons — the farmer’s year. This is the one that makes the most sense to me. But these are all ancient calendars. If we were to create a calendar now, it would have to be based on the post-industrial age, the age of computers and the internet, which would mean the calendar would be seamless, a 24/7 roll-up of minutes, hours, days and weeks — everything would be a continuous flow of productivity and distribution, manufacture and shipping being the hands of the clock that moves in its perpetual cycle. No moment in that calendar would be different, one from the other. I am certainly glad that we haven’t moved to a calendar that reflects the reality of our daily lives, so divorced from the soil and from the skies, particularly the night skies. I’m also grateful that my life here remains tied to the earth.
Earlier I went out to the store, a place called Coll’s that was once a farmstand but that has morphed into a small grocery store. The building’s in the same location, with the henhouse and the sugarhouse nearby and fields all around. Inside, they have a few narrow aisles of groceries but a much bigger section for vegetables and fruits, which is why I like to go there. Their produce is better than what I can find at the supermarket and they have a very nice selection of organic goods and natural foods. They also have a container of Mejoul dates, big fruits, still moist in the center — using tongs, you can pick out a few or many, as you like. I was looking for something extra special for New Year’s dinner. I chose an especially nice-looking pork chop, sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. And four of those plump dates. At the counter, they sell especially large dog biscuits, on the order of the enormous cookies sold singly these days. So I added in a couple of these for Harriet and Mayday.
Whether I am with someone or not, and whether I agree with our calendar or not, I like the way we pause to observe this passage of time. It’s interesting to me, how excited some people get at the prospect of a new year coming. It seems that the worse the year has been, the more interested people are in celebrating the crossover into the new year, in this case, the new decade. The worse the year, the more intense the celebration. I’ve been part of gatherings where some people throw something into the fire to get rid of its bad energy. I’ve been a part of gatherings where people will shout things like, “Good riddance, 2004!” to see the end of a year that brought grief or agitation. Recently divorced people seem to especially love prospect of the new year. As human beings, we are forever tantalized by new beginnings, the hope of redemption. And so we give ourselves that hope each year, that possibility that things can and will be better, that we can be better. It’s really the only way to go.
At home, I unpacked the small bag of groceries as the last light of the day played across the mountain’s western flank. At this time of year, the late afternoon light is rich as gold, like stage lights illuminating every tree, every stone in the wall, every wave in the field. In the living room, I started to take down the decorations, the small tree, the lights, the plump little snowmen that circled the base of the tree. I gathered up the gifts I had been blessed with: hand-knit mittens and an Icelandic cookbook full of new and different recipes from my friends in Iceland, an amazing handmade birdhouse from my neighbors, a jar of homemade jam, a pair of warm socks, three new books to read — all an abundance of generosity, new things with which to start the new year. I worked on this for a while, putting everything back in its place and restoring order to the room. I filled the woodbox in the kitchen and stoked the stove. It wasn’t that cold, which was a blessing because it has been extremely cold during the month of December, but it was good to feel the room brimming with warmth. I put the potato in to bake, steamed the Brussels sprouts, and put the pork chop under the broiler. Things smelled pretty good.
Just as I was taking the potato out of the oven, my cousin from New Jersey called so I told her I would call her back after I ate. Which I did and we talked for a long time, getting caught up, wondering where the time has gone and remembering a time when our parents would dress up in gowns and tuxedoes and go out to celebrate the New Year. Times change, we concluded. When I got off the phone, it was somewhere around 9:30 or 10. I took the dogs out for a walk then, walking into the relative mildness of the end of 2010. The great snow from the blizzard of just a week ago was sinking into the earth and some bare spots were showing. In the distance, I could hear popping sounds. It took a moment for me to realize someone, somewhere, was setting off fireworks. I stood and listened to the distant festivities. Otherwise, there was just a deep silence around the hills, bright stars and complete darkness. Back inside, I gave the dogs their biscuits and sat with them in the stillness, savoring the sweet treat of those dates. I was trying to figure out what it is about the changing of the calendar that provokes people to dance and pop champagne corks, watch brilliant, dazzling fireworks, shower the landscape with confetti and in general, carry on in a way that they don’t on other nights. I can’t make sense of it. So, for now, I’m going to bed and in the morning, I’ll open up the pages of my new calendar, balance my books for 2010, and try to set up the GPS system that my good sister sent me from her home on the West Coast, so I can better navigate these back roads. And find my way through 2011.