after the party there's the afterparty and after the afterparty there's George Bailey just trying to make it through the third week of January
Hi everyone. Welcome to griefbacon, or welcome back if you’ve been here a while. It’s a new year, we’re doing this again. This newsletter runs roughly three times a week– a subscriber discussion thread, which I like to think of as a virtual conversation pit, on Mondays, a public essay for everybody usually on Wednesday or Thursday, and an essay only for subscribers on Saturdays. Some weeks it’ll veer off from this, or skip entirely, but that’s the general idea. The theme is long weird essays about love, and sometimes the theme is parties, but mostly it’s about love. Most things are about love if you scratch hard enough, so the range of topics here is pretty broad. You can always email me if you have questions or comments or would like a paid subscription but can’t currently afford one, or know someone else for whom that’s the case. I’m so glad you’re here.
I’m sorting through a whole lot of not-quite-finished writing from over the holidays, so there’s going to be some repurposing of that stuff over the next week or two. This piece is one example of that, but it’s also about doing that, and about new year’s resolutions, and about whatever January is, this month that’s already almost over, and, of course, about love.
It’s January, so we’re all supposed to make ourselves new again. Or maybe that part’s already done, and I don’t have to worry about it because I missed it. Everything goes too fast in January. Maybe nobody’s thinking about change at all anymore, or about anything except going home and staying there. The parties are over. It’s too late to go to another bar; it’s too late to text anyone. It’s too late to stay out later; it’s too late for everything.
I meant to do a bunch of stuff over the holidays, and mostly I didn’t. I meant to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, and I didn’t, and I meant to watch A Muppet Christmas Carol, and I didn’t. I meant to write about both of those movies, and I didn’t do that either. Every year I mean to write about It’s a Wonderful Life, and about A Muppet Christmas Carol, about George Bailey and about Rizzo the Rat, and then I don’t, and then it’s too late. The day for it passes, and then the next month passes, and then ten months pass, and then I tell myself ok, this time I’ll do it, and then I don’t, and December barrels down toward the 31st and out of the year’s low gate, and then it’s January all over again. Once again I have a few thousand more words about grace and mysteries and forgiveness and ritual and Beaker the Muppet’s little red scarf on my hard drive, and once again I have nowhere to put them. Another year looms; I guess in eleven months I could try again.
The essay I don’t write, each successive year, is about how people change. A Christmas Carol is not so much a Christmas story as it is an Everyman myth; it says that even the worst person, through a rigorous and ritualistic self-accounting, might transcend himself. It says that the way to change is to sit with the atrocious highlight reel of your own life, add up your actions and your choices, and solve for the consequences that ricocheted away from them, the currents they drove through other people’s lives. If you perform this audit thoroughly enough, you can see yourself clearly, and once you see yourself clearly, you can shed that self and start again on a new page. It’s the same promise both evangelical religion and modern psychiatry offer: Stare at yourself long enough without blinking, and be transformed.
It’s a Wonderful Life follows the same sort of Everyman structure, taking a supernatural theme park ride through one man’s accumulated deeds. On Christmas Eve, amongst the minor economic dramas of Bedford Falls, George Bailey assumes the role of the audience, and watches his own choices, solved backward for his own absence, from outside of himself. Both Capra’s movie and Dickens’s morality tale start from despair and arrive at hope. The world is better than it seems to be, both of them say. The night ends and the daylight floods in, even at the heart of the winter. A town gathers in open-handed love, passing a hat around or singing a song in the streets.
Supposedly, neither movie is a new year’s movie, but the only time when anybody feels like they’re allowed to watch either one is two or three weeks before New Year’s Eve. The plot of both, although ostensibly about Christmas, refers to a transformative promise. We have no obligation to the darkness, it says, nor to the old year, nor to whatever we did or felt yesterday or last week. It’s Michael Caine leaning out a window to ask a terrified rabbit what day it is, and it’s Beaker with his little red scarf, and the neighbors crowded downstairs in George Bailey’s house with their handfuls of small bills, and the Counting Crows song where the chorus says that maybe this year will be better than the last. People at New Year’s Eve parties pour champagne to count down together, and at 11:55 even the most too-cool, cynical guests become naive, hopeful children for ninety seconds or so. The old year is porous and insubstantial as it ends; something new possible.
The whole concept of a new year makes no sense and isn’t logical, which is maybe why so many of us get so attached to it. Everyone wants to believe in sweeping change. It’s difficult to live for any significant period of time and not at some point wish that you could start over. New year’s resolutions, and parties with champagne toasts at midnight, gym membership discounts and twelve-month tarot readings and fresh new notebooks and lemon pigs with cloves for eyes and pennies in their mouths—all of this is stupid, and unnecessary, and profoundly counterfactual. January first arrives twenty-four hours after the previous day just the same as the day before it did, and just the same as the day after it will.
New Year’s superstitions, illogical as they are, express the hope that something exists outside of the brutal, familiar equations of the visible, in which our lives are nothing but couches and bus stops and overdraft fees. All the big myths offer the same miracle: Something changes. Something changes, even if you do nothing about it. You get a new year whether or not you deserve one. When the light returns, we don’t need to balance an equation with the dark days that came before. The new day breaks through the long winter night, even if you don’t try, even if you aren’t looking, even if you don’t believe in it at all.
But I always wonder what Scrooge did on December 26th, and December 27th, and the day after that, and on New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day, and on the third Friday in January, when all the holidays and the ceremonies are over, and all the trees have already been put out on the curbs, and disappeared by garbage trucks. I wonder what George Bailey did on January 2nd and 5th and 20th, in all the fallow days of bad winter in upstate New York, in the low scuttle of the long mid-century, when his wife got old, when his sons had to go fight in Vietnam, when the dullest part of winter turned the leftover snow in Bedford Falls sooty and hideous. I wonder how he treated his family, and himself, and the community around him, when he got to this unspectacular part of the year.
I wonder if Scrooge went back to the office on New Year’s Day, or if he gave his staff the day off, if he started work again on a Monday or waited until Tuesday, his newly expanded heart allowing all his employees to sleep off their hangovers. I wonder if he sat back down at his same desk and went on with doing the same old evictions and debt collections, charging the same interest. Dickens’s fable ends proclaiming Scrooge’s continued transformation: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.” But the thing about a fable is nobody has to hang around and explain how exactly that works. If Scrooge really changed his life, he would also have had to rethink his entire business model. Maybe he took a pay cut, or maybe he had to lay off a bunch of those adorable singing rats at their desks, even if he did it kindly instead of yelling at them. I wonder if he gave his workers, however many he could still employ, extra days off during the rest of the year, and if so how many, or if by January 20th he was bored with all of it, once the wonder of walking out into the streets without anybody springing up to sing a song about what a piece of shit he was had become, more quickly than he might have expected, familiar.
It’s almost the end of January now. The days are gray and anxious. No inspirational stories take place in this stretch of the year. Overnight transformation is the sparkle and clamor of a holiday party, but it’s something else to sit down with profit and loss equations, columns of numbers, dates in calendars, texts and phone calls and line items in budgets, all the logistical, itchy, actual things that a new year requires. The work of change, like the rest of the work of living, is rarely spectacular. Like love, the trick of it is not how to do it once, but how to make it consistent over time. A single grand gesture is relatively easy—love at first sight, the biggest turkey in the window, one really good night in Bedford Falls—but what comes after that is harder, stranger, and often lonely. The more difficult question asks how someone might stretch this kind of transformation out across long, dull days when no one is watching and no one applauds, not how to make something, but how to make something last.
This question, at the end of the beginning of the year, is the same question that love raises after six months or so, or however long it takes for familiarity to replace novelty. A cottage industry of self-help and advice, books and podcasts and seminars, feeds on this problem, just as much diet scams feed on the hope for change in the first week of January. How do we make love last, and how do we make desire last? How do we change ourselves, and how do we live within those changes? How do we render the unseen things seen, and how do we make the bright brief miracles permanent?
There’s not really an answer, which is why all of these questions have spawned whole industries of snake oil salespeople. When I fell in love and first settled into a relationship with the person I live with now, I felt so profoundly transformed that it was like having some version of the bends. I had ascended too far too fast, and my body’s regulatory systems were unable to catch up with me. I thought about how at eleven or twelve years old I was, all of a sudden and maybe actually overnight, taller than all the other kids in my grade, and how for years after that I was so clumsy because I didn’t know where my limbs ended and began. I thought about when the picture turns technicolor in The Wizard of Oz and how, no matter how well everyone knows the plot of the movie, no matter how much everyone knows it’s coming, no matter how much this is the single most overused metaphor there is, if you go see The Wizard of Oz in a theater on a big screen, the whole audience still gasps and applauds when the color arrives. They can’t help it; nobody can. Everyone is convinced for a minute and a half that they have never in their lives seen color before. That was what it felt like; every single moment was the newest technology. I felt as though I had no skin, walking around South Brooklyn destroyed by compassion for every object in my line of vision.
For a while, that electric shock of new love made it seem as though I had stepped into a whole-cloth new life. But eventually, like every single new thing does, it became familiar. I was still in love, but the novelty dissipated, as novelty, by definition, always will. I moved into a new apartment with a person whose habits I had to negotiate around my own habits, whose languages and routines I had to learn. Transformation reduced down to logistics, numbers on a spreadsheet and objects in a room. The mystery pageant packed up all its costumes and signs and trundled on to the next town. The worst movie you saw this year likely uses far more advanced color film technology than The Wizard of Oz did, but nobody gasps or applauds in the theater. By the third week of January the new year isn’t new anymore; it’s just the year.
In an almost unbearably bleak section near the end of The Mirror and the Light, the third book in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Cromwell, who has narrated Christian mythology, miracles, and relics to the reader throughout the book as he goes about the brutal and business-like work of transforming an ancient church into a modern one, talks about Lazarus. He doesn’t cite the myth of the man reborn, but the other thing, the inevitable later part of the story, the thing that you realize, as you read it, you’ve always known. “Lazarus died twice,” he explains. “The second time was for good and all. […] You empty your pockets to see something that, after all, is only proof that miracles do not last. The crippled man walks, but only twice around the courtyard before he collapses in a pile of flailing limbs. The blind man sees, but the faces he knew in his young days are altered; and when he asks for a mirror, he doesn’t recognize himself at all.” Even those reborn miraculously still eventually die.
Christmas and News Years stories say that it’s never too late. But of course it’s very often too late; that’s the story the third week of January tells. The world and living in it would be far more bearable if this weren’t the case, which is why stories of resurrections and second chances, whether religious or secular, are always popular. It’s too late all the time. We lose people, we fail to make amends, and we build resentments up too high to ever be surmounted. The consequences of our own actions come back to us; we bury our future selves in debts and in recriminations, we sow our future awkward silences and absences. People we once loved become people for whom we have no contact information in our phones. The calendar goes ruthlessly on; we don’t get to go back to things we bookmarked for later. Just because Lazarus stands up today doesn’t mean he won’t die again later. Loving someone doesn’t mean we’ll continue to love them, and doing good today doesn’t mean we’ll do good tomorrow. Maybe George Bailey feels weird around his neighbors who gave him all that money, now, as January grinds down toward its close. The things I said could and would change in the gleaming darkness at the unmarked beginning of the year seem distant and onerous now. The trouble with stories is that they continue.
I don’t know how people change, not really, any more than I know how love endures. I know I’ve seen both happen, but I don’t know that any of those little anecdotes add up into something solid, any more than two popular Christmas movies light a path forward for the real person watching them. Maybe change is suffering and maybe change is a lightning bolt and maybe change is doing just a little bit of something every day so that the Duolingo Owl doesn’t yell at you. Maybe love is a party where everyone is drunk when you arrive and everyone is holding hands and dancing even though no one knows the steps. Maybe love is the old Building & Loan where everyone’s money is given away to everyone else in pieces, where we all mortgage ourselves for one another. But none of that answers the question of how to make any of this last through the third week of January and out beyond it.
Eventually George Bailey’s neighbors go home; eventually someone in the Cratchit household has to do all those dishes from that gigantic turkey. The work of change and the stacked-up obligations that love creates are narratively unsatisfying. Nothing really happens. Mostly people annoy one another. I love everyone in my phone desperately and with my whole heart, and when they text me I wearily tap the heart reaction again. Each day becomes the next day. Down along the street, the smell of pine needles mingles with the trash and the sewers. We have a party, and we clean up after the party, and then we have a party again, even though all it means is that later there’ll be more dishes to do.
But a party in January is just a party, not a miracle of light out of the darkness. Nothing really means anything much at this time of year, and secretly that’s kind of a relief. An old friend tells me how he’s been looking forward to this part of winter, the long hibernation, the brief unspecial days. The big miracles of love take down their lights and their banners. The pageant packs up its dusty signs and drives its cart out of town. I take the trash out to the curb; I break down the boxes and sort the recycling. I make lists and add up numbers. Love goes on into whatever space is available, making itself comfortable on the couch, standing up in the kitchen, cooking down the leftovers in the fridge.
The time for change is over, which means the work of change can begin. It’s all already too late, and none of the miracles last. But it’s warm inside, and the radiators hiss like ghosts, the same way they did last year and every year before that. Maybe Scrooge won’t ever really be a good man; maybe nothing stays as good as it once; maybe George Bailey is just kicking his same problems down the road. But I have eleven more months to decide if I believe in any of that or not, if I want to show up for the pageant and the dusty mysteries that promise any of us can, on any given day, be transformed. I wake up early, or sometimes I do. The sky gets lighter a little bit sooner each day; technicolor leaks into the world in the smallest possible fractions. I do the same things again and again until they make a life. Everything I love has already grown boring and familiar, until it isn’t, until it is again.
thanks so much for reading. this is the public edition of griefbacon; if you enjoyed this and want to read more, you can subscribe or upgrade to the paid version, which gives you much more content more frequently, and gives me a lot of joy, and helps me do all those January things like paying my bills. xo