new years

The phrase “begin as we mean to go on” is attributed to Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a British Reformed Baptist preacher from the 19th century. Spurgeon was a celebrity in his day, at a time when fame in the church was available in the same way fame was available to poets, perfect sentences vaulting men to crowd-pleasing prominence. Although still well-known in theological studies and religious communities, to the larger world today, Spurgeon’s entire legacy is a scrap of a sentence so perfect as to seem nearly authorless. It happens to also be a perfect tweet, a neat bow of a phrase for making someone look pure, cryptic, and hopeful when posted with no context on December 31st or January 1st. “Begin as you mean to go on” encapsulates the whole obligation of New Years’ Eve and the new year itself, the frenzy of performance that sends people to parties they don’t want attend and convinces unpersuaded strangers to kiss in bars, that sets a night up for perfect failure by forcing a few hours to live up to a whole year. 

At the end of 2009, the worst year of my life to date by a very large margin, a friend convinced me to go out on New Years’ Eve. The year ended and began again in the back of a traffic-frozen cab between the Lower East Side and Tribeca. Sometime after midnight we arrived at a cavernous luxury cocktail bar that was new at the time and full of the kind of people you would expect to wait in a line outside a bar in below freezing temperatures. The bar has a lower level and because the only thing I ever want to do in any bar is to sit down, I disappeared downstairs to see if I could find a couch. It seemed almost no one else had realized the other level was open; downstairs it was nearly empty and felt like a cave out of a sinister fairy tale. I ordered a drink and the bartender shook his head and handed me a shot instead. “Happy New Year,” he said “here’s to 2009 being over.” “It was the worst year of my life,” I told him. “Hey me too!” he said, and turned around and threw the shot glass at the wall as hard as he could. “Fuck 2009,” he said, and poured another two shots. “Fuck 2009,” I said, and threw my glass at the wall after his. We went through about ten shot glasses. 2010 was a mess, too, but it was the first better year in a long time, the year I started working for the then-nascent publication that’s the reason I’m here, on the internet, doing this now. And it was the one New Years’ Eve of my life that actually felt like it, in the idea of the thing, in the all the grand shoulds of it. 

“Begin as we mean to go on” is a phrase with a religious origin, but then again so is most of how we communicate and what we take for granted. The whole concept of New Years’ is frustratingly religious, this obligated belief in rebirth and renewal, coupled with the exhortation to do better, to cast off our wrongdoings and remake ourselves in order to be worthy of the clean slate and the new day. New Years’ is another way of declaring faith in something large and arbitrary, believing an impersonal concept could grant meaning to our small and particular lives. Nothing actually changes between December 31st and January 1st. A day bleeds across a seam into another day; we get a day off from work. So much of what feels like faith or transcendence is in fact really just getting a day off from work, a few more hours to be invisible to the world. 

Thomas was almost a minister, and although he took a turn off the freeway at the last minute before seminary and doesn’t attend church now, he exists in the world with a quietly profound sense of faith, and when I am having a very bad day he tells me that Jesus loves me and he means it, too, with his whole good, sincere face. I have no idea what I believe, except in the fact that every sentence either scans or doesn’t and much more of the whole world than we’d like to admit turns on sentences that scan right. Spurgeon’s sentence about the new year, for instance, scans so perfectly that it feels like grace. I believe that religion is an opiate and dangerous, but I believe that about almost anything that matters to me. The things that I find profoundly significant, that give shape and mercy to existence - love and sex and work and home, airports and sandwiches, booze and dark bars in the late afternoon when you’re very early but also secure that eventually someone you like a lot is coming to join you and the light slants in and picks up and the dust and rubbed-in stains on the wood and you’re reading a book and nobody talks to you and someone maybe four seats down is having a conversation about something very personal and doesn’t care if you eavesdrop, the sense of being old friends with somebody when you haven’t really known them that long, poetry when it’s good, long drives, rooftops in Brooklyn in summer, the hour at the bottom of the morning when no one else is awake, family, soft clothes, good skin, space exploration, television, large friendly dogs, eloquent career politicians, getting high and then taking a bath - are all escapism, are all opiates, ways to briefly hide from the long process of filling out forms that makes up a life. Our leaky and fallible bodies are already drowning us, we may as well weight ourselves down with the things that we believe to be more than the sum of their parts, that we believe to have use or meaning beyond the visible facts of themselves. A new year is both arbitrary and artificial, but it is as good a thing to believe in as any other, as available a lens by which to make visible the capacity for renewal, for standing up and trying again, despite everything that has come before. John Ashbery said it is necessary to write about the same old things, in the same way, repeating the same things over and over. The new year is the belief that this repetition is both necessary and meaningful, that getting up and simply doing again the same things one always does could constitute a new beginning.

It’s a little late to be writing about the new year but then all of January is New Years’ Day. January is a long hangover of a month, a bunch of days the color and texture of dirt-caked snow lining a busy street in a city. It’s Christmas trees surrendered on their sides by trash cans; it’s the kitchen the day after a house party when no one has stayed to clean up. It’s a long, dull, blank holiday-less month, a perfect time to break up with someone, an easy to time to forget to go outside at all if your job doesn’t require it. Far more than New Years’ Eve, January is what really feels like the idea of change, of rewriting ourselves better and newer, forcing life up through dullness, forcing belief in something good when there is no tangible evidence of it available. It’s a time to hibernate, to hoard warmth, a challenge to work our way up toward light and earn longer days or pretend we did, to pull ourselves up again into the same old things in the same way, inventing something that feels like a new year.