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We are fully into the heartbelly of December now and it seems like the year should just go ahead and be over already. The lights string up above the crosswalks, and the Christmas trees pour the cold smell of a distant forest down the corridors between avenues. Incessantly cheery retail-music gallops out of doorways like a handful of glitter out of an envelope. I come out of the gym by the mall at Columbus Circle, and someone is standing with his back to the roundabout where the statues and the skyscrapers point down Central Park South. The park behind him stains a gray-green angle out toward uptown. His friend is taking a picture of him, and he's holding his arms up straight above his head with a striped scarf between his hands. He grins exuberantly. His friend snaps the picture. Living here at the holidays is living in a tourist's photograph, in an ad for getting away from real life, going to the place in the movies.
It hits me in the heart when I let myself notice it. I don’t quite know why it matters; it isn’t possible to argue for the substance of this kind of thing, its utility, its speakable good. There’s no benefit to anyone to being inside the movie. But I go on looking for it anyway, stepping out of the house in the last hour of light in the afternoon when the avenue grids each way beyond me to a vanishing point. It is hard to feel that things could be entirely hopeless if I get to be a figure in the painting, beneath its wide sky punctuated with steely water towers. It is easiest to find this sense of unreality as the year rolls down to a close, as the solid gives up to the frivolous, calendars dissolving into shiny decorations. Thomas moved here almost exactly four years ago, and when the lights go up I feel the least guilty for being the reason he did. Look where you live now, you live in the movie.
This is the unreal time of year, the time to live inside an imagining. We all have senioritis, waiting for the year to end, waiting for our jobs to give us time off, waiting for the possibility of doing better to finally, blessedly be over, the few shallow days at the bottom of December when there is nothing else to do but give up. We are in the last hour of a long train ride, sleepily scrolling through our phone.
Most of December is a time when we can accomplish nothing, between the yelling demands of family and friends, parties and gifts, airplanes and traffic and suitcases. What a privilege, though, to have a space between one moment and the next, how rare and how unlikely. Most change is a car crash. It comes with no warning, no time for boredom, no long descent toward a runway of small lights. Change usually functions as a disaster; this is true as much of singular personal tragedies as it is of the small, expected, everyday griefs, aging and time passing and the dark coming earlier every afternoon. Even the fact of a new year at all feels like a catastrophe, a storm that bursts from a blue sky and shatters the landscape beneath it. The strange, impatient, lucky, party-feeling at the end of December may have something to do with how unaccustomed most of us are to seeing the storm coming before it hits, to having a moment in which to do nothing.
Perhaps this is what a holiday is, what it offers if we can separate it from religion: A coming apart from what is real, from the nagging demands of our lives, the back and forth to work and home and cooking and sleep. Something other than picking up the groceries and the mail, starting the car in the cold, reminding the people we love to do things, reminding ourselves to be less afraid, failing, trying again sometimes and sometimes going home and lying down with our face in the couch. In this way the long exhale of a three-day weekend is no less holy than the procession of taper candles at midnight mass. The thing about capitalism is that you’re always waiting for something to be over. This is a profoundly dangerous way to spend one’s life when our lives are such a tiny and easily consumed handful of time. But mostly we are waiting to go home, waiting to be done, waiting for the day to be over.
The end of year is something else, though, a holiday of its own, a bright blossom of failure. Failure is what the songs and the smell of pine needles in the cold, the bright ornament-hung windows and the family dinners, are heralding. If the new year is about what you could do then the end of the year, the last straggle of weeks before the finish line, is about what you didn’t do. It is a festival of failures, the discards, the mistakes, the half-finished constructions.
It is no accident, then, that this is also the most partying time of year, the time when the open bars are most open, when living rooms are most likely to turn into dance floors, when indoor spaces are brightest and most welcoming, when people tend to be messiest and most interesting. Every party is a failure. Parties celebrate giving up. If you go to a party with a responsible goal in mind you aren’t really going to a party. The point of a party, as much as the point of a holiday, has to be uselessness. We make a bonfire of what we haven’t done, what we don’t accomplish, what we leave unfinished.
One of the questions on the common application for college admissions asks students to write about a time when they failed. Most students rightfully recoil from it, recognizing it as a trap in the same way the job interview question about one’s biggest weakness is a trap. We are not supposed to stand our failures up, to walk them into rooms in front of us, announcing our names before we arrive. But our failures are so much the best of what we have to offer. They offer a mercy from the rushed waiting that pushes us forward through our lives, always hoping something else will be over soon. The uselessness of this time of year is a luxury, and our failures are our most luxurious selves. Loving someone or even being charmed by them only happens when we get past the wall of their accomplishments, when we dig the person worth knowing out of the presentable elevator pitch.
December is not presentable. It is a hot mess of a month, full of the ugly largeness of family and love, the tantrums of travel and obligation and money and religion. It strings together a scrawled list of unreasonably big themes. Maximalism appeals to me because maximalism is always about failure, grabbing more than one can hold and building grander than what the foundation can support. The end of the year is maximalist and unsteady. We are poorly built structures, ready to collapse. What we were going to accomplish or complete is already either completed or given up on, and we are left with ourselves, beneath accomplishments and impatience, stripped of the easy definitions that work and profit offer. If this time of year feels somehow sacred even to the non-religious, then perhaps it is because, in its overwhelming failure, it is our best chance to escape the systems that diminish us into equations for relative value. For a few days before the year turns over we get to live as our messiest, unsteadiest selves, offering nothing, promising nothing, making no resolutions.
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