New Year’s Eve parties and New Year’s Day resolutions sparkle in the post-Christmas darkness, tied to one another like binary stars orbiting some common, celebratory mass. For the observer, determining which tradition is primary and which exists as its secondary companion requires an occasional squint. With true star pairs like Algol (an eclipsing binary) or Sirius (a visual binary), objective measurements can be taken. The relationship between New Year parties and resolutions is more complex and subjective. Judgments about their importance relative to one another depend upon a person’s vantage point, and judgments necessarily change from year to year.
Like most children, I first associated the New Year with parties. Dressed for the evening in velvet and jewels, my mother was dazzling. Resplendent in his cummerbund, my father gave her his arm and they vanished into the night, my Prince and Princess leaving me in the charge of Mrs. Wilstermann, an aged babysitter who obligingly fell asleep, leaving me free to forage through the cupboards for cookies. I never found the cookies and I never heard my parents return, but every New Year’s day I awoke to a dining table overflowing with paper streamers, silly, glittering hats and cheap tin noisemakers. They never forgot.
Later, the coming of television brought Times Square into our living room. We counted the seconds with the crowd, and gasped in amazement as the ball dropped. When increasingly sophisticated technology extended our New Year’s watch to Australian fireworks over Sydney Harbor, concerts from Auckland and the deep, resonant tones of London’s Big Ben, it seemed as though the world was our neighborhood, and the partying could go on forever.
In time, I grew old enough to attend New Year’s eve parties myself, or even to host them. I learned the hard lessons everyone learns – about drinking, about too much drinking, and especially about people who’ve had too much to drink. Eventually I learned the most important lesson of all – that every party ends. The worst usually resulted in nothing more distressing than a hangover, a headache and a mess to be cleaned up in the living room, but even the best often left a sense of ennui, a reluctance to let go of the season and a suspicion that the new year would bring only a return to an endless series of utterly monotonous and ordinary days.
As the years passed, increasing age brought a taste for quieter celebrations, more time spent in reflection and an increased willingness to make resolutions. Like half of the civilized world, each year I resolved to lose weight, save money, read more books, be more organized, exercise regularly, cut back on caffeine and be generally nicer to everyone who crossed my path. Unfortunately, I also joined with half of the civilized world in breaking my resolutions almost immediately. I began to admire one of my co-workers, a woman who began each year by firmly resolving to make no further resolutions, and eventually followed her lead.
With no more party trash to carry out and no more extravagant resolutions to fuss over, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day became less important as events and more important as doorways to the new year itself – not only “this” new year, but the next new year, and the next, and the one that will follow after that. We call the sum of these new years “life”, and the road we travel through them “living”.
Like a path cut through an unfamiliar wood the path through life can be difficult, mysterious and fraught with unexpected dangers. Sometimes, the years through which we travel seem utterly pedestrian, their straight paths and unchanging scenery tedious and predictable. But a season of ordinary days is still a season, and even a gentle, silent and quite ordinary snowfall can transform scrawny and desiccated woods into a marvel that demands a lingering glance. Robert Frost, whom I only now am rediscovering, understood this. There’s something about the freshness of a new year which recalls Frost’s traveler and compels us to pause on our own path, seeing and appreciating the world around us with new eyes.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I smile now, remembering those years when I thought Frost’s words too simple, too ordinary and unsophisticated to be considered decent poetry, let alone a touching and truthful exploration of life.
Today, standing at the threshold of a new year, sensing how few may be left to me, I recognize both the wisdom and the challenge of his words. Speaking from the heart of the deep and darkening woods, his words challenge us to stop in the midst of our own journey, to watch the world transform itself before our eyes, to live without fear of its darkness and be moved by the voices that sweep along its edges.
Engaging our senses, he challenges our will, daring us to make and keep promises – to ourselves as well as others. And in the end, with no knowledge and no guarantee of the miles left to travel, he seems to whisper, “Persevere. Above all, persevere.”