Dec 26, 2008

Four hundred miles from home, a young man tools around the luggage section of a insistently middle-class J.C. Penney. His friend is here picking up supplies for a party later, but the young man can’t stop poring over suitcases and backpacks. He pulls one from the rack: a two-hundred dollar case, marked down to seventy dollars. It’s sleek and black, and feels strong under his fingers.

There’s something stirring in him, something buried so deep he can barely tell it’s there at all.

“I think I need to buy some luggage,” says the young man as his friend approaches.

“What for?”

“I think I’m going to have an adventure next year.”

New Year’s

At some point over the last five or ten years, I’ve come to consider New Year’s “my” holiday. And not for the ball dropping, or the alcohol (I’ve never been much of a drinker, and all the balls I’ve needed have dropped).

I’m writing this to tell you why New Year’s is important, and in doing so, try to figure out why it’s become so important to me. Straight away, I can tell you the quiet is part of it.

When I say New Year’s, I don’t just mean New Year’s Eve, or January 1st. There’s a sweet spot of six days between Christmas and New Year’s. For around one percent of the U.S., it’s Kwanzaa. For the rest of us, it’s the quietest week of the year.

Wake up on the morning of December 26th and listen. There are no loud commercials tugging at your wallet through your heartstrings. No family obligations to manage. The turkeys have all been eaten. The gifts given. From December 26th until the machine kicks up again on January 2nd, American society is idling in neutral.

December 26th is when my New Year begins.

Dec 26, 2009

Eight months of dating this Snow Belt girl, and the young man can maneuver his car through the flurries with ease. His girlfriend is in the passenger seat. She has big dark eyes that brighten when he looks at her. They met at a party after he drove 19 hours straight on a whim to see the first African-American president inaugurated.

He’d had some adventures after all.

They are headed back to her Ohio home, where they’ve been living together for three months. She just met his parents over Christmas.

It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

He glances over, her eyes brighten, and something leaden in his chest begins to squeeze. Trading one small town life for another didn’t seem so bad. But his future is beginning to feel like a box being hammered shut. The thing buried inside him trembles. He catches his breath in stolen gasps.

In two days’ time, he will tell her he can’t continue. He will tell her there are things he’s left undone, that he can’t hide from anymore. He will tell her: “In January, I’m leaving for Los Angeles.”

He will not tell her he’s coming back, because he’s not.

Her eyes no longer brighten when he looks at her.

It’s The Quiet of Not Being Sold Something

For the six days that form the trailing ellipses at the end of every year, America is on hiatus. That empty, quiet feeling is the ringing that’s left over when society isn’t screaming for your attention anymore.

There’s finally room to think then, if you’re willing, and those last six days you’re as smart as you’ll be all year. You won’t have a clearer view than standing on this fulcrum between “back then” and “soon.”

It’s easier than ever to do this. Scroll back through your own social media, or the countless national and international news round-ups that will appear. Or simply flick backwards through the photos you took on your phone.

I count up the achievements, try not to dwell on the setbacks, and attempt to get a picture for what the past year became. What was its story? Was this year an underdog? A triumph? A comedy of errors? A tragedy?

Was I even the hero of my own story at all?

Dec 26, 2010

A year of living in Los Angeles, and the hardest run of poverty he’s ever faced. Jobs are few and far between. Every month’s rent hangs on the wire, only to arrive at the last minute by luck, or something higher. Against everything inside him, he took $200 from his family to keep his phone from being shut off.

He is happier than he’s ever been, and the buried thing inside him is beginning to stir.

Christmas is winding down in his family’s Florida home, and between the smiles and the cheer, he’s counting the moments until he can get back to California. From three thousand miles away, his new life feels like an illusion. Throughout his visit, and for weeks after, he wakes in the night, having dreamt that he’s been forced to leave Los Angeles, or that he never went at all.

He will do whatever he can to stay there.

But the dreams will not go away for a long time.

There’s No Promise Involved

I don’t make resolutions. Of all the promises we make, we break the ones to ourselves the most. And the idea of resolutions is too thick with self-help salesmen and pseudo-gurus.

I make plans.

Plans have specific steps, and specific results in mind. They can evolve. Sometimes, they get abandoned altogether. Things do or don’t go according to plan, but either way, there is a reason for it.

That’s part of it. I need a reason. I can’t let time go by year after year without having something to show for it.

Something to Believe In

When you give up religion, as I did, a lot goes with it. Traditions, ceremonies. You have to look for ways to shore up the answers to the corrosive “Why?” that takes hold once you let go of “Because God.”

All of society starts to seem like a performance, with laws and traditions becoming the chorus to a song we’re singing to ourselves. It’s hard not to see a lot of our holidays as another tune we’re humming to pass the time. In short, as an agnostic, I find myself wanting something to believe in.

Dec 27, 2012

The young man sits in the starry dark of the Griffith Observatory. The glowing presentation seems to cup him up and together they fly – not just through space – but through time, back to the furthest reaches of man’s memory. He trudges the dusty plains, feeling the warm safety of the tribe around him. They look at the stars together and in their drums and their paintings they’re groping desperately for an idea their lack of language denies them… “we are here.” He looks at these thousands of nameless lives asking the sky to hear them, and sees them falling silent again and again. He grieves for them.

            The music swells and now he’s falling forward into the present, past town square philosophers and the lone inventors, tumbling beside the broad strokes of achievement that took man from a scared animal to a confident planet-walker, an explorer of sea and sky and mind. And amidst the loss and relentless death our history is fraught with, he sees the same echo over and over: scientists and artists – wiser men, with longer lives and louder voices than the ones who came before – taking up the call. “We are here.”

            He starts crying.

The thing I believe in is us.

Whatever you believe about our beginnings is a personal matter. What interests me is the middle: the struggle to go on, for thousands of years, by people all over the world. We have eked out a meaningful existence from a seemingly meaningless world, and throughout the rising and falling dynasties, the gods made and forgotten, and the millions of intimate victories and tragedies that make up our lives, there has always been someone looking up at the sky, counting the days, and making another mark. We are still here.

It doesn’t matter what day you celebrate it. Call it New Year’s Day or Roshashana or the Chinese Spring Festival. The New Year celebration is the birthday of mankind. It’s a memorial to memory: the implicit acknowledgement that we are here, we have been here, and we will fight to stay as long as we can. We all have different reasons why, and how, and when, but we are all here together.

Last year is past, and the new year is coming.

This is our heritage.

Jan 1, 2015

He lies awake in his bed. In his apartment, in Los Angeles. His city. His arm is around the woman he loves.

            She doesn’t know that, and neither does he. He won’t realize it for several more weeks, and then it’ll be another month or more before he’s brave enough to tell her.

            He has won jobs and lost them. Like the captain of a ship, he has learned not to fear the ups and downs of the tide, but to respect them, and to expect them.

            He is making a decent living now. He has plans for the future. But happiness doesn’t feel at all like he thought it would. There are no burning signs in the sky or manic declarations. He has learned that love of anything – of a person, of a craft, of a way of life – is not a frenzied explosion of joy, but a gentle, consistent voice that whispers, whenever he is unsure of his place in the world, “Yes. Yes.

            “You are here.”

            The thing inside him has begun to bloom.

Dec 26, 2015

Happy birthday, everyone. Happy New Year. Here’s to another pirouette with the sun, and everything we might do with it.