By Paul M. Lewis
The old year has a funny tendency to slip away, almost without our knowing it, and sometimes even before we’re really ready to say goodbye. What I’m talking about are those things we want to grab hold and not let go of: the memories of those who have left us, gatherings with friends, the adventures of travel, those special, private moments with those we hold most dear, or just the small, funny things that happened, and then melted away like morning dew when the warm sun hits it.
I think this is what that otherwise difficult to comprehend New Year’s Eve song we all intone, “Auld Lang Syne,” is getting at. The first line always seems so puzzling: “May auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind.” It sounds as if we’re supposed to forget old friends, and what sense does that make? But a more modern take on a translation from the old Scottish dialect might instead run something like this: if it may be that old acquaintances are forgotten and no longer remembered. Later, we’re admonished to drink a cup of kindness to them, “in days of auld lang syne,” for the sake of old times.
And what do old times bring to mind but questions of what memory actually is, and what good it does? What else is memory but a host of images, thoughts, and feelings related to what was our present, itself a most transient and impermanent point in time? It is an attempt to give that eternal slippage of the present greater permanence. But in so doing, too often, we give it a life it never actually had in the moment; we change it to fit in with the ideal we have of ourselves. I think of my own memories of childhood, of early adulthood in the monastery, of first forays into the adult world, holding down a job, beginning to make enough money to support myself, of waiting, wishing for someone to share my life with, of finally finding that person and of creating a life together with him. Without these recollected thoughts and feelings and pictures, these stories I tell myself about who I was and who I now am, I would not recognize myself as the person I have somehow become.
So it is with each passing year. I take the opportunity to think back, to look at who I was during the arbitrary span of time just now passing, the year that was 2014, a mere number upon a page really. I wonder what I have done, what I could have, should have accomplished, and what the world did, as well. In his third sonnet, Shakespeare writes one of the most achingly beautiful lines of the many that he penned over the years. Speaking to an idealized youth, and urging him not to deprive the world of offspring, he reminds him that all this is to him, just as he is to his mother: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime.”
Sometimes this summing up that we do seems to fall short. It does for me, I know. Did it, I wonder, for my own mother, as well? I will never know, as she died suddenly many years ago, almost forty-five years now. Yet, I often call back in my memory “the lovely April of her prime,” when she, a vital young woman filled with hope, and love, and desires both for herself and her children, lived the life she had before her to live. Was she content with how her life unfolded, with her accomplishments, things the world might have thought of as little? I can well say the same for myself. Who cannot, in fact, if we look closely at our lives?
But I believe that the ultimate measurement of life must not be in externals. Its best and truest yardstick is an interior one. Have I achieved the highest that I can be, not in some outward way, considering money made, or titles accumulated, or fame, or gain, or praise, or blame for that matter, but more in terms of knowledge of who I am, how I have treated others, and why I am here in the first place? As humans, it seems to me, we are seldom either ever fully at peace with what we have done, or happy at the most profound level with who we are. There is always something more that we feel we must strive for, though we may never reach it. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great 19th century Anglo-Irish poet, puts it this way: “As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage/Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house dwells.”
Nonetheless, we continually strive to somehow be better than we were, to achieve who we think we can be. That, I think, is the nature of the human spirit. And so, I look back on my own 2014, as many do at this time, and wonder, was it enough? I wrote some 30 essays on this blog, everything from posts related to global warming (many), to thoughts about politics (good and bad), to ones having to do with art, travel, education, science, work, even procrastination (how timely!), and of course, about religion and spirituality. I have been working hard, with help from my partner, on getting a novel I wrote (and thought I finished) a few years ago ready for self-publication, hopefully no later than this spring. And these again are just the externals. Although could it not also be said that what we do externally is the best reflection of who we are internally?
The world at large, too, has had its own things to remember, many unfortunately not very positive: the savagery of ISIS, NSA spying, various and sundry odd Supreme Court rulings, the killings of many a young black man, Puttin’s huffing and puffing and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the GOP takeover of Congress, the horrors of Ebola, often foiled attempts at making immigration into the US right for millions of “illegals,” the supposed end of the Afghan war, though no one is sure, and again let us not forget the continuing ravages of global warming. The list goes on and on, and no doubt each reader could add his or her own items to it. But the news was not all bad, and I look back and think that at least some things got done that were needed: the economy is beginning to look better even for ordinary folk; gay people can now marry in many states, where only a year ago they could not; and many, many more Americans have access to affordable healthcare. It’s true that the negatives on the list may outweigh the positives, but the thing about people that is so wonderful is that we continue to hope, sometimes even in the face of hopelessness.
Hope can almost be seen as the other side of memory. If memory consists of the jumble of thoughts and feelings and images that once were, either in the exactitude of how they happened or in the self-created, idealized way we wish they had, then hope is the desire for all things affirmative, that deep wish to fill the fleeting moments of the new year looming before us with all that is right and good and positive.
In Spanish, the saying is Próspero Año Nuevo, may you have a prosperous new year. In French, they say Bonne Année, meaning, good year. And in Russian, it’s even simpler. Transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet, it looks like S Novim Godom, at the new year. In the end, they all pretty much come down more or less to the same thing: best wishes, and hope for a Happy New Year! May it be better than any we have ever seen, and may we be better than we have ever been. As good, in fact, as we truly wish ourselves to be.