When I turn over the pages of a calendar for the new year, I feel as if I'm reading a book no one else has ever read.
Who knows where we will be next January? How many of us can remember what we did last year on this date?
Do you remember what you hoped for and feared back then?
Many of the big troubles are the same: we are still sending troops overseas, parts of the world are recovering from catastrophes initiated by nature and made worse by greed, those in pain from their bodies and their minds are kept from finding the help that could free them because they can't do the paperwork, raise the money, or bring themselves to admit the need. Parents lie awake wondering whether their children will be all right; children put pillows over their ears to stop the noise of arguments. Fearful and alone, some want only to know that they will not be abandoned; frantic and overwhelmed, others long to be genuinely on their own.
Having said that, it is the smaller worlds of our everyday lives (the ones filled with details and habits that keep -- most of the time -- the greater dread of the bigger world's darkness away) that nevertheless manage to siphon off our confidence and undermine our contentment. These domestic worries are as familiar as itch in the middle of your back: it's yours but you can't reach it; nobody is doing it to you but that doesn't mean you can make it stop∂.
Anxieties are like itches -- and like memories. It's tough to make them go away. It's also tough to remember what they were like after you don't have them anymore.
If I remember what I worried about in the past it's because I cheat: I have journals.January 1972 begins with resolutions:
Eat less greasy food, start homework earlier, get fingernails to grow, stay away from Tom because he will never love me the way I want him to and he'll only break my heart again if I let him, drink less soda.
During the intervening years I have managed (with the assistance of an excellent manicurist; I never underestimate professional help) to get my fingernails to grow.
That's about it.
It's not like my goals have significantly changed, either. I still drink too much soda (not to mention champagne), I still worry about overdoing my emotional attachments, and despite the fact that I almost always make my deadlines, I still believe I should start my assignments sooner in order to avoid the breathless, heart-thumping, photo-finish feeling when a piece of writing is due.
My January 1979 journal tells me I arrived in London via a one-way ticket, wondering what I'd be doing for the rest of my life (as if life itself were a short-answer quiz when instead it is an essay question with an undisclosed time limit). "It only hurts to have these feelings" I scribbled. "I crouch, wanting to avoid as long as possible the slap-in-the-face of my future."
By January of 1987 I was leaping rather than cringing towards what came next. I'd interviewed for the job at UConn: "What on earth can I expect from Storrs, Connecticut?" I asked, never having seen the place. But it's supposed to snow and I don't want to go to any other campus to give a talk." Such are the variables -- laziness, weather, fear of travel -- shaping our destinies.
And sometimes things get better: the future has been known to offer handshakes rather than slaps, after all.
Of course, we often don't realize that until later.
Try this: write, honestly, what you're thinking about today. Then look at it next year. Maybe you'll see what you'll hold onto, and maybe see what you'll need to let go. Could be that you thank yourself -- not for the reminder of what bothered you, but for the relief of realizing it's no longer there.
You know when you're lucky enough to find somebody willing to scratch that place in the middle of your back? Amazing, right? When done properly (not so it gets worse and you pretend you're thankful even though your misery has been increased) you can be relieved of the constant nagging awareness of yourself. You breathe deeply, smile, and relax. Then you forget.
Lessons? Relief from ourselves can be a blessing; perspective is an amazing gift; and books -- especially the unread ones beginning with each new year-- almost always start with inscriptions.
Inscribe away. Happy 2014.