Year In, Year Out

As we ring in 2014, let’s assess our feelings: Are you grieving for the old, preparing for rebirth, or just feeling pretty average?


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One New Year’s Eve, at eight years old, my parents left me alone with a neighbor, a bottle of sparkling cider, and a television for company. Far away, in New York City, thousands of people danced in the streets as the minutes of the last day of the year ticked on the giant clock in the sky. The people on the television writhed and hopped. They screamed at me from across the country. I could not hear them — I could only watch the clock, suspended, waiting to shout HAPPY NEW YEAR!! at my neighbor at exactly the right moment.

I woke up late on January 1st. Everything was as it was. I understood then that nothing happens on New Year’s and nothing ever would.

The great haiku artist Kobayashi Issa wrote this:

New Year’s Day–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Part of New Year’s difficulty is that we can’t decide if we ought to be mourning or celebrating, if we ought to be dancing in a ballroom or a cemetery.

When the poet Sylvia Plath wrote New Year on Dartmoor in December of 1961 and the beginning of 1962, she was herself mostly dead. New year in Dartmoor was to be Plath’s last year on Earth, ending in February 1963, when she would quietly put her head in the gas oven and go forever to sleep. In the poem, the speaker walks out to the fresh white snow with her child. She is more ghost than mother, estranged from her child’s delight:

This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

Plath was world-weary in 1962. For the world-weary, newness is a landscape of disorienting, inaccessible slants viewed from far away. The New Year, with its promise of joy and renewal, was a stranger to Sylvia Plath by the time 1962 rang in. She was dying — newness, for Plath, was a lie. Nothing in the world could ever be new to Plath again. Later that year, Plath would give an interview to the British Council and tell Peter Orr that she had a growing interest in history. “I think that as I age I am becoming more and more historical,” said the 29-year-old. And so she was, a living artifact before thirty, a ruin who was still able to give interviews.

Here I must slip around and fall over the alien New Year with its mincing falsetto and tawdry gifts, Sylvia Plath wrote to herself. But not even an elephant could bring her back to the magic. Not even a brand-new year. Not even her children.

Some people focus on the passing Old Year rather than the New — English people, for instance, who are nostalgic by nature, as opposed to, say, American people, who do not enjoy the past as much because they have got so little of it, and erase what they do have as soon as they can. “Tread softly and speak low,” wrote the English poet Alfred Tennyson in The Death of the Old Year, “for the old year lies a-dying.”

Old year you must not die;
You came to us so readily,
You lived with us so steadily,
Old year you shall not die. …
He lieth still: he doth not move:
He will not see the dawn of day.
He hath no other life above.
He gave me a friend and a true truelove
And the New-year will take ’em away.

Grieving for the Old Year is the real celebration for Tennyson, who was at his poetic best in grief. The Old Year is adored as a dying king whose rule was, all in all, pretty good. Whatever troubles the passing year brought, there was, at least, some laughter and friendship and love. Good-old comfortable Old Year! Who knows what the New Year will bring? The uncertainty of the New Year’s reign-to-be makes the Old Year’s reign benevolent by default. “The cricket chirps: the light burns low: ’Tis nearly twelve o’clock.” The Old Year grows thinner and colder, the Old Year is almost a shadow.

Step from the corpse, and let him in
That standeth there alone,
And waiteth at the door.
There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend,
And a new face at the door, my friend,
A new face at the door.

Tennyson’s poem reminds us how the excitement of renewal is always tempered by the sadness of loss. “Step from the corpse, and let him in,” wrote Tennyson — but who was the real corpse? What is the passing Old Year or was it Tennyson himself, making way for the Tennyson-to-be? No wonder New Year’s resolutions are so fraught — when we invite change into ourselves we die a little bit too. And yet, to deny the New Year altogether, as Plath wished to, is to die completely.

Something in us wants to be reborn — otherwise, why mark time? I don’t believe that clocks are simply the offspring of the marketplace, a way for civilization to synchronize its achievements. Each new year, each new day, each new minute we are asking for a chance to start over. And we are starting over — over and over — so often we can’t feel it happening. A part of us does not want to feel it happening, of course, because each passing second reminds us (if unconsciously) of death. The renewal of New Year’s is exciting until we remember we are one step closer to oblivion.

Maybe we are asking too much of ourselves. To reflect back upon a whole year gone? To plan for a whole year ahead? So Long to the Past and Hello to the Future? Trying to mentally sum up the entirety of one’s life and reaffirm it all on one drunken holiday? It’s no wonder New Year’s is depressing.

And yet, something remarkable does happen on New Year’s — it can’t be denied. It doesn’t happen in the Old Year or the New, on New Year’s evening or day. But there is a New Year’s moment. I don’t know how long it is but I know how it feels. The New Year’s moment is a gasp, a fracture, a tiny quiet Apocalypse. It happens in that transient middle space between what was and what will be; it is a standing-at-the-threshold-between-the-old-king-and-the-new-face-at-the-door. It is disorienting — Plath saw this. At the New Year’s moment, the two years face each other as mirrors, each spanning backward and forward infinitely, so that we can’t tell which is which. We don’t even know when the moment comes — it might not even be at midnight. A moment can’t be planned because it comes too quickly; a moment can’t be reflected on for just the same reason. A moment is of time and outside of time because it simply must be lived. This moment is the thing we want to hold on to when we get excited about New Year’s, but it is so unpredictable. We get caught up wondering how we will be changed by this moment, and what it will mean. But maybe the possessive ‘s’ after the words “New Year” was put there to remind us yet again how time is not our own. All we can do is open the door between the Old Year and the New Year and invite the moment to arrive.

“This is newness,” a poet once wrote while walking with her child through the snow.

the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look.

Plath, in her profound and profoundly sad way, had found the words for something beautiful as she was trying to find the words for her pain. She had discovered the words for the New Year’s moment. The New Year’s moment is a sudden slippiness, an inaccessible slant. We can’t get to newness by elephant or wheel or shoe, but anyway, we have only come to look.

The poet Kobayashi Issa suffered greatly in his life — suffered as we all, in time, suffer — and like us, Issa’s suffering informed his opinions about New Year’s. Beginning with his mother at age three, Issa’s loved ones seemed always to die — his grandmother, his children, his wife. No one Issa loved was immune. Issa’s body of work is a chronicle of loneliness and loss. It is not easy to laugh when everything in life goes wrong. Which is what makes Issa’s reputation as a funny poet even more significant. For example:

fallen among
the moonflowers…
horse turds

Issa was also a Buddhist and so had a Buddhist perspective on New Year’s. Meaning, he was inclined to view the big through the lens of the microscopic. (Issa wrote no less than 200 poems about frogs, around 230 on the firefly, over 150 about mosquitoes, 90 on flies, and over 100 on fleas, not to mention his gentle meditations on excrement and flatulence.) Issa began his autobiographical work The Spring of My Life with a New Year’s story. It went like this. Long ago, in Fuko Temple, there was a devout priest who was determined to celebrate New Year’s to the fullest. So on New Year’s Eve he wrote a letter to himself and asked a novice to deliver the letter back to himself — the priest — in the morning. On New Year’s Day, the novice entered the priest’s room and handed him the letter. The priest quickly opened the letter and read aloud. “Give up the world of suffering! Come to the Pure Land. I will meet you along the way with a host of bodhisattvas!” And then the priest began weeping so hard the tears soaked his sleeves.

This story is weird, wrote Issa. Who would want to celebrate New Year’s in sleeves soaked with self-induced tears? And yet, wrote Issa, what better way to celebrate New Year’s?

Still clothed in the dust of this suffering world, I celebrate the first day in my own way. And yet I am like the priest, for I too shun trite popular seasonal congratulations. … The customary New Year pine will not stand beside my door. I won’t even sweep my dusty house, living as I do in a tiny hermitage constantly threatening to collapse under harsh north winds. I leave it all to the Buddha, as in the ancient story.

The way ahead may be dangerous, steep as snowy trails winding through high mountains. Nevertheless I welcome the New Year just as I am.

And then the poet wrote,

New Year’s Day–
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Issa’s words are not a complaint, after all. Letting oneself feel average at the break of the New Year is another way of saying, I accept this year just as it is and myself, just as I am. Can it be that the wild, miraculous sensation of newness comes at the moment when we aren’t doing anything?

Welcoming renewal ‘just as I am’ seems to be a paradox. What Issa means is that the New Year is not ours to change, but we can become changed by it. Another translation of this same poem by Sam Hamill goes:

New Year greeting-time:
I feel about average
welcoming my spring.

Issa’s standing ‘as he is’ before the wonder of the Buddha and Time and Nature (everything is in blossom!) reminds me of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “Woman before the Rising Sun.” I should like to re-title the painting “New Year’s Moment.” A woman in a long dark dress stands facing a sunrise that bursts up from behind a mountain. The rays of sun blaze and illuminate the rocky landscape, turning the sky a fiery orange. The woman is quite far from the sunrise but Friedrich positioned her in such a way that the rays seem to be shooting out of her whole body. And even so, she is not contorted in ecstasy before the new day. She’s not grasping at the sunrise either, trying to gather the sun into herself. She simply stands there, waiting, her arms turned slightly open. Interestingly, this painting is sometimes called “Woman before the Setting Sun.” Caspar David Friedrich — who was not a Buddhist (but was German) — often mixed up time in his paintings. Now something is rising, now something is passing, now something is dying, now something reborn — nature and time always infinite, and mysterious, happenings to stand before in mute awe. Friedrich once said of his paintings (in other words, his life), “I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it: a brilliant butterfly or maggot.” This is exactly what the woman in “Woman before the Rising Sun (Woman before the Setting Sun)” is doing. She opens her hands a little bit toward to the coming sun and invites the new day to arrive. She welcomes her spring as the winter passes, leaving time to show what will come of it. • 23 December 2013


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at