I’ve written in the past about how I have never really felt comfortable with the standard celebration of the New Year’s Eve in the UK which seems to mainly consist of drinking heavily, maybe some food, maybe some dancing, stopping to listen to the chime of Big Ben at midnight, then linking arms, singing Auld Lang Syne (a poem written in Scottish dialect to which nobody knows the words or has any idea what they mean), kissing everybody in the room and wishing them a Happy New Year. Awkward pause. Resume heavy drinking.
Which can be fun. But what is the deeper meaning behind the traditions? Without doubt, it is something to do with acknowledging and strengthening bonds of friendship. And that, in itself, is hugely important. But, what if the actual celebration itself is devoid of meaning. Is it healthy to celebrate a friendship with a set of traditions which have lost all meaning? Is there not a danger of building on false foundations?
And that probably explains why I feel uncomfortable with New Year’s Eve parties. They feel dishonest. Full of phoney smiles and false bonhomie. Because, even if the warmth of friendship is true and heart-felt, celebrating with a set of empty rituals seems pointless and disrespectful. Disrespectful to the friend, disrespectful to myself and disrespectful to our relationship.
Maybe I am just taking it all too seriously. Maybe it’s just a lark. Maybe empty rituals are fine. Just go along with it all. Smile. Make the effort. Make the gesture. Have a laugh. Have a dance. Have another drink. Get smashed. Have a good time. Go home. Wake up the next morning with a hangover and a nagging empty feeling. A feeling that somehow you have missed an opportunity.
No. Fuck it. I have had enough of feeling vaguely uncomfortable and curiously unsatisfied at the start of the first day of January each year. I am not going to do that any more. Out of respect for my self and out of respect for my friends, I am not going to celebrate emptiness any longer. This issue bears closer inspection.
There are some New Year traditions with which I do feel happy. Every New Year’s Day a group of tai chi students with whom I practise gather together on a playing field close to my house and we do a tai chi set or two. Someone will bring along some mince pies maybe. Perhaps some mulled wine. We briefly share some food, drink and chat, find out what sort of Christmas we all had, wish each other Happy New Year and go home. It is all very quiet and informal. I like it. It is a tradition with which I am comfortable. Because it has some meaning for me. On several levels: It is a tradition started by my teacher, Jenny Smith. Jenny is dead now, so carrying on the tradition is an act of remembrance and respect. We are all friends who practise tai chi together and understand the value of practising together. So, performing a set outdoors, in public is an affirmation of both the friendship and the art of tai chi. And, quite simply, it feels good to do some gentle exercise outdoors at this time of year. I feel good doing it. And I feel good after doing it. It doesn’t give me a hangover. For me, it isn’t really important that it happens on the first day of January. That’s just an excuse. The meaning doesn’t lie in the date. But there is meaning. So it’s ok. I feel comfortable. As an event, it isn’t pretending to be anything more than it is.
I am not even sure what the New Year’s Eve party is pretending to be. Certainly, all the commotion centres around the transition from one year to the next. From 2016 to 2017. From one number to another. So, is it about celebrating having made it through another year? A celebration of Life? That seems worthwhile and positive. I can go for that.
But why 31st December/ 1st January? Why choose to celebrate Life at that particular point in Time?
Well, I think that it is almost certainly to do with a fairly basic need to remind ourselves that we are alive and kicking at a time of the year when the days are short, the nights are long, it’s cold outside and Life is at a low ebb. It is about finding Light in the midst of Darkness. I like that. I understand that need. Everybody does. It is an acknowledgement that we are a part of the Natural World. Linked to its rhythms. Despite the electric light that floods our homes. Despite our magical ability to summon it forth with a flick of a switch. Despite the flickering screens of light that we sit before each night. Despite that we carry screens in our pockets – talismans of perpetual Light. Despite our best efforts to escape it. To banish it forever. Despite all this. We know that the Dark is out there. And we know that this is the Time of Darkness. And we are afraid. Despite all our Science. All our Logic. All our Technology. All our Achievements. Despite all this. We are still afraid of the Dark. Despite all our experience. Despite all the evidence to the contrary. We are afraid that, this Time, the Dark will win. That, this year, the Sun will not return. The Days will not lengthen. The buds will not ripen. The leaves not unfurl. We fear that Spring will not come. We fear that the cycle will fail to turn.
It is a deep, deep Fear. The exact same Fear our ancestors felt sitting around their fires hugging a little closer the animal skins that they have taken and wrapped around themselves to keep themselves warm. We kid ourselves that we are different, that Knowledge has freed us from such Fears. But stand any man alone in a dark wood on a dark winter night and he will still feel the Fear. Still seek to make a fire to light the Dark.
I think that this Fear is good. It humbles us. Reminds us that we are not in charge. That we are subject to systems way larger, way more powerful then ourselves. The Fear teaches us a sense of proportion. A sense of scale. Teaches us that our human scale fears and concerns are meaningless to a tree, or an ocean. It teaches us that Time has scales. Teaches us that our human Time scale is not the Time scale of an oak tree, or a damsel fly, or a mountain. What we class as a lifetime is a moment in the life of an ocean.
And one way to deal with the Fear is to get together, light up the floor, pump up the volume and dance. That’s good. I like it. It’s my normal response……. but not this year. This year too much has happened, too much has changed, too many easy assumptions have been called into question. This year, something is different. So I want to do things differently. I am too tired for parties. This year, I want to try a different approach. Sometimes it is more useful to hide away quietly. Hide away and confront the Fear. Invite the Fear in. Spend some Time getting to know each other.
As far as I am concerned I have already celebrated the birth of the New Year. That is what the Winter Solstice is for. That is why I write my Yule bLog. That is why I observe the solstice. It is a conscious effort to move back towards an experience of Time that is more closely linked to the Natural World. An attempt to align myself with a Time scale that is greater than human. I want to do this because I believe it is fundamental to establishing a more sustainable relationship with the Planet. Our human relationship with the planet is pretty fucked up at the moment. It needs healing.
As a species, we tend to behave as if we rule the Planet. As if we can impose our will upon it. Make it behave as we wish, as best suits our fickle desires. One of the ways we do this is by insisting on living according to our own version of Time. Which is merely a construct. A made up thing. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years – none of these actually exist outside our Human World. They are not real. A dog has no notion of how many years old it is. Cats do not celebrate birthdays.
Human Time is totally made up – yet, we totally run our lives by it. We enslave ourselves to a figment of our imagination. We don’t get up at dawn – we get up when the alarm rings. We don’t take a break from work when we are tired and need it – we wait until the weekend. We set ourselves targets – I must get this report finished by Friday otherwise the world will end. We get hung up on punctuality. Make a virtue out of paying more attention to the artificial construct of Human Time than listening to the needs of our own bodies or attempting to harmonise with the world around us. And we have become so used to this odd behaviour that we regard it as normal. But it is not. It is deeply dysfunctional. It is the behaviour of a patient who refuses to accept the reality of the world that surrounds him but, instead, lives his life according to the rules of a made-up world that exists only in his head.
I used to teach a child who was on the autistic spectrum. Each morning, at registration time, he would empty his pencil case of a selection of tiny toy dinosaurs which he would spend the next twenty minutes arranging in a particular order. When the bell went for first lesson, he would return the dinosaurs to their case. There was a particular order to be observed. He could not be rushed. Once the dinosaurs were safely put away, the boy would begin his journey to his Maths lesson which was in a classroom on the other side of the school. It was a complicated journey. There were many rules. The boy was always late for his lesson. His Maths teacher was not impressed. I tried to explain that the boy was just following his own internal logic. To him, his behaviour made perfect sense. To not do things the way he was doing them was, to him, as crazy as his behaviour seemed to us. The school did its best to understand, tried to accommodate the boy and his behaviours. But, in the end, the boy could not modify his behaviour enough, or do so quickly enough, to fit in. The boy had to leave. I sometimes think that the human species is like that boy. Our behaviour on our Planet like his behaviour in the school: possessed of its own internal logic but utterly bizarre to the outside observer. And, unless we learn to modify our behaviour and learn quickly, we are going to get kicked off the Planet.
So, for me, this New Year celebration is an experiment. A conscious decision to modify my own personal behaviours. To try to live, as much as possible, outside Human Time. To try to get a stronger sense of a larger scale, more Natural Time. It will be part of a bigger experiment. This blog will be my way of recording and reporting my findings.
At this point, as I write, in the early morning hours before dawn on New Year’s Eve, I can report that I am already a little bit sad and a little bit jealous about missing an opportunity to get together and dance. I do like to party. And I feel guilty that I am impacting upon how my wife spends her New Year too. We have talked about it a lot. Will no doubt continue to do so. We are exploring together . On a journey together. Compromises will have to be made. Last night I went to a party. A gathering together of old work colleagues. I met old friends that I had not seen for six years. I enjoyed it very much. But we only have one car. My going to my party meant that my wife was unable to attend a gathering of friends elsewhere of which she very much wanted to be part. My wife compromised her needs for mine. She does that a lot. I need to be mindful of that. She is more often selfless when I am selfish. Accommodating when I am obsessive. Pretty much anything I have achieved in my life, I have done so because she has enabled me to do so. She has, without fail, created the conditions in which I can thrive. Without her working endlessly and often unnoticed in the background, I would be unable to do what I do. I need to be mindful of that. Human beings work best when we work together. We are pack animals. It is natural for us to want to celebrate as a pack. Ultimately, we achieve little on our own. I need to be mindful of that.
And, as I write now, I am aware that bird song outside my window heralds the advent of a new dawn which means I must stop writing and go see if my wife wants a cup of tea. Tomorrow’s dawn will see the arrival of 2017. However you choose to mark this occasion, I hope that you enjoy it and wish you all the best for the Time that lies ahead.