new year’s eve

On December 31st, 1968, Richard Burton wrote in his diary: “The last day of the year and I’m not sorry. It’s been an upsiddy-downy year, mostly down than up……Don’t be so depressed Rich, the World will be new tomorrow.” A sort of a half-hearted sentiment, I suspect, knowing what we know now about ol’ Ricardo and his propensity for existential despair, and how being in a torrid on and off-again marriage fueled by alcohol and fabulous diamonds tended to influence those bouts of dread. And has it really been a year already, or have we just been stuck in the month of March for two hundred and seventy four days due to some sort of glitch of quantum mechanics? These days, Richard Burton enjoys the eternal peace of not having to tangle with such conundrums.

My plans for the evening consist of making a little good luck lemon piglet, cooking up the various auspicious fats and greens, having a bit of cava, reading my tarot cards, and watching old movies. I don’t need a reason to stay up late, I come from generations of practiced insomniacs and so the raccoon lifestyle is in the cards for me whether there’s a midnight-centered holiday or not. 

There’s nothing about the bleakness of the year that has not been better summarized by better poets than myself, so I’ll spare us the inventory of anguish except to say that nobody I know was unscathed in some way, and I don’t kid myself that this all goes away for anyone at the stroke of midnight. Given the way it’s gone, I feel more or less lucky to be here still, and I hope my luck can hold out a little longer, and if you’re still here with me then that is my hope for you, too. And by you, I of course mean nobody in particular except the Chinese search engine that regularly indexes this blog and is thus my most loyal reader, since I continue to refuse to optimize or promote my antiquated online diary in any fashion or join the elites of Substack (I tried the newsletter format once, it wasn’t for me, but I subscribe to some very good ones, so don’t consider this a slam on the entire medium). 

My resolutions are really no different today than any other day: I want to finish my manuscript, be a good dog owner, be a good friend and family member, do what I can to be helpful to the needs of the world, and to continue playing opera records for my houseplants, because I started doing that recently and they really seem to respond to it. Warren Zevon’s perennial advice was to enjoy every sandwich, and I think that’s a good guiding principle especially if like me, you’re prone to bouts of bad brains re: things beyond our control. I’ve long bemoaned the simmering epistemological crisis that now seems to have come to a boil here in the land of the hypothetically free, but I’d encourage you to be a lamp-bearer for truth by simply living as kindly to yourself and others as you can, and of course I include plants and animals in that. After all, as the great desert poet Edward Abbey wrote: “We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred.” It’s really all we can control, at the end of the day, how kind we are to the situations and people we encounter. 

All year I’ve pondered whether the times are ending or simply changing—or if there’s any relevant difference between the two. I want so badly to believe that these are not really the end times—even though my own life has been a series of object lessons in the fact that all things can and do end. I felt that the most brutal aspect of this year was how predictable so much of its tragedy was: we had ample evidentiary warning for nearly every worst case scenario of police violence, public health, climate change, and federal government we experienced, but through a combination of willful negligence, deliberate ignorance, bad management, and fucking awful luck, the worst case scenarios happened anyway. Still, I leave 2020 suspecting more than ever that anger and politics are two things I need to waste less time on in 2021, and that I should just replace both of those with being a better neighbor. 

Abbey, contemplating the demise of the ancient Anasazis, wondered similarly: “Long ago the cliff dwellings were abandoned. Were the inhabitants actually destroyed by the enemies they had always dreaded? Or were they reduced and driven out by disease, by something as undramatic as bad sanitation, pollution of their water and air? Or could it have been, finally, simply their own fears which poisoned their lives beyond hope of recovery and drove them into exile and extinction?” One consistent thread I’ve noticed across the blurred seasons of 2020 is fear. Much of it is justified and understandable, but some of it’s also been harnessed into hateful ideology and racist violence, into shootings and suicide bombings, into bleak cults and bleaker anti-science movements—the exact sorts of things which will drive a civilization from its dwellings and into some shadowy corner of history where all preventable tragedies are filed away. I’d like to think that whatever fate awaits us in the future, I will not have let the fear of it poison me, too. But like all resolutions, it’s easier said than done. 

Delineating time in arbitrary years seems to make less and less sense the older I get. There are discernible chapters, to be sure, but they never seem to adhere to time in any mechanical sense. And regardless of personal philosophy, we have more means to shape our narrative than we might realize. I saw repeatedly in 2020 that at least a few of us still hold the capacity for compassion and wonder and weirdness and revolution. There are a few seekers left looking even now to the ash-tinged skies of a strange and terrible time and choosing to paint them with prayers and dreams, colored as they are with grief, with hope, with love, with absurdity. Late one December, Susan Sontag wrote: “Exorcizing the ghost. What was, no longer is. Being in touch with my own feelings.”

So, here’s to tomorrow, anyhow. 

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