It’s New Year’s Eve and once again the annual madness is about to begin. Strange how we do this. What we’ve actually got is a celebration of something that happens regularly, due to the orbiting of our planet around our life-giving star, the Sun. What we call a “year” is the time it takes for that circumambulation to happen. Trouble is, at least as far as I know, there is no marker by which we measure when, exactly, the circuit is completed. We accept the doctrine that it happens at midnight on December 31, though since the advent of television, we’ve become aware that the magic moment happens successively in different time zones. So we witness visually that there’s no one New Year moment around the globe. That in itself ought to make us pause, and wonder why whoever started this tradition picked the middle of winter for the alleged “beginning” of the New Year. Why not the start of Spring? (Actually, it turns out that the earliest recorded celebrations for New Year go back 4,000 years to ancient Babylon, where the first new moon following the vernal equinox—it’s a day in late March where sunlight and darkness are more or less equal—marked the New Year and the celebrations for it. The Romans used to celebrate the New Year on the vernal equinox as well, until a king, Numa Pompilius, added January and February to the calendar, and then, in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar instituted his Julian calendar and made January 1 the date of the New Year. So what we have now is essentially a Caesarian (pun intended) holiday. see http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/new-years). That should confirm the point: what we celebrate is essentially a construct, which itself tends to make more sense of our trying to construct and hype up the evening with joy and hopes for some positive (for us) changes. But why we think the new year, starting on this wholly artificial date, should be any better than the old, is again something to give us pause.
All that aside, though, and putting aside for a moment the fact that I can't really remember a New Year’s Eve that amounted to much (save for a few years in the 1970s-80s when my neighbor in Berkeley, Peter Engelhart, used to have a New Year’s Eve party that stands as the best I’ve ever been part of. Peter’s house was roomy and filled with musicians and friends young and old making music and conversation and feasting on Peter’s wife Locha’s great pot of Posole with chicken, a Mexican tradition. Then just before midnight, Locha would hand out bunches of twelve grapes, which each person was supposed to eat and wish on as the clock struck the magic hour. Sadly, that party and its house are long gone, but it still stands out for me as one true New Year’s Eve celebration), a typical one would be the year my best high school friend and I decided to try to join the festivities in Times Square. We took the train from Bridgeport CT into the City and hiked towards the zero point, but as it was already late, we couldn’t even get within shouting distance: all the roads were blocked and/or jammed with partiers who’d been there since 8 AM or earlier; so we gave up and spent New Year’s Eve in some nondescript bar on 48th Street, watching Times Square on TV as usual—making that New Year’s eve one of the most disappointing ever.
But I digress. What I really meant to write about was my morning walk. The day in Bolinas dawned sunny and crisp—cold, really, for California at 40 degrees or so—but after yesterday’s rain, clear as glass. The ocean’s horizon edge was razor sharp, with only a couple of container ships breaking the line. Then, as I approached the top of a hill near the end of my walk, I got a huge western view of the Pacific in all its glory, fronted by the newly-washed road heading down to the tide pools, with pine trees and woods and plants in the foreground, and at the blue horizon line this time a puffy layer of dainty clouds looking like a lace ruffle. But the clouds weren’t just white, they were tinged with pink from the sun in the east. As I took all this in, and remembered it was New Year’s Eve when I wouldn’t be doing anything at all but staying home to watch the stupid ball drop to hysterical shouting, I suddenly had this feeling of all-rightness. This would definitely do, I thought. I don’t have to go anywhere. I don’t have to try to hype up a good time or shout or drink or enthuse over anything. I am here, and this place, this coast, this moment of achingly pure air and blue sky/ocean and unfettered landscape are quite good enough. More than good enough. Because I know that though there are countless young people (and a good many older ones) who still feel the need to travel and see what’s left of the world before it’s too late, I no longer do. It’s not that I’ve seen everything—which of course, no one ever does. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have been born at a time when the earth could still afford us the kind of view I’m now witnessing. And even before that, when I was growing up in urban Connecticut, the earth still afforded us room: room to roam, room to explore nearby woods, or the golf course a few blocks away, or vacant lots—there were still vacant lots—that could quickly be converted to a baseball diamond or a field for mock battles with leftover construction materials. In winter we could skate on a pond at the golf course for free; or after a snowstorm, build caves in the snowdrifts formed against sand traps. I and all who grew up with me could look forward to a world that held promise—mainly the promise that it would still be here by the time we grew up, would still be hospitable to humans in the way it always (at least as far as we knew) had been.
No doubt some of that world still remains for some people in some countries. No doubt there is still time to explore and travel and hope and dream of better days. But increasingly, at least in these United States and in the West in general, the gardens that once seemed so promising have begun to close. The assurance that allowed my parents and even me as a parent to allow children to play on their own in the streets and alleys and woods and vacant lots, has now, as far as I can tell, vanished. Fear stalks the streets, even though it is surely exaggerated. Activities must be planned down to the letter. And that, to me, is a terrible loss—for the great thing about roaming is that you never know quite what will turn up. One day it might be a plan to have a circus. The next it might be enough kids gathered to have a football or stickball game. The next it might be simply a game of ring-a-levio. Or climbing a tree. Or running by mistake into a hornet’s nest. Or smoking in the woods behind the school. We never knew. And therein lay the glory.
So that’s my hope for this New Year’s Eve. I hope that more kids, more people in general, can somehow conjure up more random roaming for themselves. I hope that more people can find, completely unexpectedly, something like the joyful vision I had this morning. It doesn’t require a view of the Pacific Ocean; it doesn’t require vacant lots even; but it does require some opening of the mind and heart to what is right in front of us. That is, more than anything, what is missing from our lives these days. And the great thing, the miraculous thing, is that we never know when the world will open and give us its magic, its mystery. We never know.
So even knowing it’s a construct, may your New Year be a happy and roaming one.