Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

In my last post I gestured towards one of the ways in which we are limited: Whatever the real nature of time, our experience of it is like an inexorable current, carrying us into the future and away from the past. Only one moment is present to us. The past can be recalled but not revisited. The future can be anticipated, but will be experienced only when it becomes the present. And then that moment, too, will fall behind us, further and further back until even the memories are hazy.

This past week, I've found myself thinking about my childhood. Not surprising, since I'm visiting my parents, who still live in the house I grew up in. I type this from an office that used to be my bedroom. The bookcase behind me is the one that I used as a child--the results of my father's amateur carpentry, constructed before I was born.

For some reason, I keep thinking about station wagons with fake wood paneling on the sides--the minivans of my childhood. Even though my parents' station wagon didn't have the paneling, that particular design seems emblematic of a time in my life that I keep returning to in my thoughts, perhaps because my own children are coming into that same age. As they run through the house, I'm running with them, hiding in the same places, banging out the same nonsense on the piano.

The present and the past get knotted together in a strange way. And the traditions of this season--the rituals of Christmas and New Years--tighten those knots. But they also highlight the changes. Vince, a friend of my parents, passed away yesterday (following his wife, Ilse, who died a few years back), and I can remember a New Years Eve about fifteen years ago when they were with us to usher in the New Year. I remember playing Hava Nagila on my violin, and people dancing to it in a kind of parade through the house. I remember Ilse bringing out a tiny cast iron pan that she used to melt lead pellets, which were then dunked in cold water. We were supposed to read our fortunes for the coming year in the shapes that were created.

Whatever entanglements there might be between the present and the past, they cannot restore to us the years that lie behind us. And whatever fortunes we read in globs of metal, the future remains an undiscovered country. For humanity, time flows in one direction, and we have no choice but to follow.

This fact makes it important for us to think about time and its passing. On an individual level, we mark and commemorate each year of our lives on the anniversary of our birth. Couples commemorate each year that they have been together (as my wife and I did yesterday, commemorating nine years together).

And then there's the celebration of the New Year. Different cultures have chosen different moments to collectively pause for reflection and anticipation. But the Western tradition of celebrating the New Year at midnight tonight has spread to many parts of the world. Midnight hits at different moments. The ball drops at intervals of an hour. Cheers and toasts, kisses and laughter, melancholy and maudlin renditions of Auld Lang Syne--we face the future together with joy or trepidation, and the past with an ache or a good riddance.

Let it be so. Happy New Year to all.

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