The “New Year” thing is so old, isn’t it? Starting from the banal (resolutions to do what you wanted to do last year) to the quietly sublime (not being able to help contemplating the drowsy but inevitable passage of time).
The idea of there being a “beginning” of a year is completely arbitrary, of course. Yet we have endowed this one day with the history and traditions that make it impossible not to feel a sort of significance.
I remember a conversation with my father, the last complete conversation I had with him, when he gently refused to commit to spending the “big new year” (2000) with me. My family had repatriated to India where both my parents were born. I was the only one left in America. I saw a lot less of them than I’d liked, especially at that time, when I was in law school, always short on both time and money. But I was going to be with my family on the “big” new year come hell or high water.
I was on the phone with Dad in late September, 1999. He said “come see me soon.” And I said yes, I’ll be there after my exams we’ll all spend the big new year together. He said that was just a construct and the important thing was that we would be together soon. He was a very rational man and this was just the sort of thing he might have said in another context, but he also had an emotional richness about him that was very generous toward the sentiments of others, so I’m not sure it was in character for him to dampen my enthusiasm in that way. In any case, a chord in his voice struck odd in my ear.
So I insisted. I know it’s a construct, but it has a value, doesn’t it? Aren’t most things we observe constructs that we have somehow found useful? I know it’s not even technically the new millennium, but it’s cool that the date format will change… and everyone in the world will be celebrating…. I wondered if he would tell me that millions of people in the world would have nothing to celebrate that night. He thought deeply about those things, but again, it wasn’t at all like him to dim someone’s joy.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but he didn’t argue with me. He didn’t humor me either. He just gently floated away from the whole new year thread of the conversation. He told me to come see him soon. But I just couldn’t get him to commit to the date. He was absolutely firm on that point. Looking back, I wonder if he had a premonition that it would have been a promise he couldn’t keep.
He died on December 2, 1999.
And while the Y2K fears turned out to be baseless, my world had changed utterly and forever.
That was eight years ago.
This is what the new year is about. Counting how many years it’s been since one thing or another. Counting the passing of years generally. It’s really all about the old years. It’s quite fitting that its anthem is Auld Lang Syne.