Thursday, December 31, 2015
Happy Old Year!
Tonight Ann and I are going to our friends’ Ron and Trung’s home for “The Last Supper.” Maybe we won’t be celebrating the New Year so much as celebrating the year that has passed. I love this idea of celebrating the old year.
Culturally, we celebrate beginnings and mourn—or ignore—endings. There’s New Year’s and New Year’s Eve, Christmas and Christmas Eve. I don’t know a word for the last day of anything and certainly not one for the next to the last day.
When I was looking for poems about darkness and endings for the poetry club I lead at an assisted living facility, I realized this cultural penchant for beginnings and the light through my Google searches, where any link with poems about darkness also have light, and any link with poems about endings also have beginnings.
In the Christian calendar, we recognize the days leading up to Christ’s crucifixion with sackcloth and ashes: in our church a dark cloth cloaking Christ’s window. The resurrection is full of light in contrast to the previous week’s darkness.
At Christmas, we celebrate Christ’s birth. It’s a happy story, a story of light in the darkness as three wise men make it across long distances by following a star. The story emphasizes the star (and the gifts), not the darkness.
I have this penchant, too. My favorite metaphor this time of year is the light in the darkness. I know it’s cliché, but it’s powerful, too. I’ve experienced some darkness in my life—perhaps you have, too—and I’ve also experienced the light as a miracle that is so full of hope that its appearance stuns me.
I’d like to embrace the darkness, like the poet May Sarton:
Help us be the always hopeful
gardeners of the spirit
who know that without darkness
nothing comes to birth
as without light
But to tell the truth, I don’t, even though life has taught me the power of truth in the darkness. I have learned from my own darknesses, from marrying to please my parents, coming out in spite of their displeasure, brain tumors and my car crash, and I know that though each darkness brings loss, it also carries its own birth, its own potential, perhaps even it’s own light. Each darkness has been a gift to me: from my divorce and coming out, I get to live my life in truth with my partner Ann; with my brain tumors and car crash, I am learning to live my life more slowly, more in the present. These flowers come from seeds born in the darkness.
So I can be philosophical about winter’s darkness and its birthings, but the darkness is painful and disorienting, so I don’t embrace it yet. I don’t know how I’ll feel about death’s darkness when it comes, but at least for now, I prefer life and all its light. Of course, winter and its cold and dark must come each year, and I have learned to lie in front of the fire and listen to Ann read me a good book, so I don’t fight it, but I don’t embrace it, either.
A favorite resident at the assisted living home told me recently that she’s thinking of death with dignity. (At least I think that’s what she told me. She spoke in so many riddles that I was unsure.) Death with Dignity is the law that allows people whom doctors certify will die of natural causes within six months, who are not depressed, and who can administer a lethal dose to themselves to choose death in their own time and place.
When I asked her what she thinks about death, she said, “I think it’s an extension of life.”
My friends Chris and Joannie, who have died in the last couple of years, seemed in the end at peace with their lives and their deaths.
I wonder if I’ll be so at peace with my own death. I’m not afraid of death—I imagine my death as a returning to an essential energy, maybe or maybe not with consciousness—and I don’t want myself or anyone I love to rage against the dying of the light (as the poet Dylan Thomas begs his father to do). When my time comes, I hope to be at peace with it, but I doubt I’ll run there faster than I must.
I figure, so far as I know, I have an eternity for what comes next, so I may as well squeeze all the life out of this life while I can. Even when it’s painful, it’s still life. As the Buddha in Breakfast with Buddha said in response to the question, “What is the meaning of life?”, “the meaning of life is life.”
And as Ann and I pray before each meal, “Oh God, remind me that all of life is grace. Let me respond in gratitude.”
And I’ll add, “Let me be grateful for the past’s fulfillment as well as the future’s promise. Let me embrace my life and, when the time comes, my death.
Perhaps tonight, a minute before midnight, we’ll kiss and wish one another, “Happy Old Year!” (Actually, I'll be asleep by then, so we'll have to kiss a minute before midnight in some other time zone.)
And to you, whatever time zone you're in, Happy Old Year.