Letter America Dear Doctor Guy, My friend recently stopped taking my calls because I’m dating her ex-boyfriend, but they broke up like over two years ago. I don’t know what to do.—Helpless Hottie ... More
I love a snow-on-the-ground New Year’s: the soft literalization of the new year’s blank slate, grey-on-white shadows underscoring our annual citation of time passing. It’s such a nice idea, that we step over a second hand and pass from old days into new ones.
On New Year’s Day, before I ate my traditional good-luck bowl of black-eyed peas, I went for a short run. The snowy trails rolled up and down, and I got a little lost staring at the sugar-dusted Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Santa Fe.
Sophie, our dog, and I were euphoric, bounding along together over the new-fallen snow. It felt like I was bounding. Anyone watching would have described a slow, flailing figure slipping and stumbling through the juniper. But I was the only one out there, as far as I know—my breath was so loud in my head I might not have noticed someone else—so I’m going with my version: I was practically flying. Flying alone over the snow made things seem possible in the best sort of New Year’s way.
I intended to write about this everything-is-possible newness—launching point for perennial optimism. Then, however, the next few days happened, days in which very, very little happened and possibly nothing at all.
Since the beginning of the year, I have been unable to get the kids out of the house or do anything productive inside it. I have blamed this on Theo’s new Lego obsession, in which the fun absorption of assembling, say, a Star Wars X-Wing Fighter quickly devolves into an eternal shooting frenzy. If it ends at all, the stormtroopers always come out on top. What’s up with that, Jedis?
I have blamed our inactivity on Sylvia’s potty-training. She loudly announces her toileting needs—“I pee!” “I poop!”—and we sprint to the bathroom, where she sits for 20 minutes, doing nothing but listening to me read the same three books to her over and over and assuring me she still needs to go. Five minutes after she’s off the empty toilet, she pees on the kitchen floor through her third pair of pants.
My brand-new to-do list—on 2012 calendar sheets—is so intricate that I need several minutes to make sense of it, much less attend to anything on it. Also, vacuuming Christmas-tree pine needles surely takes three times as long as vacuuming anything else. Why are they so oddly resistant to suction?
After all of this, the kids and I are close to being able to leave the house. Then it’s lunchtime. Then it’s naptime. Then I realize I somehow missed a whole pile of pine needles on the living-room rug.
Holiday insularity can be lovely, and it has been for our family. But inertia following close on the heels of sybaritic stasis has induced in me a crazy-making sort of cabin fever. The kind that dashes the bright hopefulness of New Year’s Day. Suddenly, I am demoralized.
I will spend all of 2013 not being able to leave our house. That novel I was set to finish? Not a chance. Correspondence? I still have emails to respond to from early December. Forget rediscovering my abdominal muscles and assuming cardiovascular fitness. I resolved to sleep more, but I’ve slept poorly since December 31. How will I read Tolstoy if I can’t even manage to obtain the latest book club book? And those 11 hours a week of childcare reserved for working? I’ll spend them at the dentist and visiting each of Santa Fe’s public kindergartens in order to submit a transfer application by January 25.
It’s Day Four of the New Year, and I’ve concluded that resolutions are hopeless and that I suck. This upending didn’t take long, and I’m worried that’s a problem. Does it say something about my personal resiliency? I am afraid it might.
I’ve spent many New Years’ resolving to be transformed. I framed it as, “I will be a: more disciplined writer; better correspondent; more proactive individual; directed professional; more stable spouse; triathlete; etc.” But what I meant was that the solstice would turn, the new year would come, and its newness would help me become a new version of myself. I might retain threads of my old, disappointing self, but just enough to make me recognizable, not enough to sabotage my vast new-and-improved-ness.
I was considering this silliness in my snow-run buoyancy, concluding that I would no longer wish to be, magically, a different person on January 1. Instead, I would frame resolutions in terms of how I choose to spend time; I resolved to be more intentional. I bounded and flew over the trails, the sky was blue and cold, the snow was fresh, and my newfound reasonableness promised to usher in all the possibilities of the new year, plus potential for follow-through.
There’s a new book out, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, that traces a cartographic history of human culture. I haven’t read this book, but I happened across the NPR review of it. (Resolution: I will choose to be the person who reads the book, not just the reviews.)
Author Simon Garfield writes, “[M]aps hold a clue to what makes us human. […] Even as individuals, we seem to have a need to plot a path and track our progress, to imagine possibilities of exploration and escape.”
In some sense, turning up January’s calendar page is starting a new map, and New-Year’s resolutions are cartographic exercises. Some things—holidays, birthdays, school schedules—we know in advance; some are temporal terra incognita. And like explorers before us, we fill the terra incognita with dreams, sometimes reasonable, sometimes fanciful. Most, probably, are a hybrid.
The review of Garfield’s book mentions how maps’ blank spaces were cartographers’ frustrations and explorers’ allure—and how filling them had emotional consequences: “[W]hen Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery ‘recorded their daily findings it was with a tinge of disappointment, as if the truth of their voyage was dismantling one of the great American dreams.’”
Does this happen with us annually? From December’s perspective, did the daily findings of the past year dismantle the prior January’s dreams? I feel the urge to fill in the calendar, mapping my and my family’s progress through our year—and also to leave blank spaces for dreams and aspirations, or simply for imagination.
"It is one of the most appealing features of large maps, and world maps in particular, that all journeys are feasible,” Garfield writes.
Similarly, everything is feasible on a run in the snow on January 1. But then there is daily movement—of Lewis and Clark, of the centuries of map drawers and voyagers, of myself and Adam, Theo and Sylvia. It took time to pack the hardtack, to darn the socks, to ford a stream. It takes time to stock the refrigerator, to vacuum pine needles, to build Lego sets, to potty train. I don’t necessarily want to rush this time, I just want to do everything else, too.
But of course, time takes time. Shadows elongate while I choose how to spend time, which is not necessarily a bad thing. They grow even longer while I accept that what I end up doing is not always dictated by my choices alone, and that is not cause for resentment. I think it likely takes extra time to try to be reasonable—about who I am, what I can do, and the differences between looking back and looking forward, between a year and a day. Maybe I can resist the urge to map that.