The Circle of the Year

The Circle of the Year

Holiday season around my house always includes family, friends and music. Carol and I host a caroling party each December for a wonderful and ever-changing collection of friends. We stroll through a small section of our neighborhood with a bevy of children and laughing adults who sing with great enthusiasm, if not always in the same key (or even the same song!). Then we come home for Carol’s homemade cocoa and spiced (not spiked . . . sorry) apple cider and an assortment of cookies so numerous (because each family brings some) that we simply must redistribute the wealth at the end of the night or risk sugar comas for the rest of the month.

We also host a family Christmas Eve gathering (with my family, this is still a major logistic event), which usually includes a least a couple of songs and the exchange of the “Secret Santa” gifts each of our children and grandchildren have gotten for the special sibling, uncle, aunt, nephew or niece chosen for them by lottery. Yes, there’s sugar a plenty for that event, too, as well as a host of diary-free, gluten-free, almost everything-free items for those with special dietary needs. I’ll note parenthetically that I am in awe of Carol’s ability to create delicious breads and treats out of little more than air for the most sensitive of our expanding brood.

By contrast, New Year’s Eve is a low-key event. We don’t necessarily stay up until the ball drops (though we probably will this year, because some of the kids, young and not-so-young, will want to). We do make a point of having some special foods (chilled shrimp and cocktail sauce among them) and toasting each other with sparkling beverages . . . most of them suitable for younger palates.

This contrast of holiday events reflects the underlying values and faith of our family. For most of us in the Paine tribe, the New Year began right after Thanksgiving; the Catholic liturgical year begins then. Likewise, the most important holidays of the season are about faith and family, the sharing of truly good news, and caring for others.

December 31st doesn’t resonate as much with those sentiments, neither for our family in particular nor for the culture at large.

But I do tend to mark the end of the old calendar and the beginning of the new with some consideration of where I think I’ve gone on my life journey in the year that has past and where I hope to go in the year that lies ahead. In that sense at least, I’m probably as typical an American as any.

So here are some rather personal but perhaps meaningful notes from my blotter as I review the old year and prepare for the new:

  • This year marked the passing of my mother, Gwendolyn Chapman Paine, whose spirit of love, care and service still inspires me. It also included my still-growing appreciation of my father, who demonstrated such devotion to Mom and taught me much in these last couple of years about marriage, love, letting go, and moving forward. Leaving this year behind will not mean forgetting that inspiration nor those lessons; I intend to incorporate them more deeply in my own life in the new.
  • On a global scale, this waning year brought us face-to-face with the realities of global pandemics and the challenges we face, not simply as a nation, but as a species, in balancing healing, compassionate care, prevention and the rights of others. In my opinion, we haven’t done very well on many of these, but perhaps we are learning. I hope what we learn is to better understand the challenges of our less fortunate brothers and sisters, respecting their beliefs and their experiences, building bridges both of understanding and of effective care.
  • On a national scale, the ebbing year has reminded us (alas!) that issues of identity, stereotype and prejudice, especially but not exclusively about race, are central to our current struggles and our future prospects. I’ve had the painful experience of contributing to the destruction of an important personal relationship through prejudice and lingering resentment. I’ve watched competent professionals exhibit extraordinary cultural blindness . . . and been shaken to see my own actions prove equally blind. I resolve to do better and I hope that is our national resolution as well.

The gift we give ourselves on New Year’s Day is the sense of a new beginning . . . however contrived it may be. The more-or-less circular orbit that defines our year has no natural point of beginning or end. We could as easily start on what we call May 16th as on January 1st. But there is a sense that we have been here before, in the orbit and on the calendar. We mark that selected point of repetition as the start of something new.

Circles can describe cycles . . . simple repetitions. Cycles of poverty, ignorance, abuse and addiction, though they have beginnings for individuals, are circles of this kind, with the start of a new addiction or new destructive engagement foreshadowed by previous rounds in previous lives and social patterns that set the stage for this one.

But circles also can describe spirals, climbing upward, coming back around each time to a higher point, a broader scope, a wider expanse of possibilities. When we rise up on the strength of what has gone before, we don’t repeat . . . we transform.

So for me, I’m not looking for the ball to drop on New Year’s Eve. I’m hoping for the nation to soar . . . and I’ll offer my own struggling upward climb in her support.