There has been a lot of loss and a lot of chaos in 2016. There will be a lot of uncertainty moving forward. For these reasons—along with the punctuating deaths of some of our favorite icons this week—a lot of “2016 must end!” messages have been going around.
I get it, I really do. For the same reason that many of us like to take the opportunity at the start of a new calendar year to reflect and set goals for a new season, it is also sometimes soothing to imagine purging a year in which there has been a lot of pain.
There is nothing in particular about the start of January that means it is the best time to make life changes or start anew—in all ways but the calendar, it is arbitrary. It doesn’t matter, though. Any day one decides to start fresh and cast off old pain and trouble is a good day, and if a new year can do that for you, all the better.
There is power in ritual. If this New Year’s Eve, you want to light a candle, say a prayer, and drink a toast to leave behind that which you do not need and call to you that which is light and bright, do it. I’ll join you from my home.
Don’t waste your energy blaming the year, though. Here’s why:
I remember a horrible year in my twenties that I just could not wait to have completed. I recall emailing a friend to say something like, “If we can just make it to January 1st, this will all feel better,” and she agreed. The trouble? It just didn’t happen.
Nothing magical happened when the clock struck midnight. The fear and uncertainty lingered on, until I worked through it. Worse yet? I kept asking for a reprieve, the moment when “everything would start to go right again.” What I didn’t realize was that more horrible stuff was set to happen on the horizon, and it was even more personal and life-changing than what I’d lived through.
The year I’d wanted to end was 2001. My husband of two years and I were living within a mile or two of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and I had been in our home when the plane hit it on September 11th. I saw everything on our shelves jump and shake with the sound of the impact, and I ran outside to see and smell the smoke billowing into the air.
I was home that day, because I’d been called early in the morning to be told that my uncle, who had been ill with a mysterious lung problem but was not in eminent danger, had died suddenly that morning in Denver. I was home talking to his sister, my mom, who was grieving and making plane reservations to travel out west. I was home trying to figure out how and when I could join our family to mourn, something that—for obvious reasons—I was not ultimately able to do that September.
It was easy for me to blame 2001 for being an awful, terrible year, and to just want my “real life” to begin again. It just didn’t happen. This was the beginning of a new normal, and 9/11 was followed by the death of many loved ones, a sniper running around our area shooting people at random, some very difficult work challenges, an accident which left my fire-fighter of a brother-in-law a quadriplegic, and an infertility diagnosis that told my husband and me that we had, at best, a 3% chance of ever having a child (compared to the 80% most couples have.)
When we did pull up from all of that grief, and decide to make a big life change—to attend graduate school back in the Midwest—a lot of that went haywire, too. My husband’s professor left the university right after his qualifying exams, meaning he (essentially) had to start over. I did become pregnant, with the amazing miracle which is our daughter, but this meant that finding full-time work to support us was difficult, and our decision of university was less advantageous—we had turned down other schools which had much better family health insurance plans, because we wouldn’t need them, and we had moved to an apartment which wasn’t in the best school zone, because we wouldn’t need that, either.
My daughter’s birth caused a lot of trauma for me physically and psychologically, we felt isolated in a fourth-story walk-up with a new baby and few new friends, we took out student loans just to pay for health insurance (loans which we still have today, hanging over us), we went over a decade of our core earning years without being able to put a thing away in retirement, in my postpartum mess I gained 80+ pounds…I could just go on and on.
And yet…and yet…during all of that, there were so many good moments. We DID have our daughter, and she is just a spectacular human to know. I took improv classes, and earned a master’s degree with a great class of new friends and colleagues. My husband did get his PhD, despite all obstacles, and he did a fantastic job (so after graduating, he got a fantastic job.) We lived closer to extended family and got to attend holidays with them more regularly. Close friends from the west coast moved back to the Midwest, and our kids got to grow up together while they were little, and are bonded now for the long haul, just like we are with their parents. My brother-in-law found a new career track and a new normal. We made new friends and knitted ourselves into our neighborhood community. I had a life-changing surgery to help fight my obesity. We eventually found our way to Florida, where our lives have been easier and happier.
In my frustration 15 years ago, blaming 2001 seemed like the right answer, but in the end, it only made me more bitter when things did not turn around, and less able to enjoy all the moments of happiness and peace there were in the chaos, loss, and fear.
Today, I can’t blame 2016, not because I don’t want to do so, but because I know from experience, it just won’t help.
I have no indication that 2017 is going to be much different than 2016. It could be worse, actually. My concern is not to worry about what will (or won’t) be, or to make hopeful (or dire) predictions. I’m just trying to do what I can here and now to affect the world the best way I can, and to take things in as they come to me in the moment. I’m working on kindness. On nutrition. On activism. On humor. On calming myself when the collective zeitgeist overwhelms me.
I could not have imagined when I started this blog in the fall how apt using the term “misery” in the title would be. There has been a lot of misery for a lot of people this year. I sincerely hope that taking time out to come here, read some friendly advice, and try some new recipes has provided some comfort and some joy.
For me, the start of January will mean doing this same practice—responding to your letters, providing you with words and recipes—every Monday and Thursday, and hoping to get better at it each time. That’s something you can count upon, no matter what happens in 2017.
Thank you, readers, for making the end of this year a special one for me, by reading and participating in this site. You are my little bright light guiding me from this month, to the next, to the next, and I am exceedingly grateful.
May the new year bring us a renewed commitment to connect with each other in our thoughts, our actions, and at the table with delicious food.
And remember, even in the darkest of days, great miracles can happen. The Cubs did win the World Series this year, after all.