In most places, 2013 arrived with a fanfare and a dazzling display of fireworks. There were rooftop parties, pool parties, basement parties, parking lot parties, penthouse suite parties, and Times Square parties. Food was prepared and consumed in gluttonous proportions. Alcohol occupied those spaces ordinarily filled by hemoglobin and other useful body fluids. New Year’s Eve, in other places, swept through like the Ride of the Valkyries: from a slow crescendo of violins and string it grew in power, rallying all merriment to it, calling all revelers to its boisterous and intoxicated banner, until it crashed, at midnight, in a swirl of Daft Punk’s “One More Time”, champagne popping, kissing (if you were lucky), and emphatic hugging (if you were not) as the New Year finally rolled around.
From hours spent watching other countries ring in the New Year on CNN and BBC, it becomes hard to fight the feeling that, elsewhere, something old leaves this world on New Year’s Eve and something fresh takes its place on New Year’s Day.
But that is everywhere else. Not here. In Namibia, things were quite different.
The 31st of December in Windhoek was quiet. The day started off with beat-you-down heat capable of making shade a marketable commodity. The streets were empty and devoid of life, most of it having wisely migrated to the coastal towns for the festive season. The few that remained behind cowered inside their houses praying for the sustained health and vitality of their air conditioners. Eventually, the sun set, but the heat stayed.
There was a street party somewhere, which means a lot of people were milling about in a cordoned-off parking lot in the centre of town watching some sluggish performances from a handful of local musicians. This was followed by a mistimed countdown and a deflated hurrah from the crowd when the clock struck midnight.
January 1st started off in the same way: the quotidian heat crashed down, the shade looked for shade. The roads, side streets, and alleys were still. All the shops were closed. The day, bored with itself, passed on. Insouciantly. Inevitably.
The anonymity with which 2013 slunk into the country was unrivaled. It cast serious doubts on the impact of time-related adages and temporally based celebrations like New Year’s. It made me wonder whether a “Happy and Prosperous New Year” was a geographic concept, something only the big cities have. Whatever ounce of newness came with the first day of 2013 was definitely spread thin here. Things just…carried on.
And that was disappointing.
The extravagance and scale of New Year’s celebrations around the world; the best and worst lists, detailing the nostalgias and faux-pas of the preceding year; the emotional New Year resolutions, drawn up, and shared with the world on Facebook; and the hopeful hashtags on Twitter put pressure on people to have a sybarite New Year.
Everything suggests—nay, commands—that this year will be a good one, this year things will work out. You will lose weight, you will stop smoking. When midnight arrives, the world seemed to say, everyone will be handed a clean slate. All of your previous problems will be gone, vanished, solved.
Cute notion, but slightly misguided. This is not to say that a new year does not hold any promise of success, or any change. It does. Every day does. Rather, it is a caution against heaping too much pressure on January 1st.
The first day of 2013 was, like many other days of the year, just another period of twenty-four hours in which the unpredictability of human life played out. It was another day in which you were at the mercy of time’s capriciousness. Anything could have happened, good or bad. January 1st may not have been happy or prosperous. In fact, it may have been worse.
But then again it might have been better, maybe you turned that corner. Perhaps you really did come out of that rut. But if these things did happen, if your circumstances did improve and you did pull yourself out of your malaise, it was not because a clock bid a fortuitous sayonara to 2012. It was because somewhere along the line you climbed—sprung, rolled, oozed, or trickled—out of bed and did what you had to do. You consciously or unconsciously worked through what needed to be worked through—2013 just happened to find you putting all of your struggles where they belong: in the umbrage of the present, behind you. It—time—did not dispel them.
The New Year, like time, is not a panacea; it will not cure the issues you do not face yourself. At most it gives you the time to diagnose the problem; it does not give you the solution. Time will not heal. Rather, in time, in the New Year, you will have the chance to heal, if you want to.
Problems do not take days off; they do not have working hours. And they definitely do not respect calendars. What you did not handle last year will find some unguarded backdoor into your life; the insecurities and the doubts you do not quell will rise up again, and they will return, more poignant than before, more biting than ever. The most a new year can do is provide you with more time to shut the back doors, fill up the cracks, and put some resolute emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical growth between you and your private demons. Things do not pass, you leave them behind. You move. On, up, away, and through. The problems remain, you do not.
All a new year ever says is, “Kid, they’re gonna come at you again. Do you want to be here when they do?”
The vastness of time is, perhaps, why New Year’s celebrations are important. They are beacons, notches in the door frame that show you how far you have come and how much you have grown. Or, conversely, how static you have become.
Like a haircut, a New Year has powerful magic in it—but it is a certain kind of magic; it is the magic of new beginnings which wears out as soon as the start is over, it slowly dissipates once the real slogging begins. It does not do the grunt work February and March require. By May not a scintilla of it remains. But the promise of a new beginning is important for human life; it is what makes us go on.
For weeks after my break up I languished on my couch with Adele, Snow Patrol, Coldplay, and Alanis Morissette on cathartic repeat until a friend dragged me to a barbershop. For some strange reason, having my hair clipped felt like I was doing something positive, something progressive. I was, after all, leaving behind the hair from a doomed relationship. And as the clippings pooled on the floor an intangible, but palpable, weight lifted.
I left the barbershop feeling like a new man. At least I looked like one. And then I went home again. Without skipping a beat, I lapsed back into the vicious cycle of fighting the hollowness, the mundane routines—made more mundane by my newfound singleness—and the slow, relentless pull of depression. The haircut was helpful, but it was an aesthetic solution to a mechanical problem. At most, it was a gloss of fresh paint over a mildewed and rotting ceiling. Anyone with more experience would have ripped the whole thing down and started from scratch. But it was a start, and starts are necessary for middles and ends. That haircut felt damn good, and after its shamanic powers wore off it left a void which had to be filled with something more sustainable: action.
I presume every New Year feels like a haircut. On December 31st the world walks into a barbershop and asks Old Lou to give them something new. They slowly shear off the troubles of the past year; the heartaches, the losses, the pains and the tragedies, and the failures and the successes. They keep what they need and want, and clip off what they no longer desire. They tuck, fluff, trim, dye, and curl. The old is made to look new—a new aesthetic is sprayed onto an old mechanism. Everyone slowly gets entangled in the madness of a fresh start, or the promise thereof. And when the clock finally kills off the old year, everything is new and fresh.
Kind of. Not really.
The beauty of it all is that you can get a haircut any time. There is no rush. And if January 1st has not lived up to your expectations do not worry. Every day is a new year. Maybe today is the start of the rest of your life.