I have a few rituals I have accumulated in the last decade as an end of year practice. First, I write my letter to the universe, outlining exactly and specifically what I want in the coming year. I spend the month of December donating and gifting things I have not used or that I no longer have use for in an effort to purge my home, and symbolically, my mind, of any extra weight. I thoroughly clean my home, smudge, and even open the windows to let fresh (and freezing) winter air circulate through the space and suck out any stagnant energy. I spend the first day of the New Year each year cooking for people that I truly love, laughing and eating and putting good energy to the year ahead. I’ve been developing this series of rituals through moves, breakups, career changes, and the birth of a child, and at this point they are more second nature than anything else. I barely noticed the other day as I culled a bag of clothing to donate from my closet and walked it down the street to a donation bin.
Just as it was for so many others, this year was full of challenges for me. The other day, making my way through an errand in the most treacherous part of midtown – which, you can ask anyone, is the dark chasm of space on 7th Avenue between Penn Station and Port Authority – as I swam through a din of holiday shoppers and unwieldy tourists that arrived so early this year that I can hardly remember a time before markdown season, I stumbled into an old friend whom I don’t do a good enough job of keeping up with (though that doesn’t narrow the pool by many).
As much as one can in front of Macy’s in December, we stopped, embraced, checked in, acknowledged the usual mutual embarrassment for not being better about making plans, and she said, “How are you? I mean I can see on Instagram that you’re doing great.”
Normally, this sort of conversation doesn’t phase me in the slightest, but this time, for whatever reason, the “you’re doing great” echoed between my ears five or six times and I found myself with no response, a non-maskable interrupt that this otherwise smooth-talker was totally unable to cover up. I actually don’t remember how I dug myself out of this conversational hole, nor do I remember the end of the exchange before my friend and I parted ways, but however it concluded could only be a success because it did not end with me collapsing into a heap on 7th Avenue at high lunch rush scream-crying “I’m not okay!” like a wounded animal or a garment-rending Greek widow.
I have actually never told anyone that I am not okay, outright, when asked – not for as far back as I remember – like most other women in the world, I often feel the only socially correct answers to inquiries to my well being are “Great!”, or “Busy!”, or “Thriving!”, because answers other than these can only mean that you’re not working hard enough at life. As women, we bear such a disproportionate burden in our everyday functions; we are increasingly the primary breadwinners in our families while also remaining the primary parent, we are statistically more likely to take responsibility for caring for our elders, and yet we also face daily excruciating societal pressure to be perky, ambitious, gentle, eternally youthful, compassionate… you get the picture. Donald Trump has spent a third of his two unfortunate years as president golfing, whereas Ruth Bader Ginsburg cast a vote against the president’s asylum restrictions from her hospital bed recovering from cancer surgery last Friday. The scales are imbalanced, no doubt.
And so, weariness, weakness, struggle: none of these are an option. Like a phoenix we are expected to rise from the ashes of every dumpster fire we encounter, be it grief, the demise of a relationship, a job, a family ordeal, a tiff with a friend. Women are only allowed virginal rebirth. Why is this? Why are we not allowed to remain in the discomfort of our experiences for more than a moment before somehow overcoming them, adorably, with aplomb, to the metronome of a rom-com script and with only the aid of a few inspirational memes? How can we learn from our experiences if we’re always scrambling to get out as quickly as we can – what if there is more than one exit than just the door we came by?
A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the business of fabricated college admissions essays, and the immense pressure put on teenagers to tease out some major life struggle to win the hearts of an admissions officer. One officer read a student’s story of how he overcame the death of his own mother – and when a college administrator called the student’s home later in the year, they were greeted by that very same mother’s voice on the other end of the line. In another article, dishonesty amongst the youngest in our workforce was addressed: denizens of young, privileged college-graduates entering adult life and touting their scrappy upstartedness, only for it to be uncovered that the vast majority of their expenses have been covered by their family and their so-called self sufficiency is really more theoretical than experiential.
Even the youngest of our citizens understand our Bootstrap Politics, that until you are on the victorious side of whatever struggle you’ve encountered (or, especially, fabricated), your story is not valid.
My true problem with this advertising, aside from obviously being overly-allegorical and highly-fantastical, is that it denigrates one of everyone’s favorite Instagram proverbs: “Life is a journey, not a destination.” By insinuating that we are meant only to hop from peak to peak, culling major stories of victory along the way to be related in 140 characters or less and valid only for the length of one attention span before the world asks, “but what have you done lately?”, we pressurize the desire to work out some fairy tale ending to each and every event in our lives. Pan back for a moment, put your phones down, survey the big picture. In Homer’s Odyssey, it takes Odysseus 10 years to get home to Ithaca. Ten years of battling a cyclops, sirens, and a literal and actual god, and then he comes home to his family and still has to prove his identity in order to reclaim his throne. The poem is only over when the throne has been reclaimed, when the heartbreak and battles and disappointment and losses are done, and there is no story left to tell. If Odyssey took place present day, the entire poem would be the caption of a sunset selfie of Odysseus in Ithaca, reworked into an ironic song lyric and hashtagged #blessed.
A few weeks ago, with the new year on the horizon and a distinct lack of inspiration in my possession, I had a transatlantic kiki session with my favorite big sister Tamu, and my same-age-sister Roki to try to conjure some firepower to enter the new year. Roki has been through more this year than most deal with in a decade, and has dealt with it all with a stunning, resilient grace, and it’s honestly hard to keep feeling badly for yourself when the person on the other line has recently lost their home in a wildfire. Tamu shared with me her favorite analogy for situations where hope feels lost: humans do not know what exists beyond the known universe – how inhospitable it may be, what other life exists there, whether it is at all reachable – and in spite of this we still press on and continue exploring, despite any risks or fear or worry.
The new year is two days away from the moment I am writing this, and for weeks now I have felt an intense pressure to manufacture my own rebirth and rejuvenation at some point before January 1st. I have always believed in the power of manifesting, of showing the universe what I want and then working hard and recognizing the tools I am being handed in order to make those dreams come true. 2018 was so hard for the vast majority of people I know, almost to the point where the few people I have met who haven’t had their lives shaken to their very core this year have emerged in my mind as unicorns, mythical creatures who have somehow evaded the intense, gut-wrenching, soul-shaking power of this year from the vantage point of placid waters. It’s come to the point where I barely want to talk about how intensely we all felt this year, because it has become nothing more than cocktail conversation – a nicety to stick in between comments about the weather and upcoming vacations.
I’m normally a very festive person around the new year, excited for all of the rebirth and hope and possibilities that a fresh year offers. But this year… I’m just not there. And over the course of this month, as I’ve questioned why on this occasion I am not able to just rage forward with positivity and drop any excess baggage I may be toting, I’ve also come to a point of acceptance. This year rocked me and broke and bruised my heart, it left me weary and is still working quickly in its last 48 hours to lay out a series of challenges for 2019. And, because I am who I am, I will face all of those challenges and overcome them, because I have learned in this life that I can do anything. But one of the most important lessons I am bringing out of this year is not to run from discomfort or pain, not to force it onto a schedule it doesn’t respect, not to try to erase it when it needs a moment to exist. This is baggage I can’t leave behind in auld lang syne.
So this is really for everyone else who has had their ass kicked this year and is honestly just not ready to blaze into 2019 in a jetpack made of inspirational memes. I’m not in a crisis of faith, I still believe that I will rise from whatever ashes are left after this fire is finished burning. But this year, instead of forcing myself onto the marketing calendar of rebirth, I am staying the course, staying the rhythm, staying in gratitude, staying myself. If I get to have a New Year’s Day in April I’ll be overjoyed. But it’ll be earned, on my watch, on my pace. All me.
Image via @subliming.jpg.