Brooklyn’s sidewalks smell like abandoned pine this week, as the thistles of tossed Christmas trees crack in the frost and bake in the sun. Every year, these streetside graveyards of wrinkled trunks and wilted branches make me sad, the way they’re piled haphazardly on their sides like toppled toy soldiers stripped of their sparkle, robbed of their due dignity and honor. I feel almost embarrassed for them, until the trash trucks graciously arrive to tow them away.
But maybe I’m just projecting my own insecurities onto the expended evergreens. Maybe they’re content, sitting there, settling into their doneness.
They lived good lives, didn’t they? They were chosen carefully and posed with graceful pride. They were adored and adorned and admired with oohs and ahhs. They were encircled by gifts and giggles. They were tinsel-topped and carol-sung and fitted with shimmered stars.
Their time to shine was intended to be temporary, as is the case for most things, however golden. Still, letting go is never easy. There’s something admirable about the trees’ humble, unassuming surrender to the push and pull of present reality.
This is a confusing time of year. After several months of forward-thinking anticipation, of planning feasts and preparing decorations and wrapping up presents for eagerly awaited opening, we plummet into deep, cold, stagnant-seeming January. There’s an oddly disorienting sense of ending and beginning at once.
That’s what I always love about these first few weeks: the raw nowness. As the sparkling celebrations end, the stark shift back to normalcy is refreshing, if startling — what’s done is done, insists January, like the foresaken firs and pines. But the future, too, feels distant, with its sweetness as far-off and uncertain as spring.
You’re stuck here, January says, in this in-between phase that’s cold and unromantic and unadorned. You’re stuck right here, right now.
The present is uncomfortable, and it’s no wonder that we struggle to sink into it. We’re not particularly at ease with what now means.
We whine. We worry. We attempt to escape. New Year’s resolutions provide the perfect outlet, offering relief from the dull ache of reminiscence and the itchy awkwardness of presence, with the promise of a better tomorrow.
Join this gym! Try this cleanse! Buy this makeover! This will be the year when we find love and wealth, when we get hot and happy — it’s all in our impending future, according to commercial culture.
While many of us bite, others of us write off resolutions as naive foolishness. Quick change is an illusion, we say. Failure is inevitable. And besides, January 1st is an arbitrary date, just like any other day of the year.
I don’t buy what commercial culture is selling. But I don’t buy the opposing cynicism, either.
In 2014, I had my heart broken by someone I had loved dearly for years. The loss, anger, and sadness seemed interminable, and I kept walking mental circles around and around the hurt like I was searching desperately for the secret trapdoor to my sanity.
In 2015, on a random afternoon I don’t remember, I was working my way around the agonizing loops for the thousandth time when I stumbled on a sudden thought:
What would it feel like if I simply chose, right now, to forgive?
A heavy weight lifted instantaneously from my shoulders as the thick block of frozen resentment rose off like steam. A warm, gentle softness took its place, and it’s still there, settled into the hole of heartbreak.
It is now 2016, and I rarely think about that heartbreak anymore. When I do think about it, or about the person who caused it, it’s with a strange sense of acceptance, tenderness, and even affection.
The shift seemed — and still sometimes seems — miraculous. But it wasn’t. It was merely a glimpse of proof that it is possible to choose to change, to let go, in one simple release that lasts a mere moment. It took me a year to prepare for that moment, but once it came, it was easy.
It didn’t happen on January 1st. It wasn’t an official resolution. It was just a day when I decided to try something different. It was a day when I unclenched my tight grip on my past, just enough to open up to a more peaceful present and future. It was a day when I discovered the bittersweet beauty of humble, unassuming surrender. It was a day when I learned the freedom that comes with willingness to give into the push and pull of the present, letting go of bitterness in the process.
New Year’s resolutions are, indeed, silly. They’re silly because they rarely work and because January 1st is an arbitrary date, just like any other day of the year.
But they’re mostly silly because we try to paste them on like band-aids. We add new rules and promises and plans into our lives in an attempt to patch ourselves up in our supposed weak spots, to distract ourselves from present feelings of anxiety and inadequacy by focusing on the lofty possibilities of our future identities.
Lasting internal change is not about addition. It’s not a surface-level band-aid you can affix to cure deep wounds. It’s about release.
Change is what happens when you loosen your grip on what’s past its season and toss expended experiences and emotions to the curb, humbly airing all that stale stuff out.
You can choose cynical certainty and call resolutions a hoax. Or you can choose to explore their possibilities. You can choose to attempt to turn them true, even if you falter. You can choose to learn something.
But you can’t do any of that with your hands gripped on bitterness and your shoulders heavy with the weight of the past.
Old resentments, unproductive worries, illogical fears — however treasured, you have to let what’s done be done if you want to see what might be.
You’re stuck here. You’re stuck here in this in-between phase that’s cold and unromantic and unadorned. You’re stuck right here, right now.
Today is January 15th. When you read this, it might be another day or week or month altogether. Whatever the date, like January 1st, it is arbitrary.
Make it unarbitrary. Choosing change is up to you.