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ON TIME: A NEW YEAR’S EVE MEDITATION

mnr8The first one you remember, you were 10 or 11. You slipped out of the sliding back-door of your parents’ first house on Everett Circle, to stand alone on a hill in the frigid wind – alone, but knowing that there were people inside that house who loved you – to gaze up at a glittering onyx sky – aching, because a year (because everything!) passes TOO QUICKLY (so young – how could you already have known?), and trying to envision your future, which was impossible to envision…

And then, too soon for your own good: the Going-Steady Years. Allowed only to double-date, that first year, you wore an ice-blue moiré dress (no longer than a shirt, really), with rhinestone ball buttons and a Nehru collar; you looked – and were – so young, that your boyfriend was able to convince the ticket-seller at the Union Theater to let you in as a “CHILD,” which everybody thought was hilarious…

Then: the Rollercoaster (of Love) Years. American kids body-painting in the Tel Aviv U quad in a drenching rain (everybody high on opiated hash but you) to The Who; one-nation-under-a-groove at Radio City with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic; in a silver sequined tube-top at that lodge party upstate (where you knew you’d come with the wrong guy) to “Ring My Bell”; weeping inside the dank bathroom of a warehouse alongside the West Side Highway, to… well, who remembers…

But every year, a few minutes after midnight, from wherever you were, without fail, you found a way (way before cellphones) to call your parents, who you knew were sitting in their recliners in their den in Jersey (with the zebra-striped sofa and mahogany paneling), watching the ball drop on TV, because calling home is what all Holocaust survivors’ kids did. Most of those years, lying about where you were and who you were with, because lying was what (most) survivors’ kids did, to escape their parents’ stifling control and to avoid hurting them. “Love you, Mommy and Daddy, zei gesund [be well],” you said dutifully, even during the years that things were horribly tense between you and the words stuck in your throat. After you hung up, though, you’d sometimes look around at that party, that loft, that guy, those people, and ask yourself what the hell you were doing there. For all your perceived brashness, you knew you were actually much more an outlier than a liar; your gut told you that your critical distance would become a key source of strength, would set you free and serve you well – and you were right.

The Sweetness Years? None sweeter. Launched in Times Square, drunk on love, wrapped in the arms of the tall, good man you would marry. And soon the babies started coming, all of them Octobers, and by New Year’s you were thrilled to tote them and their gear to join the other young families at the Sobels’ annual kid-friendly bash in their rambling, antique house on Old Farm Road, with the crooked, wide-board floors and all those wonderful places to roam – the map room, the spiral-staircase room, the music room with the player-piano and drum sets, land of a thousand Legos and books, Cabbage Patches and Smurfs. There was always plenty of pleasant conversation, music, and food, but inevitably you felt miles away, struggling to mask how ridiculously emotional the passage of time (TOO QUICKLY) continually made you feel, hard-pressed to hold back tears or to ignore the ache in your chest as you fixated on that one thing that was everything: what John Updike (in one of your favorite short stories, “When Everyone was Pregnant”) called a “sickening sensation of love.” Splayed on the L-shaped sofa before their fireplace, wearing oversized sweaters to cover your oversized butt  – sequined tube-top now relegated to the dress-up box in the playroom – you drank in everything, knowing that everything would change. At your breast, the babies gazed up at you, wondrous, unblinking, trusting absolutely. Soon, toddling around in their onesies, dragging ragged blankies and sucking on pacifiers when you really should’ve already weaned them off that stuff, but whatever. After that, running in circles, overtired, cranky and sugar-high, flinging themselves at you, all jabby elbows and knees, until the tall, good man scooped them up and said it was time to go home. Finally: shooting pool ineptly, as awkward tweens who – thank God! – didn’t have their own parties to go to, yet. And after midnight, you now felt lucky to call your parents, still home in Jersey, declining in their recliners, to tell them: “Love you, Mommy and Daddy, zei gesund.” Because (a) they had softened, and (b) you now understood their bottomless fears – and how complicated everything was that you had once believed, SO arrogantly, should be SO simple – so that you and they were no longer SO angry all the time…

Then, too quickly: gone. Your parents, in the dreaded but inexorable turn of the generational wheel. Your children, to their own parties. (And their own lies? You hoped, perhaps naively, you’d given them less cause.) During these so-called “Mature” Years, the Sobels’ parties, while still gracious, held less allure, because you kept picturing your kids and theirs scooting around every corner, and instead of the big house ringing with childish laughter and tantrums, there was talk of prostates and colons, downsizing and caregiving – things you avoided thinking about – and of luxury travel and retirement, things you could not consider. So you and the tall, good man, and his tall, good siblings created a new ritual: New Year’s in New York.

Gleefully, you were catapulted back into your element. (Should you ever have left?) The in-laws see you as sedentary, rarely participating in New England’s brisk hiking (all those leash-less dogs, bounding scarily through the woods!) or biking (couldn’t this town have sidewalks?) or snowshoeing (they’re all so long-legged, these Smiths, who can keep up!). But in New York City, no one can match your stride; here, you walk, for miles, tirelessly, like a BOSS. In sketchy neighborhoods and subway stations where the others are tentative, you are fearless. From the roof of your brother’s 20-story apartment-building at midnight, wrapped in the arms of that tall, good, exasperating man, you can actually see the glistening ball begin its descent in Time Square; and you love to watch the fireworks display over the nearby East River, over farther Brooklyn, over the farthest Rockaways – to hear the car-horns honking, the noisemakers trilling, the people shouting – and, one year, to follow the flight of row after row of old-style, white paper-lanterns with candles underneath them, making them lighter than air, as they wafted serenely, silently, overhead…

This Year, for the first time in memory, you’re home – and alone, for long stretches, while your husband recuperates from minor surgery and rests upstairs. Early in the evening, you do two things you dislike and aren’t terribly good at: you vacuum, and bake – enterprises sufficiently rare that it makes the patient double over with laughter and clutch at his freshly stitched hernia-repair.

And as the night wears on, you wrap yourself in your mother’s mink coat (something you would never, ever actually wear anywhere, though you sometimes wish you could tape a sign to the back that promises the PETA people you didn’t purchase or commission it, you simply inherited it…. ça existe, folks, so get over it – c’mon, it’s really, really cold out tonight!) and you slip outside the sliding backdoor to stand alone in the frigid wind – alone, but knowing that there is someone in this house and people in many other places who love you – and to gaze up at a glittering onyx sky over Abbott Lane, aching because the decades have passed too, y’know, quickly. The year just gone – this slippery, mean 2013 – kept pinballing you back and forth between elation and sorrow, hopelessness and hope, with hospital elevators stopping at every floor for too many people you care about. From oncology, where you listened to your best friend’s chemo’s rhythmic, poisonous, life-saving drip – to maternity, where the heavenliest, strongest heartbeats thunder. New marriages began, bursting with hope; long marriages sputtered to an end – sadly, but also with hope, because it is the natural yearning of the human heart. Projects took root with a tantalizing promise of success; you know enough to be zen, and for the most part, you are, but you are also secretly dreaming… big.

Your own resolutions? To have an ounce of discipline so you can keep resolutions. To write more and sit less. To stop burning the candle at both ends, because that shit’ll kill ya, but first you need to stop loving it so much. And the world’s revolutions? You can’t – won’t – even say, here, all that weighs upon you, because it is clearer to you than ever that your politics – while fervent as ever – are far too nuanced (some would charge: contradictory/ hypocritical/wishy-washy) to allow you to align (or engage) with uncompromising bedfellows on the Left or Right. “Wishy-washy” isn’t a happy place for you, but you try and make the most of it. You believe that to consider no human being “the other,” while remaining faithful to your tribe, to “look at the world and notice it’s turning,” – talking, teaching, listening, learning, caring, connecting, quietly acting – may be your sole way to make a dent in your small corner of this troubled planet…

About 15 minutes before midnight, your husband comes downstairs to watch the ball drop. He asks why everybody in Times Square seems to know the words to the song that girl in the big white fur is singing, and the fact that you are able to launch into an elaborate treatise about the Year of Miley and “Wrecking Ball,” makes you feel somewhat less senior-citizen-y on this weirdly housebound night. (And it’s not lost on you that Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry, 45 years Miley’s senior, has managed to out-smolder her – not to mention the dreadful, yammering Jenny McCarthy – if for only the few minutes they stand together on the world stage, during the countdown.)

At midnight: for the 33rd consecutive year, the two of you kiss. Lila the aged dachshund – blind, lame, increasingly wacko – whose final New Year’s this will certainly be, burrows ever closer. The phone rings. It’s your gallant brother, calling you as he, too, once called your parents – every year like clockwork, always meaning it: “Love you, zei gesund!” Your kids call, or they text – the girls from across the country, giddy about their lives, the boy from a concert in Massachusetts, giddy about his music…

But listen, seriously, how crazy is it, with precious little sand left on the top of the hourglass, that you still cannot envision your future? Updike’s words, the ones he used to close his story, are all you can muster to close your own:

“Sickening sensation of love. The train slides forward. The decade slides seaward, taking us along. Still afraid. Still grateful.”

 

*****The graphic is by Pop Chart Lab, commissioned in honor of Grand Central Terminal s Centennial. http://www.mta.info/mta/aft/posters/posters.html

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