Cover Photo: Sarah J.
Sarah J.

The End of December

On New Year’s Resolutions

We have no New Year’s Eve plans, my partner and I. This can change in an instant because in New York, it is prudent to count on a kind of aqueous life. Fluidity is the undercurrent of the concrete here. Plans change, as do minds, circumstances, luck; even fate can shift, ripple. Fortunes rise and fall, and with them the humans who ride upon this wave, believing in their control. Perhaps this is not specific to New York; perhaps this all happens in Montana, which I wish to visit one day, though I don’t know why. Likely because it is the time of year when all the things I’d like to do flood my mind. I consider Montana as I do other locations I’ve never visited: Japan and Paris, Amsterdam and New Orleans. It is time for New Year’s resolutions, to once again visit the deficits, the gaps, in one’s life. But I am here now, in the present—with my partner in New York, contemplating New Year’s Eve plans, thinking of Montana—and I find I do not care about deficits or gaps.

I turn to the dictionary. “Resolution,” noun, is defined as “a firm decision to do or not do something.” It is also the “action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter.” In chemistry, it is “the process of reducing or separating something into its components.” I originally intended to look up the history of New Year’s resolutions, to see when the act became tradition, to see if the tradition is shared across cultures, but history, tradition, is often bound up in our language, in the words we use and define and redefine and redefine again. The history and tradition of the New Year’s resolution, as I understand it from my myopic American eyes, is right there, in the definition. Either that, or I am increasingly distrustful of facts, of what I am told to be true versus what I experience to be true, and in doing so, in this willful act and display of distrust, I am, I hope, issuing a corrective measure for myself to myself. What I seek, above all, is simplicity. Should I make and state New Year’s resolutions, this act, this old tradition, would merely solidify the simplicity I desire, or at least make it plain to me. “A firm decision to do or not do something.” To resolve, or not resolve.

I should probably write a few words about 2015, but the year is stale now, rung out like a damp dish rag and left to dry in the cold, dour winds of some rundown burg blasted off the map by poverty and overcast. 2015 has been recorded, logged, and filed away as History, and as an American, I abide by my country’s allergy to revisiting History. Demagoguery appears to be making a comeback, as if the twentieth century never happened, was never defined by the twin red pools of blood and money. Forgetfulness is a national pastime, and it is perhaps why the tradition of the New Year’s resolution continues to flourish here. If a nation can forget its still-unpaid debt to the generations of Africans and descendants of Africans enslaved for two hundred years, then surely one of its current citizens can skip a day at the gym, or forgo that early morning run—all decked out in tight, sweat-resistant clothing and cross-trainer sneakers, fitness band strapped on the wrist registering both geographical position and physical stress (via heartbeats) for future review and comparison and goal-setting. No, there is no connection, of course. Of course. There’s no correlation between a nation built on broken promises and its citizens who annually make, but cannot keep, promises to themselves. The idea is preposterous. The mind is capable of taking great leaps in logic, of spotting connections our eyes cannot see, but it is often more comfortable, or safer, to believe in the tangible, in what the eye captures, rather than what the mind identifies. Seeing what is not there, or not believing in what you see: Either track can lead to an accusation of lunacy. So be it. I laugh like a lunatic in a dark cell, restrained by a straight jacket or by medication, noting the absurdity of everything.

Besides, there’s little left to say about 2015, barring wide-scale revolution in the next few days, the apocalyptic sweep. And 2016 is nothing. It is currently meaningless. History will soon have its way with 2016 but, for now, the year is unknown, spotless, full of hope. The new year is always immediately defiled, like footsteps upon untouched snow, on January 1. Maybe this is why we celebrate on December 31, only for a few hours in the approach to midnight, when History and its incessant scribbling is paused.

New Year’s resolutions attempt to correct that which has gone awry. It often doesn’t, in part because New Year’s resolutions are abandoned so often that their abandonment is woven into American culture. A local newscaster speaks over stock footage of round bellies jiggling on treadmills in gyms, and, at the end of the segment, offers a reminder that it’s okay if resolutions are forgotten, because there’s always next year, and no one achieves their resolutions anyway. Failure is assured, or implied.

But while New Year’s resolutions are absurd, they are not without value. That the tradition even exists at all engenders a frame of mind necessary for personal change: Thinking about resolutions means I’m thinking about improving myself. I do need to return to the gym to remove the flab once and for all; I could also resolve to call my mother more often, or take a flight south to see her for the first time in four years; I might decide to write difficult essays that take me out of my head, my comfort zones, even if they won’t garner any immediate shares, or likes, or favorites. Expanding my reading tastes is a worthwhile resolution; I could certainly stand to read more often, which would mean less time for other things, such as Twitter, but this would be a small loss, a trifle to relinquish, since social media has become anathema to my artistic pursuits. (I would rather be known as a bad writer than a good tweeter; this is a realization that is so baffling to me, and unexpected, that I’ve been unable to do anything about it except to sit with it, turn it over, and find the lie in it, if it exists.) I could be a better sibling to my brothers and sister, as well as a better uncle to their children; I could turn to God as I deal with my mortality; I could stop wasting my money on the latest gadgets and take-out lunches, and any money saved could then be used to see more of the world with my partner. We could go to South America, or Central America, and I could peck out some words on my laptop at the beach, brushing sand away from my keyboard; I could look at the tapestries and churches, the sculptures and the jewelry, all the details my partner sees and points out; we could forget to take photos and instead resolve to remember it all, to use both of our minds to remember this one, singular trip for ourselves, and keep all of it in our heads and offline; I could finish my book, and make a note in the acknowledgements that the book was written on a trip with my partner, who reminds me of black love, of black friendship, of black power, black excellence, black family, Blackness with a capital B; I could resolve to taste more varieties of bourbon, to give gin another chance (but only one more chance), and to continue to laugh at all the wrong times, at all the wrong things; I could resolve to be even more absurd.

“As your perspective of the world increases,” writes Knausgaard in Book One of My Struggle, “not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning.” Later, he continues: “We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed.” Knausgaard is writing about the aging process, beyond the physical—the wrinkling of skin, the graying of hair, the yellowing teeth, the rotting flesh, the dirt, the casket, the hole, the darkness—and toward the metaphysical, where the perception of time shifts, where one hopes to find wisdom. Knausgaard is writing about the lessening of trauma but perhaps he is writing about joy, too. This past year, I must admit, felt as though it came and went faster than any other year I’ve lived, and the only perceptible change I can attribute to this speed is joy. It feels ridiculous to suggest I am joyful. The word “joy” itself, so small and yet so messy, oozes with positivity, with pleasantness, with sunshine and dandelions. Joy is a bullet train upon which I ride to experience my life these days, populated by clowns and animated characters, talking animals wearing clothes, carrying guns and grudges, a train full of cartoon lunatics. Meanwhile, trauma is a crowded subway train, trapped underground, stuck in between stations as the lights suddenly go out.

On New Year’s Eve, my mother would take black-eyed peas, pennies, and collard greens and make talismans, good-luck charms of sorts, for myself and my siblings. I never understood the tradition, one she brought with her from the South, but I understood good fortune and its fleeting nature. The combination of black-eyed peas, pennies, and collard greens were to act as a net to capture good fortune, to trap and harness it, and this combination is also a nexus between me, my siblings, my mother, her mother, and the South I hardly knew outside of summer trips, but has lived inside of me this entire time. Maybe it was meant to capture and harness time as well, to slow things down. I never kept track of these charms when she gave them to me. Eventually I threw them away. I certainly forgot about these handmade time machines over the years, and was reminded of them only by a question asked in passing by my editor. A New Year’s resolution to improve my memory—to remember everything—would fail, no question, but it’s a resolution worth making.

Maybe resolutions can’t be fixed goals—I will lose forty pounds; I will have 10,000 followers on Twitter—but are better suited as points on a sliding scale, as incremental improvements: Losing some weight is better than losing nothing (or gaining plenty). But this feels anticlimactic, and a little too nebulous for me, because it disregards failure as a suitable goal in of itself. This thinking replaces failure with mediocrity, with being “good enough,” which is never good enough. I suppose if I set out to write a good, clear, entertaining essay on resolutions—with the expectation that I’d pour out my thoughts on the end of this year and the beginning of the next year, as well as thoughts on joy and trauma and history and memory—and ended up with an ungainly, mysterious essay instead, a potentially mediocre essay, an essay easily dismissed as lunacy, I could keep the essay to myself, forgo publication, tell my editor, “I got something else for you.” But what is this? Is self-deception better than failure? No. Another resolution worth making: to pursue and embrace failure. This falls in line with my newfound passion for simplicity, a veil that covers my true fear: losing my joy. I suspect I am happy in life because my life has become simpler, and therefore calmer, because I am calmer, and all of this is because I see the absurd with alarming regularity, and this is because the distance is growing between myself and the world I inhabit. I can’t tell if this is making me a colder person, and even if it did, I would probably do nothing about it. If joy and the cold go hand in hand, I like being cold. Besides, one can’t fake passion any more than one can fake outrage, no matter how hard one tries.

It is December 29th, and we still do not have New Year’s Eve plans, my partner and I. She is a little more superstitious than I am, or is more open to the idea that events can be both random and predestined; she is the gray to my black-and-white worldview. I’ve read recently of a superstition, a rather unremarkable belief, that a new year’s trajectory is determined by how a person starts it. Assuming that it’s true, the superstition makes our New Year’s Eve decision—how we plan to spend these few hours together—more critical than anything I could resolve. Last year, my partner and I spent a portion of New Year’s Eve apart—this was my fault, the result of my occasionally unyielding desire to be away from people. (It is not shyness, or introversion, or misanthropy, or some misuse of any of these words, but a simple, and sometimes inconvenient, desire to avoid people at all costs. I am a high-functioning recluse.) We both desire something different this year. Ideally, the two of us would board a plane and fly away from this country, this hemisphere, to celebrate the new year on the coast of Guatemala, or in a bookstore somewhere in Spain that’s more of an ancient ruin than a retail space, with slanted shelves and forgotten titles and an owner who listens to Bach on a turntable as a shabby gray cat who listens to no one putters the aisles. It is more likely we will spend it here in Brooklyn, with our family, and do what boring families do: eat food, make a ruckus with party favors, doze off sometime around 11 pm, wake up to the new year minutes after midnight, send text messages to our loved ones and then, to bed. As far as simplicity goes, there is no greater joy than this scenario.

Mensah Demary is editor-in-chief of Soft Skull Press. His writing has appeared in The Common, Unruly Bodies, Vice, Salon, Slate, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @futuremensah.