On the New Year and the New Decade; or, Continuity and Change

I have been thinking for several days about what I could possibly say to sum up this decade, or even this year, to post on the first day of a new decade. It is hard to think of something that I haven’t said before, because this blog (which I began anew in February 2009) is itself a record of the past year, its continuity, and its change. And it is close to impossible to write a retrospective of a timespan which began back in fourth grade, back before I turned ten, back when my extended family celebrated the millennium in my grandparents’ basement… back an eon ago.

This week I have been writing, for a school project, a memoir of my childhood—of my first decade, my decade of innocence. The memoir ends in 1999, the year my family moved from Georgia to California, the year (unless you’re a pedant) the millennium ended and the new millennium began. As I transitioned from childhood into adolescence into adulthood, I spent the next decade growing tired of being always angry at George Bush and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld; I sought an escapist hedonistic pleasure in movies and my quizbowl team and the internet at 2am and sitting in the passenger seat as a friend drove too fast down Interstate 15. And then I sought an escape from that, in turn, exiling myself to a new world on the east coast, beginning (not without some angst) a new life in a new culture.

Then there was this year. This year, globally speaking, has been the epitome of the everlasting balance between continuity and change; we ushered it in with the inauguration of a president meant to change everything, and we came to realize that he has changed some things, but not as many things as we’d hoped he would. Those of us who were startled to political awareness by the second Bush administration began to realize just how hard it is to be a Democratic president, to advance progressive policy, to do anything but fight as hard as possible to maintain the status quo. The year 2009 in my iPhoto library is filled with pictures of marches and rallies and protests—in San Diego, in New York, in Princeton, in Washington. I have never tried so hard to bring change; I have never been so gutted when only continuity results. And at the same time, I have been growing increasingly distant, have been putting my broadening understanding of the cycles of American history to the task of understanding that this is what happens—this year, as in all other years, we fight and fight and fight, and sometimes we get what we want, and more often we don’t, yet we never stop fighting.

As I realize that my life is going to continue to be about fighting (for LGBT rights or for tenure, for peace in our time or the attention and interest of my future hypothetical students), I also realize that this year has been about becoming an adult—not just because I can drink alcohol in Canada now, which granted has been a highlight of the year. It’s because I now have just as much chance as any adult does to voice an opinion and be taken seriously; I have just as much right and just as much ability to make change. I have agency, I have independence, I have control. And, finally and most importantly (I think), I am becoming content with and thankful for what I have, perhaps because I can control my life and create for myself the conditions of happiness. I have become able to place my life in perspective, in historical as well as contemporary context, and to understand how much I have for which to be thankful.

This year has been about, in large part, the miracle of living and surviving—with the religious language utterly intended, firstly because I find it more tempting to resort to spirituality when I have thanks to give instead of altered circumstances to pray for; and secondly because there is something so beautiful and wonderful about the purest sense of human existence that it totally transcends the physicality of blood flowing through arteries and synapses firing and lungs expanding. I am not saying that I believe in a supreme being—I never have, and I don’t believe I ever will—but this year I have begun to cherish humanity, and to embrace the positive side of human continuity. We may never end our collective inclination towards making war, but we may also in turn never end our collective inclination towards making art.

And so, this year, I have put my trust in art—in paintings and photography, in music, in literature. My cultural taste has skyrocketed towards the highbrow (with, to be fair, a smattering of the pop cultural), and I’ve begun to develop my own sense of aestheticism, of beauty, of the moral necessity of seeking it. It is this conviction, this year, which has gotten me through the times when I am most ill at ease with the larger world: the National Gallery and the Smithsonian buoyed me through a summer in D.C., and the Met was there for me after the November election. High camp gets me through dirty fights about marriage equality and LGBT rights. Whistler and Mucha and Waterhouse and my friends’ art, as well, have gone up alongside the political statements on my bedroom walls. I relish the sunset; the blazing foliage of autumn and the first budding leaves of spring on the coast that’s now my home. And I don’t just survive—I flourish.

I have some New Year’s and new decade’s resolutions, of course; how could I not? Given my adult agency and the ability I must therefore have to make these resolutions true, I first resolve to keep striving to find the right balance between the personal and the political, between beauty and grit, that will make my life the most fulfilling. I need to find out how to do good without despairing, how not to feel guilty for doing things for myself, how to do both what I love and what is right. In the second place (and in the spirit of reviving conceptions of beauty long since clichéd), I resolve that I shall to mine own self be true—to be honest about what I think and what I want, and to tell the people who deserve to know the truth about these things. We are all playing roles in public, to an extent (for another clichéd Shakespeare reference, all the world’s a stage), but I will strive to make my role as faithful to my private self as possible.

A couple days ago, after enthusing to one friend about starting a book club and to another friend about starting a history society, I came into the kitchen and said to my mother, “It’s great how in college you can talk to your friends about intellectual things.” And that, dear reader, is 2009 as much as anything; in addition, it is what I hope desperately that the new year and the new decade continue to hold for me. 2009—and its education and its friendships, its ability to talk about intellectual things—is in truth, dear reader, the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. This year, for all its political anguish, has been the most fulfilling and rewarding that I can remember, and I hope dearly that I can continue to mean it when someone asks “How are you?” and I say “I’m doing well.”

Happy new year. Happy new decade. Happy every day, because there are always hope and beauty to be found.

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