Alphabet ©2015 Janet Maher, pigment print of original collage
As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
~T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
The changing of the year has always been physically tangible to me. In the days of palm sized lockable five-year diaries I recall the thrill of the first day that I began to write, intending to visit my favorite Christmas present dutifully, adding four lines per day. I can will myself back to the image of an iced-over parking lot near my neighborhood on that cold clear day, as I looked out over all with heightened awareness and the goal to remember every sensation to record later. My diary did not get a year’s worth of faithful attention, much less did five more grade levels as the page design had allotted, and fear of my mother’s reading it kept me from ever truly baring my soul. It did, however, contain partial thoughts about my first big love and began a tradition of writing the start of journals, then letting them grow into free-for-alls, usually never completed. This diary became full of collage, perhaps my first artist’s book. I wish it still existed, like the two duffle bags that my mother would not store for me when I moved from her house. The homemade bags were full of notes that my boyfriend and girlfriends had passed to me in high school, and decorated letters from when we lived somewhere else for six months during grammar school. What is relinquished that should have been saved, I wonder? What is saved that should be released?
I don’t literally remember most January firsts, as I don’t remember most birthdays or anniversaries anymore, but I do remember eagerly anticipating and actively noticing the feeling of change. Somehow January first seemed the longest day of the year, stretching out into a far off horizon before which lay a landscape of possibilities. It was a clean day, new and hopeful. I wanted to savor it, vowed to use the next 364 well, to make the upcoming year especially matter.
It has been difficult for me to think far ahead like that for quite a long time. There have been too many losses, too many close calls, too many twists and turns in the narrative of my life to dare anymore to look too far into the future. In a mire of never seeming to be caught up with all my various projects before more “to-do’s” are added on, I live on a week-to-week basis, weekends woven into the mix of the work week and only slightly different. The turning of the year has become for me more about looking back. Whew, finally got through that one. Wow, did all that actually happen in only twelve months (or the past four)?
This year I intentionally paused. Like the adolescent I had been with her first diary I wondered if it could be possible to reclaim that state of being, even within the “unfinishedness” among the piles that surround me at home, in my studio, in my office. Rather than continue to feel that all must be organized and properly stored so as to be able to find what needs to be found again, might it be better to simply have a good, cleansing bonfire? Would that it could be so! (What is relinquished that should have been saved? What is saved that should be released, I wonder?)
In our vastly interconnected and fast-moving world we hear about global occurrences, feel everything as if it were just beyond our own doorsteps. We have the ability to take action on behalf of something outside ourselves that needs addressing. We are peripherally aware of what our friends and acquaintances are up to via social media and the deluge of events that come across our paths, possible opportunities for our participation. How good is it to know, I wonder, about something that would be satisfying to do but cannot fit onto the list of the ongoing “must-do’s?” It seems increasingly impossible to fit all the parts of a life together. Time seems to have mercilessly sped up. Days of lingering moments, thoughtful, creative reverie and time to express what results from it have become shorter, more sporadic, then finally disappear, even as they cry out to be actively reclaimed. What does such a situation create in us over time? What happens to our psyche when the spiritual food of active life experience becomes mere memory?
Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, by mapping the layers and levels of human engagement came to an interesting premise. Our brains can only adequately manage and we can only interact successfully with about 150 people. (He refers to significant relationships with shared history and mutual responsibility to and for one other.) I could not agree more, and actually feel the number should be less. How many directions do I feel pulled in, which ones demand to take precedence? Which ones must fall by the wayside, which ones do I miss most? Like the piles of papers and files that surround me, many of the most important relationships also seem lost in the shuffle. (What is relinquished that should have been saved? What is saved that should be released?)
The world is such a different place this year than it was even a year before. It seems to have gone a bit crazy. Killing is rampant and random as if secretly waged wars have suddenly manifested overtly everywhere, including in places we least suspected. The earth herself seems to be rebelling against our presence, erupting, drying out, alternatively washing so many of us away. Industries and regulations have worked against the health of all, and both the weak and strong among us succumb to environmentally-born carcinogens on ever-increasing levels. Having “survived” cancer once, having lost so many friends and family members already to it, knowing so many who are currently battling it, I retreat to my books. They require the least from me, nourishing and stimulating me instead. Tell me a story. Teach me about things I wish I’d learned years ago. Make me marvel. Make me cry. Turn my brain off, let me immerse into your words. Take me somewhere else.
It is another new year. I vow, somehow, to write the many letters that need to be written, send people the photographs and other things I have saved for them that have been sitting in piles for yet another year, reconnect with someone I have wanted to for decades. (I think her daughter should have her own drawing that I have treasured since we were undergraduates, one of my early trades.) I have also begun to sweep. I am sorting, giving things away (even books and art), recycling on a larger scale than that of basic weekly maintenance. I am trying to manage time such that my studio has adequate attention, which, of course, is where my most needed food is stored. Showing up, moving my hands, being in the still point of the endless present, the turning world, there is truly where my dance is.
It is difficult to dance when one’s brain is compartmentalized into too many sections. (Much more possible to write in that state, I have found.) Are 150 compartments too many? This year I will slowly reread Eliot’s Four Quartets. I will let him guide me back to the place I once knew so intimately, immediately, daily. Each changing year has been modified according to circumstances. In this one I will remember the girl and her diary. I vow to use future days well and to make 2016 matter differently than other years have. I vow to release that which no longer needs saving, creating space for something else to enter. I want to savor this January, look out from it as if it could stretch through to a horizon full of possibilities, clean, new and hopeful.
©2016 Janet Maher
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