A new year. 2010. Four days in already (and very happy birthday wishes to you, Mom!).
Christmas passed in a blur — we went out west with Blair’s family to go skiing, a skill I’ve learned only in the last few years, and not especially well. Learning to ski, it turns out, is rather like learning to knit: awkward at first, and there’s always something more challenging to tackle than the thing you just mastered. You fumble and you fall, and you start again, knowing that if you can’t laugh at your mistakes — at yourself — you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Then somewhere along the way you develop a sort of physical memory for it, so that you can think a little less, worry a little less, as you move forward.
There are plenty of differences, of course. There is, for example, that whole potential to snap your legs right in half with skiing. Still, though. Similarities exist.
I was glad to be out there, but equally glad to leave the glitz of the slopes at the holidays, and return to our humble life where the house smells a little too much like dog and almost everything is tattered and worn. Home. Now here we are in 2010, whatever it brings.
Once upon a time, I celebrated the kind of new year’s where the only possibilities for the next 365 days seemed to be good ones (these, of course were the years that I met the new year with a bottle of the cheapest champagne in the store, guzzled until it came foaming out of the sides of my mouth, and all the talk was about who we’d kiss at midnight). When one reaches A Certain Age, though, one begins to greet the new year with a little less heady confidence, a little more humility. It could be the year we get fit/work less/make a million/lose 15 pounds/get organized/quit smoking/smell the letters/appreciate loved ones more. Or it could — we know this by now — be another kind of year altogether. We make our resolutions, praying fiercely that this isn’t the year that tragedy befalls us, that despair or darkness closes in.
This past summer, I went to see an outdoor music festival at MASS MoCA, an old industrial mill complex-turned contemporary arts center. One of the musicians was Josh Ritter, who sings one of my favorite songs of all time: To the Dogs or Whoever (it’s the first song you’ll hear on Ritter’s web site, and it’s totally worth 3 minutes of your time). That night, he played another favorite song, Empty Hearts (#13 on the same site). It begins:
So save all of your light
for those who can’t sleep at night
and who can’t even sing to their shadows…
The song contains the refrain, “Don’t let me into this year with an empty heart, with an empty heart. Don’t let me into this year with an empty heart.”
That night, as we stood in the courtyard, surrounded by a labyrinth of looming brick buildings, Josh Ritter played that song, and the audience sang along. At one point, almost all of the musicians stopped playing, and all one could hear was the several hundred people in the audience repeating the refrain. Over and over again, they sang it — Don’t let me into this year with an empty heart, with an empty heart. Don’t let me into this year with an empty heart — until I began to understand why the song is titled with a plural. Empty hearts.
I grew up going to church, and I’m a semi-regular attendee at Sunday services even today. And I’m telling you: what I heard that night — hundreds of people calling out in a single voice, singing against an empty heart — was as much a kind of prayer as anything I ever heard beneath the steeple.
2010. Twenty-ten. Let’s approach this year, whatever it brings, with full hearts. Let’s genuinely save our light for those who can’t even sing to their shadows. Because here we are, in 2010, dancing on this one small planet together.
Here’s Ritter singing this song in another live concert, this one in Central Park with the New York Pops. It’s not quite the same effect as being there, but it sure is a good song:
Happy new year to you.