We have, hopefully, the stress and strain of the new year and its celebrations , or commiserations, behind us and can look forward, with baby eyes if you wish to believe those who claim that an old man stands looking back at the end of the year and an innocent child looking into the new, joined for some as Janus, as two separate individuals for those more wishful of forgetting and starting anew. I can well understand those many thousands of people who see the new year, the end of one period and beginning of another, as a new start and a way to put everything behind them once and for all, even though this is impossible except in your dreams, but do not understand why they should decide on this one day of the year. There are so many things which we carry over from the old into the new, especially the true character and personality which goes to make up what we are, complete with our history and our experiences, beliefs and knowledge, that it is impossible to believe we will suddenly become a new person, capable of new things, simply because a bell in the clock tower has struck twelve, or a few fireworks have been fired off over the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, or the great crystal ball has fallen in New York’s Times Square. Even the now rare ringing of the Big Ben bell in London makes no difference: had it remained silenced as workers continue to rebuild the Elizabeth Tower around it, few would have noticed the difference in their daily lives.
Why should I think this? Why should I burn down the hopes and aspirations of so many thousands of people who believe that, simply because the number of the year we write at the top of our letters, in our diaries, on school and college work – unless we forget it for the first three weeks and have to be reminded that it is no longer 2017 and then correct it, making a mess – has changed, their lives will change for the better too? I must be a very bad person, I suspect, to blast people in such a way, don’t you think?
But why shouldn’t we be able to change our lives on any day of the year, any day of the week? Why must we wait for the 31 December, at midnight, to make New Year Resolutions which we know, in our hearts and minds, we will not keep? If we cannot even remember which year it is for those first three weeks of January, how are we possibly going to remember the promises of betterment after three bottles of cheap red wine and far too much high-calorie food scoffed down in one session? Why don’t we make a new start on our birthday? For me that makes much more sense, although we’re probably going to suffer from the too much red wine and too much food problem there too. Or, even better: any day of the week whenever we need to? I mean, that is what we do with so many things already, why not with major plans for the future as well?
If I were to make a New Year Resolution it would be to write a letter to as many people as I could, in many different countries around the world, and challenge them to a discussion on something in our world which, at first glance, seems to be nonsensical and irrelevant. I would put pen to paper, pick out a person at random – although it would have to be one who appears intelligent and capable of writing, and thinking – and then just pick out a subject to discuss. But that was my New Year Resolution last year, and repetition is not always a good thing: we become bored with repeating the same actions over and over again; our level of intelligence, our belief in ourselves is insulted by the idea that we, the most intelligent creatures ever, must do something mundane and insignificant day in, day out. Although, that’s what most of us do when we get up each morning, eat our breakfast, and then join the long lines of traffic in to work.
In my challenge I would take things like Janus and the change of the year; the merits of watching the Bolshoi Ballet perform a theatre play, so that there are no words only movements and symbolic gestures; the pleasures of reading a book in a time of advanced technology; whether it is better to write a letter or to send an electronic mail; how travelling and learning languages opens the mind and enhances the pleasures of the soul. I would sit in my small library and seek out suitable quotations, to add a little flavour to my words by using those of others, those of the great writers of our times:
I spend all my time going about trying to persuade you, young and old, to make your first and chief concern not for your bodies nor for your possessions, but for the highest welfare of your souls, proclaiming as I go, wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state.
But who reads Socrates today? Who reads and writes letters today? Who, in our wonderful world, would be willing to make a New Year Resolution, or a birthday wish, or a middle of the week mind-blowing and life-altering decision to read and write letters? To read more books? To get out into the world and explore it for themselves or, at the very least, correspond with people who can pass on their experiences, talk, debate, learn and live? Perhaps, if I quoted Harry Potter
They headed up the street, heads owed against the wind, Ron and Hermione shouting through their scarves. “That’s the Post Office –“
would younger people see the brilliance of letter writing and make it their resolution to write, even if not to receive that letter from Hogwarts, at least to have some form of communication with the undeniable magic of the written word? Few people will receive that coveted letter from Hogwarts, or anywhere else, if they don’t put pen to paper themselves.
And I only write that we are the most intelligent creatures ever because there is no other creature alive today, nor one that we know of from the past now extinct, which can argue the facts of the case with us. We could, of course, refer to the wonderful Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari as a reference work on what makes intelligence, the ability to learn, the power to survive against other species in the same family and come, in the end, as the only form of our art to live on in this world. Whether that has anything to do with intelligence, or is it more the ability to communicate, to work together, to act and react in a social form with others similar to us to gain that which we desire? So is the argument in this book, whether there is proof to back it up remains to be seen. And will we, in one thousand years, still be there to make those resolutions, to promise to better ourselves? He seems to think not: we need hardly worry, we most certainly will not be there to find out. But a strange subject, and worthy of discussion, I believe, especially since the professor had concentrated all his efforts on military matters before smashing through to the bestseller lists with his history of the world and man.
But you work with children, and you see how it is every single day: are they going towards the socially acceptable modern technology, or the intellectually enhancing old-fashioned ways? In the United States of America it appears a Senator must put in a special request for cursive hand writing to be taught in schools, and a decision has to be made at the highest educational levels over whether children should still be taught how to write properly, clearly, succinctly. Years ago – slightly more than a century and a half, perhaps – this would never have been a question: reading, writing, geometry, mathematics, music, rhetoric, ethics, the classic humanistic way to a wider, more fulfilling education. In my day, also many decades ago, we had lessons on letter writing; we read books in class; we practiced our hand writing to gain extra points for our end of year grades. A resolution to bring all of that back? But at the start of the school year, not in the middle of a semester.
We do not, of course, have any such control that, at the lower end of the ladder, where the children are taught, are inspired to learn for themselves, decisions can be made. The teacher sees the reality of education, and the manner in which his or her students react, how they take the fodder they are offered and whether they are advancing as a result. Those above, in the big cities, in the big offices, with the big titles earned through a big name college or university, do not. They see paperwork, and financial reports, and not people. The difference between seeing a smiley and interpreting it as the wonder of the world, and the smiling face of a child, and knowing that this is the future. And we resolve, in our minds, to do better, and work at doing better, and hope that our betterment reflects in what we have to offer those children who, perhaps, will one day be writing to another individual, separated by thousands of miles, and sharing their life and impressions on a sheet of paper. It would be sad to see the nine Muses named by Hesiod, resting on their laurels at present, disappear completely from human recollection.
And what is it that people resolve to do in the coming year? I see so many who claim a desire to lose weight, to spend more time with their children, to travel and see the world as quickly as possible. Have you ever seen anyone write that they wish to just relax, to take their time, to let the wonders of the world wash over them and fill their spirits with something special they can relate to, they can collect and give to their grandchildren decades from now? The desires of an older generation, perhaps, when they are already old and it is too late to go running up to the sphinx and climb the pyramid it guards; to dash down the hillside into the greenery of a lush valley and across a ford through freezing cold waters; to jump and dive from one wave to another before the sands of a beautiful beach; to stand and look and appreciate and love.
Next year I will take that world cruise I have been promising myself. Next year we’ll move out of the city. Next year will be better, but first, let’s get through this year sane and in one piece
over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys. [Route] 66 is the path of people in flight
as Steinbeck tells us in The Grapes of Wrath, the wonderful route everyone wishes to follow to that green valley hidden away beyond the mountains. Next year.
Were I to make a new resolution this year, as we enter into the unknown depths of 2018, it would be to carry on and seek that which is slowly being opened up following the resolution from last year, 2017. It would be to search out new names, in St Petersburg perhaps, of people who look and sound interesting, who seem to have a head upon their shoulders and a functioning brain within that monstrous cavity most people ignore merely because they believe the wrapping, the face and features, are far more important. And then to write to them. To sit down with an idea, with my books, without a plan and write them a letter which might, possibly, be so outlandish, so unexpected as to provoke a reply. It worked last year, so why not continue, I would tell myself. What could possibly go wrong, I would tell myself. It will be fun, I would tell myself. And if they do reply? Then that’s a good thing, because that means I can sit down and write again and, perhaps, learn.
And your resolutions?