How are you celebrating the long weekend?
The last few hours of 2015 find me in a sixth-floor triangular hotel room with an urban view of snowy rooftops, plumes of furnace exhaust animating the scene. In the distance a clock tower indicates that the morning is well underway. I’m still in my pajamas and fuzzy socks thinking the hands of that clock can move as swiftly or as slowly as they will—today is a rare day with no agenda.
I’m thinking too that at the end of the calendar year, we stack the deck against our own intended successes—celebrating with what are often excesses of food, drink, décor, and gifts. January first arrives with its resolutions and we’re starting at more of a disadvantage than usual.
And even though I gave up making resolutions several years ago (https://overneathitall.com/2011/12/), I want to push that big reset button at the end of one year and the beginning of the next, just like anyone else.
There are several logical beginnings in the seasonal year—the fall brings the start of the school year, which will always feel like a new year to me. Spring, when we emerge from the cold to the fresh sight of new growth, is another bright beginning. But I’ve come to appreciate the gift of turning the page on a new calendar in January. Whatever holiday(s) we celebrate from Thanksgiving to the end of the old year, they encourage gathering together, lighting the dark, and sharing tokens of love. We feast to celebrate the harvest and festoon trees and mantles and houses with lights and baubles. Cards and letters connect us to friends and relations, and if there’s an urgency to hurry-up to finish the last of the old year’s work, it soon gets lost in the swirl of it all.
This year I’m fortunate to be marking the end of that period and 2015 with a pause: four days without a plan a little under two hours away from home. In an un-formed difficult-to-track way, my thoughts are riffling through my memories of 2015, looking for the meaning and lessons therein. I keep coming back to paper towels.
In my bustling household of peeps and pets, paper towels are a constant, even as I opt for more environmental choices when I can. At Costco I purchase twelve rolls at a time, complete with the select-a-size feature, and the package lasts for months. In the last dozen, more than a few of the rolls have been misaligned, with one ply bearing a fold to match it up with the other. As the roll unspools, the fold travels up or down the spiral of the towels, thickening and thinning and spiraling up and down the roll, sometimes right off the edge. I’ve never seen this before, but now when I make my children’s lunches in the morning or clean up at the end of the day, the extra fold of paper towel catches my attention—a bemusing curiosity.
Paper towels will forever remind me of a student paper written in response to a narrative essay I used to assign routinely to my developmental writing students. Frustrated by their retelling of stories they relied upon for writing assignments, I challenged my students to do something they had never done before and write about it. They had a week to come up with an experience, something all new to them. The assignment turned out to contain a little magic and generated some of the liveliest writing I read as a professor. Over the years answers to the challenge included wearing shoes of two different colors for an entire day, going to a new restaurant, and exploring a few extreme sports. One woman, a returning adult student, elected to investigate whether a roll of paper towels actually contained the number of sheets it claimed on the package. To conduct her experiment she gathered together several volunteer children from her neighborhood and together they unrolled the entire roll down the length of her street. They each counted the paper towels to be certain they had a reliable number and gathered quite a crowd of spectators in the process. There were a few more paper towels than the package claimed, and the inventive narrative that the student wrote was a breakthrough in her writing, the marvel of it staying with me more than twenty years.
Paper towels might not often be surprising or delightful or infused with magic. They might feel instead like a necessity for cleaning up life’s messes. But watching my paper towels with their running misaligned folds unspool gives my household chores a kind of whimsy that connects me to the spirit of doing something I’ve never done before. Twenty-fifteen indeed included some enormous “never-done-before” moments—like taking my children to Spain—but just now it is for this modest lesson that I am most thankful: When there is whimsy in the same-old, there is a spirit of adventure available even if I’m simply navigating the work of cleaning up. The New Year promises opportunity for lots of change and transition, shiny initiatives that we believe will change everything for the better. But lunches still need to be made and studio floors still need to be swept—if I can bring to these chores a sense of sparkle and delight, then maybe just maybe each moment I step into will have a little of the magic of something I have never done before.
Happy New Year with my love & best wishes for 2016, Rxo