Do We Need a New Year to Create Change?

Why do we feel differently about change on January 1st than we do on May 15th or August 29th?
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Allison McCarthy
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Why do we feel differently about change on January 1st than we do on May 15th or August 29th?
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At the end of last year, I got into a spat with someone I love. “Spat” is actually a delicate word for what happened. It was ugly and it hurt and months later, we spoke again, this time more carefully. But underneath the more common-place insults from that day was something sharp and true: “Allison really can’t handle change.” That line stuck with me. Was he right?

There’s a tension between resolutions and outcomes. Some tension is fun and some tension leaves an ache. Anxiety thrives in this environment. But I tried to leave the fear in a small corner. I spent a lot of time thinking and talking about how things in my life and the lives of those around me and the events of the world are changing, changing, changing. For me, there were so many questions.

Could I handle a change in plans -- an extra guest or two at the table, an early arrival, a cancellation? I didn’t want to be the person who panicked over minor details. In my mind, I’m smooth and sinuous, always above reproach in my gracious manner. But my face betrays the real worries: what if there isn’t enough to go around? What if we never reschedule our plans and it’s because I’m not good company? What if I’m not prepared?

Our lives continuously shrink and expand on a micro level (relationships, jobs) and a macro level (elections, public policy) without the passing of a new year. It never stops. Why do we feel differently about change on January 1st than we do on May 15th or August 29th? The Chinese New Year’s Day for 2015 is February 19th and the Jewish New Year starts on September 13th -- these are dates imbued with religious and cultural significance. The traditions hold far more meaning than champagne or confetti or a kiss.

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And yet -- I like the taste of sweet and crisp champagne. I like being pulled in for the first kiss of a new calendar year (and I love Jennifer Weiner’s line at the end of Good in Bed -- “I would like to be the only man you kiss this millennium” -- because sometimes I am a romantic sap and that is a hard sentiment for a sap to resist). After the ball drops and I’ve made my way home from the party, I like pulling my hair out from its pins and a nice dress off at the end of a fun night with friends. I am not immune to the charms of December 31st. I’m just not convinced that it’s the driving force behind change.

On a political level, I am profoundly grateful for progressive changes. In 2014, grassroots organizing has sparked revolution on many fronts and demanded an end. The revolution is done with police brutality and the systemic devaluing of people of color. The revolution is done with condoning rape culture. The revolution is done with the exploitation of labor at unfair wages. These are only a few of the many issues crying out for a change. I’m so proud of the revolution undertaken in unions and on college campuses and on doorsteps and in the streets. I’m thankful for the work, the words, the constant and critical effort.

But this year, I wrote less and less about the political activism I hold dear. For the last five years, my writing was centered on feminism and social justice. The articles and reviews were reactions to what I read and saw, but not what I experienced. In my personal time, I read many essays online and the books I read this year were predominantly essay collections: Once I Was Cool, Legs Get Led Astray, Bad Feminist, The Empathy Exams. My writing turned inward and I focused on subjects I had previously shied away from. I can already see the changes in my writing. I feel like I’ve finally found a voice I can write in with confidence.

Part of the reason that I shied away from writing about my personal life was because I felt scrutinized by an inner circle. Why did I keep people around who discouraged my work? What, exactly, made them the final authority on real writing? I found that even when I encouraged their work whole-heartedly, it didn’t make them more supportive of me. If anything, it only made me feel even more isolated and uncertain about how to proceed. For two years, I stopped writing with any real frequency. I was so ashamed. My closest friends -- some of whom are also writers -- wondered what was happening to me and I couldn’t answer.

Another change in this year meant closing off the links to that inner circle. It happened gradually. There were a series of choices and each time, I picked the choice that echoed my intuition: get away, travel, dye your hair, take the class, tell your friends, read the books, do the work. That little voice saved me from my worst instincts and put me back on a path that keeps me fulfilled while reaching for everything I want to try.

I still have a face that shows exactly what I’m thinking, even if I’m trying to mask those thoughts. I’m still flustered and anxious and I don’t always handle every shift in plans with flawless grace. But I’m changing.

This time last year, I didn’t have a car, but now I’m driving the cute convertible that everyone discouraged me from buying -- and then promptly fell in love with once I claimed ownership. I took a chance on the car I wanted most and it paid off. That was in September. It was an ordinary day that changed my outlook on the rest of the year. 

Change can happen any time. It’s happening right now.