In the spirit of New Year’s, I wanted to write about what lies ahead. For a few weeks, I tried. First, I started an essay about what I hope Baltimore will achieve in 2023 and beyond. Next, I tried explaining my distrust of New Year’s resolutions. Then, attempting a more optimistic piece, I delved into the theme of dreams.
Each time, despite all my brainstorming, I only got as far as the introduction then had nothing else to say. It felt like packing a bag, only to get to the door and realize I don’t actually know where I’m going, let alone how to get there. What’s more, I’m not even interested in figuring it out.
Exasperated, I knew I needed to try something else entirely. What if, instead of looking forward, I looked back? New Year’s isn’t just a time to set goals and cross our fingers — “This year things will finally be different!” — it’s also an opportunity to consider, assess, and, dare I say, pause.
This has been especially true the last few years. Even for those of us who’ve celebrated milestones since the birth of COVID in March 2020, life has been uncertain and stressful. Anyone who has endured things like illness, divorce, or financial troubles — life’s ordinary, awful experiences — has had to face them while also struggling through a pandemic.
For me, life since then has been more hardship than happiness. Living alone during quarantine was excruciating, and I’m still grappling with effects of that isolation. Meanwhile, being a teacher during the last almost-three years has been more depleting than any other time in my career; education officials mandated that we carry on as if there wasn’t an international crisis, insisting we prioritize academic standards over our students’, and our own, wellness. The sudden death of my brother in August 2021 has made these already demanding circumstances impossibly worse.
All of this explains my recent series of unsuccessful drafts — my mind is far too preoccupied with the pain of the last few years to fantasize about the future. My biweekly therapy sessions became weekly immediately after my brother died; this fall, I increased them to twice a week. The amount of effort necessary to face — and when I can, enjoy — each day has been staggering.
I’ve struggled to simply think too far beyond tomorrow. Writing (which requires developing, organizing, and honing) an essay about the novelty of the New Year is beyond my current capabilities.
Instead of resolving to make self-improvements, I just need to let myself be. Now that we’ve transitioned from one year to the next, I’m only promising to continue being gentle. This isn’t the time to push ahead. It’s more important that I pause. Rest. I must identify what still hurts and commit to taking care of it. Otherwise, I’ll never recover or regain strength.
This decision — digging deep instead of stepping forward — seems countercultural at this time of year. As a society, we proclaim that New Year’s is for committing to long-awaited life changes. Sometimes it’s dealing with those changes that have already taken place. Annually, we set specific challenges for ourselves, even though most resolutions only last a handful of weeks.
I argue that my choice to avoid seeking any new tests of willpower is also in the spirit of New Year’s. The last few years have dropped challenge after challenge in my lap, each demanding untouched emotional and mental skill sets. Rather than adding to my to-do list, I will deal with what’s already before me.
I choose to stay still not to avoid what’s ahead, but to catch my breath. We see New Year’s as an opportunity to maximize our health and happiness; by refusing to take on anything new, I’m doing just that.
Kerry Graham is a creative in residence for The Baltimore Banner.