by Michael Abraham
I wake with the dawn. It is January the sixth, and I have spent the last two days languishing in bed, oppressed by an inexplicable ennui that made it quite impossible to get up. So, today, I wake with the dawn. The sky is all blues and pinks, with tufts of cloud. The night has been wet, and I stand in bare feet on my porch and smoke my cigarette and drink my coffee, relishing strangely the damp chill that creeps into my toes. I go inside to write this—because the deadline to write this looms—and I pull up a song from a long time ago in my life: “The New Year” by Death Cab for Cutie. It isn’t a very good song to be terribly honest, but it drips with ire about the concept of the new year, and I have always liked Ben Gibbard’s distaste for the pomp and circumstance that attaches in our culture to January first. “So this is the new year / And I have no resolutions / For self assigned penance / For problems with easy solutions,” he sings. For years, I have been of this mind about the new year—that it is just another day and that it is, frankly, ridiculous to treat it as a magical aperture into the future one desires. It’s setting oneself up for disappointment, I’ve always believed, this whole business of resolutions and new beginnings. It is a mysticism of the calendar, and, like any mysticism, it is wont to fail in its enchantments by the harsh light of day.
But this year I feel differently. The year that has just ended has been the hardest of my twenty-seven years of life. If you’re a regular reader or a friend, you already know that—divorce, acute mental health crisis, the vicissitudes of love and sex, leaving my home of ten years, drugs, pain. An everyday ache that won’t subside. I feel quite unspooled as the new year begins, a bit of twine once neatly wrapped up upon itself in a whorl, now strung about the room and knotted up here and there. Approaching the concept of the new year in this state, in this state of unspooledness, means that I can muster little optimism for what lies ahead; indeed, I can hardly muster the optimism to get out of bed most days. But it is precisely there, in the brokenness of it all, in the lack of drive toward the world and all its promise, that I have found a strange and precious thing. I have found a little bit of hope.
You see, hope and optimism are frequently confused for one another, for the same thing, but they are quite distinct. Optimism has in it all the force of belief. It is the certainty, lacking any certainty, that things will turn out alright in the end. The optimist determines for themself what the future will be by the sheer force of their will to believe in a better world and a better life and in their imminence. The optimist is like a fortune teller, taking hold of the future from the standpoint of the present and divining in it the good things that are certain—certain—to come. Hope is not like that, not so bold and brash as all that. Hope lives in the regions of the discarded and the maladapted and the despairing. Hope is a tiny—potent but pointedly tiny—jolt of energy that one experiences when the past and the future both seem to fall away, into abyssal uncertainty, leaving one in a present riven through with abjection, with no resources for the fashioning of a better life. The hopeful is a very different creature than the optimist. The hopeful does not determine what the future is from the standpoint of the present, does not project their desires onto tomorrow as though tomorrow were some blank and magical screen that would submit entirely to the force of today’s dreams. Instead, the hopeful burrows into the present moment, digs deeper and deeper into it until they reach the marrow of the day, which they eat with all the desperation of a starving man. The hopeful, that is, finds a way to subsist in the disaster, to hold fast through it without the flights of fancy that so engage the optimist. The hopeful does not imagine their way out of the disaster; they take hold of the disaster, embrace it, let it carry them forward in its stormful arms, all the while keeping kindled their little jolt of energy, their little bit of vitality that does not promise a better life or a better world but does promise the strength to continue, to persist, to weather.
So, I come to the new year with hope this time around, rather than with cynicism and ire for all the wishing that takes place as the clock strikes midnight. I didn’t have these fully worked out thoughts about resolutions and hope and optimism until today, but I wrote half a poem on New Year’s Eve and then the rest of the poem on New Year’s Day, and I think writing the poem set my mind turning in this direction. The poem reads:
New Year’s Day
the blue wind cracks open the cheek
to the cold go the herons and the gulls
there is much wanting left in us
the stars in the sky burn through their transits
the plants wheel bright through corneas on corneas
the blue wind has names in it, your name
your name is either knife or incision
the herons and the gulls brace against the wind
somewhere, a young boy smokes a cigarette
somewhere, a young boy ages into leather
the moon peeks through the clouds and we notice
we have sex just to try it and it aches
the herons and the gulls get full of your name
the blue wind is maybe not so vicious
the blue wind maybe points a way forward
The poem isn’t the best I’ve ever written, but it has a great deal of honesty in it. It is about a relationship gone badly, another minor heartbreak at year’s end to add to the pile of heartbreaks that made up the year, but it is about more than that too. It is about inevitability, the onrush of time, the necessity of holding fast through the blue wind, of letting the blue wind move one where one has to go. The relationship that the poem references was all optimism. It was a salvific chance in my mind; it was going to save me from days on days of not being able to get out of bed. I was playing the fortune teller. I was believing in the future so ardently that I was sure I could will it into existence. That I finally could not is not so surprising: it is merely par for the course for this year that I have had. But in the failure to make a bright future with this man whose name haunts the herons and the gulls, I discovered that I could dwell in the present moment, that I could suffer the present and all its lack.
Lack is a funny thing. We love to imagine that every present is flush with potential, overbrimming with the possibility of becoming in all kinds of directions. Some presents are. But, sometimes, the present is stark and bare and without resources. Sometimes, the present is distinctly lacking. When we encounter such a present, we have two choices. The first choice to is rage against it, to throw ourselves at the wheel of life over and over again until we are broken by the force of our optimism. The second is to surrender, to hope. Hope is so very quiet. Hope is so very small and insignificant. Hope involves a great deal of failure. Just because one hopes does not mean one improves their lot—does not mean one manages to get out of bed for instance. But the hopeful has a secret that other people do not have. The hopeful knows themself deeply and well, knows their forgotten and hidden places, knows their capacities, knows where the line between the self and the world lies and what troubles that line, knows just how far the willpower can extend. When we encounter a present that is fundamentally lacking in resources for our flourishing and meet it with hope, we find that lack is its own resource, that lack can teach us fortitude and strength of character, if not strength of will. The hopeful does not have the power to change anything beyond themself, but the hopeful does have the power to grow, to transfigure. In theology, the Transfiguration is the appearance of Christ to his disciples, resplendent in glory. In more common parlance, transfiguration is the spiritual process whereby one becomes a higher version of oneself, more perfect in beauty and wisdom. Both the theological Transfiguration and the everyday transfiguration are revelations: the becoming manifest of something promised, something long awaited.
Perhaps you find this idea—that under conditions of near-total despair we become better selves—to be a bit lofty. I, too, would have thought that, I think, before the turn of the year. But the thing about being stranded on an emotional island with only your hope for company is that you begin a search for alternatives. Not alternatives beyond yourself—you are, after all, stranded, and the defining feature of being stranded is that there are no alternatives beyond yourself—but alternatives within yourself, alternate ways of being and relating to the idea of who and what you are. The tiny jolt of energy that is hope, that little current of electricity, crystallizes something inside you, makes a mirror, a mirror in which you begin to examine yourself and to see your faults, your unloveliness. And, since you’re stranded, and the other defining feature of being stranded is that there isn’t much to do, you decide to tinker, to make things by taking them apart, by examining and coming up with new combinations. Yes, you begin to tinker with yourself on your island with only your hope, and you find, as you tinker, that despair is not so overwhelming, that abjection is not total. You find, as you tinker, that, though you can do little to bring about the bright day of a new year replete with promise and pleasure, you can do a great deal to fashion a self that interests you, that satisfies you, that makes you proud. You can perfect in beauty and wisdom; indeed, there is nothing else to do on this island but to reflect and become.
One day, the blue wind will carry you off the island. One day, you will be at a gathering, candlelit, with a drink in your hand, surrounded by loved ones and laughing from the gut and perfectly content. One day, you will forget all about the agon of this time, the great trial that forged the fundament of you. For now, you will suffer the blue wind, and you will suffer the heartbreak, and you will make every effort to get out of bed in the morning. For now, it is the new year, and, though it comes to you without resolutions, it comes with hope.