Illustration by Ruby Walker
A new year, a new decade, a new identity, a new chance. Time always passes at the same rate, but it only starts to feel real when we put a new label on it. That’s why being 18 is different from being 17 — we have to pick a point at which one phase of life passes into another. One complete revolution around the sun is as good a marker as any.
It is still arbitrary, though. A socially constructed new beginning. For legal purposes, we’ve accepted the Gregorian calendar as “official,” but calendars are just tick marks that we impose onto the boundless flow of time. And so, as we near January 1st, it’s important to remember that it’s the year 5780 as much as it’s 2019. It could be the year 0 if we make first contact with extraterrestrial life tomorrow.
The power of New Year’s comes from the emotional significance we’ve collectively invested in it. We have rituals and symbols, songs and stories that all come together to reinforce January 1st as a “special day.” We have resolutions and fireworks, Auld Lang Syne and midnight kisses. The new year makes me feel dazzlingly blank — like anything is possible. While I know the day is arbitrary, I enjoy the theatre of starting over enough to suspend my disbelief.
But not everyone buys in. After some discussion, my suitemate Lexie Johnson offered the following comment on New Year’s: “I don’t like to hype things up. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean you have to be such a [expletive] bummer. It could be really important or just another day. It just depends on how much effort you want to put into it.”
For me, New Year’s is a reminder that believing in change is essential to changing. I’ve always felt like I have to invent little stories to stay motivated — hunting for symbols like my life is assigned reading for 8th grade English class. So I eat red food on Saturdays, I think of second chances when I see a rain lily, and I make wishes when the clock strikes 7:09. When I start to feel truly trapped by my unhealthy patterns, sometimes I’ll get a Sharpie and write that day’s date on the bottom of my boot. 12/17/17, 1/2/19, 11/5/19. It’s a kind of pseudo-New Year, an attempt to grasp at the magic that makes January feel so fresh.
I decided to start over recently — or at least start doing the bare minimum of self-care so that being in college doesn’t feel like a harrowing physical ordeal. And to get that “starting over” feeling, I’ve really had to invest energy into weaving a story for myself wherein change is really possible.
As part of this effort, I got a houseplant. Having plants around is an opportunity to care for something fragile, a reminder that all living things grow and regenerate. I asked the man at the nursery for something that wouldn’t die in a dorm room, and he gave me a golden pothos. After a few days’ deliberation, I’ve named my plant “Townie.” It’s the name of a song I like, with a lyric I also like: “And change, change, change is gonna come, but when, when, when?”
My takeaway from the new year? When it comes to changing habits, the right time to start is not tomorrow or some holiday, it’s now. It just takes some effort to make a clean slate you can believe in.