Marking the passage of time every time we fail or thrive

It has been cool and slow in coming this year, but Spring feels like the true beginning of a new cycle of life even though the calendar says we started counting the days afresh five months back.

And why shouldn’t I count the passage of time to my own reckoning? When we begin the year is largely arbitrary.

In early modern England and the then-colonial states in North America, Jan. 1 didn’t become New Year’s Day until 1752 — before that, it was March 25, the date of the Annunciation.

Chinese New Year didn’t happen this year until Jan. 22. Rosh Hashanah marked the Jewish New Year on Sept. 25. The Islamic Hijri New Year will begin with the moonrise on July 18.

The 28-day lunar calendar makes use of the moon’s rhythms, but it’s difficult to find cultures that mark the new year in other ways that make sense, which to my mind should be on the solstice or the equinox, when we have an obvious turning point of days getting shorter or longer, or at least being halfway to getting shorter or longer.

If not spring, maybe I should start reckoning this year’s New Year from a weekday between Christmas and Jan. 1. That was when I attended a wedding that was long in the making.

It was one of those marriages that bloomed out of a long friendship. They’d met in college, and one partner claims they didn’t like each other at first. But soon they were friends even though they were academic rivals, and after college they transferred to the same graduate and doctoral program, bought a house, bought dogs, dated other people for a while and then realized who they had in front of them all along.

I share that in part because half of us on the outside of the relationship saw what was next long ago, but the two of them had to work it out for themselves. It was sweet, and cute, and hard, but also easy even in its difficulty.

They started another phase of who they are together, and as I watched them walk out of the church hand-in-hand, I thought about how life is, in the end, always a series of negotiations.

I do not mean that in terms of contract negotiations, though I also mean that. Instead, I mean that in terms of negotiating curves, of learning where you can turn smoothly and sail around the side of the mountain, of figuring out where you have to lean into a skid, and recognizing where you have to brace for impact as a rock wall runs toward you.

Sometimes you begin as friends and end as a married couple. Other times, you end hardly knowing one another at all. Sometimes lifelong relationships enter into estrangements, and sometimes they heal. Other times, they don’t.

As humans, we value narratives, and as members of a culture raised on entertainment, we like to think of our lives as being part of a narrative arc. That’s why people talk about their faith lives as “journeys.” The iterations of the theme in media are endless — The Journey Home; Journey to Orthodoxy; The Jewish Journey; My Journey to Islam; Interfaith Journey; the list goes on.

When I was in the process of completing a church confirmation as an adult, my family and I spent several months driving to a location more than an hour from my house to meet with our catechist every few weeks. Especially considering that young children were involved, the road time was enough to make the entire process feel like a long trip.

But as the calendar pages turned and we were close to completing the necessary learning and steps, the reading and discussion and questioning, the priest leading us said that we should not think of getting to the baptismal font or the confirmation chrism as having arrived, but should instead see it as crossing the starting line.

With the years stretching behind me like so much asphalt, however, I look back and I don’t see that day as a starting point, or the end point of an old life, but simply as another way station. I made a choice that day, but it wasn’t spontaneous or uninformed. It was a semicolon used as a hash mark to denote breaths between moments of spiritual development.

In my work as a community journalist, I have attended between two and five high school and college graduation ceremonies annually since the mid-aughts. I have heard a lot of bad speeches on the theme of “commencement.” A few years ago during a particularly long ceremony with a particularly laborious speaker, I imagined the advice I would give.

My drafted but imaginary speech included:

You are standing on the precipice of a great and significant failure.

Do not mistake me — I am not saying you will be a failure.

But you stand now at a singular moment in time when youth is your greatest asset and your biggest blind spot.

In the next few years, you will — and mark me, you will —make at least one mistake that will shape your life or thinking in a way you could not have anticipated.

It is inevitable.

Here’s the inspiration: nothing — nothing — is beyond redemption. Take it from someone who made a lot of mistakes along the way.

Ask almost any adult you know. I can guarantee they had at least one plan — a job, a relationship, something — that blew up in an irreparable way in their late teens or early 20s.

After wiping the ashes from their face, they took a moment — or maybe a year, or two, or three — to assess. Then they put one foot in front of the other, and walked until one day they realized they had found a kind of contentment that wouldn’t have been possible if they’d stuck with their original plan.

The speech continued:

When I was in high school, one of my teachers had a poster that read, “Shoot for the moon, so that if you miss, you will at least land among the stars.” I have since heard it repeated many times over in speeches at commencement exercises.

But that’s not how astrophysics works, and it’s not how life works. (Nevermind that stars are bigger and more powerful targets than the moon.)

If you miss the moon, you can choose to course correct and try to get back to your original goal — which may be achievable, assuming you have the resources — or to a new destination. I hear Proxima Centauri is nice this time of year.


Very few lines in life are clean. The end of one thing does not mean that a new thing is beginning — though it is usually already under way, a long part of a process – and the start of something new can never be fully severed from the past that has shaped you as a person so far.

In these negotiations, these cycles, we are not mere automatons. We choose. We still choose to make wedding vows, or to take a new job, or to get up out of the dirt where we have fallen. We choose to have children, or pick flowers, or to walk away from something that no longer sparks joy.

But as long as we have breath, another New Year is coming. Spring will claw its way out of winter, inching out as buds and blossoms and suddenly exploding into flowers and leaves.

As long as we have breath, we can find another way to mark the passage of time and remind ourselves we are alive.


Image: The Ishango Bone is a tally stick dating to 20,000 that some speculate is an ancient lunar calendar. (Joeykentin /CCA-Share Alike 4.0)



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