The most common complaint you will hear from lawyers in private practice is the requisite hourly and daily accounting for our time. This results, however, at year’s end, in a near perfect graphing of how one has spent each of the 365 calendar days, at least professionally. Whether you hit your target hours, or fell short, or surpassed them, there laid before you are the clients and projects and trips where you lived out a year’s days and nights. Each has a tidy number next to it.
Each year, the founder of our firm invites a group of lawyers and accounting staff out for a nice lunch just before December 31. It’s both a celebration of a successful year and a sobering reminder that when the calendar page turns to January, all our labor, all the little beads we have dutifully placed in a jar called 2013 are emptied out, and we start all over again.
A more raucous year-end lunch is the one I will have today with Sylvia, at which she requires us to make fabulously unlikely predictions for the coming year, usually focused around celebrities and the royal family. She has already let slip her own blockbuster, so readers, if and when Bruce Jenner starts going by “Brenda” in 2014, you heard it here first.
And so the year ends.
It is always striking to me how different January 1st looks from late December. For one thing, it is the day I take down our Christmas tree and bid what seems like an increasingly abbreviated farewell to my beloved ornaments. The earth, and our little piece of it in Washington, D.C., still sits in the same celestial position as it did at Christmas. But the light seems changed. My office will look different when I return. Devan’s backpack will be cleared of tinsel and cookie detritus, and – eventually – she will return to the second part of her school year, the months of Martin Luther King, and Lincoln, and hearts and shamrocks.
Kian will resume doing whatever it is they do at Montessori.
It is both comforting and distressing to think that what I will be doing tomorrow, and every day after, from hearts to shamrocks to eggs to beach towels, is dropping more of those beads in the jar. We crave the new and thrilling, but we – I – so readily default to the known. I know well that it is up to me to decide what colors and shapes those beads will be. There is no one else who can grasp my particular jar and give it a shake, or hold it up to a sunny window to see what light it casts on my wall. That is my challenge, and dare I say, my resolution.
This ritual of making New Years resolutions evidently took deep hold on our species some time ago. As it turns out, overfed Americans swearing off the Red Bull and cheezy puffs for a few weeks are just putting their own mark on a rite that dates back centuries. Per Wikipedia, the ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. And here’s my favorite: in the Medieval era, knights took the “peacock vow” ” at the end of the Christmas season each year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry.
How awesome is the peacock vow?
I need a freaking peacock vow.
Or maybe I need to start with something closer to home. For these resolutions have less to do with looking forward than looking back in reflection. We don’t pluck aspirations from the thin air as much as we mine them from the rubble and ruin of mistakes and the times we fell short. There is no debt to pay without the moment you let yourself get in over your head.
On the other hand, maybe our resolve can also be born of seeing something in ourselves of which we can be proud, a recognition that we did one or two things right and vowing to keep doing them. If that is so, then I will spare the reader my ample pile of regrets and missteps and share just two things I did right this year and why, if I carry them forward into 2014, those beads might drop with more purpose and joy.
Therefore, be it resolved:
One morning a week, barring unforeseen events, I will staff the Kiss & Go. This involves opening the car, van and SUV doors of the families arriving at Devan’s elementary school. The entire commitment is 20 minutes, from 8:30 to 8:50. I started doing it out of freeloader guilt, feeling it was unfair that these well-intentioned parents hoisted my girl out of our car in rain or shine, while I had yet to take a turn. But like so many great things, the return on this small investment proved to be startlingly profound. It’s not just the sweetness of lifting the smaller ones out of car seats, collecting the princess or Star Wars backpack, and watching with satisfaction as one after another ascends the steps to the playground safely. It’s the unity of purpose among every grown-up huddled at the wheel, and the few of us lining the sidewalk, and the teachers and staff waiting atop those stairs. It’s the eye contact with the parent who is late for work, or who will return home to a pile of breakfast dishes, or who just had the morning argument over why the homework never makes it into the folder. It’s the piece of peanut butter toast lying on the floor mat. It’s the thrice a week Kiss & Go angel Tony, decked out in his Redskins jersey despite one crushing Sunday loss after another, telling every harried family to slow down, take their time, and don’t forget that one last kiss. You can’t help but offer a brighter soul to the world when you’ve just spent 20 minutes aside a real live knight, living up to his peacock vow.
And be it further resolved:
That those same children I hoist will be assured a full-time music teacher, and won’t lose their Chinese teacher, because of a 35-year-old tradition known as the John Eaton Christmas Tree Sale, of which – in a spasm of September earnestness – yours truly became the co-chair. And so it was that I spent the first two weekends of December selling some 400 trees alongside my fellow public school parents, braving snow that turned to the dreaded wintry mix, keeping spirits bright with carols and a fire pit. At first, Amit admired my plucky enthusiasm. Then he questioned my mental health. Eventually he just wondered when the hell I’d come home and help take care of our kids.
But I was hooked.
Need to know the difference in scent, needle color, needle retention, or branch strength (“So, tell me about your ornaments…”) among a Douglas Fir, Balsam, Fraser, Blue Spruce, Concolor, Canaan or White Pine? I strutted the lot with this and other newfound knowledge, like how our power saw gets jammed if you put the whirring blade anywhere near stray twine on the tree. Power saw. I used a f—ing power saw. “Need a fresh cut? I’d say probably two inches, just above that knot. What’s your stand like?” Hour upon hour, as the cash box filled and the day waned, hundreds of neighbors and alumni of this little public school came and overpaid wildly for their holiday sentry. Many shared their own memories of working the sale.
And for the first time since becoming a parent, I was one of those mothers who took charge of something for my child’s school. By letting my hand go up at that meeting back in September, I finally embraced some of that work that I told myself I was just too busy to do. The cards went out very late. Gifts to Boston got Fed-Ex’ed, and ones here at home got wrapped late on Christmas Eve. But some of the last beads of 2013 were deep green, and bluish-silver, and I will feel them in my fingers as I sit with every other all too busy parent at the spring musical.
So that’s where I begin, with car doors and pine trees. Some borrowed objects returned, and a few debts joyfully paid. It’s a start.
The light pours in from the southeast window of the living room, right where our 8 foot Balsam stood. And the jar sits emptied.
Time to go fill it.