Monday, 31 December 2012

Twelve Days of Carols, 6: Be Merry, and the Old Year

Be merry, be merry,
I pray you every one.

A principal point of charity
It is so merry for to be
In Him that is but one.
Be merry.

He that is but one in bliss
To us hath sent his Son, iwis,
To save us from our foes.
Be merry.

Mary, for your Son's sake,
Save them all that merry make
And the longest hold it on.
Be merry.

For they who make merry here
And gladness, and in very good cheer,
To bliss then may they come!
Be merry.

Be merry, be merry,
I pray you every one.

I can't decide if this carol, from a fifteenth-century manuscript which belonged to a Cambridge undergraduate called William Hampshire, is a piece of cheerful nonsense or something more subtle about spiritual joy and a moral duty to be glad and grateful. Either way, it's a good carol for New Year's Eve, when everyone is merry for no reason at all except the movement of the clock.

For some reason I have an innate aversion to New Year celebrations; it makes me anxious somehow, as if by celebrating the passage of time so extravagantly you're tempting fate for the year to come. I don't know why this should be. I'm the kind of person who is constantly aware of time, measured in hours and seasons and centuries, and every day throughout the year marks an anniversary or a memory or a feast, and that doesn't worry me at all - in fact I like it. But something about saying goodbye to a year you know, and welcoming a year you don't know, triggers the superstitious side of me to worry about what this year will bring. A year is a long time; the distance between January 2013 and January 2014 seems much more impossible to bridge than the five centuries which separate me from William Hampshire and his carol.

I can't begin to imagine where I might be then. It's always easier to think about the past than about the future, but contemplating this past year doesn't bring much pleasure; there have been some very happy moments, but the overall impression is one of failure. I won't rehearse the details, since there's no reason they should be of interest to anyone but myself - but what a catalogue of weakness and stupidity! Silly mistakes, interspersed with illness and bouts of depression, professional failure, and increasing isolation and loneliness. Is there much chance 2013 will be better? I honestly don't see how. In church on Christmas Eve, while everyone was singing merrily and mindlessly about God's promises of love for mankind - promises to which their happy faces bore witness but which, for me, have become meaningless words - I looked round at all the families, busy and successful, the only people that church has a place for, and all I could do was hide in a dark corner and cry. 'What is the matter is I, I say; why should such a one be here?' Those are the people God loves and wants, as experience and my fellow-Christians are constantly reminding me - useful people, who can achieve things, and who don't muddy the waters with fear and doubt and self-awareness.

So the birth of a new year is only something to celebrate in that it means this year is over. I have things to be grateful for, chiefly my wonderful family, but nothing good of my own making; what can I make that's worthwhile, for myself or anyone else? I can see how the spark of hope and creativity I was born with gets less and less every year, as I become more and more aware of how ill-equipped I am to make anything of it, and of how little anyone wants it in any case. This is a huge, ugly, shallow world, and I am shy, awkward and weak; whatever I produce, many hundreds of people can do more effectively, or rather, more noisily, which is the same thing. To be successful in this world (even in academia, and in the church, as I have learned this year in particular), the only way is to be loud and confident and forthright, self-promoting, certain even when you don't know the facts, ready to fudge the truth if it doesn't fit into a Tweet. What place is there for me in such a world? Academia wants people who can 'be dynamic leaders in the field' and make money; the church wants people who can win arguments. I can't do either. Confidence is everything, and I have none; nor do I have that mysterious power by which people make themselves likeable or lovable to other human beings - and what on earth can you do without that? All I have is the fact that when I love something - or someone - I want to study it and understand it as far as my mind can carry me, and then I want to share my love and my knowledge with other people; but when people don't want either love or knowledge from me, I'm stuck.

So, that's my state of mind this Old Year's Day; be merry, indeed...

The Old Year's gone away
To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
In every cot and hall--
A guest to every heart's desire,
And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
Are things identified;
But time once torn away
No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
Left the Old Year lost to all.

- John Clare


Anonymous said...

Ah, as are the feelings toward an old year passing!
I really enjoyed your post, as usual. I must agree on those feelings of saying goodbye to an old year, however happy or...not. As I get older I find that the only thing about the New Year's Eve, is a blissful (and I'm never accused of being sunshiny or blissful) ignorance and optimism that the New Year will be better than the last.
Who knows what it will bring, and perhaps it is like always hoping to win the lottery...even if one hasn't bought a ticket!
Happy New Year. I really enjoy your writing and your posts, about stuff I am interested in but know nothing of!
Best wishes.

B.R. said...

Dear CoO,
Thank you for your thoughtful and courageous entry. Many things stand out here, but your comments about being "useful" and the way of success in the world >> "the only way is to be loud and confident and forthright, self-promoting, certain even when you don't know the facts, ready to fudge the truth if it doesn't fit into a Tweet" - were particularly striking.

Cheers from the other side of the pond,

Kate said...

It's not my place to say anything, and I don't know what sort of church you frequent, but I've been following your blog off and on for a few weeks and it makes me sad to not often see comments on your entries, so forgive me for being bold and speaking up.

It's hard to see bunches of merry, mindless people celebrating when one's heart is aching, but it seems to me that many of those merry faces are carefully-maintained facades, and that most hide secret pains. Sometimes I glimpse cracks in those facades, and I'm always shocked by how little I can know of what another is going through.

Forgive me for preaching, please, but God doesn't need only brash, confident extraverts. They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.

May the Lord bless you in the coming year.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. Kate, you're completely right that I shouldn't make assumptions about what other people may be going through - there are very few people (maybe none!) for whom life is easy all the time. As an introvert I've always struggled to some extent with these feelings, and at the moment job-hunting is making it more acute - but that's something everybody finds difficult, I'm sure.

I very much appreciate you all taking the time to comment and give me a little perspective!