Heading north on an Amtrak on Christmas day and watching the wintery Hudson River, dark water contrasting with the bright snow-covered land, John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas was the perfect soundtrack. There is, granted, a root of personal preference to this judgment, as I generally consider John Denver to be not necessarily perfect but, at the very least, reliably excellent. But I maintain that while the mountains in the background were no craggy-topped Rockies, what they lacked in grandeur, they retained in solemn immovability and their invitation to disappear, and the soundtrack felt fitting.
It wasn’t disappearing that I had in mind, however, unlike the tempting fantasies that whisper in my ear when I sit behind the wheel of a car. Sitting on that train, I switched to my shuffled holiday playlist when the album finished and gave myself a surprise when Dar Williams’ upbeat “Christians and the Pagans” brought tears to my eyes with the words “Amber’s uncle saw how Amber looked like Tim and like her father. / He thought about his brother, how they hadn’t spoken in a year, / He thought he’d call him up and say, ‘It’s Christmas, and your daughter’s here.'”
2017 was quite a year. As life on a national level continued to unravel, my affairs on a personal and professional level, conversely, came together in astounding ways. Not magnificent ways – didn’t save any lives, still not rich and famous – but in ways that still astounded me by how much the odds seemed to be tilted in my favor. Even the parts of it that were frightening or saddening still had an almost storied quality to them, not because the events themselves were so amazing but because it’s just difficult to believe that such things would really happen to little ol’ me.
That seems like a funny thing to experience, given that I’ve never been a person with any sort of self-esteem deficit. But just because I think that I’m charming and witty and, not least of all, irresistibly attractive doesn’t mean that I’d ever pictured the hot piece that is me dancing in an East Village Bar at one in the morning with an avant-garde director whom I’d read about in my college textbooks or hanging with my cool friends in a downtown music studio as we jammed out for hours (fun fact about playing keys versus playing piano: you generally only need one hand for the former, which leaves your other hand free to hold a drink) or nearly getting into a barfight with a room full of white supremacists or taking a selfie with the director of the world premiere of the Thai film that I had just seen at the Busan International Film Festival near the end of my solo trip to South Korea.
I haven’t written any of the books that would contain those stories yet, but I’ve been living a lot of the things that I’d thought I’d write about.
And as all of those things fill me up, become part of me, I feel just a little further away each time that I return home. Not because I’m “above it” in any way, but it’s like I was a slightly floppy and empty, and each life experience pumps just a little more air into me, causing me to stand just a little straighter on my own and just a little more apart from the things that I leaned on for so long – or, in another phrasing, that had supported me for so long.
I don’t play the piano very much when I visit home now. It’s loud and disturbing to other people in the house. There are some out of tune notes in the upper register. And now that I have an electric piano of my own in my apartment, being able to play on a full-size weighted keyboard isn’t an opportunity that I have to seize while I have the chance. But I did flip through the Christmas music on a couple of the days that I visited home, picking out a few of my seasonal favorites – including one with which I have a long history.
Back when I was in kindergarten, we were asked if we wanted to get up and sing a song in from of the class. It was pretty much what you’d expect: Row Row Row Your Boat, Pop Goes the Weasel, probably a smattering of TV theme songs lost to the early 90s. Being the cool kid that I am, I pulled out the obvious and appropriate selection of “We Need A Little Christmas” from Mame. Because really, who could better interpret the lines “For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder/ Grown a little sadder, grown a little older/ And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder” than an actual five-year-old?
I certainly don’t recall those words bringing tears to my eyes back then, but once again, I found myself welling up. Was there something about Christmas that was making me emotional this year? Even if the latter of the songs making me verklempt was at least equal part showtune — full disclosure that I wasn’t that very much Different From The Other Kids, as I’d picked up the song from The Muppet Family Christmas (and found the rest of the lyrics in a Broadway songbook we had lying around) rather than from being a precocious Jerry Herman devotee – the multiple instances pointed to a common denominator.
I started pecking away at these thoughts on Christmas Day, and by some accounts, today is when the Wise Men would have found Jesus, at least in the geographical sense. One of the reasons that my swellings of emotion from Christmas tunes stems from how holidays in general have tended to mean less to me as I’ve gotten older, and not just for reasons of religion (or the lack thereof). While that undoubtedly contributes to the lessened significance of some occasions, even the non-religious holidays have felt less like occasions and more like routine.
The marking of the New Year, however, is one that has stayed with me. Not necessarily the celebration of the turning of the clock, as these days, I’m more likely to rejoice when I don’t have to stay up until midnight. But I do appreciate an accounting of things, and these markers of time, as arbitrary as they may be, can be put to good use. Often it seems that I’m in the middle of some project that doesn’t allow for lifestyle overhauls when the calendar turns to January – case in point, I’m currently at the last of a string of 10:00am-11:00pm tech days (with an hour-long commute on each side), which aren’t particularly conducive to accomplishing anything outside of going to/being at/coming from work and maybe, just maybe, taking a shower – but if I make my plans at the solar New Year, then I’m generally in good shape by the time that the lunar New Year hits.
New Year’s resolutions aren’t particularly my jam, but I’ve stolen an idea that I overheard while eating at a noodle joint in New Haven where I give each year a theme. The bro who gave me the inspiration had given the example of having a theme of “connection,” where he made making time for friends, staying in touch with family, and reaching out to people he’d lost touch with a conscious priority. I haven’t always been so poetic – one year, my theme was “shit or get off the pot” – but it’s still be a useful practice for me.
And so, with a drum roll, I present this year’s theme: putting out.
Even as the world burned down around so many, I received so much good fortune this past year. Things seemed to just come together for me. And so, having taken in so much, I want to focus on what I can put back out into the world. While I’m no moneybags, I want to take stock of where my charitable giving stands in order to both maximize and optimize it. My schedule of availability is not likely to become any more cooperative for group events, but I want to give more time and energy to taking productive action on behalf of causes that are important to me. And most of all, I want to really bear down on my creative output.
To that end, while trying to keep to a weekly blogging schedule was a wonderful exercise during 2017, I’ll be cutting back here in 2018 in favor of some larger projects that I’ve had on the backburner. Please, don’t start crying yet – I plan to still write a couple of posts per month, just to keep me honest. But Boss Me is going to start demanding that Employee Me starts to put in some real hours on that creative work, which always seems to find a way to slip down the priority list. It can be difficult to build a routine when my life has no set schedule as far as my actual employment is concerned, but I’ve hatched upon a plan where I keep a cumulative 54-hour workweek. Any hours that aren’t used by my actual job are owed to creative work. And that way, I hopefully also won’t get that discouraging feeling of having fallen off of the wagon when heavy weeks at work take over my life.
2018: it’s time to put out. Because sometimes when we need a little music, we need to hang the tinsel up ourselves.