The Measure of a Year

Living room holiday clutter.JPG

On numerous occasions this year I inexplicably felt an overwhelming sensation of walking barefoot on the beach by the water. With every step, I felt the sand slipping away from under my toes. I felt the tide pulling away a few grains at a time. Shifting the balance of the earth under me slightly, almost imperceptibly, so that it was both difficult to discern the change, but impossible to deny it.

To be clear, even though I live relatively close to several beaches, I wasn’t physically at the beach when I had this feeling. Going to the beach isn’t something I do very often. No, I felt this visceral sensation at seemingly mundane moments. While pushing my kids on the swings in the backyard. While scrolling through Twitter late at night when the house was quiet, digesting the latest political outrage. While watching my kindergartner walk into school. While driving in the car on a brisk, dark December evening with three little kids in pajamas in the back seats enamored by lights and inflatable everythings.

It is often the little moments and hidden pivot points that are the most confounding.

In this way, my personal life in 2017 mirrored our new geopolitical reality. It’s been a weird year.

“What is the precise moment, in the life of a country, when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in an instant; it arrives like twilight, and, at first, the eyes adjust.” – Evan Osnos

I’ve come back to this quote often during the year. Each time, it feels more profound. Not least because the word “tyranny” could be replaced with any number of other words and the quote would still ring true. Corruption? Complacency? Complicity? When do any of these take hold and how do we know for sure? Is there a way to differentiate temporary slippage from inexorable transformation?

Similarly, change “of a country” to “of a person” and the quote takes on a whole other life. For most of us, even the most dramatic changes that affect how we define ourselves as individuals rarely happen in an instant. Rather, over time, tiny changes build up, like drops of water dripping into a glass until one drop finally pushes the water over the edge. Until it happens, you never know which drop is going to be the one to start the cascade.  

For the past three years, my family’s routine has been beyond predictable. My wife and I take turns working and staying home with the kids. She works full-time and I now work two days a week around her schedule. When we’re home, our days and nights are spent tending to the needs of small children. Our routines are firmly entrenched and comfortable. Our oldest started kindergarten this year, which was a significant change, but because there are still two younger ones at home, the change has been felt more by him than us. I’m beyond proud of his bravery in embracing his new world with such ease.

Similarly, our end-of-year routine hasn’t changed much. When the calendar turns to December each year, our household is like a simmering pot of Christmas on the stove building to a rolling boil. Ours is a very secular holiday frenzy. My children are endlessly fascinated by lights, blow-up yard decorations, Santa, Christmas movies, and presents. We regularly pile into the car after dinner and drive around town to look at the same lights and decorative displays over and over again. I’m not complaining. Particularly on nights that my wife is working, this activity is a welcome few moments of peace and rest amidst the chaos.

However, with each spin around the neighborhood, I feel the sand pulling away from beneath the toes sensation. I realize that there will come a moment when these routines will end. Of course, as kids grow and their interests shift, change doesn’t come all at once. It comes like twilight, and, at first, the eyes adjust.

As I sit here writing this in my dark living room—all the kids are in bed for now—I’m staring at three overturned bar chairs on the floor in front of me. They’re marooned on their sides intentionally because the baby will climb on anything and everything. Leave a chair standing and she will be on the counter in an instant. And there is a lot of stuff on the counter, so the wreckage her expeditions cause is as prodigious as it is immediate. There are also a number of couch cushions strewn about on the floor alongside several large Lego blocks and a stuffed puppy with a candy cane in its mouth. Of course, because we are just a few days away from Christmas, the stockings are hung by the chimney with care or whatever and a plastic garland with embedded white lights runs across the mantle; the soft light from the short string lends the room a comfortingly eerie quality.

One day, the chairs will stand at attention again, the couch cushions will return home for good, and the blocks and stuffed animals will give way to large tennis shoes and overflowing bookbags. The change won’t happen overnight, but at some point, I’ll look up from my computer screen and realize that things are different.

This trick of time and inertia that makes it difficult to tell when and by how much things are changing from moment to moment and day to day can imperil societies in crisis. Perhaps we would be better off if we could fast forward a few scenes of the movie or undergo one of those useful cinematic time jumps to find out what exactly is going on. But, when it comes to our personal lives, I’m relieved that it’s not like the movies. I don’t know about you, but since I’ve had kids, any movie where a kid is a small child in one scene and is suddenly grown up in the next scene just wrecks me. WHERE DOES THE TIME GO?!?!

Luckily, though, in real life there is just slow and steady change. Even a year from now, I’m pretty sure my kids will still be enamored by the magic of Christmas. And the year after that. And probably the year after that, too. By the time the shine starts to wear off, when their unbridled eagerness and awe finally starts to butt up against their growing awareness of the realities of their world, my perspective will be totally different as well. We will all change and grow together. And that is something I am grateful for as we wrap up this very strange year.

Thanks to everyone who has read and visited my website this year. I truly appreciate your support! Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!