A Meditation on Calendars, New Year’s Resolutions, and Possibility
Delivered at the
Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim
5 January 2020
James Ishmael Ford
The year turns. 2019, of lamentable memory, is gone. And, now, 2020 has its turn around the fiery globe. You may have noticed things are not beginning all that well. Who knows what’s going on with Iran? Or, for that matter throughout the Middle East. Or in North Korea. Well, with much of the world.
Disasters associated with climate change are popping up here and there across the planet. And of course. Of course. The rich continue getting richer. And the poor, well, to hell with them appears to be the order of the day.
It sure feels like lots of chickens will be coming home to roost. In the givens of that proverbial curse, we certainly live in interesting times.
And. But. Also. That great fact that we need not continue on the way things have been going. That amazing truth: we can change.
With that I find two things rising in my mind. And, I believe they’re connected. One is just the fact we have calendars. And, that they all have beginnings. If you think about it, what a strange and interesting thing that is.
A bit of digging around the web reveals the earliest recorded celebration of a “new year” took place in Mesopotamia somewhere in the neighborhood of two millennia before our common era. So, about four thousand years ago. They picked the vernal equinox, or, at least close to it. And, of course that’s the earliest evidence, not at all likely the earliest time. I understand most inhabitants of the ancient Near East, foremost among them the Egyptians, started their new years on the autumnal equinox. While the Greeks preferred the winter solstice.
Chinese culture and much of the far East observe lunar calendars, and so, the New Year floats. India never seems to have established a common counter for the sub-continent. Although dates associated with the spring seem most popular. Africa has a similar lack of a continent-wide date, although in North America and elsewhere within the African diaspora the Yorba Odunde festival, which takes on the 2nd of June is increasingly popular. Similarly, the indigenous peoples of the Americas have no commonly accepted date, although spring is perhaps the most popular option. One exception to that general rule is the Pueblo peoples, who mark the 22nd of December, which is close to the winter solstice.
As to January 1st, there is some speculation that this follows a tradition that goes to 153 before the common era when the Romans started dating years from the inauguration of the term of the two consuls who ruled for a year beginning on that date. It was also the festival of Janus, the two-faced god of doors and beginnings. Whatever, the 1st of January was then enshrined in Julius Caesar’s reformed calendar, which would eventually become normative throughout the empire, and therefore much of Europe and the Near East.
Although as a bit of an aside March happening somewhere in the neighborhood of the equinox gave January 1st a bit of a run for its money for quite a while. That said, January 1st was finally established for Europe and anywhere Europe exercised its muscle in 1582 with the Gregorian reform of the Julian calendar. And from then it has never lost its place as the great marker of the new year for Western civilizations.
It appears for a number of reasons, not least the near world dominance of European colonialism up until relatively recently has made the Gregorian calendar “the” calendar and January 1st “the” beginning for the world, writ large.
With the notable tweak internationally of dropping the term AD, Anon Domino, in the “Year of our Lord,” and with it, BC meaning Before Christ in favor of the more neutral “Before the Common Era,” and “After the Common Era.” This has been helped along by the fact the dating going back to Jesus’ birth is generally considered to be off by somewhere between four and six years and never had anything to do with the first of January.
Still, for some this common dating is a bitter pill. It is hard to miss the colonialist implications of continuing the Gregorian calendar. The always practical Chinese probably show how it is going to play out. They’ve incorporated the Gregorian calendar into their governmental and business usage, while reserving their traditional calendar for calculating most holidays. And that might in fact be a pointer to our future as a global people, some overarching lingua franca in various areas, for example here with the continuing of a slightly tweaked Gregorian calendar, but with lots and lots of local enrichment…
Could work. And, me, I like cultural mashups.
So, with all that, history and flexibility. For me, this little meditation becomes a looking two ways, like for Janus. That look back at calendars shows a couple of things. One, even the past isn’t exactly fixed. But, more so, within the spiral of existence, we also have the possibility of change in our hands.
Not claiming adjusting our lives is ever easy. The tides around us ae always strong. Look at how hard it is to keep New Year’s resolutions. But, we can change.
Martin Luther King Jr, one of my deepest heroes, had a couple of tropes he revisited constantly in his sermons and speeches. One was that compelling line “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Here is the primary intuition, I believe, of our deepest interconnectedness, of the secret heart of what is. And he constantly returned to the ills of our lives and invited a need to feel maladjusted to those ills. This is critical.
There is a unity of experience; each moment is the way things are. And, within it, there is some dynamic, some possibility. We are not condemned to endlessly be who we are. Change is also part of the deal.
Another of my heroes, Shunryu Suzuki phrased the situation a bit differently, but to the same point. “Each of you is perfect just as you are,” he taught. “And you can use a little improvement.” Here, with the way both the minister and the Zen master joined mutuality and a sense we do need some changes, and, a belief we can change.
Part of the difficulty is who we are is never a completely private thing. We are, as Dr King reminded us, wrapped up together in that garment of destiny. We are bound together, we are all in this mess together. And while perfect in some ways, it is also a perfection that includes hurt, for many considerable hurt. And looking at the world in this dawning decade, I personally feel some urgency.
John Tarrant, a very important spiritual director for me, had something to say about all this I think relevant to this point, of our deeper interconnectedness. It includes the fact that brokenness comes with the wholeness. And that we, each of us have a place within that fractured whole.
“We normally have the idea that if we are in hell this is a bad thing,” I certainly do. But he adds, “And we’ll have to spend a long time with a shovel, digging our way out.” That is how I’ve often thought it. But, he continues, “This is not so. Somebody asked Nanao Sakaki, the fine poet who saw Hiroshima, ‘How do we survive nuclear catastrophe?’ He said, ‘No need to survive. No need to survive hell either.’ Wherever you are, that can be the pure land. (That can be heaven) I have always loved Buddhist paintings in the esoteric tradition that show the sufferings of the hell realms, they are rather like medieval Christian paintings, with flames and pitchforks and horns and so on. But there is always a little Buddha sitting in the hell realm, looking exactly like all the other demons, with horns and a big smile . . . So if you are in hell, perhaps you can be one of those demons, a Buddha demon.” An agent of change.
This is what I want to draw your attention to as we begin this new year. I want to draw your attention to the moment. Right here. Right now. And how we can become agents of transformation. And here we come to New Year’s resolutions.
It appears in Mesopotamia, that some four thousand years ago, when they thought up the idea of a New Year, at the very same time they cooked up New Year’s resolutions.
And, I suspect they’ve always been as hard to keep as they are today. So, becoming the Buddha of this moment – that is waking up to our connections, the perfections, and the hurt as a New Year’s resolution is not likely to be easy.
If you’ve ever tried a practice of presence, you know, perhaps painfully so, we are actually rarely consciously here in this moment. We tend to live in the future, planning and scheming. Or, we live in the past, regretting or wishing. And when we do consider the moment, it is usually more like the scholar Mark Unno, another wise teacher, observed. Where we live “for the moment” rather than “in the moment.” For, as in it’s time to scrub out the grime behind the refrigerator. But today may be the last warm day of the year and I’m going to the beach. As opposed to in moment, which is rolling up our sleeves and pulling the ‘fridge out, and scrubbing.
Mark Unno once described the moment I mean, the one that opens us to the possibility of change. He told about taking a walk with his elderly father. It was a lovely walk in the Pacific Northwest woods, misty and beautiful, filled with smells and birds and small animals.
In that moment being with his Dad, he also recalled somewhere in his body how much this man had given him, and how much he meant to Mark being the man he had become. And also, somewhere in Mark’s body knowing just as deeply, how frail his father had become and how soon, so very soon he would die.
This is the moment full. In this moment everything is there, including the fact that as soon as it births into the world, whatever it is, you, me, everyone one, everything, it is dying. Everything births and lives and is dust and memory and even completely forgotten, right here, right now. All here: beautiful, tragic. And, this is critical, full of potentiality.
Each moment births a new situation. So, there’s also hope. We are the stuff the cosmos and what we do determines not only you and me; but the fate of nations, and beyond that, the fate of the world itself.
So, here’s my thought. How should this realization we are what we do manifest in our interactions with each other? How could this inform how you and I meet in our next encounter? In this next year? What would be our new rules of engagement if we thought this all might really be true?
Perhaps a New Year’s resolution?
How about if we try hard to meet each other as relatives, as stuff of the same stuff? How about we see each other as family? It has the advantage of being true, so why not?
How hard would that be? And what would it look like? Would we cut each other a little more slack? Would we care a little more deeply? Would we take a little more time for each person if we thought that person really was a relative?
This is my practice.
I fail at it, at least as much as I succeed with it. But it’s continuing, it’s trying over and over. For me the commitment is to hold on just a breath or two longer than is necessary. To listen just a tiny bit more closely than I have to. To be just a hair’s breadth kinder than the situation calls for. And to hold in the back of my head, in the back of my heart with whomever I’m meeting, the belief this person is some kind of relative. Some, maybe closer, another perhaps a bit more distant: but all relatives.
This knowing opens us to the world. In the ancient scriptures of the West blood dripping from his hands, Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, you know the answer. I know the answer. The answer is yes. We are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper. That’s the deal. Do we live up to it or not? Here is the whisper of maladjustment; here is the possibility of change.
And, a New Year’s resolution?
So, what specifically is the project? To what do we give our attention? Another of my heroes is the late Ken Jones. He outlines the project perfectly, I feel, when he tells us there are “three great moral imperatives of our time – to heal the violated planet, and to enable both the underclass at home and the wretched of the earth to win dignity and freedom.” That’s all. Nothing more. And, of course, nothing less. Help the homeless and outcast, the immigrant and prisoner here at home.
Help to make our country a little better place, particularly for those dealt a bad hand. And, not to stop there. But to help those of other countries across the globe. And, not to stop there. But to help tend to this planet, our sacred mother.
A New Year’s resolution.
We remember we are all related, and we find ourselves creating a new world. Well, except when we forget. But, that’s why it’s called spiritual practice. Emphasis on practice. Trying. And trying again.
And what might happen out of such a perspective? Well, perhaps hell becomes heaven. And the many beings are saved. And the garden and the wild become one, and the earth is healed. This I believe, from the bottom of my heart, is the life and work to which we were all called from before the creation of the heavens and the earth. Nothing less.
And with that. Welcome to another chance. Welcome to a New Year.