On this New Year’s Eve, Emily Rapp says change can only be truly transformative if you take the past with you.
I’ve always found New Year’s Eve, the last hurrah of the holidays, a disorienting and irritating end to the already “out of time” feeling of the season. Now, instead of sweet advertisements about beautiful women being handed engagement rings by their hot boyfriend while making snow angels; or happy, well-dressed children dancing around a glittering tree; or all members of some lucky family being gifted fancy electronics and an economical group usage plan, in comes the heralding of the possibilities of transformation. Change your body, change your life. Lose weight and “live” again. Start over. Set goals. It’s never too late to make a change. It’s smart marketing for people who are sacked out on the couch in a snozzling stupor of sugar and booze overload, family stress, and looming credit card bills.
I’ve often bought into this rationale: If you can control one aspect of your life, let things go, move on, you will be cleansed, healed, SAVED. It’s the anorexic’s dream, and for years, I followed it. Let food go and bring on the knife-like cheekbones and the miniscule jeans. For a while, like most coping mechanisms, it worked. But like all radical changes or lifestyle choices, it is not sustainable. We are who we are, I believe, and it’s worth getting in touch with that reality, rather than trying to throw our bad habits into the fire (metaphorically or otherwise) in order to arm ourselves (as if that’s possible) for the coming chaos of another year.
This is the problem: There is no such thing as a new beginning. What I hope for myself and for others in 2013 is that we let go of this disturbing fiction. Nobody gets a fresh start. This is one of the reasons I love the (admittedly) melodramatic, class conscious, bleak-as-the-winter-desert writing of Victor Hugo. Life is capricious; good people are wounded, blamed, and literally ruined by the workings of injustice, cruelty, and an inability for anyone in power to “look down, look down, upon your fellow man.” Life is hard for everyone, but great sadness is also punctuated with shattering love. Who knew Victor was actually a bit of a Buddhist?
My admiration for Hugo’s sweeping prose and his rendering of the burgeoning of a new France, his edging-toward-feminist empathy toward female characters, is what compelled me to stay in the theater for the most recent film production of Les Miserables, during which I wept most of the time, and just about sobbed during certain key ballads. (Also, is there anything Hugh Jackman cannot do? Apparently not.) I was telling my friend as we left the theater, puffy-eyed and exhausted, how I’d never identified so fully with Fantine, the desperate mother turned prostitute whose “second chance” means only that she experiences a few moments of tenderness and reassurance that her child will be cared for before her painful death. As a high school student obsessed with the Les Mis soundtrack, I was waiting for the sad ballad of Eponine’s unrequited love for Marius, a song I lustily belted out at countless talent shows in the ’90s. At the time, I thought the pitfalls of romantic love the biggest tragedy of all, so I found Jean Valjean annoyingly moral, and his songs a bit thin. “Gods on high” and “bring him home.” Really? Cut to the failed romance, please.
This time, it was Fantine and Valjean who captured my full attention—their songs, their faces, their plights. I’m 20 years older, and I have been unbundled by grief in a way I would have never even known how to anticipate (and thankfully so, or my childhood insomnia would have been magnified tenfold). I fell in love with Hugo’s bleak vision all over again. Life steals with its treachery and unfairness; people lie and cheat; love disappoints. The libretto is fiercely one-noted in this respect, but it is also, in the most moving ballads, where people actually name and describe grief—the hollow feeling, those empty chairs at those empty tables, that absence—that you feel the nuance of Hugo’s vision.
When faced with helping another person at the sake of self-interest, his characters (well, the ones we admire) actually consider. And they act, and there is no doctrine, no law, no rule of the universe that will protect them from the consequences of these long-pondered decisions. They win, they lose. To love another person is to see the face of God (the book’s unifying and wonderfully generous theme), and also to suffer, and always, eventually, to die. No fresh starts then, in Hugo’s world. Children are shot from barricades, women are humiliated and stripped, the world looks on without mercy.
But also, in the midst of this: love. Full hearts, and a bunch of duets about how this feels. Songs about sacrifice that brings with it a kind of saving energy, but not the kind that wipes the past away and alters a person body and soul so that they can swan into their next year flawless and pure and happy for having cast off the people they thought they were.
Valjean, who always had a soul, gets his magnificent moment precisely because he embodies his past at every moment of his future, up to the moment of his full acceptance by the people he loved best, and protected, and saved. He is allowed this sky-high moment because the world doesn’t allow him to forget who he is, what he’s done and not done; in this way, Hugo believed in chaos, and he believed in love. And so do I.
The economy is going over the fiscal cliff. This is the last year of my child’s life. I have fallen in love with a man who feels like a good luck charm made incarnate. (I am not singing ballads to him, however). I love my parents and my friends, and was able to spend the holidays laughing and opening presents and walking on beaches and cuddling my sick baby. I have a book about to be published. My life is full of great love and gutting sorrow. My life is, I realized, a Victor Hugo novel, only absent the epic background of war.
Or maybe not. To cast away what you think is not useful or good about yourself is to go to war with the world in a way that “end of the year” rituals don’t recognize. I don’t want to burn anything in the ritual fire except the idea that I need to burn anything in a ritual fire. I want to be braced for the awesome nature of this year on the eve of its flipping.
Not prepared, but expectant, and there’s a difference. Change—the kind that is both terrible and sweet—can only be truly transformative if you take the past with you, if you understand that to live is to stand on the ground, look up into the sky with all that you are, all that you love and hate, and wonder what comes next?
Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.