It’s New Year’s Eve. Again. Out with the old, in with the new, right?
But do we ever really let go of the old? And more importantly, must we?
The turning of a new year is such a bittersweet time. As I contemplated this today, I soon realized that I’ve reached a stage in life where this is true for almost everyone I know. Whether you’ve suffered a devastating loss like I have, or are simply coming to terms with the ever swifter passage of time, or are somewhere in between, ringing in a new year always means the passing of an old year, and with it, the passing of so many other things. For me, it means the passing of yet another year without my daughter, another year separating me from the time I last saw her, the time I last held her in my arms, the time I last heard her giggle or say “Mama.” And as my smaller children grow, the passing of another year in their still very young lives makes them almost unrecognizable from the beings they were on this day a year ago. And as I march my way steadily toward middle age, each year becomes a smaller and smaller fraction of my life, thus passing away even more quickly than the last and leaving me staring with disbelief into what may be the remaining half of my life.
The cultural representation of New Year’s Eve is one of revelry, drunkenness, good cheer, and anticipation of all that a new year will hopefully bring. The reality, I think, is quite different for most of us. For most of us, especially those of us heading into middle age and beyond, and those of us who have endured sorrow and loss, this passage from December 31 to January 1 evokes a deep longing for times, places, friends, and loved ones past. A friend recently shared on Facebook a Welsh word I’d never seen or heard before. “Hiraeth” has no good translation in English, but it can perhaps best be described as “an unattainable longing for a place, a person, a figure, even a national history, that may never have actually existed. To feel hiraeth is to feel a deep incompleteness and recognize it as familiar.” This resonated so deeply with me, especially so close to the turning of a new year—my daughter’s time with us was so short, and it, too, becomes a smaller fraction of our lives with each New Year’s Day. While in the beginning, I woke almost every day wondering if I’d only dreamed that she’d died, these days I sometimes wonder if her life itself was the dream, and this life I’m living without her now is some kind of a shadow life, an ever-so-slightly disjointed echo of what my life should have been, what it could have been. The sense of incompleteness permeates every moment, even when I am asleep.
I have a hiraeth on me—especially at another turning of another new year—for a place, a time, a person who exists now only in my heart and mind. But here at another turning of another new year, hiraeth gives us permission not to let go. Hiraeth gives us permission to hold on to the old.
Although it’s rarely mentioned during the merriment of New Year’s Eve, hiraeth is exactly what makes “Auld Lang Syne” such an appropriate anthem for the turning of the new year. It captures perfectly the exquisite mix of sorrow and joy that comes with the passing of time, of days, of years, of relationships, of loved ones—the sorrow of longing for times past and for those we loved so much, and yet also the joy of the memories of those days and those beloved ones that live on always within us.
These are the verses, the first two, from the oldest version of the poem, the latter two a translation from an adaptation by Robert Burns in 1788, that best capture the hiraeth that I feel every day, but especially at this time of year:
My heart is ravisht with delight,
when thee I think upon;
All grief and sorrow takes the flight,
and speedily is gone.
The bright resemblance of thy Face,
so fills this heart of mine;
That force nor fate can me displease,
for old long syne.
We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.
Welcome the new year, yes. Anticipate all the goodness it can bring, yes. If there are things you need to let go of, let go of them—let them pass away with the year. God knows 2014 is one that many of us will not be sorry to see go. But if there is something you need to hold on to, if you have a hiraeth on you for a person, a place, a time, a memory of something past, hold on to it. Hold on to it with all your being.