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The Empty Page – 1/5/2014

In a comic strip from a Sunday some years ago, Calvin, the impetuous, imaginative 6-year old, and his best friend Hobbes, the stuffed tiger, take their toboggan out into the snow-covered woods. It is the first day of a new year, and the white powder blankets the forest. The two survey the scenery in awe.

“Everything familiar has disappeared!” Hobbes says. “The world looks brand-new!”

“A new year…A fresh, clean start!” says Calvin, and Hobbes continues that thought: “It’s like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on.”

With or without the fresh fallen snow, the start of a new year has some of that feel to it: a clean slate, a new beginning. And Hobbes the tiger is far from the first to compare a new year to an unmarked page. The Jewish tradition imagines its new year – which, of course, came several months ago – as a new page or chapter in the Book of Life, the record of all things. That metaphor, in turn, may have been inspired by the mythology of ancient Egypt, where the bird-headed god Thoth was thought to keep accounts of the moral measurements of human hearts. And Egyptian civilization is among the oldest to have developed a system of writing. So this idea that a new day or a new year brings a new page to write our lives upon has roots that go back nearly as far as writing itself.

Like a painter setting out with an empty canvass or a sculptor sizing up a block of stone, we often turn towards a new year with great ambitions, or at least the ambition of having great ambitions. This is where the annual ritual of New Year’s resolutions comes in. The big plans and bold hopes we set out for ourselves, to be accomplished in the year to come. Sometimes this can prove a great opportunity to set yourself on a new trajectory: to develop new hobbies, form new human connections, or learn more about yourself and the world around you. And sometimes they are discarded before the last Christmas trees make it to the curb. My own experience with making resolutions this past year fell somewhere between total success and utter neglect: that third possible outcome from a New Year’s resolution – the late-in-the-year scramble. Last January I set the goal of getting my office here at the church better organized, hanging some pictures that were waiting to be hanged and clearing off all the piles of stuff on my desk. And I even managed to accomplish this much, with a few months still to spare. But as anyone who might be listening on the speaker in my office can attest: the room is now in need of another reorganization. A project I will put on this year’s list of resolutions.

I recently came across a picture of the middle fold of an old notebook used by the great folk singer and activist Woody Guthrie. On those two pages he wrote down thirty-three resolutions for 1943, most accompanied by sketches and doodles. Among these were, #1 “WORK MORE AND BETTER,” #11 “CHANGE SOCKS,” #19 “KEEP HOPE MACHINE RUNNING,” #21 “BANK ALL EXTRA MONEY,” followed by #22 “SAVE DOUGH,” – something worth committing to twice, then – #31 “LOVE EVERYBODY,” and #33 “WAKE UP AND FIGHT.”[i] That last one is something that Woody surely lived up to – he was notoriously determined and unswerving in his work for the rights of workers and of all people to be free. He certainly woke up and fought in 1943 and every other year of his public life. But his commitment to singing out for justice wasn’t a decision just made once and carried through from then on. The words in his notebook hint that he had to recommit again and again.

The New Year follows the old, but it does not overwrite it. The page is new, but the book is still the same. We are at the beginning of a new beginning, but everything that has already happened has still already happened. And when we look back at the past, or when the past looks ahead to us, the connection between both places is always real, but also always imperfect. Like a radio signal near the edge of the broadcast radius, there may be more static or less, but there will always be some. Similar patterns occur again and again – my desk acquires new clutter, for instance. But things also change. This is what makes possible all the fun of trying to predict what’s to come in the New Year – another major pastime in this season. Isaac Aasimov, the one-time professor of biochemistry at Boston University and colossus of American science fiction, wrote an article on the occasion of the 1964 World’s Fair, predicting what the future would be like in fifty years – that is, in 2014. In it, he described a world of electroluminescent panels – the flat screen-displays you find everywhere now in offices, homes, cars, and carried around in our purses and pockets. He also predicted that we would “phone” each other not only to hear but to see – something that is becoming more and more common today, due to all of those electroluminescent screens. The self-driving cars he anticipated are still being tested, though, and they do not hover a few feet off the ground, as he thought they would. The world of “enforced leisure” he envisioned, where humanity, “will suffer badly from the disease of boredom,” and “the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!” – this has not come to be.[ii] Automation and technology have made many types of work less necessary, but they haven’t made many of us feel less busy, or put those of us without work to do at ease. So even a very smart fellow, who spent so much of his life dreaming and thinking about the future, couldn’t get quite everything right.

Let us return, though, to the metaphor of the blank piece of paper that the turnover of the calendar has placed before us. It is a great opportunity to write the next act of our lives. The thing about such opportunities is that they bring us face-to-face with two deep truths, contained in each of us: our own potential to be great – to say what is true, to do what is right, to live with purpose and meaning – and our fear of that potential. The fear that we will fail to live up to it, that things will not unfold as we hope or plan. That you will buy a year’s gym membership and never see the inside of it again after Groundhogs Day. That you will try for that promotion, and end up having to work for the person who got it when you did not. That you will call your sister up for the first time in 15 years, and she’ll hang up on you. Writers are very familiar with this sort of fear: the fear of the empty page. Anything is possible, so all manner of failure is possible as well. This is an attitude that looks at a case such as Isaac Aasimov’s, that I mentioned earlier, and does not see the many predictions he got right – it sees only the guesses he got wrong. For them, it’s called Writer’s Block – it makes a writer afraid to write. Its equivalent makes a person afraid to live.

The poet Robert Pack writes about this gnawing feeling in his echo sonnet To an Empty Page:

How from emptiness can I make a start? Start

And starting, must I master joy or grief? Grief

But is there consolation in the heart? Art

Oh cold reprieve, where’s natural relief? Leaf

Leaf blooms, burns red before delighted eyes. Dies

Here beauty makes of dying, ecstasy. See

Yet what’s the end of our life’s long disease? Ease

If death is not, who is my enemy? Me

Then are you glad that I must end in sleep? Leap

I’d leap into the dark if dark were true. True

And in that night would you rejoice or weep? Weep

What contradiction makes you take this view? You

I feel your calling leads me where I go. Go

But whether happiness is there, you know. No

So how from emptiness can we make a start? There are a number of wise methods that experienced authors recommend to those struggling with Writer’s Block. I will offer you three, with some thoughts on how to apply them to making use of the new beginning we have at the start of this New Year.

The first method is to start in the middle – never mind the introduction or the establishing of the characters or setting. Jump right into the action, feel it, get pulled in by it, and use that momentum – you can always circle back to work on the beginning later. How that should work when you’re writing a story is pretty straight forward, but it can also work as we author the next chapter of our lives. Obviously there are things we can’t skip over – some not forever, and some not at all – but the New Year can be a time to cut to the chase of some dimension of life. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Bluebeard, the main character meets Circe Berman, the woman who will become his closest friend and chief antagonist by greeting her with, ‘Hello.’ This is the exchange that follows:

“Tell me how your parents died,” she said. I couldn’t believe my ears.

“I beg your pardon?” I said.

“What good is ‘Hello’?” she said.

She had stopped me in my tracks. “I’ve always thought it was better than nothing,” I said, “but I could be wrong.”

“What does ‘Hello’ mean?” she said.

And I said, “I had always understood it to mean ‘Hello.’ “

“Well it doesn’t,” she said. “It means, ‘Don’t talk about anything important.’ It means, ‘I’m smiling but not listening, so just go away.’ “

She went on to avow that she was tired of just pretending to meet people. “So sit down here,” she said, “and tell Mama how your parents died.”

Rash, socially inappropriate and more than a little bizarre, her gambit is also effective. The two people have a real conversation about something that matters to each of them. They form a real connection, and they are both made better for it. I am not saying that the best way to start a New Year is by resolving to ask strangers impertinent questions – although if that works for you, great. But if you can start in the middle of new experiences and potential relationships by resolving to be less guarded. To skip as many formalities and empty pleasantries as possible by focusing on saying things that are actually meaningfully true for you, and inviting others to join you.

The next trick is to write as though you are writing to someone you love. If we are writing with our lives on the page of the year, then this means doing something that has someone else – someone special – in mind. In 2012 a man named Bob Carey gained national attention for his photographic self-portraits, taken all over the world, with him wearing nothing but a pink tutu. The Tutu Project began as a one-time amusement which took on a new importance after Bob’s Linda learned that she had breast cancer. Images of him– a large, rather hairy, middle-aged man – standing mostly undressed in strange surroundings, save for the pink frills, proved to be one of the few things that could make his wife consistently laugh, as she navigated the uncertain waters of her diagnosis and treatment. This photo series has become a fundraiser for the Carey’s own foundation supporting women fighting the same disease. Linda said of her husband, “It takes a lot for him to put on that tutu,”[iii] Doing anything crazy takes a lot – and the most courageous things are always at least a little bit crazy. The people we love can often be the place where we get that needed inspiration from.

The last trick is usually called free-writing: write about anything – your breakfast, the color of your socks, even disconnected strings of words – but write. So if you are really having trouble getting started on this year, the suggestion would be to find something small, and new that you can do each day, and just do it without worrying if it’s useful or productive or good. A friend and colleague of mine once decided he wanted to make

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himself paint. He hadn’t done it much before, and not for many years, but he was determined to give it a shot. So he cut out a series of wooden squares – tiny little things, about three inches on a side – and he painted them all white. And then each day, he held himself to the discipline of painting something on one of those squares. Sometimes just a line, or a few dots. Later, there got to be pictures. He started experimenting with texture and depth. For one of them, he glued a kewpie doll to it. By the end of his project, he had a whole wall full of little paintings, ordered by date in his dining room. Were they good? They were his. They were him, on display in his home, and if nothing else, they had got him back into painting.

The path before us is ours to determine for ourselves – a daunting task, I well know. But we cannot get there – wherever we might discover ‘there’ to be – if we are too afraid to venture out and mar the page. There will be stray marks, cross-throughs and errors of grammar and spelling on the page of this year. Sometimes, our lines won’t rhyme, or our narrator will prove unreliable. Sometimes the red ink will overwhelm the black. But there is no way to discover our story except to begin it.

In that comic, the last Calvin and Hobbes comic, from nearly twenty years ago – yeah, it makes me feel old, too – the two friends finish surveying the new day, and set up the toboggan. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy,” Calvin says as they brace themselves and begin to hurtle down the snow-covered hillside. “Let’s go exploring.” My friends, as we begin together the year ahead, may we with awe, and a great sense of the possibility before us, explore this fresh page of life, together.


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