Signs of Improvement

As the new year approaches I find myself wondering what to do about resolutions. Some years I’ve had very specific ones, like take more time to brush my teeth, or exercise three times a week. Other years I’ve been rather loose about them, like be more patient, or treat the cats better — things I can’t really measure. There’s something about the end of one year and the beginning of another that makes us pause to take stock of how our lives are going. The new year also brings a sense of hope. We hope for better times. And as we watch our lives go by, we also wonder if we are getting any better at being human beings.

I once saw a statement that a mother is someone who watches even her adult children for signs of improvement. May Sarton, the writer and poet, once observed that we have to think like a hero just to behave like a decent human being. We always have a suspicion that not only life, but we ourselves, could do better. Certainly there’s a lot to strive for, whether it be material comforts or improvements in our personalities.

John O’Donohue, the Irish spiritual writer, says, “The quest for the truth of things is never ending.” Which reminds me of the Huichol shaman don Jose Matsua’s comment that “The shaman’s path is unending. I am an old man and a baby standing before the mystery of the world, filled with awe.” There always seems to be more awe to experience, more mystery to fathom, more plummeting and questing to discover the “truth of things.”

And so each new year gives us hope that we might make some strides in these areas over the coming twelve months. We never make a clean break with the past, though, and maybe aren’t meant to if we are to have lives that are whole, if memory is a large part of who we are.

Our yule log tradition here is a reminder of that. Each year we cut the bottom foot off the Christmas tree when we take it down and save it to be next year’s yule log. It weathers in a special spot outside. When we get the new tree each year, we cut a few boughs off the bottom and tie them to the yule log with red ribbon, along with some holly berries from the bushes out front, and then we place the log on the mantel as part of the holiday decorations. At some point during the holiday season — it varies from year to year — we burn the log with prayers and blessings and gratitude. Then we save the ashes until May 1 and scatter them over the land as part of the Beltane celebration. In this way last year’s tree is always present, as a weathering log, a yule log, and as a blessing for spring. And so the years are connected with ribbon, berries, boughs, fire, ashes, and the land we live on.

Maybe this is what a new year’s resolution is about also: the hope to connect whoever we are, whatever we are, with the new year and find meaning and purpose in our lives. Find the “truth of things.” Find the mystery of the world and of ourselves. And be filled with awe.

If in the process we think like heroes, then we just might be able to act like decent human beings. I’m sure our mothers, wherever they are, are watching for signs of improvement.