It’s the end of another decade, and it’s taking me back to the first ‘turning of a decade’ in my memory. As I was born in ’54, and not conscious of such things as we entered the sixties, my first such memory was the ending of the 60’s – which to me represented my entire life – and the advent of 1970.
I still think of the 60’s as a really extraordinary decade, one that outstrips all that have followed for significance, drama, dynamic cultural shifts, etc. Was it really so, or mainly that it was the decade in which I became aware of the world? On a personal level, I might say that the decade I was entering was more significant, or the one that followed, which I entered at 25. But that’s for another post.
In truth, I don’t remember any specifics about New Year’s Eve 1969 or New Year’s Day 1970. But I remember where I was in my life. I had graduated from New York city’s Joan of Arc Junior High School in June, and I had just finished by first semester at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. I was still adjusting to that really different environment, and the Christmas-New Year vacation was my first time home. I was getting together with friends who’d scattered to high schools all across Manhattan, the Bronx and the other boroughs.
One of my few crystal clear memories of the time is of walking outside of our upper West Side apartment building shortly before leaving for Exeter. I remarked to myself that I would never be in that particular life again. I somehow knew – maybe from already having been uprooted from Detroit to New York, and from New York to Berlin and back – that when and if I ever returned to that precise location, it would have changed, and I would have changed so much that it wouldn’t be ‘coming home’ at all. And during that first Christmas holiday back, that was proving true. I'd already encountered so much that was new in my new schoolmates, who were from everywhere except my little corner on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The kids I met who lived closest to me were from Harlem, East Harlem and the Upper East Side, which were like three different worlds. My roommate had grown up in Saudi Arabia - his father an executive with ARAMCO, the huge oil conglomerate.
Looking ahead from that New Year ’69-’70, as I know I was doing because I’ve done it every year, I knew so little about what lay ahead. I had no idea how miserable and out of place I would feel at Exeter before something shifted and it became a beloved place. No idea of all the novel ideas and perspectives I’d encounter through my classes, and even moreso through my fellow students and the varied communities we formed. I had all of ‘growing up’ ahead of me, the intentional and unintentional detailing of my values and character. How could I have known? Of course, I couldn’t have.
And naturally, half a century later, the story is the same in many respects, though to different degrees. There’s little more self-detailing to do, but lots more repairing. The new things that come may not create the degree of personal upheaval that discovering sex and love and independence did. The new ideas won’t be quite so revolutionary. But, the huge decrease in the role of sex, and the shifting meanings and expressions of love, and the different ways I use my altered independence have all produced surprising ripples already. And do I really know anymore about what’s ahead than I did back then?
A dorm mate from that first year at Exeter recently sent me this. That's me on the couch with the raised leg. Looking at the bunch of us – 15-18 year olds speeding into adulthood so much more blindly than I think any of us would have acknowledged – makes me smile. The truth is that I’m not much less blind now. I don’t think that many of us are. Though we all have much more detailed and reasoned stories about ourselves and about life than we did then. The last bit may be somewhat unfortunate because we can cling so tightly to these stories that we become doubly blind to the surprises that come. But the surprises, the newness, the unexpected, that which defies expectation, that’s the real richness of every New Year, I think. And of every waking moment.
May our New Years and New Moments surprise us all, for however long we are granted them!