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Tom Chaney: No R743: New Year resolutions and myth of Eden

Of Writers and Their Books Essay. 'So I celebrate the new year just as I relished the old one. I turn to literature and history to deal with the futility of beginning again.' -TOM CHANEY
The next earlier Tom Chaney column, Christmas Violence

By Tom Chaney

New Year resolutions and the myth of Eden

Today begins the New Year. Most of us will steadfastly resolve to make changes in our lives and habits. By Groundhog Day all that will remain of our resolve will be the guilt of its fracture.

When I contemplate losing the increasing number of pounds I have added; when I think of bringing order to the clutter of my desk reflecting the disorder of my life, I despair of improvement.

Any proper drinking person could turn to the bottle to relieve the guilt of failure. But that doesn't work for me. I practice moderation in that matter because I know what is on the other side of the bottle. Oblivion is only temporary. One must return to one's self.

So I celebrate the new year just as I relished the old one. I turn to literature and history to deal with the futility of beginning again.

That, of course, leads me to the contemplation of favorite writers -- among them is Robert Penn Warren. Many of his characters flee the mire of the present to seek new identity in the West.

The traveler in "The Ballad of Billie Potts," Jack Burden in All the King's Men, and a great number of others seek to escape in "beginning again." They seek refuge in the last room of the last motel on the last beach of California looking for a new self. But the mirror of that motel room reflects the face that is still you. A new name, a new face, but that name, that face is always you.

The other day I was rereading some western novels by Louis L'Amour. The wanderers in those novels often pride themselves on their attempt at erasing their past. It was not cool, perhaps even dangerous, to ask a stranger too much about who he was or where he was from.

I think also of the myth of beginning again in the history of America. In the larger picture the "new" land was heroically settled by brave pioneers. When one looks more closely, the westward movement is often the story of personal failure; of wearing out a perfectly good farm and heading over the mountains to find another piece of land to exhaust or another wife to take -- with gullied land and work-broke women in their wake.

But the face reflected in the western stream was never changed, nor was character.

Frontier religion followed a similar, reinforcing pattern. The revivals of the Great Awakening in the early 1800's placed a premium on renunciation and rebirth. Little effort was expended in dealing with the business of living in the blighted present. The converts were, and perhaps still are, encouraged to take the plunge into the brimming flood, leave the past, and dwell in that promised land flowing with milk and honey -- or, as in "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" the land where every night is Saturday night and every day is Sunday, and little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks.

So, let us make our resolutions. The goal of improvement is probably a good one. But let us acknowledge that basic change is hard to come by. If we have fouled our rivers and ruined our fields, we have to live in the offal of our destruction as we make the best of some temporary resurrection. If we have cluttered our lives with the detritus of shattered dreams and the nightmare of our failed humanity, it is from the base of those dreams and failures that we must build.

There is no possibility of fleeing the present to an idyllic Eden or Big Rock Candy Mountain. We can only snatch at the bending branch on the bank of the muddy floodtide of the swirling river of our lives to get a somewhat more advantageous purchase for the trip.

So we will continue to make our resolutions today for some improvement for 2006.

Perhaps by the time the ground hog sees his shadow, I will have lost ten pounds and brought order to a small corner of my desk. Nonetheless, it is the same me that I will confront in the mirror for the remainder of my days.

The column first appeared in the Hart County News-Herald, 1 January 2006

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-01-02 03:02:48
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