“The life of the dead is placed in the memory
of the living” Cicero
Janus, the Roman god for whom this month is named, has two heads. One is looking forward and one is looking backwards, simultaneously and always. I like that image. That seems fitting to me. Often we have to look at where we have been in order to have an idea of where we are headed and/or want to go. It is a good and necessary practice, and we do that both as individuals and as a culture. Personally, we look back and say, “This worked; I will keep it.” Or we say,” This didn’t work out so well; I need to change some things.” The beginning of the year seems a good time for that type of reflection.
This is one of the purposes of our New Year’s resolutions. We see the new year as a chance to do some personal housecleaning, and we try to get rid of things that no longer work or fit us. This is a universal human process. Religions and cultures from around the world have practices in which they either break or burn old household items, do ritualized house and/or body cleansing, light massive bonfires and more to symbolize making a new start. It is both a solemn and celebratory affair. Many religious traditions emphasize special prayers and rituals to mark the beginning of that religion’s New Year. These practices call for people to take a good look at where they are morally and religiously. The hope is that they will re-dedicate themselves to making changes for upcoming year and to reaffirm their devotion to the religion's beliefs and practices.
There are also rituals that seem to be more secular in purpose. These often involve special foods, music, dance, but also some type of outrageous celebration. Think of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade, which has its roots in a Roman workers’ festival in which, for one day, the social order was turned upside down and serious things were satirized. It is now a big day of music and dress up. It seems that we as humans need to acknowledge this special passage of time in ways that are both solemn and festive.
One of the things I like to do in January is to look back at the year just gone by and note the people who died during that time. It is a regular feature of TV news programs, magazines, newspapers, and I like doing it myself. It gives me a chance to slow down and reflect on the ways my life is and was affected by what others have done, stood for and accomplished. For obvious reasons I am particularly cognizant of writers and musicians-they speak a special language that resonates with me. We lost a number of both last year, and many of them were important to me. We lost some big names in music, among them Prince, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen. These were folks from very different genres and with very different styles, but each of them dramatically shook up the music world as well as my ways of looking at music in some profound ways. Bowie and Prince did it in part by joyously combining and mixing musical styles, producing outrageous stage performances, giving enigmatic interviews, and emphasizing their ability to call into question gender roles and definitions of “manliness.” They were also consummate musicians, songwriters and arrangers, and they helped me look at rock and rhythm and blues influenced music in some new ways. Cohen gave me an appreciation for the poetry and theater of songwriting and an appreciation of tone in songs.
We also lost more traditional but unique voices in musician and singer-songwriters Mose Allison and Leon Russell. I first got to know Russell from his playing and arranging on Delaney and Bonnie LP’s and from seeing their tour way back in 1969-1971. I loved his funky piano and guitar riffs and fills, and the way he made gospel, country, and blues all fit together in an unforced, seamless manner. And he was flat-out fun to watch; he seemed to just love playing and making music. As for Mose, I still recall my first Mose Allison LP and being taken in by his smooth, wry voice, great lyrics, and swinging piano style. I got to see him play a number of times over the years, and it was never disappointing. Songs such as Parchman Farm, Everybody Cryin’ Mercy, Your Mind is On Vacation-their cool and clever lyrics still make me smile, cry and move me deeply. He was an original.
We lost some great writers as well last year. Many of them produced works that were important in shaping my thinking and values. I was fortunate to not only read but teach works by several of them. Richard Adam’s Watership Down helped many 8th graders come to understand allegory, fable, and the power of description and detail in a well told story. When I read and later taught Night, Elie Wiesel impressed me as an example of a person who could endure such evil and yet still be such a gentle bringer of illumination, love and truth.
“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” These words Wiesel wrote have a timeless meaning and bear repeating and remembering.
I never got to teach Gloria Naylor’s, Women of Brewster Place, W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting, Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini or The Water is Wide, or the short stories in the collection, Hue and Cry by James Alan McPherson. But each of those works took me deeply inside specific places, specific times, specific dilemmas, and specific characters in ways that gave me greater appreciation for and understanding of how ordinary people try to cope with life’s struggles. These considerations of meetign the dilemmas of ordinary life have stayed with me for decades. Someone once wrote that the purpose of good writing is to "make the ordinary extraordinary, and the extraordinary ordinary". These writers were all able to do that, and I am grateful to have come across them. What they wrote will forever be with me, and their ideas and words help shape how I approach the world.
There were a lot of other people who died in 2016 who both made a difference in the larger world and meant a lot to me. Muhammad Ali, John Glenn and Gwen Ifill are three of them that readily come to mind; there were many others. This happens every year, of course. And that means that as long as I am alive I have the opportunity to do this looking back and to learn from it. It is a treat and it is important. I get the chance to think about these people, reflect on who and where I was when I firstencountered them, and to thank them for the ways in which they have changed my life and being. Like Janus, I get to look back. And like Janus, I then get to take what these people have given me in the past and bring it forward into a new year and a new time. Not a bad way to start the year. I wish you all good reflection and a Happy New Year.