“Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye:
Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.
I love the second stanza of this poem. Don’t we all have “lists of vegetables, partial poems”? (OK, maybe we don’t all have partial poems). Especially now, as I’m beginning to scrapbook my time at William & Mary, I’m finding pictures, postcards, church bulletins, old birthday and Christmas cards, and very literally “partial poems.”
But then the last stanza calls those remnants insignificant — a “shuffle of losses and leaves.”
From Nye’s poem and from my scrapbooking experience I receive conflicting messages: the poem encourages me to burn the old year and consider its contents meaningless while the scrapbook encourages me to remember the old years and consider their contents meaningful.
Both the burning and the remembering are necessary.
The apostle Paul, for instance, opened multiple epistles with some discussion of remembering, whether remembering his addressee, his chains, his Savior, or all of the above. He tells the Ephesians: “I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:16). After reminding them of the former exclusion of Gentiles, Paul says: “remember that at that time you were separate from Christ….But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13). Here we see two different types of edifying remembrance: remembering in order to give thanks for other people and remembering in order to give thanks for how far (or rather how close) Christ has brought us over time.
Paul also talks about a certain kind of disremembering that isn’t so much forgetting as it is redeeming. The old leaves and the new comes. Paul sums this up when he tells the Corinthians that, because “from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view,” “therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).
As new creations, we have a task: “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). Reconciliation isn’t about burning unpleasant memories, broken relationships, injustices, or anything else. Rather, it’s about acknowledging: Yes. This is a thing. A real thing. And Christ can make this real thing really new.
So, in the hubbub of New Year’s, go ahead and think about the past — maybe a memory, a picture, a “partial poem.”
Hold it in your hands.
Let it sink in: This happened. That happened.
Hold it in your hands.
But don’t hold it so tightly that you can’t share it with others, shed light on it, use it.
As difficult as it may have been, you’re not defined by it.
And don’t hold it so tightly that you can’t take scissors and glue to it and leave it on your bookshelf for a while.
As delightful as it may have been, you’re not defined by it.
If we really took the words of the New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne” to heart (especially the first lines, which are the only ones people really know anyway) and we really let “old acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon; the flames of love extinguished, and fully past and gone,” then we would have quite a problem on our hands.
Instead, let old acquaintance be remembered and thought upon…in order to give thanks for other people and for how far Christ has brought us. Let the flames of Love not be extinguished nor fully past and gone…in order that the flames of Love might redeem the past into a new creation, an “absence that shouts, celebrates, and leaves” a profound presence instead of “a space” (“Burning of the Old Year”).