At New Year’s, looking back and ahead

Fireworks rise over Boston during the First Night celebration in 2016.
Fireworks rise over Boston during the First Night celebration in 2016. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

It’s difficult every year. Saying goodbye to one year while welcoming another. Looking back AND looking ahead. Summing things up, filing away, while making plans.

It used to be that only a god could look ahead while looking back. And only one god, Janus, invented by the Romans. The Romans gave Janus two faces to explain this extraordinary gift because, until mirrors were invented, it was impossible to look forward and backward at the same time.

But even with mirrors it’s not possible to see what’s ahead and what’s behind simultaneously. You have to take your eyes off one to see the other. It’s like when you’re driving and you glance in the rear-view mirror and in the few seconds you’re not looking ahead, the car in front of you slams on its brakes. And there you sit looking at a bumper you’ve squished, and realizing you have your own squished bumper, plus an insurance surcharge.

I wish there were a space between years, like the space you’re supposed to maintain between the next car and you. A space and place without a clock, without a calendar, where you could assess what happened in the last year without stepping right into the New Year. A kind of transition room where you could decompress, like deep-sea divers coming back to the surface. A space where you could acclimate.


But there isn’t. We go from midnight on Dec. 31 to 12:01 on Jan. 1, in a breath, in a heartbeat. Happy New Year.

Charlotte doesn’t mind. She’s 12 and can’t wait for 2020. “This means I will have lived through an entire decade,” she tells me with a child’s enthusiasm. In the new decade she is going to try “something new every day,” she declares.

Like Brussels sprouts?” I ask her.

“No, Mimi. I’ve already tried Brussels sprouts. Like different things.”


She doesn’t list the different things. She’s not stressed that she might run out of ideas or, in a week, change her mind and think this wasn’t such a good plan after all. The new year is full of possibility for her. Everything is.

About 10 years ago, our family began doing a “Year in Review” New Year’s quiz. We did this for about five years. There were some 25 questions and the quiz took maybe 10 minutes to complete. But we all did it. We’d sit around someone’s living room or at a long table at the Colonial House Restaurant in Norwood filling in the blanks, then reading our answers out loud. “I loved spending time with ____________ (fill in the blank) I should have spent more time ____________ .” “Once again I ________________ .” “Once again I did not _____________ .”

We laughed at some of our answers, smiled at others, and groaned at a few. But every question and every answer gave us all time to look back, remember, and reflect.

We looked ahead, too, using the answers we’d written to make us see the things that were important to us and the things that were not. “Why did I spend even two minutes (fill in the blank) ___________________ .”

“Worrying,” is what I wrote in the blank space every year. Worrying about this. Worrying about that. Every year a different worry, but the verb was always the same.


I don’t know what happened to all those quizzes. I thought I saved mine but all I can find is a master sheet with unanswered questions. Because of Charlotte, because this will be new for her, I am going to make copies of this quiz and before New Year’s Day gather the clan and pass them out. And begin this family tradition once more — only this time including the children, too.

“The biggest physical difference between me last December and this December is _____________ ”. The grandchildren will answer this question in inches. They’ve all grown so tall this year. They’ll argue about who grew more, change and growth synonymous to them, the passing of time their ally.

Change and growth. That’s what I see looking backward and forward. Not just in my family, but in the world.

Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at bev@beverlybeckham.com.