Baby New Year and Old Father Time

Happy New Year! The time of year prompted me to consider the image we have of an old man for the old year and a baby for the new year. The old man of the lapsing year often is conflated with the “grim reaper,” making him more than a little threatening. But generally, the ancient one (and he has gotten so old in only one year!) is just handing off a lantern or an hour glass to the babe with the admonition, perhaps, to make the most of the new life, the new year. As the light gets stronger and the days get longer, everything seems to renew. Soon the sap will be rising.

And we are swept up in it in this rebirth of the year. All us old people are making resolutions, showing up at the gym (this is always the most crowded time of year for exercise facilities and doubtless good intentions are very profitable), going on a diet, enrolling in a conversational Spanish class or some other vehicle of self-improvement, and yet – we are still old. The year is new, but we still need that cataract surgery, our arthritis still aches. Nature recycles through the seasons, but as individuals we – get old. The media tells us today is the first day of the rest of our life (and this is surely true enough), and yet we enter into it with the old body, the baggage of memory, and the parameters of circumstance. None of that changes as the year rolls over and the old man hands the lantern to a baby new year.

We want it to be otherwise. Psalm 103 tells the faithful that “[the Lord] satisfies you with good as long as you live, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” As in the image of the new baby and the old year above, I got to thinking about what this promise really meant. The eagle appears approximately 34 times in the Bible and is often associated with renewing strength. One remembers the emotional passage from Chariots of Fire, when the Olympic runner Eric Liddell, who refused to run on Sunday, reads to his audience from Isaiah 40: “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Apparently the eagle was thought to actually be able to renew itself; the persistent legend is that at about age 50, the eagle can make a decision to fly to a special mountain where its beak, talons and feathers renew themselves after about 5 months. Certainly a five month hiatus for most fifty-year-old humans would renew some of us, so maybe we can take something from that. But the eagle thus allegedly garners another 10-20 years of life. Birders and scientists say the legend is not true, but eagles do often go through a severe molting at about five years and can look pretty scruffy for a while – until their new feathers come in and they are “renewed.” Many think that is the source of the legend. In any case, there it sits in the Bible to inspire us to a new birth, to renewal.

None of this is new. Man from time immemorial has complained that Nature renews itself in ways that the individual man cannot. (I know, I know, the scientists are working on it!). Hopkins complained on a spring day that:

See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

We get reprieves. Good doctors replace our hips, we recover from illness; good fortune gives us a better day now and then. But our bodies are not a renewable resource in the long run. (A lesson often learned too late, as some of what we suffer in old age is the result of youthful mismanagement of this precious resource.) Hopkins ends his poem with a plea for renewal of another sort. “Send my roots rain” he pleads.

In an earlier post, I wrote about “Second Growth,” quoting from Emerson’s journal about Thoreau’s observations that “men may have two growths like pear trees.” But the growth in pear trees is physical; any second (or third) growth human beings have has to be mental, spiritual. And this growth is within the old body; with this dichotomy there must be some sort of conciliation.

This is also the season of Epiphany. (See my story by that title in this month’s fiction. It is a little sentimental, but it is a Christmas story, after all.) In depictions of adoration of the magi, artists from Fra Angelico to Rubens often portrayed the wise men as of different ages: young, middle-aged and old. According to the apocryphal legends, the oldest was Melchior, Balthazar was in the middle, and the youngest magus was Caspar. Apparently, epiphanies are possible at any age.

Perhaps the best we can do is to follow the advice of Andre Gide: “Know that joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.”  Perhaps the reconciliation of body and soul involves the willingness to accept the moral obligation of joy, even in diminished circumstances. Meanwhile we, with Hopkins, pray for sustenance for our roots.