The conversation went something like this:
“2016. What a shitter hey. You know I’m really looking forward to the new year just to see the back of this one.”
“You can’t blame the year for all the shitty things that have happened.”
“No, no you can’t. But as humans we like to compartmentalise and sometimes it is healthy and natural to want to draw a line in the sand.”
“I just got sick of hearing ‘it’s because it’s 2016’ when something bad happened. It’s stupid to blame the year and it devalues the actual thing that has happened.”
“I’ll just be relieved when this one’s over, that’s all.”
And so 2017 has begun and the world has heaved a collective sigh of relief. Hasn’t it? Haven’t you?
The start of a new year often brings with it the anticipation and excitement of new beginnings and possibilities and the closure (satisfying or otherwise) of a chapter complete. Some sense of change or of progress. Of time being on our side again.
And yet this time feels different.
I see people all around me who have begun 2017 not with fresh-faced wide-eyed optimism or gung-ho determination but instead with a cautious hope and gentle stoicism.
Perhaps this is just what happens when you are nearing 40 and life experience has brought with it a few more knocks along with the years?
Perhaps it’s what happens when we see humans all around us causing destruction or making decisions we think are dangerous or stupid?
Perhaps it’s what happens when a generation of baby-boomers’ kids, for many of whom there was always something bigger or better each year as globalisation took off and economies, property and job markets boomed, have now grown up and realised that there isn’t so much, anymore? That those bigger, better life experiences, dreams, houses and things are harder and harder to reach for more and more people?
Perhaps we’re at a collective societal turning point, or perhaps I’m on my own here but for the first time ever I didn’t feel that new year sparkle. That fresh wave of excitement that anything is possible and that it’s going to be a good year, this 2017!
Because you can’t guarantee a good one any more that you can predict a bad one.
Nothing in life is certain, after all. Orange has taught me that. He has taught me that the unexpected can happen to anyone. He has also taught me that some of the very things I thought I would be most frightened of in life, I’m very capable of dealing with. That some of the things I thought were scary aren’t scary at all and that even in proper white knuckle, heart-pumping life and death moments I can still rely on myself to do the right thing at the right time.
Orange has taught me to never assume and to always have hope. To feel the fear and do it anyway (with the exception of roller coasters and zip wires, that is).
So why, as I sat on the sofa in a post-Christmas cheese fug could I not feel that fresh-start excitement, that ‘clean pages of a book waiting to be written’ feeling I’ve always felt at this time of year?
As I sat and pondered, my mind freed up by two weeks off work and a body surrendered to the sofa through sheer weight of Toblerone and Stilton alone, I realised what I was looking for was something else entirely.
On the wall next to me was a photograph. One of those enormous canvasses that was so fashionable circa 2010-2012. A black and white image of a family, our family, sitting among the wild grass and sand dunes above Gwithian Sands in west Cornwall.
Not a particularly flattering photograph of any of us, my inner critic would say. Two slightly flabby, tired parents wearing absolutely terrible rain coats (spot the Londoners who had to make emergency practical outdoor wear purchases on holiday), a grumpy, chilly toddler and a six month old squished tight into a baby carrier he’d much rather not have been in, thank you very much.
We’ve certainly had our more photogenic moments.
But there is a story behind this photograph that explains why it deserves its place on our wall and in this post.
It was 2011. It had been ‘our 2016’ before we knew what a 2016 was.
For us it was the year that we felt all the fear but hadn’t yet learned that we could do it anyway. In love with our newborn son but so deeply afraid of what was happening to him, or not happening, and why. To what it would mean for us, as a family, and our lives that we had built.
It was the year we knew we would run out of money if we carried on as we were, as Orange’s appointments meant work was an impossibility and, at that moment, for the first time ever we didn’t know how we could earn any more.
It was also the year that our home was broken into and tens of thousands of pounds worth of our belongings were stolen. My left hand, in the photo, without its sparkle. Sold, probably for drugs. Our home, still ours but somehow not.
Emotionally brittle from hospital appointments and tests that left us more fearful not less, bruised from the bully-boy interviewing of an insurance loss-adjuster who clearly thought we were frauds, and apprehensive of a house sale that would save us from bankruptcy, our lives as they had started at the beginning of 2011 were unrecognisable. Uncertain and with no real plan ahead.
And yet we had hope. Hope for the future, whatever it might bring. Hope, not in abundance but in adversity.
At this moment, there was no clean slate. Just a multitude of unknowns. We didn’t know where we would live, how we would live, or even how many of us there might be in that future ahead.
But there was hope.
And when I look back at that photo now I know I could tell that younger, fearful and fragile version of me that we were right to have that hope. Without it, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this now in our house by the sea in the place that we love.
So as the first week of the new year cranks up its gears, not a whole lot differently from the last, and the uncertainties ahead are personal, professional and global all at once, for a great many of us, all I can say is to hold on to that hope.
Even when you are flying by the seat of your pants or baby stepping one foot in front of the other to survive.
Even when self-belief and circumstance fail to show up on your side.
Here’s to a hopeful, healthful and fulfilling 2017.