It’s January – we all want to start something! Fires are permissible, especially of preconceptions, shame, etc., although let’s guard against loss of life. Reading for pleasure: yes, of course, I have started three books in the last two days alone but there’s not as much glory in starting a book as in getting to the end of one now and again. Diets, dry spells, self-imposed restrictions of all kinds: you can’t fool me, those are attempted endings, not beginnings! Look, if it’s not hurting the kids, let’s carry on, it’s dark and cold enough outside.
New work, creative endeavour, learning something new: now that would be starting something. And I’m longing for sparks after a year spent thinking about endings: well, my dad’s ending, and how wrong it felt. My father was a lit match, no: a burning bush! never extinguishable, a promise that Things Are Meant To Be Better, because that is what they were to him. “Who couldn’t enjoy the day?” he wrote in his journal, sick in hospital on holiday in Cornwall, view only of a carpark but grateful to his bones that he was beloved of his wife and that he had one more day, alive, and might see the sea again soon. Endings? I thought about it a lot as he died and I decided I don’t believe in them, I think we just fold the paper and keep writing.
Refusing endings, maybe it’s nonsense for me to look for new beginnings too, whatever the date. We should just be grateful for the strength to carry on with whatever it was we were attempting to do last year. Or to revisit the things we already have. Today, wary of the creative projects I had in mind for myself, I pottered about the house, hanging pictures in new corners and turning on old lamps, bringing light to a dark stairwell. I pulled out a box of broken candlesticks, cups and vases – legacy of Justin the cat’s most destructively playful years – and slowly and imperfectly glued them back together. New homes for old things: new shapes for broken things. We ate leftovers for lunch, with a winter salad that took just long enough to prepare that I didn’t have time to start something new.
Taking over running a successful 88-year-old business last year as well as representation of two authors at the height of their powers, I have been mindful of the balance between caretaking and creating; listening and doing. We humans have to embrace change, because as nature shows us things that don’t change stop thriving. But the best changes are already written into the code of the things we see before us.
In publishing, “fresh eyes” are part of the lingo: an agent knows how to offer new perspective on accomplished work just as a good author knows how to edit. The photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is as engaged by the way his work is seen and hung as he is in how it is printed. The choice of which image to hang where, next to which, at what size: his intentionally hierarchical, family-making, provoking picture-structures have become as distinctly his own language as his clear-eyed and fearless photography. You can find seams of intimacy and estrangement in both: his recent MoMA show bore the signs of how many times he visited and revisited his own work, adjusting, re-organising, curating his own ideas.
Maybe what we should aim for this new-term week is new curation not creation. We can make our world more beautiful without making the world wholly anew. Last week my step-daughter and I made a big beautiful butterfly on a Florida beach from shells we found, organising them by colour and shape to form the markings on its wings. Later we watched from an upstairs window while women quickly took photos of it on their phones while their husbands tramped ahead.
The blank page is famously unforgiving and why wouldn’t it be? It’s alien to us. Our lived lives aren’t experienced in stops and starts, with usefully clean slates. The new day isn’t a new day, the sun was only hiding downstairs: what we are built for is continuation, evolution, inheritance. Forget the blank page: dig through discarded thoughts, ideas, scraps of unfinished work, old cuttings and journals for new-old starting-points.
Let’s keep on keeping on, as we fold the page over on one year and start another. We don’t get a beginning so let’s not pretend. What we have is our own fresh eyes. The new energy offered by the holidays. Persistence. Patience. To carry on building what we started or inherited. To reinvent or find the things we already own or lost. To meaningfully re-use and enjoy what we have.
Today I printed stacks of old photographs from my phone and chose my favourites, hung them on the walls, re-appraising them in new family groups. “Who couldn’t enjoy the day?”
I haven’t published many words myself in a long while but I have them all on file. The best use of my remaining January holiday days is to sift them through, find my favourites, bring light to a dark stairwell. Happy new year, old things.