When new year should be according to history...

Hello friends,

What is it about this time of year that makes me feel… un-new-year-ish? Looking outside my window, it’s a typical Swedish winter day: bright, low sunshine, everything snow-blanketed and bitterly cold. It’s been extra cold this year, and in the mornings, when I drag some sweatpants over my pyjamas and coax our unwilling dog out into the snow, I think: it is night time. The sun is not fully risen, yes, but also: it is a dark season. A season for low light, rest, semi-hibernation. Time to sit and think, play a record all the way from one end to the other, take an hour making dumpling stew and another hour eating it. To not rush, to not worry yourself with the myriad ways you are going to better yourself, to not treat your body and mind like a business balance sheet – just to be in this cold season and wait. It involves an element of trust. The ground and the trees trust that the world will thaw and the new sprouts will return, so can we trust that our energy and ideas will emerge like a crocus, just knowing the right time. No need to force it.

And so with this in mind, I am not bursting into the new year, but allowing myself to continue gently into 2024 like a leaf on a stream of water. Thank you for reading The Spring for the last two years, may there be many more.

New Year’s Eve is a lie

In the sleepy haze between Christmas and New Year, I was thinking a lot about how spring felt like the rightful time to start anew. That when lambs are arriving and flowers pushing through the mud, so should our fresh selves awaken too. Our mid-winter New Year’s Day and resolutions should wait. I started wondering when the first New Year’s Eve celebrations began. The hype and size of celebrations definitely took a turn for the Falstaffian after the world super-sized New Year’s Eve in 1999. These days, at midnight, fireworks are lit in Biblical numbers not only in cities but also in suburban areas. This year, Arlanda Airport in Stockholm allowed dog owners to park between 9pm and 1am in their main car park (nearest the airport) for free, to escape the sensory battering the entire city (save the airport) experiences. The Comfort Inn airport hotel also did a “pet friendly” room offer for New Year’s Eve that allowed two pets per room, since all the out-of-town AirBnBs were booked up with people wanting to launch their rockets in peace.

There are various threads that lead to our present-day rituals – the midnight kiss is a pagan thing from Germanic folklore, the fireworks are an 8th Century Chinese invention, and so on. Beyond that, the Ancient Babylonians are believed to have made new year’s rituals and resolutions over 4000 years ago. So I was starting to feel a bit Scrooge-ish about my reluctance to celebrate – until I read that the Babylonian rituals were usually held at the Vernal Equinox, at the end of March. And if that’s not enough to convince the NYE revellers to relinquish their party poppers: the early Roman calendar (pre-Caesar) only had 10 months which began in March, ran to December, and then had an unspecified chunk of days that made up a winter gap. The calendar was shuffled around by Caesar and those anonymous winter days ended up being known as January and February. So just to be clear: January and February were just an elongated wintery void where the days melted together and weren’t even counted

January was chosen as the start of the new calendar, and named after Janus, the god with two faces – one which looks back on the past, and another that looks forward into the future. Janus represented the middle ground in transition, from war to peace, youth to adulthood – so it made sense that this god started the new year. But for what it’s worth, I prefer the undefined winter void, and I think I’ll just emerge, well-rested, with sparkler in hand, on March 1st.

“Januar und Februar” by Sebald Beham (1546)

Life on Mars

Space is an unrelenting source of fascination and inspiration, a place where the beauty of science and maths combine with our deepest philosophical ideas and the vast vacuum of the most profoundly unknown. But the thing about space is: the more we look up at the unimaginable void surrounding our home planet, the better we can see the exquisite miracle of Earth. Like Janus, our outward gaze, looking for life and meaning in space is also, simultaneously, scrutinising our sense of belonging here on our own soil.

Few are quite so adept to talk about this as astronaut-turned-artist Nicole Stott. On her first mission, in 2009, Stott took a seven-hour spacewalk to perform maintenance on the ISS. 

“I’ll tell you, a spacewalk, that’s one of the times of my life where I felt the most alone and detached from any other human being. But at the same time, I also felt the closest and most connected to humanity.”

There’s nothing quite like seeing the Earth rise over the moon to give a person a sense of blinding awe. Of all the motes and atoms floating in the universe – our experience is as a member of a race of intelligent life living on a small planet in the middle of space. The “earthrise moment” was captured on film by astronaut Bill Ander on the Apollo 8 in 1968. And experiencing this phenomena for the first time, Stott explains, gave her a sense of Earth as a vessel, and us the inhabitants, her crew, with our capacity to problem-solve, contribute to our progress and survive. 

“In essence, every person, consciously or not, bears a mission on Earth. This journey entails the exploration and understanding of one’s strengths, learning how to harmonize them with others, and actively participating in the shared mission to ensure the well-being and prosperity of all life on our shared home.”

In the sterile world of the space station, astronauts grow plants as experiments. Cultivating plants in space presents a range of challenges, and needs a sustainable, containable process. On Stott’s missions, all the crew were keen to observe the plant experiments. Even in this soil-less, carefully clean and sanitised environment, the smell of the plants and the fertiliser left a deep impression.

“If one of us was working on a plant experiment, we all wanted to be there to witness it. It was fascinating to see everyone’s eagerness to get a little sense of Earth, even though devoid of soil, the smell of the plants and even the nutrient mix had distinctive aromas that deeply resonated with us.”

In Sweden there’s a saying: “borta bra men hemma bäst” – idiomatically it’s “there’s no place like home”, but literally it means “going away is nice, but being home is best”. Everyone recognises the wonderful comfort of the place or area they call home. It’s an intangible thing, a mixture of familiar pavements, the prosody of voices in a crowd, the taste of the water. I remember my grandparents, fresh off the aeroplane from a holiday, in a state of pure bliss over a “proper cup of tea”. Our going away in the first place opens up a new space of appreciation. When people emigrate, as we have, or travel long-term, our sense of “home” changes – it can be a familiar set of clothing, the smell of a particular soap, or the routine you perform getting ready in the morning. And when people go to space, it makes sense that it’s the most fundamental memory of home on Earth – the literal earth. The memory of summer gardens, of walks in parks, of growing tomatoes, of visiting cemeteries. Is there anything more essentially “home” than soil? I wonder.

“Regardless of our destination, humans will always seek ways to carry parts of Earth with us.”

Stott participates in the first spacewalk of the STS-128 mission.

A Lessening
By David Gate

I do not plan to start anew

in January

that is for spring

this is the night

in the dead of winter

where I pare back excess

to reach the bones of my life

so when I am reborn 

I am reborn as only

my most essential nature

Until next month…
May you be well, happy, whole, and free.
T & B


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