A Happy New Year, late, and with soft edges

by maggi dawn

Last night my son and I, with a crowd of friends, saw the Old Year out in style at a gig in a nearby neighbourhood of New Haven. The small theatre, beautifully restored to its former glory, was filled with local people from overlapping social circles, so the atmosphere was as much a big local party as a gig. By 11.45 the band was rocking, but having begun their set a bit late, midnight was approaching too quickly for them to finish their set on time. The lead singer, funny and entertaining as well as a fantastic singer, suddenly took inspiration to grab the huge clock sitting on the front of the stage and turn it back 10 minutes. “No one is going to mind, are they?” she said. “Let’s finish the set, and then do the countdown.”

But they did mind. Suddenly a tangible sense of consternation filled the room. How can you do the countdown after midnight has already passed? So the singer turned the clock to the correct time again, and the audience enthusiastically endorsed the idea that the set would continue after the countdown. Which is, more or less, what happened… except that, as my son pointed out to me after consulting his smartphone, the big analog clock hadn’t been 100% accurate to begin with. He clinked his glass to mine as midnight arrived, and a few seconds later the room began the countdown, and New Year came in a few minutes late.

I think last night must be the most inexact New Year celebration I’ve ever been at. I have seen in New Years in Sydney, Australia, in a fjord town in Norway, in Amsterdam, Paris, London, Cambridge, Texas, Connecticut, and–best of all–half a dozen times in Edinburgh. And on every occasion there has been either a clock rigged up to the national time, or someone has flicked on the national radio or TV countdown to join in the precise moment. There is something about the timing of such rituals that seems to matter to us. Time of birth, time of death, these are measured in minutes and seconds. And our remembrance of the performance of important moments is tied to timing. Even when celebrations are on the “wrong” day, we still remember birthdays and anniversaries on the right day. Facebook is full of surprisingly detailed little notes about such moments– “On this day 12 years ago, at approximately 9.00 in the evening, Xxx agreed to marry me…”

And yet, as we fussed over the precise moment of midnight last night, we had already exchanged “happy new year” greetings with friends in Australia, Africa, Europe and the UK hours earlier. I remembered that until 1840, local time in England was not the same; the time was slightly different in, say, London and Bristol, until clocks were synchronised in order to co-ordinate railway timetables. Our dependence on measuring time with a clock instead of sundown and sunrise is a very recent innovation.

Years ago I read a short piece by Jamie Buckingham that lodged itself in my memory. Buckingham recalled the culture of his childhood, in which there were few clocks. The only regular measure of time was the town clock, which rang each day at midday. People rose with the sun and stopped work with dusk. If you called someone and asked them to come over to attend to some task or other, the reply would be “presently,” which didn’t mean in five or ten minutes, but in a while from now, once matters of importance had been dealt with – like playing with your kids, or kissing your wife, or finishing your nap in the hammock. Maybe less got done, said Buckingham. But paying less attention to what the time on the clock was, it seemed there was more time, not less: time to sleep, and laugh, and love.

The Psalmist’s prayer, “Teach us, O Lord, to number our days”, is a prayer for wisdom to make the most of our time here on earth. But perhaps we misinterpret if we read into that an aspiration for more productivity, marked by neat appointments on an over-crowded calendar. Maybe the Psalmist’s prayer can only be answered if we are a little less concerned with the precision of minutes and seconds, and pay more attention to what we are doing in the moment, or perhaps enjoy the luxury of wasting time. As (St.) John Lennon once said, if you enjoyed wasting time, then it wasn’t wasted. So, with soft edges and inexact timing, I wish you a Happy New Year. I wish you the courage to turn off your clock and your phone from time to time. And with it the blessing of time: time to sleep, and laugh, and love.