Peeling Back Time

By Robert C. Koehler

“Should old acquaintance be forgot a-a-nd never brought to mi-i-i-i-nd …” Ka-pow! Honnnkk! Pop! Smooch, smooch.

I love the noise, love kissing my friends, hoisting the bubbly and draining the cup of kindness. I’ve always been thrilled by the year’s turning and still imagine — just as I did as a kid — some great shift in the darkness beyond my front door.

No matter that the profundity of the event is made up, that the year’s transition mark could be any date at all — and that nothing whatsoever changes at midnight except the last digit you write on check datelines. A year, however its end points are determined, still has tremendous emotional weight; it’s the basic building block of a lifetime, and I feel its passing on my internal clock. For that reason, I ache more strongly for significant ritual on this day than perhaps any other holiday.

Fake bacchanalia, i.e., drinking a lot, isn’t my style and, in any case, pushes things in entirely the wrong direction. The urge I have isn’t to obliterate either the old year or the new, but to give them due accounting. A year is to be celebrated not so much as an external event, a big, hollow ball dropping into the middle of Times Square, but as something personal, full and rich: the unique creation of each person who has lived through it. Beery fist pumps just don’t do it justice. I prefer a gentle, subjective — yet public — peeling back of time, layer by layer, life by life.

It’s simple. It doesn’t have to be done on New Year’s Eve or in the midst of other people, though that’s the tradition that has evolved at our house. We just call it the Top 10. Those who gather at my place for the annual transition — there’s a small core of us, plus varying guests — meditate on our past year and write down its 10 most important events, from our own perspective, of course, and defining “event” any way we choose. Then, as noisemakers are going off everywhere else, we share our year with the group. That’s the whole shebang, but it often lasts into the wee hours of the New Year.

Some people are squeamish about sharing their lives thus, especially if their year was a difficult one, but when the process gets rolling, they realize it’s pointless to hold back. In the two decades I’ve been doing this, my enthusiasm for it just keeps growing. It’s a unique way to get to know someone, even someone I already know well. Seldom do we get beyond people’s public selves.

But with this exercise, we learn not simply what happened to others, we hear the echoes they hear. We discover how they put themselves together, how they create meaning out of fact and emotion. We’re with them in the groping and questing — the turmoil of making life matter.

It’s an exercise in the paradox of equality — how it’s the opposite of “sameness.” As we gain a sense of one another’s uniqueness, we grow in acceptance of each other as equal at some core level. In the welter of differences, the obvious differences — such as age — simply cease to matter. The kids, for instance, always participated (at least until they turned into teen-agers).

Thus, an evening’s shared years will include one person’s joy at being “10 years cancer-free.” Another will talk about his throat operation, another the out-of-town conference she attended (“first time away from my kid overnight”). And into the mix will be an item like this (from my daughter’s list when she was 5): “Great America with Daddy, Amanda and Mommy. It was so much fun when we went on the water rides and got soaked.”

How simple it is to share our lives. Nothing more is necessary. It’s the human condition, and we’re all in on it.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at
© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

One response to “Peeling Back Time

  1. Beautiful. New Years to me is a sacred holiday, and free from the demands of Christmas.

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