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The Allure of Starting Fresh

We all want to turn the page to the new, but what if this magical thinking is better kept in check?

stop and smell the flowers
Starting fresh is just a mirage that leaves us thirsting for more.

It's the morning of New Year's Eve, and I have just spent the past four hours steaming the clothes in my closet. It is, of course, 2020, and my need to wear a blouse, blazer, or trouser has greatly diminished. I'm not sure why the closet clean out was needed today, but all I know is that it was. Maybe it was a longing to revisit the past relics of a life outside these home walls? Maybe it was in avoidance of more pressing tasks like that stack of papers waiting for me in the new year? But I think, really, I was simply craving a fresh start.

A Fresh Start

A fresh start. The eve of the new year of 2021 has us all thinking about putting this year behind us and starting fresh. It seems natural and innocuous enough to crave this, but today, as my hand moved the steam up and down and side to side, I began to wonder if a fresh start should be met with nuance and even a bit of caution.

“I began to wonder if a fresh start should be met with nuance and even a bit of caution"

You see, my mother-in-law has been living with us since this fall, and even though we have shared living space before, this year feels different. The ever-present home time, the lack of outside activities and distractions, of even private work and private parenting choices have revealed to anyone in my home--mother-in-law included-- all the mistakes and messiness that I have always tried so hard to keep under wraps. But the pandemic brought with it too much time, too much life, to maintain a level of grace and beauty that I had always preferred others to see. How I long for a do-over, somewhere or someone who doesn't know how angry you can get at times or sad or how much you swear around your kids. (Why else would I even need to swear if not because of my kids, I ask?)

My mind scans for solutions. Maybe divorce? Then I could start fresh with a new mother-in-law? But I love my husband and his mom. Hmm... Of course this is not how this works. But how many of us, maybe unknowingly, are drawn to that allure. Like a mirage, we unconsciously walk toward these dangerous tricks of the eye. We think that a new home or a new town or a new spouse or a new job will be what just we need, and so we begin to look for change as the uncomfortable messiness of real life sets in.

"How I long for a do-over. Somewhere or someone who doesn't know how angry you can get at times or sad or how much you swear around your kids."

I look at my two dogs curled up at my feet: our pandemic puppy and our fifteen-year old shorkie. Steven Greig, animal rescuer and author of the children's book The One & Only Wolfgang, famously tracks on his Instagram his adoption and caring for the unwanted senior animals with health problems like incontinence and heart issues. Greig explains that he looks for "the dogs that were getting overlooked but still had so much life yet to give." How did these old dogs come to the shelters to begin with? It's not too difficult to imagine. The pandemic puppy arrives; the old dog acts up or health fails. With dog messes everywhere, soon you don't want to deal with the old problem anymore. Now it's simpler, and you can just count down the days until you rip out the carpet, rather than keep trying to clean the spot or live with the stain.

Then again, kids don't let you start fresh either. I don't know how many times since the "honeymoon" of those first weeks of quarantine, where we all got along and played board games with fresh banana bread in hand, that I have felt the failure of ruining my kids.

Too much screen time, too few activities, delayed vacations, awkward video calls with extended family, family fights-- what have I unintentionally given my children this year? But I can't reverse time or take things back or leave. It's not like that fresh start in a new town where you can leave your old self--your flawed self-- behind.

Instead, this day your kids will yet again need to be reminded at dinner to sit down or stop fighting and eat another bite of vegetables and take the plate to the counter, as your mother-in-law sees your imperfections because you are too tired and too exposed to keep up appearances. Isn't that the cost of the gift of hospitality? Of relationships? Of love?

One Day Wonder

After college graduation, filled with excitement and motivation and plans and ambitions and a theatre degree, I remember I had this glimmer of a script idea in my head-- "One Day Wonder." Different characters-- a woman, a man, young, old, all sorts-- who would begin each day "fresh with no mistakes," as Anne of Green Gables would say. But then they, each in their own way, would mess up. Maybe it was that chocolate bar or snooze button or argument or anger or fear or just plain exhaustion that got in the way of the morning run or the yoga or that call to ask for a first date or the job interview. Whatever the reason, they still kept alive the hope of that One Day Wonder, that magical day where everything falls into place and it all felt as it should. My twenty-something self dreamed of that; now, all these years later, I wonder if that One Day is even possible? Would you even want it, and how much of the challenge of life is to live all the other days where it is not a fresh start where you can live your One Day Wonder of perfection.

If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be a pleasant shelter for Jesus. -St. Therese of Lisieux

Inherently, we are drawn to this clean freshness. After all, our baptismal promise is that the "Lord Jesus Christ has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit." Psalm 51 cries out, "Create in me a clean heart, O God," and in churches each week we confess our sins and seek Holy Absolution. Yet nineteenth century Saint Therese "The Little Flower" of Lisieux counseled her sister, "If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be a pleasant shelter for Jesus. Even today theologian and Franciscan monk Richard Rohr provides a meditation for just this thing. Is it our ego? And so the battle continues.

Sometimes you just can't start fresh.

When You Can't Start Fresh

So how do we move forward when we don't get the clean, fresh start we crave.

1. Forgive

As a mother who swears around her kids more than I should, I can look at these moments as opportunity to model forgiving myself and those around me. I can reframe the situation, "my daughter didn't understand how she hurt my feelings. Swearing doesn't define me as a mother." I then can ask others for forgiveness and forgive myself.

2. Heal

Just like a wound on your body, let it be. Don't pick it and revisit it over and over again, pulling off that scab. Remember that opportunity for change exists and keep hope.

3. Sit in the uncomfortable place

But we need to realize that it will be uncomfortable as we heal. Just like with skin, it might itch or get ripped open and bleed. It might feel tender and easily bruise again. Healing is an uncomfortable process. After my emergency appendix surgery last March, months later I still had sporadic moments of a twinge of sensation as the deep healing continued. And of course, there are still scars.

4. Create new positive moments

The negative moments can be overshadowed with new ones or even with elevating the old ones you all loved. Look through old pictures, tell fun stories of the past, and plan and create new memories. When you are in the problem, the problem is the focus. Refocus by creating anew.

5. Pruning and curating might be necessary

As I steam my clothes, I noticed how I haven't worn some of these all year. They don't serve me anymore. They aren't the ones that feel most like me, and so I'm going to let them go. It doesn't mean that there isn't anything wrong, but removing the things that no longer serve me allows the other stronger elements to shine through.

I am not starting 2021 fresh. It is not a "new year, new you," despite what my magazines have always preached. This is grace. The grace you give to yourself, the grace you give to others, the Grace God's given to us all. The steamer's path was trying to show me all this time-- up, down, side to side-- the cross. The mistakes, the sacrifice, the pain, the promise, the love.

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