The end of the year teaches us about letting go and renewal, if we let it.
As a child, I thought December was winter, and that winter meant the end of the year. Having grown up in the suburbs of Chicago, I knew gray Januaries and bleak Februaries that felt like the longest, rather than the shortest, months, and I guess if anyone asked me what season we were in before the Vernal Equinox I would have known to say winter.
But for much of my childhood, “winter” really meant Christmas, my birthday, my dad’s birthday, my foster-brother’s birthday, my best friend’s birthday, the first snow days off from school — and all of that happened in December. Throughout my life December, even with all its association with endings, was the month I looked forward to all year long.
As an adult, I’ve been working toward a lifestyle where I could take almost the entire month of December off from active client work and use it for quiet work: reflection, strategic review and revision, planning, reading, writing, and so on. From Thanksgiving until about the second or third week in January is functionally dead space in the business calendar anyway: people are more distracted, more away from their desks, more and more ready for the holidays and the new year.
And this has been the most true in 2020, the year of the covid-19 pandemic: the world is collectively looking forward to 2021 like it’s a locked treasure chest glowing with possibilities and we can just begin to see the golden light breaking through the keyhole.
Now that I’ve had almost this entire month “off” from my more client-centered work to spend basking in that quiet reflection and strategy and planning, I find, well, I could use a little more work. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to try it my way, and I think it will remain a quieter month. But in the last few years there has always been at least one last speaking engagement and one final business trip that falls in December: in 2018, it was Amsterdam, to speak for the Amsterdam Economic Board’s annual meeting. In 2019, it was Madrid, to lead a panel on technology at the United Nations COP25 Climate Change Summit. The jobs themselves were highlights, and it didn’t hurt one bit that Amsterdam and Madrid are both cities that transform to sparkling holiday wonderlands in December. And then, too, in 2018, my husband and I decided to extend the Amsterdam trip and take the train to Brussels for a night and then to Paris for a few nights. We soaked up the Christmas lights, night markets, and festive seasonal treats in all three cities, returning home to our own sparkling wonderland of New York City for my birthday and the rest of the holidays.
But this year, although we’re here in New York City, it has been harder to soak up the sparkle of the season. We did get a lovely and unexpected 6” snowfall that made for a breathtaking morning of tromping around in fresh powder at Central Park: an irreplaceable memory, and neither wearing a mask nor socially distancing from others could diminish its magic.
But the saga of this year’s Rockefeller Center tree seemed to sum up the year perfectly: when it was photographed after transport to the city from upstate, it looked like a 75’ version of Charlie Brown’s limp tree. Many of us recognized our souls in that bedraggled tree.
It cleaned up fine, though, as will the rest of us who survive this year. I know a bit about what survival and moving forward look like, already, having lost the great love of my first husband to suicide, as well as my father to cancer, five beloved cats over the years, many friends and relatives, too many opportunities to keep track of, and countless cherished objects. Life is loss, and I mean that in the least morose way possible. We can’t keep any of it in the end, so it behooves us to learn about letting go.
If we let it, the whole month of December teaches us about letting go, about transformation, and about recognizing beauty amid settings that at first seem bleak. Outside, all the deciduous leaves have long since fallen, and there is rarely much snow to dress up the barren things and make them pretty. Where we have been accustomed to greens and pops of color, too much of everything becomes brown and gray. In the city, especially, this heightens the impression of a desaturated monochrome landscape, and this combined with the shortening days can really do a number on your outlook.
But right about then, the twinkle lights begin to appear on the barren trees, and the smell of chestnuts from the street vendors, and the festive store windows, and suddenly you remember that the gray-and-brown season is actually the magical season, that the beauty you were waiting for is best set off by the stark, bare minimalism of December’s early gloom.
By the time we get to late December, it is indeed an ending, according to the calendar, and I guess I’ve always had a fascination with endings: the ones that are truly just endings, as well as the ones that are followed by fresh new beginnings. One of my favorite quotes was shared with me by a friend and attributed to Neil Gaiman: “The difference between comedy and tragedy is where you stop telling the story.” But life isn’t just cycles of comedy and tragedy, of bleakness and beauty: the trick is to see the comedy and the beauty no matter what.
Late December is palpably the turning point before something else, something we sense is better, bigger, more in line with our imagined lives. So while there’s no more fertile time for dreaming your new year into a vision, this ending also reminds us to appreciate the goodness that exists even amid the unplanned, the difficult, and the disappointing. What we learn to let go is important, but it’s what we carry forward with us that shapes our lives most.
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Kate O’Neill, founder of KO Insights, is an author and speaker focused on helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future, and making technology better for business and for humans. Her work explores digital transformation from a human-centric approach, as well as how data and technology are shaping the future of meaningful human experiences. Her latest books are Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans (2018) and Pixels and Place: Connecting Human Experience Across Digital and Physical Spaces (2016).