Fresh starts, clean slates, and you.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.


Happy new year.

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last few weeks eating differently than I do most of the year. There were more cookies, more pastry, more mashed potatoes and stuffing, more candy, more cream, and more liquor than usual. There were probably fewer salads, and certainly not my usual measure of frozen berries.

Outside of my plate, there were other differences: more decorations. More jubilant music. More lights. More television specials. More wrapping paper. More shopping. More travel. More more more more of many, many things. And now as I sit at my desk, on the second day of the new year, there has been a sudden ceasing of it all. Things are quiet. Decorations are put into plain brown boxes. Even the landscape is different, transformed on Boxing Day from muddy green and brown, to a white, rather bare scene, a clean slate.

There is a lot of symbolism attached to the new year, and a lot of pressure building to transubstantiate that symbolism into action.

I have always loved this time of the year, because I, like most people, love a clean slate. It is a yearly renewing of hope, even in times that are deeply screwed-up. I crave hope, I love it, and I absolutely need it. Without hope, life may well end. And the hope of a new start brings with it a sort of pleasing purity, as though the past can be obliterated with a fresh coat of paint, or covered over with the blank paper of a turned leaf. I suddenly want to whiten my sheets, mop the floors, scrub the bathtub. I want to wash my face with something that promises me a new one. And, like a lot of people, I want my nice, crisp, clean salad back on my plate.

Humans being what they are, omnivorous seekers after variety, I think it is natural for us to crave, after a period of sensory indulgence, a sort of purifying restraint. I don’t necessarily think this is a negative thing, though it can, like anything, be taken to destructive extremes.

This impulse, I believe, is so common that marketers and product makers seized on it long ago, and have used it to drive sales of various purifying foods, devices, and ideas. You can (allegedly) scrub out your intestines with a cleanse or a fast, you can purchase a cool, precise bathroom scale to measure your progress toward a purer existence, unencumbered by the smelly inconvenient demands of heavy corporeality, you can buy a diet book that encourages you to purge your cupboards of toxic, processed, messy, fattening foods and replace them with clean, wholesome, unprocessed, sanctified super-foods, and you can take the aspirational grocery shopping trip that will achieve this (and deal with the inevitable fridge full of rotting produce that results when the lustre of purity has been dulled by the messy demands of daily life.)

In turn, these products promising a fresh start have reinforced the impulse toward restraint in the new year, and ingratiated themselves into that natural impulse to become almost official rites. The popular custom of new year’s dieting is an example of the impulse capitalized upon and expanded into a collective tradition, heavy on religious and moral symbolism, but expressed in reassuringly crisp scientific prose, complete with numerical, damn near economic, accounting mechanisms.

They allow you to reimagine yourself not as an animal who lives and dies, eats and shits, who is lustful and afraid, full of inconveniently dark and unknowable recesses, both physical and psychological, but rather as a modern biochemical machine, a neatly-labeled schematic on white paper whose mysteries are laid bare, housing a ghost of pure spirit and light who condescends to eat only as an impatient concession to physical necessity, and who therefore dines on distilled biochemistry garnished with the most forward-thinking evolutionary rationalizations.

By March, it will all be over.

All I’m saying is, be careful out there. Enjoy your sense of new beginnings, follow your cravings for foods that provide a bracing contrast to what you’ve recently been glutted with, but be reluctant to deny your humanness in the process.

It is, after all, what you will come home to in the end.


Ritual purification in comments.

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