Happy New Year

Falling Awake: So, a new year begins

January feels more long-awaited than other months because it is. 

In December I just feel — anxious. Christmas, for a lot of us, means family, friends, food, everything right about the season. But now that we launch into it a week before Thanksgiving, are they enough to sustain all of it? As the month passes, it becomes more of a mood, an emotional one. And by New Year’s, I’ve pretty much run the span of my emotional reserve.

Not only that, twice in December I woke in the middle of the night after having the same dream where I am standing at the edge of a canyon, and with my hands pressed against my ears I yell, “Stop!” at the top of my lungs.

Now, when my husband thrashes from a dream, I immediately wake. But he doesn’t, typically, when I have one, but this time he does. “You were crying,” I hear him whisper.

I laid there in sort of an altered state — roughly three-quarters me, or maybe only a half — until the dream let up. How could it be that I didn’t hear myself cry?

“Everything all right?” he said. “Or did you read ‘Time’ in bed again?” Which made me smile. I rolled over. I felt his body move to accommodate my turning over. I reached for my robe and walked into the living room.

I thought more about tears, how our eyes are actually cleansing themselves of irritants. I sighed, not wanting to sound ridiculous, even to myself, but still, you’d think crying might want to seek a higher feat and flush out some of this fear.

I’m telling you this because, yes, I do read “Time Magazine” in bed. As a gift to my psyche, I cancelled the cable. And because I work at my laptop, I don’t want to read my news online. Any other place is better at the end of my day. Anything to get up and stretch and walk around and take in the world that is not on a screen. The 2022-me still reads as many books as she can but only one fact-checked news source of serious journalism a week, balanced by Saturday Night Live, especially the opening scenes. Anymore is deliberately succumbing to another nosedive, and I don’t want to spend that much time being down anymore.

And on this night I’d read an in-depth piece about Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistle-blower (I prefer integrity-keeper) who is the kind of articulate woman who compels you to listen. Which I did. I listened closely, her findings stressing truths within truths within truths. It was the first piece of writing on the whole Facebook mess — because it is a mess and should be one, and (hopefully) a crackdown on big tech and their sneaky, manipulative practices, yes, a muddied, complicated mess — that cleared up questions I didn’t have answers for yet.

Haugen studied what was happening during our last election and in countries like Ethiopia and India, about “engagement-based ranking” — commonly known as the algorithm — that chooses which posts to rank at the top of a user’s feed. But it was Haugen’s argument about human nature that really drew me in, that this system of ranking is doomed to exaggerate the worst in us. She warns us (without prophesying, which is really hard to do) that one of the most dangerous things about engagement-based ranking is that it is much easier to inspire someone to hate than it is to inspire compassion and empathy. “And given that the internet tends to amplify the most extreme content, we are going to see more and more people who, for example, think it’s okay, even right, to hate and be violent. And that destabilizes societies.”

It was like reading my worst fears all over the page. I felt as though I could not breathe.

This is not whistle-blowing; it’s turning noisy data into something cohesive to understand. If anything, it reflects ourselves back at ourselves, exposes how easy it is to con us, how culpable we are, how crazy it is to trust these new Mad Men in hoodies.

The other dream — and this is a relief — had more to do with how many times since Thanksgiving I found myself scarfing down another piece of pumpkin pie because once I learned how to make one, I just couldn’t STOP! Why, I wondered, had I convinced myself baking was so hard? Pumpkin. Milk. Sugar. Eggs. Easy. And, oh, compared to writing, do I ever mean easy.

Anyway, my sister, who is an R.N., swears that tears do cleanse us emotionally. And she is very opinionated, my sister, nothing at all like me, so when she said she absolutely knows this to be true, I knew enough not to object. I offered only a smile. But we know each other so well, it’s as if she could tell it was a doubtful smile.

But I’ve started to like the idea that this cleansing in sleep (and, admittedly, in waking hours when necessary) will help offset the fear I have of becoming re-addicted to sweets, and just how right Haugen is.