“And now we welcome the New Year, full of things that have never been.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke
When we first moved to Waco and I was itching to get myself in a classroom, I jumped on the chance to teach an adult ESL class at a local church. My first moments as a real teacher (a real teacher, with responsibilities and authority) were as a 22-year-old trying to teach English to a group of Spanish-speaking adults twice my age. For those first few months, I think they mostly humored me.
In the couple of years that I taught this class, I watched women arrive night after night never changing their handbag once. It was the same bag, year in and year out. One woman faithfully carried her pink zebra-striped tote bag so long that the cloth straps became ragged enough that you wouldn’t even think they were cloth anymore. Grey with grease, the white in-between the pink stripes was beyond saving. It was like this with all the women and their bags.
The bags served their purpose, but they also became synonymous with each individual woman. If I arrived to class and a woman was still dropping her children off at the nursery, I would know she was coming just by the sight of her bag at the table. From behind, I would recognize her at the grocery store just by seeing her bag from a distance. The bag started conversations, held treasures, and seemed to always have an endless supply of those essentials you find exclusively in a mother’s purse: tissues, bills, lipstick, cough drops, matchbox cars, pens, old receipts.
I could recognize them by what the nineteenth-century writer John Bunyan would call their bundle of burdens.
* * *
So many people choose “one word” to define their New Year in lieu of resolutions. They choose beautiful, loaded words like “rest,” “fearless,” “abide,” or “purpose”—the possibilities are endless. I love this idea so much better than resolutions because it lets you resolve to embrace a concept, not necessarily to methodically change a behavior. It’s slightly unmeasurable, too—something that makes this right-brained lady happy.
But when I’ve tried to pick “one word” before, I end up changing it halfway through February. It takes me at least until January tenth to even choose a word. And although I love the idea of one word to rule the year, I’m a little ashamed to admit that it just doesn’t work for me. Some would say it offers a supreme sense of focus (I admit: it probably does), but don’t you think an entire year lends itself to a change in focus, redirection, or revision? I’m not confident I could make one single word work for the whole year.
So this year, I’m skipping the resolutions and skipping choosing one word. I’m going for “one bag” instead, which is admittedly much, much weirder than any other New Year’s fad.
It may be really silly (and I’ll probably kick myself for making this decision later), but the symbolism of “one bag” for the year—one bundle for my burdens—fits so well with my memories of the beautiful women in that ESL class. I want to hold onto their patience, their constancy, their frugality, and their ability to value a material item for so long that it changes from object to treasured companion.
If all goes well, this bag will see me through the completion of my doctoral coursework, my comprehensive exams, my fourth year of marriage, our small group’s third year of life together, a completed dissertation proposal (God-willing), and probably all sorts of new seasons of life waiting to be discovered. Treasured companion, indeed.
Here’s the little pilgrim on one of its first days on the job: