It doesn’t matter on which day it falls or which calendar is followed, the start of a new year is a time of fresh hope, new beginnings and — hopefully — better choices.

There are many words to describe change, rejuvenation and renewal, especially when things are moving in the desired direction, which is to say from worse to better, according to the observer. We refer to such a phenomenon as a rebirth.

When the world, beginning with Europe, turned its back on the Middle Ages and embraced modernity, we named that period the Renaissance. But there are new periods of birth and of rebirth all the time. Shoots push through the topsoil, germinating and giving or acquiring new life.

The natural new year is a bear yawning and crawling out of its den. A virus, that naughty, infectious agent that can only replicate within a host organism, well, it bothers us so much because that’s its only way of replicating and therefore of renewing itself.

We know that some changes are man-induced, like the runaway warming of the planet, while others are natural and occur with little or no human input, like the happening of the season of spring. Now, spring is a polysemic word if ever there was one, but all its meanings embody that same spirit of newness and vigour in life. The word means source of fresh water. And that means life.

Indeed, there is a town in Gauteng that has many points of exit out of which groundwater from a water table flows onto the Earth’s crust and — naturally, of course — the name of that town is Springs.

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When something suddenly moves or jumps up or forward, we say it springs. That’s vigour. Spring is also a season of growth and development between winter and summer. Then there’s the coiled shock absorber waiting to be bothered for it to spring up in defence, almost like a coiled cobra waiting for you to make a move.

These all have to do with vigour and life and freshness and therefore renaissance.

The times we are living in now are a kind of regeneration in many ways because they are different from the past. Life has moved on a little further in its inexorable journey forward, towards its individual end, even as it continues in other members of your species. Now that this new year has started to spring its surprises on us, we tremble with anticipation. What is this new year, this new baby, this new job, going to be like?

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Everyone is involved in celebrating rebirth, whether it is spring, a new year,  new love, or some other beginning. And these inspire poets as much as anything else. It is when something new is being born, when flowers are raising colour from the dead, when an infant, with its first cry, validates the pledge of resurrection that poets also pay attention.

“In my jacket pocket I find / a beechnut, slightly cracked / open, somehow fallen there, / and, enfolded inside of it, / a spider that unclenches / yellow in my steaming palm–  / a spider that is / the sun.” So says the voice in Ray McNiece’s surprising poem, Winter Solstice, from his book, The Bone Orchard Conga (Poetry Alive Press, 1994).

Read more in Daily Maverick:With Earth on the killing altar, the gods are pacified with sweet but empty words

Fecundity is only one part of the equation of rebirth. Of course, there can be no newness without fecundity. Hope is another part of the equation, and hope is the reason we make resolutions at the end of each year, many of which are not kept.

Yet what a great feeling when a resolution is kept and a small rebirth is triggered.

Come to think of it, that must be where all this hope associated with the last day of December and the first one of January stems from, even though spring falls over September to November in southern Africa and has nothing to do with 31 December. But there’s a virtual newness that brings with it all the excitement that any kind of birth or rebirth is bound to bring.

I have personally never made a resolution, but I know many who do. I’m more inclined to ask “deeper” and more “meaningful” questions like: is the world getting younger with each spring, or is it getting older? It does add a wrinkle, after all, and adds 365 and a quarter days to its weight.

But that’s beside the point, it is beside the fact that everything generally moves forward and there cannot be any looking back except to remember again where and why — to put it at its mildest — we messed up.

In a poem of mine called Morning Light, the speaker talks about how he or she “headed to mum’s but dared not get her out of bed, / for the hour was ungodly. So, I called our dog / and made him chase his tail until morning, / whereupon a sun opened the eyes of all the plants / and started to untie their hands with its light, / each reaching for the nearest trumpet flower. / They played with the birds a song so soft, / your heart bloomed. My siblings came out to hear, / and upon seeing me, threw their hands in the air, / wondering how on earth I had made it back / from the life I had been living, so far from home. / ‘The folks there were taking my soul away,’ I said. / ‘And that is why I came back from the dead.’”

In Iranian culture, New Year is called Nowruz. It’s a festival that celebrates the new year according to the Persian calendar, which usually begins on 21 March, according to the Gregorian calendar.

There are celebrations, visits to family and friends and the exchange of gifts. Sound familiar? That’s what’s done in France on 31 December and in South Africa on the same date at one minute to midnight.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Mourning loved ones, weeping for lost years, writing to purge – join me on a journey in poetry

Here’s a challenge: be a snake. Snakes, especially young ones, moult and shed their skin about once a week as they continue to grow and develop. That’s because the snake grows but its skin doesn’t. My challenge to you is this, dear reader, because you grow, too, both bodily and mentally.

I challenge you to moult and shed a major nasty habit every time you’re presented with a new year. Do you drink too much? Shed that. Are you overweight and can do something about it? Shed that.

Why? Because that act of shedding is likely to bring about a rebirth faster than a mere resolution made in a smoke-filled shebeen room will do. Dana Henry Martin’s poem What Matters drives the point home: “Dry land bears water’s / channels long after water has bled or fled. / When it rains, roots decide which leaves / live, which dry out. In drought, tender / limbs spill to protect their tree. What / are we willing to shed to finally save us?”

Like trees shed leaves, an act that protects them and feeds the soil that produces their food, Martin is asking us: what do you consider important enough to really matter? Are you willing to keep your dried-out leaves or skin on yourself, or are you ready to lose the leaves or skin to grow better and not lose yourself? Now, doesn’t the year smell fresh and new? DM168

What Matters

By Dana Henry Martin

There’s a hole in our marriage larger than any human mind could override. I fritter my time pretending—the warm air your arm around my waist, the shorn grass your body’s fine hair. Mountains cling until they go to pieces. Dry land bears water’s channels long after water has bled or fled. When it rains, roots decide which leaves live, which dry out. In drought, tender limbs spill to protect their tree. What are we willing to shed to finally save us?

The air smells like next year. We shoulder must and crust forward like Sisyphus doubled. Our shared might scrapes hardpan.

Winter Solstice

By Ray McNiece

Late December grinds on down. The sky stops, slate on slate, scatters a cold light of snow across a field of brittle weeds.

Each boot step cracks a stalk. The pigments have been dragged earthwards and clasped. The groundhog curls among the roots curling.

Towards home I peel blossoms of frozen mud from my pant legs and pull off burrs that waited for wind or the flashing red fox.

In my jacket pocket I find a beechnut, slightly cracked open, somehow fallen there, and, enfolded inside of it,

a spider that unclenches yellow in my steaming palm – a spider that is the sun.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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