The day after New Year’s Day

The Swedish diplomat and writer Dag Hammarskjöld is famous for the manner and timing of his death. In 1961, Hammarskjöld became the only UN Secretary-General to be killed in office, on his way to negotiate a ceasefire in what was then Northern Rhodesia. He was also a diarist, and his only published book (Vägmärken, usually known as Markings in English)[1] is constructed from diary entries, from the volumes that he kept from the age of twenty right up until his death. He wrote the following line, a version of which was used by Dr. Rowan Williams as the title of a book:

For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, Yes!

Garden Naturalist and I spent the afternoon of the day after New Year’s Day pruning our dead tree. The dead tree is about sixty feet from the house, and at first glance does not appear to be dead, because it acts like a frame for a monstrous rambling rose and a clematis montana. Both have grown to massive proportions and when they bloom, the entire collaboration is a temple of pink and white flowers that can be seen from the other side of the valley. Nevertheless, the tree is most definitely dead, and has been for some time. We agreed that the time had finally come to chop down as much of it as possible before it either fell down or took over the garden completely (recall the Royal Rambler in Noggin the Nog, which I believe consumed an entire house). We cut off as many branches as we could reach, resulting in an enormous pile of wood; another enormous pile of spiky rose-twigs; and a third and most enormous pile of dead clematis. We both worked hard, bleeding in a dozen places from shallow cuts and nicks, at opposite ends of the garden: Garden Naturalist up a ladder with loppers, I by the house with a selection of saws, hacking the largest pieces into useful lengths to go on the fire.

The story I wish to tell here is as follows. A few minutes after we came into the house, laden with logs and twigs and flushed with the cold, we had a telephone call that resulted in us spending the remains of the day in a car and then a hospital, and then, after witnessing a mercifully brief but very courageous struggle with death, a car and a strange bed. Secondly, three weeks earlier, we had finally made the decision to end our marriage. It is testament to how much we still care for each other that we were capable of handling the intervening weeks; Christmas Day; New Year’s Day; and then, on the day I am talking about here, a large and symbolically irritating task of repetitive physical labour. Married readers will know that, in the darker moments, a marriage can feel like little more than that. Then, the tense, twilit drive; the hospital; and the aftermath of all that it brought, supporting and holding each other the whole time. I had been thinking about endings and beginnings and decisions and difficult choices for a few days (as per my introspective teenaged self: ‘I might be forgiven for beginning with several observations regarding the past year’. See He had his thingy in my ear at the time). I made a new and shiny resolution to be a more committed friend (to Garden Naturalist, of course, but to everyone else as well) and felt terribly brave and optimistic, as one does when everything one intends to change is safely inside one’s own head. The lesson for me here, which is what I want to share, is this: love can be changed, lost and found again, and still be love. People can change, leave us and not return, and yet still be people that we love and miss. Of course neither the love nor the person is the same, but we should not need them to be. What I am talking about here, therefore, is not New Year’s Day, but the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that: the days on which one has to follow through. For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes.

[1] As Jane says below in the comments, ‘markings’ isn’t necessarily the best translation of vägmärken. Hammarskjöld’s English publishers may wish to consider ‘road-markings’ or ‘signposts’ as titles for future editions.

3 thoughts on “The day after New Year’s Day

  1. janeishly April 8, 2018 / 8:18 pm

    I have days along those lines – though fortunately not always ending with someone dying – quite often.

    On a slightly less gloomy note, “Vägmarken” is something I’ve been translating liberally today in a set of specifications for a major new road infrastructure project in Sweden. And not as “Markings”, either – even in my context it’s “Road signs”, so I’d be inclined to use something slightly more poetical like “Signposts”.

    • literacystrumpet April 9, 2018 / 10:39 am

      Thanks so much, Jane – I’ll fix that. What I meant was that the English translations of the book call it ‘Markings’, but you’re right that ‘Signposts’ is very much prettier and more specific.

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