About 20 years ago, while living in the Highlands of Scotland, we used to celebrate an old, but still prevalent, New Year’s tradition known as “first-footing.” This involves having a dark-haired person (generally male, but, in modern times, this is not strictly followed) entering the house as the first guest on New Year’s Day with some gifts that bring good luck — e.g. a piece of coal, a silver coin, salt, a bit of whiskey, an evergreen branch, a black bun, etc. The guest can be a member of the home but must not have been inside the home after midnight. And, as you might have guessed, the gifts are symbolic for financial well-being, warmth, food, happiness, etc.

I remember waiting, with everyone else in our home, for that first knock on the door and that first foot to come over the threshold. The air would practically crackle with a rising anticipation made up of palpable excitement and breathy nervousness. We would nurse our morning tea slowly, peer out at wintry, deserted streets from behind sheer curtains, and comment on whether various neighbors’ homes had or had not been first-footed. Many of them would have arranged for the right person to do the honors to prevent any mishaps or bad luck entering their homes. Finally, after our own carefully-chosen guest stepped over our threshold, before any words could be exchanged, the gifts would be placed ceremoniously in the fireplace — a modified ritual, I suppose, of sacrificial offerings to the gods of old. Only then would we all sit down, with our bearer of good luck and fortune, to a substantial New Year’s breakfast (well, at least, those of us who weren’t too badly hung over from the previous night’s excesses).

This tradition of first-footing originates from a very old European superstition that whatever happens at the beginning of the year determines your luck. And likely, similar traditions abound in various cultures — that of strangers bearing gifts that bring either good or bad luck on a household.

Most of us can never quite give up on this kind of hopeful thinking whether we refer to it as “changing tides” or “making your own luck.” The basis of all these kinds of hopes is the one central belief that we can, indeed, begin again. That, no matter what we’ve been through, it is possible to pick up again and head in a new direction and, eventually, make good.

At the beginning of each new year, many of us have our personal rituals and traditions to help us to look ahead and articulate a few desires, hopes, and wishes to ourselves and, perhaps, our loved ones. For some, this may be a quiet contemplation while, for others, this might involve something more elaborate like the above Scottish tradition. Then there are those for whom the thoughts of beginning again are really more like past regrets clothed as future wishes — things they wish they could undo or redo. We all have these thoughts. And this is the crux of today’s poem. Yet, for all that sadness, it is a lovely poem because it paints pictures of possibilities.

A few words about the poet. Louisa Fletcher was born in the late-19th century. She is mostly known as the first wife of Booth Tarkington, award-winning author and dramatist. Tark, as he was known, was also an inveterate alcoholic. While this did not stop him from producing his masterpieces, ‘The Magnificent Ambersons‘ and ‘Alice Adams‘, both of which won Pulitzers and were made into popular movies in the early-20th century, it did make his marriages difficult, particularly the first one.

Louisa and Tarkington married in 1902. Within her own family, she was nicknamed “Abbess” and was quite the budding dramatist and author/poet herself. In 1906, she gave birth to their daughter, Laurel, and, it seems, the marriage took a darker turn. In 1911, the couple divorced, with the 5-year-old daughter staying with her mother.

In 1915, Louisa married Willard Connely, a New York newspaperman and, eventually, biographer. All along, she kept having poems and stories published in magazines like Harper’s, Scribner’s, the Cosmopolitan, the Metropolitan, etc.

It is reported that Laurel, the daughter, was schizophrenic and this led to her death or suicide at age 16. From this grief, Louisa wrote this particular poem. A year or so later, she also died. The poem, which first appeared in Harper’s, was eventually published in a collection titled the same. It is a wide-ranging set of poems and there are several that muse on love and grief. There are dashes of brilliance here and there, but, overall, it is, mostly, a mediocre selection. Except for this poem, which is her most well-known.

The opening thought of being able to let go of our mistakes, heartaches, grief, misgivings, etc., as we might shed a “shabby old coat” is interesting. In using an outer piece of clothing to symbolize these regret-filled memories of things we wish we had or hadn’t done, she also implies that they are somehow visible to or perceived by all who know and see us. Our coats are, of course, what others notice first about our appearances. Invariably, also, opinions of our place in the world is based on these initial outward appearances. That she uses words like “old” and “shabby” to further describe the coat implies how well-worn and longstanding some of these memories tend to be — we carry them with us long beyond they can serve any useful purpose.

I love how Fletcher then describes wanting to come upon this imaginary land quite without knowing it. She wants us to discover it, be surprised pleasantly by it, rather than resolutely searching or seeking for it. To me, this sentiment alludes to the element of luck, further reinforced by her analogy of a hunter stumbling onto a lost trail. I’m also glad that she did not succumb to the easy opportunity of turning this into a didactic, preaching moment as many poets of her time often did.

Then she goes on to wish that, at the gates of this magical place, there is someone waiting for us — the person who we might have hurt or harmed the most in our ignorance and blindness. But this person, rather than waiting for retribution, is waiting to greet us with love and happy expectation. She describes this person as “an old friend” and “the comrade.” It’s a nice thought because it implies that our transgressions have already been forgiven by this person. And the allusion to being welcomed at the gates of heaven is unmistakable. This is likely why the poem is often included in religious poetry anthologies. It is also not too difficult to imagine that, as this was written after her daughter’s untimely death, Fletcher’s own thoughts had, likely, turned to the spiritual and the person she imagines waiting for her is that daughter.

The next section, just before the ending reprise, is what many find hopeful when reading this poem. The ability to remember all those forgotten things we meant to get to but did not; the prescience to say the words we should have said but did not; and so on. Above all, the little things we could have done for others to make their day perfect, but did not. These are everyday regrets we all have in those rare and tiny in-between moments when we might be able to reflect, but not to go back and redress. Fletcher knows this, which is why she muses on all of this happening in this invented land rather than in our everyday world.

How should we interpret this poem? There’s the idealistic way that many have chosen to read it: as a hopeful expression of a universal desire and ability to undo or re-do the bad in our lives; that it is possible to shed that old, shabby coat for good. Then there’s the more realistic interpretation that this is only possible in some magical, mystical new, other world; that the old, shabby coat is ours to own and wear for good, at least, in this world. Or, perhaps, we could allow the poem to remind us that “done” cannot be made “undone” in this world. So, given that we cannot shed that shabby old coat of regretful memories, we might want to take good care of our actions to avoid such memories entirely.

The beginning few lines are reprised at the end as well, which gives this short poem its strong rhythm. No doubt, this is also what inspired the adaptation into a more hopeful-sounding song (see lyrics further below) for the movie, ‘The Bells of St Mary’s’, with Bing Crosby singing it. Still, though the changed lyrics are rather more optimistic than Fletcher intended, and Crosby renders them beautifully,  I prefer the original sentiments of the 100-year-old poem. Don’t you? So, for me, as the New Year approaches, it does not bring any fantastical promises of being able to put the past to right. But it does give pause for thought that we have another shot at ensuring a better future if we’re mindful of our “shabby old coats.”

[UPDATE Dec 29, 2013: There was a great radio show today on NPR’s ‘To the Best of Our Knowledge’ called ‘Begin Again‘ — a collection of stories of people starting again, of transformations. Worth a listen.]

The Land of Beginning Again

I wish that there were some wonderful place
In the Land of Beginning Again.
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
And all of our poor selfish grief
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door
and never put on again.
I wish we could come on it all unaware,
Like the hunter who finds a lost trail;
And I wish that the one whom our blindness had done
The greatest injustice of all
Could be there at the gates
like an old friend that waits
For the comrade he’s gladdest to hail.
We would find all the things we intended to do
But forgot, and remembered too late,
Little praises unspoken, little promises broken,
And all the thousand and one
Little duties neglected that might have perfected
The day for one less fortunate.
It wouldn’t be possible not to be kind
In the Land of Beginning Again,
And the ones we misjudged
and the ones whom we grudged
their moments of victory here,
Would find in the grasp of our loving hand-clasp
More than penitent lips could explain…
So I wish that there were some wonderful place
Called the Land of Beginning Again,
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches,
And all of our poor selfish grief
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door
And never put on again.

— By Louisa Fletcher from ‘The Land of Beginning Again

In the Land of Beginning Again

(Bing Crosby song from the movie, ‘The Bells of St Mary’s’)

There’s a land of beginning again
Where skies are always blue
Though we’ve made mistakes, that’s true
Let’s forget the past and start life anew
Though we wander by a river of tears
Where sunshine won’t come through
Let’s find that paradise where sorrow can’t live
And learn the teachings of forget and forgive
In the land of beginning again
Where broken dreams come true

There’s a land of beginning again
Where skies are always blue
Though we’ve made mistakes, that’s true
Let’s forget the past and start life anew
Though we wander by a river of tears
Where sunshine won’t come through
Let’s find that paradise where sorrow can’t live
And learn the teachings of forget and forgive
In the land of beginning again
Where broken dreams come true

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