The turning of the year is one of the great markers. Time runs out on one period and begins anew on a next one. Memory and anticipation meet.
Observing an old ritual, I pull out my thumb-worn appointment book and flip through the soiled pages to recall what 2004 was made of. Going back to last January, the notations fill me with surprise. Could it have been almost a year since that sweet night at the opera? How did all those morning meetings come to so little? Why was I traveling so much?
To glimpse my life whole, week by week, is to recapitulate one of the year's great feelings -- which was, alas, of being harried. I recognize myself anew as a man at the mercy of this very book. Yet now, its blank places are what leap out at me, the unscheduled hours and days, intervals of home and intimacy of which there was no need, week by week, to be reminded.
In the public realm, the year just past was passionate. The misbegotten war revealed itself explosively, especially at year's end, but it had already turned the unfolding presidential election into the meaning by which, for many, hope itself was measured.
In Boston, the impossibilities of politics were defined by the counter-drama of baseball. After the World Series, Red Sox fans had to reinvent their understanding of themselves; a people doomed no longer. Such reordering of self-image was a positive version of the negative task with which, after the election, many Americans were then charged -- citizens facing the truth of their status as passengers on a death ship whose course was set without them.
2004 will be remembered not least as the year when the tragedy of Iraq showed itself fully for what it was, and when, nevertheless, those responsible for this catastrophe were recommissioned by voters to carry on.
I confess that, looking back on this recent American past, I find myself deeply saddened. If that note seems unduly grave, or partisan, for this festive week, apologies. In truth, few Americans seem happy with what we are becoming. The expansive sense of historic open-endedness, so palpable across all political divides a mere five years ago, as the year 2000 was dawning, has been replaced by a national claustrophobia, with the growing suspicion that we are hedged in by walls of our own creation.
Yes, fear and a sense of victimhood understandably stalked us in 2001, but instead of shaking those alien feelings off, we used them to construct an emergency garrison, from which we take aim at others, but which, also, is turning out to be our self-made brig.
Iraq, above all, is our prison, the place where America has taken its own self hostage. Thousands and thousands of men, women, and children who meant us no harm are now dead because of our striking out so blindly. And many more are living on the edge of disaster. But we Americans, too, are victims of our mistake. It is not only that options in Iraq seem so limited (How, exactly, do we get out? Well, by getting out), but also that the deathtrap of that war has come to define a vast shrinking of possibility, as the shape of our new century begins to actually show itself.
Only five years ago, the uncharted future was spread before us. We were an optimistic and confident people. Our firm membership in the global community was as clear as the televised sequence of midnight celebrations -- Sydney, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Delhi, Johannesburg, Paris -- that circled the earth at the glorious millennium. Watching that rotation on an axis of joy, the only "homeland" we wanted was the very planet, and our "security" was everyone's. The human family was never more aware of itself than that night, and we Americans were never more a part of it.
But this year, what a lonely nation we have become. And to how many fewer peoples are we the tribune of hope. How like exile is our "homeland," and what is "security" if it depends on suspicion of those who are unlike us?
The point of the New Year, traditionally, is to leave such brooding behind, but this broadly felt emotional weight is a warning that great things are at stake in America's argument with itself. Equally, it is a summons to resolution -- New Year's resolution -- to do nothing less, at last, than say no to the war in a way that will be heard.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. His most recent book is "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War."
© 2004 Boston Globe