Sailing into the New Year

Erich Ferdinand/Flickr

Erich Ferdinand/Flickr

Everyone has their own way of ringing in the New Year, with hats and horns or raised champagne flutes – or tucked in bed, waiting for the crystal ball to drop.

My celebration is all about sending negativity down the river and mustering the courage to greet the new year with zestful enthusiasm, or at least some small hopes.

I first came across the idea many years ago at Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), a spiritual sanctuary and sculpture garden in Warwick, NY, just over the border from Waywayanda State Park. This charming New Year’s ceremony is derived from Buddhist customs with perhaps a nod to Tibetan and Thai cultures.

The Festival of the Boats, as I came to think of it, involves burdening a little vessel with slips of paper, on which you have written the woes and cares of the year past. You take it to streamside, set it afire and send it downstream, enjoying the cathartic effect of ridding yourself of all your troubles.

Well, this appealed to me enormously — I couldn’t get it out of my mind. In due course, when I moved to a property that bordered a creek, I initiated my own boat festival, on or about New Year’s, to carry on the tradition. In my version, we make little boats from brightly colored paper — origami boats — sneaking the Japanese into the cultural mix.

My guests have demonstrated unsuspected artistic talents in the decoration of their vessels. From the piles of catalogs, magazines, stickers and glitter pens I provide, they man the boats with cut-out crews, create flower-laden canopies, bend sails and pennants to their masts, apply stars and logos to their hulls.

jen/Flickr

jen/Flickr

I have been amazed — at the dexterity of their fingers, the tenacity of their work, the stretch of their imaginations. And this from people of whom you would say "No way they’d get snookered into a wacky arts-and-crafts play date." Trust me, this is the only party I throw to which people regularly invite themselves.

I have witnessed the bowed heads and busy pens of those scriveners, documenting their sorrows, gauging how many slips of paper it will take to cover the important points, eyeing the capacity of their boats to carry the several or many disappointments of their lives. I have enjoyed the sight of my friends — grown-ups, most of them — gently guiding their boats downstream with long twigs, freeing them from snares on the bank and urging them on until they burn to the waterline.

If making, decorating and launching the boats is pure play, there are always moments of lip-biting seriousness as we all confront what has caused us pain in the year just past. How to phrase it? How to get it down in just a word or two? What do we note and what do we dismiss?  

I had an urge to add a coda that would address the future so I provide everyone with a smooth stone or two to toss upstream — along with a wish for things yet to come. The inspiration came from Annie Dillard, one of my favorite writers in a genre I call rhapsodic natural history. In "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," her Pulitzer Prize-winning volume of 1985, these words of hers spoke to me:

"I look up the creek and here it comes, the future, being borne aloft as on a winding succession of laden trays. You may wake and look from the window and breathe the real air, and say, with satisfaction or with longing, ‘This is it.’

But if you look up the creek, if you look up the creek in any weather, your spirit fills, and you are saying, with an exulting rise of the lungs, ‘Here it comes!’... It is the live water and light that bears from undisclosed sources the freshest news, renewed and renewing, world without end."

Amen.

Here comes 2017, ready or not. Make it good, make shine, make it heartfelt and brave. Happy New Year, my friends.