As a somewhat traditional Appalachian woman, I cooked collard greens, black-eyed peas, and pork roast and cornbread with cracklings for the New Year's Day dinner meal. And because I'm a sign-and omen-reader from way back, I've been reading those subtle and not-so-subtle natural visions since the day after Christmas. It's gotten me thinking about some of the things I want to set up for the new calendar year and I thought to share them with you here.
We always feel like the fireworks that scare the dogs on New Year's Eve mark a big shift from one time to another, making it a powerfully liminal time and one to which we should always pay some attention. But we set so much stock on how that magical change will make our lives (and ourselves!) better that we are inevitably disappointed in the ways we didn't live up to our great expectations of ourselves and the world around us.
It's too bad to start off this new time feeling sad and inadequate, isn't it? So here are a few ways to avoid that and to look forward to these brand-new days and weeks and months as places where you can plant seeds and grow new parts of your life. Go outside. Create or maintain a regular practice, spiritual and otherwise. Tell family stories. Hold fast to all that is good.
Try using that liminal time, the perfect gateway, to set aside the things that have become too burdensome for you. Close that magical and imaginary door behind you and leave that unreasoned fear or unwarranted guilt or toxic friendship behind it.
Get yourself outside, no matter how bad the weather. Even if you just step out onto your stoop and look into your back yard for five minutes a day, you will remember that you belong in that landscape. I write so much about the southern Highlands of the Appalachian mountains because this is where I abide, where my Ancestors have lived for many generations, and where their bones and ashes lie in the soil. We have sunny and warmish days here, even in January. It's the brisk and bright days that call to me, though. I have some stout and broken-in boots that can take me as far into the woods as I can go and there I remember who I am and where I fit.
I live in a small city, but there are woods nearby and the Blue Ridge Mountains all around me. You may live in an urban area with parks or community gardens, or in deep urban areas without much green. No matter where you live, some moments under the sky with your feet on the land will help to ground you in the world and remind you that you are a part of this complex human community and ecosystem. It can remind you of your connection, as well as your responsibility to the land and the beings that live there with you.
Create or Maintain a Regular Practice, Spiritual and Otherwise
This activity is helpful regardless of whether or not you are spiritual. Give yourself the gift of consistency, a gift that can bring you into a time out of time that is comforting as well as renewing. We too often get bogged down in making a space or creating a complicated ritual, but it doesn't need to be a complex thing. I often recommend the following to my tarot clients who need to do a hard reset. For seven days, try a quick and easy candle meditation. Find a candle—even a battery-operated one will do. Make a cup of the beverage of your choice. Set a timer for five minutes. Sit down in front of the candle with your drink. Watch the flame as you drink your beverage. Don't try to clear your mind or relax your body. Simply watch the candle flame and enjoy your tea. Five minutes later, blow out the candle, put your cup in the sink and go your way.
Here's what usually happens. For two or three days, your brain goes wild. Every tiny worry will leap up, like a trout in the creek. You sit there and let it happen. Shining, leaping fish! Brightly colored ribbons. Shadowy threatening creatures. But somewhere in the middle part of those seven days, all that palaver sinks to the bottom of your brain and the images become ones that inspire or delight you. New ideas, new projects, new possibilities replace that chaos of fish and ribbons and shadows.
Whatever your practice—yoga or wood-chopping or candle-gazing—you will be sustained by the sense of solidity, of groundedness, as you make your way through this new year.
Tell Family Stories, with Style
People who know me will assure you that I am that bothersome mountain story teller that has become a stereotype of my people. Nothing wrong with that. Our personal and collective oral histories harken back to our Ancestors and allow us to create and maintain our family mythologies. You will want to choose the stories you tell, parsing through the grief and hardship that is hard for you to tell or for listeners to bear. And "family" isn't only your family of origin, but also includes the chosen family many of us have added to our kinship rolls as the years have passed.
Americans spend far too much time letting TV entertain us—a medium that requires a strange passivity from its audience. Change the paradigm! Tell a funny story about your school days or the time your grandmother ruined her knees doing the Charleston in a barn. Share the tale of when your child took her first steps while listening to a drunken Irish band. You may think you don't have the gift but with practice, you will get good at it. And for those of you who are shy or feel tongue-tied, try writing the stories out and sending them to your friends and family. Little histories are also important histories.
Hold Fast to All That Is Good
Social media is full of inspiring memes about gratitude that we read and sometimes share. Another way to think about gratitude is to acknowledge the kindness and generosity around you, to take it in and cherish it. In addition to Appalachian culture, in my new book Roots, Branches, and Spirits, I also write about the importance of true community. We are in a period in our cultural history that I refer to as "Tower Time," and our struggles and challenges in the last year have affected us in ways we know but also in ways that have yet to surface for many of us. One of the things that has sustained us has been the courage and strength of healthcare professionals, teachers, store clerks, and others. As the year rolled over us, we kept finding pockets of resilience and strength that we didn't know we had. We have seen our neighbors behave in ways that surprised us, for good or ill. Mutual aid societies have sprung up and neighborhoods have become "bubbles" of support, and inspiration. Holding on to the shards of goodness in ourselves and others can bring us a supply of sweet energy and the possibility of betterment for all of us and our descendants.
Make this year a good one by being true to yourself, by loving the good land, by doing your bit to weave a sturdy community. You will not be alone in this for you will be joined across time and space by other strong, good-hearted people who see the same visions as you. And you will be supported by the Ancestors whose dearest wish is that you help to do what they had to leave undone.