And the new sun rose bringing the new year.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Passing of Arthur,” Idylls of the King
It’s arbitrary, of course, this designation of January 1st as New Year’s Day on the Gregorian Calendar, but it’s also unavoidable. Everywhere around us, people are gathering, celebrating, making resolutions, ringing out the old, ringing in the new.
The Jewish calendar’s Rosh Hashanah, near the Autumnal Equinox, always feels like the real New Year to me, with its time-honored rituals of renewal and return. The ancient Persian New Year, observed at the Vernal Equinox and recalled in in the Jewish and Christian celebrations of Purim and Mardi Gras, also moves me. And, like so many of my brother and sister pagans, I experience the Winter Solstice as a truly numinous moment, a time to release the past and welcome the future as the sun dies and is reborn.
This year, it’s especially meaningful to find Chanukah so close to the solstice, filling the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I’ve been lighting my candles each night with particular pleasure. Yet I’m happy, too, to join the rituals associated with the secular, popular New Year. In my view, there can never be too many moments of renewal and return.
One year, I chose this time to finally quit smoking—freeing myself from a habit that had made me ill. Another year, I went with a group of strangers on a camping trip to a desolate, wild barrier island off the coast of Mississippi—and fell wildly in love. Years later, riding Amtrak’s Crescent to New Orleans, I met another stranger and began another life-changing relationship. Just once, I shivered in Times Square with thousands of people, waiting for the ball to drop . . . . . on another memorable evening, I joined with neighbors to watch the fireworks in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
Often, I have spent the days just before and after January 1st at a silent yoga retreat at an ashram in Virginia, going inward to find steadiness and peace. Sometimes, I just spend the evening alone at home. Tonight, I will be with my husband and a small group of friends at another yoga retreat, quietly invoking “peace and joy, love and light.”
It’s been a transformative year for me, a major turning point, and I want not to forget it. In June my mother died at the age of 94 (just on the verge of 95); and in August I made the decision to retire after 30 years of full-time college teaching (just after turning 67). I’m not sure I’ve assimilated these changes yet, come to terms with life without my mother or without my career. And so I am using this New Year’s Eve—and this FAR post—to look back, think through, and prepare to move forward.
I was with my mother at her moment of transition—and it truly felt like a transition, a “crossing over,” as some call it. She had been declining for months, but the final few weeks (after a fall and a hip fracture) were marked by an abrupt change. I had been away for 21 days, traveling for research; when I returned and told her how much I had missed her, she looked straight at me and said “You’re going to miss me even more.” We both knew what she meant . . . she had, it seemed, either made a decision or acknowledged a reality: death was imminent. And it came easily, softly, less than two weeks after she uttered those words.
As she prepared to die, refusing food, sinking into herself, I found myself inwardly and outwardly repeating the familiar, haunting chant:
And to Her we shall return,
Like a drop of rain,
Flowing to the ocean.
The words echoed through me as I felt their deep truth for the first time. I was not so much grieving as celebrating this sacred reunion. After a relative reminded me of the soothing power of Tibetan bowls, I found a recording to play during my mother’s final moments. The peaceful vibrations seemed to penetrate her, easing her completely. I had her hand in mine when she quietly left.
The very next day, my brother, husband and I met in Florida where we would hold my mother’s simple Jewish funeral and burial beside my father. The three of us stayed in a small motel by the ocean she had loved so much . . . and, for one ecstatic moment when we first arrived, we all flung ourselves into the ocean’s buoyant, warm embrace. After the burial, observing the Jewish injunction against immersion during the mourning period, I held back from re-entering the sea. . . .I will be returning to it for the first time during this New Year’s week. Perhaps I am ready now, to swim as freely and fully as my mother once did.
My mother’s death is also the event that finally catapulted me into retirement. I had been wavering, afraid of letting go despite the encouragement and example of numerous friends. Even my mother during her final year had assured me it was time: “you’ve done enough,” she often said, this woman who had always urged me to do more. After her death, I knew I didn’t want my own life to continue as usual; I too was ready to make a transition, to cross over into the unknown.
So this year has granted me two big absences, two losses that leave me open to the new. I’m reminded of the conclusion of Ursula K. Le Guin’s astonishing ecofeminist parable, “She Unnames Them,” in which Eve unnames the animals in the Garden of Eden, eventually returning her own name back to Adam:
I could not chatter away as I used to, taking it all for granted. My words now must be as slow, as new, as single, as tentative as the steps I took going down the path away from the house, between the dark-branched, tall dancers motionless against the winter shining.
I will be speaking and stepping lightly as I move into this new, new year.
Happy New Year!
And blessed be.
Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile’s Journey. After participating in the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in 1997, she served for a time as Co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She lives in Brooklyn where she teaches yoga at Yoga in Bay Ridge, and is currently completing a translation of Henri Bosco’s Malicroix.