Midnight at the turn of the New Year found me where it always does. Outdoors.
No, I wasn’t winter camping.
In fact, I was barely ten feet from our back door. Still standing on the patio.
But I discovered long ago that the forced frivolity of New Year’s Eve – the noise makers and party hats; the dropping Times Square ball, the singing of Auld Lang Syne and the loudly popping of champagne corks, wasn’t for me.
Actually, we did observe the cork popping ritual but nixed the rest.
Nature was the only place I wanted to be, starting somewhere around the age of sixteen. That’s when I found myself in the middle of a snow-covered field in Vermont, under the stars. Mostly sober.
I’ve managed to keep that commitment to myself, more or less, for almost half a century.
New Year’s Eve always seemed to me better suited to quiet reflection than noisy celebration.
You’re ushering out the old year. And in some cases giving it the bum’s rush. It’s a time, if you’re so inclined, for tallying wins and losses, victories and defeats, ways you’ve managed to live up to your goals and commitments and ways you’ve fallen miserably short.
Perhaps most of all it’s a time to give thanks for being surrounded by family and good friends.
We started hosting a New Year’s Eve celebration at our house almost thirty years ago and have ever since. For entirely selfish reasons.
It happened after we found ourselves utterly lost, traveling back roads on the way home to Columbia County from a New Year’s celebration in the Berkshires, and with a two-year-old in the back seat.
We vowed, from that night on, to have the party come to us.
We typically invite about fifteen people because our dining room table doesn’t comfortably fit more than that. Some come from Vermont. Others New York City. A few are local. But all are free, even encouraged to spend the night.
This year we had a smaller crew than normal – only nine people – the extreme cold perhaps giving some of our perennial guests pause about hazarding into the night.
In years past I foolishly attempted to build a bonfire. I say attempted because I rarely succeeded. The end result was usually the eyesore of a pile of charred wood on the lawn the next morning.
But at some point I had an epiphany. Actually, I’m not smart enough to have an epiphany when it comes to things of a practical nature. So someone must have suggested it to me – a fire pit.
I promptly purchased a reasonably attractive copper one at Wal-Mart and have been using it ever since.
Constructing a minor pyramid of crumpled newspaper, fat wood, kindling and small logs is fairly guaranteed to succeed and even to keep those of us crowded around it reasonably warm.
Some years back, my wife adopted a Japanese ritual where we and our guests write down resolutions and regrets on gold paper and then toss them into the flames. This year we introduced a new, timely category: unhealthy grievances that need to be purged.
To be honest, I’ve never participated for reasons that I can’t quite explain. Perhaps because New Year is an artificial construct. Other cultures, the Chinese for example, celebrate it on different days. What we should really be aspiring to is something timeless, even scared. For instance, the privilege of standing under the stars and breathing in the night.
Neither past nor future, fears nor hopes nor superstitions -- charming though they may be -- should dictate your happiness. All that matters is that visceral moment in time.
I’m romanticizing the experience somewhat. It was darn cold out there last weekend. I lasted just long enough to make sure the fire was prospering, clink glasses, toast the New Year and then it was back indoors.
There’s not much to be said for the current cold spell. Except that it certainly succeeds in reinforcing the majesty of heath and home and a functioning furnace.
New Year’s Day has its own peculiar rituals and cadences. Fortunately, nobody seemed to be excessively hung over, which I attributed less to the wisdom that comes with advanced age than the fact that we paced ourselves and, taking my daughter’s advice, made sure to drink lots of water.
If New Year’s Eve in nature, under the stars, is non-negotiable for me, equally important is a walk through the woods on the following afternoon.
This experience was also somewhat abbreviated due to the frigid temperatures. But after an evening of indulgence, and a morning spent in recovery, there’s no better way to start the New Year, to center the soul, than a walk in the silence of the forest.
Whatever curves life will throw you over the next twelve months, at least you’re starting out on the right foot. One making fresh tracks through the white snow.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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