Sunday, January 1, 2023

Twelve New Year's: Part I

One of literacy’s many powers is preservation. As I turn to my twelfth  year of writing this Blog, I have the possibility of noting how I greeted the New Year each of the other eleven. And so I will— at least the first paragraph or two of each in two installments. (The first one actually written on Jan. 11th to introduce the Blog):


2011:Funga Alafia

“Funga Alafia, Ashay ashay…”


I’m at it again. Standing in a circle with forty or fifty strangers singing a song I’ve sung countless times. At first, there’s the usual tension whenever a group of people gather to begin a venture. Once the first note is sung, things start to feel instantly different.  Without a word spoken, we move through a series of steps until the air is charged with the intricate rhythms of drums, bells and shakers. Before we know how it happened, we’re singing and dancing in a circle. We crescendo to a soul-stirring conclusion, complete with drum rolls and shoulder massages, until the final chord leaps into an electric moment of silence, followed by a jubilant exhale. The workshop has begun…


2012: Recipe for an Auspicious Year

On the first day of the year, try these recommended activities: 


• Chant through the entire Buddhist Sutra book, even if it wakes your wife up too early.


• Have oatmeal for breakfast, with orange juice and Roiboos tea. With a dash of honey.


• Play three games of Solitaire and win two. Cheat on the third.


• Play through Bach’s French Suites on the piano. Memorize the Allemande of No. 4 and be astounded yet again by the complexity of Bach. And moved by the beauty.


• Learn the lyrics to All of Me, All of You, All the Things You Are, Always and Autumn in New York. Note how it changes your playing. Wonder if by the end of the year, you could learn the words to 295 more jazz tunes.


• Shave your mustache that you’ve had for 30 years.


• Start cooking 17-bean soup. Count the beans.


• Look in the mirror and remember why you grew the mustache.


• Go for a walk in Golden Gate Park past the drummers on Hippy Hill. Think about going to get your bagpipe. Decide not to.


• Eat the soup with salad. Wonder why your upper lip is so thin.


• Watch Miracle on 34th Street and feel uplifted even if you’ve seen it 34 times before.


• Brush your teeth and decide you’ll definitely grow that mustache back.


Happy New Year!


2013: Rummy 500 and the New Year

Each activity has its own rhythm, that sense of building on itself until the player hits some stride where things flow more effortlessly and more fully. Traveling is no exception. In my third week now and in that traveler’s bliss when one lowers expectations about what will happen and opens wide to the surprise and serendipity of whatever does. 


And so having arrived in the small town— population 700— of Ollantaytambo, Peru to spend New Year’s Eve with my wife and daughter, my daughter's American and her Argentine friend, we had vague hopes of finding some stirring festival in the plaza as the clock ticked toward midnight. We finished a satisfying meal in a lovely restaurant and headed to the town square at 11:15 pm. And there we found— well, not much. A bunch of random kids setting off firecrackers accompanied by the tinny electronic recording of the crèche next to the green plastic bottle Christmas tree. The word was that the real party was tomorrow…


2014: Letting Go

I lived in the same house for the first 18 years of my life. 542 Sheridan Ave., Roselle, New Jersey. When my parents finally moved from there in 1992, I wrote a letter to the house. I was that nostalgic about bricks and mortar and wood. When my school celebrated my 20th year of teaching, my speech was an ode to my music room, the place where all the miracles I had witnessed there were stored in the beams and walls and the old mirror (still there!) from 1975. When the new construction plans some years back included the possibility of demolishing that music room, I threatened to chain myself to the doorway. Only once after graduating did I visit my old high school, which had moved to the new campus. The photos on the walls were the same, but there was nothing else recognizable about the place. It moved me not.


Note the pattern here? I have a deep affection for places and the wisdom of preserving them, the pleasure of revisiting them as they were. And yet I know time marches on and things change and war or natural disaster can wipe out an entire field of stored memories. Every day at school, I walk down the hall where the old elementary school used to be and wonder where I am. And then turn the corner to the preschool and feel welcomed into the familiar space that housed my same self in all its changing faces these past 39 years.… (this post about my childhood home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy and a new unrecognizable house built in its place)


2015: Letter to 2015

Dear 2015,


It’s just another day in a succession of days that rival the stars in number. But we ever hopeful human beings use it as a chance to narrow the gap between our dreams and the daily news. We resolve to never do again what we inevitably do again on January 2nd, but still the act of resolution is worthy— and sometimes actually makes a difference. Each day dawns to remind us to renew our vows or reconsider them, each day is worthy of “re-solution” to our many problems, but we need a day marked “New Year’s” to take it seriously. “We create ourselves by our choices” said Kierkegaard, and these moments of reflection are the reminders to choose wisely.


And so what do I wish for 2015? There’s all the petty personal things like lose 10 pounds and don’t go too often to Facebook and such. But if each of us 7 billion made larger vows, things like “dedicating ourselves to service, opening to beauty, caring for all creatures great and small,” there would be no need to ask for hope. I have my own little list like that, but here I want to announce my hopes for you, 2015. Of course, it’s maddeningly difficult enough to fulfill even the tiniest of personal vows, never mind ask the World to do a better job. (And by World, I mean us complicated human beings. I’ve never met a tree yet who needs convincing to be a better tree, or a rattlesnake, fly or platypus.) But by publicly proclaiming my expectations for you, 2015, perhaps it might spark others to do the same and if our hopes are aligned, I believe in the power of language and intention to start moving things in certain directions…


2016: Confucius Knows

                                    Stir yourself with poetry.

                                    Stand firm in ritual.

                                    Complete yourself in music.



I first read this quote some 45 years ago (in Gary Snyder’s Earth House Hold) and it struck me as a good recipe for a life well-lived. And then I went ahead and lived it! I renewed my vows today, the first day of the Western New Year. Though on one level, one must agree with Paula Poundstone’s astute observation last night that 11:59 pm on Dec. 31st of any given year is pretty much the same as 12:01 am on January 1st two minutes later, still we are creature of mythic imagination. Renewing vows on specially marked days is as old as the hills, even if those hills look pretty much the same from one day to another.


I have this private fantasy that how I live the first day will set the tone for the year to come. Kind of like the way Beethoven announces his bump-bump-bump-buuuuuuum and the rest of the music sings back to it the whole journey. And so I donned my old monk’s robes from Mt. Baldy Zen Center days, let go of the sobering fact that they don’t quite fit anymore and chanted an entire sutra book in ancient Sino-Japanese, followed by a full insence-stick zazen meditation. I haven’t gone to a Zen retreat for 8 years, but some 43 years after I started, I still begin the day with a short sit. So clearly some part of me has indeed stood firm in this ritual and no end in sight.…

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