Every couple of years, my notoriously socially adverse family and I mask our traits that mark us as introverts for one evening and host a New Years Eve gathering.
In the tradition of the peoples of Puerto Rico and South Africa, we spend the days in advance of the gathering cooking and cleaning, and sorting through items to donate to others.
We bring out all of the plates and glasses that aren’t chipped, and set the table with food that has been prepared with love. The true introverts that we are, we spend the afternoon in our own spaces to charge ourselves for the evening by spending time alone. After we change out of our pajamas (our go to clothing as soon as we arrive home from work or school regardless of the time of day) Maren lights the candles and Willow, in all of her wisdom, reminds me to “chill out” because everything will be fine.
Our friends are our family. Like many academics, we moved to Macomb 18 years ago knowing virtually no one. Yet we soon became part of a community of people who come from all over the world with different traditions and customs, also living and creating lives for themselves far away from biological family. Our biological family is a mere 8 hour journey to southern Ohio, while others must cross oceans and continents to reach theirs.
As time goes by, it has become clearer that the families we were born into aren’t necessarily the best fit for the humans we have become. As Michael and I mature as humans and parents, the way we choose to live our lives as well as our views on politics and moral values have grown in a different direction than our biological families. When the time came to “prune our family tree” in order to thrive, our friends were there to support us - even if they didn’t know it. Thus, we quietly try to show the people we call family, how much they mean to us, by attempting to honor old traditions, while creating new ones to honor a time of the year that is full of the potential for the future.
For our friends from Spain, we make sure that that the table contains grapes. In Spain it is customary to eat 12 grapes – one at each stroke of the clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve, as each grape represents good luck for one month of the coming year.
Herring is difficult to find in Macomb, so for our Russian friends, I make sure that there is poached salmon in its place. Drawing from our German background and the lessons from the Danish students we have hosted over the years, we dim the lights and burn candles to create a sense of “Gemütlichkeit” or “ hygge ,”” which loosely translates to a sense of coziness, contentedness, comfort and relaxation.
Several years ago, we started the tradition of launching Chinese lanterns into the night sky at New Years. Although the Chinese New Year falls at a different time of the year than our New Year, we liked the idea of sending our problems and worries into the night sky and decided to incorporate it into our ritual of sending out the old year and welcoming the new.
The first year we did this, it was magnificent. The sky was clear and the winds were virtually non-existent, which for Illinois is remarkable. Lanterns sailed high and far carrying hopes and wishes into the future. This year the launch was different. Collectively the house emptied as everyone put on their coats and spilled outside to the street. The first lanterns floated into the in trees across the street, much to the shri grin of their humans.
Yet there were no cross words, only encouragement as we continued to send the lanterns into the darkness. In mass we shifted our position slightly and continued to send lanterns into the night. Some made it over the trees, while others found themselves trapped between earth and sky. With nary a meteorologist amongst us, we used our observation skills to judge the winds and slowly moved our launch site to the west. Each lantern sailed higher into the night sky.
As we sent our final lantern to the future, our “family” had moved into the middle of the street as they watched the watched the final lantern travel into the sky. It was not a perfect launch, as it required multiple attempts and much encouragement from the crowd. As the lantern took to the night sky, I looked around and saw that no one had retreated to the house for warmth.
My “family” had stayed together encouraging each other through failure and hardship until the last of us had taken their turn. In moments like this, I understand that gift of being present. The Buddha is quoted as having once said, “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
I don’t know what 2019 holds for myself or any of us. But I do know that there are small moments of joy to be cherished each and every day. My wish for all of us it to find them and appreciate them with all that we are.