J A N U A R Y 2 0 2 1
At this time every year in a place beyond roads, far up in the hills near the Laotian border, a shaman calls the people of his village to gather next to a rivulet of water.
The water comes from the rain dripping out of broad-leafed trees and running down their trunks into the ground, reappearing in this fold of land where the villagers have assembled. They know they are guardians of this sacred place, the very top of the watershed.
The shaman performs a ritual over the water with prayers and songs joined by the villagers. Children play underfoot, happy that everyone is happy. This day is the annual ritual when the village asks forgiveness of the goddess Mother Water for all the waste the villagers have put in the water during the past year, asking forgiveness too for the pollution that people downstream from them have added as the water made its way to the Gulf of Thailand.
Once forgiveness is asked for, the shaman invokes blessing on the waters, asking that health and well-being be granted to all the growing things and creatures and people who will drink of it on its journey to the sea throughout the coming year.
We who don’t believe in goddesses of the water or other such spirits, we who are content with our scientific views of how reality works, do we not also maintain a remnant of this same ritual at the beginning of the year, despite how worldly-wise we are? After all, we call out to our neighbors “Happy New Year!” and mean it, we wish everyone well, we get extravagant and kiss each other, we take the day off, we set off fireworks, hooray for us! hooray for life!
Like the villagers at the top of the watershed, we believe—at least for a few moments—that we can start life afresh, throw off the habits we’ve accumulated and the old ways of thinking and behaving, and begin again. In particular we know how rough the past year was—2020—plagued with suffering, isolation, loss, limitation, injustice and divisiveness, like pollution cast into the waters, and we ask that it be done with, finished, and forgiven. We don’t ask a goddess, but we do ask.
“Happy New Year!” We sail that wish into the air between us, a generous blessing on the spirit-waters that will flow through the coming seasons. Something kind and resurgent in our nature believes that our wish for happiness and well-being for others will be carried downstream, as if our hearts are the top of the watershed and whatever the current is that carries that blessing will find its way to those who need it most.
Like the shaman and the villagers, may we know that we too are guardians of this sacred place and of each other, and that our prayers (for what is Happy New Year! but a prayer?) our prayers are not trivial sayings but carry something essential for our own hearts and for the sustenance of life everywhere.
Happy New Year!