CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Reflections at the turning of the year

Snow-covered berries hang from a tree as winter in Maine closes in.
Snow-covered berries hang from a tree as winter in Maine closes in.
Posted Dec. 29, 2011, at 5:01 p.m.

I have celebrated the turning of a New Year while standing under the stars on a frozen lake. I have rung in the year by banging pots and pans together in the street with my kids and their friends. I have been at huge First Night celebrations amidst city crowds and small cabin parties where a few of us sat by the fire and made predictions for the coming year.

For the most part, both at public events and family parties we indulge in merriment — food, drink, fun and celebration.

“We made it! Another year completed! Starting fresh tomorrow!”

It is in private where we think about the more serious side of this annual threshold: “What have I accomplished? Where am I headed? How can I make things better?”

I went to an unusual holiday party earlier this month that combined the celebratory and the serious, and it struck me as excellent food for thought as we approach New Year’s Eve.

Our hosts provided a banquet both delicious and beautiful. It was not potluck or BYOB, but we were all asked to bring something — a food contribution for a local shelter. As the evening progressed, the pile of food items around their “giving tree” grew.

There was the usual laughter and polite conversation among the 20 or so guests. Some already knew each other, but many were meeting each other for the first time. Then our hostess gathered everyone’s attention and invited us into the living room.

“For our family, this is a time of year for giving,” she said. “We would like to ask each of you to think of one thing that you are grateful to have received during 2011, and one thing you would like to give during 2012.”

For a moment she had us all stumped. It was a question that demanded some thought, and not the kind of thought one usually engages in while schmoozing at a holiday party.

In the end, though, everyone rose to the occasion.

“I got a brand new husband in 2011.”

“I graduated.”

“I went on an amazing trip with my daughter.”

“We had our first grandchild.”

The gift that came to my mind was a successful May weekend: two college graduations, two states and nine family members, all in sync together. It was my happiest memory.

Deciding what we planned to give in 2012 was a twist on the usual New Year’s resolution. This pledge was not a self-improvement resolution but an outside-the-self improvement resolution. Suddenly, this gathering of casual acquaintances took on a deeper significance. We were sharing aloud both our gratitude and our heartfelt intentions to give of ourselves during the year to come.

That experience alone was a gift. Then our hostess offered us another, when she took her turn to speak.

“To me, it is all about people.” she said. “We invited you all here tonight because you are the people we are grateful for this year. Each one of you, in some way, has given us something important, and we wanted to give something back to you.”

Then she spoke her appreciation for each person in the room.

It was a lovely gesture, a lovely thought, and it has stayed with me for a long time.

What if every household decided to reenact that little ritual that took place in one living room in Maine? How often do we take the time to thank the many people who contribute to our well-being, our happiness or our inspiration? What better way could there be to usher in a new year?

Tomorrow night, about 3,000 people will be in the streets of Bangor celebrating the Downtown Countdown. Many thousands more will be at other private and public events, filled with good cheer and high hopes. That is as it should be. Celebrate.

But at some point along the way, take a moment. Remember the year 2011, the gifts that it brought you and the people responsible for those gifts. Then look ahead and decide how you are going to give back in 2012. If everyone does it, the cumulative effects could be breathtaking.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions. You may contact her at robin.everyday@gmail.com.

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