I am a great believer in traditions and a passionate practitioner of rituals, and as if, growing up Jewish, I didn’t have enough of both, I invented, many years ago, an end-of-the-annum practice we’ve taken to calling “Turning Over the Year.” It’s become, I have to say, rather sacred on the ridge: this endeavor of turning over the soil in our vegetable garden and placing into the hole a piece of paper on which is written a list of all the bad things that happened in the year about to pass as well as a brief account of all the good things desired in the upcoming year. Then, the participants fill the hole with dirt and bid adieu to turmoil and any other untoward baggage that really shouldn’t be carried forward to interfere with spiritual progress.
God only knows, 2020 is going to require a very large hole for everything that needs dismissal.
This tradition, I should note, started innocently enough as a project to get the vegetable plot ready for planting in the year to come. It had nothing whatsoever to do with sending psychological burdens packing. In the beginning, it was simply a ritual that happened pre-Thanksgiving... and had to happen then, because the soil would soon be frozen hard and deep as concrete. But global warming eventually turned December into a reliably warmer month and, soon enough, I found that I could do my last minute gardening task later and later in the year.
The local fans may have found my routine more than a bit strange—an homage to procrastination—but as time went by, I found I often had companion diggers joining me, and as we turned the earth, we decided spontaneously to point out all of the bad things that had happened during the year and symbolically bury them. Then, we came up with the idea of putting the bad news on paper and literally committing them to the earth. A bit later we decided to mix the hellish with the hopeful, and there you have the current practice, as dreams, bad and good, are turned to compost and fertilize January and beyond.
On December 27, 2019, my granddaughter Stasia joined me in the digging, but she had a harsh opinion of the list-crafting and -burial. “That’s littering!” she declared, but Stasia, a ceremony veteran, eventually came around—although not without effort.
The problem, she admitted, was that she could think of nothing bad from 2019 to send to its grave. This, of course, was a tribute to the resiliency of young kids everywhere. Nothing bad? Good God, child, it was not only the year that we had to take court-ordered long-term custody of you and become your de facto parents, but 2019 also marked the time you developed a pathological fear of moths.
“Are you sure you can’t imagine anything for the list?” I asked, not wanting to bring up prior awfulness.
Stasia thought about it, but then shook her head in the negative. “I’m good,” she affirmed.
There was, however, a hope for 2020, which she hastily penned.
“I wish not to be mad or sad and just be happy this year,” she wrote.
To which I could only say, Amen.
Little did we know what lay ahead.
According to a legend we all learned in school, one that might not, in fact, have actually happened, the defeated British leader Lord Cornwallis ordered his military band to play an old English ballad at Yorktown in 1781 when the English army lost that pivotal battle, the revolutionary war, and their formal hold on the American colonies. The song was, appropriately enough, “The World Turned Upside Down.”
The broadside, which was first published in the 1640s in England to protest new laws designed to keep Christmas more solemn than had been customary, bore the subtitle of “A Brief Description of the Ridiculous Fashions of These Distracted Times” and included such soul-stirring lines as:
Holy-dayes are despis’d, new fashions are devis’d.
Old Christmas is kickt out of Town.
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.
We don’t yet have an appropriate anthem for “These Distracted Times,” but surely, the song should include at least a passing reference to a world turned keister over tea-kettle by the coronavirus. At the very top of any list slated for the Fuhgeddaboudit burial ritual, COVID-19 merits star status. So do such necessities as social distancing, mask wearing, Zoom conferences, remote learning, and the countless other critical practices we’ve had to adopt to stay safe from infection.
I, for one, could use a long, uninhibited hug, and whether it comes from the relatives and friends I haven’t been able to see or from a new acquaintance acknowledging a successful journey of natural history discovery I’ve just led... once again... I’m fine with either scenario. Just give me people.
Please, dear Lord, give me people.
True, I know it can’t happen yet, so in the meanwhile, the hope that I wish to inter—the hope that just might be the foundation of a new normal in 2021 and beyond—is this: Give me, my family, and everyone else, the vaccine.
If that happens according to what looks like the current schedule, we just might be able to gather in person as an actual group, not an Internet apparition, to celebrate deliverance and freedom from oppression at the first Passover Seder in late March. With perhaps sore arms, we’ll lift up our wine glasses and sing one of the traditional songs, a tune whose foundation is the word, “Dayenu.” Roughly translated, the Hebrew term means “it would have been enough.”
We came through and past a severe drought. We saw a fabulously rare Common Cuckoo. (Well, rare in North America.) We laid in enough wood. We enjoyed a bit of cross-country skiing. The grandkids successfully navigated hybrid schooling, and almost all of us, with the exception of my sister Sue and my son-in-law’s mom Marilyn, managed to avoid direct exposure to the pandemic. (Both of the afflicted had minor bouts with COVID-19 and seem to be on the road to full recovery.) There will, unless things go horribly wrong, soon be a new president in office whose goal is environmental preservation and climate sanity. Stasia’s wish “not to be mad or sad and just be happy this year” miraculously prevailed most of the time.
And we’ll soon have a measure of protection from the current pandemic.
To any of the above on my “Turning Over the Year” list, but especially the last item, Dayenu.
Now, while the soil’s still cooperative, it’s time to fill in the hole. And roll up my sleeve.