2021 Looks A Lot Like 2020

The trolls are still here. The barbarians are still at the gates. What now?

Here we are: 2021.

The pandemic is raging. American politics is chaotic. The weather is weird. Conspiracy theories hold sway over too many of our friends and family. People are sad and scared.

In other words, 2021 looks a lot like 2020.

Leading up to the New Year, all the “good riddance 2020” hoopla worried me. So much anticipation for the turning of a calendar page — as if the yearly passing of December into January would lift some demonic curse. The fireworks and ball-dropping of contemporary New Year celebrations harken back, in western cultures at least, to ancient pagans and druids chasing trolls away from villages, burning pyres to frighten off barbarian invaders, and leading torch parades invoking the sun to appear in the darkness. After throwing evil characters over cliffs and setting stuff on fire, my Scottish ancestors would down a dram of “magic water” to cleanse their innards and bless the New Year. If nothing else, those pagans created a fitting historical pedigree for ending 2020.

The problem, however, is that the trolls are still here. And the barbarians are still at the gates.

So, we’ve had our rituals, the calendar page has turned. Even if you celebrated the entire Twelve Days of Christmas, all the winter festivities have come to an end. Usually, this means getting back to work, spending more time at the gym, working on all those resolutions, and maybe a winter vacation of some sort. But not in January 2021.

This year it means hunkering down while waiting your turn for a vaccine, logging on to Zoom again. Although the days grow slowly longer, the difference in the dark is still imperceptible. Winter is here for a long stretch more.

Frankly, I’m feeling it — the weight and tedium of sadness, made all the worse by the magical promises of the New Year. And I’m betting I’m not the only one.

While I love ritual celebrations, especially those with deep roots in ancient wisdom and culture, with the sense of curing and healing they promise, I’m grounding myself this year. There’s no magic fix here. No instant transformation when we hang up a new calendar. What there is, however, is some pretty basic stuff: persistence, mutual care, determination, prayer.

A new year gives us a chance to reflect on where we’ve been. And I can’t help but be in awe of what we’ve done and what we’ve learned in 2020. We’ve experienced a global pandemic. We’ve worked to save democracy. We’ve looked more honestly at the problem of racism than ever before in American history.

I don’t want to burn 2020. I want its lessons to burn brightly. Damn, we have faced some of the hardest things human beings can face. And yes, there’s been failure and stupidity in facing them. However, there’s also been courage and creativity and sacrifice. Of course, we could have done better, but millions of people have done far more to help than we will ever know.

A new year also gives us a chance to reset where we might go. A “reset” isn’t a fix. It is an opportunity to reassess, readjust, and recommit. The trolls are still here. The threats are still with us. But what can we do better in the next two or three months to mitigate harm, to love our neighbors, and, frankly, to care for ourselves? We can’t make it all better in a day. We can, however, take small steps each day toward healing, justice, and compassion.

This isn’t a year for big resolution. It is a year to keep walking, even when the way is weary and the destination not clearly in sight.

A New Year is only magical when we shine light in the darkness, when we choose to bless the world. It isn’t time to wait for miracles to happen, for some ritual to chase away what bedevils us. However hard it seems, we keep on, knowing that calendar pages don’t determine the course of our lives. There is always another candle to light. It isn’t about a ritual or a making resolution. It is about what burns in our hearts.

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We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called opportunity and its first chapter is New Year's Day.
— Edith Lovejoy Pierce

Year's end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on.
— Hal Borland

Burning the Old Year
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.   
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,   
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,   
lists of vegetables, partial poems.   
Orange swirling flame of days,   
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,   
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.   
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,   
only the things I didn’t do   
crackle after the blazing dies.

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In upcoming weeks, I’m expanding The Cottage to include a monthly book club, interviews with other authors in religion and spirituality, “Ask Me Anything” days, and previews of my next book (Freeing Jesus — to be released on March 30). This will also include an option to support The Cottage financially. But rest assured — there will still be free posts and inspirational quotes on faith, politics, culture, and spirituality. I’ll be sharing more information about what’s coming in 2021 — and how you can connect with the additional offerings and content — in the next three weeks. 

Please invite your friends to join us in the new year.

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To start the year right, I invite you to strengthen your practice of gratitude. My video course Being Grateful in Difficult Times is now available at a discount of 21% during January 2021.

There are lectures based on my book Grateful, mini-practice sessions, and inspiriting interviews with other authors, musicians, and activists sharing their passion for gratitude.

You can preview and register for the course here. Enter code: JAN21 at checkout for discount.

You can find all the previous issues of The Cottage online — to reread, use in sermons or essays, or share with your friends.