New Year’s Eve: On Accepting Love and Sadness

This post is dedicated especially to anyone else spending NYE solo.

NYE Sunset Afterglow 2021

I went to catch the sunset today, but arrived just in time for the afterglow, bounding toward the bluffs just to show the silent eucalyptus forest I had made the effort to farewell the orb I take for granted on other days.

This New Year’s Eve, 2021, is a rather special one for me, because I am spending it alone, and on some level confronting my now-irrational fear of this I have cultivated for a long time.

It’s been a fine day, actually.

I’ve been for a run, and a long walk along streets with still-falling leaves and agaves bedazzled with dew, out to the diamond-speckled ocean. I’ve been for a yoga class in the park, sent loving messages to friends and kin, found resolution with someone dear to my tenderized heart.

I finished and submitted to an academic journal an article based on research I began in Fall of 2019, when I had little more than a general curiosity about the symptoms of women’s ritual ecstasy in Euripides’ tragedy, Bacchae.

Also today I received word that my abstract for aconference paper I am preparing on gender, ecstatic vision, and cognition in Greek tragedy has been accepted, so the next stage of this research project is already calling out to me.

And having taken very little time off from work these holidays, I am preparing to visit the fabled land of Esalen for an ecstatic dance workshop in the New Year.

So, it seems that ecstasy is becoming rather something of a specialty of mine!

I am also preparing to teach subjects that keep my heart open and my mind sharp, and working with students who inspire me with their dedication to and intrinsic passion and motivation for their studies. My family and friends are healthy, and I am very fortunate in my family and friends.

These reflections all feel like helpful bridges of gratitude and abundance carrying me over this ravine that NYE always seems to create, and into a new year of promise.

Do I wish to submit? Yes, please!

But why are these bridges required?

It is easy to say, “well, NYE is just another day, and it will be just another day tomorrow.” This is one (rather flimsy) bridge I have constructed, along with more elaborate others: planning parties with friends, making labor-intensive meals, or queuing up my favorite films to re-watch.

These all feel like strategies to forestall something, because when I have participated in them in the past I have found it difficult to be very present for any of them, while the cultural pressure is on to do something exciting, set intentions, kiss the right person, arrange for the first one over your threshold in the New Year is an auspicious presence, all in record time, before we reach midnight. It has always felt foreboding, like attending a wake before a memorial service, or before the death has even occurred. I think some years of the people who may have listened to the musicians play on the Titanic that fateful night, watching the water rise as we watch the clock.

I know, grim reflections, but these are the feelings that I seem to work so hard to avoid every year. The void. The recognition of the losses. Globally, the staggering losses to human and non-human life due to the pandemic, escalating natural disasters, police violence, school shootings, military coups, and other devastating events, and personally, the dreams that were not realized, the relationships that faltered. Marital dissolution.

I thought of this incongruently while making an indulgent meal for myself: fancy “mac and cheese” with cream, Gruyere, sautéed brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and chestnuts, and a kale salad that most of my friends probably hate by now because I make it so frequently, but I love (except when I aspirate the kale as apparently is a tendency for me…).

Nourishing my body with good, tasty food and plenty of “healthy”, non-competitive exercise (yoga, dance, hiking) has been paramount to my sanity during the pandemic, especially as I live alone. But sometimes I get rather rigid about it, bent on caring for myself in the way only I can. Several times I have asked myself why I feel the need to cook something so challenging on a given evening. Why not just make eggs? Because it shows a lack of self-worth, a lack of dedication to self-care.

There is something about the phrase “you are enough”, one of the millions of affirmations constantly circulating on the social media accounts I follow from various wellness practitioners and teachers that really gave me pause tonight.

It somehow broke through my cooking frenzy, the effort to plan an “alternative” solo NYE of yoga, film-viewing, intention-and-gratitude-list-generation, and all the rest.

So now I am here writing this.

The plain, and somehow all-encompassing satisfaction of “You are enough” allowed me to feel the weight of sadness this evening, to begin to accept its visitation and ask why it must be present, if I have so many things to be happy about.

This might sound cliché, but it is an insight I keep returning to, and a vivifying one at that.

To live is to burn, to long, to be in love. Sadness is the unfulfilled, or the lost, as I have learned from my favorite poets: Rumi, Hafiz, Sappho, Catullus, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickenson, and so many others.

Sadness means fundamentally that I am a lover.

When I think on it, this is really the number one vocation I would choose for my life.

Some loves I am good at fostering within myself. I readily fall in love with cities and flavors and spaces that shelter and direct human movement (train stations, churches, cafes, theaters). I fall in love with buoyant seas whose grains of salt have coated my scalp. I fall for languages, and their built-in views of human nature I did not know existed. And I love hands (both physical hands and the writing they yield). I fall for the oldest cemetery when I am new to a city – I visit there and thank the ancestors for hosting me. There is no city I have visited that has not charmed me with the quirks of its personality I have managed to find in a park, a museum, or a pastry. I love the wild as well, which is in all things and all people.

And the body, not just mine, the body – I love its generosity of movement, the limbs’ readiness to receive the signals from the brain: Dance! Walk! Kiss! Hold the door for that person! This I fall for, especially when I run my fingers over the vertebrae in my spine and remember that these will by far outlast the flesh and connective tissue that holds them and enlivens them.

It’s people – not friends or family or colleagues, or even strangers with whom I exchange a smile on the street – but the other, the object of amor I find to be the difficult kind of love, hence the reason it plagues ballads, paintings, tragic plays, teen journal entries. When it happens it is hard not to pay attention to the sadness. That kind of love is an ecstasy, an experience of standing outside of oneself in the presence of the beloved other, merging with them, allowing your pillars of self-protection to fall, and when they leave, whether for a day or forever, you are back in your body, shivering. It feels so cold, but you remember having this body before meeting the person, and you will adjust to it after their departure. It just might take some time, and that’s okay.

The act of loving, really loving anything is not the avoidance, but the acceptance of sadness. And for those philosopher types, according to Socrates (as transmitted in Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus, and other dialogues), love is the desire for the form that is the imitation, the shadow of formless beauty and truth. But it is okay to be in love with forms, because they teach us about the art of truth-seeking, and the appreciation of beauty in all things.

And so tonight I will of course open the tiny bottle of Chandon I bought. I will indulge myself with a film, some chanting, some journaling.

But overall, I will ask my heart what it wants to love, what loves it wants to remember, to let go of, to invite in. That feels right, this New Year’s Eve.

May formless Love itself, ready to infuse all of my life, be the first foot I welcome through my door New Year’s Day. And may it visit you as well.

Here’s to the turning of the New Year, from my hearth to yours!

With Love

Personal Mythos and the New Year


Last sunset of 2019 behind the redwoods

Behold, we have passed into a new year, and a new decade, and whether or not we have readied ourselves with new intentions/goals/resolutions, many of us (at least on the social media front) see this as an opportune time for memorializing the state of our lives ten years ago, as compared to our lives today.

I was touched by the self-compassion that pervades people’s descriptions of their former selves, especially in the midst of challenges. A wonderful way to start the New Year – to witness the narrative of one’s life compassionately, and to be kind and charitable to oneself.

The New Year carries with it a powerful collective wave of intentionality for manifestation of visionary intentions, and it is a good time for affirmation of one’s current stage(s) of personal journeying.

Mapping my own experience onto the mythological and the archetypal has always been fun and illuminating. It gives daily life a real sense of poetic significance. It reminds me that every person has an extraordinary set of circumstances that comprise their own unique mythos, whether known or unknown to me. This practice, really more an occupational hazard of studying Greco-Roman myth for many years, rarely fails to give me a valuable perspective on life situations, regularly assures me of the universally lived experience of challenges that feel difficult to bear in isolation, and gives me agency in re-casting my own story.

One Model of Personal Mythmaking: The Hero’s Journey


I work at an institution that prides itself on its collection of artifacts from Joseph Campbell, the famed comparative mythologist who traced the “monomyth” of the hero’s journey that he claimed pervaded mythological and folkloric traditions internationally. In his book Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell structures the hero’s journey around three key stages, paraphrased here:

  • Call to adventure (including meeting a mentor who guides the hero on the initial stages of the quest).
  • Trials of initiation into a new world of challenges, triumphs and failures, a phase which culminates in a journey to the Underworld and meeting a teacher with a prophetic message.
  • Return to the place of origin with divine knowledge gained on the journey, and the process of integration of that knowledge into “normal life”.

When I taught an undergraduate course on Greek heroism, I offered an extra credit project that invited students to map Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey onto one life situation. This assignment yielded extraordinary stories about challenges met and lessons encountered through travel, second language acquisition, health difficulties, lost loves and friendships, authentic expression of self amidst social stigma, new familial and work responsibilities, and other challenges. One student shared with me that he felt a refreshing sense of personal agency as a result of completing the assignment. In my own life similar exercises in personal mythmaking (including the hero’s journey model a la Campbell) had provided helpful perspectives for years, and I was glad to see that this was helpful to others.

Journaling the Personal Mythos

Having read over some of my own journals from the past year, 2019 presented various Campbellian stages of realization: I found a gut-dwelling, steady voice within myself I had not heard in years. I learned the art of critical discernment in the role of student and teacher. I learned to recognize interpersonal cyclical patterns that repeat themselves as dependably as the tides. I learned to speak up for myself clearly and directly. I learned to be accountable for the pain I caused others. I learned to take care of myself in the ways that suited me, including yoga, cooking, writing and performing poetry, singing old Irish songs, and reading short stories. I deepened treasured friendships. I moved back to my hometown. I took steps further in the direction of financial independence.

Keeping a regular journal, especially during the more difficult times of growth, is helpful, because it reveals the learning process, and allows one to look back at the feelings, the insights, and the self-talk that attend the various stages of one’s journey (or whatever you might call your mythic narrative – at present in the Anglo-American consciousness the hero’s journey is widely prevalent, and this is the one I am invoking here, but this is certainly not the only narrative type).

Looking back at these journals can be quite confronting and humiliating, but the lived experience is there, just for the eyes of the experiencer-turned-future-loving-reader. This is very different from writing the story after the close of its lived experience, which is another good exercise (my students’ extra credit assignment).

Personal Mythmaking and New Year’s Intentions

There are many resolutions, calls to adventure, that await. The sheer number of varied New-Year’s- resolution-oriented invitations on social media is overwhelming.

And so the questions come a-hammering:

  • Which pursuit is really for you?
  • Is this a good time to set out on a new path in this particular aspect of your life, or is there something to be finished first?
  • Are you in the trials of initiation? Is there an obstacle you’ve been avoiding that awaits your attention prior to getting on with things?
  • Are you trudging through the depths of the Underworld? Is there some illumination of the next steps awaiting your sight in the deepest part of the trek?
  • Are you back where you started, integrating what you have learned?

The New Year is a good time to acknowledge your present stance, and to start from where you are. At least that is what I tell myself, speaking from what feels like a hammock of indolence on Calypso’s Island (see below)…

And wherever you may find yourself in your journey, in your work, it can be an interesting exercise to look for the attendant archetypal forces, whether they lie within yourself, others, or situations.

The below categories are my play on themes from the story of the Greek hero Odysseus’ 10-year journey homeward to the island of Ithaca from the Trojan War, as told in Homer’s 8th century BCE epic poem, the Odyssey):

  • The mentor / the teacher / the one who keeps you on track (the goddess Athena for Odysseus); also the one you may mistrust or whose guidance you may ignore at times.
  • The Land of the Lotus Eaters / Calypso’s Island – the place where you tend to get distracted, complacent, and drawn away from your work. In Odysseus’ story, Hermes the messenger god goes to Calypso’s island, where Odysseus has been languishing for seven years, to push the hero to continue his journey homeward to Ithaca. So, if you get distracted, be your own messenger and carry on. Or if you are really in the throes of complacency the messenger might just find you…
  • The Cyclops – the person you are liable to demean, take advantage of, and/or dredge of physical or emotional resources, in service of your work; take care to avoid this, or make proper amends if this has already happened. Odysseus blinds the Cyclops after leading his men into the Cyclops’ cave to steal food and livestock, then endeavoring to claim protection under Zeus as a guest when he was caught red-handed. Yes, the Cyclops threatened to eat them, but still, what bad behavior…
  • The sorceress / Circe – the dark feminine, the mistress of nature, who transfigures men into animals – the one you cannot fool or con, the one whose power you must acknowledge with full awe and devotion before she can help you (or else you will turn into a pig, I suppose…)
  • The Underworld – the dark and lonely place where guidance is present but only attainable through faith, right action, and reunion with the departed.
  • The Phaiakians – the generous helpers and benefactors worthy of enduring gratitude and acknowledgement; the ones who gave Odysseus a banquet, gifts, games, a platform for telling his own story of his travels, and safe passage home to Ithaca in the last stage of his journey.
  • Yourself as the storyteller – are you talking about your quest (posting on social media counts) more than doing it? Does your pursuit need a wider audience? If so, when is the right time to share your work, and whom do you aim to reach?
  • Integration and homecoming – roughly half of the Odyssey features Odysseus’ process of reintroducing himself to his homeland, during which he must live as a beggar prior to reclaiming his role as leader of the community. The process of going back home again is consequential, whether that be moving back in with one’s parents, undergoing psychotherapy and grappling with family-of-origin issues, or deciding to root oneself into a brand new space to call home. It takes time, and some patience and willingness to live in obscurity while listening with one’s ear to the ground and learning about the place and how to navigate it.
  • Penelope – the loved one you say you are doing all this for, but whose needs and personal sacrifices you might be ignoring or suppressing as you forge on. Odysseus’ wife Penelope waited 20 years for his return, fending off suitors and putting their son’s life at risk, while he garnered the experiences in war, travel, and sexual exploits worthy of a “hero” only to come back and tell her that he must go away on ANOTHER quest according to a prophecy (how convenient).

And whether or not you encounter any or all of the above in your pursuit of quests, intentions or resolutions of this year, remember that you are likely playing several of these roles in the journeys of others, and remember that going off course sometimes yields a good story in and of itself…


Caveat: For the record, while I find that the journey of Odysseus is a good archetypal model (especially when things do not go as planned in our own pursuit of life goals) I do not commend Odysseus for his violence, xenophobia, misogyny, disrespect for the gods, foolhardiness, fallaciousness, negligence, and hubris. For a good alternative rendering of this story from Penelope’s standpoint, and the standpoint of Penelope’s 12 nameless maids Odysseus murdered upon his arrival back to Ithaca, read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad.

A thrilling cloudscape on the last day of 2019, spent in a lazy afternoon at the beach. And now for that quest…