I MAY have gotten the idea when I worked the dawn barista shift from this four-foot tall Native American guy who used to come around for free coffee during the holidays and claimed to be a shaman.
Or maybe it came from reading a back copy of O Magazine at the gynecologist’s office. All I know is that as long as I’ve had the wherewithal to call my life my own, I’ve made a list at the end of every year.
I do not call them resolutions. Resolutions are for the United Nations and for earnest, simple-minded people who keep it super positive and are gonna kickass in the new year and lose ten pounds and learn Portuguese and finish a novel.
(Not that goal-setting isn’t valiant; I also make a separate list of cheery intentions in January that I tuck in my desk and promptly forget about until I’m looking for stamps in mid-November, then high-five the dog when I realize I managed to accomplish a few anyway.)
However, as we dial through the darkest days of the planet’s cycle around the sun, I find it useful to compile a Wart List of all the crap I’d like to leave behind as the calendar flips forward.
I know, the pathological optimists will tell you it’s not wise to dwell on the negative.
But 2014 was no platter of rainbows and unicorns. Many of us experienced conflict, illness, failure, depression, death. Some of us just slogged through the slow-moving river of work commitments and relationship routines.
Just for one minute, we’d like to tell the delusional cheerleaders to shove their glittery platitudes where the sun don’t shine.
Sometimes, staring at the Negative in its mean, red eyes can be a pretty effective way to tell it to f*$k off and don’t come back! Even if it does rear its foul face again, at least now we recognize it and can maybe hide in the bathroom until it passes by.
So on my yearly Ugly End of the Year Wart Lists, I write down all the rotten thoughts and bad behaviors and picayune grudges and personal hysterias that have kept me apart from my Highest Possible Happiness:
All the slights, real and imagined, by people who never returned my phone calls/accepted my friend request/invited me to their restaurant opening.
The throat-clenching jealousy of anyone smarter/richer/more beautiful than me.
The leftover childhood shame and guilt I feel for no good reason, plus extra shame and guilt for feeling ashamed and guilty.
The confusing paradox that even though I’m incredibly blessed to have a handsome spouse who adores me, there are still moments when I want to stab him in the face with a fork.
The blind rage that boils out of once again discovering that the kids left the bathroom sink encrusted with toothpaste-spit stalactites.
The terrible loneliness that gnaws at the edges of my heart when I remember those children will grow up and leave sooner than I can possibly handle.
Every year, I collect all of the frantic fears and disappointing heartbreaks and embarrassing insecurities on a single piece of paper. (Some years I have to write very small.)
I take my piece of paper and go somewhere quiet, preferably near a flowing body of water.
Then, to release the Negative from my life and back to the Universe from whence it came, I burn the shit out of it. (I’m not sure if the shaman or Oprah insisted on this part; I just really like to light stuff on fire.)
I was definitely ready to incinerate the bad parts of the year last week, and I piled the pug into my bike basket as my co-pilot for this annual ritual. We rode north through the holiday-drowsy streets under a gunmetal sky, past deflated nylon snowmen and idle construction sites towards the Savannah River (a destination of dumploads far more toxic than even my disturbed psyche could possibly conjure.)
We arrived at River Street with Clarabell wearing her Angry Face, upper lip curled to let me know that she was cold and that bopping down the cobblestones hurt her tush.
The plan was to slash and burn this year’s Warts as quickly as possible, then head somewhere for a nice chai latte. I crouched on the puddled bricks of a deserted Rousakis Plaza, my paper balled lightly. But as soon as I flicked the lighter, we were doused by a sudden, pouring rain.
It seemed that while I was ready to torch my uglies, the Universe wasn’t letting me off so easy.
I shook my fist at the clouds and sploshed to a wet bench under a striped awning, golden oldies piping through a weak speaker and Clara pouting in my lap.
For those who don’t live with a pug, there are some things you should know: First, pugs shed so much you could make an Andy Warhol wig out of what they dump in a week.
Also, they make mouth-smacking sounds of a constancy that the CIA might consider employing as a torture method. When they run out of body parts to masticate, they will lick the spot of air in front of them until you throw a shoe at them.
By far, the most important thing to understand about pug guardianship is that when you are out in public, people will accost you as if you are accompanying a short, hairy celebrity. One person does a double take and then it’s all squealing and touching and ohmygawd how cuuute! (There are also those who believe Men in Black was a UFO documentary and will ask with a straight face, “Can it talk?” But that is another column.)
It’s rude and basically sacrilegious to deny someone the Power of Pug, so Clara and I had to be polite and pretend we weren’t miserable misanthropes while a family from Nebraska squished under the awning with us and scratched her head.
“We were going to get a puppy for a Christmas!” shouted the youngest daughter straight into my earhole.
“But it’s just too much right now,” continued her older sister on my other side, somberly quoting a grown-up-sounding excuse as she gently stroked the velvet underside of a Clarabell’s chin.
I noticed the mother’s head tightly covered by a purple scarf, the telltale turban of chemo.
“It’s been a rough year,” shrugged the dad.
I put my hand on my heart and nodded a deep nod, struck dumb with empathy and the audacious odor of my own self-pity. We all stared into Clara’s cloudy, diabetic eyes as Frank Sinatra crooned The best is yet to come...
The squall passed and after one more pug pat, the family shoved off, a tight knot making its way down the lumpy sidewalk. I carried my cranky dog back to the brick plaza and set alight the year’s badness, watching the ashes drift down and be swallowed by the river. I sighed with the suspicion that I’d probably be burning some of the same things again next year.
It’s true that we can’t find our Highest Possible Happiness if we tarry too long with the Negative. Neither can we make space for it if we deny our suffering, self-created or otherwise.
Maybe the trick is to cultivate an acceptance of our lives as imperfect and improbable, and each other as fragile, frustrating miracles.
Then again, maybe I’d have less angst if I listened harder to the cheerleaders and Ol’ Blue Eyes.
I felt lighter but no wiser as we pedaled home, Clarabell shivering but almost-smiling as the sun sliced into the afternoon.
The best may be indeed yet to come, and with it, the rest.
Wishing you the courage, strength and tenderness to hold it all in 2015.
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