New Year’s Eve has a special meaning for me and I even managed to make it special in prison. This is an excerpt from my book, The Slumber Party from Hell about that time.
December 31, 2004. For all our years together, David and I always celebrated New Year’s Eve at home. No loud parties, no big crowds, no kissing strangers at midnight. We had a tradition. I always decorated with colorful New Year’s paraphernalia, setting the table with our best and adding noisemakers and silly hats, crystal bowls full of streamers and confetti, and bright balloons tied to the backs of our chairs. We even followed tradition in what we wore. David wore his favorite black turtleneck sweater and I wore my favorite ancient black sequined skirt that thankfully had an elastic waistband. I loved that skirt; it aged with me.
While I decorated the table, David carefully planned the music: Frank Sinatra, Glen Miller, João Gilberto, Linda Ronstadt, and hits of the 60’s. He then laid the logs in the fireplace while I prepped the salad, the vegetables, and the dessert. Then I took a nap because otherwise I would not have made it to midnight.
About 8:30, we’d meet in the living room for cocktails and a dance. It was our night to focus completely on each other. We danced and talked through dinner. David always grilled steaks and we enjoyed our simple but delicious meal.
At eleven, we’d get out pens and paper. We each wrote down the bad things that happened the previous year and then our goals and dreams for the coming year. This is a Brazilian tradition, but theirs is more dramatic. Brazilians place their lists in very small boats. Imagine a boat for Barbie. They decorate them with flowers and candy or tiny gifts. Then, dressed in white, they go down to the beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema and at midnight launch their boats into the ocean as offerings to the goddess of the sea. If your boat sails out successfully, the goddess accepts your offering and it will be a good year. If, however, your boat comes crashing in on a wave, the goddess isn’t pleased, and your future won’t be so great.
Imagine, midnight in Rio, everyone dressed in flowing white, enjoying the warm summer breeze, carrying their boats, humble or lavish, filled with colorful flowers and candy. It just seemed joyful to me. David and I never made it to Rio for New Year’s, but I decided we’d take the best of it and make it another part of our tradition. We wrote our lists and made a tiny boat out of a milk carton, decorating it with bougainvillea from the garden and little votive candles. We lived right by the canal and at midnight, we’d walk over and launch our little boat, watching it bob merrily down the dark water. I assured David that eventually our fragile boats would make it to the sea.
Now I am at Perryville, surrounded by concrete and gravel, miles from water, wondering how in the world to celebrate New Year’s Eve. I decide to invite my four young friends to meet at the picnic table at 6:30 and bring pen and paper. Stacy thoughtfully makes hot cocoa for us. It is very cold, but they are curious.
“Close your eyes and imagine we’re in Rio de Janeiro.” I tell them. “It’s summer. It’s New Year’s Eve. We’re all dressed in white, happy to be together.”
As I describe the events of a Brazilian New Year’s, I can see by their smiles that I have captured their imaginations. I encourage them to think about 2004 and write down the bad stuff that we want to get rid of. Everyone agrees it is a short list, prison and separation from loved ones. Next we write our goals and dreams for 2005. Each of these four ladies will be released within the next six months so this is actually an important exercise. Writing goals will help them visualize and focus. I tell them to think carefully about how they see their lives. What is important to them now? All is quiet as they labor over their papers in the very dim light of the yard.
As I watch them, I am pleased and a little relieved. I was afraid they might think this was corny, but, on the contrary, they embrace it seriously. It is a good time to set their goals. I’m pleased that they want to share. We go around the table, listening and encouraging each other. And when we are done, we join hands as I pray over our little group of friends and our precious dreams; that God will look favorably on them when they leave prison and will bless them on their journey.
It is late and we are frozen, but no one wants to leave. It is a significant moment in our time here, to always treasure.
“But what about our papers and the ocean, Sue Ellen? What are we going to do?”
In prison we have to be creative. When we go inside for count, I figure we will just have to tear up our papers and sprinkle the little bits into the toilet. It is water and surely one flush will eventually make it to the sea. Laughingly, we agree this is a great idea. Yes, it is prison, it is ugly, it is cold and awful, but imagination is a wonderful thing….inside and out.
In 2009, after seven years apart, David and I were free to share our tradition again. We’ll do so again tonight and are grateful for life, health, friends, and freedom.
Some of you who have read my book tell me that you are now copying the tradition. Everyone has a story. If you have a New Year’s Eve story to share, I would love to hear it.
Meanwhile, my prayer for all of you is a joyful, peaceful, loving, and fulfilling 2011.
Happy New Year.