My plan for New Year’s Day was a brisk plunge into a local lake. I love the symbolism of a polar bear plunge, of leaping out of the old year and into the new one cleansed and refreshed.
It’s also crazy fun. Crazy, as in almost all the ways dictionary.com defines the word word: insane, intensely enthusiastic, bizarre, and yes, wonderful.
I’ve braved the chilly waters twice before and come out completely invigorated. My first plunge was with a few friends at an organized event with a huge crowd at Seattle’s Matthews Beach. My husband watched from the sidelines, through his video camera.
A few years later I talked him, the same friends and a few more into doing our own polar bear plunge. I liked this one better. We went early and there was no one else around. The park — and the new year — was all ours.
There was a light fog on the lake that morning, adding an otherworldliness to the silence we would soon shatter with our screams and cheers. On the count of three, we ran in — all the way in, or at least until we were in deep enough to completely submerge ourselves. Submersion was the rule for the adults, and some of our kids even made it that far. Others went in up to their knees, dipped a toe, or stayed on the dock. It was awesome. All of it.
I put out a rally cry for a 2016 plunge in an early December email.
We were on. Same place, same time. January 1.
And then, we weren’t. We stayed up too late on New Year’s Eve, the morning came too early and it was too cold. Like 24-degrees cold. (Yeah, that’s cold for us Seattleites.)
Some bailed, others waffled like me.
I felt guilty about not plunging. I texted a friend.
“I’m still willing to take the plunge if you are, but I’m also willing to meet you on the dock fully dressed, with a warm drink in hand and a lighter.”
“To set the dock on fire.”
“Set the dock on fire?!”
“Kidding, kidding. Did you read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page yesterday? I want to do that. But I’m wearing my swimsuit underneath my long underwear, just in case the water calls me.”
“Ah, yes. A warm drink and Liz Gilbert. Let’s do that. I’ll wear mine, too.”
Elizabeth Gilbert—of Eat Pray Love, The Signature of All Things, and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear fame—is also the author of my favorite Facebook page. Gilbert dishes out a steady dose of soul-lifting inspiration and humor. On New Year’s Eve she asked her readers to consider this:
“…write down what you want to shed from the old year, and welcome into the new year. Then burn the paper, and bring the ashes to the nearest body of water, and let it go.”—Elizabeth Gilbert
Sounds like a simple and lovely ceremony, doesn’t it? And a good alternative to a plunge?
I wrote down 15 things from 2015 that I wanted to “let go,” each on its own strip of paper, and put them in my bag along with a thermos of hot cocoa, a bottle of 100-proof peppermint schnapps (remember this, it will be important later) and two lighters (also important). Just in case we decided to swim like polar bears after all, I threw in a beach towel.
I picked up two friends at 3:30, we drove to the lake and settled ourselves at the end of the dock. The same dock in the picture above.
Here’s how I envisioned our solemn ceremony going down: Each of us, in turn, would hold up our strips of paper that we wrote our “bygones” on. One by one, we would put a lighter to them and watch the flame slowly consume them, releasing the ashes gently into the lake. Then, sipping on a cup of hot cocoa (with just a nip of schnapps), we would watch in silence as the ashes floated away. The perfect start to a new year, right?
Here’s how it really went down: We forgot a container to burn our papers in so I pulled the lid (which doubles as a cup) off my stainless steel thermos and we used that. The only problem? The lining was plastic. But ceremony trumped thermos, so I sacrificed it. (Only later did I discover the plastic part lifts out. Sheesh!)
Our lighters were faulty. One didn’t work at all and one we could only get sparks from, with an occasional flash of flame. To make the most of that flash, we doused the papers in schnapps (told you it would serve an important role) and got a fair portion to catch fire. The scene below looks fairly benign, but you can imagine what happened next. Yes, the melting plastic released a round of stinky, high visible smoke that began floating across the lake.
We panicked and poured lake water on the flames. Yes, more smoke. More panic. There was a group of teens on the dock near us, and we were setting a fine example by lighting fires and having an open container of alcohol in a public park.
So what did we have in the end?
A soggy mess of 2015 thoughts.
And this: Laughter until our stomachs hurt. Three friends, a lake, a thermos of hot cocoa, and enough schnapps to warm us and then some. A sun setting over beautiful waters, a gorgeous blanket of colors, groups of ducks skimming a dinner of who-knows-what off the surface of the lake (a sight none of us had ever seen), and shadows growing so long they blurred the lines of reality.
I pulled one last slip of paper from my bag.
“You’re not done yet!? You have a lot of issues,” my friends laughed.
“Just one more. This one says I’m letting go of the idea of not plunging into the lake. This is enough, being here with you, on the dock. Plus, it’s freaking cold.”
And I plunged the paper into the watery cup.
When we were ready to leave, swimsuits still dry beneath our winter clothes, it was way past dark in the wooded park. Somehow, I’d thought ahead enough to put a headlamp in my bag and it was our only light as we stumbled our way back to the car.
The park gate, which is normally closed at dusk, was miraculously open. We thanked our lucky stars, and drove through and back home to our families.
THIS was our perfect start to the new year. It was utterly perfect in its imperfection. We were perfect in the way we improvised, the way we dealt with unexpected glitches.
It was an imperfect end to an imperfect year.
It was an imperfect start to an imperfect year ahead.
As Liz Gilbert would write, “Onward.”