Dara Healy writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
Black eyed peas, family, music, dancing and anticipation.
The coming of a new year inspires certain cultural rituals, both locally and across the world, back to the days of enslavement. According to one writer, the peas “travelled to the Americas in the holds of slave ships as food for the enslaved,” and are now eaten across diaspora. Spiritually, the peas are placed at the crossroads or thrown on the roof for prosperity and wisdom.
Historically, a new year was often observed for reasons connected to agricultural cycles, or to commemorate an important phase in the passage of time. Ancient Egyptians associated a new year with the flooding of the Nile, which meant fertility of the soil and thus abundant food crops for the kingdom. The Thais celebrate during the spring in April, with the throwing of water. “The water is symbolic in the hopes that is will bring good rains in the new year.” The Chinese follow a lunar or new moon cycle, so in 2018 their new year will begin in February.
In the western world, the fact that we use January as the start of our year may be traced back to the Romans. January is named for the Roman god Janus, who is depicted with two faces, one looking at the past, the other looking towards the future. He was “the guardian of arches, gates, doors, beginnings and endings.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of the new year is the seriousness with which we view this time. It is said that new year resolutions were first made during the reign of Roman Emperor Caesar. These were expected to be “of a moral nature, such as being kind to others”
At a Kwaanza celebration earlier this week, I was asked to speak on the principle Nia, purpose. Kwaanza is a new-year ritual that was created in the 1960s by Dr Maulana Karenga to help African Americans get closer to their heritage. The principles bear relevance to communities everywhere, as they span concepts from co-operative economics, to creativity, unity and faith.
For me, purpose is at the centre of the paths we choose, the destiny that we carve out for ourselves. We find our purpose as we ask the large questions of who we are and what is our place in the universe. In a social context, we also ask how we can make a difference to our world. In a sense, we therefore view new year resolutions as the Romans understood it, not about fulfilling a personal wish, but being in service to others.
Purpose is thus connected to the notions of alignment and balance. It may be approached from a personal, professional or national viewpoint. At some level, they are all connected. It is difficult to achieve your larger purpose if you are not aligned in your personal relationships, in what you are doing professionally and your core values. Balance, comes from exploring and understanding our spiritual selves, not from a religious perspective, but rather by taking steps to remain centred. These include surrounding ourselves with positive people, taking care of what we put in our bodies and what we feed our minds. We cannot properly be of service to others and to our nation if we are not balanced.
The indigenous philosophies that dominate our cultural space here in TT speak to certain norms or modes of behaviour that should guide our lives. First Peoples, devotees of Hinduism or practitioners of the Ifa/Orisa belief system emphasise respect for elders, preservation of our environment, protection of children, regard for the animal kingdom.
In addition to paying attention to these teachings, we also need to develop a better understanding of social and ethical boundaries. Carnival has not even been officially launched and already one song has to be banned because of its disrespectful nature. Calypsonians of old understood the art of double-entendre; that is, the ability to infuse double meaning into seemingly innocent lyrics. The purpose is to be lyrically clever, so someone could sing the entire song and not even recognise the sensual elements. If social institutions fail, the artist should retain his or her position as the voice of the people, one that represents lofty ideals, rather than celebrates the lowest common denominator.
As the world around us agitates, the question becomes how do we realign our society? Beyond the celebrating and the noise, we should seek out the stillness, and find in it our centre and our purpose once again.
Dara Healy is a performance artist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN.