In Rome, at this time of year, among the blocks of torrone and wedges of panforte piled up on the market stalls, you can also buy a scacciaguai. It is a miniature broomstick. People hang it just inside their front doors, to keep their homes clear of trouble for the coming year.
When I was a teenager, and we were living in a less than classy area just outside Rome, the approach of the New Year was greeted not only with fireworks and the loud crack of botti, but with the crash of glass bottles and unwanted furniture thrown off the balconies, into the street below. The fracas was exhilarating. Cathartic. Getting rid of the old to make way for the new.
Getting rid of things, yes – but also, shedding relationships you no longer need. Toxic relationships, draining, one-sided, or simply unnecessary ones. Why clutter your life with what you do not need or want? Unclasp your arms from around people you have been fiercely clinging to for years, and stand back to see if their arms are also around you, or if they hang limp. Unclasp your arms and see if these people suddenly jerk forward, and grab hold of you, or if they drift away without looking back, as though you had never been there.
In this strange and wondrous whirlwind that was the past year, I lost three relationships. Three friendships I thought were for life. Friends I had held onto for many years. Then one day, I noticed that it was my arms alone that were holding the friendship together. So I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and opened my arms. When I looked again, they were gone, without a sound. No one cried out for me not to let go, nor grabbed at my sleeve. They simply drifted away. That was months ago. There has not been even a Christmas greeting from them. I now know they are gone for good.
Much is made of the virtues of giving without expecting to receive, but not enough is made of receiving – of accepting – passively, without engaging in return. After all, is that not like receiving without giving thanks?
When you invite friends for a meal, you cook for them wholeheartedly. When you help them in their careers, you do so enthusiastically. When you involve them as part of important moments in your life, you do so spontaneously. You do not draw up a profit forecast. So when, at first, they do not reciprocate, you do not notice. After all, who’s counting? Then, the years go by, and you hit the proverbial hard patch. You are suddenly unable to give. That is when you notice that your ‘phone does not ring. That your e-mail inbox is empty. That you have stopped spinning the wheel and the whole machine has stopped turning, as a result. You notice that people clamour to see you the week before Christmas, and the week immediately after New Year’s. But not on Christmas Day, or on New Year’s Eve. Not on the special days. And, in a Eureka! moment, you suddenly realise that, while you have been giving these friends starring roles on your life’s stage, you have been a spear carrier in theirs. And who notices if the spear carrier slips off the stage? It is not their fault. Sometime, long ago, they offered you that part, and you accepted it.
Ring ye bells! Sound ye trumpets! And bring me the broom. I no longer want to be a spear carrier. Bring me the broom, that I might sweep my decks clean. It is no big deal. After all, I am only sweeping out what was not really there in the first place. And if, by any chance, I try sweeping out something real, then I am sure that he or she will voice a protest. In that case, I will apologise, and keep sweeping around him or her.
Bring me the broom, that I may clear the space for the new. This time, I know it will be real.
Happy New Year to you all!
*I wish to dedicate this piece to those precious, much-loved friends, who have constantly held onto me. Keep holding on.