New Year's ritual goes with the flow

This Just In...

January 03, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

SOMETIMES, AS when the fishing stinks or when the whole world seems cloudy and ominous and destined for war, I like to stand peaceably by a river, throw the dead branch of a tree in the current and watch it go. I did this when I was a kid -- so that my friends downstream would have something to bombard with rocks as it drifted by -- and I do it now during pauses in hikes. I do it now for the same reason some people call psychic hot lines: to see how the future might go.

I know that sounds weird. But it's what I do.

I drop a good-size stick into the current, then try to keep my eyes on it as it floats downstream. If the branch flows freely all the way to some goal I've set with my eye -- a bridge, a leaning sycamore or a junked washing machine 30 yards away -- then I take that as a sign that things will go well in the next year, or at least the new few days.

If the branch gets hung up on a rock or in some brush, then maybe I don't play the Lottery for a few weeks.

There's an art to this driftin'-stick game. You can't just toss the stick into the water and hope for the best. You have to study the stream and find the ribbon of current that will take you the farthest.

I did this on New Year's Day, during a hike on that rainy, soppy, foggy afternoon along a creek on a friend's snow-covered place in Baltimore County.

The creek is a crooked little thing, full of water again from the rain and melting snow after two years of drought. I had never seen such a strong current in the creek. Usually the water levels are moderate to low, and during the drought they were pitifully low. Now the creek is back up and looking frisky again.

We started calling this place Coffee Can Creek a few years ago because -- I kid you not -- a truck carrying coffee tipped over and, as it crashed to the roadside, dumped some of its cargo into the water. My friend and his wife say the creek smelled like coffee for several hours. We hiked its banks and found numerous dented No. 10 cans of Maxwell House, their contents dry. We took a bunch home.

Coffee Can is not the best creek for my driftin'-stick ritual -- too many bends, downed trees and beaver dams. It's a challenge.

But on New Year's Day, I dropped a little Y-shaped stick, something like a divining rod, into the current and watched until it disappeared. It went as far as I'd wished it would go, and maybe farther. So I think the year got off to a promising start.

The Jewish New Year has a ritual like this, though it's not so much about assessing the future as it is about purging the past.

It's called Tashlikh. I first witnessed it a few years ago along Cross Country Boulevard in Northwest Baltimore, as whole families of Orthodox Jews observed their New Year on an autumn late afternoon with prayers by the banks of Western Run.

Tashlikh is a custom derived from the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah: "And You [God] shall throw their sins into the depths of the sea."

All rivers run to the sea, so on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews the world over go to where the currents are moving and symbolically cast their sins into the water. They recite Scripture verses and prayers. Some turn their pockets inside out and shake them.

Since I learned of this ritual several years ago, described in a chronicle of New York life, I have been drawn to it. I like the concept of ever-moving rivers taking away sin and bad feelings. It's as if nature provides a watery conveyor belt of second chances for the fallible human race.

So I've appropriated Tashlikh from the Jewish New Year for my own purposes every Jan. 1. When I drop a branch into the current, I'm not just running a superstitious test on the future, I'm letting go of the problems and failings of the past. It's sweet release.

I love rivers -- big, wide, rolling ones and little, craggy, fickle ones. I go to them, walk near them and wade through them. Sometimes I catch fish. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I stand there peaceably and just let things go. And I always feel better, even when the whole world seems cloudy and ominous.

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