The Amphibian

Stories around the New Year’s altar

The new year needs to be welcomed with a faithful embrace. This altar and the stories told around it seeks to give you that; that hope. 

Oceana and I made a New Year’s altar on the small foldable table in my apartment. It was our first altar together—not a tradition exactly but an act of worship based on the belief that anything done with careful attention is sacred, and that worship, or the practice of gratitude or reflection, is part of our liberation. 

Each of the altar items tells a story from the giver, for the gathered. Given were two decaying leaves (obtained during our afternoon swim), four seashells picked from Nagsasa cove, Zambales, a hand painted Palestine flag (given to me by a friend in the last protest I went to), a photograph of my grandmother, Oceana’s swiss pocket knife, her brass earrings and treasured broken ring, and finally my own sort of Bible: The Madonna Secret written by Sophie Strand. 

Only two of us gave and gathered, but allow me now to invite you to receive these stories, wherever you are, in your own time. Because after so much loss and pain, the new year needs to be welcomed with a faithful embrace. This altar and the stories told around it seeks to give you that; that hope. 

First, the two decaying leaves, brown from their giving. How have you given yourself last year? Are you browning too? Perhaps you are the leaf that is exuberant with green chlorophyll, busy creating sugar. Perhaps you are the leaf that has fallen to the ground, turning the color of the earth.

This time last year, my intention for 2023 was to feed my soul and prioritize my joy—it turned out, I couldn’t feel that yet. After graduating from college and celebrating with my family, I felt no joy nor pride but a terrible despair. I couldn’t grasp it then, but I understand now that it was a result of a quiet environment; with nothing more to do or achieve, my body felt safe enough to break down. I was beginning my process of decay after so much time being productive, a natural process that every living being undertakes.

Leaves, even from perennial trees, are often moved by the wind to land on soft soil and given a new role by Nature. The leaf returns to the soil as nutrients—carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. To decay is a process of multiple transformations, a montage of different states of being. The leaf’s nutrients will nourish the soil before being absorbed by the tree’s web of roots, when it will be used in tandem with water and sunlight to make new leaves once again. 

Here is the lesson from the leaves: whatever shade you are, it is the right time to be this way. You are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing. If the new year has brought strange and unwelcome feelings, allow yourself to feel them. You can break down; don’t worry, the soil, your environment, will hold you. 

Secondly, I invite us to consider the Palestinian flag. While heavy-hearted, we honor the thousands of Palestinian lives that have been and are still being cut short. We honor them through continued protest, decolonization praxis, and inner reflection. In every shout and every quiet night, we must turn our feelings of helplessness and guilt and rage into action, internal and external change. 

“If I must die, you must live to tell my story,” martyred poet Refaat Alareer wrote in November, five weeks before he was killed. If I must die, let it bring hope, let it be a tale. And so, as faithless as I am, I meditated and shared with Oceana the radiant faith that Alareer and many martyred Palestinians gave us, a faith that meaning can still be made out of all this hateful destruction.

I know what you’re thinking. There is no space right now for faith. My god, we are all just trying our best to stay sane at this point. I agree. We don’t have to feel inspired or in love with the world, but we do have to keep lighting the candle and praying the prayer. We have to keep doing the work that brings us closer to the day that sets all our martyred souls free, no matter how imperfect.

Lastly, I offer the story of Oceana’s pocket knife, just a thin spade of metal tucked in a leather case. “Have you ever had to use it?” I asked her, imagining a vague shape of a man following her home at night or staring at her on the train. All women know that disquiet stare. Oceana is also a jiu jitsu trainee. I was certain she had practiced the quick yet subtle way one pulls out a knife in public—not that I knew what it looked like. I was searching for the meaning behind that knife so that I could know its place in our altar. 

“Yeah,” she said matter-of-factly. “For cutting wood or cooking. Not for self-defense.” She grinned at me. 

I laughed, relieved for her sake that she hadn’t been forced to use it in self-defense. The knife was a useful tool, a tool for gentleness. I reflected on my own measures of self-defense and the ways I protect myself from physical and emotional harm. Last year, my Mom gave me two tubes of pepper spray, which mostly summarizes my methods in case my advocacy brings me danger.

In terms of emotional harm—last year, a close friend, someone I believed would be a friend for life, stopped speaking to me. It surprised me that people can seem one way but act in the opposite manner when things get difficult. I’m still working on it, but my discernment for who I engage with is more selective. In friends as much as in co-organizers, I am looking for people who actively embody the values they preach. This is my self-defense practice. This is how I protect myself while dreaming of better worlds. 

Importantly, self-defense is in the preparation. You don’t defend yourself only in the split-second reaction time against danger, but during the days and nights when you are safe, through intention and practice. It makes me think of our collective situation under violent, oppressive systems. What are our weapons against modern colonial-capitalism? Have we sharpened them with collective intention suited for our unique time and place, or have they grown blunt from constant use? How are we reconstituting strategy in this time when we have realized – again or for the first time – the sheer dumb power of the U.S. war machine? What is the right weapon against a system that has for decades co-opted resistance movements and sold it back to us in the form of “art”? 

This year while uncertain of what pressures will face us, let us commit to our personal transformations, an embodied practice of faith, and intentional self defense. I invite you to consider what your altar consists of. Who motivates and inspires you? What do you value? Who do you give thanks to every day? Without soul and spirit, without worship, our efforts to protect the most vulnerable risk burning out under capitalist values of productivity—the grind. Your prayers don’t have to come with kneeling and your totems don’t need to be conventional, but worship, when done correctly, builds collective strength and meaningful action more potent than individual sympathy. Prayer made real, made worthwhile, and made in solidarity is one of our best defenses from all the perils the new year might threaten us with.