A scene from the sacred Loy Krathong ceremony in Thailand
A hand reached out of the darkness to give me the pomelo. The hand belonged to my 12-year-old son; the pomelo, a Southeast Asian grapefruit, was mine. On this night, alongside an urban creek with the sounds of rush-hour traffic rumbling in the distance, that pomelo was about to become something magical.
I tried to act casual — as casual as is possible for a 51-year-old woman standing in the dusk holding an outsized fruit stuffed with four carnations, a small candle and a scrap of paper. I don’t know whether it’s legal in America to float a flaming piece of citrus fruit down a creek. But I wasn’t going to ask. I had one shot at this, and it mattered. I couldn’t wait a whole year for this opportunity to come again.
A man peered at us through the moonlight from a public bench, watching as we approached the rocky edge of Pine Creek. I pulled a book of matches from my pocket and struggled to light the candle in the November wind.
The guy said nothing, just took a drag from his cigarette and looked away. So I didn’t need the explanation I had ready in case he’d asked: To everyone else around here, a community at Pittsburgh’s edge, this was Veterans Day. But it was also the sacred, psyche-clearing, life-resetting Buddhist holiday of Loy Krathong.
On the night of the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, people all over Thailand (including me, for the three years that I lived there) stop to consider what they are ready to let go — what mistakes from the past year they are ready to forgive themselves for, what less-than-healthy habits or patterns of thinking they’re ready to outgrow, what pain they are ready to release.
They kneel at the edge of a river or lake holding a krathong — a tiny boat woven from thick banana leaves that resembles a centerpiece you’d find on a tropical dinner table, decorated with flowers and holding a candle. Some people add a piece of paper with a few words or some other item that signifies what they’re ready to release.
I knelt at the waters of Pine Creek determined to release the unquenchable urge to go back and do life better.
Then they light the candle, set their krathong upon the water and give it a gentle push. As it floats away, they thank the water for helping them send away what no longer serves them. The krathong drifts off to eventually be consumed, maybe by the candle’s flame but more likely by the water. And they walk away lighter than before, with room for new, healthier thoughts and habits in place of all they’ve just released.
I no longer live in Thailand, and I’m still hovering just at the edges of Buddhism. But this holiday speaks to me like no other. So I had MacGyvered my own makeshift krathong and was now standing in three inches of freezing water hoping this ancient ritual could lighten the emotional load I’d been carrying.
This is the sixth year I’ve known about Loy Krathong. Some years I’ve gone to the water with a general desire to release fear or say goodbye to the lingering imposter syndrome I still battle.
But this year I had a loud, hungry, specific ask: I needed to jettison the late-night regret-a-thons I’d been inflicting on myself since last spring.
Night after night, I’d wake around 3 a.m. with a layer of hormonal heat engulfing my skin and some awful bit of worry rising inside me. About my kids or my husband. Or my career. Or my finances. Or how all these things collide.
Even though I was half-asleep, my brain would already be racing three steps ahead to figure out what I should have done differently a year ago — or a decade ago — that would have made everything better today. I’d have awakened during a movie already in progress, a technicolor montage of past mistakes and missed opportunities, endlessly backtracking to find the places where it would have been so much smarter to turn left instead of right.
It could take me an hour to shake off this late-night replay of moments I was suddenly desperate to live differently. Maybe it makes sense that the journalist in me can’t help looking back and pining to edit all that came before; regardless, these sleepless nights became my midlife crisis.
But looking back is useful only if it helps us move forward. If I have to be jolted awake before dawn, I’d much rather be experiencing a montage of things that make me proud — the stories I stretched myself to write, the adventures I challenged myself to experience, the people I’ve loved fully and well.
So on that November night, I knelt at the waters of Pine Creek determined to release the unquenchable urge to go back and do life better.
I asked the water to help grown-up me forgive teenage me for staying with the wrong boyfriend so long that I married him, and instead thank her for finding the strength to get divorced. I asked for help forgiving both twentysomething me and thirtysomething me for having let fear and insecurity slow them down in a hundred tiny ways, and instead thank those selves for the moments when they found the nerve to move my life forward. I did the same for fortysomething me, who got so lost in caregiving and old traumas that she nearly disappeared.
As I watched my krathong float away, I promised to celebrate the progress of all the women I’ve been, not waste time cataloging their errors. You can’t live for 50 years without making mistakes. You also can’t know that a different choice back then would have guaranteed peace or joy or prosperity today.
It seemed a little crazy on that freezing night at the creek to be performing an ancient Buddhist ceremony from a culture 10,000 miles away that isn’t even ethnically mine. It also seemed absolutely right.
I don’t know whether this ritual has some inherent spiritual power or if I simply found a way to make concrete my decision to stop beating myself up over the past. Either way, it’s been working: Each time I find myself lying awake obsessing on the past, I stop and accept — in a way I never did before — that the past isn’t a place I can go anymore. Now this choice feels liberating instead of heartbreaking.
I may not be able to control the hot flashes (though I’m working on that). But I’m ready to forgive myself and start focusing on what I’ve done right. I accept the past and own it — but I’m done living there.