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Ringing in the new year

On my way to get my morning cup of coffee, I hear church bells ringing off in the distance. I pull over, roll down the car window and stop to listen as they begin to chime the hour. Bong … bong … bong. A clear sound, pealing over the frosted rooftops and through the bare branches of the wintry trees. A sound from the past that makes me feel happy as I count along: eight ... nine ... 10 (OK, maybe I hit the snooze button a few times this morning). 

I think back to when I lived in Holland, just outside of Amsterdam, with my husband. There was a church a few blocks away from our house and we used to hear the bells chime every day. A sound we both loved and which was so unusual for me, having grown up in Southern California, where the sheer cacophony of daily life left no room for such subtle resonance.

I remember the first time we heard those bells, walking along that cobblestoned Dutch street. We turned to each other and laughed, it was such a sweet, unexpected sound. Bells which, in times past, warned villagers of impending flood waters and enemy invasions or, on routine Sundays, were a call to service. They were the markers of the social register of a village, announcing births and baptisms, proclaiming weddings and coronations and, finally, solemnly tolling deaths and funerals. The stuff of life.

How rare such a sound has become for most of us nowadays. Our busy lives are filled with tinny ring tones and pings, distracting us every five seconds, that we react to like Pavlov’s dogs. But where is the serenity that comes with those sonorous bells? Bells cast of bronze or copper and tin, forged by masters of their trade. Bells gonging out their messages and marking the passage of time placidly, patiently, dependably.

I think of the chiming clock of Amsterdam’s Westerkerk giving comfort to Anne Frank during her years of hiding in the attic. And of our own Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and its rich history, etched with the words, "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof." According to the National Park Service, “Abolitionists, women's suffrage advocates and Civil Rights leaders took inspiration from the inscription on this bell.”

The Liberty Bell is cracked and does not ring, yet, to me, it still fulfills the purpose for which it was wrought. Serving, perhaps, as a beacon for what we can hope and strive for, calling us to a higher duty, a higher standard. Maybe we are all a bit like that bell: imperfect, yet strongly forged. When I was in high school, public speaking was a required course. I was told that it was considered imperative for a young person to be able to stand up and speak publicly at a town hall or city council meeting; we were expected to speak up, not only for our rights, but for the rights of others. When I was a teenager, that was called patriotism.

This new year is so full of promise, and responsibility. I am grateful for the beauty of Ashland and its opportunities for expression, of how graced we are. And I think of John Donne’s poem, which Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted so eloquently,

“Each man's death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

As we welcome 2015, let the bells of our own lives peal grandly and loudly, clanging and resounding with the zest of life. And may we take the time to listen.

— Award-winning author, TV presenter and world traveler Susanne Severeid is an Ashland resident who enjoys making time for the important things in life — including mocha. For more, go to www.susannesevereid.com. Email her at susannewebsite@olypen.com.