PHow to Start 2017: Intentions for a New Season

kcuflktxyy4-sarah-dorweilerI love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. At last new year, I wrote not about resolutions about what I would not quit in 2016, the anchors and tethers to which my life is, for better always and never for worse, bound to. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself (although I did write about the anchors and tethers to which I am, for the better, bound), and the year that came was strange, disorganized and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can save, but I can’t expect the unexpected — an ill-timed car repair could defer home ownership an entire year. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy, and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (language that makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

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– Exercise my body –

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It was helping in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.”
Habit: four times per week.
Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

– Read daily –

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write.
Habit: Read daily.
Hope: Revival.

– Write (almost) daily –

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for.
Habit: Write (almost) every day.
Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

– Reflect, purposefully and consistently –

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one.
Habit: Regular, written reflection
Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

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In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking at home instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.

Here’s What I WON’T Quit in 2016: Thoughts on Quit Lit, Staying Put + the New Year

2016a2015 was the year of quit lit. Everyone with a blog, or a Twitter account was quitting something: social media, beer, academia, televisions shows, bread, iPhones, sugar, massive income, the day-to-day happenings of human life. (Hell, I “quit” something, then wrote about it). The biggest of all these stories, though, were the stories of people who “quit” their lives. Who left exorbitant paychecks  to hang out on the beach, who traded Conde Naste for Cape Town, a huge D.C. Home for a grass hut in Mexico. People who, for different reasons, traded the life in front of them for something radically different.

Then they sold their story to magazines so we could know how much better life is from the top of a treehouse.

First, the two caveats I need to include here. One, it is commendable whenever men and women take risks to improve their lives. As long as you’re not abandoning people who depend upon you, then brava for following instinct, need, and passion. Two, I’m going to talk about privilege, and in order to do that, I need to acknowledge my own. I am deeply, radically privileged. I grew up in a financially and emotionally stable home, attended public school without threat of violence, received a college education, and am now on my way to building an equally financially and emotionally stable home. I am very privileged.

Now, here’s what I want to say about these “I quit my life stories:”

At their best, they are interesting and possibly mildly inspiring. At their worst, they are shaming, and they are shallow.

When I first started to see these stories, I ate them up. They were fantasies illustrated with bright photographs (all optimized for my cell phone screen), for the 600 or so words, I enjoyed participating in the escape.

But as I read more of these articles, I became more discerning of the tone of most of these stories. I realized that as much as these stories are explanations of one person’s highly individualized choice, they’re also laced with the insinuation that their choice was the right one, not just for themselves, but for all of us. They were writing because they found the secret to the good life, and if we were choosing to stay (regardless of the reason) we were the real suckers.

“‘I quit,’ goes the text. ‘And you should, too,’ goes the subtext.” Megan Garber, The Atlantic

To quit is to declare that you do not need to learn how to deal with what’s in front of you. It means that your responsibilities, and commitments, and life structures demand so little of you that if you vacate yourself from all of them no one, yourself included, will suffer.

At its very core, it’s a story of privilege. My life was so great, I could no longer live it. Those who can to do this do so because the riches of their first life were so great that they are able to take that excess and parlay that into an easier, more enjoyable second life. I’ve yet to read the story of the public school teacher who quits, moves to Phuket, and starts a beauty blog.

The lie of these articles is that there is life, and there is bliss, and to reach the latter, you must first escape the former. This is a shallow, half-hearted response to the whole vast tapestry of the human experience. A good life, a life well-lived is, yes, marked by risk and by courage, by changing what does not serve and by celebrating what does. But this life is also rooted in relationship, in steadfast presence, and in sacrifice. In staying when it would feel better to leave.

To have weight and dimension, a life can’t be only about passion, but also must be about recognizing and honoring what is set before you.

And what’s set before all of us is different, influenced by background and upbringing, time, circumstance, location, privilege, and a whole host of other factors as randomly assigned as these. What’s beautiful, commendable, worth of story, is the people who take what is given to them, and, with dutiful devotion, show up for themselves, for their families, for the responsibilities that they’re been yoked to. Who create passion and adventure and bliss where they are.

For most people, to quit would not only isn’t feasible, but it isn’t responsible. It isn’t commendable. It’s an easy out in the face of the hard and necessary staying. For many, to quit is not even an option.

“It is a luxury to be able to quit something, whether that thing be a job or a food or a pair of Lululemon Luxtreme Wonder Unders. And it’s a luxury, too, to be able to write about that quitting.” Megan Garber, The Atlantic. 

I am building lives within the hem of responsibility. I know—I’ve always known—that I cannot quit our jobs to travel the world (as much as I’d like to). I cannot cut away from my life here to live a life out in the ever exotic there, no matter how many bloggers assure us I can.

Not only that, but I are yoked to a community of people as well. Relationships take care, and time, and proximity in order to flourish, and I, in turn, need these men and women for our own growth and general human decency. To quit what I’m building here would be to quit, in a way, all of our friends and family, and that would destroy me.

2016aI was raised by a man who worked hard, with little complaint, because he understood that his responsibility to provide for his wife and children was sacred. His three bad habits, he always told my brother and I, were food, shelter, and clothing for Aaron and I. My mother, in response to my father’s work, sank herself into motherhood with the ferocity of deep love.

Planting into a life of responsibility and interdependence isn’t sexy. It doesn’t translate well into a feature story, but it is deeply human. It’s worthy to pursue, admirable to work towards, and it is profoundly, essentially human.

In this new year, I want to hear the stories about those who stayed. Who stuck out demanding jobs, because it’s what they needed to do, and who remained faithful to their partner during trials, because they knew that nurturing the commitment is better than abandoning it.

Life is such that we anchor ourselves to one another, to institutions, to the dutiful devotion of love. To quit, is to wrench those bonds apart—or it is to never form them.

That which we cannot quit gives us context. It gives us weight, and shape, and it gives us access into the sacred. That which we do not quit shapes us into faithful, steadfast stalwarts of lives lived well and true.

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In honor of the life in front of me, here is what I will NOT quit in 2016:

My job
General fiscal responsibility
Carbs
Coffee
Television (I will learn what happens to Jon Snow)
Writing (because I would wither into a shell of myself if I did)
Hard work
Friendships with extraordinary women
Family

But, because to be human is to contradict, here is what I will quit in 2016:

Sugar (my doctors and health care providers claim I’ll feel better if I do…)
Diet Coke
Possibly cable (because Netflix and HBO Go…and debt).
Comparison (Because it’s toxic. It’s brutalizing to hear that I don’t measure up, and usually, the only person I hear this from is myself. It’s cruel to me, it’s cruel to the specific women I compare myself to, and it’s cruel to the general unity of womanhood.)
Talking shit about myself
Thinking that publication is the reason why I write.
Social media before bed
Uncomfortable clothing
Inaction

Onward, onward, into the New Year!

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