As a general rule I scoff a bit at New Year’s resolutions. There’s something so arbitrary to me about declaring one point of the year the one where you make changes. I’d rather assess and address as I go along in life. Plus, so much of my life has been governed by the rhythms of academic years that it is only recently that I can recognize any newness to January. Previously it was always September that felt new and that first day of new classes always felt like the time to be someone different. (Of course by the end of the time I was in school it was that pounding hope that I could make this quarter different, better, that wore me down too far to even really enjoy the opportunity of learning that had once been the whole glorious point of those new beginnings).
Nonetheless, I woke on January 1 and began writing a poem that I meant to be about the arbitrary nature of calendars and resolutions but instead became about letting go, change, and entropy. And I ended the day with bits of Alice Walker’s “How Poems are Made: A Discredited View” running through my head:
In order to hold one
I gradually understand
How poems are made.
There is a place the loss must go.
There is a place the gain must go.
The leftover love.
(from Horses Make a Landscape More Beautiful, which I’ve posted a link to before, I know.)
And I have to confess, once I’d started down that road of contemplation, of thinking through change, resolutions seemed just one step behind that. This is not the only time during the year that I ask myself “who do you want to be going forward?” And I don’t think there’s anything inherent about now that lends itself particularly to these contemplations, but I don’t see much point in denying myself the opportunity to think about change now just because lots of other people are also doing so.
And, thus, I have been thinking of some things that I would like to focus on.
1. Be kinder to myself
I have been working on this, but still sometimes I forget to accept that the foibles and failings of day-to-day life are just part of being human. I own my mistakes, my insecurities, my weaknesses but there is no point to letting those things define me or control me.
2. Cultivate my strength
I mean this both literally and figuratively. I need to inhabit my body more and get back to a point where I can comfortably do active things. This means, of course, the New Year cliche of getting back to the gym. But beyond that it means focusing on the fact that I am not a brain in a jar.
Even further, though, beyond the physical is reminding myself that I can be brave, that I can be fierce, that I can navigate the world even when it scares me. The picture I paint of myself these days (both in the ways I speak of myself internally and in the things I portray for others’ benefit) is of meekness. If you ask me to describe my past, though, the person I used to be, I will focus instead on the bravery, on the things in my life that were the result of hard work, of determination, of risk-taking. Somewhere along the line I lost that sense of myself as fierce and brave. I think it comes, in part, from some rough years fighting depression and anxiety. For the last few years of grad school and a chunk of the time after, I felt like I had failed–and worse that I had failed because I was not strong enough to overcome that anxiety–and it is too easy sometimes to focus on the failure and the fear rather than noting that when I was miserable and floundering I turned off a path I had been on for most of my adult life and started looking for some other way to live. The change I made wasn’t, in the end, all that drastic. Professionally what I am doing now is not all that different from what the academic path was leading me toward but I still had to step off into the unknown to get here. There’s bravery, I think, in recognizing when you’re unhappy and taking the steps (sometimes even just the small ones) to figure out how to be less unhappy.
3. Make real connections
There are so many pieces to this and it connects to that notion of letting go. My life is brimming with wonderful people, but to a certain extent these are people that I keep at arm’s length, mostly without even meaning to do so. Those depressed years, those anxious years, those years during which I stopped feeling brave, weren’t just years that felt like failures academically. They felt like failures socially, emotionally, too. I’ve always been solitary, been the sort of person to have a small list of close confidants. And those relationships are often transitory. Brad and I have been together for just under seven years. What is striking about that fact is not that it is my longest romantic relationship but that it is also my longest non-familial emotionally intimate relationship of any kind. So yes, I have always been solitary and transitory but there was a point when I had two relationships (one quasi-romantic, one purely platonic) go wrong in similar ways in a short period of time. Those relationships were, at the time, the bulk of my support. There was a time, during all of that, where I thought maybe my heart might be so broken it couldn’t be fixed.
I was wrong. It turned out the pieces could be reassembled, but the cracks do still show. Those losses made me cautious. They made me want to be my own support. They made me scared and sad and slow to trust. I have spent recent years trying to work my way out of that, trying to figure out which of the walls I built are load-bearing and which are just fundamentally in the way of leading the life I want to live. I’ve made progress but it’s been slow and I am realizing that I need to work hard on finding ways to let go, finding ways to heal the damage.
3a. Let people know how much I appreciate them
This turns out to be hard and scary sometimes. You’d think it’d be easy to say to someone “you’re awesome” but I find it surprisingly hard. Looking back, though, on my relationships that have gone badly I realize that one of the things I regret most is holding onto my caring, hiding it in the folds of my heart, because I was afraid, because I didn’t want to seem like I was asking for reciprocation, maybe even because I didn’t feel I deserved reciprocation. It is hard too, because many of the people I have loved over the years are people who are not used to having caring expressed. Pair that with me not being particularly used to expressing it and things get awkward. Still, practice makes perfect and I’ve been blessed lately with some good role-models in the realm of telling people they’re awesome.
3b. Reach out for hands that are reaching back
I have spent a lot of my recent years building my social life around other people’s invitations. I stopped reaching out to people to do things because I feared rejection, because I had been flaked on a lot, because I was tired and broken and didn’t know how to ask for what I needed. I’ve tried to be better about this, but I am still much too unlikely to reach out to people I’d like to spend more time with and say “hey you wanna do something.” If you never reach out it greatly reduces your risk of being rejected but it’s also pretty lonely. Last winter I tried to re-cultivate the connection with one of the two people who had been my support pillars that crumbled. It went, to put it mildly, poorly. And I found myself tempted to slam all my walls back up, to draw a little circle around the few people I had started to trust and declare “these people I will trust and no more.” I resisted that urge. Perhaps I slowed at tearing down walls, but I did not reconstruct my fortress. Instead I reminded myself that the problem isn’t reaching, the problem is reaching in the direction of hands that aren’t reaching back. And so, now, I will re-remind myself of that April resolution. Reach for hands that are reaching back.