For the past few years, I have followed a practice first introduced to me by a friend and writer. At the beginning of each New Year, I choose a single word that acts as a goal, one that that defines my intention and guides my daily life. It’s taken more time than usual this year. Life has changed these past months with my husband’s retirement. We’re still adjusting as we embark upon this new life chapter, our plans vague at best, and for certain, our preferences not always in sync with each other’s.
Even though this practice of choosing one meaningful word takes time, I much prefer it over a list of resolutions. I used to write a list of those intended actions each New Year’s eve, more often than not, most of my good intentions had evaporated by February. But these past few days, I admit I have spent much more time searching for my word for 2016, exploring—and discarding—more than a few in the process.
I’ve consulted the usual sources, dictionary, thesaurus and favorite poems, hoping a word would suddenly be illuminated, leap off the page and be adopted word. In years past, I’ve chosen “rewrite,” “reinvent,” “heart,” and even “choice.” Each captured the essence of what I envisioned and wanted to achieve for each year. This year, however, the ambiguity of our state of transition had all but clouded my vision.
Ah, there it was. We’ve been asked dozens of times by well-meaning friends and family, “So what are your plans for your retirement?” I’m quick to respond with something like “we haven’t made any decisions yet,” or “I’m continuing to teach,” while my husband is more honest.
“I don’t know,” he says, acknowledging that this life change involves far more thought and adjustment than he realized. That’s true, but we are also very different in the way we deal with change. I tend to planning; he tends to seeing how things transpire. The result—for me—is a good deal of—you guessed it–ambiguity
I’d written for an hour early this morning, feeling re-energized after a two-day cleaning and de-cluttering marathon in my office. I cleaned out files, desk drawers, and a closet full of bins of writing group materials, intent on making my workspace as distraction free as possible. “Tidying, Marie Kondo writes, is just a tool…to establish the lifestyle you want…” (The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, 2014, p. 21).
It seems my cleaning marathon was not only a tool, but a metaphor for what I seek for my life this year. As I wrote, I described how invigorated I’d felt walking into my office this morning. I remembered the words from “Advice to Writers,” by Billy Collins:
Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be…
(In: Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems, 2002)
Hmmm. Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration? Apparently so, because by the end of the hour of writing, I had my word: Clarity. That’s not to say I can answer the question today, “So what are your plans for retirement?” any more definitively than I did last week, but my goal is to strive toward clarity—in my writing and my life.
Clarity is the most important thing. I can compare clarity to pruning in gardening. You know, you need to be clear. If you are not clear, nothing is going to happen. You have to be clear. Then you have to be confident about your vision. And after that, you just have to put a lot of work in. – –Diane Von Furstenberg, fashion designer.
Today I’m printing out the word “clarity” and placing it in a one inch square frame that sits next to my computer. It will be a daily reminder of what I intend to achieve this year. And next Sunday, at the first meeting in 2016 of the women’s writing group I lead, each person will come to share their chosen word and the explanation behind their choice. The act of thinking about and choosing their one word will no doubt be as much about one’s intent for living as well as one’s writing in the coming year. The process of considering and choosing one’s word always leads us into deeper waters, the territory beneath the water line so important to explore as a writer and someone living fully, a way of articulating what matters matter most to us and why.
Try choosing one word that reflects your intentions or goals for this new year? Begin by writing it at the top of your page, then continue writing for 20 minutes, exploring its meaning, the memories or images it evokes in you. You might even share your word choice in the comment section of this blog. Or, do as my friends and I do. Frame or post your word where you can see it on a daily basis and remind yourself of what you want to do this year, where you want to go, and why it matters.
The Way It Is
By William Stafford
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
(In: The Way It Is, New & Selected Poems, 1998)