Calm wonder

A few weeks back, I received an eloquent holiday letter from a friend who has faced some hard times in recent years but has steadily been moving forward into a vibrant and fulfilling new life. Along with recounting the year’s highlights—foreign travel, news of her kids—she spoke of her theme for the year ahead: Durable calm.

Over the next few days, I found my mind returning to these words—and mulling over how I’d describe the spirit in which I’d like to move through my own 2012.

“Calm” felt right. It’s not a quality that comes naturally to me—I tend towards the frantic and anxious—but it’s one that I’ve come to value more with each passing year.  I tried it out this week and noticed that even repeating the word in my mind seems to help ground me.

“Wonder” is another word that captured my imagination.  The idea of greeting the world with curiosity rather than with judgment. Of being interested in things as they are and less wrapped up in my ideas of how I think they ought to be. This certainly isn’t to say that opinions don’t have their place, just that I think that my life would richer if I carried them a bit more lightly.

In recent days, I’ve tried invoking the words—calm wonder–when I’m feeling uncertain or lost, and I’ve been struck by their capacity to remind me of what I care about most. Real meaning won’t be found in robotically checking off the next item on my to-do list but rather in taking time to experience life in all its confusion and beauty.

Calm wonder isn’t a goal in itself—a sort of New Year’s resolution. Rather it’s a container, the spirit with which I’d like to infuse everything I do. It’s also a sort of touchstone: When I’m stressed out and on the move, invoking the words orients me. It invites me to return.

I’m starting 2012 in a very different place from where I started 2011, and for that I am mostly grateful. I love my friends and the place I live. I love writing this blog. For the first time in more than two years, I’m reeling in more paying work than I can easily handle.

Which is all the more reason to be clear on my intention to cultivate calm wonder: to focus not so much on getting things done but on the doing of them.

Woody Guthrie’s 33 New Year’s resolutions (summed up in just 2 words)

Earlier this week, I wrote about how I’m not really a New Year’s resolution kinda gal, but if I were, I’d draw inspiration from a tattered handwritten document penned in 1942.

Drawn up by legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, the 33-item list is a quirky and sweet reminder of how the quality of our lives depends not so much on huge accomplishments but on the countless small actions and habits that constitute our days.

For the record, here is what the 30-year-old Guthrie sought to do in the year ahead:

1. Work more and better
2. Work by a schedule
3. Wash teeth if any
4. Shave
5. Take bath
6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
7. Drink very scant if any
8. Write a song a day
9. Wear clean clothes — look good
10. Shine shoes
11. Change socks
12. Change bed cloths often
13. Read lots good books
14. Listen to radio a lot
15. Learn people better
16. Keep rancho clean
17. Dont get lonesome
18. Stay glad
19. Keep hoping machine running
20. Dream good
21. Bank all extra money
22. Save dough
23. Have company but dont waste time
24. Send Mary and kids money
25. Play and sing good
26. Dance better
27. Help win war — beat fascism
28. Love mama
29. Love papa
30. Love Pete
31. Love everybody
32. Make up your mind
33. Wake up and fight

As I read over this list one more time, it struck me that the whole rambling lovely mass could be summed up in just two words: Be kind.

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be kind to your community and the planet we all inhabit. While concrete goals are great—and certainly have their place—it’s the spirit in which they’re undertaken that lies at the heart of it all.

Note: Big thanks to my friend and law school classmate Ted Mills, who shared the Guthrie list with me on Facebook in response to my previous post. Here’s the link he posted.

Stuck on New Year’s resolutions? Try this instead

Up Above!

I’ve always loved the idea of New Year’s resolutions—the clean slate, the fresh start, the optimistic resolve—but for all my ever-so-good intentions, I never quite seem to keep them.

So this year, I’m trying something new. Instead of establishing a list of goals and struggling (and failing) to reach them, I’ve decided to think in terms of possibilities.

Inspired by an essay in Wise Bread, I took 20 minutes out of Christmas morning to scribble down 100 things that I want to do—things that, at some level, seem to be calling to me. Nothing was too big. Nothing was too small. As more thoughts came to mind later in the day, I added them to the list.

By the time I was finished, I had some 85 items ranging from going to Thailand to taking a photography class to buying a KitchenAid mixer.  To someone else, this compilation might appear a weirdly random assortment. To me, it makes total sense. Reading it makes me happy.

Let me be clear, this is not a to-do list—it would take me years, if not decades, to accomplish everything I wrote down, and besides, that isn’t the point. What I was after was something more intangible, a framework for thinking about what matters to me and how I spend my time.

Looking over my list, I was instantly struck by how the things that call me come in clusters. Travel is a big one—no surprise—but so is organization, or rather the idea of creating a more ordered home and with it a more ordered life. Creative work, time in nature, and cooking with friends are other recurrent themes.

I was heartened to see that my big changes of recent years—most notably my move to western Massachusetts from the Boston area—have made it far easier for me to spend time in ways that feel meaningful. It was good to feel that I’ve been heading in the right direction.

And as interesting as what I wrote down was what I left out. Many (though not all) of the things on my list are inexpensive or free. Big-city glamor is in notably short supply. Making waffles, playing mini-golf, cross-country skiing. Stringing white lights around my living room windows. Re-learning how to knit. Corralling kids to make a gingerbread house and holiday cookies next year.

Thinking in terms of possibilities seems especially appropriate for Plan B Nation, where we need to be open-minded and strategic if we’re to move forward.

Rather than choosing a single concrete goal—say, getting a job at X organization–we’re well advised to think more broadly. What is the essence of what we want? (Meaningful work, an income adequate to support us in other life goals, interesting colleagues.)  What are some alternate paths to these same ends?

I imagine consulting this list many times in the year ahead, especially whenever I’m feeling at a loss or stuck. Twelve months from now, I’ll definitely be curious to see how many of the items from the list made it into my life. But again, that isn’t really the point. These aren’t goals so much as potential paths: They are stepping stones, not the destination.