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.