The beginning of a new year holds great potential. It’s like we’re getting the chance to shed the leaves of our past and begin anew, much like the oaks and maples of northeastern forests. Each autumn as the days become shorter their broad leaves flame a hundred shades of red and a hundred shades of yellow before smoldering to the forest floor. These vibrant colors were present in their leaves all along, but were overwhelmed by the production of chlorophyll – a pigment which gives plants their green color. For a brief time the carotenoids and xanthophylls get the chance to express their vibrancy – those pigments whose names do not matter while watching them float earthward to join the tapestry at my feet.
After a time the leaves will turn brown and brittle as these pigments are lost to sunlight. And while it appears that life has gone dormant there is much that goes on beneath the surface. Bacteria, molds, fungi and beetles work to break down the cast-offs of living organisms like leaves and the exoskeletons of insects, and skins of snakes and the plants and animals themselves. This organic matter is broken down into its most basic elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Come spring these elements will be absorbed by spring peepers and lily pads, fireflies and dragonflies, and again by the oaks whose skeletons now crowd the winter sky.
I have not made any resolutions for this year. If I had, they might have gone something like this: 1) write every day; 2) exercise most days per week; and 3) eat healthy. My perfect day might be to get up at 5am so that I can write for two hours before going to work, exercise at lunch, come home and take Meg on a two mile walk after work and then cook a delicious and healthy meal for John and I. John would do the dishes.
In reality I hit snooze every ten minutes on my annoyingly loud 5 am alarm and get up just in time to fill my coffee mug before rushing off to work. I am 10 minutes late. Having gotten up late, I have left my gym clothes at home. I am secretly relieved. I get home and apologize to Meg for not taking her on a walk since it is dark and cold outside. It’s mid-winter after all. I promise her a big weekend of skiing – a promise I will keep. Finally, I throw an emergency pizza in the oven. John still does the dishes. This would not be a very satisfying way to start out the New Year. So this year I’ve opted for something different.
A few months ago I read a book entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. The author suggests writing a personal vision statement (he actually calls it a mission statement, but I prefer to think of it as a vision statement) on which to base my life. He suggests that if my goals come from a deeply felt sense of the kind of person I want to be, then I might have a chance at accomplishing the goals I set out to achieve. The author asked questions like — What are my deepest values? What really matters in my life? What kind of person do I want to be?
I thought they would be easy questions to answer, but when I came to write my personal vision statement I could not get on paper what my true values were. It’s not that I hadn’t thought about it before. I had, but perhaps I hadn’t thought about it enough or in the right way. This was frustrating because I’m in my own head a lot. Too much really, but it turns out I’m in my own head about the wrong things – worries about the future, regrets about the past, endless fantasies about what might happen.
So I gathered the questions Covey presented and let them loose into my subconscious to gather the debris, old ideas, dead ideas, the exoskeletons of my past experiences and let them compost in the wilderness of my mind. I let my subconscious do the work of breaking these materials down into their most basic elements. Here is what I came up with.
Progress not perfection. Just as decomposition is a process, the flowering of plants in spring is a process and the death of annuals in autumn is a process, so is life. There is no end result. There is only a continuation and each time the process is a bit different and always imperfect. Nutrients will be lost. Annuals will be plucked from the ground before they flower. I will make mistakes.
To live a conscious and deliberate life. Self-awareness is our greatest gift and our worst enemy. It can be used to live deliberately or it can be used to self-sabotage. How we choose to use awareness makes all the difference. For me living consciously and deliberately means that when I breathe in, I know that I am breathing in; when I walk, I know that I am walking; when I do the dishes, I know that I am doing the dishes.
To not take life or myself too seriously. If you’ve ever watched ravens flying on a windy day, you’ll know what I mean. They circle and tumble, swoop and dive – laughing as they surf the wind.
To live healthfully in mind, body and spirit. Moderation in all things. I don’t want to be an ascetic. Pie, of every flavor, is delicious, especially when shared with friends.
To practice letting go. It’s so hard to let go –of ideas, things, places. But when I really stop to look, there is never anything to hold on to. Everything is always changing on scales both large and small, most of which is out of our control, so I must enjoy it while it lasts.
To have greater self-compassion. The oak does not think that it isn’t growing fast enough or that its neighbor’s leaves are a bit brighter. It is what it is and that is enough.
And, in the words of the Dalai Lama, – “To be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”