Four days into the year, how are your resolutions working out for you?
I hope you didn’t make any but instead have quests that you are so passionate about that you cannot but follow. If those resolutions are already looking tired, try, instead, to construct a ‘to-be’ list.
Don’t make this an impossible and overwhelming set of goals threatening to find you wanting when you don’t become a saint by February. But do be creative and bold. What acts of inner commitment and hope do you need to make in order warm your journey along the path?
What qualities matter most to you in your life?
Make your list. Think deeply. Breathe it in.
There is plenty of winter left. The first green shoots of spring might be spearing through the earth by early February, but if you live anywhere like Wales it can be well into March or even April before spring feels established. The colder, darker months are good times for going inwards. To develop a writing life of depth in a frenetic world we need to slow down and be present.
Of course, we sometimes need some help along the way. The light of a bright star to lead us to an epiphany perhaps. We find those stars both within ourselves and beyond ourselves.
Take a double page in your journal, or a big sheet of paper you can pin up somewhere.
Draw a horizon line across it near the bottom (perhaps with your city or village’s skyline).
Now fill the sky (most of the the paper) with big stars. Inside each star, write a quest that embodies the person and writer you want to become, a quest that embodies the qualities on your to-be list.
As you work, the questions are:
- What will you be writing this year?
- And how will this fit in with the quests of your life for 2019?
Don’t fall into the trap of making this a list of resolutions. You might want the structure of word counts or numbers of articles that you intend to write. You might want a list of the places you want to visit, people you want to spend time with and experiences you would like to participate in. But make it visual.
Be imaginative. Be courageous. Be generous.
Yet we also need to look outwards. However incrementally, the days are lengthening now, the sun will return. So, on this Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, we also need to look ahead.
We need to anchor these quests not only in thought but also in action.
In Rising Strong, Brené Brown writes about people who have overcome suffering and failure. It’s not one of those awful paeans to failure as just another rung on the ladder of triumph (mostly material triumph) but a consideration of vulnerability and courage and she particularly notes how important creativity is and how, in turn, creativity has to be embodied. We have to live and breath it. Brown writes:
Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands. We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration — it is how we fold our experiences into our being… The Asaro tribe of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea has a beautiful saying: “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.”
Our writing moves all the journaling, deep thinking and internal commitment from heart to hands to world.
So think about how you will do that.
Think about when you will give your quests time.
Now go and write those stars into your calendar, blocks of sacrosanct time.
Living in epiphany
Life is precious and fragile. We get one chance to make it count. And significance is not about money or fame or Twitter followers, it’s about the small and profound differences we make, sometimes simply by who we are, sometimes by paying attention and living from abundance.
Alan Lightman puts it like this, in The Accidental Universe:
If against our wishes and hopes, we are stuck with mortality, does mortality grant a beauty and grandeur all its own? Even though we struggle and howl against the brief flash of our lives, might we find something majestic in that brevity? Could there be a preciousness and value to existence stemming from the very fact of its temporary duration? And I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer its flower opens to reveal silky white petals, which encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.
Sunday will be the feast of epiphany. Epiphany rarely comes when we are consciously trying to force it and, when it does come, it is rarely what we expect. This is how Eliot imagines it for the sages searching for a child to save the world in his poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.§
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Finding the still point of our stories is a dance with inspiration and flow; its the courage to construct a life that says ‘no’ often, and always to those things that distract us and fritter our time into a frazzled sense of meaninglessness; it’s the unexpected surprise that comes upon us when we make ourselves vulnerable by being present, attentive, humble, compassionate and generous.
The gorgeous phrase, ‘at the still point’, comes from another of Eliot’s poems, ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of the Four Quartets:
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
Living with uncertainty
The activist, Rebecca Solnit, thinking of walking and the dance with the mysterious, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, puts it like this:
Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since. […] The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?
At the start of a new year we need to look both within and beyond ourselves.
It is good to know what stars we are following, what quests we are engaging with and to have concrete ways to do so.
But we have to be prepared to let go, to lose ourselves in creativity and in walks, to make ourselves vulnerable to what life offers, to allow ourselves to be surprised and to take more delight in the path and the process than in the fixed outcome.
Eliot’s magi didn’t get the outcome they’d expected and yet it was still epiphany. When we choose to become a different story, and set out with a warm and generous heart, epiphany, even if it doesn’t look as we’d expected. awaits.
Call to become your story
Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re there, download my free course, Giving yourself time to become a different story.
If you would like to explore becoming your story further, my journaling course Becoming your story will inspire, encourage and support you to develop a writing life that is congruent with your values and your dreams.