When I left my career as a professor and started my life over in 2009, it was partly an exercise in taking charge. I moved to a new city and left behind a career, friends, colleagues, an ex-boyfriend, and all the parts of my identity associated with these things, and I was going to create new versions of all of them from scratch.
So began my project-driven life. I had spent years going where the school or job was, making friends with whoever was there, wrapped up in academia, and being mostly at the effect of my career and my local circumstances. Now everything was blank. I had enormous freedom — and enormous responsibility. I had a notebook divided into sections with multiple to-do lists for my various build-a-life projects — Job, Book, Home and Community, Boyfriend, Self. It was the first of many such notebooks and lists.
I began a ritual, at the end of every year, of writing in my journal answers to a list of thirty-some questions about the year that was ending and the year to come. I had compiled the list from similar ones from different life coaches I’d worked with, and it included questions like these: “What were some of your favorite moments this year?” “Who was significant in your life?” “What are you proud of?” “What do you wish to celebrate?” “What did you enjoy doing this year that you’d like to do more of?” “What do you want to stop doing or let go of?” “What new opportunities are available for the coming year?” “What would you like to invite into your life next year?” “What would you like to accomplish?” and “What would you like to be celebrating next December?”
It’s always been a good ritual for me — a chance to reflect, take stock, think about my priorities, and realign myself with the things that matter to me. Each year, I’ve found themes in my answers to the different questions, and I’ve used those themes to orient myself to the coming year — to what I wanted to do, create, think about, emphasize, and be.
I did the ritual of the questions early this year, finding myself with some unexpected down time on a pre-Christmas weekend. But this year, it was different. The assumption behind all these questions, the assumption behind my project-driven life for the past eight years, flew out the window in 2017. I had done one or two things out of my own will, desire, and effort — I’d made a couple of helpful changes in how I organized my finances and my apartment. But mostly, this was not a year about me doing things. This was a year about things happening — to me, to my friends, my family, and my country. Larger forces were at work — love, illnesses, injuries, hurricanes, eclipses, beginnings, endings, and a national government whose unresponsiveness to its citizens was now fully out in the open.
It’s human nature to see patterns and connections, and the political scene once again seemed to reflect my personal scene. The government had become unmoored from the will of the people; my life had become unmoored from my own will, focus, and direction. The big things just happened — bad things, then better things; tragedies, then reprieves; stretches of stability, then sudden decline; moments of great joy, cycles of depression, periods of serenity and then of exhaustion — like the ebb and flow of the ocean; like the seasons; like life.
The down side, of course, is learned helplessness — that sense we all get sometimes that our efforts don’t matter, that nothing we do makes much difference in the direction things take. Most of my answers to the question “What do you want to be celebrating next December?” have been the same each year; only one or two of those celebrations have taken place; only one or two of those goals have I been able to check off the list as done.
But the up side of acknowledging my supporting role in my own life this year is the relief that always comes with voicing the truth and the additional relief of giving up responsibility. The whole world is not, after all, on my shoulders, and neither is the work of determining my life. It’s just as incomplete to focus only on my own personal efficacy as it would be to pretend that I’m powerless and totally without a voice in the bigger chorus of crickets and souls.
I still organize my life by projects. Next year’s are familiar categories that I’ve learned over time reflect some of my strongest priorities — the ones I can’t take for granted and the ones I can’t check off my list and mark “done”: Money, Love, Creativity, Happiness.
Commitment, I’ve always thought, is the things you come back to. Life happens, distractions carry you off course — that’s just a part of living. But commitment means coming back to the things you know are important to you, and coming back over and over. I pursue my projects in these four areas of life partly because I want the goals — I want the great romantic relationship; I want the financial security; I want a fulfilling creative life; I want to consistently do the things that I know make me happy. But partly I pursue these projects because that’s just what I do — that’s integrity, for me; that’s living my own life, being myself, sending my voice out into the chorus, and taking a Kelly-sized stand for the things that matter to me.
In the case of politics, I’m actually more optimistic, because I see that the stand I can take is not just Kelly-sized, but revolution-sized. This is the glory of working with local groups and national networks of people who think like me. When it comes to the government, I can see the effect that we’re already having. I can see the progress. It just takes a while, a while, and a longer while to get to the national level. Patience and consistency, grasshopper, and coming back to the good work again and again.
When I wrote those last two paragraphs, I thought I was going from small to large — from me and my little, individual life to us and our collective life as a citizenry. It’s a lie, of course. Love, creativity, happiness, illness and death, beginnings and endings, joy and suffering — these are the big things in life; these are the forces that are beyond any of us and yet still a part of each of us, woven into our souls. In 2018, like all the years before, I’ll keep coming back to them.