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How I Learned to Let Go and Love 2017

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?”[1]

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.

[1] Credit especially to Jamie Ridler at Jamie Ridler Studios.

Kickin’ It Day 21: And I Quote…

Today on Kickin’ It, we’re sharing favorite quotes. I gave Jamie Ridler one of my favorites a few days ago in response to her post about who she loves. Here it is again—by William James:

“If you say that this is absurd, and that we cannot be in love with everyone at once, I merely point out to you that, as a matter of fact, certain persons do exist with an enormous capacity for friendship and for taking delight in other persons’ lives, and that such persons know more of truth than if their hearts were not so big.”

I thought I’d pick out another one of the quotes I’ve gathered, one that particularly speaks to me today. I thought it was going to be one by Johnny Depp, who has said some very pithy things about individual uniqueness and being true to yourself. But what jumped out at me today was this quote by my ex-boyfriend Brian:

“You can do whatever you want.”

He was saying this to me at a time in my life when I felt trapped on all sides, especially regarding my job. I was seriously ill and needed to take a leave of absence, but I kept thinking that I instead needed to meet my responsibilities to others—to my colleagues, to my employer—rather than my responsibilities to myself. Brian said, “You can do whatever you want,” not as encouragement to dream big or anything like that, but as a very concrete recognition of the moment-by-moment reality: in that moment, I could, in fact, do what I wanted to do rather than what I was expected to do or what I thought I had to do or what I believed would satisfy others. I could take the day off. I could take a leave of absence. I could not answer that e-mail message if I wasn’t up to it. I really could do whatever I wanted.

And then the message expanded: in every moment, I could, in fact, choose to do whatever I wanted. I could take that art class. I could move to another city. I could leave my career. I could sit and stare at the grass for hours. I could decide for myself, in each moment, out of the reality of my own heart and soul or even just my own random preferences.

It was a huge turnaround for me, part of a larger recognition that “responsibility” doesn’t just mean responsibility to others, but also responsibility to oneself, to one’s real truth. It was part of a larger commitment to a deeper truthfulness in all areas of my life, to radical honesty.

I’m still living that way.



I remember, while I was working these ideas out those years ago, sharing them with someone I didn’t know very well. She was horrified and saw me as at risk of becoming hedonistic and careless and irresponsible and a burden to others. It turned out that she had grown up in a family where she was the only “responsible” one. She was forever rescuing others in her family from the choices they had made without consulting their own real needs and without considering how their choices would affect others. She couldn’t imagine where I was coming from.

To me, this is one of many examples of how people need to hear and learn different things because we’re all coming from different places. Some people do need to hear “Consider others.” Some people need to hear “Be kind to others” and “Be selfless rather than selfish.” That’s the message we hear most often from religious leaders, and it’s one we as a society need to keep hearing. But for some people, those messages fall flat—they just reinforce lifelong training in not honoring one’s own truth or attending to one’s own wants and needs. To be “self-centered” in the sense of being centered in the higher self—I remember Joseph Campbell quoting someone, a German philosopher I think, about being “a wheel spinning out of its own center.” It doesn’t make one egotistical and callous and insensitive to the needs of others—it just honors the deeper truth within all of us, including the self.

The Dalai Lama once had to have the concept of self-loathing explained to him. He was mystified. He said, “But all beings have Buddha nature!” You, too.

Kickin’ It Day 16: Favourite Songs

I’ve gone over to the dark—I mean Canadian—side with you and your u’s. 😀 After all, we wouldn’t even have a Kickin’ It Old Skool Blogathon if it weren’t for our lovable Canadian friends, Jamie and Shannon!

I glanced at everyone else’s posts so far today, and I noticed that the vibe is non-OCD, which is a relief, so here’s my haphazard, unsystematic, noncomprehensive list of “favourite” music-type thingies:

1. Almost anything by Storyhill, including a lot of Chris and Johnny’s separate work. Fave off their last CD: Well of Sorrow.

2. Carrie Elkin’s Jesse Likes Birds

3. Dan Wilson’s Against History

4. Peter Mayer’s “The Birthday Party”

5. The Gear Daddies’ Cut Me Off

6. Lyle Lovett’s Long Tall Texan

7. The Monkees’ Sometime in the Morning

8. The Monkees’ Daily Nightly

9. Cat Stevens’s Can’t Keep It In

10. The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love (Oh my gosh, how did I forget to put Yellow Submarine, and let’s face it, The Beatles Anthology, on my favourite movies list?)

11. Andrew Bird’s Two Way Action

12. Stuart Davis’s Universe Communion

13. Nirvana’s All Apologies

14. REM’s Radio Free Europe

15. Train’s Drops of Jupiter

16. The Byrds’ Eight Miles High

17. Pearl Jam’s Alive

18. Fun.’s Some Nights

19. Fun’s Carry On

I like melody, harmony, passion, and great lyrics. Though for the poverty of its lyrics, I hold a special place in my heart for The Turtles’ “Elenore.”

Kickin’ It Day 2: Time Capsule

Day 2 of the Kickin’ It Old Skool Blogathon! Today we’re making a little time capsule by answering these seven questions:


My copy of The Complete Works of Jane Austen. Seriously!

What are you reading? I re-read Jane Austen and Harry Potter over and over again, and at the moment I’m going through my torn-up, waterlogged, taped-up, binder-clipped copy of Pride and Prejudice for the millionth time. I’m also catching up on reading friends’ books. For some reason, while I was writing my own book, I couldn’t read anyone else’s. So now I have a backlog. I’m in the middle of Earl Russell’s great memoir Cold Turkey at Nine: The Memoir of a Problem Child. Next I move on to Dan Simons’s and Chris Chabris’s The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us (What?! I love intuition! But I also love Dan, gorillas, and cognitive psychology. 😀 ) Then it’s on to Habits of the Heartland: Small-Town Life in Modern America, a great study of Viroqua, Wisconsin, written by my grad school buddy Lyn Macgregor.

What are you watching? Jamie Ridler’s Behind the Scenes videos! And Christmas movies. And the Harry Potter movie marathon. And Jen Lee’s interview with Tim Manley is on my list.

What are you listening to? Local folk! This week I’m going to see The Sea The Sea at the home of Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt.

What are you loving? I’m loving having my first book published and the chaos of getting oriented to the next phase of my life. I’m especially loving the sun when it appears this time of year! Love you, sun! Don’t ever leave me.

What are you wearing? Wine-colored nightie and socks when I started this post, blue sundress when I finished it.


Some of the clutter I’m clearing.

What are you creating? I seem to be very slowly creating a more clear, decluttered, aesthetically pretty and streamlined apartment/work space. Also many lists and calendars.

What are you looking forward to? Breathing room. Space. Empty space on my calendar. Space in my apartment. Space in my mind. Clarity.