This invitation from Mary Oliver is a beautiful question.
It is also way too much pressure.
It is true that life is wild. It is true that life is precious. And it is true that we only get one. One.
The fact that we only get one life makes it all the more wild and precious!
Does this make anyone besides me feel terrified and excited at the same time? Like every choice I make has the potential to make or break my future, and potentially the future of the planet?
In our society of too many choices and impossibly ample opportunities, we all know it is not so easy to know what we want “to do” with our lives.
This is nothing against Mary Oliver. She writes to inspire, and rightfully begs us to take this one opportunity seriously.
But what if we take it too seriously?
A year ago, when a new year dawned and I once more pondered what I want to do with my life, I yet again teetered on a fine line, between making a bucket list of the ten thousand things I want do, vs. doing absolutely nothing.
I want to do it all—isn’t that what our culture trains us to want?
But overwhelmed by the prospect of the next fork in the road becoming the determining factor for the rest of my life, I don’t want to get it wrong.
The question is too big for me to handle.
So this year, rather than paralyze myself or give up, by good fortune or grace a thought came to me that would help me parse the too-big question into smaller pieces.
It’s a new year. A year. It’s not a new “rest of my life.”
What if I only had to decide what I want to do with this one, wild, precious, singular, 365-day year?
Now that is a question I can handle.
As the year began I asked myself the question, What do I want to do with this year?
Who do I want to be at the end of it?
What experience do I want to have?
What do I want to contribute?
Turns out, these were all variants of the same question.
And the answer came: I want to write.
I’ve always loved to write. It brings me joy. I am decent enough at it. So I thought, I may be able to say something that would mean something to someone, or help someone.
Or maybe not. But I was pretty sure I’d enjoy trying.
I knew I needed to clarify that “want to write” intention further into a singular goal, a specific, clearly-defined keystone goal, as our en vogue time management and habit gurus have christened it.
A keystone goal is a foundational touchstone that holds the rest of our goals together. It’s a focal point that keeps us on track in our chosen direction, rather than enticed off-road onto the ten thousand tracks of distraction and overwhelm. It’s an exercise in specifics.
So I asked myself to get specific.
Q: What would it look like, specifically, to devote myself to writing this year?
A: I’ll write something new every two weeks.
Q: How will I keep myself on task?
A: Well, I’ll need accountability. I’ll tell someone I’m going to do it. And I’ll go one step further: I’ll promise to post it online.
Ok, that starts to feel a little vulnerable. But it’s only a year. And it’s only writing.
So I decided to set up a blog to write. I got a website, with my name as the URL. I joined a writing course, with fellow students and mentors supporting one another in our writing. And I embraced the goal-achieving equivalent of a silver bullet: an accountability partner.
I told my AP, with all the nonchalance I could muster, “I’m going to publish 24 articles this year. Two per month, for twelve months.”
He said he would hold me to it. And the race began.
One article went out and up. I shared it on Elephant Journal, and it got promoted as an editor’s pick. Inspired, I wrote another. And another. One article got bumped up to a curated section on Medium. Another got accepted for publication by Kosmos magazine. I kept going—kept my “butt in the chair,” as the irreverently helpful Steven Pressfield would say in The War of Art—and pressed on.
Sometimes it took two weeks to write an article; other times it took two months. A few times it took one or two evenings of wild inspiration bubbling forth from the open veins of my psyche. But the timelines evened out, and about every two weeks on average, I was able to extricate some word-filled creation from my depths and splatter it into the digisphere and tick it off my list: one more piece of writing in the books.
Impressed with my progress, I started thinking beyond the writing. What do I really want to write about? What about those causes and communities that are so important to me? What if I wrote a little less about how to make a tasty golden milk elixir, and instead began weaving my life lessons and hard-won experience into a more thoughtfully designed tapestry of meaning?
I’ve always had plenty I want to say, but here I was, saying it on purpose, and on plan. Re-energized by the fresh consideration of the recurrent themes of my life’s wanderings, a shape began to take form within the shadowy waters of the still-emerging year.
I gave my website a name.
I gave her a project, and a personality.
I started filling her in.
And by the end of the year, I had explored my life in writing from twenty-four different directions. I built a body of writing, and shared it with others, exposing my vulnerabilities and growing braver in the process.
I set a new foundation under my feet, reopened old doors of thought and inspiration, and remembered what I have always stood for. Then I reached out to people who stand for the same things, and continued my learning.
Courses. Mentors. Deeper exploration of self. A vision quest in the wilderness. A journey to the upper and lower worlds, all spurred on by my urgent desire to become more fully me. I struck up a new apprenticeship with my soul. And on the other side, I found a richness I had been looking for back in the day, in those scrawled-upon notebook pages filled with rambling bucket lists. Ever elusive, such riches would never have been found in to-do lists pieced together with other people’s dreams.
The year rolled toward it’s end. I settled in to a rhythm, not only of writing, but of becoming more like myself. I asked someone I’d met, someone who stands for the same things I do, if they’d like to record a conversation with me. And voilà, a podcast was born.
A podcast? Ah, well now I’ll need to learn some new software, make myself some graphics, figure out the best microphone to use, and find the best closet in my house to convert to a recording space to drown out the neighbor’s hot rod and the cats’ random meows.
Bit by bit, I learned.
I checked in with my accountability partner. I posted my writing on social media (not my style). I stretched far outside my comfort zone as my “simple” goal led me to explore into complexities I hadn’t expected.
I grew further into the person I want to live with as we walk together through this wild and precious, terrifying and exciting life.
Some tough things happened last year, the year before this one.
I had tried to get myself a step up in life by taking a data science course, and after an excruciating six months of pounding my head against that wall (and spending a lot of money I didn’t have), I realized that I hated data science.
I lost a precious, beloved friend to a meth addiction. I regretted and negotiated and held on to what was long gone, leaving my heart bloodied and my soul exhausted, to no avail.
I rambled and cried, and punched the sky in anger. I tried to choose one path or another, again finding myself lost in tangles of questions I couldn’t answer. Man, I thought I had some of this figured out years ago, but I still have no idea what to do. I sat to meditate, kept up the sun salutations, languished on long road trips searching once again for my peace, and then lost the bliss as soon as I opened the front door.
But this year? I just wrote.
What would we do if we really only had one wild and precious year at a time to live?
What if we couldn’t do everything with it?
What if there were no such thing as a bucket list? (Hint: 50 years ago, there wasn’t.)
What if we gave ourselves the gift of making just one choice for this year, a list with just one item on it?
We might find out that we are braver than we thought we were.
We might find out that we do know how to choose.
We might find out that we have a cornucopia of possibility inside us, and if only we stop trying to sort through the possibilities outside us, we might find our own voice within us just chilling, twiddling its fingers, waiting for us to catch up.
Mary Oliver is a blessing of a poet. Her poem, “The Summer Day,” ends with that question that so perplexes and titillates we modern masses of lost souls desperately searching for our “purpose.”
What will we do with our one precious life, really?
That same poem begins like this:
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper...
I marvel at the simple grace of Oliver’s poetry. I wonder along with her about the source of life and wisdom, the infinite intelligence that weaves through all being, the creative impulse behind all blessed choices.
Then I take a step back, and ask myself, who made my sandwich?
By golly, it was me.
The year has once again turned, and this week another spin of the wheel begins.
Lao Tzu teaches in the Tao Te Ching:
The worldly man learns something new every day. The man of the Tao forgets something every day.
I’m ready to forget everything except what this one next year calls me to do.
Meantime, I buy a bottle of champagne. “Pop.”
I’m celebrating. Not the beginning of a new year, but the end of a year just ended and fully, simply lived. I feel no need to look forward to another year of infinite possibility. I’m looking forward, instead, to a year of bare and beautiful minimums, some colorful, unexpected twists and turns sprinkled in along the way, and a pinch of accountability thrown in for good measure.
I do know the size of my plans for the coming year: they’re big enough to hold just me and and one elegant, simply-dressed goal. We will dance a couples dance and sing a folksy duet in rotation around the seasons of the year. And when that new year grown old draws to a close, the two of us will pop another cork and drink.
There is a place in life for the big questions. I live in that place most of the time. But it is a place we can get lost in. If we don’t allow ourselves to live in the smallness of things once in a while, we may ironically become so lost that we end up smaller than we ever meant to be. Being too small easily leads to being too overwhelmed by life, and there’s a darn good chance from there that we’ll never be comfortable making another big decision ever again.
This is the year I kept it small (but not too small). And I won.
So I say celebrate what you’ve made, what you’ve achieved, who you’ve become! Life needs us to push ourselves, to evolve.
But don’t make it too big. The world is big enough already.
Just make it the right size for you. And you may find that your small, simple calling ever so quietly expands to fill the whole world.
What is it I will do with my one wild and precious and just-the-right-sized new year?
What is it you will do?
Life is waiting for us to decide.
This article also appeared on Elephant Journal at this link.
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I love your writing. I had no idea. Embaking on the journey of retirement, 2020 hindsight and a new relationship with Gayle is scary and exciting at the same time. Always thought that I was a seat of the pants let whatever happen kind of guy but a friend pointed out that I am a planner but I am unafraid to change course midstream and head off in a new direction, Plan B! Gayle and I have laughed about this often because she was a Plan B on my first trip to Arizona. Thanks for being such a dear friend and sharing so much!
Hey, thank you for reading! I love your comment — now that you mention it, I think I’m like you, a planner, but unafraid to shift course when things change. Planning + Plan B work together and sometimes bring great gifts into our lives, don’t they? I’m excited for your new journey and trust you’ll make the most of it! 😉