It is time, once again, when I first look back over the past twelve months and then think ahead to where I want to go in the year to come. This annual review is one small part of a larger practice to have an honest conversation with myself in the hopes that I’ll then be able to have real conversations with the larger world.
During 2019, I’ve thought a great deal about place, privilege, and—given the tenor of the times—paths forward individually as well as collectively.
Why place? My career has been focused on older and historic places, what those places can tell us, and how they can nurture us (or not) into the future. Although I took a gap year from full-time work in 2019, I didn’t stop thinking about my life’s work. Knowing that emotions flow through place, in my writing over this year I’ve focused more on the buildings and landscapes in our cities and towns that, while coming from my professional life, also have deep personal meaning for me.
Why privilege? In observing these special places and reflecting on the stories behind the people who shaped them, I’ve increasingly recognized the privileges I’ve been granted due to my gender, race, and economic status; privileges that are denied others for no reason other than they do not fit within the same groups.
Why paths forward? Well, by finally stepping back to give myself time to think, question, sometimes dawdle, practice, and attempt to be open to grace in a time of trouble, I am working to discover hopeful and helpful pathways forward for the years ahead.
In this reflection, I am—as always—pushed, informed, and blessed by the writers I admire. Ursula K. Le Guin, in “The Horsies Upstairs” from her collection of essays No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters reminds me of the richness of knowledge available throughout my life, if I’ll only take advantage of it.
“What it made me think about above all is how incredibly much we learn between our birthday and last day—from where the horsies live to the origin of the stars. How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.”
Labyrinth in memory of our family friend Andrew Lane at Trinity Church, Staunton, VA
Knowledge is acquired in multiple ways. During 2019, I was blessed to travel extensively, from Europe to Asia. However, the trick is not to require travel to open up our inner places, but to live more of our lives as we do when we travel to be moved. Or, as Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Rebecca Solnit, in “Labyrinths and Cadillacs” from her book Wanderlust, reminds me that symbolic travel, as in a labyrinth, also has important lessons for life.
“That circle became a world whose rules I lived by, and I understood the moral of mazes: sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.”
And in thinking ahead to paths forward in life, I—like all of you—are living in an age that some have dubbed “post-fact” or “post-truth.” How does one deal with that? Well, I’m fond of saying that while something may not be “factual,” it is still true. The trick is to understand when we are being gaslighted with false facts that don’t point to truth. Recollections have a way of changing through the years, so that the facts may shift with each telling. However, if the essential truth remains, I am inclined to cut the storyteller a great deal of slack. The late Nobel laureate Toni Morrison wrote that for her, the crucial distinction
“…is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.”
I have worked for several years now with a set of life rules (rather than annual resolutions) for living the next third of my life. As I look at my eight life rules every morning, I want to use 2020 to continue to focus on ways to live with compassion, grace, insight, integrity, and love.
A fall morning in downtown Silver Spring
Rule #1. Be Grateful. Be Thankful. Be Compassionate. Every Day. This is a habit I took on several years ago, as I wanted to move beyond regret and angst to make gratitude a larger part of my life. Gratitude, while generally for something that happened in the past, says much about the present. By saying thank you to one person each day, I found that I was reminded of how much we are all connected and depend on each other. It is a habit that has also made me richer in spirit. As I transitioned out of my full-time career in 2019, I was the recipient of a great deal of thankfulness and kindness, which helped me remember how much this habit impacts more than just one individual.
There is a whole inspirational industry built up around “small acts of kindness.” I’ve come to believe that there is no such thing. Small acts have ripple effects that we can’t even imagine. You never know who is watching or who is touched and where the ripples will reach.
In today’s world, there is a great deal of emphasis put on getting all you can for yourself and your loved ones, while leaving others behind. Being grateful, thankful, and compassionate is, to me, about equality. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we are all in this life together.
Rule #2. Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life. This was an important goal for me as I transitioned from full-time work to my gap year and semi-retirement, in part because of the integrity required to maintain a discipline. In 2019 I knew I had to build and sustain a daily ritual of long-distance walking into my mornings. About halfway through the year, I also took on a yoga practice, where I work on flexibility, stamina, and balance. Both practices have been very satisfying. In the year ahead, I look forward to growing this exercise practice even more fully into the structure of my life.
Rule #3. Listen more than you talk. I was successful at this…except when I wasn’t. Seriously, I’ve noted in the past that this is a tough one to measure. Listening is an act of love. There is also insight to be gained as well as grace both given and received from listening. As much as I try to act out of love for others, this is obviously a part of my practice in life that needs more work.
Recognition is only part of the solution. Active, intentional listening requires more. In Rebecca Solnit’s insightful new book Whose Story is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters, the author quotes the actor Chris Evans, in the context of the #MeToo movement, as saying of well-meaning men, “The hardest thing to reconcile is that just because you have good intentions doesn’t mean it’s your time to have a voice.”
Rule #4. Spend less than you make. 2019 was the year when the rubber met the road on this life rule. Retirement (even of the semi variety) will have that effect. It doesn’t mean that I was able to transition successfully all at once. This is a work in progress, and a late year review of how I’d done in the first eight months suggested I have more to do in this area. As I’ve noted in year’s past, when I do spend money (e.g., good restaurants, good wine, good books) I tend to treat myself and others well. Those expectations will need to continue to be adjusted.
I just counted, and I now have 48 books in my “to be read” pile. One way to spend less is not to buy a new book until I make a serious dent (or even, gulp, complete?) that pile! I’m going to start a page in my bullet journal of “books to buy…when I finish all the ones in my pile.” That should be an incentive!
Rule #5. Quit eating crap! Eat less of everything else. I need to reframe this challenging life goal in part as a way of showing love to those who care for me. Now that I’m eating more frequently at home, the quality of what I’m having has improved. “My Fitness Pal” tracker remains a good measure of my weight trend line for the year (flat for 2019) as well as for the types of food I’m eating. When I turn 65 in three months, I want to be well on my way to a new practice in this area of my life.
Rule #6. Play music. I continue to believe that the world is a better place when I play music. My music is better when I play with others. And this is one area where my gap year has brought improvement. My tracking charts for 2019 show that I pulled out my guitars an average of 6 days/week. I also began working through some on-line lessons and learning new tunes. My goal here is to learn at least one new tune each month in 2020, and share it with musical friends. Life is good.
Rule #7. Connect and commit. Again, this was an area of practice that improved with semi-retirement, in part because I quickly realized how important connection with others is to my sanity. I now have a three-month rolling schedule to remind me to get together for lunch, coffee, or dinners with friends and former colleagues. We’re also working as a family to have others over more frequently. I’m an introvert at heart, but also require the human touch.
Brené Brown has noted that her plan for reaching out to others in 2020 is to be awkward, brave, and kind, which seems to be good advice. She writes:
These aren’t easy for me—especially if being predictable and consistent are important. But I’m going to keep crawling my way back to them in 2020. Especially when I’m tempted to act cool OR choose comfort over that crappy, hard conversation OR when I’m dying to be judge-y and blame-y instead of empathic and compassionate.
The Browns, December 2019
Rule #8. Don’t be a Grumpy Old Man. Enjoy life! I’ve written in past years that this is not a concern on a daily basis, but more of a reminder that it can be easier to lose the joy of life as one moves through the years. I have had the privilege later in life to explore new practices and untapped sources of wisdom. In that work, there is the challenge of opening up our inner places to those experiences while combating the natural tendency toward rigidity in mind and spirit. We’ve all seen people who, as they move through life, fear what’s next and want to hang on to what they have and what they wish to be true. As Ursula K. Le Guin notes in No Time to Spare, these are the ones who have “given up on the long-range view.”
Fortunately, there are also those who, in Le Guin’s words, live in a country that has a future. If we are flexible enough in mind and spirit to recognize “how rich we are in knowledge,” and all that we have the opportunity to learn, we can maintain the seeking, trusting capacity for learning that we had as a two-year-old.
Author Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “I am still every age that I have been.” Even with a late-in-life gap year, there is opportunity to create something new at the intersection of experience and innovation. That’s my goal for 2020 and beyond.
Bring it on!
More to come…
Installment #19 of The Gap Year Chronicles