New Year: Begin as you intend to continue

Full moon rises over the Big Horn Basin outside Cody.

“Begin as you intend to continue,” my Scots grandmother, Christine Faquharson Tweit used to say. (She was a Highland Scot by birth–that’s the Faquharson part, who married a Norwegian, hence the Tweit.)

It’s an old-fashioned piece of advice that seems almost self-evident, but it’s easy to forget how powerful setting the tone and intentions at the beginning of any endeavor can be, whether a New Year, a new task, or a new path in life. Start on your best foot, and you’ll give yourself the best chance for success.

So this morning when I woke an hour late after being out at a New Year’s Eve party last night, I thought, I’ll just be lazy, skip yoga, and go right to breakfast.

Then I heard my grandmother’s voice in my head, and I decided to start this first day of 2018 by remembering my intentions, which are:

To live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, as a way to further my mission:

To heal and restore this Earth and the Life and lives who share our glorious blue planet.

To nurture and celebrate diversity, that all may thrive.

And after a moment of internal grumbling, I unrolled my yoga mat and began my practice.

What does yoga have to do with those high-toned intentions? The yoga I practice is about physical and spiritual well-being, which are essential both to living with love, and having the strength and courage to work at mending and nurturing this battered world and we who share it.

Yoga is my morning tune-up, my time to check in with my body, and stretch and strengthen muscle, ligament, bone, and being. It’s also my time to stretch and strengthen my spirit through prayer, not the I-ask-the-surpreme-being-for-something kind. Prayers that invoke my connection to the earth and all that is sacred in this world, and my intentions for living with love and compassion, as I say at the end, “To everyone everywhere.” By which I mean, all beings, and all forms of life.

And wouldn’t you know, when I finished, I remembered that yoga is worth the time and energy, even when, perhaps especially when I don’t want to make the time and to put in the effort. It never fails: that half-hour of exercise and prayer always sets the tone of my day in a positive way. It helps me see the beauty around me, even when that’s difficult.

The spruce tree visible from my yoga spot.

(Beauty like the full moon, huge and butter-yellow, and peeking over Beacon Hill tonight in the photo at the top of the post. Or like the hoarfrost on the spruce needles out my bedroom window when it was minus two this morning.)

That exhortation to begin as I intend to continue is also why I dove into writing today, instead of spending this Monday holiday lazing around. All of my spare writing time for the past nine months has gone into a radical rewrite of my memoir, Bless the Birds, a story I thought finished last year, and which turned out to need a new perspective and its own new beginning.

In starting over, I took a risk familiar to every writer beginning any project: your idea about how to proceed may seem great at the outset, but it may not pan out. Creative writing–any creative work–is at least partly a gamble that you can make your inner vision come real, and that it’s a compelling vision that will speak to others.

The gamble is that you won’t necessarily know if your idea is working right away. You might spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years on a project that simply doesn’t ever cohere and sing.

That’s where I’ve been with this re-envisioning of Bless the Birds. I felt intuitively that the new narrative framework was worth a try, but I didn’t know if it would carry the story all the way through to the end in a way that was compelling, relatable, and believable.

These past few weeks, I’ve been writing in kind of a fever, pushed along by the work itself, as if it was racing toward that ending. On Saturday afternoon, I wrote the very last page, printed it out, and took the stack of 270 pages to my dining room. I set the manuscript on the table, fixed my lunch, and ate it with a stinking big grin on my face. I was and am proud of myself.

The manuscript for Bless the Birds

I finished. And the story works. In fact, I think this new version of Bless the Birds is the best writing I have ever done. I am a bit stunned that I pulled these words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages out of me.

I gave myself a day to bask in having completed a great draft. And then this morning, I dove back in and began revising. I read the first five chapters (45 pages) aloud as if narrating the audio version of the book. As I read, I listened to the story and I took out a bit here and there, added in other bits, adjusted words and sentences and paragraphs. Polishing the whole.

At the end of those five chapters, at quarter to four this afternoon as the light was going gold toward sunset, I had the same grin on my face. I like this story. A lot. It sings, it howls, it flows, it laughs, it sobs, it savors. It’s full of love and humor, silliness, pain, beauty, wisdom, and heartbreak. Life.

I’m going to give myself this week to read all 77,000 words (27 chapters plus the Epilogue) out loud, revising as I go. Then, if I still feel good about the story, off it goes to my agent to see what she thinks. And I will get back to the deadlines I’ve been ignoring as I poured my heart and mind and all my writing skill into Bless the Birds.

So as I sit here tonight, grinning like a lunatic at the stack of manuscript pages that will be my 13th book, I wish you all the most blessed of New Year’s. May you begin this year as you intend to continue.

May 2018 bring you joy and all sorts of unexpected gifts. And may you live with love, kindness, and courage, bringing your light to the darkness of this world, every day.

Oh yeah, I’m gonna shine!

Preparing for a New Year

I think of the long nights and short days of Northern Hemisphere winters as my "contemplative season." Summer's frenzy of activity has slowed to match the snowy weather and frozen season. I take advantage of the slower rhythm to look back over the year coming to a close, and consider what I want from my life and work in the year ahead.

As the days begin to ever-so-gradually lengthen after Winter Solstice, turning our hemisphere back toward the sun, warmth, and life, I prepare for that quickening by listening within for the "small, still voice" of heart and spirit.

I gave myself the week of Solstice and Christmas to take a break from the frenetic pace of my work this year, so I've actually had time to read and think, to listen and dream. (I've also been sick a couple of days, as if my body was reinforcing the reminder that I really do need to practice slowing down and tending myself.)

It's not that I haven't been writing. I just haven't pressed myself to produce writing of the deadline sort. 

I woke at dawn every day as I usually do, and then sat up in bed with my laptop on my lap, writing in my personal journal. In those "morning pages" as Julia Cameron calls them in her book, The Artist's Way, I simply let thoughts and words flow how and wherever they would. Perhaps because I didn't attempt to corral them, they yielded a few deep insights. 

A frost-garden flourishing on my windowpane before dawn the other morning. 

The most important came in my word for the coming year: Abundance. I didn't think it up. I heard it one morning in the half-light before dawn, as I journalled.

At first I resisted adopting the word, because like many women, I feel as if I have over-done abundance, at least in the sense of giving. As a caregiver, as a spouse, a friend, a community member, as a teacher of writing and restoring earth, I am good at saying "yes" to requests. It's my instinctive response, which is how I overextend and make myself sick. I am not good at saying "no."

And I desperately need to learn "No." Or at least, as my dear friend and writing comadre, Dawn Wink suggested, learn to say, "I'll think about it and get back to you." 

In that context, abundance sounded unhealthy as my word for coming year. But I kept hearing it. So I looked up the dictionary definition, which includes:

  • the state or condition of having a copious quantity of something; plentifulness
  • plentifulness of the good things in life; prosperity

Oh, I thought, duh. Abundance as in "plenty": plenty of joy, plenty of time, plenty of ideas and words and readers, plenty of money, plenty of fruitful opportunities, plenty of energy and vigor, plenty of love… 

Juncos behaving with abundance during our Christmas storm, and taking turns eating the peanut-butter and chopped cranberries on their star-shaped feeder.

That kind of abundance felt right. Especially for me, now.

When I think back, I'm not sure I have completely felt that abundance since Richard died, leaving me–physically small, not strong, living with a chronic illness, not brilliant, not all of the things I thought of him as embodying–on my own. I think some part of me has been living a worried, pinched, fearful, impoverished existence ever since. And that's just not me. Certainly not the me I want to be. 

So as we head into 2016, whatever the year brings, I am going to practice living with abundance. I'll behave as generously toward myself as I do toward others. I'll work at cultivating grace and compassion toward all (even me), and let the worries go. I'll live with love, not fear. I'll be a person who believes in and acts with abundance, with an understanding that what I have is plenty to take care of me. And plenty to allow me to continue with my mission: Restoring nature, and healing we humans and our heart-whole connection to this living Earth, home to us all. 

Abundance. Most of all an abundance of love and grace. Qualities this world surely can use in–well–abundance. 

May this coming year be one of abundance for us all.