mary oliver

The Things I Carry from 2015 and my One Word for 2016

I lived a hundred different lives in 2015. The adventurous expat, the patient teacher, the homesick little girl, the intrepid world traveler, the anxiety-ridden dependent, the supportive wife, the optimistic partner, the heartbroken friend. I have felt a hundred incongruous emotions — hopeful and discouraged, excited and apathetic, inspired and utterly disengaged, generous and self-protective, joyful and bitterly sad. I’ve traveled through 7 countries and made a 6,000 mile move. Each separate life and identity is self-contained like a square on a quilt, inextricably connected to the whole and meaningless without it.

I move forward into 2016 marked by the experiences of this past year and of all the years that came before it. I carry them with me like the very cells of my body. Who I am today is shaped by what I did yesterday and last year and in the years before that. But who I will be tomorrow depends on what I choose to do with today.

There are dozens of ways I’d like to change, but when I think of all the things I need to do better I don’t feel inspired to step into a new year – I feel too overwhelmed to even know where to start. I need to eat better, to exercise more, to drink more water, to be less selfish, to love better, to make more time for writing, to travel, to explore, to learn a new language or skill, to be a better friend, to volunteer, to blog more consistently, to stop whining so much, to pray more, to be more organized.

Last year I abandoned my list of resolutions in favor of just One Word. The idea of One Word is to get rid of your list and to choose a single word to focus on for a whole year. “One word that sums up who you want to be and how you want to live.”

In 2015, I chose the word “Wholehearted.” It was a big word that encompassed an entire way of looking at the world. I’m not finished with wholeheartedness – becoming wholehearted is a lifelong journey – but I have chosen a new word to represent 2016. My word is Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” Mindfulness is something I profess to believe in deeply, but fail to put into practice.

From the time I was a young child I learned to disassociate. This began as a coping mechanism for me, a way of dealing with my anxiety, but it grew into a habit. There is a restlessness in me that causes me to grow bored and discontented easily, and when I’m no longer entertained, challenged, or excited, I tend to disengage.

There is nothing more terrifying to me than the thought of living an ordinary life, but most of life is made of ordinary moments. How much of mine do I miss by checking out and simply going through the motions while I dream of being somewhere else? This year, I want to learn to be present for my own life.

The poet Mary Oliver writes often about what it means to pay attention to the world. In her famous poem “The Summer Day” she writes:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

I believe that nothing is without meaning if we only pay attention to it. And I believe that I can waste my one wild and precious life not through big mistakes, but through day after day of failing to pay attention and just going through the motions.

I am setting my intention this year on just one thing – growing in Mindfulness. I will choose to be present for my every day life. I want to learn to see the extraordinary wrapped up in my ordinary days and to collect evidences of grace that shine true even when the days are dark.

If you’ve chosen One Word for 2016, leave a comment below and share what you chose and what it means to you. 

Header image via: The Huffington Post

Life in the In-Between

I’m living an in-between life.

The days grow longer and hotter, the mercury already rising near 90 some afternoons, and I remember what it is to live coated with a constant sheen of sweat. But even as I dread the oppressive heat and the thick cloak of humidity beginning to descend, I remember that the cool kiss of the air in the mornings and the smell of the jasmine in the park and the dozens little voices screaming, “Hello, Lily Teacher!” from across the school yard will only be memories sooner than I know.

I measure my days in lasts – last cherry blossom season, last hikes, last baseball games, last weekend trips, last nights hopping in cabs and speeding home through the city with its crazy drivers and its flashing neon signs. Last few months of stability before this life disappears and I’m trying to find my place all over again.

Soon we’ll have our last home church meeting as the family who hosts us returns to the US for the summer. And then we will have last meals with our friends as one-by-one we leave this place and return to our Before lives. But we are not our Before selves.

For months I’ve dreamed of home – of a place where no one stares at me while I try to run errands or pushes me out of the way on the bus. I’ve dreamed of my mother who hugs fiercely and breathes deeply every time she sees me, so she can remember the smell of me when I’m gone again. Of a grocery store full of foods whose names I know, where cheese doesn’t go on cookies and where a watermelon never costs $16. And I’ve dreamed of my friends, the ones whose lives I’ve missed little by little as we’ve each taken two years of steps in different directions. But the closer I get to home, the more I understand that this home doesn’t exist anymore. At least not in the way I remember it.

I see it most clearly when I talk to my friends in America. Sometimes it feels like I’m playing the role of Before self in our conversations, unsure if this New self still fits. And as each day brings us closer to our return I find myself clinging to this life we’ve built – to all the strange and difficult things that have become oddly familiar, and to the adventure of it all, something I’ve nearly forgotten in my months of homesickness.

“What if this is it?” I wail to my husband. “What if this is all the adventure we are ever going to get and I spent so many months ready to move on?”

He says adventure is only over when we choose to see it that way. He says adventure is a gift that comes in different shapes and sizes – we only miss it if we reject the gift entirely.

I try to pray about all of this. About being torn between home and this strange place that has crept its way into my heart and about the fear of no longer belonging. I try to pray and I find myself reading Mary Oliver instead. She writes at the end of “The Summer’s Day”.

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

And the words come to me like a grace.

You are already living your one wild and precious life, Love. Pay attention. Today may be all the adventures you will ever live. What are you going to do with it?

And I catch my breath. Because in the midst of all of it – the fear, the uncertainty, the longing for things that don’t exist anymore, the warring desires to stand still and to run forward–isn’t this still the question that matters?

We are all living in the in-between, caught somewhere between who we’ve been and who we are becoming. But we are all also living in the very center of our one dazzling life. Pay attention. What is it you plan to do with that today?