In my counseling days, three decades ago, I used to work with families with severely disabled children–it may be physical disabilities or cognitive disabilities. I had a phrase for families who had done all the hard work, of learning to help their child and each other, but had a problem taking the next step. That step was allowing joy back in their life. They had worked through the grief of having a child that would not fulfill the dreams they had for that child. They had worked through all the daily difficulties of dealing with health care providers and teachers and school care givers, babysitters or the lack thereof, and so many other obstacles.
Though they had worked through these things, the constant barrage of difficulty had left them functional but living day to day more like ghosts tied to the past with no vision for a different future. They weren’t depressed, in that they needed medication to function. They had sufficient energy to do everything they needed to do. They didn’t feel hopeless. Instead, they felt aimless—walking through each day as if they had glasses that were scratched and always foggy and so kept going in circles. They were able to take care of the children, eat, clean, go to work, celebrate birthdays and holidays with the family—but it felt empty. More important they felt they couldn’t plan for a future, or hope for change, or dare to experience joy because they would be dragged back into the emptiness soon enough.
In many ways, that step of moving forward is the most difficult step after trauma and grief. Once you’ve survived and learned how to deal with all that has happened and all that will continue to happen, how do you allow for joy again? How do you somehow put this experience behind you—not to forget or run away, but to move forward while still maintaining all you must do?
Many people need/want a physical line to cross over, a different space to step in that acknowledges you are in a new place and that means things have changed. They want a sign that gives them permission: Today is where you allow the joy back in.
For thousands of years a ritual of letting go has been a common way to put the past behind and step into the future. The rituals vary from culture to culture, but it is inevitably a two-step process:
- Looking back and acknowledging the past and its toll. Doing some ritual of sharing that acknowledgement and then letting it go.
- Looking forward and giving yourself permission to enjoy life again. This is often a second ritual which allows you to state your intentions.
As I began writing this on New Year’s Eve, I saw a report of exactly that kind of ritual going on in Central Park in New York. Someone had put out pieces of paper with a heading about what you want to let go from 2021, so you can welcome in 2022. Not surprisingly, almost everyone put COVID as the thing they wanted to let go. Some also wrote things like anger, incivility, job loss, grief, and many more personal things that were not aired on the news. No one signed them. After writing on the paper, a person then approached a burning fire contained in a metal structure and tended. They placed their piece of paper in the fire and watched it burn. It was a physical manifestation of letting go of that past.
I’ve participated in this kind of ritual myself several times. Sometimes it’s burning pieces of paper. Other times it’s floating things along a river. Others it is simply in quiet contemplation or prayer. I wish I could say these simple acts to put the past behind you. The reality is we can’t forget out past, no matter how much we try. It plays an important part of how we conduct ourselves in the future. HOWEVER, the symbolism of the ritual is very important. Rituals like these allow us to make a kind of marker in our mind. One that says things before here are past, things after this is now and in the future.
That marker is important. It’s like drawing a line in the sand and then stepping over it. It’s not that you can’t go back. It is easy to step back over that line. But once it is there, it is a constant reminder that staying on the other side of the line is moving forward. And having that market, takes that little bit out of the fog of aimlessness. Your mind can always say: “This side is forward.”
How I’ve Dealt with Ennui This Past Year
I am not immune to this feeling of languishing or ennui. But as I thought about what I was letting go, I also looked at what I did subconsciously to deal with it. Maybe you’ll identify with some of these ways of coping.
I often stayed up far too late and watched one of two types of programs, depending on my need for the day. One was something that I could count on ending happily. It most often was an HGTV show where people have their non-functioning house remodeled (something that’s been on my radar since we moved her three years ago). When I’m not able to focus or find myself doing so many things that nothing is really moving forward, I look for reasons. It is easy to put the blame on an unorganized desk or a bedroom that has too many things stalked in corners, or a kitchen that has leaky faucets or a dishwasher that is long past it’s ability to actually clean dishes. Watching HGTV lets me live vicariously for an hour or two in a home that works beautifully.
The second type of program I’ve watched is on the other side of happiness, it is some kind of true crime program where people get caught and justice is rendered. I wouldn’t call it happiness because, despite what people want, it doesn’t really provide closure for the pain cause by crime. But it does give the victims, and me, a sense that people do pay for the bad things they do to others. Of course, it is VERY frustrating when they know who did the crime but don’t have enough evidence to be confident in going to trial and winning. That is a punch to the gut when that happens–reminding me that no matter how much people may try to get justice, it doesn’t happen. Some people do get away with crime. Why does it help me then, if I know justice is denied? It helps because I know there are good people spending their life doing this and trying to make it happen. People like my son who is a police officer. People like another son who is a fraud attorney. People like my friend who is a pro bono attorney for Legal Aid and helps those who cannot afford an attorney to get their rights recognized around housing, food, medical care and other basic needs.
My Intentions for Moving Forward
I decided on three words to represent my intentions for 2022: Focus, Perseverance, and Creativity. These are both separate intentions, but also very much intertwined with my ability to FOCUS, which is the primary intention. I also know that this is going to feel very uncomfortable. The path will be crooked and I’ll often feel like I’m forcing myself to do something in a way that isn’t “natural.” But I believe I’m taking something I know works but simply haven’t ever truly committed to in the past.
Focus – For me focus means letting go of being a multitasker. Instead resolve to do ONE thing at a time and give that one thing focus.
For all of my life, I’ve believed I was a great multitasker. Prior to becoming a full time writer, I was rewarded for being a “multitasker.” It was a comment written in performance reviews even when I was sixteen and working in fast-food. I had a good memory and could keep all kinds of things in my head. If I was focusing on something and another need came up, I could jump in to solve that problem and return with ease to whatever project I had going on–whether I returned the same day or several days later.
What I’ve learned is that I’m really NOT good at multi-tasking and have never truly multi-tasked. Instead, I was doing short serial tasks and then returning to something. The difference between my previous careers and today, is that my memory is not as reliable as it was before. If I’m distracted by another task, I often forget what I was doing and what I was thinking before I jumped away. I also realized that the most important factor in daily joy and motivation is a sense of progress. I’ve been getting that sense of progress by doing tasks for others in my author services and consulting business. However, it has been creating a sense of progress for others and not for me as a writer. In fact, it often has been the death for me as a creative person because doing technical things, routine things where I’m not learning something new, is not creative for me AND it takes away from my fiction writing.
So, I’ve come up with four things I’m going to do to make novel writing #1 again in my life.
1) Set aside uninterrupted time for writing. Writing stories is what gives me joy. It may be that is every morning from 9am to 11am or it may be that it is all day on Wednesday and Friday. I’m still playing with the exact timing. For my entire writing career I’ve squeezed writing into times after everything else in life was done. When I came up against a deadline, I would schedule a five or six day writing retreat where I could literally step away from my every day life and concentrate every day as long as I could stay awake. This doesn’t work for me anymore on many levels. I no longer have the stamina to stay up and write for 10 or 12 hours a day. For more than two years I haven’t felt safe in going to live in a place for a week that I don’t know of the cleanliness factor. And with all the financial uncertainty, I haven’t felt comfortable paying for an entire week of being away from home.
2) Take time to share my writing progress, ups and downs, with trusted writer friends. Since we moved three years ago from the area we lived in for more than fifteen years, I’ve really missed my writer friends. One is a person I would take walks with two to three times per week. While we walked for exercise, we also talked writing along the way. Each of us shared our progress, our frustrations, and we would help each other brainstorm. Even though we write in very different genres, we both knew the other understood story and structure and could listen and analyze situations and offer advice. Another friend I miss is a prolific writer and would often go on those writing retreats with me. She has a great sense of humor and has a phrase she uses–“whatever”–that signals nothing can be one about it, move on. We could spend a week together without talking except if we found we were both taking a break at the same time and could walk on the beach or chat over a quick meal. My vow is to find a way to regularly check in with both of these women (likely via Zoom) to keep that connection, and later in the year to a find a way to meet up in person.
3) Savor small victories. Because I was always playing catch up with my novels, I never took the time to savor the process. I was always moving on to the next task, the next problem. It is important to savor small victories because writing a novel is a singularly lonely task. You are living in your head for hundreds, if not thousands, of hours. Constantly making decisions about the fate of your characters, the direction they are going, the boulders that will be put in their path and how to get around it. I never took time to pat myself on the back for getting past the discovery stage, for writing a particularly good scene, for having a great resolution to a problem. Even when good reviews start to roll in, I didn’t take the time to savor those because I was onto something else. It’s not in my nature to pat myself on the back. I grew up with the fear of the deadly sin of “bragging.” I was taught very well to praise others but not to seek praise myself. For the most part it’s worked decently in that I work and write for my own sense of a job well done. However, in times of difficulty and stress where it seems nothing is going right, I really need to savor the small wins in order to persevere.
4) Allow for creativity. In order for me to be creative, I have to be able to let go of preconceptions. I have to block out the distractions of my world at that moment. This is the one intention that truly brings focus full circle. Thanks to a book group I’m in, I’ve been doing a lot more fiction reading than I have in probably three to four years. I realized I’ve missed this. I’ve missed seeing stories tackling subjects I’d never thought to tackle, and in the process it gives me a different view of the world. Creativity means letting the imagination go wild in order to create something original. It’s hard to imagine something different, when my own world view is limited to those things that crowd out everything else.
You’ve probably heard the phrase that there is no original plot in writing–all plots have been tried. That is likely true because we all write from a human understanding of the world. Even when I make up a world for Fantasy or Science Fiction, in order for it to make sense I apply a structure to it, I have rules and consequences for it. These are fashioned from my understanding of what makes sense. I’m not the kind of writer who can truly be wild–who can mashup crazy, inventive characters with impossible multi-dimensional worlds that make no sense to me. I admire people who can do that, but it leaves me unsatisfied.
For me, creativity happens when I can take a side step from the usual path and walk alongside the usual path but with a slightly different view of how to get to the destination. To do that, I have to myself move away from the path I would normally take. I have to let go of what I know may have happened for myself or someone else I know, and then make space for something to happen that I’d not thought of before. No two people solve a problem exactly the same way. No two people get into trouble exactly the same way or for the same reasons. Even when writing about real-world difficulties in a novel, the way my character(s) react to it, deal with it, put it behind them (or don’t) is unique to their personality and experience. It is where they are in their own journey–not mine or my sisters or my friends journeys–that gives them the ability to act in that moment in a way I hadn’t considered for myself. Expressing that is creativity for me and always a learning moment.
What’s next for you? What are your intentions for 2022?
My intention is FOCUS. What are your intentions for 2022? Do you have one or more words that help you to focus your intentions?
I hope that 2022 is looking good for you. That you can make time for reading, for doing things that bring you joy.
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