Last December, I came across Courtney Martin’s On Being post called Seven Questions to End 2017 with Clarity and Start 2018 with Intention. The questions she offered then were inspired by her own experience and work, as well as current affairs.
In the final weeks of 2017, Ari and I used those questions for a reflective exercise. We sat together, going through the questions one by one. Each of us would read one prompt to the other, and then that person would share his response. While one of us was sharing, the other’s task was to listen and be present. No interrogating, no crosstalk. Just one person speaking and the other listening. It was very powerful.
This year, inspired by Courtney Martin, I’ve decided to write my own set of seven reflective questions. I plan to use them with Ari just like we used last year’s, and I offer them here in the hopes that others will find them to be meaningful sources of reflection as well. Write on them, meditate on them, share them with a friend or partner.
May 2019 be a year of health and joy for us all.
1. What could you bless this year? What couldn’t you bless but could make new?
Again and again, I find myself returning to Marge Piercy’s spellbinding poem “The art of blessing the day.” It’s last stanza reads:
Attention is love, what we must giveThe Art of Blessing the Day, p. 5
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.
I love her call to bless whatever we can, in whatever way we can. And I love the subsequent challenge to make new whatever we can’t bring ourselves to bless. It’s an invitation to consider how and to what we give our attention.
2. What seemingly minor thing became a source of major growth this year? What could be given a little more weight?
In Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love, a beautiful and moving deconstruction of the romanticized ideals we apply to intimate relationships, the author examines those things in relationships with so often go unexamined: the “silly things” of daily life:
Not all domestic concerns carry equivalent prestige. One can quickly be made to look a fool for caring a lot about how much noise the other person makes while eating cereal or how long they want to keep magazines beyond their publication dates. It’s not difficult to humiliate someone who cleaves to a strict policy on how to stack the dishwasher or how quickly butter ought to be returned to the fridge after use. When the tensions which bedevil us lack glamour, we are at the mercy of those who might wish to label our concerns petty and odd. We can end up frustrated and at the same time too doubtful of the dignity of our frustrations to have the confidence to outline them calmly for our dubious or impatient audiences.The Course of Love, p. 55
I cleave to a strict policy on how to stack the dishwasher––so much so that it has become a running joke in Ari and my relationship. Reading this passage reminded me that such “silly things” are the stuff of which our lives are made. They deserve a little more grandeur, as do the preferences and needs we harbor about them.
3. Who taught you something this year? How do they affect the way you live?
Ari and I have become devoted viewers of NBC’s The Good Place. Not only is it a delightfully funny show, but it is a smart examination of conventional ideas of ethics. (Also half the cast of another favorite, Parks and Recreation, makes cameo appearances.)
A lot of the show’s joy comes from the interplay between the characters, all of whom influence one another, sometimes through explicit instruction, to become “better people”––even those who aren’t actually human beings. For each character, it’s the presence of exactly those others around them that has profound effects on who they are. We, too, are shaped by those around us, and it’s up to us to decide how we live the lessons they teach us.
4. What sapped your energy this year, and what filled you up?
For the last couple years, I’ve been playing a digital card game called Hearthstone. It’s entirely too addictive, but it’s also a fun pastime.
One of the game’s primary mechanics revolves around mana crystals. Players take actions (like summoning creatures or casting spells) by playing cards, and each card costs a certain amount of mana to play. Each turn players have a set number of mana crystals, and they decide how to allot the limited amount of mana they have for playing cards that turn.
Hence a metaphor for life from a video game: how do we want to spend the limited amount of mana crystals we have in a given day? We only have so much energy at our disposal; what drains us, and what energizes us? Let’s use our mana crystals with greater intention.
5. What did you let out of hiding this year, bringing it into the light?
Hiding is a way of staying alive. Hiding is a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light.
Hiding is creative, necessary and beautifully subversive of outside interference and control. Hiding leaves life to itself, to become more of itself. Hiding is the radical independence necessary for our emergence into the light of a proper human future.Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, pp. 113, 115
These words of David Whyte’s reclaim the concept of hiding from the negative connotation it so often receives. While the feeling that one cannot safely reveal a piece of oneself is oppressive, the willingness to keep some things safe until they are ready is liberating. All the more so is sharing a taste of that which has fully ripened.
6. When did you experience awe in 2018?
2018 began with Ari and my honeymoon trip to Hawaii. One of the most spectacular experiences we had was visiting South Point on the Big Island, the southernmost location in the United States. At the bottom of the island, waves crashed together from both directions. I could feel the roar of the sea in my bones. It truly was awe inspiring.
7. What makes you despair, and what gives you hope?
I conclude with the same question as Courtney Martin, which is also the final question Krista Tippett asks in all her On Being interviews.
This was a year of pain and tragedy for so many. Still, there are sources of hope. I worked with one bat mitzvah student this fall who taught that hope comes from the small interactions, the moments of kindness between people. When national and global events fill us with despair, uncovering sources of hope gives us the courage to step forward into a year whose story waits to be written.
Dear Sam, Thank you for the seven questions and your penetrating reflections on them. I can actually hear them in your voice, which makes me smile and gives me hope. It is wise that you are giving yourself permission to write, for you not only have talent as a writer, you also have a beautiful and meaningful message to convey.
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Thank you, Jan!