8:24pm and it’s eerily quiet round my way. Even the cats don’t seem to realise a new year is ahead. They’re settled, not twitchy, and there’s no sign yet of festivities. Where usually there’d be a few premature crackles and bangs, you’d jump if a pin dropped right now. It’s been quiet since before Christmas. Nothing seems to be happening.
Is this the calm before the storm?
There’s only one thing I’m sure of heading into 2017: what lies ahead is a year of uncertainty.
This year, my calendar-flipping contemplation feels unusually sober and unsettled. Not that I’m fully sober – I’ve got a belly full of margarita; and while contemplation usually instills a sense of meditative calm in me, my mind right now is like a pinball machine on Groundhog Day.
Contrast this with last year’s contemplation, and you’ll be excused for thinking my unsettled state may have something to do with my being an emotional sponge, soaking up the tension that’s been brewing around the world over the past year. It’s like everyone senses something’s going to snap… and perhaps that’s why most of us 80’s kids’ childhood heroes have bailed on the shitshow. My guess is they had prepaid tickets for the Ark. If that’s the case, I’m glad Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, and Muhammad Ali got on the ship before it sailed. The universe’s coolest rebel revolutionary princess (who just happened to be a kickass writer and comedian whose words will long continue to shred misogyny and stigma), the voice of God (if you haven’t seen Dogma, you won’t get that allusion, so pop that movie on yer bucket list), and one of the most misunderstood civil rights activists of the Vietnam War era are among those I’d like to imagine sharing candid dinner table conversation as the shit hits the fan for the rest of us. And Leonard Cohen will be singing Hallelujah.
While this time last year I was full of fresh optimism for the year ahead, I’m feeling a little worn out for this round, a little more wary, perhaps even a tad cynical. But my weariness, wariness, and growing cynicism has to do with the state of the world and my growing alienation from attempts to change it, not the scope of my options. Going into 2017 I am aware of an expanse of relative freedom from commitments, and a slightly uncomfortable realisation that the broadening of scope this means for my limited decision-making prowess holds endless possibilities for a year of trial by error.
I feel quite a bit older, wiser, more realistic, and more restrained than I did this time last year. Realism and restraint have never been my strong suit, but I’ve had a year of lessons, and I’m catching up with learning them. I’ve a feeling this year’s reflections will be brutally honest, and the perspective to be gained will be humbling.
As the Ark sails on 2016, I have much to ponder….
2016: a hurried glance over my shoulder at the year that was
Where 2015 was a year of challenge and change for me, 2016 was supposed to be undramatic. In many ways it was: where in 2015 I became an Aussie citizen after a 10-year wait, in 2016 I got my Aussie passport after some straightforward paperwork; where in 2015 I went back to school, in 2016 I didn’t quite manage to finish; where in 2015 I rebooted my life, in 2016 it almost seemed to get stuck in a rut. Careful what you wish for, eh? To be fair, though, there’s plenty to be thankful for, and I’ve discovered more about myself than I’d realised there was to know – and that was at least on the agenda.
My resolutions for 2016 came in five flavours, and I managed to at least taste all of them…
#1: Prioritising health
I’ve actually done a pretty good job of treating my health as a priority. I maintained the weight loss I achieved over the previous 2 years, and got a lot fitter, stronger, and more toned. I can now run my tri-weekly 10km stretch in 50 minutes, and I feel more energetic and resilient than I have since my early twenties. Joining the gym mid-year (for the first time in 8 years!) proved something of a turning point, as it’s enabled me to quantify my strength and fitness goals, and monitor my progress toward them.
And I’ve stayed entirely injury-free, except for a non-exercise related slip (thanks to my smooth-soled running shoes I really need to replace…) on the rocks at Fairy Falls on Christmas Day, where I took a tumble and landed with a crack on my tailbone, which is now in slow recovery… Ironically, this was the first time I’d tackled the slippery terrain in proper shoes, and I’d only swapped out my usual dog-eared thongs for sensible footwear because Robert waggled his finger at me in front of our visiting mates; it never occurred to me to check how 3,000km+ of wear on the soles would grip…. While I take the doc’s advice of monitoring my broken bum-bone over the coming weeks and listening to my body’s comments on whatever I do, my posture is reaping the benefits. There’s no such thing as slouching without an intact remnant of tail, apparently.
I’ve learned that my health isn’t perhaps as resilient as it once was, however. My old mantra of “I never get sick” hasn’t quite held up for me this year, with a few juggling acts of over-busyness tossing me under the weather a couple of times, and dosing me with an epic man-cold 3 weeks from the finish line of my Masters degree. No serious health scares or even wake-up calls, but nevertheless an indication that a thirty-something body doesn’t handle the same pace as a twenty-something body. So I’ve grudgingly accepted that I need consistency of rest as well as evenly paced activity, and that I don’t cope well with travelling to cold places 😛 The month Robert and I spent in Europe was too fast and furious, and my attempts at juggling a study schedule and high-stakes assignment deadlines while on the go between three countries and multiple friends-n-family visits were pushing the bounds of realism. I wasn’t able to do family, friends, love, or study the justice any of those priorities deserved.
2016 was to be a year of connection. Making more time and space for neglected family and friends was paramount, and I came good on a handful of my more pressing priorities. Visiting my family in April was a turning point for our relationship, and I made some major breakthroughs with my mum. We now speak regularly on Skype, and open up to each other far more about what’s happening in our lives – experimenting with willingness to admit to life’s little cracks, and not just paper over them. I know things about her now that she’s never told anyone, and I’ve felt able to be honest with her about my own life’s ups and downs in a way I used to feel I had to keep from her. It was great to see my (intellectually disabled) brother doing better than I’ve ever seen him, and to get the sense that he’s still developing, making progress in things that matter to him. He even gave up smoking, having found a sense of contact with his own mortality that many more intellectually adept people struggle to connect with.
My dad, I realised, has languished in the too-hard basket for too long, and I need to fish him out. At the time of our Europe visit, I accepted that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that progress with my relationship with my mum was plenty good enough for a start. But a breakthrough moment came for me when I attended a Healing Inner Conflict workshop at the Australian Counselling Association conference in September. Despite not even mentioning the topic explicitly during our demo session, the facilitator cracked me wide open in 30 seconds flat, equipped only with the tool of gentle prodding for me to pay attention to my own mixed body language signals. All roads lead to Rome. I realised I’d been papering over that particular crack, and that it was a wound that needed attention in order to heal. Disturbance described as “healing trying to happen” summed it up, and I came home from the conference on a high, having understood what the next stage in my mission to re-connect would entail.
I’ve still been slow to make connections in Cairns due to prioritising my study and my health, so not giving myself the time to get out and meet people much. It’s been so nourishing, however, to prioritise myself in this way, and I haven’t felt anything missing beyond being a little concerned that others might think I’m a tad odd for not being terribly social. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to re-connect with old friends in Adelaide, though, and that nourishment filled my tank for a good long time. Having neglected some very dear friendships over the years of turbulence since I left my former home-away-from-hometown, I felt extremely lucky to be welcomed back with a warm embrace. Adelaide is a place where I feel loved and accepted as I am, thanks to the authentic warmth of the wonderful people I am privileged to call my friends there. It’s been reassuring to discover that I still have a home-away-from-hometown to return to where I can always hope to be welcome.
#3: Learning new things
The little over three months I gave myself to learn German before Robert and I visited in April turned out to not be terribly useful… I didn’t manage to find a language class that was running during that time, so I settled for an online self-study course that teaches basic phrases. That turned out to be woefully inadequate. Despite my new-found ability to translate phrases such as “the ducks are eating grass” to German (to prove it, here ’tis: “Die Enten frissen Gras”), I found such topics difficult to segue into in everyday conversation, and ended up sitting most of it out. I found I was able to understand more than I expected a lot of the time, but was frustrated and disappointed by my inability to contribute to conversation, partly based on my lack of competence, but compounded by my lack of confidence and slow speed of thought when it came to piecing together fragments of this tricky new language. I hope I didn’t make too poor an impression, as one can’t make much of an impression at all beyond grinning like a lunatic when conversation is impossible. It’s hard to know what people make of you when they can’t really talk to you.
#4: Personal achievement
I’m now almost equipped with a Master of Counselling and a license to practice. Watch out world! I’ve completed all the credited units of the Masters, and now just have to tick a few more boxes on professional experience hours and supervision before I’ll be allowed to go solo out into the big bad world. I’m also fortunate to have recharged my internal battery pack for the year ahead, and am preparing to launch my own part-time private practise.
For the latter part of the year, I’ve taken on an experimental role as a counsellor-slash-educator for a charity dealing in the heavy lifting of suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. My work involves delivering workshops to organisations and individuals working with at-risk groups, and with community members in high-frequency contact with at-risk individuals. And my work involves counselling those bereaved by the darkest of choices – the choice of a loved one to end their own life. It’s oddly cathartic for me, having spent my teenage years and early twenties dealing with the constant crisis of my brother’s regular suicide attempts, the fallout after each attempt, the constant vigilance and disturbing sentiment of anticipated relief should any attempt be final. I’m glad to be able to say there are success stories, and that I have lived experience of this to share. And I’m glad to be able to say my work matters to me personally, that it’s not just a gig to pay the bills – it’s the coalface where you get your hands dirty that delivers the kind of restful sleep I’ve been aching for.
The major writing project I felt I had in me this time last year has sat on the back burner for most of the time, though. Despite devoting some time to it at the beginning of 2016, I didn’t make enough headway to gather the momentum required to produce a substantial piece of work. So, that itch left unscratched has come back with a vengeance for entry into 2017 😉
As 2015 drew to a close, the biggest changes I felt I needed to make were of the innerchange sort. Despite the obvious insight there, it turned out to be something of an understatement. My planned year of authenticity was turbulent, with my attempts at being unashamedly me wobbly at times, and incoherent at others. I knew it would be harder than it sounded, as finding the courage to be vulnerable, to express fully, knowing that I wouldn’t always be greeted with understanding or acceptance, much less approval, is a tough call for any mere mortal. Owning up to my insecurities turned out to be a double-edged sword, and it wasn’t only me who wielded that one clumsily, causing some hurt and damage in the process. My relationship with Robert has taken a battering, sometimes feeling stronger for the flexing of those intimacy muscles, and sometimes feeling the wear and tear of too much heavy emotional lifting. I’d like to say we’ve both handled my journey well, but the reality is that we’ve both been very human – impatient, intolerant, and inflexible at times. The result for me has been a stripping away of a lot of hefty baggage, and a lot of outer layers of protection, and while the load has lightened significantly, I’m more vulnerable than ever.
My fears of not being good enough, of messing things up, and of letting others down have all come true to an extent, but also proven themselves false at the same time, as the truth of these things is in the eye of the beholder. I am by far my worst critic, but my chosen life partner’s standards for me are almost as relentless as my own. This is how I know we are perfect for one another, but I have often wished for the padding of a more affirming embrace. I’ve learnt that this is something I have to provide for myself, and that the extent to which I fear rejection and loss is what governs my choice: to accept something less perfect for me because it’s easier to handle while less enriching, or to purposefully choose to grow in relation with another who has also chosen to grow. Sometimes it feels too hard, but what’s worse is settling for less. I can only be me, but my fear of not receiving the unconditional acceptance I crave has limited my capacity for growth, and that’s stifling for someone else who needs space to grow.
I’m learning to love myself more, and to accept my flaws as part of the ever-changing landscape of me, but I’m not there yet. There’s no space left for self-loathing – that’s gone, and grudging acceptance is gradually taking its place. The perfectionist in me is a die-hard, and she is the spanner that sticks in her own spokes. How can a perfectionistic person change when the change required is the surrender of perfectionistic tendencies? This is anathema to the inner critic’s drive to nail everything attempted. The irony of the task is not lost on me, but, to be frank, it’s a fucking headache.
2017: the road ahead is riddled with choice points
Casting a (semi-)sober eye on the year that’s concluding as I type (it’s 11:43pm) grants me perspective on the year ahead. It’s going to be uncertain, unsteady in places, and uncomfortable at times. This much I can be reasonably sure of. But the last year has taught me where I need to focus my energy, and which priorities will likely serve me best. With commitments now shed, and the freedoms that lie ahead, I face many choice points, and I will need wisdom.
#1: Structure & consistency
I’ve learned that no matter how much I love to fly by the seat of my pants, life most rewards those who build in the structure and consistency to see through on all the things that matter to them. As I commit to a new career path, leaving behind the degree of freedom and flexibility I’ve relished as a full-time distance student, I’ll need to schedule some of the things that have kept me healthy and sane over the past year. My runs and workouts will have to be slotted in around a work schedule designed by someone else. My evenings and weekends will have to be more planned, even if only to factor in the need for unplanned time.
I need to make space for creativity, learning, and nourishing myself with time in nature – which, in tangible terms, means committing to regular windows of time to write, to read my way through the pile of books that’s staring me down, and to immerse my body, mind and spirit in nature’s beauty. I need to build windows into my schedule for connecting with family and friends – to literally make appointments to catch up and nurture more than just the notion of closeness. And I need to portion off segments of my life for myself, to decompress, recharge, and ensure I have something in the tank to give when needed. Self-care is not optional. I’d been so depleted for so long that it became habitual, and once I started to top up the tank I became protective of what little I had. I’m going to need to ensure there’s plenty if I’m to feel I have enough to spare.
And, of course, commitment to the structure and consistency that will provide the supportive framework for what’s important in my own life will sometimes mean flexing those “no” and “can I think about it?” muscles I’ve strengthened over the past few years.
#2: Connection & intimacy
Intimacy is required for connection, and authenticity is required for intimacy. These three together lay the bedrock of strong, supportive, nourishing relationships. This much I have long known; what is new to me is to feel the fear of rejection and loss, and commit to authenticity anyway. I cannot control how others will perceive me or respond to me; all I can do is be me, and accept that not all will go as I want it to despite my best efforts. This year my relationships with friends, family, and the love of my life, will sink or swim on the basis of whether our foundations are solid, whether they are real. Improving my relationship with my family is the highest stakes mission I have chosen, and I’m finally ready to insist on keeping it real.
A social audience is a judging one, a critical one. While judgment and criticism are not loving acts, they are a fact of life. Judgment and criticism have the power to erode intimacy through each barely significant act, as being yourself becomes either too uncomfortable to commit to, or an act of defiance. Intimacy can only be sustained with people who show that they love and accept us as we are. For connection to thrive, it will be necessary to test the limits of others’ love and acceptance, and in turn accept that we may not have the stable connections we crave. Love is either unconditional, or it is not love. There is no middle ground.
#3: Learning & growth
Learning will take a different form in the year to come, as I leave behind the world of academic structure and embrace experiential opportunities. I expect to learn a great deal from my counselling and community education work, not least from the experiences of others. And I expect to learn a great deal from the journey my commitment to authenticity, intimacy, and connection will take me on. I plan to make no plans therefore. My growth will be an outcome of what happens when I don’t add parameters, and only time will tell where that will take me.
Having said that, I’ve already started mulling over the options for a PhD I’d like to do… and that may find itself on the list for 2018 😉
I’ve also decided to discontinue writing political, economic, and environmental work. Over the years I offered my two cents’ worth to the ether, I’ve discovered two things: we can only ever be received through the lens of the reader; therefore, we are almost always reverberating around an echo chamber. This cannot lead to learning and growth; and it so often reinforces the kind of division between people who think differently from one another. I’d rather invest my efforts in helping people connect with those who think differently, and to do that I’ll have to become better at it myself first.
#4: Innerchange (the never-ending journey)
This is, as always, the big one. And while I suspect it’s a never-ending Matroshka of hitting a ceiling only to find out there’s yet another layer to work through, I at least feel prepared for what I have to do next. “Feel the fear and do it anyway” is an attitude that’s always served me better than “fake it ’til you make it”, especially when that faking is feigned fearlessness. But I’ve still got some barriers to overcome when I home in on the nitty-gritty of my deeper, darker fears. I haven’t held back on life experiences: I’ve travelled a great deal, changed location, work, and language; I’ve started projects, organisations, and business initiatives; I’ve roused many a rabble and rocked many a boat; and I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone to shed the baggage of shy inhibition to be able to live as fully as I could. But I have held back on facing the fears of judgment and rejection, and I’ve paid the price for too long in sacrificed intimacy and connection. I fear this year’s journey of innerchange will be painful, but I finally feel strong enough to try. I’ll come out alive, I’m almost certain; and I hope to emerge with a fresh zeal for testing my own boundaries. I hope to finish the year not necessarily with more certainty than I start with, but with less inhibition to discover the full spectrum of how great and how awful it can all be.
A tentative toast to the new year
As I curl up in bed in preparation to begin 2017 as I mean it to continue, I tentatively raise my water bottle (the booze is long gone, and I’m now sleepily sober) in a toast to whatever will come. I’m not excited like I was this time last year, but I’m no longer apprehensive either. I feel more stable, more grounded, and more secure – just as I wanted to this time last year. The way is paved, as I wished for it to be, for the new adventures and discoveries I’m training my sights on. Life is an adventure, and I feel I’ve finally carved out enough space to pioneer my own path.
I’ll start by treating myself to a new pair of running shoes 😛