Looking back over the past 12 months, the way December beckons that kind of review, one encounter stands out as perhaps the best thing to happen to me in this terrible, wonderful year.
I was having lunch with a philanthropist friend, trying (badly) to make a case for funding the nonprofit agency where I’ve worked for the past 18 months. His eyes were glazing over, so I made a bold (misguided) attempt to reel him back in. And this was his response: “Your mission is irrelevant, your model’s outdated, and I’m never going to give you money.”
“Tell me more,” I said (after taking a breath). And from that point we started a new, more substantive conversation – one that’s still ongoing.
Truth and honesty have a way of doing that, of changing a conversation for the better, even if it’s hard in the process.
This particular lunch conversation happened in the spring, and it started, in my small, little life, a chain of challenging events that required fortitude, persistence, and coming to terms with some uncomfortable realities in order to make a fresh start.
As my friend Elizabeth used to remind me: Never, ever, ever give up. Because despair will somehow always be saved by grace, though sometimes late in the 11th hour, and often not in any conventional form or shape. Grace might even look like despair, because the two so often go hand in hand.
Yes, it was a wonderful, terrible year, rife with all the usual things happening all around us: births, deaths, marriages, divorces, windfalls, bankruptcies, suffering, and joy – all of which, though usual, seemed to carry extra drama, perhaps because living on high alert for so long makes everything seem dramatic.
It was, for me, from start to finish, a year of full of unexpected beauty, the comfort of friendships, tests of courage, and proof that the only way out is through.
Here’s a little year-end sampling of some bright spots – starting, of course, with some reading:
A Few Good Reads: December edition
It’s possible that I read more in 2017 than in any year prior (other than the years I was in school). I read news and editorials, because the requirement to keep up with such things felt more compelling this year than in others. But the news was often depressing, and I’m prone to depression; so I made a concerted effort to read feature stories and other columns that offer insight into what it means to be human, living with other humans.
One of my favorites, on a regular basis, is the New York Times Modern Love series which always offers a good story. This year’s year-end top 10 list (“How to Love Better“) includes two particularly good pieces: Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s heart-wrenching final essay, and this lovely exploration of how friendship can be a different, but no less powerful, kind of romance.
Other recent good reads:
If you’re contemplating your approach to the new year, here’s Connie Schultz on New Year’s resolutions – five minutes of pure delight.
Need a lift? Meet Zia Caterina, the taxi therapist for young cancer patients in Italy (also pure delight, though a little longer than a 5-minute read).
And, while in Italy, read about the discoveries unearthed while building the new subway in Rome.
Back here in the U.S.: If lifting the protection on park lands made you feel depressed, you’ll be inspired learning about the largest single gift ever to The Nature Conservancy (again: never, ever, give up hope).
We can’t keep doing the same things, expecting different results. Which is why King County”s fresh approach to teaching consent in sex-ed classes is so intriguing. (Can you imagine how this approach might transform those horrible, mandatory sexual harassment training videos that companies use??!)
Not convinced that yoga, meditation, etc., make a difference? Here’s a scientific take on how a deep breath changes your mind.
And, in case you missed them earlier in the year …
Annie Dillard’s 1982 essay on the solar eclipse (“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”)
Patti Smith’s essay about Sam Shepard (“He would call me late in the night from somewhere on the road, a ghost town in Texas, a rest stop near Pittsburgh, or from Santa Fe, where he was parked in the desert, listening to the coyotes howling.”)
The Art at the End of the World (‘‘Time turns metaphors into things,’’….),
Kathryn Schultz, When Things Go Missing (“Regardless of what goes missing, loss puts us in our place; it confronts us with lack of order and loss of control and the fleeting nature of existence.”)
And, because it’s so funny (and, in my house, so true) This shiplap is killing me (“Having seen a disproportionate number of episodes of Tiny International House Flipping Property Fixer Upper Brothers vis-à-vis my stereotypical straightness, I’ve noticed some idiosyncrasies that need to be explored….”)
Last, but not least: How to Build Resilience in Midlife (“… it’s important to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that can be strengthened at any time.”)
As for books? Yep, still reading – though not as many as I’d like. And I’m still keeping track of what I’m reading, and what I’ve enjoyed. A couple of the books I read and enjoyed came from – you won’t believe this is true – book clubs.
Yes, I actually, for real, participated in a couple of book clubs this year, one for work (with an ad hoc group of nonprofit CEOs) and one to reconnect with an old friend whom I haven’t seen nearly enough in the past 15 years. The best find from the professional book club was Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage, which happened to be exactly the right book at the right time for my work.
The book-club book club (meaning a social group that meets monthly to discuss, over dinner and wine, a book read for pleasure) selected Outline, Rachel Cusk’s deft blend of auto-biography, memoir, and fiction. The best part of that book club selection, though, was the discussion of the book, which sounded like a dissection of a party we’d all attended, each of us with a different, and highly subjective, take on what had transpired, even though we were all at the same place (or reading the same book) at the same time. It was delightful, organic, and wandering, the way companionship can (should) be.
Make Beautiful: Part 1
Touring high schools with my daughter, I discovered two treasures, the first of which was a series of maps.
In 1938, as America struggled to recover from the Great Depression and Europe was edging toward war, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers hired a geologist named Harold Fisk to map a history of the world’s 4th longest river. The intent, Fisk suspected, was to help the Army tame the Mississippi, to force conformity on that wild, living body of moving water. It was an idea with which Fisk reportedly disagreed, but he took the job.
In 1944, as the Allied troops mustered courage to make a last push, Fisk delivered his 170+ page report: “Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River.” Plate 22 of the report features 15 beautiful, hand-colored maps that detail the river’s evolution – a sort of topographical protest to show that any single moment in time is irrelevant in a larger context, and that the river will always find its own way.
The “Mississippi Meander” maps are public domain images, available to anyone with an interest in looking at them. Anyone wanting to contemplate the organic, uncontrollable, changing path of a river. Anyone willing to believe that every drop of rain pushing the water one way or another can change an entire river’s course, over time.
Make Beautiful: Part 2
“She was like a bright, shiny bubble, lighting up any room when she walked in.”
That’s how Bernard described his photographer friend from Wyoming, a woman I’d also known, separately, briefly, growing up in Memphis. When she died unexpectedly, at a very young age, her family wanted to create a special tribute, a place that would honor her vibrant spirit.
That’s the second unexpected treasure I found, on that ordinary Thursday, visiting a school with my daughter. I had finished my tour and was waiting for her to finish hers and meet me, and then we could go home.
I was standing alone in the open area, just waiting, with nothing much to do.
So I looked up.
And there it was, this beautiful thing: a shutter, with filmstrips for stair railings, and a skylight aperture at the center top, like a bright, shiny bubble of happiness.
She was lovely, and her loveliness lives on.
What’s on deck for 2018?
This time last year I was full of resolve and energy, ready to stand up and speak up, though I wasn’t fully sure what I would need to be standing and speaking up for (or against). Had I known what was coming, I might have elected to hide in bed all year instead.
But I didn’t know, and so I simply made -and kept – a commitment to Art Harder (a phrase I borrowed from The Bloggess). Art was my spiritual food for much of the year, a ready retreat whenever I needed to crawl in, and a constant source of joy.
At the end of the year last year, as in the several years prior, I made a photo compilation, “My year in Hipstamatic.” Then, for grins, I put five years’ worth of slide shows in one post – that showed five years of taking almost exactly the same pictures, over and over again.
In the challenge to Art Harder, I tried to look for new things, new pictures, even with the same set of ready subjects (children, dogs, food…). Here’s the result:
And now that a new year is mere hours away?
My plan (if I have one) (which, really, I don’t) is simply to keep going in 2018, to Art Harder, longer. Maybe with a broader definition of “art” that includes all manner of making.
Also: Keep learning, listening, thinking, and exploring.
Also: Dinner. I am going to get a grip on dinner, since my teenage children have retreated into the realm of pizza and chicken fingers. So I want to reclaim dinner, before it’s too late. I even have an idea for the long-ago-abandoned dinner prompt concept, which maybe I’ll get to, someday.
Never, ever, ever give up.