What do you do when all the noise from a world in strife threatens to overwhelm your own voice?
I have long had the habit on New Year’s Eve of writing out a list of all the things I want to do in this life – all the things that motivate me, that pull me forward, that drive me to live deeply. Some of the things on that list are lofty, such as write a book about climate change, and some are simple, such as learn to make risotto or ride my bike in a metric-century. Sometimes I go back to previous year’s lists just to see what things have carried over from one year to the next – just to see: what are the common threads that drive me forward from year to year? What are the big things I can’t let go of?
I usually love this time of quiet introspection on New Year’s Eve. I love dreaming up what I want to do next – in my career, my life, my fitness. But this year is different. It was really hard to come up with my list. A lot of my dreams have been motivated by travel and connecting with people. I love visiting cafes in foreign cities. I love exploring new places, meeting new people. I love learning new languages. I love teaching – in person – and the thrill I get from getting my students to see something in a new way.
But this year, when I sat down to think about all the things I want to do, there was a fog that crept into my mind – like smoke drifting from the corner of a stage to obscure the actors and the set. There are red warning lights in the fog that remind me of the traffic lights pulsating through a dense tule fog in the Sacramento Valley. There’s barely enough light to see the road in front of me. This fog makes it hard to focus on things. Instead of being able to hear my own desires I hear the steady drumbeat of ominous news.
Omicron spreading like wildfire. Eight hundred thousand dead in one country. An actual wildfire spreading across the Colorado Front Range, devouring hundreds of homes and business. Ice caps shrinking and storms melting drought-parched California mountains into rivers of mud. Mass shootings, and mobs of angry people, defiantly tearing off masks and waving their guns. Chants about the right to breath in coronavirus as you please, but let’s make sure women can’t choose what to do with their own bodies. People camped along borders. Starvation. Oppression. War. Rising authoritarianism.
And you could ask, “Well, hasn’t the world always been in crisis? Hasn’t there always been strife and hunger and war and plague?” Yes. But now we have all those things on a planet that no longer has the capacity to sustain us all – at least, not in the way things have been operating.
So when I try to think about what is it that I want to put out in the world, what is it that I want to do, who I want to be at this point in my life, I just hear the cacophony of cries from around the world. I get overwhelmed and that makes me want to retreat into myself. Or perhaps retreat into the stillness of nature, away from the human cacophony.
Maybe it’s ok to want to hide for now. Maybe it’s ok to find a way to sit in stillness, to let the world swirl around me, and find a way to root myself in the things that give me strength: nature, friends and family, pets, meaningful day-to-day work, rest, good food, exercise.
I know my dreaming and annual list-making has been a privilege. A luxury of someone who has education, enough money, and access to the world. I was dreaming within a world that was, and no longer exists. Maybe it was a world that only existed in my mind. So the question I now ask myself (and you) is: how do we dream up a new world? What does the world need from us right now and how can we strengthen our resolve to work toward that?
When I look through those lists from years past, I realize that some of the answers to my questions are already there. When I look at the deeper motivations of some of my dreams and desires, the fog clears a bit and I start to see the common threads: To facilitate connection. To support people in need. To do the best I can educating anyone who will listen about the climate crisis. To take comfort in the people, animals and community that supports me. To take care of myself as best I can. To seek out new experiences and connections, whatever they might be. To never stop learning – about everything – and sharing what I learn.
These are the things that will pull me forward into the new year – the things that keep moving me to live more consciously and more authentically. The things I will hold on to.
What are the threads that pull you through the cacophony and forward into the new year? What are the things that you will hold on to?