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One Word for a New Year

Published on: January 02, 2014


A few years ago I took my oldest daughter to a solstice party. It was a small, intimate gathering with people she didn’t know. There were boys her age to play Legos with while I ate with the adults. My then 9-year-old was shy, and she had what seemed to be her very first headache, yet every time she came to find me, she let me know it was OK for us to stay as long as I wanted to stay.

All the eight adults brought something to share, such as a poem, a small statue, a picture and a beloved meditation cushion. Each of us shared what our items meant to us. Then we each wrote words on our own small pieces of paper, which we would burn in the fireplace later. I wrote down words that I thought of as both mantras and intentions, including the one I had used the entire year: abundance. The other words were the ideas I was toying with using for the coming year.

I remember my girl coming in and out of the living room where the adults were gathered and watching parts of the evening unfold. Perhaps she heard one of us read a poem or talk about a photograph. She read the words I wrote on the paper and helped me fold it up tight, making it ready for the flames. She took it and threw it into the fire, watching with satisfaction as all the papers that were tossed into the heat changed forms. I remember her getting that being at this gathering fed me. That I needed to be around the kind of energy this crowd provided. That there was something holy here that might feed her, too.

This year we didn’t go to a solstice gathering together. She had her own sleepover to attend on the shortest day of 2013. Still, I involve both my girls in some way with these mantra/intention thoughts that I ponder during this season. Last year we made vision boards, which became a game about who could find the cutest animals in the cut-up magazines. Yet, the words were there, the ones I used to get through my days.

Last year I picked the word joyful with much trepidation. If I was planning for joy, would I receive a bucket of sorrow instead? Usually I use my word as a mantra when my moments get stressful. The year I picked abundance, I often said abundance in my mind whenever I felt bereft, broken up, and out of breath. It helped me, the quiet thinking of this work.

I can’t say I said the word “joy” a lot this year. Maybe I should have said it. It’s true: I had my share of sorrows, just like everyone does. Still, I have become more adept at seeing the small (and sometimes giant) joyful parts of everyday life. This makes me glad that I picked the word joy; this and the fact that it wasn’t as awful as I thought to look closely at my sadness.

What’s the word for 2014? The one that comes easily to my lips is kindness. Oh yes, I know I am not the only one that will pick this word. I choose it because I am right in the middle of taking a nine-months-long memoir writing class and every week we workshop three or four classmates’ 3,000-word pieces. This is the work that has broken through a barrier in my brain. Everyone suffers, and we have no idea what anyone else is going through. I met 24 people in September, formed ideas of who they were based on what they wear and what they say or do not say in class. And I knew nothing about them at all, really, when I read their pieces. Reading someone’s truth, someone whom I sit with every week, whom I had formed preconceived notions of — reading these words breaks me open on a weekly basis.

This is a gift, to know that I cannot know anything about a stranger, an acquaintance, or even a friend or family member. We all hold deep truths, and we don’t always share them. From this, I pull the word kindness out. If a stranger or a friend never tells me their truth, that is OK. But I want to offer this stranger or friend kindness. Perhaps the kernel of this is that I want to step farther away from judgment into kindness. So kindness is my mantra whenever my mind leaps to judgment.

This is a good mantra for parenting. Whenever I think my girls are whining too loudly or taking too long or not studying enough, maybe I can move my mind from judgment to kindness. I hope sometimes I can manage this task.

But how will I share this mantra/intention with my daughters? Will I lecture them about my yearly new year’s tradition that I often think about on the solstice? My oldest daughter wrote in her school autobiography that “I have A LOT of advice.” Maybe I want to tell them a lot about my word, but I decided to keep the long story to myself this year.

I do know that a few weeks ago I asked them how I could love them better (based on a Catherine Newman article). Beyond buying them more marshmallows and Cool Ranch Doritos, my oldest said it would be nice if I could try not to use my sharp tone with her when she doesn’t want to go to basketball practice on the world’s time schedule. This made me sigh, and then I was so glad that she said she would try to do better on her end, too. I think my girls already have the hang of intentions. But I might blurt out my new word anyway, in a small lecture form on some random car ride soon.

Or maybe I’ll just tuck kindness into my actions and see if they notice.

As I write this it is New Year’s Day. During our family hike at Discovery Park, we sat on a log and watched the waves come in. I asked the girls and my husband what their intentions were.

My husband Chris said he wanted everyone to have safe travels no matter their mode of transportation, be it a car or feet. My oldest daughter said she wanted to draw more and my younger daughter whispered that she is going to help out more. I told them I was going to try to be more kind and said no more than that. I was happy that Chris asked us all to throw rocks while thinking about our intentions.

Our short-but-sweet intention moment reminded me a favorite Isak Dinesen quote: "Up in this high air, you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands, you woke up in the morning and thought, 'Here I am, where I ought to be.'"

Here we are 2014, right where we ought to be.

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