As we move toward another new year, I’m considering what’s a priority. On a recent Saturday afternoon, my husband and I were walking in Boston’s Back Bay and shared a stunned expression. We had a free afternoon in front of us. No plans or commitments – I hadn’t felt like that for about twenty-five years. What were we forgetting?
It certainly had something to do with a COVID variant cancelling plans, our kids moving on, and parents passing. We had spent so many years as that middle generation, sandwiched between our kids’ needs and activities (which were often very fun, don’t get me wrong) and spending time with our parents (also a blessing). Now that those two slices of bread are gone, we’re just a piece of cheese and a slice of turkey coated in mayonnaise, looking around and wondering what to do.
Maybe it’s not a great metaphor for a couple of vegans, but it’s a fun one! And it’s apt for the crossroads we’ve found ourselves at. The easy solution would be to find something new to be our bread. Or perhaps to try out a substitute—a bun or a tortilla. But the upheaval of the past few years has also taught us to value simplicity, adaptability, and inventiveness. Now, instead of reaching immediately for something to add to our lives, we find ourselves pausing to consider. We wonder: what we might become without any bread at all?
I’ve written previously about reassessing just about everything during the pandemic, the most significant of which was our family home in Boston. We ended up selling it this summer along with almost everything inside. These days, when people ask me if I miss it terribly, I tell them what I do miss is my kids being in elementary school and middle school, all the running up and down the stairs, dinners around the dining room table, them doing homework at the kitchen table while I cooked and quizzed them on vocab. If I can’t get those years back, then I am okay letting go of the house. Downsizing is what people do when they get older; they simplify. However, I would advise people of any age to wake up each morning and choose who and what they want to keep in their lives.
In Greg McKeown’s recent book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, he highlights how much energy can be redirected to the pursuit of our highest priority when energy being spent on “non-essential” issues or tasks is cut back or cut off entirely. (In other words, there’s no need to keep a toaster or a panini press when your bread has flown the coop!) There was a time when I said yes to too much, so while you might not really need a book to help you say no, it is affirming to see best-selling books espouse this movement.
While I’m plugging motivational books, another one that has made an impact on how I think recently is called The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks. It can’t really be summed up in a simple prescription, but the gist is training the brain (mine had defaulted to worry mode) to extend periods of contentment. Human beings are wired to self-sabotage when things are going too well for too long because of an inner fear or feeling fundamentally flawed or undeserving. The goal is to shed those shackles and allow things to go well all the time, the pursuit of a life full of creativity and joy and discovery in the genius zone. Although these two books weren’t suggested by the same person or at the same time, there’s something to be said for the synchronicity of picking up simultaneously at a time when they spoke to me.
A funny aside in McKeown’s book is that at its conception, the word priority was intended to describe the single most important thing in one’s life. It has only been in the last hundred years that priority was made plural and it became acceptable for people and organizations to have multiple priorities.
Tempting as it may be to turn back the clock on this particular linguistic shift, the truth is it’s unreasonable to expect ourselves to whittle our contemporary lives down to a single priority—no matter how devoted we may be to minimalism and downsizing.
Perhaps in other times and places, the various aspects of our lives were more unified. We farmed to survive. We lived where we worked. The whole family was in it together. But despite the recent shift, for many, toward work-from-home, the spheres of our lives are no longer so intertwined, and often we find ourselves pulled between them.
So maybe the plural priorities isn’t going away any time soon. But understanding this etymology can be a reminder to ourselves that plural doesn’t have to mean infinite. We can place limits on our lists. Perhaps it would be more realistic to suggest focusing on a single priority in each main area of life. Some people might take the “4 burners” approach: family, friends, work, and health. Personally, I like the idea of three focus points.
For the foreseeable future, these are mine:
- My family
- My writing/artistic life
- Investing in regenerative agriculture
What is this agricultural interest on your list, you might ask? Am I reverting to that all-inclusive farm life after all? Stay tuned and suffice it to say that it’ll be a great story. But throw it also in the bucket of assessing our lives, deciding we have another big chapter left to complete and one priority we have is leaving the planet a better place.
Tomorrow I begin driving to Madison, WI, then through Iowa and Nebraska to Denver, Colorado and ultimately to our new home in Park City, UT. Packing was simple because I don’t need much. (Lessons learned from #vanlife with our daughter.) My husband gave me the greatest sweater for Hanukah, the numbers 1928 splayed across its front. That number is special to me so I see it as good luck, a connection to loved ones, and just pretty damned cool that he found it in a store and snatched it up knowing it was meant for me. That is love. It means so much to me I told my husband I will likely wear it everyday of the entire winter, so that solves a lot of fashion questions. I guess that makes it my single priority sweater!
This year has been all about cutting back, revising. In fact, I just sent a major revision of my novel-in-progress to my fellowship mentor at Bookends which has been an incredible experience to date. But the revisioning doesn’t end there. As writers, we learn that a new draft means completely re-seeing what’s come before, sometimes letting go of old ideas and plot threads, sometimes whittling away the words that bog it down. The same practice has imbued my life outside of writing.
This next cross-country journey (including all the side-winding) would not have been possible if we hadn’t let go of that which was holding us back. Embracing new dreams, reinvention, call it what you want, it is a powerful drug.
So as this breadless cheese and turkey pair face the future hand in hand, we’re no longer thinking, how do we fill in the gaps to go back to being a sandwich? These days, we’re wondering what we could become with everything else stripped away. Might we melt ourselves into a casserole or roll up into a roulade? How can we highlight the ingredients we already have, rather than overpowering them? No matter what we make of it, we’re facing the future a bit lighter, a bit less, and with plenty of room for levity, possibility, and hope.
I’m looking forward to the report I’ll write from the other side!!
Wishing everyone safe travels in the new year along with peace and good health and freedom from your clutter.