Euonymus in ice

New Year’s Eve is traditionally a time for taking stock. Looking back on the wins and losses of the previous year, folks with a penchant for self-improvement typically use the occasion of the New Year to make resolutions. Although I’m a sucker for self-help books, I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I’ve seen enough New Years come and go to know that well-intentioned resolutions are often broken and forgotten by February, so setting grand goals for the New Year sounds like a guaranteed recipe for disappointment.

Ice-etched

That being said, I’m a big fan of small, attainable goals. This past year, for instance, I set a goal to meditate at least five minutes every day, so although I didn’t go to the Zen Center as often as I would have liked, I am happy to say I meditated at home every single day. I also met my yearly goal to read fifty books in 2017, a goal I reached by reading a little bit every day.

Iced

The other thing I managed to do in 2017 was take and post to Flickr one photo every day. In any given year, I take far more than 365 photos: on days when I go somewhere or do something visually interesting, I might take and post dozens of photos. But on otherwise ordinary, unremarkable days, I need a nudge to take photos, and a 365-day photo challenge provides that motivation. Even in the gray days of February or the busiest days of the semester, I knew I had to snap and post a photo of something, no matter how boring or inane.

Icy aftermath

Over time, a daily photo challenge starts to feel like a personal scavenger hunt or visual gratitude journal: no matter how uninspired or bland a particular day might have felt, you have to find at least one image worth sharing. This year as always, I posted lots of pictures of pets; this year for the first time, I also posted lots of pictures of postcards. Scrolling through my photoset of “365 in 2017” photos, I see a visual time capsule of the entire year.

Icy

Because noticing is contagious, once you push yourself to take at least one picture a day, it becomes easier to take two, three, or more images. Over the course of the year, you hone your eye so it is perpetually on the lookout for Today’s Picture, and you prove to yourself day after day after day that there is always something interesting and share-worthy going on: you just have to capture it when it happens.

Reaching

So on this New Year’s Eve, I’ve decided to continue into the New Year the three habits I honed over the course of the Old. I’ll keep meditating, reading, and snapping at least one photo a day, everyday. I hope what worked in 2017 will continue to work in 2018.

Click here to see my “2017 Year in Books” on Goodreads, or click here to see my “365 in 2017” photoset. Enjoy, and happy New Year!

Snowy backyard, with path to dog pen

We’re accustomed to seeing January as a season of new beginnings when actually winter is the season of stopping. Perhaps the reason the new year starts in January is to convince us that something new is happening right at that point of year when nothing seems to be moving at all. The plants are dormant or dead; the birds are largely inactive, doing nothing other than feeding and fluttering, with little singing or strutting; and many mammals are hibernating, having disappeared into dens and burrows. Even the earth itself seems to be sleeping, the sun having turned a cold shoulder. What better time to turn off or at least inward, letting one’s own imagination go fallow during a season of contemplation and renewal.

Frosted windows

Why are New Year’s resolutions so popular other than the simple fact that this is the worst time of year to make them? Every January when the sidewalks are encased in ice and crusted over with rutted slabs of ankle-twisting snow, throngs of new walkers and runners hit the streets, determined to start an exercise routine when the days are coldest and darkest. It’s infinitely easier to run or walk in the spring and summer, when the sidewalks are clear, the streets are well-illuminated, and you don’t need to wrap yourself in layers of swaddling, but few people start workout routines then. Instead, the middle of winter is when we resolve to turn over a new leaf even though the trees themselves are bare of actual leaves. The season when seasoned runners find themselves most challenged is exactly when new runners (and walkers) set out in droves to begin their self-improvement anew even though all natural indications suggest that mid-winter is the time to stop and surrender all such striving.

Frosted windows

If you want to go against the grain—if you want to defy nature—make a firm resolve to improve yourself in January, or any other month. Something there is that doesn’t like a wall, and something there is that doesn’t like improvement, neatening, and straightening. Closets naturally prefer to be cluttered, bodies are gravitationally inclined to sag, and motionless objects automatically surrender to inertia. As I type these words, I’m surrounded by sleeping cats who show no desire to move or be moved, being content instead to lie nestled into the furry warmth of their own slumbers.

Frosted windows

Winter, in other words, is a natural time for stopping, for sleeping, for retreating; only the perversion of a pagan holiday convinces us instead to see January—that two-faced month—as being a season for starting, for initiative rather than inertia. In January, I tell myself I should walk more at the very time of year when I feel like walking less.

When J and I left for lunch today, there was a red-tailed hawk circling overhead, his pale belly lit by slanting sunlight. At the birdfeeder were three fat squirrels—one hanging on the feeder itself, and the other two scavenging seeds underneath—and all three seemed oblivious to the bird soaring overhead even though red-tails regularly feed on squirrels. Those fat squirrels seemed almost smug in their blithe disregard, as if they knew the fatter they became, the more difficult they would be to be plucked from the sky. The squirrels that would be the tastiest to consume are also the hardest to catch.

Although today’s post is illustrated with photos I shot today, I actually wrote it last year: an overlooked draft I never got around to posting, and thus perfect material for a day when I left the house only to take the dogs to and from our backyard dog pen.

Table with tapas

Yesterday was my birthday, so here is the requisite shot of Friday night’s celebration: Girls’ Night Out at Solea in Waltham. In past years, I’ve shared similar table-top shots; last year I was sick on my birthday, so the celebration felt anticlimactic. This year, instead of trying to figure out what I want from the proverbial “rest of my life,” I’ve decided to reflect on what I am grateful to already have. Instead of seeing the occasion of my birthday as an opportunity to focus on what’s wrong and needs to be fixed, I’ve decided to focus on what right in my life and needs to be continued.

So in the spirit of tapas–little dishes that whet the appetite and make for a meal when combined–here are three little things I did as a 38-year-old that I want to continue now that I’m a day over 39.

Table with a view

This past year I’ve made a more serious effort to meditate with others. During the spring and summer, I started practicing with the Open Meadow Zen Group, and recently I’ve been making an effort to sign up for talks and interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center. After having led a Zen group of my own in New Hampshire–and after seeing that group fold–I was a bit shy about climbing back into the “sangha saddle” again. But now that I’ve taken baby steps back toward doing formal meditation more regularly with others, I’m wondering why I insisted on practicing on my own for so long. Meditating at home on one’s own is an important part of practice, but I find meditating with others infinitely more powerful.

This past year, I’ve made a more serious effort to see my life–not simply meditation–as being my spiritual practice. Instead of limiting my practice to what I do on a meditation cushion, I’ve been trying to pay closer attention no matter what I’m doing. That means spending a lot of time doing “driving meditation” during my weekly trips between New Hampshire and Massachusetts: instead letting myself zone out while I’m driving, I’ve been trying to follow my breath as I drive, paying close attention to the sensation of my hands on the wheel while I watch other cars with alert concentration. If sitting upright on a meditation cushion qualifies as “practice,” why can’t sitting upright in the driver’s seat?

Ambience

This past year, I stayed consistently debt-free and saved money instead of digging out from debt. In the past, I’ve relied upon credit cards to fund my under-employed summer months, which has meant I’ve spent my fall semesters paying off debt. This past year, I did a better job managing my finances (and I taught more) throughout the summer, so the money I made during an extra-busy fall semester went toward savings rather than debt. Without feeling like I’ve scrimped, I’ve felt more financially “settled” this past year, paying off my credit card balances every month (even if that meant dipping into savings over the summer) and being more diligent about saving for next summer and beyond. After having spent years in a marriage where we couldn’t make ends meet on a six-figure salary, I love the feeling of living within my means (and enjoying myself) on much less.

So there you have it: three things I feel I did right this year that I want to continue. They aren’t exactly New Year’s Resolutions since they’re things I’ve already started doing; instead, we might call them Birthday Retro-lutions, nibbles of wisdom I recognize as tasty in retrospect that I’d like to continue sampling as I continue to creep toward 4-0.