“I don’t know what to think until I write about it” – Joan Didion
It’s a New Year and so a new me… or apparently that’s how we are supposed to see the stroke of midnight on the 1st of January when all the people in the same time zone as you (who haven’t dozed off already) wish each other all the health and happiness for the coming year. In the past, during the first week of the year, I simply spent half of each day impatiently scratching through yet another wrongly written date and the other half wiggling out of my over-ambitious Resolutions with the help of lame excuses. By the time the middle of January had come and gone, I had already shrugged my shoulders, pronounced my hopeful resolutions as “next year projects” and gone on with my life as usual.
After all, is it not just an arbitrary decision that every time we successfully travel fully around a big ball of fire on our floating rock, we should celebrate as if being given a new life, a fresh start in which to accomplish all the things we always said we would?
Or, perhaps, I have concluded this year, I have been looking at this the wrong way…
It started with discovering the Joan Didion quote that began this post. I found it in a fantastic book called Big Magic by writer Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) that one of my good friends lent me. Though I technically came across the quote long before New Years, I spent probably the better part of December ruminating on this wonderfully simple-yet-eye-opening phrase.
“I don’t know what I think until I write about it.”
The more I thought about this, the more sense it started to make – and by making sense, I mean that it explained a lot.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my struggles with anxiety and overbearing levels of stress did not hit me until a few years ago. While it is certainly true that around that time the pace of my life hit a speed which some people might refer to as breakneck, I had simultaneously made another seemingly microscopic change to my routine – I had stopped writing in my journal. This blog did not manifest until my Master’s studies and so for several years, quite honestly, I spent a good part of my time lost. Or, as Ms. Didion so acutely puts it, not knowing what to think.
Such a simple change and yet a mind-boggling one in its ability to discombobulate my mental health and life.
I really and truly struggled to organize any of my thoughts as they bounded around maniacally in the expanse of my mind. That’s not to say that when I was journaling I was writing down every single thought (as my fiance, the most constant witness of how my brain works, would tell you… that would be a herculean task). Instead, it seems that I would write about the most pressing, disruptive thoughts – the ones insisting on being heard amongst the din of less important thoughts jostling for attention.
Writing these thoughts down and working through them gradually in a stream-of-consciousness type journal entry did what no other form of mental load streamlining (i.e. meditation, exercise, talking with loved ones) could. It helped me figure out what I thought and, in doing this, helped me to be able to say to that particularly insistent mental strain, “OK, I’ve heard you and I’ve come up with a solution to your concerns. You can now rest easy, soldier.”
Once my thoughts had again reached some kind of equilibrium through writing it out, the turmoil of attention-seeking issues, analyses, old memories requiring new evaluations, and every other item siphoning off little bits of my brain power leaving me with too little focus on any one thing in particular…dissipated. Everything in my brain, now that the troublemakers had been dealt with, seemed to file itself again in an orderly fashion with each individual thought patiently waiting its turn to be dealt with. With this order restored, the typical methods of to-do lists, time management, exercise, and confiding in loved ones, once again began to function as not just coping mechanisms but pleasant ways to organize the busy brain – and life felt easy, enjoyable, and manageable again.
It was only when I gave this beloved practice up that the trouble started in earnest. With the louder thoughts not being properly tended to on a regular basis, they build upon each other until the resulting cacophony created a DEFCON 1 situation – and here’s where the big red panic button got pressed.
I wasn’t writing therefore I no longer knew how I thought and thus felt out of my depth in my own mind. I had lost sight of the most powerful tool I had to calm things down.
And so, as I have worked this year to come back to a loving relationship with both my body and my mind, I have thought long and hard about what elements of my younger life I could bring back in order to re-balance my life in a gentle fashion – and that’s when I got it. Finally.
This year, New Years became a period of reflection rather than reinvention. I cracked open an old, barely-used journal, and sat down in a comfy chair and just wrote. I set no guidelines, no checklists to follow, other than one simple rule: when looking at the New Year ahead, what do I think.
And this, dear reader, is what I came up with:
- Friends and family are important and should be cherished and visited as often as possible.
- Writing gives me joy and feeds my soul – it is the key to my understanding and loving myself.
- In order to have a healthy mind, my body must be nourished properly and exercised regularly so I do not become stiff and sore in pursuing my stationary life passion.
- I am never going to be the best at anything (be it French, yoga, writing, or my job) but I can strive for my best in every area of my life.
- There is nothing wrong with skipping the chores on occasion and curling up with a good book. In fact, it is highly encouraged.
- And, finally, the outdoors are my happy place – be it hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or calm. I need to get out there and enjoy the beautiful spinning rock I call home – every cell in my body will thank me for it.
None of these were goals I could track progress on or feel worthless about when I failed to deliver.
All of them, every single one, brought a smile to my face. And not one part of any of them sparked the tiniest hint of panic.
Joan Didion made a lot of sense when she stated that she didn’t know what she thought until she wrote. I didn’t either. But now, I’ve written and here’s what I think:
Life may be short and busy and, on occasion, both hard and stressful, but it sure is beautiful.
PS. I will return to my travel saga next week, I promise. I hope this post has helped ease your mind if the Resolutions are already weighing you down. Next time they do, instead of focusing on feelings of failure, maybe take a second to think about why you made them in the first place and focus on the thought behind each one – you may have already completed great strides in the direction of your underlying goals, even if you haven’t checked anything off your mental list. And, if I may, try writing things down. You may be surprised at what is revealed when you do.