A few weeks ago I set off on a late afternoon walk. I wandered our neighborhood for over an hour, looping along our gridded streets and enjoying the fresh air, the sun out and shining on a bright winter day. As I headed for home just after five o’clock, I realized that despite the hour it was still light out, the sun only just beginning to slip below the horizon. The days were lengthening.
Of course, that’s how it happens this time of year. In those first days just past the winter solstice, the world seems as dark and restrictive as ever. A week or two later and it feels as though there has been no change. But a month on from the shortest day of the year and suddenly you can actually notice the days stretching, the sun remaining an extra half hour in the evening and gaining steam as it works toward the mid-point to spring. That difference is made more apparent on a sunny day, and in such a day’s particular winter warmth and brightness comes the sudden realization that spring and summer will one day return, that the dour cold and dark of winter is not a permanent condition.
It is then that the world begins to open back out. These early, sunny winter days in January and especially February, when a projection of spring warmth and the hint of new growth begins to reveal itself, are cause for a certain kind of celebratory anticipation. Here there are the swelling buds of a tree; over there is a tentative rose bloom, bright red in a drab world, lonely and out of place and yet so alive. At the edge of this muddy lawn is a flush of crocuses. These indications are more a suggestion than an arrival, but they are also a promise. In those early moments of renewal, they remind me of the life to come and my mind naturally turns toward the garden, toward memories of warm summer days, to the scent and bloom of spring. All of this is too early, of course—a few weeks ago was the reminder of spring’s approach while this week forecasts a stretch of days with highs in the 30s—but it is a joy nonetheless.
It’s not just the promise of warmth to come that catches my attention, though. It’s the cycle of it, the ongoing recurrence. Every December the winter seems dark and long and every January there comes a time when it feels as though we are coming into something new. I think about scattering kale seed in the garden box, or of what I may grow this year. I begin to shake out of my winter slumber and initial tight focus on new year activities into a broader question of what the coming year will bring. I begin to anticipate and wonder. And then I think about how quickly this year will pass; how in a blink of an eye it will be half gone, and then even more so.
I remember thinking this last year, first in the early months of the year and then once the pandemic hit and the world become something new again. In those early days we wondered how long it would last—how long we would have to suffer this. It ended up being longer than I expected, but still it somehow all went so fast. I remember thinking sometime in March or April that the year still felt young and yet it would be over before I knew it—this pandemic, this election, the normal unfurling of weeks and months. And that is exactly what happened. It was shocking how fast 2020 became 2021. I suspect I will think the same of how quickly 2021 becomes 2022.
It all has a rhythm to it, though, one that becomes more familiar with each passing year. The months flow into each other and the seasons follow accordingly. Each year is different in the details, each season its own unique experience, some hotter than normal or colder than normal or spot on to what one might expect. But it flows regardless, one into another, the year ticking away its days and weeks, its holidays and celebrations, hitting all its familiar beats. And then it comes winding down to its end and another year begins in earnest, and we all continue to make our way through these strange lives of ours, wondering what all will come of it in the end.
What I find interesting about it of late—what I suppose I have finally grown old enough to learn—is how it both cycles and builds. The course of the year is often so familiar even if the details are different, but also there is each year a slight newness to the familiarity that is not so much about the details but about the ways that I myself have changed. It’s funny, because I so often in the early weeks of each year think about all I want to get done that year, and I so often want to get it all done that year. I see a fresh start, a new chance, and I want to use it to seize everything I dream of, all at once. It feels almost as if a frenzy, that I must do it all now if I want to do it at all.
I slowly am realizing that is not necessarily the case. In particular, I am thinking of my writing here. Last year created something new for me: a habit of regular writing. I did not write every single day, but by the end of the year I had gotten myself pretty close to that. It was a revelation; I have never been that successful at getting myself to write regularly, at least not against such a long timeline. I have had stretches of writing a particular story where I buckle down for weeks or even a month or two and write regularly, pushing through that particular project. And I have had other stretches, such as when I ran my old blog Of the Hands, during which I wrote regularly, but not every day—say, trying to get a blog post or two up every week. But stretching out a near-daily writing habit over months and increasing its frequency over time, working on multiple stories and essays, blog posts and other projects . . . well, that is a new level of accomplishment for me.
Granted, 2020 conspired to help me in this new habit thanks to its unique circumstances. Being forced to stay home far more often than I normally would have created new opportunities for writing. However, there are other things I have been doing this past year-plus that contributed to my success, including a variety of new habits that have led me down a more disciplined and focused path. Looking back, I better understand now how my establishing those habits helped lay the groundwork for me to become more consistent at regular writing, and how changes in my life before that—a steady relationship, then a new home, then a new wife—helped laid the groundwork for those habits. Habits build habits; good work builds more good work; and being in the right place to do all that is key. It’s funny, because I’ve written about this before, but here I am learning these lessons once again.
At the beginning of 2020, I laid out a goal for a certain level of writing output. I did not quite achieve it, but I did come close—and I have entered this year with a number of projects in process, with another story nearing completion. Even as they always take longer than I expect, the slow accumulation of completed works is an increasing motivation, leading me toward some long dreamed of day when I might have enough stories for a collection, when I might be able to take some important next steps in my writing career.
I think the bigger insight, though, is suddenly realizing I can do it. And that brings the same kind of opening of the world I felt a few weeks ago, that sense that something bright and warm is still to come. It’s not that I know exactly what is coming, or that I am going to accomplish all I have long hoped to accomplish, but simply that I have been reminded of a possible world I had lost track of, that I had grown so accustomed to not experiencing that I thought it might be forever lost, or that it was a world I would never find in the first place.
Beyond that, though, I also am better understanding the ways in which I can build toward something, and I’m suddenly seeing the virtue of patience. It’s hard to slow down in my ambitions; it’s hard not to think that if I do not do it all in the next few months or the next year, then all will be lost. But looking back on the changes I have made in my life the past year and a half and the results of those changes, I see now what a little time, patience, and steady work can accomplish. And I suddenly can see myself not at a beginning in which all the work lies ahead or at an ending where all my failures litter the past, but at a midway point of incomplete work and partial accomplishment that nevertheless has changed who I am and promises more change ahead. In that understanding, I also suddenly have the foresight to look another year and a half down the road, and a few years beyond that, and to see that if I continue the steady work and the ongoing growth and I layer in all I hope to do a step at a time, through all the fits and starts and failures and success, I may be somewhere very exciting a few years from now; I may then be able to look at a coming year not in a frenzied need to try to get it all done at once, but in the confidence that I can get another year’s worth done in time, and then continue on from there.
It’s a new way of thinking for me, and an exciting one. It all now feels as though it’s waiting out there for me and that—if I am patient and dedicated, if I keep putting in the work and pushing through my mistakes and setbacks—I can accomplish much of it. Perhaps not all; I don’t know where all this will lead me, if anywhere. But I see the contours of it taking shape, rising up from the horizon. I can see the path there; it just may take a bit more traveling than I had expected.
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