I made a big deal about having major spine surgery before the end of 2016. Let’s lump all the shitty stuff together! I thought to myself. There had already been a very ugly election race, Orlando, Paris, Aleppo; this was the year we lost Prince, and Bowie, and Carrie, and Debbie, and George. Even Zsa Zsa took her final bow. (It wasn’t all bad: I fell in love and got a puppy. Those are two separate things, by the way.) I wanted very much to control the timing of my surgery so that 2016 would be a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end — particularly to the chronic back pain that made it impossible to exercise, that made me beg off plans for fear I’d have to stand or sit or walk for too long. I wanted it done and over, just another part of an altogether unpleasant year. And so recovering from surgery for six months (and then being in a brace for just as long), felt like a preferable way to start 2017: licking my wounds, maybe, but able to prepare and plan for a pain-free life. Me — the phoenix rising from ashes.
By all accounts, the surgery was an unmitigated success. But three weeks in, recovery and getting stronger has turned out a little different than I had hoped. In fact, it feels like I’m right back in 2016. I can’t control the progress of my healing, so I feel like an observer rather than an active participant. I’ve lost my agency, like keys or a phone — I know it’s still there, but I put it someplace and promptly forgot where. That could be from taking a ton of Oxycontin. (Apologies if you visited me in the hospital: I barely remember a thing from those early days.)
My muscles ache with such intensity, I wonder if I fell in my sleep or wrenched my back without thinking. I want to go back to pain meds (but don’t). I slowly walk the dog thinking the movement will help, but then I realise the soreness isn’t going away (much like Trump? Sorry, I can’t help myself). I’m going to have to stand it. Maybe not for four years but, well, a very profound while.
Yes, 2016 left me battered and bruised, and the beginning of 2017 doesn’t feel much different. And there's only so much I can do to distract from that. I can watch Grey Gardens; order books about crystals and cabins; try on every shade of lipstick I own; try (and fail) to apply press-on nails. Dream of one day owning a petite pavé David Yurman signet ring and a country house. I can envy all the beautiful parties and vacations and glowing skin of my beautiful friends, but still not look away from their Insta Stories. I can google “gluten free dairy free doughnuts.” (I shouldn’t have done that, because now I have two dozen arriving tomorrow via UPS.) I wonder if any of this will help. I take deep breaths to oxygenate my blood. I drink turmeric tea and obscene quantities of water. I do face masks and colouring books. I think.
Yet, I can't bring myself to do the one thing I want to do with all this time: writing down my goals for 2017. After last year, I’m almost too afraid to have any. I’m afraid of another year of failing, afraid to try and afraid to care. Something is holding me back from setting goals and feeling invested in them. Oh wait, could it be the back brace? No, it’s a feeling of not having any certainty with which to confront this year. As much as I want magic, I seem to have temporarily misplaced my capacity to conjure it.
In 2016, my pain was chronic, sometimes agonising. My career felt hazy; after so many years of tenacious ambition, I’m suddenly unsure of my role in a changing media landscape. My disappointment over this election, not just who won and lost but the way we conducted ourselves throughout, broke something in me. I felt like Sisyphus: so much work invested, so much time and hope, so much grinning and bearing it, and the rock rolled down the mountain again….and landed on my back.
So, what’s a crystal-loving, gluten- and dairy-free doughnut craving woman with a soon-to-be bionic spine to do? Nothing. Yup, you heard me. Not one damn thing. Not until I’m damn well ready. Not until I’m okay with not doing, but allowing.
Generally speaking, people don’t seem to love uncertainty. The unknown is frightening. We tolerate it to the extent we can and then distract ourselves from the fear and pain of it with, among other things, expectation. Perhaps expectation is a way to create illusory certainty until things either go exactly as we’d hoped or we are disappointed that they didn’t. It wasn’t that I was certain 2016 would be a hard or wonderful year. It was that I had many expectations for the year, only very few of which (though an important few) came to fruition as I’d imagined. And we all know the more you invest yourself in the outcome of something, the harder it is to accept if it turns out differently.
Can I get an amen here?
One thing I’ve realised is that without much conscious effort, I had been treating 2017 as a kind of “saviour” year as a way to move beyond 2016. Many of my highs and lows last year came from my own emotional investment in expectations that made ANY other outcome untenable to me. That kind of rigidity doesn’t just bring disappointment, it can bring real physical pain...and a sense of hopelessness, when I'm usually all about optimism and hope. And while our (not completely arbitrary) calendar indicates a new year is upon us, I’m a bit tired of treating every new year as a (somewhat arbitrary) time to decide to do everything differently. Assigning our sense of purpose to a specific day and time and promising a myriad of changes feels a little like trying to create certainty out of chaos.
Don't misunderstand: Of course I am planning for 2017 to be better than 2016. But I can’t think of many years when I’ve ever said, “Oh boo, I wish this year wouldn’t end.” We use years as milestones, and, especially as ambitious women, the passage of time allows us to check off our accomplishments and then admire them. But at some point this began to change for me. Radically. As if setting goals and resolutions now impedes what is the most natural, easiest of measures we can take to love ourselves and each other. By focusing so strictly on a perceived goal, we almost unwittingly disconnect from allowing our lives to unfold with a faith that is beyond certainty. If we learn to allow for experience without expectation, we may find participation takes less effort, that victimisation isn’t real, that distraction is its own sort of healing, that rest is hugely undervalued and the outcome is just that: an outcome, take it or leave it.
There’s a quote I put on my Instagram recently that makes me smile every time I see it: “Be open to it being way better than you imagined.” (It’s unattributed, but thank you whoever said that.) I smile each time, not because things could be better than I expect, but because I really can remain open to anything. Couldn’t I?
Trusting in my ability to “allow” for life in itself is a kind of agency, if one that requires less doing and more quiet processing. My relationship to time has really taken centre stage for me this past year; I’m learning to understand my relationship to age, my surprise at feeling so confused and lost and a bit melancholic, like thinking of an ex from many years ago that causes you to smile and feel an emptiness simultaneously. There’s no going back. But there’s a softening taking place in me, maybe one that can only come with age and experience, that insists less upon hustling and struggling and proving — and much more on listening, learning, and allowing. It requires a different kind of discipline than I’ve felt in years previous but no less important.
And so for me, it’s time. Just that. Time, and allowing: I want to allow for experience instead of triumph or failure, allow for possibility over expectation, to stop judging experiences instead of actually experiencing them; even valuing the possible necessity of doughnut distraction (it’s delicious and it helps!). There is literally no one in the universe who’ll experience time or put it to use in exactly the same way as you or I can. So make your resolutions or don’t. Set goals and reach them or simply re-evaluate them. Just be gentle with yourself. And I will try to do the same. Setting the bar is a great exercise, but so are both jumping to reach it and jumping and missing altogether. I don’t want to lose my fire to fight injustice or my passion to make a difference or my ability to lift up others and believe in the essential nature of self-care. We must infuse meaning into our lives. Life won’t do that for us, neither will the end nor start of another calendar year.
Slowly, I am starting to feel that uncertainty has meaning for me, too: that no deliberate action isn’t the same thing as inaction. That a sense of pause can bring relief and clarity and renewal. If I allow myself the time and space to evolve, at the pace and in the way I need to right now, then perhaps I won’t be afraid to make resolutions. Maybe I won’t even need to. Pushing the rock back up the mountain won't need to be a symbol for anything but the work itself — which I will keep showing up to do. I will stand, back brace and all, in possibility. And maybe that thought, all by itself, is what it means for me to conjure magic in 2017.
Want more inspiration to make 2017 a great year? This author is making resolutions for the very first time, ever — and she swears it's not too late.