I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve; that traditional moment for reflection. But this year I think that my internal software must have had an upgrade without me noticing because things feel different. Something significant has changed and I feel like a new version of myself.
In past years, I’ve been a dedicated fan of New Year resolutions; attracted like a moth to the glowing flames of optimism and by the allure of self-improvement. That may sound positive but the truth is that I singed my wings many times, setting out determinedly on 1st January with a clutch of wide-ranging commitments to myself, all carefully planned out—and all conveniently forgotten by 31st January. I was trying my best but sometimes the list stretched to eighteen items and I fear that I might have seemed comically earnest.
It was almost inevitable that I would lapse as many studies have found that a very small percentage of people stick to their New Year resolutions. My start-of-year lists may have only ever had a brief gasp but I did once have a list that played an important and satisfying part in my life. I’m talking about the list I made when I was fifty-four and needing to reconnect with the world after a difficult patch—on it were sixty things that I wanted to do before I was sixty; some big and time-consuming, others small and simple.
They filled in many gaps in my experience and were a way of pinning down things that I’d longed to do for years. I took horse riding lessons, read Middlemarch, went to Japan and St Petersburg, watched all of Hitchcock’s films, learned to identify birdsong, made a (rather awful) patchwork cushion, walked the North Downs Way, did a painting, went to the Glastonbury Festival, and much more besides. I’ve written about many of these things in 31 Treats And A Marriage but one that I’ve not yet shared is a trip that I made in 2018 to see New England in the Fall. There’s plenty of autumn colour in other parts of the USA but New England is a particularly good place to see it on account of the variety of deciduous trees and the natural beauty of the landscapes. We stayed in New Hampshire and while we were there we took a four-hour heritage Fall Foliage ride on the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad. As we chugged alongside the lake with the White Mountains in the distance, the colours were indeed spectacular. I groped for words to describe it all—peach, ginger, crimson, acid yellow, strawberry ice cream, lime, rust, gold, olive green, pumpkin, tomato red, sunshine, cherry, terracotta, auburn, mustard, apricot, chili red…it’s surprising how many were related to food.
Half-way, the train stopped at Plymouth where lunch had been laid on in a converted wood mill. I sat with Mike on my left and to my right, a couple of American women who were deep in conversation throughout the first course. Then, part-way through the pudding, the one next to me put down her spoon and gave me her full, wide-eyed attention. “So what’s your total, then?” she asked.
“It’s my first trip here,” I said. “I’m enjoying it very much. Wonderful foliage.”
She looked blank. This was clearly not the right answer, and as she glanced purposefully towards Mike I wondered whether perhaps she was asking about husbands. “Two?” I said tentatively.
She was not at all impressed. “Mine’s thirty eight,” she said proudly. Maybe she meant lovers. She did look as though she’d lived a bit.
I wondered what to say next but she made it easy for me, ploughing onward and determined to make her point. “…our last trip, we did Switzerland and Germany, and before that it was Peru. My friend and I…” She gestured towards the woman on her right, “…we always travel together.”
Realising at last what she meant, I tried to do a quick tally of all the countries I’d visited but had to admit defeat.”I don’t know,” I said limply. She looked deeply disappointed, and turned away. Later, on the train ride back I added them all up but couldn’t equal her total—even by splitting the UK up into Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Not even by cheating a bit and including England where I’ve lived all my life. Nor by including the Channel Islands which are Crown Dependencies and their status is so confusing that I justified shoehorning them in. Then I stopped as the totals game seemed a bit silly.
This was not the first time I’d been prompted to consider what my list meant to me but I knew already that it was not about totals and ticking things off. It wasn’t a to-do list threaded through with obligation and guilt but was instead a could-do list full of promise and things to look forward to. Each treat was a defined and memorable beacon; an event that sat outside the indistinguishable sludge of everyday life. I am so grateful to that list—it was the crutch that got me through a difficult time. It also gave me the material and motivation to write a book—something I’d always wanted to do.
Unlike my New Year resolutions, I was fully committed to it, and by the time I got to my sixtieth birthday, I had experienced all the things I’d written on my list. By then, I couldn’t imagine life without a list and so I rewarded myself with a birthday present of a new one—seventy things to do before I was seventy. I gave this list a lot of thought, read it to my family, and settled down to enjoy the familiar anticipation. The first thing I did was to kayak along the Wye, and that was very enjoyable. I was glad to have done it. Then I went to the Sistine Chapel. Again, something I was pleased to have done. Then I went to Runnymede, the Royal Court Theatre, got to know two Sondheim musicals, and explored the Suffolk coast. But with the pandemic, something unexpected happened; doubts crept in. Did I really want to get to know three operas, learn some magic tricks, go segwaying, get wet in a monsoon, take a hot-air balloon trip, visit Vietnam, and learn the Charleston? Well, perhaps. But with the enforced hiatus I’d lost my motivation. I realised that I didn’t need a list anymore. Unlike the first list that provided a vital structure when I needed it, this one felt contrived. Instead of being a pleasure, I felt like I was going through the motions because I had a list, and so I took the paper version off the wall and quietly slipped it into a filing box. It’s there should I need it but it’s not an in-my-face, stuck-on-the-wall kind of list like its older sibling was.
And so here we are at New Year and I have no list and no resolutions. I did consider choosing a theme for the coming year—I read a book recently that recommended themes rather than SMART goals. They’re more flexible, providing an expanse of space through which you can meander rather than having to stick to prescribed paths. I wondered what might be a suitable theme. Balance, maybe. Nuance? Trains? Making use of what I’ve got rather than looking for new and better? Being kinder? The author suggested putting post-it notes on your computer screen, the bathroom mirror and the biscuit tin. I was briefly tempted by this approach but on reflection, even this feels too structured for the new me.
A friend emailed me this morning with New Year wishes and said, ‘ I hope all your dreams come true.” I thanked her but had to admit that I have no dreams. That risks sounding self-satisfied but that’s definitely not what I mean. There are things I am pleased to have done and there are many others that I could have done so much better or differently. The point is that many of those focused efforts are no longer relevant; the children run their own lives now and as I’m retired there are no longer any work-related aims. However alien it might feel not to have goals after all this time, I feel a need to accept things are as they are; I’m in a different phase of life. It’s comfortable but also uncomfortable as it begs the question that so many of us struggle with—what am I for? I don’t have an answer to that but I do know that I’m clearer about the things I enjoy doing and want to do more of those rather than exploring lots of new activities. So for this year I just want to take things as they come and enjoy things for their own sake—being a wife, mum and friend; walking, reading, writing, practising French, cooking, and chatting. Anything extra like travel will be a bonus but there are definitely no totals.
Wishing you a healthy and happy 2023 and if you’ve got any comments about resolutions, lists, totals or anything else, I’d love to hear.