In days of yore, I studied life drawing at a little studio with an engraved brass plate on the door reading: ‘entree des artistes.’ My teacher was crotchety and demanding, fussing in equal amounts about cake crumbs and his bad back. He was wonderful, actually; I miss that place like crazy.
It was in crotchety man’s drawing class that I became acquainted with a guy named Doug.
Doug was a profoundly talented artist with an adoring posse, a portfolio filled with exceptional drawings, and a model or two clamoring to sleep with him at all times. He was also a bit of an asshole. I loved drawing next to him–peering over his shoulder for inspiration and hoping his muse might take an interest in me–but at break-time I tried to steer clear of him. His self-absorbed ruminations and general lack of interest in anything I said or did were off-putting. Mainly, though, I wanted to avoid hearing about the challenges of maintaining dreads when you have soft, golden hair. You have to get beeswax! Oh, the daily ratting, teasing struggle of it all! It was more than I could bear. I never suspected that Doug would teach me anything of value about life outside the studio, let alone the secret to New Year’s resolutions.
Then one January evening, years ago, I found myself stuck next to him in the line for the bathroom. After an uncomfortable silence, I finally asked him what I ask everyone at that time of year. “Did you make any resolutions?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Less motherfucker and more jive turkey.”
Here was a guy who obviously had plenty of room for improvement, merely planning on swearing a bit less. I responded enthusiastically–perhaps embarrassingly so–but Doug was nonplussed. “Yeah,” he said. “Last year my goal was to learn how to cook fish.” Herein lies Doug’s secret to meaningful New Year’s resolutions: HE SETS VERY SPECIFIC GOALS HE CAN ACHIEVE.
For years I had been making resolutions like, “Read all the books I’ve been meaning to read,” “Exercise five times a week,” and “Find balance.” These were resolutions I had proven myself to be incapable of achieving. Setting the same elusive goals year after year was only making me feel inadequate and frustrated. How exactly was that helpful?
Shortly after our conversation, I threw out “achieve harmony between life and work” and wrote down the following: “#1: In the middle of every day I will sit down quietly for 20 minutes. Maybe I will eat. #2: If I have been working for 12 hours, I will leave work immediately WITHOUT bringing any work home.” Most of my friends found these resolutions to be terribly pathetic, but I found them revolutionary. I had put on paper two tiny steps toward carving space in the day for myself, thereby greatly improving my daily life. With a few minor exceptions–an art show, finals, major deadlines–I can sustain these goals and turn my attention to other areas that I would like to address.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying to set your sights low for work or love. Not at all. But resolutions are most often about the habits and patterns of thought we hold that serve as obstacles to our health, happiness, and sense of well-being. Setting reasonable, achievable, and sustainable goals requires a substantial shift in mindset. I no longer consider myself a project, or some sort of approximation of the person I would like to become. Instead, how liberating to consider oneself a decent person, doing what decent people do: learning from last year’s experiences and working to make the coming year even better.
In the process of writing this post, I heard about Silvi Alcivar, who had always wanted to be a writer–even called herself a writer–but could not make herself write regularly as she thought a writer should. She decided to set a goal of writing THREE MINUTES a day. Now she she meets people all over and has very focused, intense conversations. Then she writes them tiny, mind-blowing, three-minute poems. I got a little weepy watching her video, but that is not surprising, I suppose. I cried at a Keds’ commercial once. Check Silvi out now at The Poetry Store.
In the meantime, you may be hoping that I’m planning a year with less motherfucker as well, but I have other small fish to fry. Sorry, mom.