Hibernation Time and the New Year

My family departed for home Christmas Eve night and Christmas morning, so I have been in hibernation mode since 9 a.m. on the 25th.  These seven post-Solstice, post- Christmas days  (my family always celebrates on the 24th ), are my wintering time.  It is when I, like TV specials and pundits, reflect on the year past, but it is also the time when I set my course for the year to come.

My wintering or hibernation (the noun winter is German, but hiver is the French word for winter)  is about rest and renewal, about letting go and taking on, about reflecting on the departing year and planning for the new one.  I mostly stay at home, using up the Christmas leftovers and undecorating the house, reading my Christmas books and doing one of my Christmas jigsaw puzzles. I write in my journal with a focus on the year past and the year to come, including New Year’s resolutions, which I have been doing since elementary school.  ( I remember when I was ten, I resolved to learn to light the gas stove. It didn’t have a pilot light, so it involved  a match, and I found it scary. To this day I am an electric range person.)

Over time my resolutions have become more abstract and complex. They all involve self-improvement. Even at 80 there are improvements to be made. I am deeply engaged in virtue ethics, so my guides to living wisely and well are the four attitude virtues of hope, trust, lovingkindness, and gratitude , and the behavioral virtues of self-care, prudence (practical wisdom), simplicity, and  mindfulness.  The arenas in which those virtues are played out are lifelong learning, vocation (write-teach-preach-lead-serve), and cultivating healthy relationships. My daily journal is the ongoing record of my intentions and my performance. 

What about surprises? There are always plenty of those. In 2021, COVID changed my travel plans.  I rethought some of my volunteer commitments and rearranged them to better it my lifestyle, especially that part of my lifestyle that involves sleeping from 9 to 5 and driving after dark as seldom as possible.  Self-care surprised me with an unplanned but very rewarding journey with NOOM to lose 25 pounds. I lost a cat, a dog, and most sadly, a brother.  I lost friends, some to death, others to relationships that no longer worked, but was surprised to acquire two new ones (one to hike with, one to travel with) and strengthen the bonds of several old friendships. Man (and woman) plan, and God laughs. Like Columbus, I set my course for India and found a new world along the way.

So, I invite you to a few final days of hibernation and reflection before returning to the daily round. What was your year 2021 like? What did you learn and change, gain and lose? What are your hopes for 2022, personally and collectively? What are you grateful for, concerned about, desirous of changing? As the days begin to lengthen again, and the signs daffodils and crocuses appear, may you be rested and renewed, armed with faith, hope and good intentions for the year that begins in just three days.

The Turning of the Year–Resolution #2

Patience is a virtue, except when it morphs into procrastination.  I am pretty good about not procrastinating (all right, maybe emptying the litter box, according to my cat) but I do find myself drawn to impatience, its opposite.  Impatience is living in the future, whether it is waiting for Christmas, or the kids to grow up, or the workday to end, or the new president to be inaugurated.  The grass is always greener in the future (especially since I am writing this blog at the winter solstice!).

The spiritual practice that is the best known cure for impatience is mindfulness.  Mindfulness is the practice of living in the moment and doing one thing at a time, a foreign notion to the familiar modern American world of multitasking and planning ahead.  I eat breakfast while writing in my journal and drink my tea ( a recent switch from coffee to reduce my over-stimulation) while reading the morning paper.  I cannot watch television without something to occupy my hands (jigsaw puzzles are a favorite in the winter).

I took a six -week class in mindfulness meditation several years ago, and the experience that particularly stayed with me was mindful eating. Focus on the food.  Think about where it cam from, and be grateful for those who made it possible. Look at it, experience it.  Don’t take another bite until you have finished the first.  Mindful eating is not only a good spiritual practice, but also a good way to reduce one’s intake!

  I grew up in an environment where eating was competitive, especially with my older brother, who was a voracious eater. It was fueled by his growth into a 6 foot 5 inch frame, while I topped out at 5’4″. But the habit persisted. When I eat out with a friend, I always finish first. Now I watch the same story play out between my 60 pound dog and my five pound cat.  The tiny 20-year-old cat eats mindfully and returns to nibble throughout the day.  If I do not shelter her food from the dog, my big barking protector will hunt out her food and finish it off, which is not good for either of them.  And trust me, both cat and dog practice mindfulness to the nth degree.  Always focused on what they are doing in the moment.

As I write this, I am resisting the temptation to multitask by turning on NPR for the news of the day.  When I finish this blog, I will turn my attention to the next round of my daily routine, the most challenging in terms of mindfulness.  Five miles, 15 minutes on the exercycle to energize the active part of my day. There my challenge is to silence the monkey mind by concentrating on the body, the exercycle, progress toward my goal.. It helps if, before mounting the exercycle, I make out my to-do list.  Writing things down is off-loading those jumping monkey thoughts to the hard drive, so that I can be patiently in the present, knowing that my list will be waiting for me when I am ready for it.

There is a longer term dimension to patience and impatience as well.  I dashed through life at warp speed.  Married on my 21st birthday, I took three courses in summer school to graduate from college a year early and start graduate school.  At 28 I had a Ph.D., a husband, two children, and an assistant professorship.  I can’t go back and live those years more slowly, but when I retired (early, of course!) I did go back to graduate school to get a master’s degree in theological studies and to savor the experience.  In part to deliberately slow the process and in part because I was commuting a fair distance, I took three years to get a two-year degree. Graduate school in Emory University’s Candler School of Theology was a good place to practice mindfulness.

As I approach my 80th birthday in the summer of 2021, I am very aware that I have  a limited number of years left, especially years of good health, eyesight, and stamina. The past is long and the future is short.  I cannot afford to live the future any longer.  I need to savor the present.  Yes, I need to plan for those final years—that’s prudence, the first virtue on my three virtue list for 2021.  But I also need to live them!  I hereby publicly declare that I am committing to patience and its cousin, mindfulness, in 2021. 

There is an old joke about Unitarians that goes something like this.  Why do Unitarians sing hymns so badly?  Because they are always reading ahead to see if they agree with the theology. Reading ahead does get in the way of experiencing and singing joyfully in the present. I wish you, and me, a mindful, present-focused, patient 2021.