I sneak another bite of the sandwich I packed into the Borders Bookstore café and glance covertly around the room. Nobody notices; they are all too engaged in their own worlds of reading and conversation. I take the chance to spy on them more closely.
Key differences signal to me that I am not in northern Virginia, my home of the last few years. Silver heads and pale complexions welcome me to the St. Louis suburbs, in sharp contrast to my current home in the young, fast-moving, multicultural mix of metropolitan D.C. This is where I grew up.
Time out. Slow down. Reflect and consolidate. In the last several years, I’ve developed the habit of using the week between Christmas and New Year’s to reread the year’s journal. I relive the rollercoaster of ups and downs and take stock of personal growth. Mostly, I marvel at the big picture that each day’s connect-the-dots reveals. Each year, one “me” embarks on this adventure of life anew. By the end of 365 days, she has become someone different.
Many people use the turn of the year for this purpose, reflecting back and looking forward at the same time. The practice began in 153 B.C., when the Romans named the first month of the year after Janus, a mythological Roman emperor. The image of Janus has two heads, one turned back and one looking forward, a fitting image for the Romans’ habit of exchanging gifts and making resolutions for the new year on December 31.
So one could say that the tradition of New Year’s resolutions has pagan roots. Still there is something natural and human about taking stock of life and resolving to do better. I would rather say that the Romans put a name to a good human inclination, not that they created something new.
I know that in my own life I have reaped great joy from the habit of fasting and praying on New Year’s Eve and then finishing the previous year’s journal with a summation of lessons learned. I start the new journal with a dedicatory prayer for the year. For the last few years, I’ve been struck by the almost uncanny way God has answered that prayer. And almost always, His answers have revealed His deep majesty combined with a sense of humor.
The process goes something like this: I ask, “Lord, show me what You would have me pray.” And then I write. Usually, I don’t know what I am going to write until that moment. Often it surprises me.
I began my tradition in 2007. I prayed, “Lord, show me my limits this year.” The prayer must have come from God, since I sure didn’t recognize anything to do with limits in my life. I had always been able to do well or even excel at everything I tried, from National Merit Finalist to Tae Kwon Do black belt, so long as I worked hard enough. So after I wrote down the prayer, I promptly forgot about it. There was too much else to think about, anyway.
I graduated from Patrick Henry College in May, 2007 feeling very odd. Little did I know that my college career had depleted my adrenal glands. These glands help your body transform the winds of daily stress into energy. When they malfunction, first they overload your system with too much adrenaline, overwhelming the mind with a “fight or flight” response. Then they simply quit, taking all the energy with them.
So I graduated in the first stage of adrenal malfunction. At the same time, I suffered a romantic disappointment, which quickly progressed me to the second stage. So with no buffer between me and everyday life, I encountered the wider world. Trying to succeed at a new job and make new friends was like wrestling for my life while tearing open third-degree burns across my entire body.
The best way to illustrate is with an anecdote. In July, I started work and moved into my new room on the third floor of a beautiful townhouse. My body already was too tense to sleep. Then the sun poured through my uncovered window and woke me early in the morning as I dozed fitfully on an air mattress in my unfurnished room. After a few weeks of this, a roommate came upstairs one evening to find me curled up on the floor in the corner of my room, shell-shocked and weeping. She collared me and drove me in my semi-catatonic state to Target, where we bought thick, brown curtains. While I sat and watched, she nailed them up, thereby — I’m not kidding — saving my life.
2007 wasn’t all terrible. The strangest thing about this year was the feeling of scales falling off my eyes. Like most young people, I’ve wasted much time composing melancholy poetry that nobody else wants to read, all about the angst in the world. But all of a sudden I knew real pain, and the angst fell away. Things like beauty, truth, and goodness became desperately necessary to me, the parched citizen of the desert.
Only when I looked back and reread what I had prayed at the start of 2007 did I marvel at how God had answered me. I was still shell-shocked, so I decided to ask for something innocent in the new year. I prayed for God to teach me how to rest.
I had never really rested in my life. I grew up working in a family business, homeschooled and doing schoolwork around the edges. Recreation fitted itself into the day, but always another goal or project hovered overhead. College was even worse, since work never ended. I could always refine a paper or study harder for a test. At the same time, I could nap whenever I needed it, giving myself that extra push to get through the rest of the day.
The work world, I found, operates on different rhythms. Bosses expect you to be “on” for at least eight hours. In between, you exercise, volunteer for church, call family, do house chores, and take care of whatever else you feel is necessary. Somehow, meanwhile, this mix of off-hour activities is supposed to revitalize you for the next day of work.
I have always overcommitted. 2008 was no different. Saturdays and several weekday evenings, I edited video. Sundays, I socialized. Every other evening during the week, I attended my martial arts school, where I progressed toward my second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Then I added jiu-jitsu classes.
I have always wanted to study jiu-jitsu. My primary martial art, Tae Kwon Do, is all about striking. I reasoned that any attack of real danger to me, a woman, would probably wind up on the ground. So therefore I needed I groundfighting art — like jiu-jitsu. When Gracie Jiu-Jitsu instructors opened a new class at my school, I signed up. Another hour and a half, twice a week.
First day in my new class, I looked around and realized that all the other participants were men. This didn’t bother me at first. I’ve always loved activities that don’t seem to attract other women. It only took me a few sparring matches, however, to realize that this time I had stepped in over my head. It may be accurate for real-life self defense to grapple with a man, but it is also awkward beyond measure. Still, I was too proud to drop out.
Less than a month later, I was watching a new move being demonstrated, and something in me balked. A little voice told me, “You can stop now. Just walk away.” But I flicked it away with the thought, “No; they would think I was weak. I’ll wait until the end of class.” Five minutes later in a sparring match, my much larger partner kneeled on my foot, twisting it sideways with a sickening pop.
That was August. I didn’t stand on my foot again until November. I didn’t run on it again until June of the next year. And I decided not to go back to jiu-jitsu class without a female partner.
Needless to say, my badly sprained ankle and the blood clot that resulted interrupted most of my life. Recalling that strange little voice in jiu-jitsu class, I remembered what I had prayed at the start of the year. With a wry inward smile, I recognized that I wasn’t going to slow down to rest on my own. So God did it for me.
Which brings me to the current day. At the start of 2009, my mom begged me, “Sarah, ask God for something that’s not painful this year!” So I smiled and agreed and asked my Lord to teach me how to abound.
It’s been a good year. Humor and flavor have returned. I ran the first year of a film festival. My foot finally healed enough to let me resume progress toward my second-degree TKD black belt. I found a new freelance gig writing for Boundless, and I started a grad school program to earn an M.F.A. in screenwriting.
As I read my 2009 journal yesterday, I found the following entry:
7/17/09. This time now is the best I’ve lived. I am more at peace because I know God better. I am more aware of life’s overall landscape of difficulty. I guess running up against one’s limits will do that. It grieved me, but it was for my good.
As I write this, I have yet to compose my prayer for 2010. On the 2nd, I jump into Magic, my off-white Pontiac Grand Am, and cruise back to Virginia for the post-holiday adjustment to working life. By then I will have talked to my Lord, and I will have dedicated a new year. Meanwhile, I relax, and I savor the peace and joy of this single moment.
Copyright 2009 Sarah Pride. All rights reserved.