Friday, January 2, 2009

The List for ´09

Are New Years´Resolutions out of fashion? I´ve no idea but my list brought me to Guatemala. And that´s not the half of what it´s responsible for.

I´ve no idea why but in Jan ´07 I made a list: what did I want to have done in twelve months time and how did I want to have changed.

Perhaps it was the recent end of a significant relationship or the time management course work had sent me on - whose golden rule was ´make lists, do the most important first´- but it goes down as a significant moment.

I´ve always enjoyed too many things, or so I felt as I struggled to narrow my focus, desperate to be really good at something yet feeling doomed to be a Jack of All Trades. So it was cathartic this time 24 months ago to sit and decide what I actually wanted from 2007, listing things I´d always said I wanted to do and deciding which I wanted most.

For example near the top of the list was ´learn to dance´. Now the viewing figures for the UK cult show ´Strictly Come Dancing´may well have been reaching their crescendo (although how many went dancing?) but I swear that had nothing to do with it. For years I had wanted to be able to partnerdance. Time to learn. So I asked about clubs in Oxford, immediately found that the University had an excellent one, open to everyone and only two quid per class. After six months trying out every style on offer I settled on Salsa - popular, fun to dance in a group (´Rueda´) and with an excellent teacher. So, fast forward to a few weeks ago: I was striding towards a salsa club in Xela, on my own (my new Xela friends having left for Xmas), to dance with strangers in a country whose language I barely spoke, and I realised I had come a long way from the days not so long ago when you couldn´t have proposed a more terrifying scenario. Thanks to List ´07.

There´s a great danger with lists, however. They can play right into the hands of a culture obsessed with outward success and accumulation. One of the most distressing moments of my life was the realisation three years ago that I was fixated on achievement and self-improvement, to the detriment of what really matters in life - friendship. A questionnaire I did with my fellow environmental Masters students had me far left at the ´Goal Oriented´end of the spectrum, with everyone else middle or towards ´People Oriented´. I was indignant with the stupid, over simplified pop-psychology... because it was true. Yet I knew from previous dark days that fellowship with "fellow (hu)man" was ultimately what made life worthwhile. I vowed to put people first from then on. Spending time with those I cared for was priority number one.

So it is heartening as I sit and look back at the lists for ´07 and ´08 to realise that while it is the "learn to dance" and "study spanish" goals that I´ve remembered as significant victories, they are actually full of targets like "Enjoy meals with housemates", "Go on holiday with Dad" and "Throw at least two houseparties". And of course the most important goal of all, which I´ve been surprisingly successful at achieving - "Wear more hats".

The people-focused goals are the most satisfying, of course. They can also be the hardest. I honestly can´t say I´m a better listener or a more selfless person and those will be carried over for a third year. Perhaps they need translated into the actions that might lead to them? Trying (too close to leaving for travel) to volunteer with the Samaritans was a decent one as far as listening skills.

As well as the type of goals - and many a self-help book will tell you that you need to start with an idea of the the person you want to be, or your ´legacy´ - I think the attitude to the goals themselves is crucial. Sorry Zen Masters (in your charicatured form) but I like doing things and enjoy striving to achieve targets. No apologies. It is fun to have a project. The difference now is that my self esteem is not (or at least not unhealthily) tied up with whether I achieve them.

This is the big difference between now and ´then´. I´m happy in the process, irrespective of the outcome. It is the practice of yoga, and to a lesser but growing extent meditation, that has helped to calm my achievement-hungry soul. I´m learning (you have never learnt) to breath in deeply the present, to forsake the look before and after and enjoy NOW: I´m alive, my heart is beating, my lungs empty and fill, the world, universe and everything flow unstoppably onwards.

But... January is a time for just such looking beyond the present, named as it is after the Roman god Janus who´s two faces look infront and behind. So Dr Buick prescribes some time out after the bustle of Christmas and before the new year picks up speed: to look back at things to be thankful for and lessons learned; and to look forward at what you hope 2009 will hold.

Then make a list. It may just make your year.

I´m working on mine. What´s on it? Ah, that would be telling, but I can´t rule out the involvement of hats.

Picture: Gautemaltecos climb a local mountain to perform Mayan (right, in sunshine) and Evangelical Christian (left, lower down in the shadows) ceremonies and make prayers for the year ahead.

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