A Time to Check In on the Questions You’re Living Within

Friday, December 18, 2015 - 3:50am
Photo by Malloreigh
The New Better Off

A Time to Check In on the Questions You’re Living Within

I’m a sucker for end-of-year reflection. I love curling up in a big, fat armchair with my journal and looking back at what I’ve written. Even on years like this, when the moments I managed to steal for this kind of writing were few and far between (some pages literally have the date and one short, unfinished sentence), it’s always edifying to realize that one single year can contain so much.

A year is an arbitrary unit of measurement, of course, but it’s as good as any to pause and recognize yourself for getting through the hard stuff, revisit the really good stuff, and get closer to integrating all of it. It’s also a time to check in on the questions you’re living within. In a sense, I feel like each year answers an old question for me and asks a new one. It’s like the years are strung together by fertile, sometimes surprising, question marks.

In so many ways, my 2015 was about limitations. Now that I’m a mother, what am I capable of? What roles can I shed? What obligations can I let go of? How can I make some sort of friendly relationship with the fact that I have decided not to be a superwoman, nor to pretend to be?

It’s a collection of questions that I’ve been dancing around for most of my adult life — always one to over-commit — but this year I really stared it down. I had such good motivation: a 25-pound bundle of exuberance and discovery and never-ending needs. Turns out that a toddler was a force, much more powerful than money or status or so many other things, to motivate me to really reckon with my own limitations.

I haven’t solved what I’m sure is going to be a lifelong struggle with no’s and yes’s, but I do feel a sense of serenity around this particular set of questions. I’ve wrestled with them. I’ve experimented with them. I’ve sometimes resented them. And ultimately, I’m moving on from them.

I simply can’t be everywhere at once, so you will most likely find me on the floor, reading a book to my daughter, or in my home office trying to surface some half-buried thought with my fingers and a keyboard. Everything else is icing. I’m getting much better at missing out.

With this hard-fought serenity, I make room for new questions.

Now, I start wondering about pleasure. Truth be told, I have sometimes felt dumb about pleasure. I forget that my head is connected to my body. I forget that food is a sensory experience. I forget that getting dressed can be a form of play and art. I forget to play music. I forget to luxuriate in a shower or a drink. I just forget.

But I want to remember, so maybe 2016 is going to be about asking myself new questions about savoring those pleasurable things. It feels particularly subversive for a “working mom” to secretly or not so secretly dedicate a year of her life to understanding her own relationship with pleasure, doesn’t it?

Or maybe 2016 is my year for finally rewiring the pathways in my brain that send me scurrying to make everyone happy, prevent heartache or conflict, be the dutiful daughter, the peacemaker, the easygoing one. I have a tendency to make room for other people’s strong preferences by unconsciously abandoning my own. I’m so expert at it that I often convince even myself that I don’t have preferences, or that “keeping the peace” trumps any desire I might have to the point that it becomes my only preference. Sometimes that’s healthy — one doesn’t have to feel strongly about everything — but sometimes it’s a cop out.

Maybe my question this coming year will be simple: What do I want?

Or maybe 2016 is my year for learning how to be more joyful within chaos. How can I just ride the wave of puzzle pieces and half-finished conversations and undone to-do lists and FaceTime catch-ups rather than trying to cling to completion?

Only time will tell. I feel grateful to get another go-round to live my way into some new wisdom. What’s the question you’re putting to bed and what’s the one that’s just being born within you at this transitional time of year?

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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How wonderful- to reflect on the previous year and look at the year ahead. It is a holy practice, even more sacred when value might have been confused to "busyness". Thank you for the reminder Courtney

So. many. thoughts!

Where do I begin?

"I feel like each year answers an old question for me and asks a new one. It’s like the years are strung together by fertile, sometimes surprising, question marks."

// What an astute observation! :)

"2015 was about limitations. Now that I’m a mother, what am I capable of? What roles can I shed? What obligations can I let go of? "


I can't tell you *how* grateful I am that we are in a similar seasons.

I'm 33, a new mom with a 16 month old, a writer+creative+photographer with a voracious curiosity for the world who is struggling to find her place and redefining her goals.

"I have a tendency to make room for other people’s strong preferences by unconsciously abandoning my own... I often convince even myself that I don’t have preferences, or that “keeping the peace” trumps any desire I might have to the point that it becomes my only preference."

// You stole the words right out of my mouth! I'm mired in what Oprah calls "the disease to please." I, too, carry the weight of expectation that comes with being "the dutiful daughter, the peacemaker, the easygoing one." Motherhood has pruned some of this tendency, but it remains the kryptonite that (stealthily) shackles me.


I want to take a moment to let you know how much this column means to me. I want to encourage, champion, celebrate the brilliant work you've done this year.

I hope you know that your hard work...matters.
The hours spent toiling late into the night...matters.
It matters to me.

I trust you believe in the "power of one."
I am that one.

I've learned so much about my own experience by reading about yours. You give voice and shape to the things I feel humming deep in my heart. Observing Courtney B.B (Before Baby) reconciling history + past experiences + curiosities with Courtney A.B. (After Baby) has been powerful exercise to draw upon.

I wanted to give you a standing ovation in my kitchen when I read and re-read (through tears-stained cheeks) "The Breaking and the Blessing of Motherhood." And I felt so liberated and heard by the truthful letter you wrote to Parker. The list is endless.

I'm so grateful to have stumbled upon your words in my season of limitation. Your words have been a life-raft and a reprieve for my heart and mind in the season of not-enoughness.

Unfortunately, I haven't been as successful at focusing my chaos into something as productive or therapeutic as writing. Every well-intentioned attempt has ended up in drool-laced stupor.

Reading your nuanced and hopeful reflections—about life, our wounded world and intentional community—helps me make sense of the noises in my head.

I'm so thankful for this (one-sided) cyber kinship.

I look forward to learning and growing together in 2016.

And if you ever feel discouraged about undone to-do lists and the race for completion, think of the new mom in Canada who SEES YOU + NEEDS the words coming out of *your* mouth, *your* fingers, *your* pen.

You are more than enough.

You are beloved.

P.S. You'll have to read between the incomplete thoughts and inconsistent tenses! Rough night with 'ze kid.

This was an exquisite piece Courtney-thank you! I love the frame of releasing one question and embracing a new one. I felt hit upside the head by a realization that felt like a slammed door, but now I hold more lightly and fondly as less slammed door and more an invitation to open some other doors.
As I explored the bookshop "Self Help" section last Thursday hoping to find a glaring space where "my book" ( the book I've been blogging all year in preparation for) would be welcomed, I discovered instead dozens of books that seem to render mine superfluous. I felt my purpose lurch and distort into a vast "Duh!" Even though I am a Marriage and Family therapist with a passion for helping folks relate with more joy and zest, I suddenly wanted nothing to do with "fixin' folks" and everything to do with just celebrating them the way they are. So maybe I'm coming to the end of the "what do you wish you could teach folks about how to relate more skillfully", and entering the question "How might folks see one another with more compassion"? So, this week my blog post reflectied that attitude.

I love the idea of framing, or transforming, the idea of New Year's resolutions (which usually end up being about going to the gym and/or losing weight) to posing sincere questions for reflection that might lead to gaining insight and wisdom over time. Beautiful. Thank you Courtney.

I love this Courtney.
My New Years ritual is to choose a WORD OF THE YEAR (all caps...it's important!). Frankly, often, the word chooses me, and this year looks like a prime example of that.
At the end of each year I write about the last years word, how I worked it, how it worked me, what my expectations were of it and how, so often, those expectations were blown out of the water because that place in me that chose the word knew that I needed to have that one.
At the beginning of the year I write about my new word, and am always so surprised when I re-read it to see how it played out in my life.
In choosing a word all of those questions come up...what is my relationship to the word, how can I honor this idea, how can I hide from it...you get it. Since I blog about it I have several readers who do it too, and since I wax on about it with my friends, several of them choose a word with me.
It's a year-long practice of keeping my eyes open, being aware and open to the way the word shifts and mutates and manifests in my life.
From the choice of my first word, which was YES...and I said yes to everything that year after years of living in a big no!...this practice has enlarged and enriched my life in ways I never could have foreseen.

You speak to my heart. I read this saying, "Yes, yes!" over and over. Beautifully said.

I'm reading this as dawn is breaking and I feel a bit of regret over abandoning my 24 getaway for some me time. In the six years that I have returned home from a career abroad and became a supportive wife, all in mother, dutiful daughter, loyal and dependable friend, go the distance sister, and high performance employee, I realize that I have no words to describe who I am and what I do for me - the most central figure to my being who has been the most neglected.

I read this post and I am so grateful that through almost every word I saw the script of my currrent life and some of my futurr aspirations laid bare.

I don't quite remember my 2015 question though through reviewing my actions I imagine that it may have been "Is it possible to do all and then some more when you are giving all of yourself away?" The answer is a resounding "No! Not if you want to live, thrive and become your greatness ."

My 2016 question is "What words and commitments of devotion can I put into action for myself to replace last year's word- "negligent"?

Thank you for this light you shed on my path through the telling of your story.

My New Year's polestar: the mysterious concept of nurturing myself.

We might just be spiritual sisters. All the limitations to find peace of yoga escape me, because I have to leap over the big issues. Poverty, why do we have an unequal distribution. Safety, we are raised in a culture that is difficult to sort our stand on violence. Its necessary but not for killing humans. Then there is the resoulution that I will be of service and not question gods will. Yep, I am going to spend this next year in the gap of love and peace so that big hurdles can be handled by the LOVE of something bigger than myself.
I am a Mom, Social Worker, Wife, Sister and admirer of courage.

Putting to bed the question of "do I matter?" And birthing the question, how can I open my heart more consciously to self and others?

What I'd really like to lay down at the end of 2015 are the questions that have been tormenting me this year.

Several years ago I converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but during Lent of this year, my whole experience with it just began to... fall apart. Now I don't know if I'm Orthodox anymore, or even Christian. I don't know what any of it means, or if I'm at fault. All I know is that a place that felt like home to me, isn't anymore. All year I've poked and prodded and questioned and tried to cram myself back in, like a hermit crab trying to fit back into the shell it has outgrown.

I'd like to quit caring so much about whether I'm wrong. I'd like to move on, to make peace with uncertainty. To feel that there is room in my milieu--and in God's heart--for my disgust, my lost-ness, my superficiality, my lack of commitment. I'd like for my understanding to be blown wide open. And I'd like to contribute something of myself in a meaningful way.

A delightful exhortation to continue examining life. And I am better for having read it.

One impersonal and coldly universal fact that took me too long to accept was the relentlessness of time. It is the quintessential non-renewable resource that can only be spent and is impossible to store. I bought the myth that there would be time to put the photobook together, write about the sense of enormity that attends being a parent, and dispatch notes of encouragement to my children and to fellow parents. Time is a beast worthy of a reckoning, needing to be taken on like other priorities and goals -- such as weight loss, learning a new skill, or reading that biography that's been on your shelf for how many birthdays now...?

Relish the incomplete journal entries with fragments and unfinished sentences. May such captured wisps of whatever you were contemplating move you to keep capturing, keep wrestling with the clock monster so you can carve into whatever medium or journal the wish, thought, dream, dread, or hope that fired your imagination or moved you to carry on for another day.

So many wonderful thoughts in this post. Thank you!

For me, in dealing with everything you discussed here, I have to remind myself to be kinder to myself. I can't do it all. I can't even do what I used to do- and that stings. Makes me feel less than. And yet, I do what I can and if I could find the grace in that it would be enough. That's my goal for 2016.

What a powerful question to ask oneself at this time of year! To be present to the transitional nature of what many of us feel at this time of year feels like a gift not only to myself but to others I interact with in these days.
Thank you!

This is so me at this time of my life and I just turned 70! Thank you for putting into words your thoughts on questions, pleasure and preferences. I need to really process all of this and come up with my own questions. Thank you Courtney.

This article approaches the subject of our humanity so graciously. When i was raising my 3 sons, i made the decision to stay home and work part time jobs/create my own business just because I knew my own limitations. I declared to myself and family that I was not a Super Mom and was not going to continue trying to prove to others that I could somehow, miraculously show up day after day...with a perfect outfit on and all put together.
I abandoned that idea, and I did the best I could which usually meant that I was on "mommy time" and after I was done making the most of play time/cooking healthy foods/modeling good behaviors/being an active member of a neighborhood/wife/daughter/sister...i would make room for my would have-could have list.
Now, I am in my fifties and am able to look back and realize that I made the best choice for Me, because ...as Rumi said, "a lifetime is like a flash of lightening" and i was there daily witnessing my children's lives day in and day out and no one can ever take that away. It filled me up with happiness and gratitude for many years.
I shopped at Goodwill and garage sales, we told the kids that if they wanted something they could save for it and when they had 50% saved, we would revisit how much they wanted that new toy/game etc...and if they still wanted it, we would pitch in the other 50%. Most of the time, before they had saved the 50%, they decided that they could live without it which made me secretly happy, knowing they had learned a valuable lesson.
I look forward to reading your new book about "redefining the American Dream" and am so proud of you for taking this stance in a time in our society where we are constantly bombarded by the media, keeping up with the Jones's, and being Super People.
As for end of year reflections, i am going to take it from you and run away with the idea of understanding my own relationship with pleasure. Because, as you are a people pleaser/peace maker-i too am that, and wore that hat for too many years and it took a divorce and losing my Mother and Father to make me realize the veil i had been living under for way too long.
I am my own person now, with no one to please except myself and perhaps-God. And that does not mean that I do not continue to do kind things for others daily, for the sheer pleasure of doing it. Yes, and the smiles that it brings to their lips and the warmth that a home cooked meal provides in these busy times.
Thank you Courtney for inspiring young couples to choose their own path.

"In so many ways, my 2015 was about limitations," and in your piece on motherhood you noted "I have had to confront my own physical and emotional limits." In times of drastic change - evolving into motherhood for instance - it becomes apparent how deep into our comfort zones we've lived. The change brings value, sometimes initially introduced in the form of fear. Fear of of moving towards one's perceived limits and fear of moving past them. Fear of coming up against one's true limits, sometimes in hard ways. Its incredible the shift that occurs when we realize that reality did not match the limits we had initially perceived. We are not who we thought we were, nor are we now.

The word 'should' embodies many self-imposed limitations. In that sense let us all leave limitations behind us in 2015. Deliberately seeking things of value in 2016 without worry about lines in the sand. Finding our boundaries through exploration .. and then choosing to push some of them. Choosing to define who we are through action rather than limitation.

"What do I want?" It may be an even more compelling question when we have a beautiful child to love. We have everything then, but the question persists. Here is one answer, from Marie Ponsot, in her collection called "Easy", written in her nineties. "Simples" is the title. " what do I want// well I want to/ get better"

Says it all for me, each year.