Thursday, January 5, 2012

Force Nothing

2011 was not the year I thought I’d have when it began. Funny how that happens, although, to be honest, I’m not sure I could tell you exactly what I thought it would look like. Despite that, it was undeniably a year I needed to have, and it has been, perhaps, the most complicated and nuanced year I’ve experienced. It was horrible, and it was very, very wonderful, and it was everything in between, and it certainly changed the course of my life.

A year is long, and a year is no time at all—just a series of weeks, really, and those are just a series of days when it comes right down to it. And in the blink of an eye, the utterance of one sentence, the course of a day, a moment of insight, everything can change. The year and our lives turn on the smallest moments, singular points in time that may or may not be visible to us after the fact. They’re little cliffs, and we’re constantly leaping.

Leaping off of cliffs this year left me, as it always does, with work to do. There are always cliffs, and there’s always work to be done—but this year, the work in front of me is clearer than usual.

You know how some people choose a word for their year? Something they’d like to focus on, a concept or attitude they’d like to incorporate more fully into their lives. I imagine that when you make such a choice, you see your word everywhere, in everything; every moment becomes an opportunity to practice your word in some way, to draw your focus gently back to the growth you’d like to see in yourself, the work you’d like to be doing.

I’ve never done this. There are so many possible words to work with—which one to choose? Do I have to choose just one? The trick, of course, is to find the word that best works as an umbrella for all the things I’m feeling and thinking about.

There’s an Adrienne Rich poem called “This is My Third and Last Address to You,” and it’s quite long, but really, what I’ve always loved most in it are five stanzas somewhere in the middle. And if you are facing any sort of change or growth—especially if it’s the kind that makes you uncomfortable or impatient, this particular stanza may speak to you as it always does to me:

force nothing, be unforced
accept no giant miracles of growth
by counterfeit light

Is there a word that will stand in for that stanza, that will serve as the umbrella word for my year? Patience is part of it, but I’m reaching for something deeper. A sort of quiet understanding and compassion for myself and others: We all take the time we take to get where we’re going, and we can’t be hurried along. Nor can we be stopped or slowed when movement and growth are really happening—and movement and growth are usually happening, right under the surface, even when we feel as if we’re slow as molasses. Slow is not stagnant.

There’s never any time to waste, and simultaneously, there’s always all the time in the world. A new year comes, just as they always do, right when it’s meant to. We may think we’re not ready, but we are. We may think we know what this new year will hold, but we never do. All we can do is adjust our focus once again, resolve to force nothing, and know that as long as we aren’t letting ourselves stagnate in fear or resistance, then we’re growing, moving forward, making progress. The work we each have to do, when we take the time to know what it is and learn how we might go about it, can be joyful and fulfilling—even in the moments when it’s hard or painful. Because deep work, the work of growth and change, is always as complicated and nuanced as an entire year.

And somewhere in this year, as in every other year, there will be those moments when the world shifts, and everything changes, and we leap off our little cliffs, and that joyful, painful work we’ve been doing (slowly, so slowly) lands us somewhere we really never expected.


(Not a small stone. [Uh, clearly.] This is actually the column I wrote for this month's issue of the newsletter I edit. I felt the need to put it here too, but I needed to wait for the newsletter to be published and distributed. It's been a week, so I've decided the rights revert to! And as careful readers will already know, the lovely Peaceful Peacock, Julie, read this a few weeks back and basically said, "Your word is right there: Miracles." And so it was.)


  1. Beautiful, Amy! Thank you for writing and sharing this.

    I think that even in the fear and resistance, we grow. The shrinking in fear has so tired me and frustrated me, the steadfast resistance so tired me out that eventually, at just the right moment, just when it needs to happen, I crumble, worn down. The outer layer peeling off and stripping away to reveal the new, tender next-size-up skin I will grow into.

    They're not my favorite way to grow, but for me it's in those stuck moments when the sea ice appears completely solid that the water beneath it shifts imperceptibly, but powerfully nonetheless.

    I so love what you've written here and just who you are, too.

  2. You know what word came to mind as I read, Amy?


    Try that out. :-)

    What a beautiful, thoughtful piece. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Amy - Such wisdom about life and about life's moments as "little cliffs, and we’re constantly leaping." Hope your Miracle word serves you well.

  4. Dear Amy,
    This is pertinent, timely, inspiring and ....True. I will be referring back to it, as I process this past year's events, and look to the future. Thank you for your insights!

  5. I really enjoyed and needed to read this. I have been muttering to myself and on my blog about my choice of word this year. (This year -pause; last year-balance.) I should know (since is the second year I have done this) that the word evolves and deepens - but this year I have been pretty insecure about pause- it seems so slug like. Anyway your bit about "slow is not stagnant" was really helpful. I hope your year is full of awakenings and blessings.

  6. So interesting -- I read a quote of Henri Nouwen today that reminds me of your "small stone" :
    "Patience is a hard discipline. It is not just waiting until something happens over which we have no control: the arrival of the bus, the end of the rain, the return of a friend, the resolution of a conflict. Patience is not a waiting passivity until someone else does something. Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now, to be where we are. When we are impatient we try to get away from where we are. We behave as if the real thing will happen tomorrow, later and somewhere else. Let's be patient and trust that the treasure we look for is hidden in the ground on which we stand."

  7. My concentration span would make a gnat look dedicated these days, but I always ALWAYS read what you right from beginning to end, sometimes twice. x

  8. i needed to read this today, my amyamy. cause, you know me, i fight things like new years, new ages, new journeys kickin and screamin. thank you.

  9. You people are so great. :-)

    Renata, may darling: What a great comment! As I said to you elsewhere--much to think about there, and yes, you're probably very right. We're growing even in fear and resistance, until we just get too big for the fear and resistance to even *appear* to be comfortable any longer.

    OhanaMama: I actually chose "miracles" as my word, but one of the reasons I love it is that I think it encompasses all sorts of other words--certainly flow is in there, along with faith, and trust, and gratitude, and others.

    Elizabeth: That quote is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing it!

    Tara: What a lovely, lovely compliment! xoxo

    DonnaDonna: I love you so. The changes are hard, for sure, but we get to keep what's most important, always, and then we get to go find the new things that, before finding them, we couldn't possibly have known would be the MOST important.

  10. Amy, very beautifully written! This is something I've struggled with often, how to continue staying open and patient, trusting that we are moving forward even if there is no outward sign that we are, and to not despair or grow frustrated (impatient) that progress does not seem to have been made. Things happen when they happen, we do our best and that's all that we can do. We are exactly where we are supposed to be at this moment in time.

    My old roommate used it call it being in "your winter season" - when roots are growing deep, invisible on the surface and yet laying the foundation for a beautiful spring (she's Japanese, they have some beautiful nature-inspired metaphors). My other friend called it "moving in spirals not circles".

    Thank you for sharing this and for pointing me to the small stones project. Could be just what I need right now! Cheers, and to a miraculous year.