My last three Januaries have landed as delicately as a bomb. After New Year’s resolution lists, bubbly toasts, and a day spent in the kitchen making hoppin’ John; Father Time and Baby New Year have colluded to reset my clock á la Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Like clockwork, in each January I’ve lost a job, started a job, and had an excruciatingly slow breakup.
2017, I knew, would be different. But, as if on cue, the same personal life explosion detonated at the stroke of midnight. Mere days after the calendar refreshed, the rugged soldier I was dating got abruptly called to duty and my new NGO gig vanished after eight days on the job.
In my unemployment, I recalled an idle thought from the week before now back to haunt me. After lunch with a coworker, I let my mind drift to what it would be like to have the year off to read books and learn about love. Perhaps I even said it out loud to her. Whether the walls were listening, or the universe had jokes, I had my wish.
Since the powers that be delivered, I decided to hold up my end of the bargain. With library card in hand, I checked out stacks of books and read two at a time—one for home and one for subway rides. In between all the Alain de Botton and tomes on attachment type, I padded my schedule with yoga, Pilates, and aggressive days of back-to-back boutique cardio classes. I even squeezed in a few Tinder dates.
By February I was ready to slip back into office life, and had a series of promising interviews with a hip publisher based out of a funky apartment in Brooklyn. The final in-person interview went technically fine, but I felt a coolness in the air that grew icier the more I tried to salvage the mood. Afterward, I sat alone in a Chinese restaurant reflecting on what I did wrong. Crunching on wanton strips and sipping hot jasmine-scented oolong, there wasn’t anything definite I could pinpoint. As a recovering perfectionist, I reasoned that maybe it was in the minutiae… word choice that missed a subtle point, the way I placed my coat on the couch instead of on the chair, or cheeriness a few octaves too high to mesh with their aesthetic. It didn’t truly matter, as the next day I was hired on the spot by a fitness studio. And then the week after, picked up part-time work as a virtual assistant. Two low stress jobs to undo the seven years I spent in corporate and still allow weekly check-ins with my reading list and love homework.
At the UES studio I wore yoga pants everyday and mixed collagen into the black coffees I splurged on from the chic Italian cafe nearby. And on my lunch breaks from virtual assisting, I’d leave my apartment for the library to pick up my reservations and queue up Youtube lectures on “loving what arises.” It was the perfect arrangement until I realized I was working seven days a week. I had done it again—I was overachieving in the way that NYC primes you to do. My hustle worked until it didn’t.
That April Fool’s Day I typed in my Tumblr journal, “I’m taking a personal retrograde. My celestial journey will look like an otherworldly dance backwards. A counter-motion against my orbit. But heavenly bodies don’t travel in reverse; it’s only an illusion from our earthly station.”
The night before, thoroughly soaked in rain, I pushed on to the grocery store for lamb sausage to finish off my lentil stew. On my way down the escalator my conscience spun into a loud barrage of questions: “Are you living your best life? Are you really happy here? What are you trying to prove?” But more than words, it was a feeling. And more questions followed: “How many cold showers, hot saunas, and dry brushings until you feel at ease? How much rest until you feel at home?” Finally: “If you work all the time, how can you have time to live your purpose?”
It was true. My new, “slow-paced” life saw me spread so thin I that I nonchalantly facilitated a video conference call while in the back seat of a moving taxi—on the way to meet the entertainment exec I assisted on her New York visits. And at night I literally dreamed of my employers. I wasn’t exactly burnt out, but I wasn’t well rested either.
On little yellow sticky notes I divided my life into pro/con lists. The cons list edged off the desk. But I needed bigger a sign. Really, I needed permission. I put my room on Airbnb to see if anything happened, to force my hand a bit. By the end of the week my room was booked through spring of 2018 and I suddenly had three weeks to pack up and leave.
A long neglected item on my life list was learning to drive. I never learned because I jumped from being an over-scheduled high school student to being an over-scheduled college student and then finally moving to New York. Along with driving, I realized there were a whole host of things I missed out on doing. Namely, I had never ever taken a break—I had always been surviving, achieving, or doing something. What would happen if I did nothing? Could I love that?
About a week into returning home to Michigan I quit the virtual assisting job and, after an illuminating session with an energy worker, started giving myself permission to be as lazy as I feared being.
I cozied up to my new library and begin checking out titles on codependency, eating mulberries straight off their trees on my walks back with new books in hand. Anytime I found myself wishing to be productive or do something, I reminded myself that napping was doing something, and so was reading. Listening to podcasts also counted, as did long bike rides, afternoons spent in the kitchen, and leisurely baths.
I relearned how to spend hours on the phone—just chatting. I babysat and taught my charges tree identification, explaining Ginko Biloba so well that one girl scarfed down a fan-shaped leaf straight from the branch. “To remember when I was a baby,” she explained when I asked her why. Everywhere I went I was asked what I was studying in school or what I wanted to do after college. Fitting since I was home basically reliving my teenage years. Days went by where my biggest feat was rolling out a blanket in a park. And nights passed where my friends and I would act like lunatics at the drive-in, perching ourselves atop her car and then running off to the playground to swing and have a few go’s on the roundabout during the boring parts of the film.
July saw me slide even further into my retrograde, however at this point I was calling it a sabbatical. I flew to Kentucky to spend a week with a friend for her 30th birthday. The first day there she treated me to my first Cracker Barrel meal. The second night we allowed her tween cousins to give us glamorous makeovers while we stayed up until early morning waiting for our mhendi to dry. The rest of the time we alternated between Netflix binges over chai and vegan nacho making before a breezy trip to the Daniel Boone National Forest. When we both lived in NYC, we carefully negotiated our hang time, even once scheduling a 6am smoothie date on a Sunday, but this was different—this time we didn’t have deadlines or meetings, this time we had time.
With my own 30th birthday days away, I wondered how I would mark my transition to being firmly adult despite feeling more and more like a kid. And again, as if the walls were listening, or the universe had more cosmic jokes in store, I had my question answered in a surprise birthday trip to Disney World—just like when I was turning six.
Once home from the happiest place on earth and solidly in my third decade, I took up volunteering at the Detroit Robot Factory. As a “robotier” I sold kitschy wind-up gadgets and tutored students. And could even wear a white lab coat and hardhat if I wanted. It was all just as silly as it sounds.
Then, a few months later, while waving my hands around a student’s head to activate an invisible force field of focus, a technique I imagined up to make kids laugh and get homework done quicker, I finally got it. The answer to what would happen if I did nothing was play. Not the “work hard, play hard” kind of play. Not even weekend warrior play—but that spontaneous ease from one thing to another kind of play that arises when you’re not trying at all. The kind of play that feels scary at first because it looks like you’re orbiting through space backwards, slipping through society and past all notions of “should.”
For years I couldn’t figure out why life felt so heavy around me. In January 2015, the first year of my annual do-over, I shared that same thought with my therapist in a group session. Now, years later, I understand that it’s hard to play when you’re focused on survival, just as it’s hard to play when you’re focused on what people think. And if your very survival hinges on what people think of you… your looks, your performance, your number of social media followers, then any lightness you hold quickly turns to lead—you’re immobilized in a force field of your own making.
I started all my Januaries with goals for achieving, for holding on tightly and powering through. Here and now, on the other side of the year in 2018, I landed on goals for being—simply existing in my personal orbital dance.