Updated: 2 days ago
Using a theme for the year ahead has been life-changing for me. Even more life-changing than Marie Kondo's tidying advice and that's saying something.
It started for me about 12 years or so ago. I smashed open a Terramundi money pot my friend had given me the year before - the first gift I've ever been invited to destroy, sadly. She told me it was tradition to smash it at New Year and, and so that's what I did. What I found in it, was much more valuable than the money I’d deposited.
'Today, honesty shall release you and you shall be unburdened'
In it was a little piece of paper with a saying on it – a bit like a fortune cookie - it said: ‘Today, honesty shall release you and you shall be unburdened’. This little piece of paper felt like a direct messenger sent – though I’m not sure from where - to snap me out my malaise and slap me about a bit. In ways I still can't fully explain, it was exactly what I needed to hear.
I put that saying on my bathroom mirror and vowed to let it guide me throughout the year. It definitely helped, at the very least to be more honest with myself and I really enjoyed having something to check back in with.
The following year I decided I wanted to set my own theme for the year ahead and convinced some of my friends/housemates to take part in a very crude and experimental version of what has now become my annual 'New Year creative writing workshop - set your theme for the year ahead’.
Themes that followed (mine and others) included songs (either titles or a specific line), colours, animals, sayings, words and feelings. A theme can be anything that symbolises what you want.
My most effective and life changing theme was simply the word ‘new’. I was so fed up of my life at that time, I felt like I was in my very own Groundhog Day which, ironically, I loved to watch over and over again. I needed help! It wasn't just my viewing materials that were on repeat, so to was the music I listened to, the things I did and thought and more besides. It reminds me on reflection of that great joke about the man who complains about his sandwiches being the same every day. When his mate asks him to ask his wife to make something else, he says "Oh, I make them myself." I knew I was keeping myself stuck, and just wanted something new, that’s all I knew but I was too jaded to be able to imagine what that might be.
So ‘new’ became my theme and it changed everything. I discovered a whole load of new music, new films, I thought new thoughts (or at least stopped thinking old ones as much), I read more, wrote more, tried new routes to get from A to B, and much more. It wasn’t an effort and I didn’t have a great plan with tick boxes and milestones.
I simply asked myself in the moment, ‘is this new?’. If it was — it was in, if it wasn’t - it was out. One thing that went was Christmas. It was a bit strange at first, but stepping out of Christmas that year was extremely liberating. The theme of 'new' – which I still check in with from time to time - moved me forward in so many ways and my life was, and is, better because of it.
Themes vs Goals
A theme is a guide, something to use to steer your ship. It brings you into the moment and influences each decision you make (unless you choose to completely ignore it which is also OK), no matter how big or small.
Unlike goals and resolutions, you can’t fail with a theme, and that's also official. Some may say you should create goals and go after them tooth and nail. But what if you don’t know exactly what you want? I may have an idea, but I didn't and to some degree, still don't have very clear things I am dedicated to achieving. My view is, how can I possibly know what delicate set of circumstances will transpire to make me feel satisfied, complete, happy. I can chase after ‘x’ only to find that it doesn’t deliver and we know that in a lot of cases this is what happens. What I can do, is focus on how I want to feel and a theme is great for capturing that.
You can change it too, without feeling you’ve not achieved something, and no-one can tell you off. You can review/reset as many times as you please. New Year is a great time to do this kind of self-reflection because we’re in a ‘fresh start’ frame of mind, but New Year’s Day is just another day. You can change your theme at 3.30pm on a Wednesday in March when no-one's looking, as long as it feels right.
Finding your theme
If you like to write, use writing to explore. If you like to talk, then find someone who wants to join in and talk it through together. I personally think a combination of both is the best way to do it. But then I would say that, it’s my answer to almost everything.
However you go about it, start by looking back over the past year and review what’s worked/not worked, what you’ve enjoyed/didn’t enjoy etc. Then look ahead to explore what you want to be different – if anything – and then find a way to capture the essence of that.
If you want something you don’t have, a camper van, a house, a partner, think about what it is those things will give you, what’s underneath them? A feeling of freedom, security, of being settled, being loved? If you focus on the feeling you want, then it leaves the door open to things other than the thing you’ve attached it to.
Maybe it's the 'how'. How you show up in the world and how the world shows up for you. It might be that you want things a little slower, faster, easier, more fun, you get the idea.
Or you may just want more of something, like being in nature, knowing already that it gives you peace, perspective, nourishment. An image maybe just the thing, an animal, a tree, a mountain. You could even draw/paint your own image, a theme doesn't have to be a word/words.
Landing on a theme is easy to identify, because you will feel it. Some people have reported back to me saying they thought they’d hit upon their theme during the workshop and then a week or so later, something came to them that – in some cases – made them feel quite emotional. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else but you, and often doesn’t. But it anchors you and connects with you and that’s what’s most important.
So, whilst I generally try not to give advice (apart from write, write, and write some more), I would encourage you to have a think about what you want your year to be like, what feeling or tone do you want it to have. Have fun with it!
If you fancy creating your own theme for 2021 and would like to do it with other people (I promise, it’s fun), I’m running my ‘New Year creative writing workshop - set your theme for the year ahead’ (on Zoom) on 2 and 10 January (two options, 2nd almost full). For more info, go to: https://www.meetup.com/Life-writing/events/ or shout if you have any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash
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