5 Important Things: Year-End Edition

In lieu of the standard 5 Important Things format, this December issue is an excerpt of selected questions from my annual reflection process. If you're keen to read the rest of the questions and complete your own review, you can grab it here, along with a planning prospectus to set the stage for an epic new year. Hop on over to this page for the full line-up of downloadable guides. Let's dig in!

What books affected you in a profound way this year?

Of the 80 books I read in 2018, these are the ones that made me weep, think, and feel grateful to be alive. What a gift to be a creature with the capacity for astonishment!

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Anam Cara by John O’Donohue

The late, great Celtic poet and philosopher first came into my line of vision when I heard him on a replay of Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast. His words dripped with the sort of beauty and meaning that can only spring from some secret well of inner divinity. It remains one of my favorite podcasts of all time and led me to his gorgeous book, which includes line after line of untouchable insight of this magnitude:

To be holy is to be natural, to befriend the worlds that come to balance in you.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

I devoured this (and a lemon macaron) one rainy spring afternoon at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. It hasn’t left me since. When I decided to undertake a memory project this year, the “On Love” excerpt was an easy choice to burrow into my neural pathways. Who can turn away from the bold simplicity of this advice?

When love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep.

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Anything written by this masterful dude should have a warning label. In some strange brew of words and magic, this story propels every brain cell and strand of DNA through a vivid, reality-suspending journey that spits you out the other end gasping for air and blinking dazedly, wondering where you’ve been and what it all means. In the chaos of the plot line, he puppets his characters to slip in cavalier bits of wisdom like this one: “The secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude.”

This is a book to read and re-read – and re-read.

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

Reading Neruda’s poetry makes me blush at my own audacity to even dream of love on the wild, ferocious plane

he calls into vision. Here’s a tumble of words that made me forget to breathe, from Every Day You Play:

You are like nobody since I love you.

Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.

Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars of the south?

Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

What did you discover about yourself this year?

The only appropriate answer to this question seems to be everything and nothing. We are a riot of actions and reactions in motion, and our capacity for change is layered and infinite. Biology itself reminds us that we will never be the same. Our brains are plastic, our cells are turning over by the nanosecond, and even our taste buds come and go more quickly than a celebrity engagement.

This year I learned to feel in fullness. I stepped into a reservoir of sadness that ran far deeper than I understood and kept company with the big black dog on occasion. I worked at doling out more affection and hugs and fond words with only a modicum of awkwardness. I discovered new music and danced absurdly in my lamplit studio with the shades up. (This was undoubtedly far more awkward than my clumsy compliments. Apologies to any voyeuristic neighbors.) I unearthed a social creature hanging out in a dusty corner of my heart and loosened the grip I had on my identity as a raging introvert.

Sometimes I think if January Natasha met December Natasha, we’d scarcely recognize each other. Yet there is always this thrumming undercurrent of recognition that reminds me: I am who I've always been in this lifetime.

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I still look at the world with mildly ridiculous levels of sparkling optimism. I still lose track of time in libraries. AJ is still my favorite Backstreet Boy. (And I am still fourteen.) I still possess this soft, frustrating sensitivity that makes every wound more acute, every joy a little brighter. Kahlil Gibran talks about what it is to “know the pain of too much tenderness." If I had read that line as a child, I may have felt less bewildered about how to be in the world.

There is also this absolute:

I still believe love is the answer to pretty much everything.

What three words would you use to describe your year?

Place.

After several months of nomadism, one of my 2018 goals was to “find home,” and my travels early in the year were centered around that aim. In the same way some people make a list of the traits they want in an ideal mate, I daydreamed about the place that would claim my heart and carve out a me-sized space. My want-to-haves ran long, but these things topped the list:

droplet tree
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droplet heart

Nature. If I’ve learned anything from traveling and being a human on this planet, it’s that we can always find a sense of home in the majestic paths paved by the earth. Ever since my first trip to the Pacific Northwest at the ripe old age of twelve, I've felt certain that nothing could speak to the eyes and the soul more resonantly than the scenic collision of mountains, ocean, and forest. That childlike knowingness only deepened in adulthood, and having ready access to wonder-inducing nature was easily the most important factor in my search for a landing place.

Size. Growing up on a farm that was thirty miles from the nearest little town, I developed a sturdy appreciation for the miracle of urban landscapes: Museums! Organic markets! City lights! Other people! At the same time, I’ve never felt entirely at home in the overwhelming vastness of a true metropolis like New York or LA. Give me a Goldilocks city - big enough to have arts, culture, and reasonably progressive perspectives; small enough to develop familiarity with all the eclectic nooks and neighborhoods, and maybe bump into a neighbor at that organic market on occasion.

Community. The compelling research and my own experience with loneliness (and its opposite) have firmly convinced me that nothing has a thumb on our happiness quite like the quality of our relationships. The opportunity to build citizenship in a rich community of do-gooders, creatives, and generally good humans is paramount. Talk to anyone who’s tried to forge meaningful friendships in a new city and it becomes clear just how much we need to find our people. If I ever doubted it, this year made me a believer.

Place is a tiny little word to capture a pretty big chunk of a happy existence. With all her quirky surprises, 2018 defined it for me in ways I never expected.

Attunement.

This was the year I learned to shed the sticky web of expectation and turn a gentle ear to my inner voice. In case you need a quick Tash tutorial, I’m the kind of person who arrives thirty minutes early, organizes closets for fun, chronically over-plans, and creates color-coded spreadsheets for…well, basically everything. Setting aside the safety of that structure to “follow my heart” (or something like that) was akin to learning a foreign language. Fostering this sense of self-acquaintance was the most significant area of growth this year, and it’s undoubtedly just the beginning of learning to listen to myself as deeply as I aspire to listen to others.

It was a challenge finding a word to capture such wandering inner work, and this one came to me while I was driving. (Let’s take a moment to celebrate the fact that driving on the left side of the road is so familiar that I can now daydream behind the wheel without endangering my fellow New Zealanders.)

At first I wasn’t certain if attunement is an actual word, but apparently it’s a transitive verb meaning “to bring into harmony.” Thanks, Mr. Webster. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

continuous line drawing of business concept - woman drawing heart on sand

Belonging.

It would be unfathomable to close out the year without recognition of my newly minted dissertation topic. Beyond the long and winding academic road it will unfurl, belonging has earned a seat at the center of my fresh contentment. In the span of one restless, breathtaking year, somehow I’ve found spaces that, even in the forsaken hours, still feel like yes. They come planted in places, in people, and perhaps most importantly, in myself.

Yeats tells us that, “Man needs reckless courage to descend into the abyss of himself.” I’ve only touched the edge of it, and I’m ready for more.

What did you do for the first time in your life this year?

Snorkeled with sea turtles

Showered under a waterfall

Took my mom on a date (Italian food, salt caves, and browsing in a tea shop. Thanks for being my favorite date, Mom.)

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Ate tamarillos (Lightly sautéed with lavender honey and spread on crusty toast. Highly recommended.)

Slept under the stars by a very mosquito-friendly lake

Shot some zombies (Don't worry, they were fake. I think.)

Stayed in a tiny house

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Heard whales sing

Crossed Hawaii, Oregon, Delaware, and Rhode Island off my list of states to visit    (45 and counting!)

Saw the Backstreet Boys in concert    (Almost as impressive as the whales. Marginally sexier.)

Learned hand lettering and practiced heaps

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Started tinkering with web design (Still tinkering.)

Traveled solo with a kiddo

(If you’ve never experienced the ocean through a child’s eyes, it will probably change your life. A legitimate question from a six-year-old seeing it for the first time: “Why is it so beautiful?”)

Memorized a poem

Tried scotch

Went skinny dipping in the Tasman Sea (Cold. Salty. Life-affirming.)

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Meditated on a seaside cliff at sunrise  (Also cold, salty, and life-affirming.)

Oh, and moved to a foreign country!

What advice do you have for your early-year self?

Love what is. You’ll end up where you belong.

continuous line drawing of girl swinging on swing

Put your ear down next to your soul and listen hard.

Anne Sexton

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