What’s the difference between a resolution and a visualization?
Annie Dillard instructed her graduate creative writing students to visualize success. She told them any time they were in a bookstore to find the section where their book might be and put an index finger in the exact spot, making room for a spine that would show their title, alpha by last name.
I do this now when I go to bookstores, libraries too. I note how often the company I’m in shifts. If there’s enough room on the shelf, I imagine pushing my neighbors to the right and left and my book displayed full cover forward—but I understand my publisher-to-be will have to pay extra for this promotion.
There’s something about the act of imagining that helps me feel like my book belongs. I know there’s hard work ahead in getting it into the hands of just the right agent, just the right editor, just the right publisher, but I see its place on the shelf and the possibility becomes more real. It gives me courage to extend toward that goal.
Knowing what to do tomorrow is straightforward—we follow the established daily routine, rinse and repeat. As creatures of habit, this is a comforting necessity. But knowing what to do to alter that routine, to move in a new desired direction, generally requires having a sense of what that direction is. It is often not easy to name.
My first year in graduate school at the University of Iowa, I was enrolled in the Master’s in the Art of Teaching/English program. The courses required included a mix of pedagogy and literature courses. For years I’d been hearing that education courses were faulty, basic, banal. My experience was entirely different—in these courses about the theory of education I came face-to-face with the diverse philosophical backgrounds that had informed my experiences in nine different schools between kindergarten and twelfth grade. I was fascinated and I was hooked. When I had students of my own, I vowed, would care deeply for them, figure out precisely what they needed, and work hard to teach them.
What I didn’t know was that the following semester, as much as my classes engaged me, I would literally run, tears streaming down my face, from the meeting for potential student teachers, unable to imagine having anything further to do with the program. Was it the pedantic presenters, the women who ruled placements and made certain schools and mentor teachers sound punishing? Or was it the recent graduates who shared their hair-raising stories of being lobbed unprepared into classrooms of hormone-enraged junior high students? Was I not meant to be a teacher after all? Lost, I went to see my program director during his office hours. He looked neither perturbed nor alarmed, and he asked me the best “what about your future” question anyone ever had: Where do you see yourself in five years?
I spent a few weeks figuring it out, and I found that the question took the angst out of the “what am I going to do with the rest of my life” feeling the potential student teacher meeting had installed. I started to think what my life picture might look like. I made a list.
In five years, my list declared, I felt I wanted to be: Twenty-seven (I started with something fairly safe); geographically flexible; financially stable; doing work that I loved; free to travel; and out of school long enough that I missed it. I found three programs to which I was eligible to apply for lateral transfer: a straight master’s in English, a master’s in academic counseling, and a master’s in writing creative nonfiction.
But which one? Where did I fit? With the time to apply ticking away, I created a survey, complete with return postcards, inquiring of thirty of my closest family and friends which program, given my goals, I should transfer to. I got 29 responses (the thirtieth rarely answered her mail) over the next several days. The verdict was unanimous: All 29 people, for different reasons, agreed I should go for the writing program.
I pictured my life, I applied for and received a transfer, and by the time I turned twenty-seven I was living on Long Island, teaching college English, heading to Taiwan for ten days, and taking graduate credits in philosophy. But it would be another sixteen years before I would understand that what I had done was not set goals so much as create a vision of what I wanted my life to look like and then figure out a path for getting there. And in the interim, like so many, I made and broke resolutions, and not even just at the new year. I wanted (and still want) to be thinner, wealthier, more successful, to give up bad habits and cultivate good ones. One year I even made the resolution to drink more, thinking that would be an easy one to keep and a way to have more fun. Believe it or not, I failed at that one too.
Like so many rich thoughts, I came to visualizations instead of resolutions after a walk on my treadmill and a brief yoga practice. I was in the shower and like a kid I started drawing on the condensation on the shower door. It started as a way to practice drawing Reiki symbols; then I drew pictures of the people and things I wanted to send Reiki healing to. Each time I drew a picture, I place my hand, flat palm, against the glass and wished the right energy to the object of my intentions. On the first of the year, 2010, I thought: I should draw pictures of what I want this year to look like. So I sketched my ideas—a healthy body, peaceful engaged children, my book between hard covers, work that involved both poses and prose, and sunsets in interesting places with interesting people around the world. I placed both hand against the glass, fingers splayed, hot water running down my bare body.
Just a few showers later, the drawings had turned into icons, quick line sketches I could reproduce even on mornings I was rushing. And those icons, I realized, were the vision I had for my new year, for my life ahead.
In the time since, I have realized some of the visions, am still reaching for others. The drawings have shifted a bit, but they flow easily in my watery medium and symbolize for me some of what lies ahead. I can see which of the things that I do in my daily activities support my vision for what life will be and which I should leave off doing if in any way possible. I do not feel mired in a to-do list nor do I worry that I am not living toward my visualizations. It is at once powerful and comforting.
In graduate school I had the sense to know I needed a vast sounding board—it felt like I was making one decision that would shape my entire professional future. I know now that was clearly not true. I also know that community is still one of the most important components of my life. As I start to find new images for this new year, keeping those from the old year that make sense and shifting or changing altogether those that need to be up-to-date, I have added one important image. It’s a long stemmed funnel shaped glass and I’m lifting it with friends. In the cleansing warmth of the shower I have the courage to ask for what I know I need—to continue to find and encourage and enjoy the companionship and community of the many remarkable people in my life. So it looks like everything old is new again. This year I’ll be visualizing that published book, more yoga, more writing, happy, growing, engaged children, and yes, more martinis or cups of tea or delicious bites of chocolate, so long as there are friends to enjoy them with.
It’s almost the Solstice and we get a New Moon for Christmas Eve. We’re in the midst of Hanukkah—we’re all celebrating and welcoming the light, the New Year, and new beginnings. Thank you for being a part of my journey through 2011—feeling that the best is yet to come for all. Wishing you every last joy, Namaste, Rxo