There is something about that time between the Winter Solstice and the new year when it feels like the world exhales. Like we’ve held our breath, held it together, held all the pieces for twelve months, and we can see the end in sight, but the end looks like a beginning; and so we allow ourselves to exhale. Allow ourselves a breath and some time before the next big inhale. We let go and come to terms with what is and what was.
I think there is a cultural push, and maybe it’s more of a commercial push, to forget the exhale and just keep on holding, keep on taking in small breaths and prepare for the new year, much like Christmas decorations coming out in October with pumpkins and corn stalk scarecrows and Valentine’s chocolates intermingling with candy canes in December. Set resolutions. Push. Go. Get better. Do better. Don’t rest. There is no time. But if we pause for just a moment, during those days when sunsets dangle a pink necklace around the neck of a gray sky, we can slow time. We can settle into the sacredness that we have arrived here on the cusp of an end and a beginning. We can exhale and sink into gratefulness.
And it is there, in the comforting grasp of gratefulness, that we can breathe steady, can feel the joy of our lives, and can understand that not everything needs to be changed on January 1st. We can believe that what we are on these late days of December is enough and is actually a whole lot different than the us from the late December days a year before. We can understand that it’s probably always a good idea to eat more protein and to drink less alcohol and to get more exercise but that new years and new beginnings should be reserved for much more than caloric counting and should signify a coming home, back to ourselves. Exhale and make space for ourselves.
Four years ago, in 2018, I began exhaling, and I exhaled so big that I may have lost consciousness. I uprooted my life in every way possible and was looking for solid ground, a place to plant myself and start some roots. Because there’s definitely a sense of freedom when you uproot yourself, but there is also this yearning to be held, by yourself, to something steady. When I say uprooted my life, I mean I threw a grenade into the room and stood there waiting for it to explode, knowing that whatever I walked out with and to would likely be whole lot better than what was burning into embers behind me. I ended a terrible and abusive relationship; I quit a seventeen-year career; I sold my children’s and my house. All in the same week. On a Wednesday. And I walked out, scarred and smiling, to a new job I knew nothing about and to a spare bedroom at a friend’s house where I would spend the next part of the year looking for that solid ground, looking to steady myself.
Steady ground came in the form of a choice. A choice I started making late that year when the ground was insulated with a heavy blanket of snow and when we should have been decorating our Christmas tree, unwrapping handmade ornaments from tissue paper and laughing about how their little hands had grown and how their teeth gaps were the cutest. But instead I was staring at a white ceiling that wasn’t mine from beneath a quilt that wasn’t mine, and so I had a choice. An opportunity to exhale something into the new year, into the end, into the beginning. I spoke it out loud. I choose. I choose happiness.
And for the next year, I made that choice every day. Made it on the days when I cried myself into a ball and on the mornings when I wanted nothing more than to pull the covers tight over my head. I spoke it out loud. I choose. I choose happiness. I found it in the softness of my socks and in the giggles of my babies climbing into the car to tell me about their days and in the steam of hot tea with the citrus of a lemon. I chose to see it in the way the moon would hang in a crescent outside the window that was not mine. And I found it. That year deserved a big, full-lunged exhale, and I let it go. The space it gave me for the next year was what I needed to create this new steady place, enough time to send roots down.
In those days of slate skies and muted sun during December of 2019, I was back on solid ground and could trust my footing and my own feet again. In that coming year, I exhaled gratefulness. It had been in those dark days, like a seed planted snug into the soil, that I noticed the richness of where I was sending my roots. There are growing seasons and there blooming seasons, and this was a tuck in tight, focus-on-growing, season. I was acutely aware that I had everything I needed, had ever needed. No matter the fear and the scarcity that had accompanied the journey, I had arrived and was better for it.
I spent that next year in extravagance. I adorned myself with the jewels of true friendship and jingled myself down the streets with my own laugh again. I donned the riches of happy children who no longer looked at me like a wounded deer floundering in a meadow, afraid that I was maybe lost forever. I discovered the antidote to anxiety – sit in a moment and count up ten precious gems of gratefulness. The warmth of the sun kissing my shoulders. The first crimson leaf waving her banner of courage. The sweetness of creamer in my first morning sip of coffee. An afternoon breeze inviting car windows to roll down. Clean sheets, crisp and cool. Two doves serenading each other outside my window. Salt water rushing up to wrap my shins in foam. Forehead kisses. Chimney smoke and a familiar driveway. Love.
The exhale of 2020 was maybe the most anticipated exhale in history as that year had proven itself to be unpredictable and unruly. We had been sent home and sent away. We were happy to be alone in one breath and so painfully lonely in the next. The gray days of December when we typically awaited for time home and time with family were now just days of similar days of time home and time with family.
I think it was all the forced time to be with myself and in my own space that also forced me to evaluate and reevaluate what was necessary. Things, materialistically-speaking, and all the things I had conjured up in my pursuit of perfection. It had become a full-time endeavor keeping up with all of the self-expectations; and with nobody around to say I was doing a great job, there was only me saying I wasn’t. So one of those lonely gray days, I exhaled simplification.
To simplify meant to say no. To myself. To others. To things. It was a reckoning of what was needed, but it was even more an awareness of being enough. I began with my first no. And the world kept spinning. I let myself sleep in and let the dusting go for a week or two and cleaned out cabinets and sent old clothes to the donation pile. I chose the quiet of a room with just a fan whirring overhead instead of the background noise of the television. I drew boundaries around work and let it exist only within those parameters. I said goodbye to busy and welcomed content. I shooshed perfection out of the room and held the door open for enough.
The exhale of 2021 was slow and peaceful. The world had begun righting itself again, and we were able to think about days ahead with some predictability. But I think it is the thinking ahead and the looking back that causes worry. It sits in your stomach, heavy, making you question every why and what if. Too much forward and too much backward.
So in the tender days of December when ice clung to roofs and snow webbed itself into lace across windows, I exhaled myself into the present. I settled down and settled in to the now, like the slow and delicate unwrapping of a precious gift. The present. Deep breaths, long exhales, into the here and now. I felt the release, the bindings of then. I embraced the pause and let myself be. I took comfort in what was because it had to be and took solace in what would be. I didn’t force myself into spaces no longer meant for me and allowed myself to take up the space I was in. We cannot grow in the past just like we cannot grow in the future. Growing is an act reserved for the present. And so is blooming.
In every post I’ve made since 2018, I’ve concluded with the phrases that I’ve exhaled, that I’ve spoken out loud, that I’ve lived. It began as one, a choice, and then the others have been tagged on like charms on a bracelet, rhythmically clinking together. In this new year, I will most surely try to eat more protein and to drink less alcohol and to move my body more; but 2023, like all the years before, deserves its own exhale. Deserves its own growth and its own ground. Deserves its own space. Deserves me.
Live with Intention
In these last forty-eight hours of 2022, I am soaking in the views of heavy clouds lulling the sun into the shattered blue. The air is so crisp that it bites, and tires make that slushy whir on the streets as they pass. I am ready to exhale, ready to let go and let be. The last year has been all a year should be: full of highs and full of lows. It has been difficult and rewarding. It has led me here to the exhale, and I am ready.
I am exhaling intention into 2023. I am setting my table and have invited purposefulness and clarity along with focus and habits. We shall sit together in this coming year and spend as much time deciding what we want as we do deciding what we don’t want. We will clear space for dreams and will devote the energy they require. We will honor those we no longer have room for at the table. I am picturing myself in these next days holding hands around this table, and just as I close my eyes, someone says grace.
As you take in these last days of 2022, allow yourself to exhale. Let it go and let it be. Choose. Speak your words out loud. Write them on your heart and your posts and tattoo them to your skin if you feel so inclined. But above all else, live them.
I am truly thankful for you, the person reading this, for you have served a role in my life and my journey. I wish you all the love and joy a year and a heart can hold; and if the path takes a turn somewhere along the way in the next year, I hope you’ve stored enough of the love and the joy to carry forward.