The Punctuated Life

I wrote this piece for my wife’s excellent blog, Less, Please! – enjoy!

Early in 2015, we got together with some of our friends and did something I’d never done before. We reflected back on 2014 and shared the “monuments” that we would set up to remember the year. Mine were:

  • The birth of our daughter Gwyn
  • The sense of feeling settled in the community we’d developed
  • Celebrating three years of marriage to Allison

And afterwards, we shared a few goals we had for the coming year.

(I didn’t keep any of mine, because I wasn’t yet making goals intelligently or seriously.)

In one sense, New Year’s is totally arbitrary: we’re smack in the middle of a season that’s as depressingly dark and cold on one side of the calendar as the other. But the fact that we close down one year, retire one wall calendar, and make a hoopla about opening a new year is a cultural gift: it’s a chance for us to make our life into more than one day after another after another after another.

It’s a punctuation mark.

Punctuation divides a set of words into meaningful units. While we can communicate in a breathless rush with no pauses and just the spew of whatever comes to mind in the moment and still get some points across I guess … punctuation gives order, clarity, and sense to our thoughts.

In the same way, punctuating time can give clarity and sense to our lives. Each New Year feels like a chance for a fresh start, even if we rarely keep our resolutions. Each birthday or anniversary feels like the right time to reflect on where we’ve been. Punctuating time feels natural to us; it feels right that our lives have something like chapters.

Here’s what punctuating time looks like:

  1. Stop.

It starts with stopping – taking a deliberate break from the normal rush of your life. I love the image of a swimmer throwing her head out of the water to breathe, because I can live my life that way: pounding from one urgency to another. I like it also because stopping well feels like moving from one level of existence to another, even if only for a moment.

Whatever stretch of time you’re punctuating, stop your normal activity and step out of it into somewhere you can breathe. Leave the phone at home. Go to a library, or just a quiet room.

  1. Reflect.

One point of punctuating life is to reflect on where we’ve come since the last mark (a day, a week, a month, whatever). What did I learn? What can I celebrate? What can I try again tomorrow, or try to do better?

The New Year practice we did for the first time in 2015 (which we’ve done every year since) gave me a time to re-experience, in a sense, the high points of my year. To look for the hand of Providence, which was invisible in the moment; or even to see ways I repeated failures of 2013, which can be a gift if I’m willing to learn from it.

Reflecting helps us recapture meaningful experiences we’ve lived through, and can be a way to find patterns or causes for thankfulness in things we were too underwater to notice.

  1. Envision.

Finally, punctuating time gives the opportunity to look ahead and dream about what the next chapter could look like. Again, I had tended to do this sloppily and halfheartedly around New Year’s; but with a more deliberate goal-setting system in my life, I’ve already seen more progress on my goals through dreaming and (wisely) planning ahead.

The free headspace of a punctuation mark – even if it’s a just a liberated hour at a coffee shop – lets me draft out a little of my future. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll get there, but it makes it a heck of a lot more likely.

In practice

Right now, the one punctuation mark we’ve worked into our family’s week is an hour on Saturdays. We take our kids to the child care at the Y, walk to a coffee shop (don’t tell the Y), and look at the past week and the coming week. We talk over what went well, what didn’t, and how we can work more wisely on the week to come.

Because I’m using Pace & Pattern, I have a bigger punctuation mark coming at the end of March: the end of Quarter 1, and the goals I’ve set for it. (And we’re, you know, having a baby.) Knowing that I have to put a whole season to rest has me feeling the pressure, in a healthy way, to work at these goals now so I can go on to something else in the next chapter.

And we just recently had our reflection on 2016 with our friends, which was a fantastic way to remember the great things we’ve experienced in the last year.

Happy punctuating!

Image: “Saint Jerome,” by Leonello Spalla


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