On Working with Porcelain: Facing the Year Ahead
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On the morning of January 1st I wrote down in my journal: “The panic is beginning to set in.”
I love New Year’s Eve; I welcome the new year surrounded by some of my favourite people, the constants in my life. We drink wine and play silly games and laugh our way through midnight. But by January 1st, the familiar feeling arrives. It's like standing at the top of a steep cliff drop; calendar pages splay out tauntingly before me with big red circles, lines and crosses mapping out the things unknown, the things I'm frightened of.
“Newness has magic to it,” I saw on my Twitter timeline on New Year's Day, and I believe this. I look back on my 2016 and see growth, change, and healing that was hard and good and so, so needed. New seasons make room for potential to come to life; it's exciting to think of what will blossom over the coming months. But newness means leaving the old behind too; life moves on in constant grief and we step forward with fear as well as excitement.
Fear has always come easily to me, and along with the joy of a new year comes a weariness when I think of all the things already on my to-do list. I'm daunted by deadlines and final exams that seem to dominate my next few calendar pages. Some really special things are there too—graduation, weddings, birthdays, trips and holidays with friends—but tasks that nonetheless add baggage to my mind.
And there's other countdowns in the back of my brain. My final days as a student—something I've spent the last four months claiming I can't wait to be done with, but now the end is in sight and I'm worried of what I'll be losing once these days are over. Counting down the weeks before friends disappear, scatter themselves across the country and the world. And sometimes, it's just hard to feel hopeful when the end-of-term tiredness from before Christmas never went away, and I can't remember the last time I wasn't stressed, wasn't worn-out. When my faith feels weary and I know I've been ignoring God, but not doing anything about it. When my sources of joy and refreshment feel dry, but panic freezes me instead of driving me to look a little harder for it.
It's daunting to look ahead and see everything that has to be done, all at once. To see everything hard or sad that could happen, and feel the weight of it all in one go. To realise how much of this coming year is unknown, and be frozen in fear like a deer in headlights.
Last summer I visited New Zealand, and spent an afternoon in Wellington's Te Papa museum. In a quiet upstairs corner surrounded by pottery, I found this quotation underneath one of the displays:
"There are always opposing impulses in working with porcelain: the desire to control, or to let things happen." - Raewyn Atkinson
I don't claim to know much about pottery, but this sentiment strikes me as more significant than just for porcelain.
I don't feel like I take a lot of control over my life. So far, things seem to have just... happened to me. The university I came to, my year abroad placement, even my church and my friends, all just seemed to find me, not the other way around. But then there are the unpredictable things that I do wish I had more control over. And other times, I wish I could let go of my (relatively few) responsibilities: when life's obligations and decisions stack up and it's time to take some action, I cannot just sit back and wait for things to fall into place.
There are things I can control, and things that I cannot.
I can't control whether I wake up wanting to leap out of bed, or hide in it all day. I can't control the amount of work I'm given in my classes, or whether my housemate will be gracious about the fact that, once again, I forgot to put the bins out. But I can choose to get out of bed and get studying, regardless of whether I feel like it. I can make the effort to be a good housemate, to make her a cup of tea and cook dinner when she's stressed.
I can't control whether a boy likes me back, but I can decide to take a risk; foresee all the ways I could get hurt but “let things happen” anyway, leave the fallout for another day. Or I can listen to my boundaries, decide to guard myself this time, instead of pushing my emotions to their limits. I can give my all in loving the people around me, but I cannot control how these relationships play out day to day; when I'm hurt, when insecurity tugs at me, when tiredness digs its heels in and snaps that last straw. In these final, vital weeks of my degree, I can decide the values I want to live by: rest-work-play. Decide to push myself to the library, put the hours in. What I cannot control is whether my best matches up with the examiner's expectations, or my memory serving me well enough when I'm sat in a French grammar exam, desperately trying to recall the passé simple.
The same is true for my future, for post-graduate life. I've chosen, loosely, what I want my post-July life to look like, sent the application and invested my heart. I can choose my city, the house I make home, and roughly how I'll spend my time. But I cannot control how the year will shape me, the people who'll become important to me, the events that will break my heart or spur me on.
2017 holds unknowns that I cannot entirely protect myself from. I have to let my degree come out as whatever it does. I have to allow my friends and family to move to the places they need to be, and trust that our relationships will be safe. There are lessons to learn, sometimes the hard way; and there are times to listen to my gut and trust myself to take control. I can take risks, trust the process. And in the elements I can control, I will do my best to act wisely, bravely, and with love.
I have to let this year happen.
When the year ahead feels more daunting than exciting, and more weary than wonderful, I will remember porcelain. There are always opposing impulses: but together, they make room for mystery. And mystery is exciting.
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