I have a small silver box full of post-it notes. Written on those post-it notes are ideas I’ve had over the past five years while completing my PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, the creative element of which is my novel Obélisque. Both are all but finished (the PhD just waiting for the viva; the novel finished enough for now to pass that viva; I’ve also had an idea for what I need to do next with it).
The box was a helpful idea for how to deal with all those ideas that arrive as exciting distractions, bundles of energy to ‘do stuff’, while already committed to a major project. I’d have the idea, write it down, put it in the box, and put the lid back on the box. Suffer a little of the sadness of not being able to jump into that new idea right away, and get back to the discipline of, as Neil Gaiman says, finishing things.
So one of the reasons for looking at a list of 40 things to do for my 40th year was about, now those two big projects are all but ended, taking that lid off, literally and metaphorically. It feels so good to have an idea for something new and be able to act upon it. Rather than diverting it onto a post-it note and putting it away.
So that’s Reason One for my 40×40 project, which began officially this week (forty weeks until my 40th).
Reason Two is because none of these things are bad things to do. In fact, they are the easy habits that I want my life to be filled with (as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do…). And over half of them are all to do with honouring my commitment to write; either writing itself, or gaining inspiration to write about. A few friends have looked at what I’m proposing and warned me of not taking on too much. But these are all small, everyday things, rather than the large challenges some people set themselves (which are amazing and worthwhile in themselves, such as this XL challenge).
These are the things I sometimes fill my life with, and sometimes am too tired and lethargic to see through. Lethargy, as the Jungian analyst James Hollis suggests, is often the result of not grappling with the potential largeness of our life. To become is painful, and challenging, because it means change from the routizined life. So we often sink backwards away from even easy actions. It’s too easy to be overwhelmed.
Somehow, turning all of this into an aesthetic project feels a useful way to develop good rituals to replenish energy, rather than suck it away. It’s what the cultural theorist Ann Cvetkovich calls “the utopia of ordinary habit” that forms the ground from which energy for life can grow rather than become depressed. Heart-opening practices that will feed my writing and creative life.
Naming and visualising my actions also helps me commit to them. I have a very large 70cmx100m piece of art paper taped onto a piece of hardboard on which I am recording the activities as I do them. I’ll also do a weekly update for myself here about the most interesting things to come out of the project.
And there’s one last thing. When a friend questioned me on the size of the list, I replied by saying it was okay, I’m not being hard on myself, if I fail to do some of these things, so what? And yet I’ve wondered about that statement. I’ve wondered what it is about these everyday habits I’m okay with not doing, when so many of them are connected to the soulful sense of what I can achieve as a best self: as a writer, a vegan, a runner, a friend, a human being.
So I’m not okay with not doing these things. They are important, grounding, creative. And, as I’ve pointed out to a few people, “40 afternoons doing nothing” is high on the list.
So here is the list. With a couple of gaps still. There are a few ideas that, like all important challenges to one’s comfort and old habits, keep slipping away from my consciousness each time I think them. I’m sure I will pin them down at some point. And just creating this list has been an act of creative self-awareness, rewarding in that so many of the things I thought I wanted for myself—my professional career as a writer, my animal advocacy, my social networks—figure as central activities.
And finally, the sensation I feel when I read this list, or look at the board, which I have also begun to decorate with collage, is one of opportunity and energy. That tells me it’s a good thing to have done. And to see through.
Reading, Writing, Inspiration
- Read 40 books from my shelves
- Write 40 letters
- Spend 40 afternoons doing nothing
- See 40 performances
- Learn 40 Koans or prayers
- Plant 40 plants (and learn their names)
- Make 40 things
- Submit 40 pieces of creative writing
- Finish 40 bits of existing writing
- Listen to 40 albums without distractions
- See 40 exhibitions
- Write 40 new flash fictions or poems
- Review 40 books on the mid-life
- Contribute to 40 collaborative projects
- Read 40 random journal articles
- Learn 40 yoga poses
- Write 40 posts about being/going vegan
- Read 40 poetry collections
- Review 40 animal rights/ethics books
- Learn about 40 pieces of art
Feeding my social self
21. Help 40 animals
22. Friends over for 40 dinners
23. Run 40 races
24. Learn 40 new vegan recipes
25. Have 40 proper conversations
26. Remove 40 things from my home
27. Give 40 presents
28. Spend 40 hours learning French
29. Meet 40 new people
Looking after the self
32. Meditate 40 days in a row
33. Be alcohol free for 40 days
34. Be chocolate free for 40 days
35. Do a 40-mile run
36. Commit 40 hours to Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul activism programme
37. Let go of 40 things
38. Take 40 walks with the ecological self