2017: Look Back

2017 was a difficult year.

Okay, that was a literary device called understatement. 2017 was a shit ass painful year. It was frightening, dispiriting and chaotic. People I love got swallowed up by their depression. The monster got me into its mouth a time or two, but, for now, I manage to keep climbing back out.

In January, we swore in our Reality TV show president. He gave us a dark, sinister inauguration speech. American carnage, anyone? American carnage ensued. Most mornings through June I woke up in a panic, thinking there had to be something I could do to help slow the carnage.

I wrote my senators. One of my senators sent back form letters explaining why I was stupid and wrong. My other senator sent thoughtful, considerate replies. He actually agreed with me on a few points and voted accordingly. Then, he sold his vote for personal profit. If you haven’t noticed, the representative part of representative democracy is broken.

But I digress. This isn’t a political post. Politics was a blanket over most everything I thought, felt or did in 2017. It made me an anxious wreck. Politics are important and inescapable. Politics describe how power moves through groups of people. This isn’t Republican vs Democrat stuff. This is The Powerful vs Everybody Else stuff. Please do pay attention.

At yet, as I sit here in the last 12 hours of 2017 thinking back over the year, it isn’t the awfulness and anxiety that comes to me. I find, looking backward, that my life remains wonderful.

I started taking piano lessons in January. I’m not brilliant but the practice is creative struggle. It is difficult. The difficulty is the point. My daughter plays too. She has more natural ability than I ever hope to have. It is a joy to let her see me struggle with my imperfection. What I lack in talent, I make up for in discipline. I hope she notices me getting incrementally better.

We bought a piano in February. Felt hammers on metal strings in a house with wood floors. We make a joyful noise.

My wife and I attended a weekend poetry workshop at Campbell Folk School in June. I reconnected with poetry, enjoyed the company of fellow poets and ate dinner with a few blacksmiths. It was a very Walt Whitman weekend. Oh, and I befriended a tree.

I run three libraries for my college. We recarpeted the largest library in June. The new carpet made a huge difference. Our entire building felt the way you feel when you wear new clothes for the first time — fresh, eager, confident — plus that new car smell. In preparing for the new carpet, my team recognized that our shelves no longer showcased the best of what our library has to offer. We woke up one day and realized we were highlighting dusty back runs of magazines no one read anymore, reference books no one needed and microfilm no one understood. We lightened up, opened the space and created alcoves to show off our new books, new magazines and media. There’s still work to do, but you can now step in the front door and understand what the library is for.

Fall semester started with a full solar eclipse. I watched with my family from campus while listening to Dark Side of the Moon. It was incredible.

In September, my wife and I saw HGTV’s Property Brothers give a live performance. I didn’t know what to expect. It was super fun. They took interactive questions from the audience via Twitter. My Twitter question was first. Jonathan Scott gave me a shout out by name. I felt Twitter famous for something like 20 seconds.

My house is a refuge for needy dogs. We’ve had five dogs for several years. Four of them were senior. We lost Bella and Bailey this year. Bella was blind and getting confused. Bailey’s back legs gave out. We miss them terribly. The morning we put Bailey down, my daughter asked why dogs have to die before people do. I told her it was too help us practice loving people we know we are going to lose someday and loving them anyway. It was a hard truth. Truth is always hard.

We took our first family camping trip in October. Three nights at Big South Fork Park. We had great weather. We rode a train and visited an old Kentucky coal camp. I woke up every morning profoundly grateful for a mediocre cup of instant coffee and read Mary Oliver while in the woods. I put down my phone and took off my Fitbit. I measured time by hunger and the angle of sunlight. Like Thoreau, I lived deliberately. I felt awake.

A few weeks later I visited a community college as part of an onsite accreditation team. The team I worked with was well-organized, well-prepared and well-led. We liked each other and helped other. I’ve done leadership academies and conferences. I read about leadership principles and practices. That three day visit was one of the best professional experiences of my life.

In November, my library team hosted our first Long Night Against Procrastination. Two hundred students showed up to take advantage of extra library/learning center help, get focused on their end of semester goals and eat free food. It felt good to help student focus on practical, specific goals. It reminded me to do the same.

I ran my first half-marathon the week before Thanksgiving. I trained with a running group on Saturday mornings for months. Each week, I felt myself getting stronger and better prepared. A few weeks before, I did a practice half with these friends and found I had set my goals too low. I knew I could run 13.1 miles and a bit faster than I had expected. I had a terrific partner for race day. We ran the best race of our lives, greatly outperforming my own expectations.

And now, I am enjoying the last few days of a two week vacation. I stay up too late with my night-owl wife and wake up whenever I want. We are visiting family and friends. We are together.

And so, it seems 2017 wasn’t awful at all. My life is bursting with richness and reward. I find that I am well-blessed to live in a house with people I love and who love me. I work with great people, and our work is meaningful. I write things. People read them.

The year ahead will be politically brutal. The Powerful will seek to make themselves more powerful still. They will seem to succeed. We will resist. But as we do, as we engage in the coming struggles, let’s remember that our lives are made with our attention.

Every day is new. Every day contains wonder.

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