Prompt 224. The Five Lists
for grounding, uplifting & setting things in motion
I’ve heard this last week between Christmas and New Year’s described as dead week, where you should do nothing, make zero progress. “Transform into a couch,” said one meme. This year, that was me by default. I came down with what felt like a cold just after Christmas, and I tried to rest, hoping I could fight it off, hoping I could avoid a trip to urgent care. I didn’t want to implode our cozy, hunker-down-at-the-farmhouse New Year’s plans. Then yesterday, I spiked a fever, and my medical team insisted I go in to get labs drawn and my lungs scanned. I knew it was for the best, but I was so disappointed.
So we drove over to the hospital, and I trudged through the lobby, then up some stairs. And as I was slogging up, out of breath, regretting not taking the elevator, a woman at the top said, “Suleika?” I didn’t recognize her, but her voice held the warmth of family. It was so comforting. I said yes, and she replied, “I’m part of the Isolation Journals.”
I’ve met so many of you in the hallways of hospitals—which is understandable, because that’s really the only place I go these days. But what it speaks to is how many of us are navigating interruptions, and to the fact that this is not just a newsletter. It’s a community, a place where we hold each other up, where we walk through our hardest moments together.
What to do with that as we look upon a new year? These last years I’ve moved away from making resolutions of the traditional kind. But I am leaning toward something—something that can feel very daring, even dangerous after illness, grief, or loss. I’m imagining myself at some distant point, imagining the life I’ll have. As my transplant doctor often reminds me, the goal is not just to survive, but to live.
With that in mind, I’m kicking off our third annual New Year’s journaling challenge. We’ve put together a week’s worth of creatively inspiring prompts, and for a bit of accountability, we’ll also be hosting a live journaling session on Sunday, January 8, from 1-2 pm ET. The third piece will be a recorded conversation between my beloved Jon Batiste and me, fueled by your questions about the creative process and life. For anyone who like me is feeling stuck, or is reeling from some kind of life interruption, I hope this offering can be a gentle and motivating way into 2023. Paid subscribers can find the challenge at the bottom of this email. I hope you’ll join us!
Here I’d like to take a moment to thank my Isolation Journals comrades, Carmen Radley and Holly Huitt. They help with everything from curating the Sunday prompts, to community building, to customer service (i.e., helping people use the everchanging, ever-frustrating glory that is the internet), to pulling this whole thing together. I (and this newsletter) would not have made it through this last year without them.
As for today, I’m reprising my favorite New Year’s practice: the Five Lists. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the past year and to prepare for the one ahead. It’s grounding and uplifting and sets things in motion in ways you can’t begin to imagine, as a community member named Michelle shared with me just the other day. “I was just reviewing my 2021 things I am proud of, and my 2022 wild ideas as inspired by you,” she wrote. “Most wild ideas were done. On to more that have never been.”
With that I’ll say, happy New Year, friend. Here’s to more that has never been—
Prompt 224. The Five Lists
At the threshold of a new year, I often find myself ruminating about the things I didn’t get done, what I wish I had accomplished, where I need to improve. It’s the voice of my inner critic, a voice I know all too well. To drown out her chatter, I crack the spine of a new journal and reframe the concept of New Year’s resolutions by writing my way through a series of lists.
I start with an inventory of things that I’m proud of, big or small, to savor and celebrate all that unfolded in the last year.
I move on to a second list—of what I’m yearning for. Often in the process, I uncover desires not yet known.
The third list is a tough one but a cathartic one. I write down all the things that are causing me anxiety, from the most mundane inconveniences to looming existential dreads.
My fourth list is a toolkit of sorts. I reflect on all the hard things I’ve gotten through and jot down the resources, skills, and practices that saw me through and that I can return to and rely on in the new year.
My fifth and final list is my favorite: my wild ideas list. I set a timer for five to ten minutes, and in a completely unedited stream of consciousness, I jot down every wild scheme, every grand plan, every creative idea that comes to mind, no matter how harebrained or unrealistic.
These lists are celebratory, energizing, exorcising, reassuring, and motivating. They quell my inner critic and remind me that I’ve accomplished so much, that I know what I want, that I can face it all, that I have everything I need, and I can dream as big as I dare.
Your prompt for today:
In place of resolutions, journal your way into the New Year with five lists.
What in the last year are you proud of?
What did this year leave you yearning for?
What’s causing you anxiety?
What resources, skills, and practices can you rely on in the coming year?
What are your wildest, most harebrained ideas and dreams?
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals. And if you’re joining the journaling challenge, you can use the hashtag #tijnewyearchallenge.
A New Year’s Journaling Challenge
Last March, I sent out an installment of Dear Susu called “Love in the Time of Cancer,” where my beloved maman Anne Francey and I tackled the question, “How do you keep going?” It was from a community member named Terri, whose daughter was undergoing treatment for leukemia, experiencing setback after setback. Terri said she wanted to write, but couldn’t. “I find that I have shut down a great deal,” she wrote. “This journey is taking quite a toll on my being.”
My mom said she related to that. She recalled, during my first bout with leukemia, how exhausted she was, how she avoided friends. Once she tried to go to the movies, as a kind of escape, but it was terrifying—as if all her own fears and mental disarray were magnified on the screen. Every day she wondered, “What is going to make me feel better?”
The answer came by surprise. One day, as she was leaving the hospital, she realized that at a certain point in her walk home, she felt like she was coming up for air. It was always in the same place: in front of a shop with old antique Buddhas in the window. Someone else may have read it as a mystical, spiritual experience, and maybe it could have been, she said. But to her, it was the beauty of the objects. It was art.
“I have always believed art is essential—but at the same time, a luxury,” she said. “And it turns out, it’s not. It’s a way to access the universal when our personal circumstances are too difficult. For me, it’s how I’m able to feel a little better. I need art to get through.”
We’ve used this insight as the inspiration for our New Year’s journaling challenge. We’ve curated different pieces of art for you to consider—poems, paintings, songs. Each has its own tailored prompt, but the general idea is that the piece will be a springboard into journaling (or drawing, painting, playing an instrument, dancing). You can record what you thought or felt, what you saw, what you sensed. You can write about the stories that came up, the connections you made, or the visions that came to you.
You’ll find six prompts below to inspire you for the rest of the week; we’ll send out separate emails for the live journaling session on Sunday and recorded conversation. May you feel inspired and connected. May you explore the unexplored and express the inexpressible.
Wishing you an inspired week of journaling,
Suleika, Carmen, & Holly
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