Prompt 276. The Five Lists
& a New Year's Journaling Challenge
We’ve reached the slow, dark days between Christmas and New Year’s—a time that feels beautifully sacred to me. I’ve retreated to my little farmhouse in New Jersey with Jon and our dogs, and since I got here, I’ve been doing two things. One is sleeping (a truly shocking amount). Recently I’ve felt depleted, so everything feels overwhelming—from tedious administrative tasks, like changing insurance plans (what a bureaucratic horror!), to more exciting prospects, like my first art show, which is happening in June.
So the second thing I’m doing is starting small and clearing my desk, both literally and figuratively. I’m cleaning out the cupboards where I stuff all the clutter, and I’m making a plan of action for tackling those lingering life things. I’ve been reaching out to people who know more than I do for guidance, like insurance brokers who can help me compare healthcare plans and artist friends with the knowledge and tools I desperately need. I’m not going to get it all done this week, but taking small steps in that direction is quieting the anxious chatter. I feel like a gardener, pulling out old weeds and other debris, mulching the beds, cultivating the soil for later growth. It feels like a pre-ritual for my yearly ritual of “The Five Lists”—a forever favorite prompt that I’m sharing again today.
The reason this week feels so sacred to me is that each year, I find myself reflecting, introspecting, and recommitting to my daily journaling practice. In recent years, this beloved community has joined me, and it’s been such a grounding and generative experience. So today, in addition to “The Five Lists,” I’m excited to announce our fourth annual New Year’s Journaling Challenge—and to invite you to join me!
As always, my team and I create these offerings by asking ourselves, “What would feel most nourishing right now?” And what I’ve been yearning for personally is something to help me navigate the bewildering contradictions in life, to help me learn that forever lesson of how to hold the beauty and cruelty in the same palm. So this year we’ve curated a series of six prompts based on poems by the Sufi mystic Rumi—one for each day between now and next Sunday’s newsletter.
We’ve chosen these lines from Gold, a new volume of Rumi’s poems translated by Haleh Liza Gafori (with her permission). Embodiments of Rumi’s “elusiveness, his leaps and paradoxes,” as Gafori says in her introduction, these poems challenge and expand our understanding of the world. This feels incredibly important at this particular moment, as we’re living one of the greatest paradoxes of all: that every day, the world is breaking our hearts, and yet we’re in this season intended for celebration, hope, and renewal. If you, like me, feel like you could use some ancient wisdom and searing insights on how to hold it all, you’ll find our New Year’s Challenge below.
But that’s for tomorrow. For today—this last day of 2023—I’m sharing with you my yearly ritual, called “The Five Lists.” With this prompt, rather than making resolutions, we take stock of the past, ground ourselves in the present, and set things in motion for the future. May it help you see how far you’ve come and set a course for where you want to go.
Sending love and wishes for a very happy New Year,
P.S. A note from a community member named Michelle has been on my mind—last December, she wrote to me and said, “I was just reviewing my 2021 things I am proud of, and my 2022 wild ideas as inspired by you. Most wild ideas were done. On to more that have never been.” I often have the same experience—and I know that Michelle and I are not the only ones. So if you did “The Five Lists” last year, maybe go back and take a peek at them? You may be surprised at what you spoke into existence.
Some Items of Note—
More sightings of our custom Isolation Journal No. 1 and Surrender tote in the wild! During our last meeting of the Hatch, community member Gina shared this photo of her journal, and Baret sent a photo of her sweet pup Blueberry with the tote. We love them so much, and we’d love to see yours too! And if you haven’t had a chance to grab one yet, you can get yours here!
I’m always moved by our weekly ritual of sharing our small joys in the Isolation Journals Chat, but this week’s chorus of collective gratitude is especially beautiful—with people sharing about low-key holiday gatherings, rest in the in-between week, and the wild ride of learning to ski at thirty. To be buoyed by the joys of others and to add yours too, click here!
Prompt 276. 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
There’s a poem by the great Sufi mystic Rumi that both thrills and confuses me. It goes like this:
When I am, I am not. When I am not, I am.
It is a paradox—seemingly illogical, self-contradictory even, and yet it pulls me in. I sit with this Gordian knot and try to untangle it. It loosens a bit, and I think, “I’ve got it!” And then, just as soon as I feel certain I understand, it escapes.
Reading Rumi is often like this for me. His poetry upends my habitual way of seeing and thinking, which often falls into binaries: good versus bad, sick versus well, desirable versus “I’ll do just about anything to avoid that.” But what I have learned over the last decade, and in the last two years in particular, is that our lives are not binary. Sure, there are some days that seem completely awful—but within even the worst day, there’s almost always something that lifts us, whether an unexpected phone call from a dear friend, an excellent cup of coffee, or the way the light falls through the leaves of a tree.
Accepting the paradoxes of life can feel impossible at times. We tend to wrestle with them. We’re eager to figure them out; we want them to stop defying us. But the greatest seekers in the great wisdom traditions have embraced them—from the Indian tradition of ulatbamsi (or “poems in upside-down language”) to Zen koans, to Biblical parables.
Meditating on Rumi’s paradoxes, being at one moment certain, then flummoxed again, pushes us out of our “either/or” thinking to “both/and.” The poet John Keats described this as “negative capability”—the ability to sit with “the uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” We can accept that there are terribly difficult and even cruel aspects of life, and yet it’s also unimaginably tender and beautiful. We can see, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
It’s with this in mind that we’ve designed our New Year’s Challenge. We’ve curated a series of prompts inspired by Gold, a stunning new translation of Rumi by Haleh Liza Gafori. Below, you’ll find six prompts, one for each day of the week between now and next Sunday. How much time you spend with them is up to you. I myself will be rising before dawn on January 1, cracking a new journal, and spending as much time luxuriating in the experience of putting pen to page as I can. But if you only have ten minutes—or if rather than journaling, you want to try a different medium, like drawing or painting—that’s great too. As always, this practice is for you.
I hope that it helps make space for everything, that it leads you to live more fully, more freely, to love more deeply. For as Rumi says, “There are treasures within you. / Split the melon. Hand them out.”
To dive in, read on—