Reflecting on Winter Solstice: When You Don’t Reach Your Goals

It’s the shortest day of the year, and I’ve been reflecting on how I want to welcome the light back into my life. It’s something Alaskans do every year, and in many ways the winter solstice is more significant and symbolic to them than the new year because of the drastic change in light and darkness between December and June 21st. Celebrating the winter solstice makes me feel more connected to my home away from home.

I remember this new year better than most. After a heartbreaking and exhausting 2020, people around the globe rang in the new year with high hopes for 2021. “We can’t wait to leave this year behind,” people cheered. “This year will be different!”

The new year did not bring an end to the global pandemic, the exposure scares, covid-19 testing challenges, or intensely divided political atmosphere. But it did bring vaccines, and hope for many families to begin gathering safely again. It brought new friendships, as well as reconnections, and we handled each other gently, as if we were all softly glowing candles and we were doing our best not to snuff each other out.

In my own life, so much has happened and changed this year. In January, I was only halfway through my Master’s degree in Environmental Conservation, due to graduate in the summer. Most people I knew—including myself—were still months away from being vaccinated. I was also still waiting to hear if I was accepted to be the Natural Resource Foundation of Wisconsin’s brand new Outreach Coordinator (spoiler alert: I didn’t get it, but I am so much happier in the role they ended up offering me instead).

This year, like many others, also leaves me with dreams unturned. John and I had hoped to camp out during every month this year, and after making it eight months, called it quits. The year turned out to be so much busier than we expected, and squeezing in one-night weeknight trips at the end of the month were becoming less fun. In September, we had planned a long backpacking trip along Lake Superior (I booked our sites in January), and in my exhaustion from finishing graduate school a couple of weeks prior, I cancelled it. For winter solstice, I dreamed of us starting a celebration tradition with an outdoor bonfire, but John’s work schedule left him getting home at 10pm, the winds howled outside at 24 miles per hour, and we were simply too exhausted to go through with it.

So this leaves me wondering—what happens when we don’t reach the goals we set for ourselves?

Well, it’s okay.

It’s okay that you didn’t accomplish everything you set out to do this year. Sometimes life gets in the way, or maybe we set too high of expectations for ourselves. Sometimes we place too much of our own value and worth on being productive. The last month of my life has been colored by grief and anxiety, leaving me little motivation to care for myself. But today, I bundled up in my warm clothes and went on a walk outside. It was a short walk, but a big accomplishment for me, even if at other times of the year I’ve rushed my front door to go on a walk every day.

We’re human, and we’re imperfect. We ebb and flow, and our goals and dreams can do so with us. Though I didn’t get to go on that backpacking trip with John, I was so completely exhausted at the time that I knew I wasn’t going to have fun (which meant John wouldn’t have had very much fun with me). I have never cancelled a trip before (no matter how small, short, or long) and it was an enormous step in my self-growth that I was able to recognize I needed more time to rest—and just be—after running a graduate degree marathon in the middle of the pandemic.

Gratitude has a large part to play in these reflections. So there are some things you wanted to do, and didn’t. But what about what you did accomplish? Odds are, you set out to pursue some ideas and hopes that you hadn’t even dreamed about at the start of the new year. In the past 12 months, I went on five spectacular camping trips with friends, each one to a place I’d never been before. I was able to get vaccinated and travel to see friends and family I hadn’t seen in years. I learned more about birds and added 116 birds to my life list, doubling the number of birds I had ever seen and identified in the wild. I started a new job in my environmental conservation field. I’ve even transitioned to the lead role on a regional-scale conservation planning effort in Wisconsin, which is and will be my greatest professional accomplishment to date.

A year ago, I didn’t know what was in store for me, but I took advantage of every open opportunity that came my way.

So John and I didn’t have our solstice bonfire. We had to adjust to the weather; 24 mph gusts of wind isn’t exactly conducive to backyard flames. Sometimes things are just outside of our control—another lesson of 2021. We also had to adjust to where we were in the moment. We lit candles around the living room, and by the light of the Christmas tree, we snuggled up in blankets on the sofa and talked about our goals for the future. On tiny slips of paper, in the smallest font, we wrote down what we wanted to let go of in this new year of light, and watched as they burned away in our candle flames.

It wasn’t what I’d imagined would happen this winter solstice, but it was imperfectly perfect anyway.

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