A Speckled Ax

Holidailies 2004December 30, 2004

There are entirely too many opportunities for renewals and starting overs in my life. Having lived and worked in the academic world for so long, I naturally think of June as the end of a year, September the beginning, and “summer” as some free-floating undefined time all its own. By late December, however, I usually find that my autumn-fresh plans have gotten derailed, my resolve is ragged, and there’s not much chance any of my purposes will be achieved unless I make a radical change. So I come to New Year’s Eve determined to begin again.

On the Feast of Stephen I alluded to the changes I wanted to make. I call them the “Six Goals of a Quality Life.” The name is a loving (really!) tribute to the Twelve Goals of a Quality Education, a set of standards once imposed upon public schools by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Each academic unit in a school had to show how its curriculum met each goal, and there were lengthy staff meetings where we had to wrestle with language to show how, for example, studying Emerson and the Transcendentalists contributed to the Quality Goal of personal safety for each student.

The concept meshes well with an exercise from a book on weight loss and body image by LeslĂ©a Newman, a writer best known perhaps for her delightful but frequently-challenged children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies. In one of the early exercises she suggests that you make a list of six or seven things you would like to accomplish in the next year, not necessarily weight-related.

I’ve done the exercise more times than I can count. Once (I think it was last year), I opened my datebook to the week of New Year’s Eve and endeavored to write down the ways I wanted to improve myself. I got the ideas all down on the page, looked at them, and realized that they were the exact same goals I had set the year before. Not only that, I had failed to move even a smidgen in a positive direction on any of them.

So I’ve set my goals again. I want to lose weight, declutter my house, write a novel, do some cross-stitch again, see old friends and make new ones, and go to Wyoming. Well, Wyoming wasn’t in the last set. At least that much is new.

Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography tells of how he set for himself a program of self-improvement. He drew up a chart of thirteen virtues that he wished to cultivate in himself and endeavored to keep track of ways in which his behavior supported or worked against the development of each quality. He found himself sometimes taking more steps backward than forward. He told the story of a man who went to a tinker to have his ax sharpened. The tinker asked the man to turn the wheel while he honed the blade until it sparkled. It soon became clear that the craftsman’s perfectionism would never be satisfied, and the customer wearied of turning and turning the wheel. But the tinker was reluctant to stop while the blade still had specks and bumps. “Perhaps,” said the owner, “I like a speckled ax best.”

In 2005, I hope at least to reduce the speckles.

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