Closer in age to a fine wine than a springtime blossom, I built up an impressive collection of proverbial ‘Been there, got the t-shirt’ marking yet another year’s worth of failed New Year’s resolutions. Said annual t-shirt would typically arrive within the first week. Or, let’s not lie, the first day.

For the past six years, in lockstep with some of the most transformative experiences of my life, I’ve opted to pick a Word of the Year, instead.

Whereas the initial choice – Let Go – might have been selected to describe an ongoing process carrying over from the preceding year, the choice for every year since has come to me of its own accord, arriving unannounced and claiming its seat despite what I might’ve had planned for the 12 months ahead.

Not surprisingly, this practice quickly took on an almost mythical meaning, seemingly prophesying the major theme my life would reflect over the coming year. Baader–Meinhof phenomenon or not, it quickly inspired in me a willingness to be open to invitations and challenges that would unfold before me as if the Word of the Year gods themselves had signed and sealed them.

In every life is needed at least some degree of ritual to bring an everyday sacredness to the mindless banality of daily living. In mine, an important one has been having an ongoing annual dialogue with the world around me about a word flying in from the control station where life plots are born.

On the sixth anniversary of this unlikely alliance with a strategic partner I’ve never met but who brings unequalled amounts of value to my existence all the same, an ode to all the Words I’ve loved and lived before.


2016: Let Go

Having descended into the depths of the earth, traversing entire collections of abysses in search of underground ley lines that would once again lead me to the surface – and at coordinates of my choosing – instead, the Word tells me to let go. I said yes because it whisper-whistled a melody of freedom.

Plot twist

(Stories wouldn’t be much without ‘em.)

I knew not what I was saying yes to. Initially, what was being let go was dead weight. Perishable goods long past their expiry date, cast aside for the garbage truck to pick up on its morning rounds.

But as I grew lighter, it became apparent that things had gone quite far enough. Heavy-duty fluff was being plucked from my inner stuffing, and having sealed the deal with the Word, I couldn’t go back on mine. I didn’t understand it, could barely identify what exactly was taking place – were those my insides being carted away? But in the wake of this inextricable outflow of me-ness, the Word had installed a jumping castle in the backyard. And up I jumped, up and up and up, my laughter at the sunlight dappling on my skin trailing on the wind.

2017: Beginning

It wasn’t long before my friends joined in, and before I knew it, we were jumping higher than ever before, reaching almost as high up as the sun. Seeing no point in getting burnt, we landed happily among the puffy whites sailing along a clear blue sky. I wondered vaguely if this is what my former fluff had been repurposed into.

Plot twist

The changing of the Word meant a quickening of the pace. Before I knew it, I was beckoned to a great big landing strip from which huge flybirds took off in all directions. With little more than a nod and a wink to my career, my business, and the nonprofit I’d just started building, the youngling and I bid adieu to homeland and hearth.

We took to the skies and found ourselves in strange new lands. Like intrepid explorers on a hunt for the elusive, we explored every nook and cranny that revealed itself before us. This new Word was a journey, not a destination, and we needed to press on.

Discontented with having a Word but no work, I pushed and prodded mission control until they relented and sent enough to replace lazy island days with fervent project deadlines. Content that I’d gotten the best of both worlds – Lady Time of the Freelands with enough serf-stuff to satisfy my inner workhorse – I thanked Word 2.0 for its gifts of productive delight pinned against exotic backdrops.

2018: Balance

Of course, it wasn’t long before Inner Workhorse – who, as a major-minor character, by now deserves capitalisation – had me back on a default setting of High-Speed Manic. Balance! my new friend for the subsequent calendar year introduced itself. Complete with party streamers. 

It was a welcome Word. Not only had I long thought its existence a myth – a reasonable assumption, considering it’s on the critically endangered species list – but never had I ever truly wanted it before. And then, as if by some timely lamp rubbing, there it was. Just in time for a brand new impromptu life amongst the sands of time in a magical kingdom built on an oasis on the edge of a vast desert. 

Plot twist

Genies grant wishes as they understand them, not (necessarily) the way you do. It’s generally understood to supply them with a term sheet for maximum clarification. Of course, I didn’t know that yet.

As the Word weaved its web across 2018, so did I become increasingly entangled in its camouflage. Balance, I was insistent, had a certain shape, and I was determined to rearrange the furniture to fit it in just so.

As it were, Reader, there was a longer game at play. Balance doesn’t play solo, and neither does it strike quick. So the year, far from living up to the Word’s supposed promises, instead seemed to offer anything but. Instead, everywhere I looked, everything I could see, appeared increasingly out of kilter. Was this a new development? Or could it be that the Word had gifted me a special pair of eyes that could see into the skeletons of things? 

The year ended with more questions than answers.

2019: Abundance

Ah, yes. The year when last year’s Word and this one’s buddied up for a game of Kahoot! against me.

What do you do when life is good, so very good, that it brings discontent? Ask for more, of course. More time, more energy, ever greater heaps of those superhuman stores of Go-Go-Go. Happy ever after love, check. Business bringing in pots of gold, double-check. Who wouldn’t ask to triple the hours in a day to continue losing yourself in your work while lowering your city gates for the ruler of your heart to join you in Cloud 9’s inner sanctum…

Plot twist:

(Let the records show that this is a retrospective.)

Abundance seems to be skewed in favour of Balance in equal measure. And Balance, I’ll let you in on a little secret, is earned. Not conquered.

At this point, our heroine learns that in the game of love and busy, she was ready to let only one of them win. It would only be later, when subsequent Words lead the way, that the narrator would be able to convey in a singsong voice that this year’s abundance came in the form of life lessons learned by climbing a mountain barefoot.

2020: Slow Down

Plot twist

This was overkill. Turns out it was everyone’s Word. Yet the early arrival helped pave the way for what otherwise might have been a horrible fight to the death: Go nowhere, do nothing.

Instead, after realising that not only was resistance futile, but it was a tailor-made Word factory issue, I relented. 

Let go again, this time not inner fluff as much as outer busyness. Began again, a rediscovery of what it means to be…just to be. Kept the cat flap open for balance to come and go as it pleases instead of trying to make a caged bird sing. Dared to entertain the heresy of an abundance of time and energy as applied to life and living rather than hustle and grind.

“She’s ready,” one of the higher-ups declared.

“Not quite yet,” the VP cautioned. “There’s one more package in the pipeline.”

2021: Listen

Listen? Uhm, maybe Santa got the address wrong. Not much of a listener, to be honest. Go out there, make things happen. It says so on the calling card.

And then came the balloon. A balloon so big it swallowed the whole sky until there was nothing but balloon. Inside, distributed across the inner surface, a pit crew. Wait, this looks familiar. Are those…white fluffy insides again? Never did solve that mystery. 

But wait…this is different. I’m not being emptied out and sent into orbit. Remodellers R Us, the signboard reads. While they refurbish a series of old pipes, I happen to be hanging out in the vicinity. Couldn’t help but overhear that there are ley lines down there. 

Plot twist

Covered as they were by moss and forest gunk, the entrances into the world above were impossible to spot back when I was stomping the trails of the underworld all those years ago. Turns out I’d been digging upward in that exact spot back in 2016 but stopped before hitting paydirt.

For the remainder of the Word, I learn to sit back and listen some more as the geologists and cartographers map out the territory. There are compasses here. They’ve got the terrain covered. I needn’t travel blind any longer.

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