The words that keep rising to the top.

The words that keep rising to the top.

Sometimes I’ll read a book (or less often, see a movie, or hear a presentation) and long after I finish it, I’m unable to shake one line from it. Just one little line—a few words—that I know are important for me right now, even if I’m not sure exactly why, or how.

Six weeks ago I finally read a book I’ve been meaning to read for a decade or two: Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, which was absolutely fantastic. Waiting did have its benefits: I suspect I got more out of the book than I would have twenty years ago. But I also suspect this is a book that reveals something new to the reader with each fresh reading.

Parker Palmer’s words on true self and vocation are wonderfully rich, but there’s one line that stuck with me. It went something like, it’s the things we can’t do anything about that have the most opportunity to actually do something with us. The thought struck me as both fascinating and terrifying, and my own thoughts have kept circling back to Palmer’s words ever since I first read them.

Or at least, I think they were Palmer’s words. They certainly sound like him, but now I can’t find that line anywhere in the book. They certainly sound like him, but maybe he didn’t write them at all. Maybe someone else penned them. Maybe—as a friend says when she’s unable to track down her sources—an angel whispered them in my ear.

Many people choose “one word” every January for the year to come; others embrace a theme for each year. I had decided not to this year, yet my mind keeps returning to these words. Maybe I didn’t plan on choosing words for the year, but these words? They chose me.

(Palmer would love that, as he believes we don’t choose our vocations. Instead, our vocations choose us.)

I happened to be reading another another book this weekend, and it confirmed my suspicions about how the right words, much like the right books, find their way to us when we need them.  It was Every Little Thing by Deidra Riggs, and in it, she shares a little about a mantra in her family: Pay attention.

She says:

“When something keeps rising to the top in your life, pay attention to it. Even if it seems like nothing much at all. It may seem like just a little thing, but if it keeps surfacing, pay attention to it.”

This isn’t the first time a few words have stuck with me, or a theme has persisted to rise to the top. Now and always, I’m paying attention.

Have you chosen words or a theme for the year? Tell us in comments. We’d LOVE to hear about the instances when the right words have found you at the right time, and when a theme has kept rising to the top in your life.

P.S. Miracles are everywhere if you have eyes to see them, and finding the nature of YOUR talent.

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  1. Becky says:

    YES! I have these moments, too, when lines of the book practically leap and lunge and announce themselves, “Please pay attention.”

    And, while I enjoy reveling in the mystery-magic of it (doesn’t it feel almost like becoming friends, having that first “aha, YES, exactly!” connective moment with a book?)…I think the phenomenon has a great bit to do with our hearts and minds being finally primed for those perfect words.

    Have you read anything by Beth Kephart? In “Nothing But the Ghosts” (YA), there’s this incisive little exchange between a librarian and the teenage narrator:

    “Libraries would be empty without people like you.” <>

    “They’d still be full of books,” I say.

    “Books don’t make a bit of difference, unless somebody reads them searching for something.”

    I think this explains part of the magic, then: our own readiness for the message. We come hungry. It’s like our hearts have made room for it, maybe.

  2. Melissa D says:

    I’ve been reading & listening to tons of temperament-type books and blogs & podcasts lately (I’m an INTJ, a 5, and a Questioner according to Gretchen Rubin). It’s all given me lots to chew on, and definitely a better understanding of myself and the people closest to me, but there’s something missing from the mix, or at least in what I’ve read so far: spiritual maturity and how it throws a much-needed stone into the temperament pond. The theme that’s hitting me this year — and maybe this is because INTJs seem always to be described as cruel masterminds behind impenetrable exteriors — is from Ezekiel: “I will remove their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh.”

  3. I’ve never done the word thing before, but this year I’ve chosen two: still and steady. They feel like opposites, but they are both a lesson to me. Steady on, through the things I want to do and the things I don’t. When something’s big and unwieldy, bird by bird it. And be still, even when it’s uncomfortable and I feel like doing instead. Listen. Wait. Don’t act out of fear. As you’ve said, pay attention.

    Last year I focused on the phrase “write smart and not scared”, and I think both of these words are an extension of that idea.

  4. Andrea says:

    For the last few years I have fallen into a word of the year. After a difficult recovery from a very difficult health crisis the word for 2014 was Forward. It was time to move forward and quit dwelling in the past and what was lost.

    In 2015 the word was Intentional. If I wanted to make changes in my life or life my best life, I felt like I had to be intentional in my decisions instead of just letting life happen to me.

    This year, 2016, my word is Balance. I started seeing a counselor to help me work through issues I wasn’t even fully aware of, yet they were impacting my life. Last fall it became clear that my life needed balance. For so many years as a mom of little people and working at a high powered stressful job I was totally unbalanced. So this year I am focusing on balance: body.mind.spirit.

    I do believe that themes appear in our lives & when we get past that phase we see that it was in preparation for what was coming next. Life is a journey.

  5. Jill Foley says:

    I just started reading “Essentialism” and right away, in the first few pages, the phrase “live a life by design, not by default” jumped out at me. I can’t seem to let it go…

    I did choose a word for 2016 (“come” – as in an open invitation from God to come to Him), but it seems like this phrase has chosen me.

    • Karlyne says:

      This quote reminds me of the Aha! moment I had a few years ago: Even when we don’t choose anything, we still have chosen something by default. Why let other people, life, trivialities, choose for us? “A life by design” is much more full of life.

  6. Janet Miles says:

    I have been doing a word for the year the past three years…courage, change and this year is FOCUS. Interesting that that word is prominent in your photo for this post. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Bridget says:

    I chose happiness. I’m reading The Happiness Project right now. Then yesterday, I read an article in the Star Tribune about Dr.Nancy Mramor. She has several books but the article focused on The Top Ten tips for Lasting Happiness. One tip is “flow”. Dr. Mramor describes flow as a creative endeavor in which you lose sense of time and space. Things like crafting, dancing, or reading. She says you forget about you for a while. I decided to add flow as a secondary goal. It fits perfectly with happiness!

  8. MiChal says:

    My one little word for 2016 is actually two words, one small, one large. I tried to find a single word to convey what my heart was speaking but none would suffice. My words are “no condemnation”. Of myself primarily, but also of others.

  9. Terri T. says:

    I chose a word every year (since 2008). This year my word is Renew. I played around with some other words but once I hit on this one, I just knew and it kept coming up over and over again.

  10. Leigh Kramer says:

    I love how Deidra’s book spoke to you in that way! Hope you’re enjoying it. I’ve been meaning to read Parker Palmer’s book for ages. I suspect we read that sort of book exactly when we need to or once we’re ready to receive its wisdom.

  11. Mary Lou says:

    My word for last year was “discipline”, and while choosing the word didn’t immediately transform me into a healthy-eating, exercising, going to bed early, reading the Bible daily, organized woman (Darn!), I did become more disciplined. This year my word is “gratitude”. I realized that many of the things about which I complain are actually blessings. Laundry means I have clothes to wear and a family to wash clothes for. Dirty dishes mean we have food to eat. Instead of wanting more, I need to be grateful for all that I have because I am truly blessed.

  12. Sometimes I notice consistent themes that pop up in what I’m reading and it gives me pause. Recently in a church group study and elsewhere in books and writings, I keep seeing this theme of bringing order out of chaos. We’ve had a lot of transition this year and it’s been a good reminder… Chaos isn’t forever… Bringing order (for our whole family) is critical…

  13. janene says:

    My word is peace. . .and the books that have found me already this month: Breaking Busy, Hands Free Life, and The Fringe Hours. I believe peace will only be found with paying closer attention to the small moments and saying no to the fluff that keeps me busy and gasping for air.

  14. Jules says:

    I chose a phrase or mantra this year – follow through. It kept popping up in conversations and seemed to be following me around! It covers lots of ground for me from its obvious application to intentional living through to completing half finished (and not-yet-begun but fully purchased!) projects, actually getting that birthday or thank you card in the mail, reading the more demanding books on my TBR list …. I do believe when we are ready we become attuned to that which is waiting for us whether a sentence in a book, a line from a sermon, an angel on your shoulder whispering in your ear or an off-hand comment in a conversation.

  15. Kalena says:

    I knew early in 2016 my focus phrase would be “No excuses”, with a need to be generally more accountable. The ultimate confirmation came this morning while reading Sheila Walsh’s “Five Minutes With Jesus”: “The facts are in: we have no excuse not to trust our God.”

  16. I’ve been choosing words since 2009, when I was pregnant with my twins. That year the one big goal after a 4-year infertility journey was to give birth to healthy babies, so my word was simplify.

    Last year’s word was enough and this year’s one is joy. I’m ready for joy after putting boundaries in place and working on knowing that I am enough, my God is enough, etc. after a horrible work situation the previous year.

    So far JOY is working well for me 🙂

  17. Kate says:

    I finally finished Let Your Life Speak this weekend. For a short book, it really wants to be savored 🙂 The phrase that jumped out at me was toward the end: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it,” something that really resonates in my life right now, being patient and looking at what I can get out of situations I’m terribly thrilled about being in.

  18. Susan in TX says:

    Serendipity…Palmer’s book was my first completed book this year. I wrote down a partial quote from p.39 that sounds like yours, “…there is as much guidance in what does not and can not happen in my life as there is in what can and does — maybe more.” I liked his themes of embracing our own liabilities and limits; of letting things die when it’s time so that we allow the conditions for which new life can emerge; and the one that reminded me of you, “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Prior to this year I haven’t picked a word for the year – I couldn’t narrow it down the last few years. But as I started ruminating toward the end of last year on the various goals I wanted to work on this year, the word that kept popping up over and over was “love.” Love as an action verb, not an emotion. So much of serving family and others is a choice to love. To put others’ needs above my own desires. Sort of easy to type…follow through is more of a daily, hourly, deliberate choice-making process. Blessings to you and yours as you “pay attention.”

  19. Elaine says:

    Parker Palmer (I think in that same book “Let Your Life Speak”–which was life-changing for me) said something that after I read it, has stayed with me for twenty years–it is something to the effect that “Where your great passion meets the world’s great need is where you are called.”

  20. I choose one little word every year, but usually the word chooses me. This year’s word is Trust and right after it came to me I received an email from Brené Brown about a free workshop on Trust she was offering as part of her Courage Works classes. I look at these little coincidences as signs from up above. On a side note, I recently came across your blog and love reading all of your posts. There are days where I binge read several posts at a time. I love reading your book recommendations, personal insights and stories. I hope to listen in to your podcasts soon!

  21. There are lots of great lines in books that make me smile and I think to myself I must remember that, but of course 5 minutes later it’s forgotten! The Perks Of Being A Wallflower has some beautiful one liners.
    I have a word for 2016 that I’m going to live by – it’s change!

  22. Anna says:

    If something pops up repeatedly, I try to pay attention. 🙂 My word for this year is “purpose.” I had a few different words/themes kicking around in my head, and I realized that purpose was a common theme- things like advocacy, priorities… Now I tend to see the theme of purpose in many things. I’m more intentional about thinking through things now.

  23. Jennifer Marik says:

    My mantra for the year, with credit going to Gretchen Rubin’s podcast – I think it was a ‘try this at home’, is “Act the way you want to feel.” I have found it powerfully transformative already in 2016!

  24. Vanessa says:

    Rising to the top for me these days is Ohio. We are West Coasters but my husband recently had a job interview in Ohio and everywhere I turn for the past two weeks, has been the word, the reference and generally me just tuning into it. I am sure it has been there all along, but Ohio is jumping out at me now. It’s silly.

    • Anne says:

      So interesting! (When my friend was debating an out of state move, she swore that every time she started talking about it in restaurants, in the car, wherever, Sweet Home Alabama would come on the radio. She’s lived in Birmingham for the past 9 years. 🙂

  25. Carolin says:

    Thank you for this great post, Anne.
    Last year’s mantra was “Be yourself” and this year I choose “Let go”. I have been struggling with infertility for a while and driving myself crazy with it doesn’t change a thing. So I need to breathe, be patient and simply trust that this baby will come when it’s the right time.
    Greetings from Germany!

  26. Trish Finley says:

    I didn’t really mean to choose a word. But when I have a choice to make I keep asking myself, “Will this nourish me?” So I guess my word is nourish.

    The results of asking this question have included more yoga, more vegetables, less sugar, less Facebook, more sleep, more novels, and more time at home.

  27. Gillian says:

    Mantras and quotes are my absolute favorite way to make sure I’m keeping a good head space and not getting in my own way! Definitely agree about the right things choosing you. Lately, the word that keeps popping up for me are simply “stubborn”–as in digging in my heels and getting the work done, and refusing to let others opinions inhibit me. My theme for 2016, though, is from Proverbs 26:13, “The sluggard says there’s a lion in the road.” My mom and I LOVE that scripture and are using it to remind each other to focus on our vision and work and not the obstacles!

  28. Heather says:

    I credit you with words that rose to the top for me last week. In your blog post you discussed the power of saying, “it’s hard right now, but, with practice it won’t remain that way” (please pardon my paraphrasing). I cannot express to you how very powerful those words are and how grateful I am that you shared them. I homeschool my son, and he struggles with math. It was incredible how those few words put him at ease. I also used them when teaching my daughter how to ice skate on Saturday. Thank you. Thank you 🙂

  29. Deanna says:

    I had never even CONSIDERED choosing a word or theme for the year, but on January 3rd, I read a post by a blogger who was brand new to me that day – and she (sassy red lipstick) wrote about her word for the year. I was intrigued, and IMMEDIATELY my “word” popped into my head! My word is FOCUSED – I tend to be a grasshopper and flit around, not getting much of anything accomplished. I am amazed at how I happened to read the right blog at the right time and the right word just popped!

  30. I’ve chosen a word (or it has chosen me) for the last few years, starting with “brave” in 2010 – which ended up being huge for me. (We moved cross-country that year, among other challenges.) This year, my word is “gumption” – I need a dose of it to bring to some ongoing struggles in my life (and to survive winter!).

  31. Janet says:

    My “words” are my yoga mantra: “patience” on the inhale, “acceptance” on the exhale. I picked those a few years ago when dealing with family members going through various health situations. They don’t seem to get worn out, even with a LOT of use!

  32. Erin says:

    That’s so interesting I had the same experience this year, decided not to choose a word, I never stick to it anyway, always a similar word on a variation;-) but a word choose me, and I didn’t want it! but it keeps haunting me and making itself happen.

  33. Nancy says:

    Nothing that I’ve chosen for the year, but earlier this week, as part of my daily devotion (via the Joyce Meyer app), I heard, “Obedience often brings pain before it brings pleasure or blessings.” The message was about choosing to do the right thing, even if it’s difficult. That statement is so true, in so many instances and it has stuck with me.

  34. Karla says:

    I had never heard of the idea of chosing a word or theme until May of last year when I was browsing Pinterest and a pin caught my eye. “Cultivate”, with Hosea 10:12 underneath, and a pretty background. It ended up being the theme of my sermons for the summer (I preach in my husband’s place while he works for the forest service every summer).
    This year I went actively looking for a word/theme, but what I thought was “it”, wasn’t. Then one Sunday during church I read John 15:2 “He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.”, and my word found me. “Prune” – that’s what I’m doing this year, and will probably parlay that into sermons for summer as well.
    Love your blog btw!

  35. I have tried picking out a word for the year in the past, but finally realized that it was pointless since I usually forget what my word is by April if not sooner. This year, like you, my word(s) found me. “Be still and know…” from Psalm 46:10.

  36. I’ve picked a word for several years but i think I put a little more thought into it this year for some reason.

    I picked YIELD. I want to focus on my yielding to God more proactively and also my yield…as in what is my personal harvest this year…what will I produce out my my yielding.

  37. Marina says:

    I’ve been choosing a word every year since 2011. My Mom died very suddenly that year and my word, intention, really helped me feel grounded in life during such a traumatic time. This year my word is LOVE. I’m focusing on learning to my love for myself. =)

  38. Susan says:

    The word for me for 2017 is Well. I treasure Julian of Norwich’ s words: And all shall be well. And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.
    I also think of the word “Well…” as the beginning of a sentence that pauses me, asks me to think of alternatives or other ways of thinking. So the year for me will be slower and healthier and more well.

  39. Melissa says:

    Rhythm. I tend to make schedules but not keep them, flitting around chasing my whims. I think more rhythms, routines, and traditions would benefit my class of third graders, and my family, as well as myself. I’ve also always wanted to take drum lessons. ☺️

  40. Hilary Mak says:

    I have done this for the last two years with the words ‘intentional’ and ‘connected’. This year I have chosen ”hopeful’. Last year, I became quite despondent with the various awful things happening in the world and the political scenarios playing out in UK (where I live) and abroad. But I have decided to,choose ‘hopeful’ as an inspiration not to give up and resign myself to thinking that compassion, inclusiveness, empathy are things of the past. But rather motivate myself to work for these things, with the belief that all is not lost. And ultimately, my greatest hope is that, in the end, my God will won out.

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