45 || creative commons photo by Seth Tisue

Happy About Nothing

Personal
45 || creative commons photo by Seth Tisue

45 || creative commons photo by Seth Tisue

I have long since given up on the idea of posting regular updates here, on my personal blog. I’m busy enough with client work and keeping up with Italy Explained, and – let’s be honest, here – I’m not good enough at time management to get all my work done quickly and use that leftover time to write something on this blog.

(Lately, I’m using that time for knitting.)

And yet? Every year, on my birthday, it’s a thing that I do. And, before I sit down to write said birthday blog post, I review the past few years’ worth of birthday blog posts to see what I said back then. It has become one of my favorite parts of my birthday which, if you know me at all, is basically my favorite holiday after Thanksgiving.

(A whole day dedicated to wishing me well? Oh, yeah, I’m in.)

This year – 45! – seems momentous. Any multiple of five seems momentous, for reasons maybe only mathemeticians could explain, and I certainly don’t expect to live past 90, which means my mid-life was probably a few years ago. Still, 45? It feels like it should be a big deal.

And yet? I banished the word “should” from my vocabulary years ago, encouraged by my mother, who sagely warned it’s a bad word that only serves to make us feel bad.

Which is why I’m telling myself – and you, since you’re here, I mean, and can I get you something to drink? – that if 45 continues on basically like 44 then I’m good. That’s fine. I don’t need momentous. I’m not really sure I want momentous. I had momentous a few years ago, and that might just be enough for me for one lifetime, thankyouverymuch.

I liked 44. I mean, 43 was a big deal – it felt like a big deal, back then, to be honestly, genuinely, optimistically happy – and then 44 was a sort of stasis. Which was… Fine, really. Desirable, in fact.

When you get to a place you like, doesn’t it make sense to just, I don’t know, stay there?

I am in an exceptionally sweet and comfortable relationship with a man I love deeply. I feel like I’ve been in this cozy spot my whole life, rather than just the past few years, but it helps that we’ve known one another for more than two decades.

I have settled into the role of being a step-parent to an incredible kid, a kid who loves food (even the weird stuff) as much as I do, which makes her a pretty kick-ass travel companion, especially for someone who’s only 11.

I’m still never going to get rich doing what I do, and – one of the hazards of being a freelancer – I lost a big client just last month. And overall I’m still doing just fine, loving my day-to-day work and not missing a full-time office job in the least.

I’m saying “yes” to more suggested outings, when before I might have stayed in because I didn’t feel like showering or putting on outside pants. (It’s a thing, ask anyone who works at home.)

I have started reaching out more in my community (thanks, agonizingly depressing 2016 election!) so as to make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of being too isolationist, and it feels way more energizing than I expected it to. (Bring an apple pie to your neighbors, you guys, it does your heart a world of good.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if nothing much changes in my life this year, I’m really okay with that. One could say that’s a bit boring as far as mid-life crises go, but it turns out “boring” might have been my ambition the whole time.

Back in 2014, when my pal Casey and I were in Pittsburgh, we spent a couple hours in the fabulous Andy Warhol Museum. I left with two souvenirs that, it occurs to me only now – some two-plus years later – not only beautifully capture the same concept, but that also speak to this place I am currently in. It is not where I was in 2014 when I chose a mug and a photo (both with Warhol quotes) from the gift shop, but evidently a part of me knew that this was my aspirational goal. I present the quotes to you now, without further comment.

warhol happy about nothing

warhol little things

44 || creative commons photo by Jesus Solana

Forty-four. Fancy, that.

Personal

Every year for the past few I have written a blog post for my birthday. A few of those years were pretty grim, so last year’s was a welcome change.

On the eve of my 44th birthday, I’m wanting very much to put together one of my annual blog posts while simultaneously feeling extremely guilty that – sitting in front of my computer – I am not working. See, I leave for Italy in less than two weeks, I’ll be gone for a month, and I’m doing as little work as possible during that time… Which means I’m cramming undergrad-style right now.

(Okay, not quite undergrad-style. I’m actually sleeping. Or trying to, at any rate.)

So, in brief…

44 || creative commons photo by Jesus Solana

44 || creative commons photo by Jesus Solana

Work is going very well, I got to travel quite a bit last year, and I’m looking forward to even more stateside jaunts after the Italy trip (which I am crazy excited about). I now have two ebooks published in conjunction with my Italy travel guide, and more in the works.

I remain happy, and even a little more settled than I was last year. I’m no longer in my transitional apartment. I am building a home and future with a wonderful man and his fabulous daughter. We aren’t a normal family, but it’s a sort of family. I never pictured myself as a family person, but now that I’m here there’s much about it that I genuinely love.

Fancy that.

A little anecdote from the other night demonstrates a bit of how much my life has changed, I think.

At dinner, the boyfriend was talking to the 10-year-old about impending adolescence, and how it’s almost her job to be surly due to body and brain changes, but that he hopes she’ll buck the trend and still be nice to her parents.

“And me,” I chimed in, as a joke.

“You’re a parent,” she said, not as a joke.

Years ago, that comment might have given me hives. The other night, it made my heart swell.

Once upon a time I lived in a town surrounded by wealthy families, and thought the only way I’d be happy was to have an entire Esprit or Benetton wardrobe like my classmates did. Once upon a time I sang in a struggling rock band, and thought the only thing that would make me happy was to be signed to a record deal. Once upon a time I was thisclose to living in Italy, and the achievement of that goal seemed the only thing that would make me happy.

Turns out there are many roads to happiness, and some of them might start out looking like that weird back alley your mother told you never to take even though they may open up onto a glorious field of flowers just around that corner.

Life takes us in funny directions sometimes, you guys. And I’m finally learning to not only follow that weird back alley, but listen more closely when life is practically yelling directions in my ear.

(44 and still learning. They say learning new things is good for the brain. That’s my excuse this year, anyway.)

A Note from Tallulah Underfoot

Personal

I drove back to Animal Aid this morning to drop Tallulah off. It wasn’t an easy decision. Here’s what I just posted on her Instagram photo… (And shaddup, of course the cats have an Instagram profile.)

12747319_10153593057168020_4492787767155341774_o

I’m a sweetheart, but I’m shy. I’ve got anxiety issues. I like the humans in this house just fine, but even they scare me sometimes. And it doesn’t matter that Aloysius is just trying to be playful – when he “stalks” me, it really freaks me out.

I was *trying* to adjust to my new life. But it’s been *really* hard, you guys.

I peed in a couple of places that aren’t litterboxes a few weeks ago, but the humans thought it was just a transition issue. So when they went away for a weekend and had a friend staying in the house, I decided to let them know in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t working out: I used their bed as a toilet. Three times.

The humans made sure I wasn’t sick, which I suppose they had to do, except I really hate being shoved in that tiny little carrier box thingie. (The humans didn’t know how strong a little cat could be until they tried to get me in there, hoo boy.) The shelter said I should probably come back, so this morning I got manhandled into that stupid carrier box again and I’m now back at Animal Aid.

I know my humans are sad. One of them cried a lot the other night. (I tried to tell her it was okay, that it was for the best, by being super cuddly and purring more than normal. I hope she got the message.) They *really* tried to make me happy. I know this is best for me, though. I need a home where there isn’t an abnormally large and rambunctious cat around. I need a home where I can be the princess. I really need peace and quiet.

If you’re the right human for me, I’d love to meet you. And I wish my humans (and even that big oaf Aloysius) all the best.

Mark & I will look for another cat when I’m back from Italy. We’ll need one with a big personality like Aloysius, but not so big that they antagonize one another. It could be a challenge. He was adopted once before we got him, & had to be returned to Animal Aid for sort of stalking one of the existing cats in that house, so he’s got a history…

We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. In the meantime, we’re hoping our little girl finds the perfect home.

creative commons photo by Matthias Ripp

Building My Own Fire

Personal
creative commons photo by Matthias Ripp

creative commons photo by Matthias Ripp

When I was a young professional, just a few years out of college, I checked into what seemed at the time an impossibly swanky lodge during a work trip. We each had our own cabins (mine was larger than my basement apartment at the time), complete with a fireplace. A real fireplace.

I was 26, and I had never built a fire.

After two failed attempts, using up all the kindling supplied, I flagged down a passing worker who started a fire for me. I’m sure he got a good laugh out of that, though I’m guessing he isn’t still thinking of that evening nearly two decades later.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

In 2013, I began a long process of pivoting from the direction in which I had been going for years – of shifting the earth around me so I could really move.

I was 41, and I had never built a fire.

I had been living in a shiny new house with a gas fireplace, lit with the flick of a switch. I had settled into a life that, at one time, suited me partly because it coddled me. I don’t know when exactly I stopped needing the coddling, but by the time I noticed it was too late. There was nothing for it but to move.

In 2015, I began the process of settling into a new life – one with a 100-year-old house that has no insulation, a dirt-floor basement, and fragile plumbing and wiring that both could use updates.

And a real fireplace.

I am 43, and I can now build fires.

I begin with the easy stuff, the paper, and work my way up to the hard stuff, coaxing little wisps of flame on the edges of newsprint into the crackles and pops that tell me it’s going to take. I crouch in front of the stove’s open mouth, blowing steady streams of oxygen to resuscitate flagging coals when I’ve neglected them for too long. I pull on work gloves and haul wood in the rusted wheelbarrow from the shed out back to restock the wood pile on the porch.

I can keep my fires burning all day long, until the gorgeous coals glow with a bright orange light that shifts and moves like the fire itself.

Like me.

I am 43, and I have built my own fire.

creative commons photo by William W. Ward

Dear Guy Who Called Out to Me During My Morning Walk

Personal
creative commons photo by William W. Ward

creative commons photo by William W. Ward

Dear Guy Who Called Out to Me During My Morning Walk:

I know you meant it as a compliment. I know you were trying to be nice, to be neighborly, to make conversation. I applaud that, in this country of driving right into garages and rarely acknowledging the people who live around us. I appreciate the smile, too, the friendly way you waved so I would know to take out my headphones and be able to hear what you said. Once, a guy at the bus stop thought I was being a bitch because I didn’t reply to him, but he never saw my headphones. So, I like the gesture. Really, I do.

But no, I do not go for walks to “make America more beautiful.”

I walk so I can eat whatever the hell I want without feeling guilty. I walk so I can enjoy a cocktail or two, or the occasional beer, without even thinking that beverages, too, have calories. I walk so I can still fit into my damned pants and only go shopping for new clothes because I feel like buying something new and not because I’ve outgrown my old jeans. I walk so I might live well into my 80s, a feat my father certainly didn’t accomplish.

Do I want to feel pretty? Sure. I’m human. Hell, I’m human female, and I live in America. I’ve been brainwashed from the age of consciousness. I get it. But I am not window dressing. I am not scenery.

I am out for my morning walk, face unwashed, hair greasy, sports bra sweat-stained. I am not focused on beauty. I am simply focused.

And I laughed it off, not replying, because – again – I’ve been brainwashed into thinking I should actually say thank you to such a bizarre comment, and while I won’t say thank you I also can’t quite bring myself to confront the well-meaning guy in his front yard at 7:30 on a Monday morning who was just trying to call out to a neighbor and (in his misguided way) offer a word of praise.

I may, however, choose a different walking route from now on.

43 || creative commons photo by Andy Maguire

No Birthday Surprise Required

Personal

A few years ago, I wrote some birthday resolutions just before I turned 40. I was, I realize now, extremely unhappy in a lot of ways, though at the time I just figured that was my lot in life. As I stared down the gauntlet of 41, I was reflecting on a mostly terrible year, completely unaware that 41 would bring both the most difficult thing I had ever done and, subsequently, the beginning of a new lease on life.

In short, looking back over my birthday blog posts over the last few years, I simultaneously feel that I should have seen shit coming before it hit the proverbial fan (I did write about it awhile ago, after all), and also that I am so relieved to have something other than sadness on which to reflect on my birthday.

And so, at the risk of jinxing it, a review of the past year on this, my 43rd birthday.

43 || creative commons photo by Andy Maguire

43 || creative commons photo by Andy Maguire

Personally

I need to start here because it feels as if everything good in my world now stems from the fact that I am, for the first time in longer than I can remember, happy – genuinely, truly happy. I had many, many happy moments over the years, don’t get me wrong – but this, this is different. This is unadulterated, optimistic-about-life, excited-to-make-plans-for-the-future happiness on a completely new level for me.

When I was at my lowest point a few years ago, I wrote about my therapist giving me a depression test on my first visit (I never ended up publishing the post, as it seemed too depressing – oh, the irony – but I still have the draft). I was off-the-charts depressed – I scored 29 on a scale of 36, indicating “severe” depression – and she immediately prescribed anti-depressants. That medication, plus therapy, allowed me to see through the fog long enough to realize there was something less foggy beyond it. I had no idea what it might be, but the fact that there was anything beyond the clouds was a revelation at the time.

In 2013, I finally had the courage to make the hardest decision I’ve ever made and ended my marriage. I leapt without knowing where the ground was, or whether I’d land on my feet. Today I can report that I did land on my feet, and the ground wasn’t as far out of sight as it seemed.

2014 wasn’t perfect – I’m still dealing with some lingering back issues, which migrated down one leg and became knee issues that required physical therapy; my thyroid regulation got out of whack, reminding me just how terrible I felt in 1998 before I started on thyroid replacement; I gained and lost two separate clients in the space of a few months – but it was pretty close. Even the work I knew I had to do was welcome.

There are two leftover resolutions from my 2012 birthday blog post that I’d honestly forgotten about, but I think my reaction to them now is telling about where my head is in 2015. One was about the need to lose weight, and the other was about learning to love the way I look no matter how I look. I started a regular walking routine in 2012 or 2013, I can’t remember, and I did lose a little bit of weight. But, more importantly, I am much, much happier about what I see when I look in the mirror now – and that has nothing to do with weight loss. I firmly believe that being happy makes me look better – at least to myself (which, let’s face it, is the important part) – and feel better.

And this year? I’m already scheming on a few things that could make my world even rosier. I’m not only excited to make plans, I’m a little impatient for the future – which is weird when I’m no longer ten years old wishing I could hurry up and be sixteen, already. I do not actually wish time would speed up. I have enough gray hairs as it is. So, I will work to enjoy my happiness in these moments, and keep laying the path to even more happiness around the corner.

Professionally

Let’s get one thing out in the open at the outset, especially if you’re not a freelance writer and think it is some sort of dream job: I am never, ever going to be a wealthy person in my line of work. There are still some months I struggle to pay all my bills. So when I say I’m having professional success, it’s all relative, I suppose. I am still able, most of the time, to pay my bills just from the money I make as a freelance writer – and to still have the flexibility to work on my own projects and to, well, live life the way I’d like to. And that last part is, the vast majority of the time, worth much more to me than wealth.

Sidebar over, back to the review.

Last year, I finally got my act together and launched my own Italy travel guide, Italy Explained, which had been sitting almost-done for way too long. I am often paralyzed by the fear that something I’m working on isn’t 100% perfect or done or whatever, which keeps me from actually finishing things. It’s dumb. And when it comes to anything on the web, that fear is exponentially more dumb, since I can fix anything or add stuff with a few clicks. (Typo? What typo?) So, yeah. I’m very glad to have that out in the world now, especially as it has caused something of a ripple effect:

  • I finally got over my aforementioned dumb fear and hit “publish” on my first ebook, Italy Explained: Italian Trains. I am not funding a lavish lifestyle with the sales yet, but people are buying it and liking it. I find that extremely gratifying, and I’m plotting the next book now.
  • I resurrected the monthly blogging group I’m in with a few other Italy bloggers, which gets me thinking outside my usual box once a month. Plus, I get to chat in our planning group with some truly kick-ass women. I adore them.
  • I felt motivated enough to say yes when my friend Sara wanted to get the Italy podcast I co-host, Eye on Italy, back up and running again after a more-than-three-year hiatus. We’ve only done two episodes so far, but it’s great fun to be collaborating again with one of the smartest people I know and to talk with fascinating folks about Italy.

I love having all this Italy-focus in my life again. I find that I spend hours working on Italy Explained and don’t realize hours have gone by. It is fun work. I’m not sure there’s anything better one could say about work, is there?

As for my client work – y’know, the stuff that actually pays my bills – I am feeling incredibly fortunate at the moment. I have one long-time client I adore – my editor is a dear friend, and I can’t tell you how much it means to have long-term satisfied clients who like what you do. I have, however, worried every now and then over the past couple years that all my work eggs were in one basket. I have worried, but I am lazy, and I did basically nothing to seek out new clients. I know. I scolded myself about this on a regular basis, and then continued to do nothing.

Well, new clients have come to me instead.

(I joked with friends last year that the universe is not teaching me very good lessons if it isn’t making me work for this stuff, but I’ll take it anyway.)

In truth, one new client came to me because the editor is yet another dear friend (lesson to aspiring freelance writers – have dear friends who become commissioning editors). That work is a new challenge for me; it’s unlike other writing I’ve done, which I think is a good thing. It’s keeping my writing skills sharper, that’s for sure.

Another new client – I just signed the contract, so I haven’t done any work for them yet – came on the referral of one of the aforementioned editor friends (see aforementioned lesson for aspiring freelance writers).

I cannot overstate how fortunate this makes me feel. Yes, I’ve laid the groundwork by being a reliable contractor for coming up on three years now. Yes, I’m benefitting from a solid reputation I built in the travel writing world starting in 2006. I get that this isn’t dumb luck, and I still feel very lucky.

And so, 43?

I have always loved my birthday. I honestly don’t care about getting older – I mean, I care about my knee giving me problems and the fact that it’s harder to get up out of a chair than it used to be, but I don’t care about my age as a number. I will happily tell you how old I am. Even on those birthdays when I was looking back on an unhappy year, I was still looking forward to a birthday that might – who knows? – turn everything around.

Of course, the birthdays didn’t turn anything around. They don’t have that power. I do have the power, though, and I am everso glad I exercised it. Because now I can say that not only am I looking back on a 42 that filled my heart and gave me so much joy, I am looking forward to a 43 even more because of what I can already see on the road ahead.

I will not rely on some birthday surprise to drop into my path and fix a trajectory I don’t like. I will embrace 42 because I made it what it was, and I will welcome 43 because I am in the process of creating what I want it to be.

Happy Birthday to me, indeed.