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.

Concrete - by Sherrie Thai (creative commons)

Bathed in Concrete

Personal
Concrete - by Sherrie Thai (creative commons)

Concrete – by Sherrie Thai (creative commons)

Many moons ago – back in the dark ages, AKA “Before the Internet Was Everywhere,” otherwise known as 1998 – I was sick. I didn’t know I was sick. I thought I was just very, very tired. And since I had always been on the weak side, never extraordinarily energetic, I figured that was just my lot.

Because I didn’t blog then, when I wrote about what was going on I did so in (probably really bad) poetry. I say “probably” because I have no idea where those sheets of paper are now. I think they were even printed on a dot-matrix printer, of all things. We’re talking way-back-machine stuff, here, kids. At any rate, I don’t remember any of the poems, but the gist of one of the short ones was essentially that I awoke each day feeling as if I had been bathed in concrete. I wore that concrete suit all day long, chipping away at it slowly, and just as I was starting to see daylight it would be time to go to bed and I’d start all over again in the morning. It was, needless to say, a frustrating time. Only I didn’t really have the energy to even be frustrated by it.

I went to my doctor at the time, who – after a series of tests – told me it was all in my head. I am not making that up. That is what the doctor told me. And, because he was wearing a lab coat, I believed him. And that made me feel worse.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about what I did during the time that I felt so tired. Perhaps that’s because my life then was more about what I was not doing. One thing I know is that it was during this period that I quit my band. I had been able to pull it together every time we had a show, and yet in the end I was just so tired. Looking back, it was one of the worst decisions I could have made – that was one of the few high points in my days, band practice and shows – but I didn’t know that then. Instead, I quit the band and spiralled.

At some point in 1999, I eventually decided my doctor might not have all the answers and I started seeing a naturopath. I paid (dearly) for those appointments – not covered by insurance, naturally – but they did tests differently and told me I had a thyroid disorder. I was hypothyroid, he said. Severely so. He put me on the first dose of synthetic thyroid of my life, a medication I’ve been on in one form or another ever since.

He saved my life.

I had had moments in my teen years when I had suicidal thoughts, but it wasn’t until 1998 that I think I truly understood why someone would want to end their life. The lows were so low, there seemed to be absolutely no way out – or an “out” I could even see or work toward. When I started taking those pills, I only had to wait a few weeks before I felt like I could climb mountains. Later in 1999, I actually did climb mountains – literally – when I walked up Alps and Pyrenees to watch stages of the Tour de France. I could never have contemplated doing that the year before, and I cried when I looked out over the valley of the first mountain of the trip. I had come so far.

I have changed doctors over the years, but an endocrinologist has been on my medical roster since 1999. I see my endocrinologist more often than I see any other doctor in my life, getting my blood tested up to six times a year to make sure the medication is at the right amount. The dosage of my medication has changed periodically, but only incrementally. Overall, while I’m still not what you’d describe as an energetic person, I’ve led what feels to me like a normal life since 1999. A normal life that felt something like a miracle at the time.

About two months ago, however, I changed the medication I’d been taking, and the dosage was so wildly different from the other drug that (as it turns out) I was taking a much lower dose than I should have been for the first month. As a result, I have spent the last few weeks in a haze. It’s not as bad as it was in 1998 – not by a long shot – but it has the same color, the same flavor. I’ve been exhausted, spacey, unable to focus, and depressed. I know it’s temporary. I started taking a higher dosage of the medication last week, so it’s only a matter of time before that kicks in and I start to feel more normal, but in the meantime I’m dragging around concrete boots everywhere I go.

I apologize if I’ve sounded “off” in any conversation I’ve had with you recently, or if I’ve been slow to respond to email. I’m not myself. It’s an unsettling feeling. The good news is that, unlike in 1998, this time I know that I will feel like myself again – eventually.

creative commons image by AK Rockefeller

No One Left to Speak For Us

Personal
creative commons image by AK Rockefeller

creative commons image by AK Rockefeller

I stood over my laundry on December 14, 2012, dumbstruck as CNN kept saying that there had been a school shooting in my hometown of Newtown, Connecticut – surely they meant someplace else? someplace bigger? When it finally sank in that, yes, it was Newtown, I crumbled over the ironing board and wept. I cried for days, weeks, on and off. I still cry when I think about it. The news was then, and remains, too devastating to contemplate. And yet? I was hopeful. Finally, I thought, finally something will change. Congress will act. The American people will rise up and say they’ve had enough. Certainly, this can’t be swept under the rug.

And yet?

Here we are, 18 months later, (at least) 74 school shootings later, and the latest one is on my doorstep on this side of the country. An as-yet-unnamed student walked into Reynolds High School in Troutdale first thing this morning and killed a freshman boy before police said the incident was “contained.” It’s a polite euphemism hiding the fact that not one but two kids lost their lives today.

For all my weeping after Newtown, I find that today I am resigned. I am sickened, heartbroken, and angry – and after those feelings come and go I open a new brower window and go back to my work. Which makes me more sick, heartbroken, and angry.

After the school shooting earlier last week at the Seattle Pacific campus, I was reminded of that famous speech by Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who, after World War II, criticized the German elite for not doing more to stop the spread of Nazism before it was too late. His words were turned into a poem:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Many of us are asking now, as we asked after Newtown and so many school shootings before that, what will it take? What is it actually going to take for something to change? I confess that my own answers to that question are getting more and more outlandish and disgusting. But I no longer have any faith that we’ll do what it takes – oust members of Congress who are firmly in the pockets of the NRA so they can finally enact meaningful gun control legislation – without something disgusting and outlandish happening.

What will it take for you to act? Don’t offer your thoughts and prayers. We don’t need those. We need your action.

If you can’t be bothered to do something, to say something, then you deserve exactly the society riddled with unpredictable gun violence that we’ve got. If you can’t stand up against terrorists like the NRA, even when you haven’t lost a loved one to gun violence, then eventually there won’t be anyone left to speak for you, either.

Send a #NotOneMore postcard to your elected officials right now. It takes 10 seconds. Then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And every day until they listen. And please, please, please – remember this on election day.

Stop the NRA -- creative commons photo by Elvert Barnes

Gun. Control. Now.

Personal
Stop the NRA -- creative commons photo by Elvert Barnes

creative commons photo by Elvert Barnes

I don’t know how anyone can look at this latest mass shooting and fail to see a crisis around this country’s attitudes toward both guns and women. We needed gun control decades ago. Our government is complicit in these murders so long as they let the NRA bully them into inaction or – worse – actions that actually inhibit efforts to keep people safe from gun violence.

Gun control now.

  • How the NRA Enables Massacres
    In the USA, "we’ve allowed a group of rich, entitled thugs who run an operation fronting for arms dealers—guys who represent a minority position on pretty much every issue having to do with reasonable regulation of firearms even among gun owners—to dictate our policies to cowardly, careerist politicians."
  • Elliot Rodger’s fatal menace: How toxic male entitlement devalues women’s and men’s lives
    "Just as we examine our culture of guns once again in the wake of yet another mass shooting, we must also examine our culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity, which devalues both women’s and men’s lives and worth, and inflicts real and daily harm.

    “I think of the millions of other women and girls whose names the public does not know, but who have been forced all the same — by institutional forces larger than themselves, by systemic and enduring misogyny and racism, by the sheer bad luck of being at a given place at a given moment — to become statistics or symbols of our culture’s profound disregard for the humanity of women and girls. I am reminded of all of them and I don’t know where to put the pain and anger that comes with that. There is no possible vessel large enough to hold it all.”

  • Christopher Michael-Martinez’s Father Gets It Right about Guns
    "The war against euphemism and cliché matters not because we can guarantee that eliminating them will help us speak nothing but the truth but, rather, because eliminating them from our language is an act of courage that helps us get just a little closer to the truth. Clear speech takes courage. Every time we tell the truth about a subject that attracts a lot of lies, we advance the sanity of the nation. Plain speech matters because when we speak clearly we are more likely to speak truth than when we retreat into slogan and euphemism; avoiding euphemism takes courage because it almost always points plainly to responsibility. To say ‘torture’ instead of ‘enhanced interrogation’ is hard, because it means that someone we placed in power was a torturer. That’s a hard truth and a brutal responsibility to accept. But it’s so.

    “Speaking clearly also lets us examine the elements of a proposition plainly. We know that slogans masquerading as plain speech are mere rhetoric because, on a moment’s inspection, they reveal themselves to be absurd. ‘The best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’ reveals itself to be a lie on a single inspection: the best answer is to not let the bad guy have a gun. ‘Guns don’t kill people, people do.’ No: obviously, people with guns kill more people than people without them. Why not ban knives or cars, which can be instruments of death, too? Because these things were designed to help people do things other than kill people. ‘Gun control’ means controlling those things whose first purpose is to help people kill other people. … And the idea that you can be pro-life and still be pro-gun: if your primary concern is actually with the sacredness of life, then you have to stand with Richard Martinez, in memory of his son.”

  • I Am Not an Angry Feminist. I’m a Furious One.
    On the awful backlash toward the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter:

    "They don't believe us. Hundreds of thousands of women from around the world can weigh in and tell their first hand experiences and there are men out there — seemingly reasonable and intelligent men — who still refuse to admit that maybe, just maybe, we have good reasons to be afraid. A 22-year-old kid spouts the same misogynist rhetoric that my coworkers and I receive in our inboxes on a daily basis and goes on a shooting rampage with the expressed purpose of punishing women for not giving him the sexual attention he felt entitled to and we're still told that we have no right to be scared because #NotAllMen are like that."

Contact your Senators and Representatives. Ask them to stand up to the NRA – for the sake of everyone you know and love.

The End of an Era

Personal

toyota3

In early 1996, I was 24 years old. I had been out of college for less than two years. I was working as an administrative assistant for a mediator in Portland, and living in a one-bedroom basement apartment in southeast.

In the 18 years since then:

  • I joined a rock band, with whom I lived in a town north of Seattle for a little over a year, touring up and down the west coast for three years.
  • I met a guy, bought a house, got married, and got divorced.
  • I worked my way into and online community management travel writing for the web, when the internet hadn’t even been a thing during my college years.
  • I embarked on a freelance career I didn’t think would go well, and that I still love two years later.

And through all of that, I’ve been driving the exact same car. A 1993 Toyota Corolla I bought when it was three years old, when I really couldn’t afford the payments, but when my existing car was showing signs of giving up the ghost. I put a whopping great number of miles on that car during the first year I had it, driving to Portland from Seattle every weekend for awhile to see the guy I would end up marrying, and the car never failed me. It’s only in the last year or so that the car started using oil to the extent that I’d need to add a quart or two between oil changes.

Still, driving a 21-year-old car around isn’t necessarily the best idea – my mother had been worried about me driving anywhere for some time now. So, at the age of 42, I have just purchased only the third car I’ve ever owned in my life.

honda2

To be perfectly honest, the look of the Fit doesn’t thrill me. But, then again, neither did the Corolla. The thing that made it most challenging to let go of the Toyota, however, was knowing I couldn’t take the Petal window stickers with me. I had put those stickers in my car in 1996 when I joined the band, and (no surprise) I was the only band member left with Petal stickers in the window – my bandmates have moved on to other cars since then.

I am perfectly happy to have a newer car (with air conditioning!), and I’m going to love the great gas mileage, but I’ll always be a little sad that I’m not still driving around advertising my band.

Unless, of course, I manage to convince Ken to make new stickers…

creative commons photo by Alexis Lê-Quôc

Under Construction

Personal
creative commons photo by Alexis Lê-Quôc

creative commons photo by Alexis Lê-Quôc

The end of my street is blocked by orange construction cones and signs declaring that the road is closed. Workers closed the road not long after I moved in. They were already deep into a years-long project extending light rail lines further into the east side of the river. If I thought I would be staying in this neighborhood until the completion of the project, I’d be thrilled. A light rail station within walking distance of me? Excellent news. Since I hope to be long gone by the time the work is done in 2015, however, all I notice are the orange cones.

The road, they tell me, is under construction, and the progress report sign at the intersection tells me the project completion date. Being introspective lately leads me to think that my life feels very much under construction right now, though I have no project completion date. I don’t even have an estimate that I’ll overshoot by a number of weeks or months and over which local politicians will wring their hands. No, all I have are orange cones.

I know that despite my series of rough years recently that I am lucky. I don’t have enough work, but the work I have is work I like, and that allows me to live in a way I love. I don’t love my current living situation, but I know it’s temporary and I genuinely adore the neighborhood in the meantime. I’m dealing with the aftermath of leaving a 10-year marriage, but I am thankful that I had the wherewithal to leave and the support of family and friends when I did.

Despite the orange cones circling my personal work zone right now, I am more optimistic than I have been in longer than I can remember. No, it’s not despite the cones – it’s because of them. Those construction cones represent progress. They indicate movement. They tell me that work has started. There may be no project completion date I can put on a calendar, but it is satisfying to see the orange cones surrounding jagged holes in the pavement, hard-hatted workers hip-deep in the ground, shovels in hand.

Cutting through the surface to reconfigure what lies underneath can hurt, but letting something sour fester there is far worse.

I am doing my best to let go of the guilt, the sadness, the worry, the part of me that was willing to quietly accept unhappiness. There is nothing that offers hope so much as potential, so I am choosing to see the orange cones as harbingers of positivity. What’s under these top layers, what the workers will find when they dig a little deeper, and what they’ll build next – I don’t really know. Whatever it is, I don’t want to be on the sidelines anymore, watching from behind the safety ropes. I’m wading in, hard-hatted and shovel in hand.