No Birthday Surprise Required

On 25 February 2015 by Jessica

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.

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