My Birthday, Glittering and Imperfect

Dear 29, I’m out! And I’m changing my outfit from a straight jacket to sequins.

Have you ever had a year where it feels like life is giving you a beating every day? For instance, when you come home from work and are too drained to even turn on the TV, instead, you just stare at the wall? Only realizing the TV isn’t on when you can hear the neighbors stomping on the floor above again? And just when you think your luck is starting to turn, you get knocked down by a wayward wind you didn’t even see coming?

That’s how 29 felt for me.

My 29th year of life began and ended with tears. It collected momentum at the start with a breakup the weekend before my birthday.  It picked up speed that week as the department I ran was pushed into the center of an investigation. As the new year came into focus, I carefully put together my vision board for the year, only to find it mocking me day after day as my efforts generally resulted in two steps forward and then a downhill slide.

Despite all the dreams I had for 29, getting dressed every morning felt like putting on a straight jacket. Even worse, it felt like an itchy wool straight jacket that was a drab, unflattering shade of puce. Still, not one to quit or be easily dissuaded, I dutifully put it on day after day.

I was living a life that made sense from a distance but it had somehow become devoid of the color and fun I had remembered having.  It didn’t feel like me. Worse yet, the way I had constructed my day to day life seemed to leave no room for me to be myself. By nature I’m a creative and ambitious person who likes to figure things out as I go, and I seemed to be stuck in world of policies, procedures, and rules. There was very little room for individuality and even less for humor.

I determinately kept getting back up after each set back, wanting to the climb the damn hill I had set out to climb. I was too drained after to work to workout, so I’d get up early and do it before work. I was too tired to meditate without falling asleep so I meditated standing. I pretended that the straight jacket actually was very comfortable. It’s sort of secure and cozy right? I smiled like an insane person. I trudged on and on and on. Finally, one day around mid-June, I looked around long enough to really see the hill I was attempting to climb and I remember very clearly thinking, “Why the hell do I even want to go up there?” If I was going to be working this hard, the destination better be somewhere I really wanted to go.

That moment was either the beginning or end of sanity. Time will tell. 

Despite the moment of clarity, I didn’t change things quickly. I knew I should, but that required a lot of effot. Instead, my life changed slowly and painfully.  Life had to make sure I was entirely too miserable to stagnate, because if it had been even a little less uncomfortable, I would have stayed put. I would have continued to tell myself the straight jacket was keeping me safe. By the time August rolled around, my dating life had flatlined and I wasn’t even interested anymore. I was woken up continuously by the neighbors who I assume were practicing for their Stomp Broadway auditions.  The job I liked but, to be honest, was an extremely negative work environment in which most people counted down the days until retirement when years remained. My job, my apartment, my life, they all looked good on paper but didn’t feel good in my heart.

And as for my community? The crazy group of misfits I had collected over the years? They were separated by miles and continents and ideals, fractured and scattered. Being a part of them was lot like walking a tightrope between islands. Over the summer, I spent some weekends in Montana, Seattle and San Francisco. When at home I sometimes found I had no one left in Portland. My life felt isolated and lonely.

My heart was broken in a way that it hadn’t been before. It was broken from unaddressed grief, loneliness and a weighty world that had lost its color. 

I remembered how I got there; by choosing security and stability over the things that light me up, over and over and over. Sure, I still had vacations since I returned from long term travel. But those were few and far between and in the meantime I had foregone dreams, let go of hobbies I loved, and stopped wearing bright, quirky outfits all in the name of practicality. It was like I had looked at myself and said, “Being a bright, happy, sometimes loud person is no longer a good use of energy.  Conserve all that happiness so you have the strength to send another dozen emails before bed.” What I had learned was that living a life of practicality in extremes is a very painful way to punish yourself. I honestly didn’t know if I could go much longer without being me.  I was so tired of being everything besides myself.

As a result of all this, I spent a lot of August staring at the wall in my room and crying while trying to figure it out. I remembered being so joyful I felt like my heart would burst. I looked at my large collection of gray sweaters and was reminded of the character Sadness from the movie Inside Out. I hadn’t even picked up my paint brushes in two years. That August, I realized I needed to stop pretending living in a straight jacket wasn’t so bad. I had reached a point where something had to give.

What else do you do when you feel as though your life has turned into a routine of colorless drudgery?  Do you just get up day after day anyway and then shrug when your mom asks why you look so pained in all your pictures? Or do you refuse the straight jacket and insist on wearing sequins to the grocery store despite what your former colleagues think AND your mom’s protests?

I had to figure out how to get out of the straight jacket.

It turns out, the only way to lose the straight jacket was to leave the world of security behind. Say goodbye to everything that wasn’t serving me take some huge risks. And you know what I did? I, a Safety Manager, took the risks. Because a life that felt this empty was probably the most dangerous situation of all.  I didn’t sign another lease, I quit my job and I booked some flights.  I did this with only a Step 1 established and decided to play the rest by ear.

At twenty-nine, I finally took off the straight jacket.

And not to downplay it, let me say that this was a terrifying choice. I was approaching 30 unprepared – my life didn’t look like I thought it should. I thought I SHOULD probably have an established career path, a life parter, a home… Instead I had a backpack, a full passport and two side businesses that were basically only paying my coffee bills.  My career ladder looked more like a jungle gym. But the the thing about a word like should, is that it fills you with obligations that generally, are not something you, yourself have decided you should do, but something that society has imposed. Without the straight jacket, I could move, but I had to figure out what direction to move in.

In the meantime, I wanted to let all these feelings of uncertainty go. I wanted to feel good about where I was and who I was and let go of all the sadness, loneliness and misplaced expectations of the last few years. All that, and part of me wanted to celebrate that I had made some changes to move away from a life that didn’t fit. I wanted to celebrate that despite all that uncertainty, I was feeling better. I felt like I could breathe again.

I decided I would spend my birthday in London, one of my favorite cities. Then I got the good news my friend Mylie would be meeting me in London. What could I possibly ask for more than that on my birthday?  It would be a great chance to celebrate leaving 29 behind.

My birthday in London became the apex. I was crossing the peak between a painful year and a new beginning.

It felt significant. It felt momentous. It felt like a new start.

Sound like a reasonable way to approach a birthday right?

So, here I found myself, at the end of my twenties in one of my favorite cities with one of my favorite people.  Celebrating 30 years, somewhere around 35 countries visited and about a million tears cried.

Well, you know how travel sometimes is just life with a different backdrop? It was good and bad, gritty and glittery. Although I felt like it was important, I wanted too much from a day that will probably actually take a lot longer to achieve. Yes, I had let a lot go, but I was still holding carrying around a lot of old feelings and fear was one of them.

Mylie and I had some misunderstandings. As friends who come from opposite ends of the globe, we occasionally have very different cultural expectations of each other. We got upset. Then we did what we usually do when we are frustrated with each other and just politely went our separate ways while being obviously frustrated. Throughout the day we exchanged a few carefully worded but clearly-still-mad texts. I spent the daylight hours alone in London.

Crap, was 30 starting as rough as 29? What was I doing so wrong?  I felt like I had changed so much and made progress in ways I hadn’t expected and yet, I was messing this up too.

I counted my blessings. I ate a cupcake and watched double decker busses. I eventually went back to the hotel room and I just cried. The confused and lost feeling was creeping up on me again.

Mylie came back with takeout Indian food and we talked. The good part was, Mylie and I have travelled enough together that we realized it was a misunderstanding.  She knew what the past few years had been like for me and she understood.  She was one of the blessings I counted.

I dried my eyes and we decided to go out. We’d go out dancing in London. I didn’t have the right outfit to wear since travelers rarely carry party attire. So, I got together some boots and a sequin dress. Because, you know, when you wanna wear the sequins you gotta do it, even if it looks weird.

We took cabs across town, we ordered flaming drinks, we ended up in neighborhood pubs, secret bars, and crowded dance floors.  I left the misplaced expectations and disappointments behind as we moved through the sparkling night life of London. It was time to say to hell with what looked good on paper and let my off-beat life glitter in the imperfection it was.

Here’s to being 30. I’m pretty over-the-moon that I don’t have to be 29 anymore. That, and the fact that I finally wore the sequins.