thirty for thirty

birthday balloonsLast week, I celebrated my 30th birthday, drinking Champagne with my husband as he whisked me around northern France, Belgium and The Netherlands. It was quite magical to be surrounded by love, beauty and a healthy, happy place in life, as I said hello! to a milestone year.

As I enter my 30s, I feel no sense of dread or crisis of adulthood. When I turned 29, I talked about contravening the narratives we are told to live; I advocated for forging my own story and path; I maintained that I am the decider of how I fill my finite hours and days. I keep this position, wholeheartedly.

To that end, and in these glinting first moments of a new decade, I offer for your taking, with humility and a healthy pinch of salt, 30 things these 30 earthly years have taught me. Some are literal, some symbolic and some but tiny mantras for how I want to live.

  1. There are many, many valid narratives: I can accept and reject as many versions of what’s expected of me as I wish, and so can everyone else. There’s no one correct way to construct my days and a life. There’s no playbook to consult. Choosing my narrative is central to my well being.
  2. It begins and ends with my sisters: My sisters are my first people, my best friends and my seasons of life. For some reason, the universe greeted me with three younger, slightly-rearranged versions of myself who became, by choice, my three very best people. Every day I am grateful that I begin and end with these women.
  3. Use every last vacation day: In my early twenties and my first jobs, I took some strange satisfaction in hoarding vacation days, not using them and working full-stop with no breaks. Through the years, as I’ve observed the most successful people around me, I realize that they work their tails off AND use their vacation days. They make time to pause and reset. They come back to their jobs even better. Now, I relish and plan for every vacation day I am fortunate to earn.
  4. Fill the house with flowers: I learned this one from my mom, who taught her daughters by example to tend to their gardens, both literal and metaphorical. Mom fills her house with flowers and all their beauty, and so do I.
  5. Ruthlessly prioritize: I stole this concept from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, and it relates to my commitment to building a life that’s full instead of busy. Each day, I have dozens of competing priorities thrown my way. I will not get to them all. And so — professionally and personally — I play triage nurse. I decide what gets my finite attention at this moment. And I move on.
  6. Some people will not like me and I will be kind, anyway: This one has been a hard concept for me. I am, whether I like it or not, a pleaser. I like to be liked. But I don’t like every person I meet, and it would be ridiculous to think everyone should enjoy me in turn. Life will continue without their approval, and it doesn’t preclude me from being kind, anyway.
  7. Be unfailingly generous: I first learned this from my dad, the most generous man I know. Dad just does for others — he takes care of his people. He feeds them, he treats them, he lives abundantly. I had this lesson doubly reinforced by my mother-in-law, who is a generous woman in every way. These two role models have made me more giving with my time, resources and affection.
  8. Right brain/left brain is a false dichotomy: As a kid, I was fortunate I never had to choose between hard sciences and the arts. Despite attending a rigorous math-and-science high school, my parents equally encouraged creative pursuit — I took a full roster of painting and drawing alongside my six math and science mandatories each term. Because of this — and also through the many fellow creatives I’ve met through the years — I’ve never entertained a right brain/left brain dichotomy. I firmly believe we humans are much more nuanced — often the most creative and aesthetic people are equally analytical and systematic.
  9. Keep Champagne in the fridge: To be ready for any and all impromptu celebrations that come my way!
  10. The magnolias will bloom each spring: Every spring, without fail, there are the magnolias — resplendent and velveteen and fleeting. Like so many markers of the seasons and years — apple cider, Christmas trees, beach days, garden tomatoes, spring showers — the fleetingness is the magic.
  11. Always revisit my fixed position: We each have an inborn sense of who we think we are and are not. A numbers person, a creative, not a runner, an extrovert, a non-fiction reader, a dancer, a teacher, an analyst. Some of these identities are fixed, but mostly we renegotiate who we are as we grow and evolve. Static isn’t healthy. You may end up loving things you hated, being someone you once were not, and shedding identities that once consumed you. I have, many times.
  12. Offer others abundant clarity: In my mid-twenties, I lost a best friend in part to muddled intentions and signals. It’s something that’s led me to be abundantly clear with others about where I stand so they don’t draw false conclusions, even when it’s difficult. We owe our fellow humans abundant clarity.
  13. Make the first offer: This one, from my husband, who is unfailingly and even unconsciously, willing to help. He comes from a gentle and lovely default place of yes and doing his part. He reminds me to make the offer of assistance, without first being asked.
  14. Have friends who are different from me: It’s easy to get stuck in a mirror chamber of others who are like us — we naturally are attracted to people who remind us of ourselves, with whom we share invisible constructs. But my life is richer because of the abundant variety of people — ages, religions, backgrounds, birthplaces, genders and so on — that fill it.
  15. Scarcity is a construct: There is enough in this abundant place I am fortunate to live — love, talent, wealth, kindness, joy, experience — to go around and share amongst us. Thankfully, any scarcity I feel is of my own making.
  16. You learn a lot in a thrift store: I love thrift stores and visit them often. I learn so much from seeing what others discard and keep, sorting through the trash and treasures, and re-appropriating these objects to become a part of my own story.
  17. My body is a powerful and generous tool: My body is my vessel and it carries me to so many wonderful places — up subway stairs and across airport terminals and along forest trails and through city streets. This vessel is mine to love and enjoy and use as long as I can. Through my twenties I figured out that I’m capable of a very powerful love of my physical person. I stopped demonizing my shell for its shortcomings.
  18. Bring a wad of cash to the farmers’ market and spend it all: Buy all the heirloom tomatoes and lavender honey and drippy peaches and kale bunches and sourdough bread and farm eggs I can. Farmers are amazing people who do backbreaking work to feed me every single week in a way my urban backyard garden can’t.
  19. Take and offer honest, constructive criticism: One of the most appreciated things I’ve been told was by my long-time boss. She commended the way I take criticism — not stewing in it or taking umbrage to it, but figuring out how to apply it to be better. Learning to take criticism with grace has come through many years of listening and adjusting. But honest feedback is one of the most priceless things we can give and take from others, so it’s worth cultivating the conditions to both welcome and deliver it.
  20. Make friends with a cobbler: Or, buy fewer things and buy them to keep. Reject this pervasive, growing culture of disposable goods. Buy secondhand and handmade. Fill my home with beautiful, pragmatic and meaningful objects. Fix what’s broken. Replace worn soles.
  21. A sick parent is the cruelest teacher: My beautiful mom has been sick most of my adult life. I’d revise anything to give her full health. But seeing what my mom can do through all she can’t — without complaint or commentary — has taught me so much about both loving with all my might and curbing my stupid complaints.
  22. Know your key message: When I started my career, I didn’t know what a key message was. A decade on in communications has taught me to always walk into a room and situation with an overarching purpose and perspective. I have my key message in my back pocket, ready to go.
  23. Carry a book: Life brings waiting and intermission and found time — in line, on a subway, at a doctor’s office. The temptation is to pull out a phone, but it always shocks me how much I am able to read in these sweet, found moments.
  24. Listen to others’ stories: There is a Whitman passage I have loved for years: “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean / But I shall be good health to you nevertheless / And filter and fibre your blood.” I will never know the full scope of someone’s joy or suffering or the winding backstory behind their present condition, but I can listen and do my best to go a bit deeper in my empathy and understanding.
  25. “Curation” is dangerous: Not the museum kind — I like curators! — but the curating that’s become shorthand for good taste. Curated closets and curated Pinterest boards and “10 best” blog posts have overtaken thoughtful and slow content and commentary. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a steady spike online in this term, and I’m confident it has nothing to do with actual curatorial work. Slow content and long thinking have been replaced by an endless rise of collecting stuff and click-bait — ideas, pictures, lists. I’d rather create.
  26. Plan but leave space for the unplanned: I am at my core, a planner and a system builder. Over time, I’ve uncovered the real beauty of a plan is to provide room for the unexpected and accept the twists and turns that come my way.
  27. A kitchen needs sharp knives: A few very sharp knives are the tools that will transform any kitchen.
  28. Find the light: Leonard Cohen has a beautiful lyric — “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Light is everywhere, even in the imperfect. We need to search for it, to turn toward it, to find it in the darkness.
  29. Send thank you cards: And to that end, say thank you. To my husband who picks up the dry cleaning, to my employee who is a pleasure to work with, to the friends who host us for dinner, to the service counter worker who renews my health card with a smile and friendly conversation. No one will ever begrudge my sincere thanks.
  30. This is water: The one phrase I always return to — in order to remember this water all around me and not take for granted the gorgeous reality I inhabit. Through the mundane and the extraordinary moments. This is water. This is it.

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