Birthdays, Breakups and New Beginnings

Birthdays, Breakups and New Beginnings
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One of the blog posts that resonated with me the most over the years, especially during my 30th birthday, is Alex in Wanderland’s post, called “What are your anchors?”. In this post, she writes about attending a church service where the parish given time to reflect and write down their anchors, the parts of their lives that hold them steady when proverbial bad weather blows in.

With it being a church, she estimated that most people wrote down faith but other responses probably included home, marriage, career, family and friends. For Alex, she had to think long and hard about what anchored her. While she had a travel writing business, a boyfriend and a temporary home in Thailand at the time of writing, she didn’t felt like it defined her as a person. While relationships end, careers change and people die, many people don’t consciously change up their anchors.

Shipwreck, Haida Gwaii. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote

Shipwreck, Haida Gwaii. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote

Eventually, upon reflection, Alex decided,

“By sailing into the unknown I inadvertently built a foundation for my life that no one or no thing can ever take away from me: a lens of gratitude with which to see the world, a strong sense myself and a deep well of faith in my journey.”

She elaborates,

“How does travel build confidence and a sense of self? It just does. When your flight gets cancelled and it throws your trip into chaos, you deal with it. When you get dropped off at night at a hostel in an unfamiliar city and the doors are locked and you have no phone and no idea were you are, you deal with it. When you find yourself heartsick and ego-bruised and completely alone after a travel romance goes wrong, you deal with it. You suck it up, you deal with things, you figure shit out, and in between you find yourself regularly in awe at the absolute beauty and magic of this big wide world you’re lucky enough to be exploring. You’re surrounded by unfamiliar everything — language, climate, currency, everything. And you’re not just surviving, you’re even maybe every once in a while thriving. How could you not think of yourself as a total badass after that? And spending months with your own company as your only constant helps you develop a pretty rock solid sense of who else you truly are. Other than a badass.”

Her words resonated with me strongly. I spent the second half of my twenties living out of a backpack for a couple years, then upgraded to two suitcases in New Zealand that I could move easily between sublets (I lived in 7 flats in less than two years). In Vancouver, I finally had my own space with some eccentric furnishings, purposefully chosen from thrift shops to be functional for awhile, but not to inspire any long term attachments. For the past five years, I’ve barely been able to spend any quality time with the long-term friends, the ones that know I find comfort in a bowl of instant oatmeal before bed, the ones that know I rolled my tongue and made wishes at 8:08:08 in high school, the ones that know I went to a dozen countries of one of my favorite musical artists at the time and he signed my jeans multiple times.  Maybe I get to spend a week per year with people I know at this level.  If you round up.  And no, that’s not a week with one person, that’s a week total of Starbucks visits over the holidays and crashing on the couches for a night between flights.

I had life changing relationships but none lasted more than a year, and at least half were long distance. I’ve only had a couple jobs after graduate school and both were temporary positions with no promise of being long-term careers. My current position is so disappointing that it has me questioning a career in teaching, a choice that I’ve refined over the years but never questioned, since I came home from my first day of kindergarden.

Birthday sunrise in Myanmar. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

Birthday sunrise in Myanmar. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

I spent my 25th birthday in Singapore, with a Turkish feast on Arab Street with friends from my fellowship and an honorary night out at the Marina Bay Sands. I spent my 26th birthday escaping a bad situation in Turkey with a 1:00 AM flight to Georgia (the country) to be greeted by incredible hospitality and a dumpling feast. I spent my 27th birthday on a Halong Bay cruise in Vietnam, and when I returned to the city at 5:00 AM before the hostel opened, a tattooed motorcycle riding chick named Ling Ling kept me company and offered a birthday massage (which I politely declined). My 28th birthday was in Myanmar, waking up before sunrise and hopping on the back of a scooter, through streets that were empty of everyone except monks going around to collect their morning offerings. I watched sunrise from a bridge, then went back to the city to feast on these amazing coconut, street pancakes that friends had told me about. My 29th birthday involved “marking” (grading) 300 exams in Auckland but at least I woke up to a birthday brunch arranged by someone I loved.

My 30th birthday was the start of a new era, I suppose. My “kiwi birthday” (when people in my previous home of New Zealand would be celebrating my birthday) should have started with a Skype interview.  After sending dozens of applications over the past few months, I was thrilled to interview for a position at an alternative school in Austin. The hiring manager never showed up so I decided to wait around for a couple hours and try again, in case it was a mistake with the time zone. The hiring manager didn’t show up at noon either, and despite my attempts to contact them, there was no personal apology from the hiring manager, just an email from someone else admitting there was confusion and an (empty) promise to reschedule. I was disappointed for sure, especially because being stood up for an interview doesn’t create a good first impression of the employer, but I decided it would be resolved in time and to move on with my afternoon.

My boyfriend had been in Argentina for a couple weeks for work. While our relationship started strong, and it was wonderful to date someone with similar interests who was well established in their career, our relationship had been decaying over the past month so before he left, we decided we were going to think things over while he was away. While he was gone, this caused me a lot of anxiety especially because it was linked to worrying about what was going to happen with my job, the approaching deadline to sign a lease or I’d lose my flat, and whether I’d be able to enjoy my birthday. Originally, I had planned to go camping with friends but he couldn’t come so I cancelled the trip with the realization that I wouldn’t be able to focus with a lack of clarity about the relationship.

We were chatting over facebook messenger as he was about to fly back to Vancouver, him talking about all the potential graduate school advisors he met on his trip, completely unaware that I had an interview, never mind was stood up. So I confronted him on what he decided about our relationship, and while he said, he wanted to wait to tell me in person “after I had a good birthday with my friends”, he had decided that his feelings weren’t strong enough after 6 months to be worth continuing things, especially when my career was up in the air. “But you’re my best friend in Vancouver, we can spend your birthday together if you want”, he added. Thanks but no thanks.

Finally having some clarity on the situation bought an enormous amount of relief. Relief because I knew it wasn’t working and I didn’t know how to fix it. Relief that I could focus on myself for awhile.

My happy place these days. Photo courtesy of David.

My happy place these days. Photo courtesy of David.

So I grabbed my wraps and gloves and headed to kickboxing to punch it out. I had about an hour before I was supposed to meet a friend for a “sexy street dance class”. Since I knew part of that class involved showing off your strut, as the rest of the class watched and cheered, I figured a little liquid courage won’t hurt. I sipped a glass of cider at the pub, with my boxing gloves on the bar, reading a book on “Team Based Learning”.  A guy in a glowing unicorn shirt and shoes made from Guatemalan texiles and tires exclaimed, “I love team based learning!” (as a joke). And before I knew it, I had a free ticket to the Gomez concert and I was joining these two guys from Sachesketoon for their “fan girl” moment of seeing their favorite band after 10 years of waiting for them to return to North America.

It ended up being a fantastic evening, between good music and two amazing humans that took such good care of me, even leaving me voicemails from the airport at 5 AM with their happy birthday chorus. The next day was not so nice. At 5 AM, I was also awake so went to early morning kickboxing, then spent the day at work running on two hours of sleep, on the verge of tears. It was a birthday without presents, minimal cards and no party. I did take advantage of a free birthday hot yoga class, and was the last to leave the room after an extended savasana with silent tears intermingling with the sweat.  I don’t know what I was crying about, to be honest.  It wasn’t the loss of him specifically.  Maybe the loss of a five month thread of consistency, which was a source of comfort for me when change is usually the only constant.  Maybe because it’s so rare that I get to spend any holiday with people I know well, and it was heart breaking to be deprived of that simple gift.

I returned feeling mentally and physically exhausted but I arrived to an email with this poem written by my sister’s friend.  I had spoken to her briefly before running out the door, so it’s pretty amazing he generated something like this in a couple hours.

30 Words (for Katie)

Birthday, gifting
Crisis, opening

Sadness, crying
Grief, trying

Hope, feeling
Love, healing

Life, meaning
Purpose, deepening

Fullness, wanting
Wholeness, needing

Friends, supporting
Health, the-main-thing

Happiness, seeking
God, receiving

Learning, living.

28 June 2018

Driving through the North Cascades. Photo courtesy of Katie.

Driving through the North Cascades. Photo courtesy of Katie.

Initially, I was embarrassed that someone had witnessed my sorrow, never mind wrote a poem to memorialize my grief for eternity. But now, when I read that poem, I see new beginnings, instead of just sadness.  I won’t wish that kind of birthday on anyone but I certainly felt painfully alive as I began my third decade on this planet.  Even when I’m so used to change, letting go of things is always hard.  After getting over the initial ache, I actually felt so much lighter.  Thinking back to the beginning of the post, I was freed from an anchor that wasn’t serving me. I was free to celebrate my birthday sweating, fighting, and growing stronger.

Ansley, the couchsurfing friend who gave me a wonderful birthday weekend of chick flicks, purple hair and vegan comfort food.

Ansley, the couchsurfing friend who gave me a wonderful birthday weekend of chick flicks, purple hair and vegan comfort food. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

Keep Trucking…

My goals have significantly changed upon entering this decade, shifting toward wanting to settle in (I love how my Brazilian friend says that instead of “settle down”) and find a satisfying career in a place where ideally it’s possible to buy a house. It’s slightly terrifying turning 30 and feeling like I haven’t figured anything out, with regards to a relationship, career and location.  I do know how to make the most of a moment, to say “yes” to strangers and feel comfort in the strength of the bond and memories that can be built in a few hours. I do know that you can’t have happiness without sadness, and that sharing both sides of the human experience is what inspires people to write amazing poems about you. I do know I have the self-awareness and strength to figure it out eventually and there’s no rush if I’m having fun along the way. While an anchor sounds tempting in theory, in practice, it’s nice to be free to roll with the punches. If you need an anchor, be your own anchor. As for me, I think I’ll take the tumbleweed, free to fly and free to stick.

“Finding meaning and purpose is not a five-day spa retreat.  It’s a hike through mud and shit with golf-ball-sized hail pelting you in the face.  And you have to love it. You really have to love it.” -Mark Manson

Song of the Moment:  Little Bit Stronger– Sara Evans & Son of the Sun– Dierks Bentley
Book of the Moment: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck- Mark Manson

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