It was my birthday this week. This has been, hands down, the best year of my life so far.
Which is a little surprising, since I’ve accomplished very few of the things I thought I’d do by now.
- Publish several books and be a famous author.
- Own a beautiful home.
- Also a beach house.
- Be in a loving, committed relationship.
- Have this parenting thing figured out.
- Generally feel a sense of peace, joy, and bad-assness.
None of those have happened.
Except the last one.
WTF, right??? Is that even ALLOWED??? Don’t you have to win before you get to feel good? Aren’t you supposed to stay in a space of shamed yearning until you reach your goals? Who gets to feel proud of their life before they’ve hit their marks?
Well, me, apparently.
(Commonsense caveat: no of course I don’t feel peaceful all the time; neither can I turn coal into diamonds with my bare hands. But I feel good WAY more often than I feel bummed, which is kind of amazing to me.)
And so as I looked back at the past year and thought about this coming one, instead of feeling frustrated and disappointed in myself What a loser! What have you been doing all this time?? How can you still be renting??? Are you EVER going to finish that book??? I feel so damn grateful my heart feels too big for my chest.
Which is strange because I used to have a hard time with birthdays.
I’d eagerly wait for that one day when I would know that I was special and cherished, and my loved ones would shower me with attention and gifts and calls and surprises and I would feel like a million bucks.
But I also waited for my birthday with a sense of dread, because the truth was that each year I’d feel GUILTY…. because no matter how many nice things people said or did, it never felt like enough.
The thing is, I have champagne tastes. Also I am super picky. Also for many years I had a huge hole in my heart. And so I always felt disappointed by the gifts I received… and underwhelmed by the loving messages and cards… and bewildered that a helicopter didn’t whisk me off to the Amalfi coast even though I didn’t even know anyone with a helicopter… and then I felt guilt like a wave of vomit.
Ohhh, I loathed the girl in me who couldn’t just be damn grateful.
For example, here is one story I swore I’d never tell anyone.
Have I mentioned that I like rings? I luuuuurve rings. They reduce me to fake spellings. I would wear a ring on every finger if it didn’t make it so hard to type. But rings with actual jewels in them are expensive, and for most of my life I didn’t own any nice ones. And then when I was in my twenties, after I’d just come through a rough divorce, my beloved Mimi (she passed away last year) gave me a beautiful opal ring for my birthday. A ring was the most thoughtful present!! It was so generous! Real gold, a big opal, and teensy diamond chips nestled next to it. It was so lovely, so beautiful.
There was only one problem. I hate opals. They remind me of saran wrap.
Also I didn’t wear gold jewelry at the time, never ever.
(Oddly enough, my engagement ring was an opal too. Weird, right? For the record, I like diamonds. And platinum and emeralds.)
Oh, how my heart ached at that beautiful ring nestled in its little velvet box. JUST WHAT I’D WANTED!!! Only totally….not.
I yanked my face into a grin of joy. I called my Mimi, thanked her profusely, and said all the right things in my thank-you note, I hope.
And then I tried to wear the ring.
It looked so wrong on me. I was a broke beatnik at the time, working in a bookstore in Chicago, wearing a lot of black and big chunky boots. I had platinum-blonde hair. I smoked American Spirits and drank shitty gin.
And still I craved a big shiny “real” ring.
Just not the one I had.
I felt like the world’s slimiest slime. I couldn’t understand how I could be so craven, so materialistic, so horrible.
(Incidentally, Grammy, if you’re reading this I’ve loved every present you’ve ever, ever given me and always will. Okay?)
That ring came to symbolize all the ways I was wrong.
I wanted too much.
I was never happy with what I had.
I was selfish and greedy and shallow.
I would hurt the people around me if I told the truth about what I felt.
Oh, that list went on and on.
I used to torture myself in my head, almost all the time. Birthdays were just a little bit worse, because I had such a yawning pit of need inside me and I’d desperately hope to fill it all up in one single day.
It never worked, of course.
And so I’d feel disappointed, and desperate, and fiercely guilty.
Let’s do a little compare and contrast, shall we?
My actual birthday this year was a pretty ordinary day. I coached my clients, answered a lot of email, warmed up leftovers for dinner, and was showered with lovely cards and messages and a few calls and gifts.
And it was like every five minutes, someone gave me a Ferrarri.
My joy was boundless. I kept laughing out loud and putting my hand on my heart.
I am so rrrrrich now! In love, in gratitude, in the beauty around me.
And the difference– this part is important– is not the people around me. It’s not that I’ve finally been SEEN and my people magically interpret my longings and needs and meet them. (Though I do love my people; you guys are the shizzle.)
The real difference is in me.
I don’t expect the people around me to make me happy any more. I’ve finally figured out that it’s an inside job.
I started my birthday from a place of fullness. I woke knowing that I was enough; that whatever came up I could handle it; that I knew who I was and I could create what I want in the world.
And so because I started out full, every bit of love and generosity was like gravy.
But when you start out empty, a whole trunkload of diamonds isn’t going to be enough to fill up that hole. Even a helicopter can’t whisk you to a place of enough.
I actually made a speech to my daughter that night. Glass of Veuve in hand.
“I want you to see and remember how incredibly happy a woman can be when she tells the truth and make decisions in accordance with what she thinks is right. Right here, in our little apartment, just you and me, I am absolutely full of joy.”
She laughed and clapped. I’m sure she’ll tell her therapist all about it some day.
So here is the thing I wish someone had told me, when I was all knotted up in self-loathing and yearning and didn’t believe I could ever, ever be truly happy:
Want what you want.
Just want it. Tell the truth about it, at least to yourself. You might not get it. That’s ok! We think we can’t want what we want because we’ll be devastated if we don’t get it. But I promise, that won’t hurt nearly as much as divorcing yourself from your own true longings. Weirdly enough, our longings seem to be the quickest road to a sense of fullness…even when you don’t get the things you long for. I know. It doesn’t make sense. Nonetheless, my research shows that this is how it seems to work.
You might need to get creative; it might take longer than you think; it might look really different than you expected.
But don’t give up on what you really want. It will mend your heart.
So you might try that today; you might tell yourself or a trusted friend what it is that you truly long for.
And just for fun, you might also want to put on a big-ass ring. Do it for me, ’cause it’s my birthday.