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Feeling 30

My head has been sloshing around with negative thoughts lately but occasionally, little bubbles of positivity seem to rise through the sludge, somehow having survived. Since overthinking the negative is something I specialize in – and rarely never gets me anywhere – I thought I’d instead entertain the positive.

Lately I’ve been feeling more my age. I turned thirty last November but you can’t really turn into an age in one day. It has taken many months to let this new decade – an undeniably, wholly adult decade – settle over me, for me to find its comfortable grooves. And just to be clear, this is a positive thing. Aging is scary, sure – but acceptance of where you are in life at any particular moment is always the surest way to feel content.

Here are some things that make me glad to be thirty and feeling it:

1. I’ve grown into wearing nicer clothes. Maybe it was being a student for so long, or living on the west coast, or looking younger than my age, but through most of my twenties I felt uncomfortable if I wore anything dressier than jeans and a decent top. Blazers, nice skirts and dresses, and tailored shirts all felt like playing dress-up. I still dress fairly casually – I work in research science after all – but now when I catch sight of myself in the mirror on my way out of the office bathroom, I sometimes spot a respectable-looking professional. And I like that.

2. My house is mostly clean, most of the time. We were never total pigs, but we definitely tested the “maybe if I put it off a bit longer it’ll magically get done” theory a little more (fair enough, it is worth checking that one out thoroughly). Nor have we since reformed into clean freaks; our kitchen cupboards are still grimy if you get up close, the floors will rarely be clean enough to eat off, and you’ll find all kinds of funky dust bunnies under the furniture. But in the last couple of years we’ve gotten to the point that if someone was to randomly come to our door, for example, to exchange a gold-painted rock for “something larger” as part of a game they were taking part in, I can have them step into my home without embarrassement. Our house looks lived in – there might be some dishes soaking in the sink, some crumbs on the counter, and a pile of unopened mail on the kitchen table – but it looks lived in by adults. Mostly. (We ended up giving them a box of tissues in exchange for the gold rock.)

3. I have gotten relatively comfortable having friends over for dinner. Because of my perfectionist tendencies, hosting will never be completely stress-free for me. I will worry about the food turning out right and at the right time, I will worry about our dog being a nuisance to non-dog people (she likes attention), and I will worry about how long these damn people are going to stay in my house because I’m ready to go to sleep now! But I feel comfortable that John and I can host a decent social gathering. We can cook some yummy things, we can trade off on kitchen duties without ever pausing the conversation, and we never take ourselves so seriously that our friends don’t feel comfortable grabbing what they need if we forget to offer. Oh and since the wedding, we have some kick-ass wine glasses too.

4. I’ve started to see the value in spending more for the things I use everyday. Maybe it’s realizing that I have arrived as much as I will ever arrive (meaning I’ve realized there is no such thing), but rather than grabbing the cheapest thing that will do the job I’ve grown more patient in waiting for the right thing and then being prepared to pay for it. For example, we bought a new couch a few months ago to replace the Craigslist find that had served us for six years. We thought long and hard about what to buy and ended up ordering a couch from a shop in our neighbourhood. The couch is made locally and in the fabric we chose. It cost more than an IKEA couch for sure, but not obscenely so and we felt really good about buying it because it was exactly what we wanted and we’ll be sitting on it practically every day for years to come (or more accurately lying on it – which we can both do AT THE SAME TIME!). Recently, I splurged on a nice powder brush and realized for the first time how amazing a quality makeup brush feels. It’s like a silky hug for every pore of my skin! I’ve since decided that each month or two I’m going to replace one of my worn, drug-store brushes until I have a good set. “Spend money” is not the aging lesson I’m trying to convey here – it’s spend money on the right things. On the things that will add value to each and every day.

What are some things that you appreciate about growing into your age?

The Busy Trap

I am so excited about this article I just read at the New York Times because it captures so beautifully what I was trying to write a while back about busyness. Feeling a bit of déjà vu right about now? Maybe instead of going through all the effort of writing a blog I should just wait for someone at the NYT to write out my thoughts better than I ever could and then report them to you in easily digestible quote format? Hmm, worth considering.

I am honestly tempted just to quote the whole damn thing, but since you’re probably really busy, I’ll just skip right to the points that make me want to hug the author and take him out for a leisurely drink.

It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint…. Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

I understand this need to feel busy, to stay occupied and be ‘productive’. At the end of each day, I find myself mentally taking account to make sure I can log at least a few things into the ‘being productive’ column, whether or not those things truly needed me that day. In our culture, especially in North America, the concept that hard work is the path to a rewarding life underlies so much of what we do and teach that it’s no wonder so many of us feel this pressure. Meanwhile, relatively little emphasis is placed on the value of simply revelling in the pleasures of life.

Since completing school and settling into my job, I have struggled at times with my new found non-busyness. I know that sounds ridiculous, and that’s because it is slightly ridiculous. I have a full life and yet there it is – this quiet, nagging worry about wasting my precious time, about falling behind.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day…. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

I am learning to give simple pleasures a higher value in my mental ledger where before they didn’t even get recorded. Not (just) because I’m looking for excuses to enjoy my idleness, but because they add value to my life. In the last couple of years I have had some of the best vacations of my life. It started with our honeymoon in Hawaii two years ago where, after the exhaustion of the wedding, I allowed myself the luxury of doing whatever the hell I wanted, whenever the hell I wanted, and discovered how amazing it is to sip wine in the middle of the day and then have a nap. I credited the bliss of that trip to the unique life situation, but then two more trips followed with more of the same. At 28, I finally learned to vacation.

I am slowly learning to bring that joy of idleness to my everyday life and quiet the nagging voice in my head that keeps saying only countable things count.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

Envy

Envy can be a helpful emotion. It can help you uncover things you secretly want that you’ve buried under a pile of self-imposed fears. Its unpleasant poke might be just enough to point you in the direction of your desires.

Of course envy can also be a petty bitch that shows up for absolutely no good reason whatsoever and ruins your ability to wholly enjoy the successes of people around you.

I’ve experienced envy of both kinds and am still learning to tell the difference. So while I’m in this amateur stage of interpreting my own feelings, there is only one truly reliable indicator I have – the lack of envy. In fact, for someone like me – a non-saint-like individual who covets all kinds of things – I believe lack of envy is probably the most telling emotion I have.

Last weekend I had dinner with a group of women I met in grad school. We were celebrating my friend’s new job as an assistant professor. Everyone in my company that evening had doctor in front of their name, worked as a professor or were about to, and did respected research in my field. I alone worked a 9-5 desk job with only a master’s behind my name, something that has nagged at me in the past.

As the main thing we have in common is our work, I knew that’s the direction our conversation would gravitate. Frankly, it was a prime opportunity for that green-eyed monster to pop up on my shoulder and start whispering things in my ear about how I too could be striving for more, reaching for the stars and <insert your favourite cliche about ambition here>.

But the monster never showed up. I found, a little to my surprise, that I could clearly see how academic careers fit these women I admire perfectly while at the same time not fitting me. I could see that while my job was less prestigious, it was also less demanding of my time and my energy, and that that was a compromise I was happy to make. What really set me apart at that table wasn’t the fact that I didn’t have a PhD – it was that I didn’t have the desire to get one.

I know I’m not in my dream job at the moment. I can’t stay still for years and years – I’ll need to face new challenges and carve out new paths. But that lack of envy – that’s something worth noting.