Thursday, January 2, 2014

It's about what I have done ...

Recently I have been reading a lot of ranty blogs shared by my friends on social media about what tasks you should have accomplished by a certain age instead of marking your path with certain milestones. Well I'm here to tell you that in the spirit of the New Year we should not focus on what we should have done in the past, or even what we should do in the coming year. This is about what I have done in the past year, how it has helped me grow as a person, and how it has shaped my view of my world.

1. I lived abroad. This simple fact has been the catalyst for my personal growth and the changes in how I view the world in 2013. It is impossible to begin to hash out all of the details; but, broadly speaking, living abroad gave me the opportunity to expand my awareness of myself and my surroundings and to accept that sometimes things won't go your way right away, but if it is meant to happen it will.

2. I climbed a mountain. No really, I did! It was tough. I grew up hiking, but scrambling up icy boulders, watching hoar frost form on the stitching in my jacket, and ascending into the clouds was as foreign a concept as any which I had encountered over the year. A few times we contemplated going back down the way we came, but we kept going just to say that we climbed a mountain. It taught me that sometimes challenging yourself just to say that you accomplished something you otherwise wouldn't normally, is enough. Also that good shoes, fleece lined pants, and a North Face rain jacket are essential to climbing mountains in Wales.

3. I sat in a Catholic church on the night before Easter, through part of a mass presided over by a Cardinal. I am not Catholic, but my boyfriend is, and I wanted to do something special for him while we were traveling together since I felt like I was calling most of the shots. We were in Florence, Italy and went to the Duomo the night before Easter. The doors were wide open, so we joined some people walking in. It was pitch dark outside and the sanctuary was dimly lit except for the alter which we gravitated towards like bugs drawn to a lantern light. We watched a few minutes of a private ceremony before continuing our exploration of the immense worship space. I had been to Florence before, so I was able to explain some of the building from an architecture and art history perspective, yet I was unable to make sense of the meaning behind the religious aspects which were potentially more meaningful to those who practice Catholicism. Imitating those around us, we took candles from baskets and programs from tables for the service that would begin shortly. We sat through three out of seven or so readings, each preceded and concluded by choral responses, before Jon suggested that we leave. This experience taught me that even though I might not understand everything about what might be going on around me, does not mean that I am incapable of finding my own meaning or something special about the experience; nor that I am incapable of recognizing the significance of circumstances despite the distance between it and my own experience and reasoning.

4. I stood in the presence of history, and I felt empathy for those whose paths have been much more difficult than my own. Ten days before coming home I received my final visitor and we did some traveling together before journeying back to the U.S. of A. Our first stop was Amsterdam. Someone had said to me, "you should go to Amsterdam and ride bikes!" So I suggested it to Christina and she readily agreed, so long as we could make the Anne Frank house one of our stops in the city. Somehow the knowledge reached us that people stand in line for the Anne Frank house quite literally for several hours, so getting their early would be in our best interest. We jumped in line right as the doors opened, and we still waited for an hour to get in to the annex. Now, The Diary of Anne Frank, or The Secret Annex, had been required reading for Christina when she was in school and I knew many of my friends had to read it as well; somehow I had escaped that educational obligation. Being unfamiliar with the details of Miss Frank's life in the Annex, and needing to refresh her memory, Christina and I downloaded her diary on to our Kindles to read in line. It worked out perfectly that by the time I had read Anne's description of her new living arrangements we were entering the warehouse and the secret annex. At the time I had not been so attached to the idea of a teenage girl hiding with her family in an invisible house at the bak of her father's former business and writing in a diary which she someday hoped would be published. However, as I continue to pick my way through her story I am struck by the significance of a few details: Anne was not executed by the Nazi's, she got sick and died shortly after her sister never knowing that her father, whom she loved dearly, would be the only surviving family member, and desperately hoping that she would be a famous journalist and author some day. I find myself wondering if those who have gone before us are truly watching over us, and what would Anne say about her diary being published over and over again and read by school children all over the world. Simultaneously, I do not think that her diary would have had the same significance that it does now as it would have if I read it when I was 16 and had not had the privilege of standing in the rooms where she hid for years. It is important to remember those who have gone before us and to respect the efforts and sacrifices they made so that we may better understand ourselves and those around us. What I understand from Anne Frank is that having hope is often the only thing saving us from insanity, and that my own circumstances and those of my friends could be far worse than what they are.

5. I lied to my boyfriend and my best friend ... and I pulled of the greatest surprises I will probably ever be able to pull off! To briefly explain myself, for 6 months I told my boyfriend and my best friend from college that I was coming home the first week of June after living abroad for nine months. Well their expressions were truly priceless when I showed up a week earlier than they were expecting me. I have to admit that I did not learn much about myself other than the fact that I am an incredibly lucky lady to have such people in my life who will keep my secrets which are held in the best interest of others. So thank you to those who helped me pull that off - you know who you are!

6. I stood up in a wedding. When I was 24 I went to three weddings and stood up in one. When I was 25 I went to eight weddings and stood up in one. Now, at 26, I have thus far attended three weddings, been the bride's P.A. in one and stood up in one. In two and a half years I have attended a little over a bakers' dozen worth of weddings, and have more to come. It has been my honor and my pleasure to attend each wedding I have, and to stand up for each beautiful couple who has asked me. Our lives are a series of choices that we make, and I have discovered that those relationships which are the most meaningful to me are those between friends who can say, "I am happy for you, and I support you." In what ever decision is made: whether it is marriage at the age of 23 or picking up and moving to another country at the age of 26, unconditional support and empathy are the elements which superglue the best friendships together.

7. I held a baby. I suppose I am officially at that middle point of my mid-twenties when a great number of my friends are getting married and starting families. There are few things in this world more precious than feeling an infants tiny fingers wrap around mine or to have their soft heads fall asleep on my chest and I think to myself, "I was once just like you." And I wonder what great things that tiny person will do when they get older, and I marvel at the strength my friends have to raise this person responsibly and with love.

8. I did some research, and wrote a thesis. It takes a great deal of willpower to resist the call of a Wisconsin summer time, and I don't think I would have been able to if I hadn't done three things for myself: I get goals and incentives, planned out my days in half hour increments, and wrote everything on a calendar which I taped to my wall. Doing this encouraged me to work ahead and reward myself with more free time. In the research process I also learned that it was okay to change my mind if I found something that inspired me; by setting myself up the way that I did I allowed myself the freedom to be inspired which resulted in a better product than if I had left myself constrained under the pressure of procrastination.

9. I had Lasik eye surgery. This was the big incentive for finishing my thesis on time because my surgery date was fixed. But all that aside, I took a HUGE risk messing with my eyes. Again, I did my research, asked a lot of questions, weighed the risks with the benefits and made the decision myself. Five months later and I couldn't be happier with the results. Sometimes fear is the only thing that holds a person back from pursuing something that could improve their quality of life, and trust is the only thing that will actually improve their circumstances. So I trusted my research, I trusted my doctors, and I trusted myself and I vastly improved my quality of life.

10. I graduated a Masters program. I set one goal for myself last New Years - and that was to graduate from my Masters program. Mission accomplished! Instead of setting many small goals it was easier for me to set one big goal of which I was the only person who could affect the outcome.

11. I got a job. I took my time sitting around and being lazy with my time after finishing my research and having my eye surgery, but finally I decided I needed to do something a little more productive with my time. So I applied for a job at a brand new coffee shop in town and when they called me for an interview I was potentially painfully blunt. I told them that I needed something to do with my spare time and that I was looking for part-time, temporary work until late spring/ early summer when I planned on moving. Not necessarily what you would call a job winning point of view, however the owners were kind enough to take a chance on me since I had the immediate availability and the "can-do" attitude that they were looking for. So now I am a barista at a cafe, satiating the needs of caffeine and sugar addicts. Is it what I want to be doing for the rest of my life? No. But it is a fun, transferable skill, and it is satisfying "the mean time".

Many of these may not be the milestones that many would consider worth marking a life's trajectory with, but they are my milestones and not yours, hers, his, or theirs. I am the only person who can decide what is significant enough to mark my path with, and for this year these are only a few of of the many moments which have altered my life. I don't know what the coming year will bring for me, but I hope that it will bring me love, help me grow more in myself, and continue to constructively challenge me. I also hope that you also have your own unique milestones to mark your life with; even if someone else did something similar like climbed a mountain, surprised friends, got an academic education, traveled, got married, had a baby ... they sure didn't do it the way you did.