Birthdays and Authentic Personal Storytelling
Yesterday was my birthday, but after a first-ever family camping trip with young children, yesterday was the very definition of a write-off. Most of the day was spent very slowly washing clothes and dishes and hair and skin, and then laying as motionless as possible on the playroom floor while my 11-month old crawled up and down the walls and my toddler maxed out episodes of Pocoyo.
But, as is the case with me, the less time distracting myself with projects and plans, the more time to think obsessively about the nature of life and my place in it. And really, what else are birthdays for? Hangovers and existential angst.
This blog is intended to be an exploration of life through the lens of Story, and birthdays are always an opportunity to reflect and refine our own personal stories: to see what’s working, to obsess about what isn’t, or how another year flew by too fast without satisfactory character development, or how the plot seems to be thickening without resolution.
This year I turn 35 (that’s 21 to those of you not acquainted with me). And the truth is, I don’t feel the negative stuff grownups are supposed to feel on their birthdays. When asked, I still did the whole “yeah, 35, let’s not talk about it. It’s just a number, right? Getting’ older….gettin’old. Man, where does the time go…” But the real truth is, despite exhaustion and lack of personal freedom and leftover baby weight and a sagging chin, I feel pretty damn positive about life at 35.
My old narratives are still there, with the definitions that come with them. I am an active and adventurous person with a track record of exploring both my external and internal world with enthusiasm and intrigue. I love the outdoors, love getting lost in strange places, love traveling and live music and meeting new people. Despite being apologetically flaky these days, ducking out of social engagements more than I’d like to to cater to cranky children that refuse to allow me adequate sleep, I do value friendships and intimacy. I am both grateful for the incredible relationships I’ve held for years and eager to develop the new ones I’ve started (once I manage to get enough sleep to be my once social self again). I love being creative, and literally survive somedays on the power of the imagination, taking a breather from “life” by escaping into imaginary worlds and narratives.
But this year something has changed. I’ve realized there are some stories no longer serving me. I have always been a people pleaser, for one, adjusting who I am and how I act to cater to what I think other people want from me. I am a Type A, action and results-oriented go-getter, set on exceeding the expectations of others. In and of themselves, these aren’t awful character traits. I do tend to be likeable. I do tend to impress employers and clients with my attitude, effort, and proficiencies. And I do make a pretty mean banana cream pie.
The thing that has changed in my “old age” is that I have finally realized one thing: conditions are moving targets. One person’s perspective on my parenting habits or personality might be the opposite of another’s, and when those two perspectives are both next to you at a party, what part of you do you let shine? What do you try to hide? What picture do you paint?
As a writer, everything is about perspective. It’s about readership. It’s about editing the details to create a particular vision. And this is important, because you just can’t say it all. And nobody would read it, anyway.
But in real life the stories we tell are diverse and complex and even conflicting at times. They are messy, because people are messy. On LinkedIn, the picture you paint should be deliberate, accurate and authentic. But it is refined for a reason. You just can’t be that polished at the grocery store, and the preschool, and the weekend camping trip.
So this year on my 35th I have finally accepted the value in presenting myself from the heart. Everyone I encounter has a different perspective of who I am and what story I’m telling, and while I advocate for the intentionality of personal presentation in certain contexts, I understand what it means, at the end of the day, to let this go and be and do what feels right.
I am a writer. I am a mother. I am a traveler and a seeker and an adventurer. I am a volatile, emotional, intellectual person who suffers from periodic mood swings and intense anxiety. I am an accomplished marketer and teacher. I am an underperforming basketball player and I won’t get into my bowling skills. But none of these things define me. In any given moment, I can be both brilliant (maybe) and an unforgivable bitch.
What is always true is that I have an open heart and an eagerness for life. I have something in me that wants to connect with everyone and everything because, at the end of the day, all of our stories are shifting like the tide and swaying in the breeze. Our stories help guide us and guide others in how to react to us, but at the core we are all people and we are all full of possibility.
I want my children to understand this. Be who you are, and the only way to truly know who that is is to listen to your heart. When you are lost, don’t look to the stories of others. Listen to yourself. That’s the only thing that matters.
Today is the first full day of my 36th year of life. And today my heart says…do your best. Enjoy the sun and the company of others. Stop thinking so much. And eat a piece of cheesecake, even if it goes against your “healthy mommy” story – your exercise pants are stretchy, anyway.