Four years ago today, I celebrated turning 35 by hopping on a plane and flying to Helsinki to start my year-long career break.
Three years ago, I had a bit of a breakdown as I tried to celebrate my birthday in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I was freaked out about the future, feeling like I was falling behind all of my friends in the game of life and wondering whether I would ever find a job again after I returned to the United States a month later. I think I cried myself to sleep that night.
Two years ago, I moved back into my condo on the north side of Chicago, the place I had called home for just over four years before leaving on my career break. But it felt like anything but home after suffering the wear and tear of renting it out for two years and lacking all of the familiar furnishings that I sold off before my trip. Instead I returned to an empty living room, half furnished bedroom and moldy bathroom. While the mold is long gone, it has yet to truly feel like home again.
Last year, I celebrated turning 38 with a trip to Bulgaria. It was my first truly solo international trip since my career break trip and I was thrilled to arrive in Sofia to a warm birthday welcome from my hotel, complete with a bottle of champagne. That trip reminded me of my passion for independent travel and how much I love to get off the beaten path.
And this year, I’m celebrating with my whole family in Minnesota for the first time since I was in law school 15 years ago. I planned the weekend as a surprise to my brother, who shares the same birthday as me (he’s four years younger). And since it was a surprise to him, it was also a surprise to my niece and two nephews and my niece’s reaction to seeing me when I met them at the Minnesota State Fair on Friday made my crazy early morning flight and lack of sleep totally worth it.
This year, I feel like I am light-years away from the girl who had a breakdown in Almaty over the prospect of turning 36. The last year has been a whirlwind and I think I have become much more comfortable in my own skin in the process. Not only did I travel solo to Bulgaria, I visited Mali in the midst of an Ebola outbreak and to Burkina Faso just weeks after a military coup – my first countries in West Africa. I spoke at three conferences, visited San Francisco for the first time (not once, but twice!) and traveled at least somewhere outside of Chicago every month of the last year but June. While I haven’t hiked the Lycian Way or the Janapar Trail as I laid out in my 14 Things to Do Before 40 list, I took the train from California to Chicago and finally started working on the book I have been wanting to write since I returned from my career break. And I trekked the relatively unknown Peaks of the Balkans trail this summer, challenging myself physically in ways I didn’t even know were possible.
I made some great new friends this year and finally resigned myself to let others go. I fought my way through Achilles and back injuries to start running regularly again and after gaining 10 pounds last fall, have lost nearly 20 pounds since January. I put myself out there by being featured as one of Chicago’s Most Eligible Singles in the Chicago Reader while at the same time finally becoming completely comfortable flying solo. I tried to do a better job prioritizing and let go of some of my commitments while trying to focus on those that matter most to me. And more than anything, I took chances to go for what I really want and I stopped caring so much about what others think.
When I look back at my adult life, I can see several distinct periods. There was college and then law school and then my early years living and working as a lawyer in Chicago. And then there was the year after I turned 30. That was the year I quit practicing law, bought my current condo, lost one of my best friends for reasons I still don’t understand and experienced a heartbreak like none I had ever experienced before. Everything that happened the year after I turned 30 completely changed the course of my life and I feel like the year ahead has the potential to do the same (although hopefully in a more positive way!). While I likely won’t be able to hit everything on my 14 Before 40 list, I already have some big plans for this year – running the New York City Marathon in November and the Great Wall Marathon in May – and I hope more great things are on the horizon.
p.s. Speaking of the NYC Marathon, I still have a ways to go to hit my fundraising goal for buildOn – the great organization that I worked with a few years ago to raise money to build two schools in Mali! Please take a minute to donate – every bit helps!