you must write. yourself.
you can write anything else.
—nejma nayyirah waheed
Today is my birthday, and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Something about hitting your third decade and being a woman makes you feel like you’re suddenly holding the plastic disc in Catchphrase. Now there’s this timer and it’s beeping louder and faster and you look around the room and everyone’s staring at you expectantly. Your heart thrashes in your ribcage, and your breath becomes a shallow pool—you’re drowning. You look down at the disc and the screen reads, “What now?” You abruptly stammer for words because apparently you’re supposed to execute an entire life plan right here right now. The clock is ticking after all. Yeah, being in your 30’s and being a female is a lot like that, I think.
I began year 30 in the middle of Hurricane Irma. My friends’ well-intentioned girl’s night complete with a hotel room in the city turned into us finding ourselves in the middle of an evacuation migration—folks from Florida fleeing Irma had descended upon our hotel with all their dogs, children, and worst fears in tow. The dogs were an incredible birthday bonus, but no one could deny as we sat in the lobby drinking cocktails and watching football that the vibe felt a little off. As I sat amongst the people who know me best, I felt an unescapable sense of loneliness wash over me. I was turning 30 and my life felt very different from that of my peers. I was alone.
The next day I boarded a plane to Vegas—a fortunate strike of lady luck on timing for my husband’s business trip. I spent a few days wandering around and getting despondent about human existence as I observed the gambling addicts. And losing a few dollars myself on dumb slot machines. Vegas is not somewhere you go to feel camaraderie. Look past the lights and the showmanship and Vegas is a despondent place. I felt alone.
Sometime around January, the wheels really started to come off. I got up most days and questioned the point of it all. I felt immensely isolated and lonely, with a dash of self loathing that I just couldn’t shake. I was Pig Pen from Snoopy and his ever-present cloud of dust. Yoga, meditation, therapy, reading the Bible, reading the Internet, and even hypnosis couldn’t rid of me of the fog. In the cruel cold of winter, I felt deserted on my island with a life that no longer had a clear trajectory and an ever-widening gap between me and the people I loved.
I needed to do something—anything—that felt like progress. So I settled into a routine of what my friend Kelly calls “Procrastibaking.” I found myself obsessing over cookbooks and recipes. I bought butter and flour in bulk and got to work. Cooking gave me a momentary outlet away from all the confusing things my heart was encountering. From the time I preheated the oven to the crucial moment of taste testing the finished product, I could focus solely on getting measurements right, following clearly transcribed directions, and moving with finesse about the kitchen. It felt good to have some time off from me, and in the end, I had something to show and something to give.
I got a little offended the first time Kelly said I was procrastibaking. “I’m not procrastinating,” I told myself, “This is a productive and reasonable way to spend my time. Everyone’s gotta eat right?” Unfortunately, further investigations later revealed that Kelly was right, while it was true that baking gave me a much needed reprieve from my own racing thoughts, I was also baking for connection. Maybe if I could deliver a batch of cookies to a friend it would show I cared about them. And maybe in some small way thereafter, they’d decide I was worthy of them caring about me back. Perhaps a cookie or a pan of muffins could in its own perverse way close the chasm between me and the rest of the world.
It’s pathetic I know. I was drowning, I was wallowing, and I was doing it in one of the most caloric of ways. My banana breads, though well received, largely did not achieve their intended goal of making me feel loved and important. Mostly because that’s not what banana bread is for. Alienation makes you feel like the issue is a people problem, but often it’s a contamination inside that creates the root of sadness. I WAS procrastibaking—putting off the tricky work of dealing with me in favor of throwing love at people in the form of carbs. It wasn’t working.
My counselor feverently encourages me to stop judging my thoughts. I should really record her diatribe because it’s always the same, but I just can’t seem to implement the practice of thinking and feeling and being okay with whatever nonsense my brain decides to obsess over that day. On good days, when I remember that my counselor is super smart and experienced and probably knows what she’s doing much better than I, I can be honest with myself: I’m alone, and that is okay. There’s nothing wrong with feeling alone until you decide that there is, this is why judging your thoughts can be destructive. Ultimately, we’re all alone, as Kathleen eloquently says:
“There is truly no one who can fully embrace all that we are but ourselves.
No one who can fully grok our eccentricities, hold compassion for all of our vulnerabilities, understand where it all stems from, fulfill our needs at all times, but ourselves. This is the truth of human existence which we all must turn to face and begin a relationship with.”
I am a Virgo. Long touted as the tightly wound, perfectionist, my-way-or-the-highway sign, to be honest it’s kind of got a negative wrap in the astrological world. It would frankly be much sexier to live the life of a water sign, accepting life as it comes. But here I am, with my practicality and my over-criticism and my modesty. As my BFF was giving birth to a Virgo baby, I did more research on this sign in hopes of preparing us both for what kind of person we could expect this zygote to become. I found that the origins of the word Virgo translate to, “A woman among herself.” That is, a woman who is whole on her own and doesn’t require the validation of others to shape her identity.
I have always felt I fit the Virgo mold to a t, but this independent feminist version of the Virgo? Maybe I missed the boat on that one. I much prefer to depend on others to define me and teeter my self worth on whether or not someone texts me back, thank you very much.
But I know the truth. That when we feel most at home with ourselves, we are in the best position to love others well and hold meaningful fulfilling relationships. That when we approach relationships looking for the other person to fill us up, we’re begging for heartbreak. Emily Freeman puts it eloquently in episode 25 of her podcast, The Next Right Thing:
“Coming home to yourself is not always an easy thing to do.
If you arrive at a house and the hostess stands on the porch shouting criticisms, judgments, and sarcasms at you, guess what you won’t want to do? Walk through the door.
You will turn your back on that house every time and vow never to return.
So what if we stopped standing on our own front porch and bullying ourselves? What if we decided instead, to be a gracious hostess to ourselves at the threshold of our own soul?
We don’t go home when home is unsafe. So maybe your next right thing today is to recognize all the ways you’ve become your own enemy, all the ways you’ve put no trespassing signs on your own soul windows, all the ways you’ve become your own suspicious, furrow-browed neighbor.”
The shear volume of butter I’ve squandered this year reminds me that I cannot bake my way to love, acceptance, community, and importance. I am alone. We’re all alone. Because no one can do my life except for me. I can lean on others to fill me up and give me the answers and make my decisions and make me whole again, but it’s just not their job—they’re probably busy searching for their own wholeness and who has time to carry a burden for two?
I am alone. And I have concluded that this is okay. Being alone is scary, but with the great responsibility of being wholly in charge of yourself comes the great power that in life you get to decide. In a world of chaos and uncertainty, isn’t it lovely that the one thing we can control is the thing we hold closest—ourselves?
I have a lot more to offer the world than banana bread. I am passionate, I am fierce, and I am complete as-is, no additional assembly required. I am alone, and I’m grateful for the space to gather my broken bits and piece them together. Because you’re alone too, and when we give ourselves the time and grace to come home to ourselves, there’s literally nothing we can’t do.
i do not want to have you
to fill the empty parts of me
i want to be full on my own
i want to be so complete
i could light a whole city
i want to have you
cause the two of us combined
could set it on fire
— Rupi Kaur