I've taken a self-portrait on or around my birthday every year over the last decade. This is what I currently look like. And today is my 48th birthday.
When I realized ten years had elapsed since I began taking annual birthday selfies, I decided to dig deep into my archives to find the very first one that I took when I started this little tradition. Unfortunately, the original is buried somewhere on some long-since-defunct hard drive, but I managed to find a low-resolution version of it in my old Flickr account. I totally remember when and where I took it, too: Alex, then only a year-and-a-half old, was taking a nap. Marcus was at work. Our little family had just moved to Trinidad, and I set up a small mirror outside on our balcony (the same mirror I used to take my photograph in our entryway at the top of this post), and took the shot.
When I look at this old photograph, I'm struck by how many things are the same: I still do my makeup exactly the same way, using exactly the same brands and exactly the same shades (stuck in a rut, much?). I still wear a small silver ear cuff in my left ear (a habit that began when I was a senior in high school) and a silver necklace every day.
I guess when I find something that works for me, I stick with it.
Of course, when I compare photographs, I also notice many things that are different. I look older and am heavier now than I was then, but I'm okay with that. (I mean, I also look older and am heavier now than I was when I was twelve, and I'm okay with that, so why worry about the difference from 38?) My hair is way bigger, and while I love my hair short, I'm really loving my hair big right now (although I'm sure at some point I'll end up cutting it all off again). But the best part is I'm more content now -- and what's great about that is that I was content then. I figure that's a good sign that I'm moving in the right direction.
This past year was a particularly introspective time for me -- really starting late last fall when I was considering the concept of thriving. Because thriving was something I wanted to focus on in my work (including beginning the Thrive Portrait Project), I decided that I also simultaneously needed to explore what it means to thrive in my own life ... and so, I embarked on a personal, private mission to discover what I needed to do in order to truly thrive in my own life. And now today, on my birthday, I figure that it would be a good idea to share what I've learned so far (or what I'm focusing on learning), in the event that you find something helpful for you in your own lives. Because, I figure we can all do with a little thriving, amiright?
8 things I've figured out (more or less) by the age of 48:
1. I have to move. Daily. Trust me, no one is sadder about this fact than I am -- I am a certified couch potato, and given the choice between lying on a sofa reading a book and doing ... well, anything else, I'll take the sofa, hands-down. People who tell me that they love how their bodies feel when they're pushing themselves to their physical limits are people for whom I hold a great deal of suspicion. Athlete friends of mine told me that I'd eventually love how working out feels, and I'm here to tell you, after 10 months of consistently working out 4-5 times a week (travel permitting), I do not love it. I do not hate it, but I do not love it.
What I have learned to love, however, is how exercise makes me feel the rest of the time. I've lost 30 pounds in the past year, and certainly, my body feels physically better as a result; but more importantly, my head feels better. When I'm worried or stressed about something, even though my inclination is to skip a workout, the truth is that getting out of my head and getting into my body for a bit is always better for me (sort of like how things look better after a good night's sleep). Plus, it dawned on me that I was 36 when Alex was born -- if she waits as long as I did to become a parent, I'll be 72 before I become a grandparent. I fully intend to be one of those cool grandmothers who can do awesome, active things with her grandkids, so I figure the couch is no longer a viable option. And so I'm determined to move.
2. I cannot possibly drink enough water. This is because I find water generally boring, so it's hard for me to overdo it. But I really must -- I look better when I drink tons of water, and my body feels better when I do. Besides, I come from a long line of folks with kidney issues; therefore, water I will guzzle.
3. I will not do diets unless my doctor makes me. Life's too short, man, and I don't eat poorly. I don't have a sweet tooth (but I don't say no to the occasional square of dark chocolate), I rarely eat junk food, and I literally don't remember the last time I had a meal at a fast-food restaurant. Marcus is a great cook, so processed food is minimal in our house; also, he loves to cook, so we usually eat in. I love vegetables (especially raw or roasted). Given all of this, I refuse to get rid of entire food groups, or other drastic measures, despite any current intel that says I should. My food motto is "all good things in moderation," and I'm sticking to it.
4. I need to trust my instincts. Always. There are a few moments over the last year where I regretted something because I did it even though I knew I really didn't want to; similarly, there have been times when I wished I'd done something that I turned down, even though I really didn't want to turn it down. My gut never lets me down -- I need to trust it more often.
5. I need to be creative. Daily. I talk a lot about journaling on this blog, and it's no secret I'm an avid fan, but I must admit that some times my daily journaling practice lapses. Over the last year, I've realized that when that happens, I end up feeling incredibly disjointed, and unfocused, and downright scattered. Spending some time, even if it's only 15 minutes, journaling, or doodling or photographing something is absolutely imperative to my mindset and well-being and, like exercise, is a habit that I must maintain for my own health. Speaking of which ...
6. I need to consistently take care of all three parts of me -- mind, body, spirit. It has become very clear to me that thriving is about taking care of my mind, my body and my soul, and not letting too much time go by between taking care of each. Right now, I'm pretty good about listening to my body and figuring out which needs attending to (and I do have a regular workout schedule, so there's that), but I'd like to be better about actually scheduling time for taking care of my mind (reading? conferences?) and my spirit (meditation? relaxation?) into my daily/weekly life.
7. On relationships. About 20 years ago, when I was still single, I remember sitting with a friend of mine complaining about my dating life. I was telling him how disappointed I was in the men I had been recently dating, and at one point he smiled. "Karen, you know what you need to do?" he said gently. "You need to lower your expectations, but not your standards."
His words have stuck with me all these years. Basically, my friend was telling me that by keeping my expectations impossibly high, I was destined for disappointment. What I should do, he was suggesting, is lower my expectations, and then be happily surprised when people exceeded them. That said, I shouldn't put up with any bullshit, either -- I should always make sure that I was treated with respect and kindness, and whatever other standards I have in how I should be treated and, without acrimony or bitterness, sever ties with those who weren't willing to meet those standards. This has been a tough lesson to learn -- impatience is the personal flaw I most struggle with -- but it's an important lesson to learn as well.
Since that time, of course, I met and married Marcus (who exceeds both my expectations and my standards, by the way!), but over the last few years, I've realized that this advice really works with all relationships in my life -- with friendships as well as professional colleagues. Related, I've also learned that forgiveness and self-preservation aren't mutually exclusive -- and practicing both are necessary for my happiness.
8. Solo family time is dead important. My schedule sometimes gets incredibly busy, as does Marcus' and Alex's, and when we finally have down time, we try to be sure that we're spending that time with other family and close friends. But I'm also realizing that we need to be sure that we spend a lot of focused time with just the three of us -- especially as Alex is growing older, and will be going on her own adventures and making her own life for herself soon enough. And whenever the three of us are alone, with no outside distractions, I love how I'm invariably reminded what a great little team the three of us are.
Sorry about the long post, but I did warn you that I was feeling introspective! But the upshot? At 48, I'm really happy and I enjoy my life. As I write this today, I'm feeling healthier than I have in a long time. I love my family, and I love my friends. We've made a comfortable home for ourselves here in Houston, and after eight years of living here, we love our community. We're very lucky.
And speaking of community, I'm also so grateful to all of you who continue to encourage me here at Chookooloonks, as well as other locations around the web. Thank you so much for your continued kindness -- so much of my current happy is because of your ongoing kindness and support, truly.
Onward, good friends. So much more awesome to come.
Soundtrack: Love of My Life Worldwide, by Angie Stone, Bahamadia, Erykah Badu and Queen Latifah. When I was trying to come up with a song for today, I decided to just go into my iTunes library and see which song I've played the most over the years. This song was the overwhelming winner (played almost twice as much as the first runner up!). With its infectious, positive energy, it feels about right to me.