Birthday Letters: 36 Things I Learned Last Year

Tomorrow is my birthday, which I feel so many things about. Happy, because I like celebrations and commemorations. And excited, because my birthday means cake and ice cream, and fireworks are coming soon! But also introspective, because I’m older and supposedly wiser, but sometimes I wonder exactly how. And maybe even a little weighed down upon, because, you know: the march of time and the press of mortality. The endgame approaches.

I like the idea of years building upon each other, like pieces of puzzles revealing just a bit more of a bigger picture — and at the end you see what a beautiful portrait you’ve lived with your time on earth. I like themes, lessons, the sense that I’m progressing. Maybe these are illusions wrought by the ability of human beings to occupy different existential time zones at once: to be in the past, present and future, often in the same moment. If these are illusions, then I appreciate how beautiful and comforting they are.

Here I am in another year: sitting on a cloudy day at my favorite coffeeshop, typing away on the small, tiny netbook I favor now over my more robust laptop. I am drinking an iced chai as usual, and I’m feeling hungry, craving fresh fruit and cheese. The coffeeshop, the beverage, the writing and thinking and even the hunger: I do this a lot, and I anticipate I’ll be doing this more in the future, which makes the moment seem not so special.

But there’s the way the light streams through the window, the magic hour making everything seem enchanted, even a weird symphonic version of “Scarsborough Fair” on the stereo. The conversations surrounding me: what books people are reading, a Tarot card consultation, a Bible study group, a family planning a wedding. There’s the smell of orange blossom white tea floating in their air and the sound of quiet love songs played on harps in my ears. There’s something lovely in every moment, and today I like to pretend they are all gifts for me.

These are the things I’ve learned in the past year. One for each year I was. I did a teeny version of this last year; this year felt like such a huge growing and learning and loving kind of year, I felt the urge to get epic.

Major Shifts

+ Rest is important. Maybe it’s a function of getting older, but I’ve come to appreciate the value that recharging has for my creativity and overall well-being. Constantly being “on” can really deplete your energy reserves (and therefore your imagination and creativity), so I really value refueling my batteries these days. Energy is a valuable resource, and I try to tend to it well.

+ Bodies don’t lie. This year I learned and practiced a kind of “somatic wisdom,” as the woo-woo types call it. Basically it involves scanning your body and locating your emotions within specific sensations in it. A tightening of the face, a build-up of pressure in the chest, a feeling of relaxed calm in the gut: they all mean something, and I used them as a compass to become very specific about emotions, make decisions and literally feel out my way through life.

+ Create your compass by knowing your desired feeling. I defined, specifically and poetically, how I wanted various areas of my life to feel: work, jobs, love, romance, books, parties, events. Then I figured out how to make it all feel that way.

+ Everything is a teacher. This is such an earnest piece of the puzzle, and makes me sound like such a Pollyanna. But I tried to keep in mind that everything happening in life — good or challenging — was teaching me something. All roads lead to wisdom, if you let them.

Process + Productivity

+ Reduce friction to gain velocity. I was so much more aware this year of how little drags and annoyances add up: how deleting emails, even for a minute a day, added up, for instance. So I sought ways to reduce “frictional drag” in my life on tasks both mundane and monumental.

+ Small steps everyday truly do add up. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the scope of what I try to do and create, so I remember that consistently performed smaller steps all add up at the end of the day.

Prosperity + Money

+ Applying my “right-brained” skills to money. Money, finances and prosperity were a huge area of learning for me this year. I read and absorbed a ton of knowledge and created a set of practices that worked for me, but the real breakthrough was realizing that I didn’t have to approach this area of life in the super-analytic, rational, emotionless way that I always felt with most financial “guides.” I could use my skills and talents in imagination, empathy and creativity to create a relationship with money that worked for me.

+ I need to look at my money everyday. One thing I realized about myself and money was my innate “personality” around it. Basically I can let it fall by the wayside, and I’m also an avoider. Solution: I make myself check my bank and other balances once a week. I just check in online. Somehow looking at my balances sapped away all the residual guilt and fears I once had around money.

+ There is no perfect system when it comes to finances — just pick one. I used to be paralyzed by finding the “right” thing of anything, but now I’ve realized the value of just choosing what feels good so far and going for it. Of course, with this approach, it’s best to keep the trial period well-defined and NOT protracted, so you can evaluate whether or not to move onto another system if it isn’t working. With money, I tracked expenses with The Birdy (Mint was just too annoying) and planned out stuff with good old-fashioned Muji notebooks.

+ Money is another type of energy. This is another woo-woo concept, but once I heard it, it made total sense to me, especially since I was so gung-ho on safeguarding and replenishing my energy this year. You expend energy and get money for it, but also accumulating it can really expand your field of possibilities — you have more energy to direct. I can’t explain it further, but understanding it this way — as opposed to equating it with your innate value, or shame, as the case may be — opened up a lot for me.

+ Having just enough makes me happy. Having too much doesn’t. File under: duh, really. I realized, though, having too much of something I enjoy — whether it’s French fries or tiny bottles of nail polish or whatever — makes me feel strangely guilty I’m not using it up or consuming it properly. So now I just avoid not having too much of anything to begin with.

Mindsets + Inner Life

+ Patience is a choice, not a trait. I used to chide myself that I wasn’t patient by nature — and in truth, I am not. But now I realize patience is really a reaction to things in life that don’t go the way you want them to exactly — and you can choose to be relaxed and proactive about it, or you can just be a pill.

+ Forgiveness sets you free. I’m not a big grudge holder…except against myself. This was a year I realized how hard I was on myself, how unkind that was, and learned to extend some leeway to me. I was so much nicer to my friends and loved ones than myself sometimes; it was interesting to observe.

+ Create spaciousness in your life, your schedule, and your mind and it gives room for beautiful things to enter your life. It is almost a taboo now NOT to be overscheduled and have some bananas To-Do list haunting you. To have free time and nothing to do almost brands you as unimportant, or worse: a loser! At least to some people. But really, I discovered giving yourself a little space in your schedule and your life really does let the unexpectedly beautiful in…even if it is a gloriously dozy nap.

+ Feel the fear and sadness fully and let it go. Sometimes I think the problem with unpleasant emotions is not necessarily their unpleasantness, but the fact that we tend to try to “manage” and even suppress them right away. This year I learned to just give each feeling the dignity of acknowledgement and the kindness of letting it unfurl within me, and found that doing so dissipated them with much more ease and quickness.

+ Banish all iterations of your inner critics. Lots of people talk about “inner critics,” but I had to get specific about my own inner circle of hellish nihilists in order to reckon with them. I had a mean inner judgy hipster, an inner mean girl and an inner bitter punk to banish to the emotional hinterlands. They still show up, but I know the bastards by name, can go “Oh, hai, bitter punk,” and then just get on with things.

Love

+ If you are with the right person, you can’t really do anything wrong. By “right,” I mean someone you are into and they are into you and (here’s the important part) they WANT to be in a committed, reciprocal relationship with you. I also don’t mean that this gives anyone an excuse to be an asshole. Of course you have to be kind, loving, decent, open-hearted, honest, generous and other wonderful things that love makes you be, and you’ll likely mess up because you’re human, and you have to work it out, of course. I mean that, if a person is “right” for you, there’s no need to play stupid text games or do “The Rules” or other such tactics that people obsess over. You can be yourself, and the more yourself you are, the better the relationship is, because it’s based on authenticity and true intimacy, fueled by a strong willingness on both people’s part to show up, be open and vulnerable, and be there with each other. If you’re not with the right person, though — either because they’re not right spiritually or emotionally or whatever, or they aren’t on the same page in terms of what they want vs. what you want — you’ll lean on “tactics” to manage your anxiety, but it’s really a self-protective shield to keep yourself from getting hurt. But you’ll feel so freaking lonely in your “relationship” that you may as well just curl up and die a little, because you’re likely in a relationship with a fantasy, a wish and a desire, not with a full three-dimensional human being.

+ To find the right person, know how you want to feel in love and find the person that makes you feel that way. How can you tell? You look in the eyes and talk to them and underneath the momentary reactions and feelings, this is how you feel. This is the murmuring texture underneath everything — the dynamic you share. Also: you have to create this feeling for yourself as well, because you attract what you put forwward.

+ Don’t make the other person responsible for managing your anxieties and happiness. I once had a convo with a friend who basically expected her partner to essentially parent her, and I was horrified because I didn’t know ANYBODY who could live up to that in a romantic relationship — and deeply felt that they shouldn’t have to. The truth is you’re responsible for your happiness. This is one of those quasi-mean self-help-y things that I really think is true. You know what it’s like when someone is constantly expecting you to do something and is always looking to you to make something happen, and you’re like, “God, why do I have to do all this work here?” Well, that’s what making someone responsible for your happiness feels like. It’s a drag to be with someone who’s looking to you to make them happy or make their life better, and it’s a drag to do that to people. (I mean, I guess it’s okay if you want to be in a codependent relationship, but you always end up paying for those in weird ways that don’t seem fun.)

+ Learning to take 100% responsiblity of situations. This is related to the above. It’s basically just learning to see how your actions, thoughts and patterns contributed to a situation and learn from it, and being proactive about what you’ve created, not how you’re reacting. Sounds overwhelming, but is way more empowering and frankly a real relief, especially since it’s so easy to feel hopeless in matters of love and relationships and dating. I think this is one of the antidotes to feeling helpless and hopeless in love — because once you’re aware of what you’ve wrought, you realize you wield tremendous power in shaping your life, and you may as well wield it for the forces of beauty, happiness and good.

+ It is healthy to crave periods of alone time after intense periods of togetherness. I read this in a book. For some reason, reading it in a really smart book finally made something click in me — people wanting to be alone after super-emotional intimacy and affinity wasn’t a sign that the world was ending! It is normal! Big revelation for someone who has odd abandonment issues at times!

+ Value discretion. I was a typical girl a long time ago in that I used to love to dissect my relationships with my girlfriends, but I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older to keep things much closer to my chest. I think it’s a sign of respect and loyalty to the person you’re with not to be so SATC about stuff. (Of course, make sure the person you’re with is worthy of such respect and loyalty.) I mean, sure, get input on the choices you’re making and of course be excited about what’s going on in terms of love and courtship — but for me there’s no need to be all spill-y about what deep down you want to be a sacred bond. Now I only really want to discuss things with people I feel are really great at their relationship, and relationships in general — which honestly about two people in my world. (Interestingly enough, it’s interesting to mull over how my female friendships have shifted in certain ways once I started being more respectful of my romances. But that is a whole other topic!)

Anxiety

+ Anxiety is the misuse of imagination, and is a projection of your past experiences into your future. Anxiety gets its own section because I had kind of a final-quarter set of revelations around anxiety — it was always a strangely “invisible” emotion to me. Instead — more somatic wisdom here — I learned to identify it as a particular sensation, and was more present to how often I felt it in certain situations. I did a little digging and realized it was almost always mental pictures and scripts playing out that were based in my past, that I was projecting into the future. Now I’m really interesting in how often it pops up in life in general, and its impact on how people live their lives and make decisions.

+ The quick solution to anxiety is grounding yourself in the present. Which means: breathing. So often we forget to breathe!

+ The long-term solution to anxiety is making peace with your past. I’m still in the middle of this, but I’m learning to recognize what are really my anxieties and what are those projected onto me by family, by parents, by others. And that is helping me to realize that I don’t need to take it on, unless I choose to. And often I don’t.

Writing

+ 250 words is better than no words at all. This is related to “small steps add up.” But there were times when all I had was 20 minutes to work on a story, and well, anything was better than nothing as long as it kept me immersed in my craft in some way. I don’t guilt myself for not working enough on something anymore, as long as I’ve been creative, even a little, everyday.

+ Know your ending. So important! Once I’ve nailed my last scene, I know I can begin and how I need to get there.

+ Create ease and play. I used to be all type-A about writing and projects, but now lately I’ve tried to be more playful and fun about what I work on. There’s all this weight you attach to it, and the process of publishing, and while it’s nice to be ambitious, I try to remember: hey, I like making up people in my head and making them do interesting things on the page.

+ Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s really valuable to fuck up and write shitty first drafts and not know what you’re doing. Beginner’s mind! Process over product!

Technology

+ The Internet can be just another source of clutter, or a realm of connection, insight and inspiration. It’s really easy just to browse and browse and browse, but it’s good to define what you’re on the Web for and then fulfill it. And then, once fulfilled, get the fuck off (pardon my French — I get f-bombs for my b-day) and go live your real life.

+ Treat your inbox, RSS feed, Facebook feed, etc. as sacred. This is related to above. But this year, I unsubscribed to a boatload of newsletters and pared my RSS feed to basically, like, twelve websites. And I was so much happier and productive in my real life for it.

+ Know the roles each outlet, service and product play in your life. I clearly defined for myself what each social media outlet, each device, each point of input plays in my life and I stick to it. And I’m a lot more sane and happy for it, and there’s a lot less of that icky “ewww I wasted time on the Internet and computer doing stuff” feeling.

+ Bite-sized pieces vs. large chunks. The thing with most tech-related tasks is that they spin easily out of control, and what you think is 3 steps ends up to be closer to 20. It completely sucks. The key to sanity with tech (outside of blocking and unsubscribing) is to make peace with the fact that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it will almost always be there tomorrow to pick up on. Inbox zero will stay that one for, like, one hour at most. So don’t sweat it so much.

Bodies: What I Put In and On It

+ Fresh air everyday, and a little sunshine, too. This is like my “good health=good vibes” mantra. I need some outdoor time every day, no matter how craptastic the weather is, and sunshine is nice, too. But mostly the fresh air is key.

+ Sleep is an ongoing project for a recovering insomniac. I’ve written before on being an insomniac, but I think this year I came to terms with the fact that I’ll always have sleepless tendencies and I have to be super-vigilant about it. This makes me really sad in a strange way, to think that I’ll never be “cured” of insomnia, but it’s certainly made me not take sleep and the wonderful things it does for me for granted.

+ Things I eschewed, fashion-wise: spaghetti straps, short-shorts, layered ruffles or anything that makes me resemble an exploded pastry, tank tops that aren’t racerback, bikini underwear.

+++++

If you made it to the end of this post: wow, you truly gave me the best Internet-birthday present ever! Thank you! I realized that I kind of blitzkrieg-ed through some pretty weighty topics, and many are ripe for expansion. If there’s anything you want elaborated upon, please comment below or email me and I’ll file it away for the future: I’ll post here on ze blog, or go into the more personal stuff (like the love and money stuff) in the monthly newsletter. Thanks again for reading, dear ones. It was strangely cathartic to write all this; I hope there’s something in it that sparked an interesting train of thought for you.

10 thoughts on “Birthday Letters: 36 Things I Learned Last Year

    1. thank you so much, marissa! i’m so glad you got something out of it; that is the best thing i could have hoped for. xo k.

  1. Kat, this is so great & inspirational!! I especially enjoy your thoughts on Somatic Wisdom, Money as Energy, and Technology. “Know the roles each outlet, service and product play in your life” is something I had never thought of, but would like to put some work in to. I use tumblr excessively, and feel like it’s “rotting my brain” a lot of the time. I unfollow people when I feel like their posts don’t serve me, but still! Luckily I have an old-fashioned (haha) phone with no internet, and no internet/tv in my home, but I still have lots of concerns about my internet use.

    Can you share what really smart book you read this in?:

    “It is healthy to crave periods of alone time after intense periods of togetherness. I read this in a book. For some reason, reading it in a really smart book finally made something click in me…”

    I read a book with an awful title, “Stop Calling Him Honey and Start Having Sex”, which, while I wouldn’t consider it a SMART book (and it’s 100% heteronormative), totally changed my relationship.

    Your list here is so wonderful, and it’s so nice to be reminded of all the learning and growing we can continue to do!

    1. liina!! thanks for reading, so glad you got something from my rambles! <3

      the book i read about intimacy and space in was called Conscious Loving by Gay and Kathryn Hendricks. it is one of the better books i've read in that genre (self-help/relationships)...it doesn't offer any quick fixes based on pop psychology or gender or stuff like that, but it is a really deep, meaningful look at how power struggles emerge, how to balance the work of being a couple with the work of being and developing your self, and being honest and intimate and communicating these needs in a healthy way. it's not perfect, but it's very thoughtful and i really recommend it even if you're not in a committed relationship, because it goes so deeply into how crucial honesty, openness and conscientious communication are to any relationship.

      i should write on tech more, i think! it's something that really pervades our lives, even if you go out of your way to reduce it, and i'm really fascinated now with how people manage it and try not to go crazy around it.

      xo k.

      1. Oh, I have totally heard of that book. I may have even checked it out from the library once, but I was checking out several books in that genre, and got sick of them very quickly; I think I returned a few without even opening them. I will give it another shot, it sounds like valuable information!

        The book I was talking about basically had 3 guidelines: No pet names, no baby talk, no farting/potty talk. And following those 3 guidelines allow you to see your partner as a sexual adult individual again! So simple & sensible!

        I would love to read more of your thoughts on tech. It’s so interesting to me how hostile people can be when you ARE going out of your way to reduce your exposure. My uncle called me a “Luddite” when I said I didn’t want to take the internet on my body wherever I went! And my best friend beggggggged me to get internet on my phone so that I could “post on facebook to make [her] laugh.”

    1. awww, thanks, claire! so glad you enjoyed it! i’m thrilled it inspired relaxation and not any sort of vertigo, packed as it is!
      xo k.

  2. Hi Kat,

    I’ve been following your online presence for at least 10 years now, which I hope doesn’t come off as creepy! I only occasionally comment, but I want to say your recentish writing really resonates with me – big life lessons, slow steps towards a more comfortable and tuned-in self. The bit about anxiety is especially inspirational for me and I’d love to see more about it.

    Happy birthday!

    1. hi elspeth! thanks so much for commenting! ah, no, that’s not creepy….i think it’s very natural with internet things, but i’m glad to hear from you now! thanks so much for the input; i’ll be sure to expand on anxiety in the future…it’s definitely something i’ve been more recently aware of in my life and it’s ripe for exploration!

      xo k.

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