Oh, 2013.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is by Zora Neal Huston, who writes in Their Eyes Were Watching God"There are years that ask questions and years that answer." For me, 2013 was a year of asking questions to discern what I "should" do from what felt right. Should I stay in Des Moines? Could I make friends and find community here? Would my relationships continue to grow and deepen? Who should I hang onto, and who did I need to let go of? How much did I miss Chicago? Was I pursuing the right career? What sorts of challenges should I take on? And so on.

I'm a Gemini (yes, I believe in astrology), so I continually bounced back and forth. I thought I knew something, and then I didn't. I made a decision, and then I changed my mind. As Shauna Niequist puts it, "I felt like I woke up a different person every day, and was constantly confused about which one, if any, was the real me." It was like I saw countless versions of my life playing out in my head, and my heart couldn't figure out which way to turn. I found myself super future-oriented on a daily basis, full of fear and worry about which choice would lead me down which road. It was painful and exhausting.

Then . . . I stopped trying so hard to "figure it all out." I said to myself one day, you can't predict what's to come, so start enjoying what's here now and who you are today. I shut out all the woulda, coulda, shoulda's in my life, and ignored the voices from others or inside myself that said my life had to look a certain way and that I had to be a certain kind of person. I still had to make decisions -- I couldn't always float along in the present moments of la-la land -- and sometimes it hurt. Sometimes I messed up and ignored my integrity. Sometimes I fell down and wanted to hide in a corner. But I still got back up, either literally or figuratively, and gave myself a fresh blank slate to try again.

As a result, I found new, unexpectedly dear friendships with incredible neighbors (who were always up for a drink or an outing or a pool day),  fellow yogis (who showed me lightness and joy and determination), and passionate individuals (who taught me about art and changing the world or shared my love for fashion and wine and sushi).

I discovered an appreciation for the question, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" (Seriously, that is simultaneously the worst question ever, and the most enlightening to answer for yourself.)

I learned to take on new challenges in a career while staying true to myself, my personality and my interests.

I wrote my first freelance article.

I invested in this community by getting involved as much as possible. I became part of a team that strives to bring more young professionals to the Art Center (because it's awesome). I babysat little kids while their new mamas learned how to be even better mamas amid the struggles and responsibilities of young parenthood. I read to elementary school children, and let them read to me in their beautiful, hesitant new-reader ways.

I completed yoga teacher training, and found a lot of internal peace as well as an overall commitment to health in the process.

I traveled often to nourish my friendships. I spent a week in Charleston visiting my very best friend on the planet. I enjoyed a rainy week in Florida with my family on our annual trip. I went to Chicago often, to see beloved friends and important confidantes. I visited my sisters, to see one's new apartment and watch another cheer at a high school Homecoming game.

I committed to love.

I read at least 16 books (since August, anyway).

I accepted that some of my relationships had changed. I moved on from the connections that no longer served me or ones that I could no longer give 100% to, and I tried to make peace with those realities.

I started this blog, wrote 45 posts and had 1,700 views in five months.

2013 was one hell of a year. As you toast to 2014 later tonight, take a moment to be grateful for all that 2013 brought you, for better or for worse. I know I'll be clanking a glass of red wine with my sister, celebrating the fact that I am alive with family and friends to love, good health and a faithful heart that's open to possibility.

Cheers!

Lessons from 26, Part Two

Lessons from 26, part two (read part one here):

6. Sometimes you have to let go of what you used to want.

At age 18, I completely believed that I would become a lawyer specializing in family and child law, live in a big city and get married and have children by age 26. At age 27, I work in development communications for a hospital system, do not live in a big city, am not married and still view kids as a couple years off.

It's entirely normal, particularly in one's twenties, to change gears several times--your location, your job, your relationship. This is a decade of great change for most people, which can be exciting, confusing and/or frightening. Perhaps all three. As I made personal and professional decisions, I continually asked myself whether or not I currently wanted something or I used to want something. This practice of discernment was very helpful because I often discovered that I was making a choice based on past priorities and interests, rather than what I actually saw for myself. Instead of thinking, But this is what I thought would happen or This is what I had plannedI ask myself: Do I want this, now? Is this still important to me? Does this fit in with my personality and goals and preferences? Does this make me feel more alive or stuck? And sometimes the answer is surprising.

The bottom line is that we are always changing, and it's crucial to embrace that reality rather than hold fast to a static self. It requires honesty and openness. It results in authenticity.

7. People don't behave how you want them to.

Danielle LaPorte once said that she does not worry for her friends. She writes, "Can't do it. Won't do it. Refuse to." When I first read that, I thought, Huh? I am always worried about my friends! How they're doing at work, how their relationships are going, if they feel happy and successful, etc. LaPorte, however, argues that there's a critical difference in terms of "worry" energy and "concern" energy. She says that other people don't need our "worry." It's not helpful, and it doesn't make you a better person. Worry obstructs, weights things down, is wistful, tangles, gossips; Concern is pro-active, rises to the occasion, is penetrating, peels back the layers, enrolls.

In other words, worry is an effort to control another person, while concern only focuses on what you can do in a given moment. It sounds reactive, but it's not. There are lots of things that I want for other people. I want my friend to respond to my text messages in a timely fashion. I want my parent to start working out more. I want my coworker to be nicer to me. And so on. Chances are, my friend will keep communicating at her own pace, my parent will keep brushing off exercise and my coworker will maintain the same attitude--and all of that could be extremely frustrating to me.

But I can't control their thoughts and actions and behaviors; I can only control my own. Like LaPorte says, I can be pro-active: I can tell my friend I love hearing from her more frequently, I can invite my parent for a run or workout class, I can ask my coworker to go to lunch. It feels counterintuitive--they're the ones not doing it "right"! But that doesn't matter. 

Can I get people to fit into my own definition of what's right? Not always, and definitely not without a fight. Would I rather be right or happy? Happy. And I can control that part.

8. Prioritize your key friendships.

Here's the ugly truth about friendships: they are time-consuming, expensive and exhausting as much as they are priceless, beautiful and crucial. That other, harder side of the coin explains why many friendships dissipate over the years. People grow and change without one another. They acquire houses and spouses and babies and dogs, all of which require their full attention. They move or leave each other for jobs and relationships and whims. Everyone is busy and nobody has an hour to talk on the phone.

I quickly learned that if I wanted to have vibrant friendships, ones that would last a lifetime, I needed to pick and choose and prioritize accordingly. That sounds mean, but it's really just being realistic. I can't have 25 best friends; it's just too much. (Not saying I'm so popular I would have that many, but for me, I need a smaller group of people in order to be a good friend and feel like the friendships are fulfilling for both parties.) Whose husbands/wives and kids do I want to know me, down the road? Who would I call in an emergency or tell a secret to? Whose home would I walk in and grab a snack out of the refrigerator? Those are the people I make time for, despite any inconvenience. Those are the people I will drive six hours or hop on a plane for, who I want to talk to every single day via text or Gchat, just to see how they are (but if we don't talk for a week, I'm not worried that there's something wrong with our friendship). While I still have other friends whom I adore and try to see or talk to whenever possible, I prioritize the people closest to my heart. They get my time and energy and resources first.

The same logic goes for new friends: who do I seem to click with the most? Who do I envision being friends with a year from now? Those are the people I try to see for happy hour or lunch; those are the people that get my time and energy and resources on a local level.

9. Take chances.

This is a continual reminder AND a life lesson. In the past year, I took a lot of chances on both a personal and professional level. It's been challenging and rewarding, from the mundane to the serious. And so I consistently try to challenge myself to try something new whenever possible--even if it feels hard and scary at the time, and even if I totally crash and burn, I always feel a little bit stronger knowing I at least put myself out there.

10. Expect the unexpected.

There's a quote from Shauna Niequist that I just love. She writes, "Anything can happen in a year. Broken down, shattered things can be repaired in a year. Hope can grow in a year, after a few seasons of lying dormant."

Think about where you were a year ago. There were probably some good and bad surprises along the way, right? For me, the past year was full of unexpected change, even though so many things stayed the same. A year ago, I didn't know I would kind of like this city, or that I would have new friends, or that I'd volunteer at an art center, or that I'd start this blog, or that I'd still be without a cat, or that certain people would flow in and out of my life, etc.

You can't know what will happen in a year's time, no matter how much you plan or predict--nor will you know how it will make you feel, whatever does happen. That doesn't mean throw caution to the wind and ignore all responsibility; it just means pay attention to the present and enjoy the moment you have, right now.

Lessons from 26, Part One

Life lessons from 26, part one:

1. No more manicures.

Getting a manicure is one of those girly, fun, everyone-does-it things. In the past year, I got two: one with my best friend and one with my mother and sisters, for her wedding and Mother's Day, respectively. But I've realized that while I love the idea of a manicure, I don't actually like it; for me, the return on investment is zero. If I'm going to save up for something beauty-related, it needs to have more longevity to feel worth the expense, such as a hairstyle or a beloved product. Also, shellac screws up my nails, and I prefer to change polish frequently, so even if I get the regular manicure, it's chipped by the end of the week or I'm already sick of the color. So while many of my friends seriously love getting a manicure, and I feel like I should--I just don't. (Have I sworn off manicures forever? No. Maybe for my wedding someday. But on the whole, I'll put my money elsewhere.)

P.S. Doing what you actually like to do, instead of what you think you should like or do, is one of Gretchen Rubin's 10 personal commandments. Really interesting once you apply it to your life!

2. Don't spend money on lunch.

I've mastered the cheap, easy lunch at home. "It's just lunch," others tell me. Okay. If I spend just $8 for lunch (sandwich or salad and a drink, and that's on the lower end) every day, then I'll have shelled out at least $2000 for the year (see here for another detailed breakdown of cumulative lunch costs). I decided I'd much rather spend my money on pretty much everything else: happy hour, good cheese, J Crew sales, books, student loans, gas to visit people, etc. Of course, lunch dates with friends and coworkers are important once in a while, but on the whole, I try to avoid spending money on lunch.

There are two parts to this secret ability. First, think about what food items you don't mind eating several times a week. For example, I love eggs: they are delicious, can be transformed into a variety of dishes and are quite cheap. They also go with a ton of other ingredients, so when I go to the store, I pick up bread, fruit, cheese, avocados and spinach. That means I can make: over-easy eggs on pesto toast with spinach and a sprinkle of mozzarella, scrambled eggs with avocados and spinach, avocado toast, hard-boiled eggs with cheddar cheese slices and fruit, etc. (And these are just my personal preferences; Pinterest provides a boatload of quick egg-based dishes.) Any combination of eggs or snack plates works just fine for me, and it's very quick and portable. Everyone has a different "easy" meal--just think about what items are grab and go or quick to make. Since I know eggs are my jam (...with toast), I always have them on hand, and therefore I never run into the problem of "there's nothing in the refrigerator." Maybe it isn't what I want that day, necessarily, but it's healthy and quick and there.

Second, plan to make a larger quantity of whatever recipes you're cooking, so that you have leftovers. This seems like a "duh" idea, but it's so easy to just cook what you need at the moment because it's faster, rather than make a little extra. In a given week, I aim to cook 2-3 meals that allow for larger quantities. I can make a giant pot of whole wheat pasta with sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, zucchini and spinach. I can put short ribs in the good 'ole Crock Pot. I can grill 4-6 chicken breasts, pair with a whole fistful of asparagus and make a batch of couscous. Whatever I make, I think, "How can I get leftovers out of this?" and then act accordingly. Throughout that week, then, I can heat up any of these leftovers, or I can throw parts of leftovers on spinach and call it a new salad, or I can mix-and-match.

By doing these two things, you too can quickly throw together a lunch at home, or to bring to the office, without sacrificing taste and your wallet. (Disclaimer: I have no dietary restrictions or major preferences, so making meal choices like this is not a major challenge. I've simply perfected my own personal process!)

3. Sometimes I enjoy not owning a cat.

Okay, anyone who knows me will read that and think, WHAT. BLASPHEMY. I am a cat-lover to the Nth degree, and I come from a family of cat lovers. I've had at least six cats in my 27 years, some of which still live with my family. I see a baby kitty photo, and I die, Rachel Zoe-style. I truly just can't help it. Post-college, I had two cats that I loved dearly: Theo and Iris. Theo was, and still is, the strangest cat I've ever known; he is messy and afraid of everything and does weird things like mew pitifully for attention while trying to climb on the table to lick a stick of butter. Iris is a gorgeous Siamese with a bitch, please attitude and really prefers to just lounge around anywhere doing her own thing.

Both Iris and Theo were adopted by my parents and grandparents when I left the city (for various reasons, not because I'm a bad cat-mom), which means that it's been two years since I've technically owned a cat. I certainly wish I had a little fluffy buddy to cuddle with every day, but at the same time... it's kind of nice to have zero pet responsibility. I don't have to clean up extra messes; I don't have to budget for vet and food expenses; I can leave for the weekend on a whim without planning accordingly. I figure someday I'll have pets again AND children (hopefully), so I might as well enjoy this tiny bit of freedom for a little while longer.

4. Meet your neighbors.

Meeting neighbors in your twenties is kind of a strange thing. College is structured to force that sort of interaction via dorms, but after that, it really requires more initiative and bravery with higher costs and risks. Like the older gentleman who lived next door to my best friend and I in Chicago and never. stopped. talking. if you ran into him. Such a nice man, but he would steal two hours of your time without hesitation so we would literally text each other warnings in advance if he was on the neighborhood prowl for conversation. Other risks include, you know, creepsters and burglars and such.

Yet, the rewards can be massive. Two of my best friends, and many acquaintances, met the loves of their life this way. My current apartment building has a pool, which allowed me to meet at least 20 people from the building. Now I have 3-5 neighbor friends, and I can't express how nice and lucky it feels to know I can stop by their apartments or call them to go running, make dinner, borrow some rice or sugar, grab a drink, etc. Having a network of people directly accessible feels safe and old-school and friendly. The bottom line: pay attention to your neighbors, not only for favors, but for your safety and peace of mind.

5. Feeling like an outsider doesn't last forever.

I felt like an outsider for pretty much the entire past year, which will happen when you move to a new city and start a new job (in a new industry) and need to make new friends. And when you're a newbie, you often feel . . . well, dumb or silly or confused about quite a lot of things on many different levels. It's easy to feel totally overwhelmed and like you don't belong anywhere, and so my mantra became: this is only temporary. Flash-forward one year, and I can see how far I've come, but the experience of being entirely new to a place and community reminded me that everyone is an outsider at the beginning. There's no way around that fact, and a full, satisfying life requires newness and change. Whether newness involves a person, place or set of responsibilities, it will take time to hit a groove and find some comfort. Embrace the fact that the only way out is through.

Creating a Patio Garden

For the longest time, I've envied people with a backyard deck or patio. The concept of having a nice place of one's own, outdoors, with a little table and chairs, some flowers, various herbs, a grill and a nice umbrella has always appealed to me. Dream Backyard

My parents worked for years on their backyard oasis, taking each summer to check a mini-goal off their list. Their backyard nicely runs into the edge of the woods, with a little valley. First, they added gravel and bricks to make a path. Then came a retaining wall, filled with flowers, strawberries and tomatoes. Then patio furniture. Then, finally a hot tub. When I'm home, I can see how much they enjoy their backyard space and how proud they are to have done it themselves.

I'd love to do that sort of thing nowadays; however, I'm still in apartment-land (a great place to be, of course)! Every time I look at our wrought iron balcony, I think, We need to . . . and then promptly discard it as a later task.

But today! We ventured to the farmer's market and returned with cucumbers, tomatoes, peaches, and a strawberry-rhubarb pie (which sums up my eating approach in life: 2 parts healthy and 1 part whatever you want).

Farmers Market Loot

And then decided TODAY WAS THE DAY. Garden time.

We went to Lowe's. And felt very grown-up perusing the aisles. Entering the garden section, I approached a store employee with my best Help Me smile. "Hi, I have a question!" "Is it easy?" He responded with a wink at J's shirt. "Oh wait, you're a Cardinals fan? Then no." We laughed. "Basically we want to make a little patio garden and need some help." Off we went, collecting potting soil, rocks, a wooden box and hanging tools. Success! Then, because Lowe's is like Target in that you end up purchasing much more than planned, we grabbed items for the grill that had been lurking in storage.

I had seen a million little potted plants and herbs around town, but surprisingly, they weren't at Lowe's. I think their center was much more "real" garden-focused. After two more stops, we ended up with 5 plants: bright orange zinnias, magenta celosia, rosemary, basil and cilantro.

Now, here is one very important fact about me: I do not have a green thumb. Like, at all. I'll purchase fresh cut flowers because I really just have to check the water level now and again, and then they die because they are supposed to, not because I killed them. The plant in my office is continually yellow because I ignore it completely (and the receptionist is continually annoyed because she ends up watering it). I just don't really do plants. However, I'd like to! I want to have a massive garden in my backyard someday just like my grandparents. Plus I think I read that gardening is a stress-reducing activity, and I mean, the more of those the better.

So the fact that I put together this box, poured the rocks, set the plants and flowers, surrounded them with dirt and watered them with minimal help is EXCELLENT. Except that I forgot to pack the dirt so soil was everywhere. And I hadn't used a watering can in 15 years so I splashed it all over. And then I realized I wasn't quite sure when to cut or water or do anything for these plants (Thanks, Google).

Success!

Patio Garden

Grill

Also, J put together the grill table and cleaned the grill and figured out all the tools. He also recognized that I had a set vision for our patio getaway space and let me dictate all the things. He's very helpful.

*Disclaimer: I realize that this is not technically a patio garden, because there is no patio. It's one small box of plants on a balcony. I'll take my small victories nonetheless.