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My birthday was great — very very chill, which is exactly what I wanted. How things have changed! Birthdays in high school usually turned into a popularity competition to see who could accrue the most flowers, balloons, and other crap from their friends throughout the day. Of course it was cheating to put it in your locker, so everyone would walk around all day laden down with festivity.

In my first couple years of college, birthdays were an excuse to drink and go crazy (as if we needed one!) Later on, my activities became more sedate, but I still tried to fit as much into the day as possible — breakfast here, coffee there, dinner and dessert with my family, etc.

Now, my idea of a perfect birthday is a big breakfast (French toast made an excellent substitute for pancakes this year), a good workout, and a quiet afternoon with a book, a walk, and a bit of shopping. Dinner was leftover salmon, rice, and ratatouille from the night before, warmed up and eaten at home with my husband. I must be getting old!

To add a Portuguese touch to the celebrations, my birthday cake was a pair of pasteis de nata, my favorite creamy gooey custard treat. Gabe brought them home from work, then warmed them in the oven as we were eating dinner. Stick a couple leftover Hannukah candles in them, cut up an orange to provide a little bit of health food, and voila! The perfect Portuguese birthday cake.

My favorite part of any birthday, but especially this one, is the outpouring of love you get. My inbox was crammed full of ecards, emails, and Facebook notifications all day yesterday and on until this morning, as the good wishes continued coming in well after I’d gone to bed last night. I got calls from friends at home and in England, texts from my Portuguese friends, had a Skype call with my mom and uncle, and even got a phone call from my hairdresser here, who wanted to wish me a happy day.

Maybe things aren’t so different from my high school birthdays after all — the flowers and balloons just take a lighter, more portable electronic form these days. Either way, it is wonderful to feel so loved, and a small part of me wished that every day this year had been my birthday.

Today things are back to normal, or at least as normal as they can be two days before we take off on our next trip. The fun never ends!

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Here’s some pics from my bday, as well as a walk we took on Sunday afternoon. We came across a massive book fair in the nearby Parque Eduardo VII, with booths stretching all the way up one side and down the other. There were food booths, portable cafes, and even signing booths, with a few bored-looking authors on display for signing books.

It was a carnival of books, and there was an accordingly huge crowd of people, kids, dogs, the whole deal. I was amazed! I’ve never seen such a thing in the States. It was great to see the appreciation of literature and books so alive and well here.

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So here it is, my big day at last. I am now officially 30 years old, and am not at all surprised to discover that it feels exactly the same as 29, or 20, for that matter. Just another day, which is part of another year. Although this is a day on which I get to hear from all my loved ones, so in that sense it is a special one, especially when most of my loved ones feel very far away indeed.

A friend sent me a birthday wish last night that gave me pause for thought. She gave me some advice that a friend had given her when she was poised on the brink of 30 a few months ago, saying that by the time you’re 30, you’re mature enough to deal with negative or disappointing situations without freaking out over them. Excellent advice, and something I’m very glad to say was true in my case well before I turned 30. Certain life situations have a way of teaching you perspective pretty damn fast, no matter what your age.

What struck me most about her comment was this: at what point does getting older become a bad thing? I remember when I turned 20, I was SO excited that I wasn’t a teenager any more. Surely maturity, confidence, and poise were just around the corner! Any day now!

Of course I then spent another ten years flailing around trying to discover those elusive traits, but I think I’m much closer to them now at 30 than I was at 20. So why then is ten more years of growth and experience not a good thing? I would much rather be turning 30, with all the hard-won insights and experience of the past ten years, than 20. And yet somehow it was more socially acceptable to turn 20 than it is 30 — and I know it only gets more so as the decades go on from here.

Personally, like I said before, I could not be more glad to leave my 20s behind. I started them in a mess of confusion and pain, not knowing who I was or where I was going. What’s worse, I had no concept of my own value. All the traits I now consider to be my strengths — my empathy, my perception, my introversion, my intelligence — I saw as oddities, liabilities, things to be hidden away and whitewashed so I could better fit in with my peers. I tried to ease the dissonance this created by doing all kinds of things I thought the person I was trying to be should do. I was lonely, I was confused, and I really didn’t think very highly of myself at all.

Ten years later, I am living a life that I would never have dreamed of when I turned twenty. I have a wonderful husband, and I spend every day doing a job that I created, a job I love so much that I almost feel bad calling it “work” at all. I not only have one wonderful house in the town I grew up in, the town my heart calls Home, but I am also lucky enough to be living in Europe for a year, with said wonderful husband, doing said wonderful job.

What’s more, I am completely comfortable and confident in my own skin. I still have my demons, sure, but now I know most of them by name, and I know the songs to tame each one. All of the things I internalized and hid away when I was twenty are now what I rely on to get me through daily life — to write, to forge deep friendships with good people, to keep my relationship going strong. No longer do I hide my introversion and ultra-sensitivity, but have instead learned how to use them as tools to my advantage, and how to shield the weak spots they bring.

So in all honesty, I can’t say that I am sad in any way about entering the next decade of my life. I am sad to be doing so without my father, as I would very much have liked to share the rewards of this coming decade with him. But here on the precipice between my third decade and my fourth, I can truly say that I have no regrets, and am very excited to see what the next ten years bring. If my twenties were any indication, it will be a wild ride indeed!

But that decade starts first with a birthday. A day like any other day — with a little more love involved.

In a few weeks’ time, I will celebrate my 30th birthday. I mention this preemptively because I sent out an email to our Lisboan friends last night, inviting them to celebrate with us the weekend beforehand. Sending that email made me excited, as I always love my birthday. (Except the singing part, when everyone looks at me. Yuck. Two years ago, I almost had a panic attack while blowing out my candles. Not good.)

At the same time though, I couldn’t help but be a little sad. Our original plan was to go home for two weeks at the end of May, spend my birthday and Memorial Day with our families, then come back for our last two months here before moving home. We even went so far as buying the tickets, but eventually we decided that it would be a huge amount of effort for such a short trip, especially when we were moving home for good so soon afterward. So we decided to spend my birthday here in Lisbon instead, and then go to Stockholm for a week at the end of May.

Now that all this is upon us, I find myself both relieved that we’re not doing a fifteen-hour flight in two weeks’ time… but also sad that I won’t be with my loved ones at home for my birthday. I’ve spent plenty of birthdays abroad before, but somehow, they never get any easier.

The first that I can remember was my ninth, when we were living in Oxford. I think there was a freakishly late snow storm that day, as I have a vague memory of waking up to see fat white flakes falling outside my window. I’m not even sure if the snow storm was actually on my birthday, or if I conflated two memories into one. But clearly, whenever it was, the snow made a big impression on me.

Next time was my nineteenth birthday, when I was living with a host family in the south of France. They threw a big party for me, since my birthday conveniently coincided with the annual feria celebrations at the end of May. All their friends came over, along with mine from the exchange program I was on, and they made a massive paella in a pan that was probably four feet wide. Of course with all that attention and excitement, I drank a little too much sangria, and when it came time to blow out my candles, I leaned a little too far… and before I knew it, a lock of my hair was up in flames. We put it out fairly quickly, but I was mortified nonetheless.

The last birthday I spent abroad was my 25th, when I was in grad school. For some reason I chose to celebrate at a Brazilian club near the university, and I was surprised when a huge group of people showed up, including one of our professors. This was not as much a reflection of my popularity as much as the fact that we had been revising for nearly two months, and it was our last big blow out before exams began in early June.

I shared both my birthday and the party with another guy on my program, who was a few years younger than me. At one point he said, “Now you’re closer to thirty than you are to twenty!” Great, I said. Thanks for reminding me.

Five years later, that milestone is nearly upon me, but I can’t say that I dread it as much as some of my friends seem to. Frankly my third decade was damn hard, and I’m not that sad to leave it behind. I learned a lot, as proven by the lines I’m starting to see on my face, near my mouth, under my eyes. But I’ve earned every one of those lines, and wouldn’t go back to my smoother, more innocent state if you paid me. Each of them marks a lesson I’ve learned, a smile I’ve felt, a tear I’ve shed, all of which have prepared me well for my forth decade. I have high hopes that it’ll be the best one yet.

I know they say never to apologize for not posting. But I’m going to break that rule, because there are a couple of people who read my blog regularly — or used to! — and they have mentioned the lack of new material. So to you three people (you know who you are), I’m sorry.

My apology is also somewhat relevant to the post itself. See, I haven’t been writing because for the past month or so, I’ve been processing in private. And yes, there is still such a thing in this world of constant internet access, status updates, blogs, and Tweets. There are still some things that just can’t be put into words, some matters so personal that the world does not have the right to view them on display.

Somehow, in the midst of all this processing, I have stumbled upon happiness. I didn’t realize that I had achieved this exalted state until I went to my high school reunion a couple weeks ago. I felt miserably uncomfortable there, and seeing the popular girls in the bathroom made me feel like I was sixteen all over again. And yet afterward I heard from several people who all commented on how happy I looked. This struck me as extremely odd — this is one of the hardest times of my life. Why would relative strangers describe me as happy? I’m really not a good enough liar to fake it, so the only other explanation must be the simple, shocking truth: could it be that I am actually happy?

I thought about it, and I realized… yes, I am happy. What a strange thing to discover. And I don’t mean happiness in the way I did when I was younger, and I don’t mean happiness the way that Hollywood and many of my friends conceive of the beast. I mean true contentedness, a willingness to accept that life is neither perfect nor terrible, but it is a little bit of both.

The irony of it, of course, is that my life needed to be truly terrible for an extended period of time for me to realize this kind of happiness. At this point, anything that doesn’t crush me is a good thing, and can be overcome with time.

With this recognition has come peace, and yes, happiness. For the first time in as long as I can remember, perhaps since my childhood, I am on a more or less even keel. My days are pretty much the same from one to the next, and they are filled entirely with the people I love and the things I love to do. Every day is full of deep tragedy and deep joy, and in between, I find balance.

My life is simple, small, and utterly beautiful. And yes, I am — curiously enough — happy.

Yesterday officially marked our first year of marriage. Some random, mostly unrelated thoughts on the topic are as follows. Enjoy.

  • I enjoy being married far more than I did getting married. Similarly, it turns out I’m a much bigger fan of anniversaries than weddings. I very much enjoyed skipping straight to the vacation and relaxing without all the hullaballoo beforehand.
  • Love, and marriage with it, are not easy. But they are massively rewarding. Duh, I know, but I have talked to a lot of people who actually don’t get this concept.
  • Being married does not mean you are exempt from loneliness. There are some paths your spouse just can’t walk with you. Dammit.
  • I enjoy marriage. I love being married. And at the risk of politicizing a very personal post (isn’t the personal always political?), I don’t think that anyone should be denied that joy, for any reason. Ever.
  • I’m still not used to the fact that I of all people am married. In fact, I’m still amazed that I did not turn out to be the last unmarried person I know. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to it, really.

That’s it, for now. This year has flown by… seems like only yesterday we were huddled in our B&B in Half Moon Bay, stunned and recovering. Here’s to year two!

For the past week, I’ve had writer’s block. Normally, words clutter up my brain until there is nowhere for them to go but onto the page. Now, they just aren’t there. My next blog post has been sitting on my computer, half composed, for the better part of a week now. Even my journal entries have been sparse. It’s a very strange feeling, almost as though I’ve temporarily lost the ability to see in three dimensions. Words are how I see the world, and without them, my life becomes a lot flatter.

It’s been more than writer’s block though. It was more like life block. As the flow of words dwindled, so did my ability to sleep. I would lie down, then twitch myself awake, over and over again, until 1 or 2 in the morning. I know that isn’t desperately late, and many people (including my husband) regularly stay up til that hour or later. But I have never been one of those people. I have become a morning person, and I relish that witching time before 7 AM when the world is quiet and the day full of promise. That is when I read, write, eat, and dream, getting myself ready for the day’s responsibilities and interactions.

When I go to sleep late, I lose that morning time, and my whole day is thrown off. I fall behind on my emails, I don’t write in my journal, I don’t blog. And yes, as my pilates teacher pointed out the other day, I am a creature of strong habit. It’s what kept me sane throughout ten years of transience and travel, and still keeps me sane even now that my life is more sedentary. Call me a stick in the mud, but I hate disrupting my routine, especially for such a silly reason.

Luckily, I seem to be coming out of it. I got a full eight and a half hours of sleep last night, and feel like a million bucks for it today. I’ve written in my blog and my journal this afternoon. I’m still not sure what it was that my subconscious was working through during all those sleepless night — perhaps it was just trying to get me to stay up and watch the Olympics all night. Who knows. Whatever it was, I’m glad that it seems to have worked itself out. Perhaps now I can get my precious morning time back… and the rest of you can be entertained with my lengthy emails and blog posts once again.

I am starting to realize that I have an all-consuming personality, in pretty much every sense of the word. As anyone who spends more than an hour with me can attest, despite my bony appearance, I can consume a hell of a lot of food. And, back in the days when my bank account was slightly more flush, I was a very good little all-American consumer. I did my part for our economic revival, oh yes.

Above all though, I feel best when there is something in my life that consumes me: my attention, my energy, my drive, all of me. Whether it be school, work, a destructive love affair (and there have been a few), or even my garden — no matter how trivial my daily tasks may actually be, I am at my best when I am pushing the outer limits of my abilities, with everything else fitting into the cracks of that one all-enveloping task. I am used to throwing myself from one activity to the next, never pausing for breath, always driven to stay busy, to either keep learning or keep earning. Usually by the time I complete one project, the next is already on the horizon, and I rarely have any time in between to contemplate what it is I’m really doing.

Now, for the first time in a very long time, I find myself without anything all-consuming in my life. I am not working, my dad’s health is more or less stable, the garden project is finished for the moment, and I am not going back to school any time soon. As for my marriage, well, I think that is by definition something that should not be all-consuming, or else it burns out rather quickly. Or that’s what my therapist tells me, at any rate.

This is a very strange feeling. I am disoriented, like someone took away the safe, white walls from my world and left me reeling, standing on the dizzy edge of all the myriad possibilities that suddenly, starkly surround me.

Unlike most people, I am completely unable to simply enjoy this period of relative inactivity. I don’t allow myself to sit in bed all day and read a book — that feels far too decadent. Instead, I go compulsively from one half-assed activity to the next: reading for twenty minutes, feeling guilty about it and deciding there must be something more responsible I should be doing, then finding something more responsible to do and deciding I don’t really feel like doing it after all… I’d much rather just read a book.

The whole time I am haunted by a vague sense of guilt, a feeling that I should be doing something, anything, other than this. And yet I can’t seem to decide what it is I want or need to be doing. So the cycle continues, on and on. By the end of the day, exhausted from all this flitting about, I usually end just doing what I started out with — reading a book.

I am trying my best to just sit with the uncertainty of it all, instead of jumping right into the next object of consumption solely for the sake of keeping busy. I realize that this time needs to be different. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

Driving down from Tahoe the other day, we had the most extraordinary experience. Within the space of a few hours, we went straight from the depths of winter into the height of spring — all in the same good old state of California.

When we left Tahoe, it was still mostly white, with the thaw just beginning to hit the black south-facing hills and surfaces. Even as we came further down, the earth was dead and blasted, not yet recovered enough from the choking weight of the snow to be growing anything.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, there was green. The trees had bright new growth on their tips, the cherry and apple trees were in full bloom, poppies and lupins lined the roadway in a fabulous riot of color… it was magnificent, and so vibrantly beautiful that it almost hurt to look at after three days spent in the white, monochromatic mountains. It was like coming alive.

God I love this state.

People never believe me when I tell them that I’m an introvert. “But that’s not possible! You’re so friendly/outgoing/sociable!”, they say. The worst response I ever got was a coworker’s response to my statement that I didn’t like crowds. She just laughed it off disbelievingly and said, “What, did something traumatic happen to you or something?” Um… yeah. Not gonna touch that one. As usual, people’s nerve never ceases to amaze me.

Anyway, trust me on this one — I am, deeply and truly, down to my very core, an introvert. Just ask my husband. Or, as we like to call it in our Smug Married terminology, I am a cat. At any given time, cats are perfectly content to curl up by themselves in a sunny spot on the couch and sleep the day away, perhaps waking up long enough to give themselves a bath if they’re really feeling ambitious. If you happen to sit down on said couch and provide them a conveniently warm lap to boot, well, they may just deign to come over and visit. Or they may not. Either way, cats much prefer to keep their own counsel, occasionally letting very special people into the inner sanctum to shower them with affection. If that affection is not forthcoming, they will not perish for its lack, but rather turn up their noses and return to their bath.

Dogs, on the other hand, will whine all day until their owners return to rescue them from the terrible trials of solitude. They then bound to their side, overcome with love and limitless affection, never to be parted again. Depriving them of attention is like starving them of food — you just can’t do it.

In this sense, I am most definitely a cat. I would much rather curl up on a couch with a book than talk to just about anyone. I would gladly write a thousand emails than return one phone call. Silence, in a word, is golden, and people, while enjoyable, become a burden after too long.

My husband, on the other hand, is without a doubt a dog. Even after a long day of nonstop teaching and talking, he still bounds in the door, ready for yet more interaction with his prickly, cat-like wife. If left alone for more than thirty seconds, he immediately reaches for his cell phone or switches on the radio. People are his drug, his lifeline, his energy source. You have no idea how much I envy him.

Nonetheless, we have learned to speak each other’s language just fine: he knows when to leave me alone, and I know when to shower him with hugs and kisses. For the most part, it works out pretty well. But every so often, the need to fulfill my deepest cat nature becomes so overwhelming that I literally can’t stand to be around anyone. At that point, any and all human company drains and exhausts me, and I get more and more irritable until I can just curl up and be totally by myself for a sustained period of time.

And this, my friends, makes me by definition an introvert. People often confuse the term with being shy, which I am definitely not. I can be quite gregarious and friendly when I need to be, which is why acquaintances or people I work with don’t get why I would ever call myself an introvert. What they don’t understand, and what it’s taken me almost two years to teach my extroverted husband, is that for me, all social interaction comes with a price. I can be the life of the party, yes, but afterwards (and usually beforehand, too, if I’m lucky) I will need to go home and sit in a corner, quietly, not talking to anyone, just being.

Today, blissfully and gloriously, I was able to do just that. We are up in Lake Tahoe for a few days, taking a break at the end of a long and difficult quarter. My husband decided to go snowboarding with an old college friend who’s also in town, leaving me with the cabin all to myself for a wonderful six hours of solitude. Even as the car pulled away, I could feel myself expanding into the silence, filling the space around me in a way that simply isn’t possible when there’s other people around.

To be honest, I didn’t even do anything that special with my day. I read a lot, did yoga, ate, thought about going outside for quick trek via snowshoe, but then looked at the temperature (hovering right around freezing all day) and decided to have another cup of tea instead. But the most beautiful part of it was that I didn’t have to do or say anything, or be anyone other than myself, for a full six hours. That time was my own, no one else’s, and in that alone it was priceless.

When my husband got home, I uncurled myself and emerged blinking into the world of people once more, adjusting slowly to his enthusiastic barking and tail-wagging after a day spent on the slopes with friends. I even managed to enjoy dinner out with my husband’s friend and his young son, enjoying the social interaction far more than I would have been able to without today’s extended retreat into myself.

For a long time, I denied this part of my nature, and was much unhappier for it. Now, I know that all I can do with my introversion is to take solitude as I happen upon it, making space in my every day life to recuperate from the strain of being around others. And then, every so often, I am lucky enough to get a day like today — a cat day. When I do, I relish in it to the fullest extent possible, and let it sustain me until the next time.

(For a fabulously written piece on introversion — that has apparently since sparked a nascent Introverts’ Rights movement — see Jonathan Rauch’s 2003 essay from The Atlantic.)

Occasionally, the surface tension that keeps me floating more or less on the top of my emotions dissolves, and I am plummeted straight down into those cold, strange depths. I come to some time later, sitting on the floor of the bathroom covered in snot and tears, and think to myself, “Oh. This again. How did I get here?” The answer is never a good one, for once I am primed to reach that particular state of emotional turmoil, it only takes the littlest of things to set me off. After that, it’s all I or anyone (particularly my dearly beloved husband) can do to just stand back and let it take its course.

Ditto the same procedure last night, for no particular reason whatsoever. OK, so maybe there was a landfill full of reasons that had been accumulating over the past month or so. But really, why break down then and not another time? I have no idea.

Of course, to my poor rational husband, it must be like watching his otherwise stable wife periodically turn into a werewolf. Who is this self-pitying, irrational, wild-haired and puffy-eyed creature on my floor? Why is she not quietly curled up in bed like every other night? Is it the full moon?

Being the sane and level-headed person that I love, he inevitably tries to reason me out of my transformation, pointing out why all the things I’m obsessing about are really not that big a deal, I’m just overtired and should just try to go to bed and rest. This of course only serves to enrage the beast even more, as throwing rationality at that particular manifestation of my psyche is like trying to douse a bonfire with a paper napkin. It just don’t work, buddy.

In fact, the only thing that does seem to work is giving in to it. Instead of fighting, I just have to endure the overwhelming flow of emotions until whatever needs to be worked out of my system is gone. I let it take its course, and bless his heart, so does my husband, no matter how foreign his wife may become to him in the process. Eventually I emerge, I start making coherent sentences and even jokes again, and am able to crawl into my bed, drained and battered yet clear-headed and ready to face the next buildup of emotional garbage.

I’m not sure if this process is entirely healthy. But I do know that it’s me, and I could no more stop it than I could stop the spring time from inching ever closer to my garden. Personally, I don’t mind it, and I learn a great deal by surrendering to complete irrationality for a short period of time. Ironically, it’s the only way I know how to deal with circumstances in my life that are out of my control. If I stop fighting the good fight just for a short while, and relinquish myself to the forces of chaos instead of trying so hard to hold them back, somehow the craziness of my life doesn’t seem as scary when I return to my ramparts.

In other words, sometimes rationality is entirely overrated.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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