Last year, when I turned 25, I wrote a birthday essay. 25, after a quarter of life, seemed like a natural time for some serious self-examination, and, like I explained then, January birthdays are naturally very contemplative anyway. This year, as I turn 26, it feels even more necessary to look back over the last year than it did in 2014. So, here we go.
At first glance, this year was a stagnant year. One of waiting. And wading through lots and lots of muck. It was a thinking year, and a examining year. It was a year that tested me in so many new ways, and I very often felt like I was failing those tests. It was a year of frustration. A year of feeling like I wasn’t communicating with anyone in a way that was effective or true or meaningful. It was a year of worry. That was the biggest thing I felt looking back: worry. Of course, all of that is looking back without rose colored glasses. It’s remembering the worst of everything, because I suppose that’s just the kind of year it was. Where the worst and hardest and scariest of everything sticks out the most, follows you around and won’t let you go.
More than anything, 25 was a learning year. And learning years are often the hardest years. And so when we look back we remember how difficult everything felt, how every day was a slog and every project was a mountain to climb, and every relationship needed reevaluating and nothing was solid and everything was movable and that was terrifying rather than flowing and free.
But learning years are also some of the most important years. And stagnant is entirely the wrong word.
This year I published two issues of Lydia Magazine. I got on an airplane after 13 years of not flying, and I went. I met new people, amazing women whom I admire and to whom I am indebted for changing my mind and reaffirming my thoughts on so many things.
I dealt with mild anxiety, which is undoubtedly the most difficult and scariest thing I’ve done this year. I didn’t know exactly what it was then (and still is, now, at a thankfully far lesser and lower frequency) because I had never been through it before. I reevaluated my lifestyle and my friendships. I decided what was important and what I needed and what I am willing or able to do to get it. I opened my mind and my heart to new experiences. I waited. And I worked. And I got through it. And that experience has meant so, so very much. Because it is the foundation on which I am building 26, in 2015.
Mostly I felt very timid. Afraid. Terrified, even. So not the brave and bold person that I so desperately want to be.
But it is only in looking back that I realize that every single thing I’ve done this year had been with bravery. Because I didn’t shrink from the fear. I didn’t let it define my choices. I worked through it. I kept going into the dark forest even though I’m scared of spiders. I turned that stone over and over in the palm of my hand because I knew it was the right thing to do; the thing I must do. And I realized that bravery doesn’t always roar like the lion. Sometimes it’s a whimpering thing. It’s a terrified thing. A timid thing. And the bravery that results there is all the more powerful and more important. Because it is the hard won kind.
So, here are some things I know at 26:
Health and self-care and balance are the most important things. You can do nothing and be no one when you are sick and tired and stressed and afraid and in pain. You must, you must, you must take care of yourself. Get a manicure or a massage. Take a long bubble bath, every single night if you need to. Eat food that is nourishing and real. Talk to your friends, write in a diary, go for a walk, meditate, go for a run, practice yoga, lift weights, take vitamins, paint, read, sing, dance, go to sleep at a decent hour, and get up when it’s still morning. You have to get outside, you have to move your body, you have to rest and restore. Turn off your computer and cell phone, just turn the damn things off for a while. I promise that it will make the world of difference in your life when you are listening to your body and your mind and letting them tell you what you need. Running yourself into the ground will not make you happy, period. Stress and anxiety and deprivation are not badges of honor or accomplishment.
Drink water for goodness’ sake. You cannot go day after day filling yourself to the brim with Diet Cokes and coffee and alcohol and whatever the hell else and expect not to feel like a run down piece of machinery. Your body is built with water as the base requirement for operation, so if you want to be running at full capacity, you need it. It’s free. Get a filter. Or some of that carbonated, naturally flavored water. Drink 8 glasses a day.
Stop obsessing over shit that happened in the past that you can’t undo. Not even at 3 a.m. when you are trying to fall asleep. Not ever. It happened, it’s done, keep going. Go, go, go. When you find yourself dwelling on something stupid you said, or a boy who never loved you, or a boy you never loved, or the job you never got, or the friendship you mutually ruined or whatever ridiculous mistakes you’ve made that have so obviously and completely NOT ruined your life, that don’t even really have any bearing over what you’re doing now, just don’t. It’s destructive and it’s taking up valuable space for all of the new and wonderful and difficult and life affirming things you need to be thinking about right now. Lauren Conrad is not going to be remembered as the girl who didn’t go to Paris, and you won’t be remembered for your mistakes, either. It’s what you do after them that matters.
Friends are supposed to be supportive. They are supposed to be excited about the things in your life that you are excited about. They are supposed to lift you up when you are unsure. They are supposed to be the beams on which you lay your heaviest loads, knowing full well that they won’t collapse. And when your friends don’t support you, or don’t show an interest in what you do, maybe it’s time to find new friends.
Say yes to more things. Say yes to things before you’re ready. As Amy Poehler says, all the greatest people do. Stop being lazy just for the sake of laziness. Netflix will be there when you get back. So will the couch. But say no, too. Know what is good for you and what is bad for you and then make your choices accordingly. Only you can know what nourishes you and what enriches your life, and you need to be steadfast in fitting those things in and discarding what drains you. Every day.
Read as many books as you can. See live music. Watch films that move you. And TV that makes you laugh. And vice versa. Go to museums and plays, see someone’s life’s work up close. Feel what they’ve put into it. Let there be power in it and apply it to your own life. Everything you do and say and think and feel and create will be better because of it.
Spend more money and more time on experiences and less money and time on things.
Don’t wait for people to text, to call, to ask. Don’t wait for people to offer. They almost never will. You have to grab what you want. Friendships, careers, relationships, life; all are only as fulfilling as you make them out to be. No one is going to give you what you want and what you need if you don’t kindly, firmly, and definitively ask for it. So ask.
It’s okay to be afraid. As long as the fear does not become the master of your life. Make choices despite your fear. Don’t pretend not to be afraid. That pretending serves no one, most of all you. Be afraid, without apology, understand the genesis of the fear, but do the thing anyway. That is life, so you’d better get used to it.
Things don’t need to be perfect. They need to be done. And you need to be satisfied with them once they are. Nothing is perfect. There will always be fault, somewhere and with someone, no matter what you do. So, you need to be proud of the done, and imperfect thing. If you let inevitable imperfection stop you from doing, you’ll never do anything. And where’s the good, the purpose, in that?
Kerri Jarema is the creator and editor of Lydia Magazine. She was born and raised in New York City and still calls it home. When she isn’t busy writing and editing she can usually be found with her nose in a book, watching way too much TV, fangirling on Tumblr, singing very loud when no one is around, obsessing over everything British and exploring her favorite neighborhoods. Find her on Twitter@kerrajar.