35 to Life (August 8, 2013)

Well the moment has arrived. Today my friends, I turn 35 years old. Many single women in my position might be drinking heavily while mourning the loss of their prime childbearing years. Thankfully I’ve never valued my uterus that highly, or even thought about it much except as a source of monthly pain and discomfort. Subconsciously at first, then with more awareness as I progressed through the first half of my 30s, I found myself aligning with the philosophy of the title character in Toni Morrison’s novel, Sula: “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

Still if you’d asked me in early May, just three short months ago, about my feelings as I approached the milestone birthday, the reaction would have been visceral. A sigh, a cringe, a stated desire to filibuster the inevitable. To put it bluntly, I was not at all content with the state of my life. I’d just lost my full-time job, was immersed in a committed relationship that increasingly left me wanting and struggling with a variety of stress-compounded ailments: chronic migraines, recurring eczema and insomnia. There’s nothing like aging another year to remind one of diminishing time, and goals yet to be accomplished.

A lot has changed since a personal low in late Spring, some of these metamorphoses owing to good old fashioned hard work, some of the alterations out of my control. Relentless pavement pounding and networking produced a mercifully brief period of unemployment. In just 10 weeks I traded the dole for a big career step up, landing a position as a Marketing Manager at the tenth largest insurance brokerage in the world. With regard to so many variables, the new job is far more suited to my talents and temperament, and I envision at least several contented years in the role. It was also mid-May when I was formally sworn in as the President of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, an organization of communication professionals founded in 1885. With an alacrity of which I force myself to publicly own some pride, I ascended the ladder from new member to Commander-in-Chief in just three years. I am proud of the work I am doing, capitalizing on the organization’s tremendous historical assets to recruit a new generation of talented communicators.

Shortly after taking the oath of office, I received notification that I had been recognized as the Best Personal Blogger of 2012 by the National Federation of Press Women. I’ll travel to Salt Lake City at the end of the month (the first time I have vacation days and income with which to board a plane since Summer 2011) to attend the NFPW Conference and accept the award. I’m learning to balance the responsibilities of my day job with the time I need to set aside to complete personal writing projects, because it’s clear I must have both. In numerous professional ways, I’ve never felt more fulfilled. And it seems that as I grow and mature, the ultimate late bloomer, I find these vocational endeavors yield the give and take I’ve been unsuccessful in eliciting from personal relationships. The more work I put in, the more of my soul I pour into words and administration, the higher the dividends. I have full control without subjective variables. Tremendously gratifying.

Though my last effort at love went bust, even that failure carried valuable lessons that are fortifying a current state of equilibrium. I realized that at this point in my life, I have no inclination to divide my internal resources and time. Slowly but definitively I became aware that I was turning into a Jill of All Trades, Master of None, chipping away at overall satisfaction. I shared every idea and strategy I had for trying to make our union work, but when I wasn’t met in the middle in creativity and effort, I let it drop. This may not sound like a big deal, but it really is. Friends and foes alike have described me as “relentless,” and in general, I don’t mind a stubbornly persistent reputation. But it has its downsides. Sometimes one (me) can doggedly pursue something when it’s obvious to common sense that it’s time to surrender. It’s not that my inner voices failed to notify me in the past. I am just learning to heed the warnings and walk away with more of my dignity, as well as mental and physical health, intact.

Make no mistake, I still have my issues with aging. The body seems to injure more easily and heal more slowly with each passing year. Trying to stay in some sort of physical shape demands a little more dedication. The forehead creases and crow’s feet that grow incrementally deeper can be mitigated with Botox injections, but I am aware this is merely cosmetic. The character of Truvy in Steel Magnolias throws the quintessential truth bomb when she states, “Honey, time marches on and eventually you realize it is marchin’ across your face.” I am aware of the years lost in sedentary depression and confusion that I can never reclaim. All that said, I recognize that I wouldn’t be able to stand back and appreciate the accomplishments I’ve amassed – a loving family, a great network of friends, a thriving career – without the benefits of time and experience.

So today I celebrate movement out of the desirable 18-34 year old marketing demographic. My age doesn’t render me less cool. On the contrary. I know what I want, need, think and feel more than ever before. I’ll blow out 35 candles in celebration of the greatest gifts my time on this planet has given me: adventure and self-awareness.

The Best Blog in America? (June 4, 2013)

The Best Blog in America

Four and a half years ago, in the middle of January 2009, I began my blogging career with these words:

“I’d like to thank my dear younger sister for letting me in on this action. I don’t know about all that ‘smart one’ stuff since she is the one who got something off the ground that I have only talked ad nauseum about doing myself. I may have the Master’s in English Lit., but sometimes we overeducated end up being the most stagnant.”

And it’s true, without that first push toward online confession from my younger sister Jennifer, I have good reason to doubt that I would have let a closet writer’s burning ambition see the light of day. I earned a comfortable living in those days as a manager of corporate standards, and came home each evening to make dinner for my then-husband. I had a clearly defined purpose that hid rather well some painful internal chafing. I was not! (screamed my buried soul) cut out for paperwork, motherhood and meal planning. There is nothing inherently wrong with those roles and for many women, filling them provides intense personal satisfaction, but the farther I traveled down the path of rote domesticity, the closer I moved to its expected tollgates, the more certain I became that I was lost.

Jenny knew it. And she wouldn’t let me pretend otherwise. If I were lacking in personal bravery, well then she’d start the blog, give it a name and a theme and set me up as an administrator. No slouch a communicator herself, she produced the first few posts – in the voice of a harried, swamped suburban career woman, wife and mother – and challenged me to set myself apart.

That original blog, Which End is Up!?, “An in-depth look at the life of two very different Chicago sisters as it happens,” evolved over time, eventually becoming the one-voice forum that I secretly believe Jenny always intended it to be. Months passed and as I gained a following, confidence and a certain amount of prolificacy, I migrated over to the Open Salon platform where Contemplating the U.S. Navel was born.

Through practice and self-discovery, I discovered a genuine passion for deconstructing our nation’s increasingly fractured and broken political system. A long series of posts examining these themes led to professional recruitment from RootSpeak magazine in the form of a weekly column. When RootSpeak went on hiatus, I landed at PoliticusUSA where I’ve enjoyed my largest readership to date. That first push toward blogging from my baby sister has led to a diverse and satisfying professional writing career that includes national awards for journalism (the explosion of urban agriculture), newsletter editing (PenPoints, the quarterly communication of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association) and theater criticism.

And now it is in June 2013 that I have a sense of a fledgling communications career (because a writer can never be too comfortable or established) coming full circle. For it is this year that the contest judges of National Federation of Press Women have deemed this very blog the best in the nation.

I still can’t quite process and accept the mind-bending honor. For writing without varnish (and some in my life might argue, too nakedly) about the triple challenges of alopeciacancer and divorce in 2012, I will travel to Salt Lake City to receive a honor the Becky of January 2009 could only experience as a daydream.

It’s beautiful and satisfying whenever one’s work is recognized by an esteemed body, but when that work is the very lifeblood and selfhood capsized across the screen, the victory becomes so much more gratifying – and humbling. The award I will collect from the NFPW at the end of August is not just a celebration of my words, it’s a vindication of my voice, my experience. The emotions and thoughts I vomit onto the keyboard nearly every week are my most authentic self and somehow, a conglomerate of respected peers have deemed that worthy of consumption and acknowledgment.

I never got into blogging with ideas of grandeur. I always assumed that if anyone outside my immediate family read the words, I’d already won. Blogging was therapy, a way of wondering aloud on so many topics: “If this is how it’s supposed to be, then how come…?”

But it now appears that the attempt to make sense of my self and the world around me has spoken to others. When I read this judge’s feedback, I cried for that young, inexperienced 2009 self who had no idea she could use prose to speak to faceless others, badly inept at self-expression as she’d been to that point:

“This writer has no problem tapping a vein and bleeding onto the page, but she does so with humor and style. My kind of writing! Definitely worth the prize.””