I grew up in Arizona, so access to Vegas was a quick ride away, but the bug never got me -- I’m not a gambler. I remember Vegas in the 90s, all kid-friendly, bright shiny themed hotels and drinks for days while playing 5 cent slots.
In college I took a class in virtual reality and we made a field trip to Vegas, visiting all the 3-D immersive rides and the behind the scenes action. The most valuable thing I got out of it was that the universal sign for “stop the ride” is always one hand over your mouth, the other waving wildly in the air. Try it, I’ve found this sign works pretty much everywhere in life.
The Vegas of today has a cheaper quality to it, there’s infill of strip malls, actual malls and randos walking up and down the street with 3-foot drinks suspended from their necks.The free drinks at the 5 cent slots are gone and have been replaced with 12 different Cirque du Soleil shows.
But I find myself there, once a year for a nerdy conference that I speak at, and I always try to get in a day early to walk the strip and soak in the noise for a bit. I want to be sure I have a few hours to hit the Bellagio and walk underneath the gigantic Chihuly glass ceilings, and see the atrium holiday display, but they’re all teasers for the one quiet, lovely experience in Las Vegas: the Bellagio museum. Hidden in the far back is a small but well-curated gallery often showing fabulous impressionist works where I can stop for an hour and insulate myself from the buzzing.
It was in the museum two years ago that I became a bit inspired. Leaving in the middle of a December day into the sun, I watched the dancing fountains, mesmerized like a drooling monkey until my phone rang. Over the din of the fountain, my friend asked me what I was up to, and I responded, “I was thinking of going to Italy.”
“Well, for New Year's. Is it crazy?”
“GO,” and then she said the one thing that sits with me -- “You deserve it.”
What You Deserve
My best friend would tell you I’m obsessed with two ideas: being good and being productive, I call them my twin pillars. You put good out there, and you don’t talk about it, and if you do, good things will come back. But it bothers me when friends call me a good person because its not really accurate.
As I try to unravel the steely cocoon of self sufficiency, I realize that guilt has played a major role. What is “taking care of myself so I don’t burden others” versus “doing things for me just because I should love myself enough to do so” versus “doing things for me because I have no faith that anyone else wants to”.
I see the patterns of life I create and have to admit a deep and embarrassing truth: I do good because I want, very badly, to believe it means that someday someone will want to do good things for me. Friends, partners, the people who make up my bubble. That motivation makes the good I do… less good.
Lesley recently talked about kicking 2013 out the door with a swift boot in the ass. For me, it was 2011. 2011 was the epicfail of Amanda years. A failwhale of a year. Amidst some significant wins and highs, my 35th year was marred by the excruciatingly drawn out death of my 12 year old doberman, Lucy. I closed the book on any future relationship with my parents after giving it my last, best concentrated effort, and then purged my worldly goods when I moved across country for the 2nd time in 3 years (the first move, to a remote rural area, was isolating and lonely). I took on a debilitating work project for almost 130 hours a week (do the math) where everyone hated me while I felt myself grow ulcers. But by November, I was in a better place.
As New Year’s approached, I thought about where I needed to be when 2012 started. I could have stayed home and had a respectable New Year with the man (boy) I was loosely dating (sleeping with). We’d have watched TV, and drank some wine and been asleep minutes later like any Thursday. I wanted something that honored my year, where I could be quiet, by myself and just appreciate the beauty of where life had taken me and pay homage to the things I’d left behind -- if 2011 was a process, I needed to finish it somewhere special. In my mind, that place was Italy.
Then I couldn’t bring myself to book the ticket. I thought about all the things I could better spend the money on -- savings, etc. I felt guilty, wondering what people would think. I consulted multiple friends who all told me, “You deserve it! You work too hard!” 7 days before New Years, I did it. I hit the “buy” button.
I arrived in Florence the morning of New Year's Eve. I went to dinner, by myself. One of those expensive drawn out prix fixe meals -- I spent dinner writing out lists. A list of all the things I was proud of, that I’d done well this year. A list of all the things I could have done better or regretted. And then a list of thank yous -- of literally every single person who had been involved in the year. I thanked anyone and everyone regardless of where we were in our relationship now.
At 11:30, I hightailed it to a piazza just over the river where the philharmonic was playing and everyone was throwing firecrackers into the square. I pushed into the crowd of couples, of groups, of friends. As the conductor counted down to the new year, despite the crowd of people smushed together, I pulled out my thank yous and read them to myself and cried quietly to myself.
A man who looked a lot like my grandfather, with a group of his friends, tapped me on the shoulder, handed me a plastic cup, and filled it with champagne, smiled at me, and toasted with me.
And just like that, it was 2012, and I’d put the past to bed. I walked a few miles back to my hotel, I spent the next week taking a phenomenal pottery class in Tuscany, and wrapped up with a few days in NYC with friends. I got hit on, so hard I suspected foul play, by a younger guy from Spain on the flight home who reminded me that magical things can still happen, even on the day you’re sitting on the floor of the Rome airport, in airplane clothes, eating pizza with your fingers, possibly with clay still in your hair.
I’ve always avoided pictures of myself, dodging cameras, but I shamelessly took a picture of myself mid vacation working in the pottery studio. When I posted it on Facebook, I described it as the photo I took because I wanted to remember what I looked like when I was happy.
I came back, settled in and got back to Portland life. I started getting emails from friends about my tweets and posts from Italy. It inspired one friend to quit her job, cash out and travel for a year. Another decided to open the cafe she’d been dreaming of. A third decided to change her master’s concentration. I was awed by how much power chasing happiness had.
Then I began thinking about Valentine's Day -- how I’d always wanted to go to Ireland and why shouldn’t I just avoid another uncomfortable Vday waiting for someone to do something fantastic for me? I could do something fantastic for myself. This time I didn’t feel guilty -- when a friend said again, “You deserve it!” I shut her down. It's not about deserving anymore; I don’t want to justify being good to myself anymore.
And so that’s how I spent 2012 -- healing and living for me. I threw pots in Italy. I trained falcons in Ireland. I swam with dolphins in New Zealand (a story so funny it deserves its own retelling). I hoisted lobster traps on the Atlantic. I learned to make cheese from two female goatkeepers who lived on a beach in Raetihi. I walked onto a ledge at the Cliffs of Moher with a sign that said “Caution, Unstable Ledge” and threw over the necklace with the charm I’d worn for 10 years, and Lucy’s tags, which I’d also been wearing. I found myself again. By the end of the year, I had Clementine.
Last year, I threw a New Year's party in my new hometown for all my friends. It was loud and boisterous and ridiculous. I made Peking Duck. But I craved a quiet space in the midst of the noise, where I could be appreciative. To be freed from wondering who I’d kiss. To meditate on me.
Which is why three months ago I bought a ticket back to Italy. I'm on a plane as you read this.