This year my 35th birthday fell on Easter weekend, and as the day approached, my family peppered me with questions about what I’d like to commemorate my new half-decade. While the children suggested a new toy or a family movie night, Radek countered with offers to join him for a day of shopping. Although their offers were kind, I felt an overwhelming desire for something that I couldn’t quite articulate.
A few years back, a Canadian friend in Prague told me that she’d spent her birthday in a hotel downtown. As she described her perfect evening – she’d had dinner with friends in the city and then retired to her hotel room. She read the paper and then turned into bed for a full night of uninterrupted sleep. Away from her husband, her children and the demands of her work and household, she’d spent her birthday night in a quiet, restful slumber.
When she related the story to me, I thought she’d lost her mind. If I’d had the chance to spend an evening in a hotel, I’d have wanted a little more pizzazz. Firstly, I’d have left the city, or more likely, I’d have opted for a babysitter and a night on the town with my husband or girlfriends. She smiled and told me that she’d gotten exactly what she wanted.
Before my friend moved from Prague back to Canada, she’d joined me for one of my birthday celebrations with Radek and some other friends at a Prague restaurant. There she gifted me with two tiny, pewter seashells handmade in her Canadian hometown. They were engraved with the words, “WISH” and “RELAX”. I am reminded of her and the sentiment each time I open my jewelry box.
This year for Christmas my aunt gave me Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s much-acclaimed meditational book, Gift from the Sea. In the book, Lindbergh uses seashell analogies to describe a full range of ebbs and tides that can occur in a lifetime. In a rare escape from her family, Lindbergh spends a few days alone in a beach cottage. She writes of the benefits of solitude and contemplation. To describe her journey through adulthood, Lindbergh uses found seashells to illustrate a life’s changing tides. As one balances relationships, love and marriage, family life and work, with time for reflection and contemplation, Lindbergh shows how the hustle and bustle of modern life doesn’t have to determine one’s existence. At least not all of the time, she counters.
When I read Lindbergh’s words from 1955, I felt a kindred spirit speaking. At present an endless Prague winter drags on outside the house and my three children each clamor for his voice to be heard and responded to. After seven years of not working outside the house, beyond teaching some part-time English lessons, I am beginning to go a bit stir crazy. There is not much alone time in my current life. Realistically, I know that I am fortunate to have all that I do – a loving partner, healthy, growing children and a comfortable lifestyle; there is very little to complain about.
Still, when I expressed my desire to have something more out of my life, during a rare dinner out with a Czech friend, she mentioned a silent weekend retreat that she’d been on. She claimed it was the best weekend she’d spent in years. At the beginning of the retreat, the rules were clearly outlined: no communicating – that is no talking and not even any facial expressions or hand gestures. The weekend was simply a time to look inward. The idea of being silent for an entire weekend seemed out of my reach, but I liked the idea of a weekend spent focusing within, removed from any external responsibilities.
A few months ago, another Czech friend invited me to attend an exercise weekend at a vineyard in Moravia. The weekend featured nine different activities, including salsa dancing, body rolling, yoga, zumba and pilates. On Saturday evening there was to be a tour of the wine cellars and a wine tasting. It sounded like the perfect break from my normal routine and a great way to start the spring season fresh and energized. I vacillated between looking tremendously forward to the weekend and feeling extremely guilty about having to miss Anna Lee’s first-ever dance competition. Although it wasn’t an alone, inward-looking weekend, it seemed even better; it would be a chance to interact with different people, speak Czech extensively and learn a few new exercise moves.
Then, a few days before the weekend, Anna came down with bronchitis and I started running a fever from a sinus infection. I waited until Friday morning before I reluctantly called my friend and canceled the trip. Anna’s dance performance and the rest of our weekend plans were also shot. I spent the weekend and half of the following week physically ill, and also feeling sorry for myself. When I talked to Radek he reminded me that my friend was probably also quite bummed to have had to have gone on our girl’s weekend solo.
Still, the idea of embarking on some adventure alone did have a certain appeal to me that I couldn’t shake. While I couldn’t figure out how I might get my alone time immediately, for my birthday I asked Radek and the children to join me for a family day.
We headed into town to tour the Easter markets. Then we came back to Roztoky for an Easter lunch and a walk by the river. Although the temperature read 7C, the wind whipped through our winter coats, so we cut our walk short and headed home. There we celebrated with a birthday cake decorated with an over-sized pink 3 and a red 5 left-over from Anna and Oliver’s previous birthdays. Anna had sewn me a handkerchief and Oliver had made me a card. Radek gave me a gift certificate for a massage (perhaps my message about wanting some me-time had been understood after all). Finally, we opened some champagne that had been in our pantry for ages, and the children helped me blow out the candles.
I made a birthday wish and thought again of Lindbergh’s wise words: Whenever there is time to escape life’s demands for a moment of contemplation or reflection, a quiet breakfast with your partner or a one-on-one afternoon spent with a child, you can rebuild the energy and strength needed to sustain an otherwise full and busy life. Most importantly, she urges us to look within ourselves to find the creative energy needed to sustain our own lives. As I celebrated with my family, I felt a fresh perspective on this next chapter of my life slowly come to form.
This weekend I’m registered to run the Hervis half-marathon in Prague. I’m not in top form after my illness, but I’m planning to run the race anyway. I’ll be in a new age bracket (Masters Women), and I’m looking forward to seeing how many other 35+ women I meet on the road. I’m sure I’ll be surprised by just how many of us there are. And, in the midst of the thousands of other runners, I believe that I might finally get a moment alone.