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Turning 30

By Debbie Millman


Three major things happened when I turned 30: I got divorced, I quit my job and I moved out of the studio apartment I shared with my husband. Luckily, I found a good therapist and subsequently spent the next year frequenting her office, freelancing and then moving yet again, after the wretched discovery that my new apartment was hopelessly infested with fleas.

After several failed attempts to remove them, my exterminator convinced me that the only way to rid my home of the most insidious insect known to man was to burn the entire 100-year old building down to the ground.

I decided a more prudent path would be to move. The day I left was a dark one. I was cranky and hungover, bitter that my life seemed to be so unwieldy and unsatisfying and as I passed a hairbrush through the bird’s nest on top of my head, I realized at that very moment, I had no home, no husband and no job. And I was 30!

I was over the hill with a raging headache and I was badly in need of a good haircut.

The moving men who came to assist me that day were a bunch of young, tough-talking handsome Israeli men. After eight hours of watching them load and unload everything in the world that I owned, I began to see the absurdity in what they were doing. How odd it seemed to be taking all these ridiculous things from place to place and how sad of me to be so attached to photo albums and candlesticks and silly posters in cheap metal frames.

I suddenly felt sorry for the moving men, having to schlep all my raggedy, over-stuffed boxes from street to street, and home to home.

One of the movers seemed to sense what I was thinking and patted me on the back while steering me away from the clutter. I smiled at his benevolence and by the end of the move, my headache was replaced by a crush.

When I settled my bill, I brazenly asked him if he had a girlfriend. “No,” he responded, slightly embarrassed and slightly surprised. “Well, then call me,” I said firmly and handed him a scrap of paper with my number. Two days later, he did; five days later we went on our first date, and four weeks after that, we were madly in love and planning a trip to Israel to visit his friends and family.

My new boyfriend wanted to spend all of July and August traveling through the Middle East. This terrified me. I wasn’t afraid of any political turbulence in his home country. I was afraid that if I were to go away for that long I would become unemployable and penniless. As if somehow, being out of sight and out of mind for what amounted to an entire summer would render me jobless and I would never work again. Both my boyfriend and my therapist tried to persuade me that this magical thinking wasn’t realistic or healthy, and to appease them both I decided to go. I finished my freelance projects and sublet my new apartment.

But I had been interviewing for a job I desperately wanted, and I worried that if I told them I would be traveling for so long they wouldn’t seriously consider me for the job. I alerted my subtenant that if the new job called, he must NOT tell them I was out of the country. Instead, I instructed him to immediately call my boyfriend’s parents in Israel, who would then find a way to get me the message.

All through the trip—driving through the glorious, historic sites of this ancient land —I worried that I was missing my all-important call.

When word from my prospective new employer came, we were visiting with my boyfriend’s buddies in an army base. When I was finally able to return the call, I found myself leaning against the glass door of a dirty payphone on the side of an abandoned road on the Jordan/Israel border. When my contact answered the phone, she questioned our spotty connection. I made a silly excuse and we agreed to meet in several weeks, mercifully scheduling a date after I returned home.

All I remember about that trip now was the amazing food, the magnitude of the Wailing Wall and how thoroughly stressed out I was nearly the entire time I was there. Perhaps I needed to worry, perhaps I felt guilty not working; perhaps this behavior was simply how I reconciled my shame. But looking back on it now, my fear of being infinitely unemployed was palpable. I never once considered that I was worthy of getting a new job. I only realize now that, in the grand scheme of things, the time between gainful employments was brief. Had I given myself the freedom to enjoy the discovery of traveling through a foreign land, had I even the slightest confidence in my abilities, I might have come back capable of bigger, better opportunities. Instead, I returned home, received the coveted job offer, and worked there for nine months until, utterly disappointed, I realized this job wouldn’t make me happy, either. It was then, and only then, that I found myself facing a new direction that would finally ignite my talent and my imagination. As I look back over that defining time in my career and my life, my only wish was that I worried less and traveled a whole lot more.

This post was created in collaboration with National Car Rental, which provides a premium, expedited car rental experience to road warriors around the world. All opinions expressed in this post are my own and not those of National Car Rental.

All proceeds for this work are being donated to the Design Matters Institute, which funds scholarships for students at the School of Visual Arts.

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