The Gift of a Year by Mira Kirshenbaum

Excerpted from The Gift of a Year by Mira Kirshenbaum. Copyright © 2000 by Mira Kirshenbaum. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Putnam, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.  HTML and web pages copyright © by

What are those needs and dreams that have fallen by the wayside for you? They're different for every woman, of course. With billions of women on the planet, there are billions of possibilities. Maybe what you need is to solve a particular problem – get on top of the stress at work, or find a way to get more fun and pleasure from your life, or stop getting involved with men who aren't good for you.

Maybe you want to make a specific dream come true – finally go back to school, or learn how to climb mountains, or take that trip to Paris.

Maybe you just need a real rest. Because sometimes simply doing nothing is the one thing your mind and body crave most. Or maybe you'd like to resolve a long-simmering issue in your life. Or get your life more organized. Or put the "you" back in your life. Or have some adventures. Or figure out where you want to go next with your life. Or do whatever you want.

Do you think you're the only woman in the world who's had to struggle with not getting her needs met? Of course not. Every woman struggles with this. And don't you think that with so many women in the same situation, an amazing solution would turn up? It has.

The Year of You

From women of all ages and backgrounds who'd heard about my work, I began hearing stories. These were women just like you and me. They too led busy, overcommitted lives. They too put most of their energy into doing what had to be done and into meeting other people's needs. But at some point the balance got too far out of whack. What about their own needs? What about their own dreams?

These women's stories were all about how they had dedicated a year to doing something special for themselves. That's the gift of a year.

Endless Possibilities

Every woman's special year is different. Listen to the voices of some women of different ages and backgrounds as they stand on the threshold of giving themselves the gift of a year, and listen to the very different kinds of years they're looking forward to. By the way, I happen to know that all these women pretty much got what they wanted. Why? For the simple reason that they spent a year focusing on it. They said, "This will be the year I ..." and then they did it.

Susan. "I loved writing poetry when I was young. And it was good. But, you know, the weeds of everyday life kind of choked out any room for poetry. I kept saying, heck, you can always find a few minutes a day to do a little writing. But what happens is that you put out so much of yourself for work, family, and friends, that you're pooped. When you do have free time, all you want to do is tube out or zone out or hang out. The things that are really important to you that don't fit in to the boom, boom, boom of everyday life you just postpone. So I just said no more waiting for things to open up. They never will. No more saying I'm not going to do it unless I have all the time in the world. I'll never have all the room I'd like in my life for poetry. But screw it. I'm going to write a poem a week anyway. And I'm going to push things aside – big things and little things – as I need to just to make sure I write that poem a week. This will be the year I look back on and say, `I wrote fifty-two poems and saved myself from drowning.'"

Ann. "I've just been going, going, going. When have I been able to ever give myself the luxury of asking what I want to do with myself? You know what would make this year great? If I could just figure out what I want to get out of my life. Not what other people want me to want. Not what I think I should want. But what deep down I want in the sense that it's the truth of who I really am."

Julia. "I've been giving to others for so long. To say nothing of what my job's taken out of me. I need a year to lie fallow. I'm just drained. I know there's a minimum I've got to do, but beyond that I need a year to do nothing. I can't tell you how much I need a year where I do nothing but take naps, catch up on my reading – feed myself in all the different ways I've been hungry."

Ally. "I've been weak for too long. I mean I don't stand up to people, I go along with things I really don't want to go along with, I don't make things happen. I know there are strong women out there. I want to get some of what they've got, so I can be strong for myself. I want to take assertiveness classes and public speaking classes and martial arts classes and do everything I can to bring out the strong woman I know I have inside me."

Melissa. "I'm only twenty-nine, but still, I can't believe I've gotten to this point and I don't even know myself. I don't know what's wrong with me. I don't know why I do things. I don't know who I really am. What a great year this would be if I could just dig in and figure out what makes me tick. If I can just get a handle on my problems, I know I can start solving them."

Vicki. "My career's going okay, but for a long time I've wanted to travel to the Amazon to live with one of the native peoples. Don't ask – if you take anthropology in college, you get these kinds of ideas whatever else you do later. But I've diddled along and I haven't sunk my teeth into it. I know that if I focus on it, in one year I can make it happen, or at least get launched in it. I'm sick of postponing something I know will make me so happy."

Michelle. "I've been complaining about my job, my relationship, even where I'm living for a long time. The truth is I need to make a decision about them one way or the other, and I'm as far today from making those decisions as I've ever been. I'm tired of living up in the air. If I can make some final decisions this year, one way or the other, and end my ambivalence and get on with my life – this year will be a turning point for me."

Wendy. "I'm so sick of the way I've been phoning it in on my job. I'm better than this, and I can do better than I've been doing. I know I need to figure out why I haven't been so successful. If I can learn from that, this will be a great year. Then I can look back and say, `This time you did well, you were successful, you came out on top, you made some money, you set a standard, and you met it.' I don't expect a lifetime of success in one year, but I want to do what I can to reorient myself toward success."

Do you catch a glimpse of the full range of possibilities, based on what women are doing with their special years?

The gift of a year is a time for you, and you can run around, if that's what you need, or you can stand still. You can do something different, or do what you've been doing in a different way. You can take something off your plate, or put something new on your plate. You can satisfy an old dream, or you can discover a new dream. Your special year can be anything you want it to be.

Don't be misled if I go on to talk occasionally about how one woman climbed a mountain, another woman painted landscapes, another laid the foundation for starting a business, another repaired her relationship with her father. You do enough for people already. The last thing you need is to worry about impressing people with whatever it is you do with your special year. Just take care of whatever is most important to you.

Above All, Enjoy Yourself

Whatever else it is, your special year should be a pleasure. Here's how Diana described what it was like for her.

Diana. "I couldn't quit my job, and I couldn't neglect my kids. But I realized I had to take my life in hand. I'd been feeling lost and unhappy, and I had this glimpse of what I wanted to do, which was somehow to reconnect to my love of nature. I'd always loved nature – biology and ecology were my favorite courses in college – but you know how it is. Once you're an adult you can get very far from things you really care about.

"So I guess I cleared the decks and found ... well, I didn't find it, it was more like I stole an hour a day and a few hours on the weekend. And I just did things outdoors, bird watching, nature hikes, you name it. You know what I was doing? I was grabbing a chunk of time by the scruff of the neck and giving it to myself. For once in my life I'd have the year of me.

"I could just smell the way this year would be my year, the way you can smell a bakery around the corner. And I knew that I'd somehow help myself turn a corner by the end of it. It's funny because I never thought I could afford it, time-wise, but sometimes if you just decide to do something, it's all there for you."

By reexperiencing her love of nature, Diana made an amazing psychological shift. Before her special year, her future had seemed foggy – lacking much of who she really was and what she cared about most. Afterward, she said the whole year she'd felt as though the sun had come out. Based on how pleasurable her year was, she now envisioned her future filled with wonderful experiences and real growth in her appreciation of the natural world. And all that from doing something that was so easy and so much fun for her.

Playing for Keeps

You might say, well, la-di-da, what a nice little luxury the gift of a year is. Just what the world needs: more self-indulgent women.

If I believed that I wouldn't have written this book. I was a poor kid, a refugee kid. Because my parents survived the Holocaust, when I was a little girl I sometimes imagined the Angel of Death standing at the foot of my bed asking me, "Why should you have lived when so many others died?" Survivor guilt. Lots of us have it. And it makes you take things seriously. So do you think I'd be busy with the gift of a year if it was just frosting on the cake? Okay, yes, for many women it tastes as sweet as frosting on a cake. And what's wrong with enjoying something wonderful?

But make no mistake. The gift of a year can in a way save your life. You need to think of your special year as an absolute necessity. Because it is.

Have you ever said something like, "It's time I did something just for me"? If you have, that's good. It's a sign that maybe something's going on that you need to pay attention to before it's too late. When carbon monoxide leaks into your house, you can suffocate before you realize what's happening. The same kind of thing happens to far too many women today. We pour our energy into what we have to do for others. Even if you're doing well at your chosen career, most of what sucks the time out of your life is duties you have not chosen. Meanwhile who you are, what you need, what's best about you gets deprived of air and slowly starts to suffocate.

Let's get real. What do you think will happen if you don't make yourself a priority in your life for one year? What do you think will happen to the dreams you need to make come true? To the parts of yourself you have to take care of? To the problems you have to solve?

Restoring the Natural Balance

Why do you think depression is a problem for five times as many women as men? All you need to know is that women are five times less likely to say yes to themselves than men. Isn't that a recipe for depression? After all, depression can happen to us when the self gets worn out and discouraged from our not doing a good job taking care of it.

How can you think of yourself as a caring person if you don't take care of yourself? If you don't take care of yourself, you'll stop thinking of yourself as someone who has a lot to give. Instead you'll feel deprived. And you'll hate your life. How can you give others joy if you can't give yourself joy?

Giving yourself the gift of a year has a magical impact on your life because it restores the natural, necessary balance between giving to yourself and giving to others. There's no reason for you to leave yourself outside of the equation. In the ecology of your life, you're as important as anyone. If things curdle inside of you because you've neglected yourself, then ultimately they curdle for everyone.

Instead imagine a small life-saving miracle. You give yourself a year in which you say stop to the soul-eroding momentum of your life. You give yourself a gift you've never given yourself before. Instead of putting yourself last, by hook or by crook you do what you need to do for yourself.

Maybe it only takes a few minutes a day. Or an hour a day. Or, for some women, a bigger chunk of time. But you give yourself one year that will stand out forever in your memory as a year different from all the others.

That's the gift part of the gift of a year. A real gift has to be something personal, something with impact, something you care about, something that gives you pleasure. So does your year.

Time Is on Your Side

What about the year part? Of course you realize that I'm talking about whatever time you can find and afford over the course of a year. I will talk about time a lot – it's a big issue for us overcommitted women. And I'll prove to you that you will be able to find the time to give yourself the gift of a year that's right for you. For now, one brief example. An hour a day for one year is 365 hours. That equals more than nine entire work weeks. What can't a woman accomplish in that time?

It doesn't even have to be one year. Gifts aren't rigid. But I know this – it can't be a day or a week. That doesn't even come close. We give ourselves a few days here and there all the time. But come on. A little is not enough.

The point of talking about a year is that it's big and memorable. It does something substantial for you. If you went on a religious retreat or took a trip you've dreamed of or went to an artists' colony for two solid months, leaving everyday life to do it, well, that's huge. That's two months full time, and anyone would say that's the equivalent of a year part time.

Your gift of a year can be more than a year too. If you want it, you might be like many women for whom the gift of a year turned into the gift of a lifetime. Why would you stop if it feels good and it's working for you?

The point of a year is to seize hold of a large enough chunk of your life so that even when you're an old lady that chunk stands out in your memory. The point of a year is also to make something of your own a priority long enough to really make a dent in it or resolve it or complete it.

So there's nothing sacred about the exact time span of 365 days. But feeling that you're worth something like a year – that is sacred.

The Rhythm of Your Life

Working within the rhythms of time – that too is sacred. Women have a special relationship with time. Menstruation, aging, birthdays, the biological clock, the ceremonies for which we feel responsible – all these give us an unusual awareness of time. Time as something to treasure, time as a resource, time as the arena in which we live our lives.

We focus too much on time as the enemy – aging, for example. On time as the scarcest of resources – our feeling incredibly busy, for example. But more than anything we're used to flowing with the river of time. Time isn't our enemy. It's our home.

This is where the gift of a year comes in. We talk about wanting to do something before a certain age or within a certain period of time. We understand how precious a year can be, and how powerful. You can make a baby in that time. So it's natural to give ourselves a year to do something special. When you give yourself the gift of a year, you know you're working with a time-centered process that for women is the most natural thing in the world.

You've Got All the Time You Need

Sometimes when I talk about the gift of a year a woman says, "But I'm just too busy." I sympathize, I understand. We're all going nuts these days. I am bruised by the same time crunch that squeezes in on all of us, but I'm telling you that you can and will find time in your life to give yourself the gift of a year.

You'll find plenty of material later in the nuts-and-bolts part of this book about how to get more time and support for yourself. But to prove that you can do it, let me just summarize:

Why You Do Have Time to Give Yourself a Special Year

1. You'll be so excited once you discover what you want to do with your special year that you'll find time you didn't know you had.

2. Most of the things most women want to do with their special year don't take all that much time from their day or their week.

3. Yeah, you're busy, but nine out of ten women do have some free time for themselves, and I bet you do too. Just because we piss away too much of our free time doesn't mean we don't have it.

4. The problem is not that you can't find the time, it's that you haven't said no to the people who make demands on you. You don't have a time shortage, you have a saying-no-to-others shortage.

It's a reality that we're all busy. But it's time we stopped using "I'm too busy" as an excuse to deny ourselves what we desperately need.

You deserve it, damn it. Speaking of excuses, I'm sure you like to think of yourself as someone who has a lot to give. How do you square that with the gift of a year? With a world full of people who need what you have to give, how can you justify giving a special year to yourself?

Ah, there it is. The voice of doubt. The part of you that tries to talk yourself out of giving to yourself. This voice is real. Let's let it out for a moment. Every woman who's given herself a special year has heard the voice of doubt. Based on what women have told me, here are the top ten excuses they've come up with. Listen to all the insidious ways we deprive ourselves.

Top Ten Reasons Not to Give Yourself The Gift of a Year

1. "When your husband/boss/boyfriend/mother needs you, you've got to be there or else."

2. "There's always next year, or the year after, or when you retire."

3. "There's nothing you really want to do that you're not already doing."

4. "Once you start paying attention to what you care about, maybe you'll go crazy and go overboard and just want more and more for yourself."

5. "Truly moral women put themselves last on their list of priorities."

6. "What you really want is something you'll enjoy, and what does it say about you that you'd do something just because it makes you happy?"

7. "Your friends will hate you if you're not as miserable as they are."

8. "After all, women don't know what they want anyway."

9. "Maybe you'll discover something wonderful you want to do more with, and wouldn't that be inconvenient for everyone?"

10. "You're not really worth it, are you?"

You don't believe any of this crap, do you? Of course not. And yet, words like these make some women hesitate. Well, watch out. She who hesitates is lost. The fact that you need to give to yourself as well as to others is a lesson you can learn the hard way or the easy way. I hope you learn it the easy way.

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