I’m one of those people who make a big deal about her birthday. Each year, I do something special to celebrate the occasion. This could be a dinner with friends, a big party, a trip, a spa day or just quiet time alone. When I was a child, I loved the attention (and of course the gifts), that I got from my friends and family.
Nowadays, I look at the day I was born as a benchmark to looking back on what I have achieved over the year, and to mark my goals for the coming year.
It was around the time I turned 22 that I hit my first refresh. As most of my friends were settling into office jobs and crazy commutes, I vied to return to London (I did a semester in college) and work as a hostess in a restaurant. My six months in London led to another six in Israel as a kibbutz volunteer. I call this time my first refresh because I made a choice to go against the grain. I ignored questions and judgments from friends and family about not getting a traditional job right out of school, and took a leap of faith to take a gap year.
The second refresh in my life struck when I was 32. At this time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and celebrated my 33rd year by having a bilateral mastectomy. I tapped into my inner reserve to survive this crisis and thanked my intuition for saving my life, as my gut told me I was sick before the doctors confirmed it. I also advocated for the correct course of treatment and surrounded myself with a strong support system.
To this day, I define this refresh as BC (before cancer) and AC (after cancer) because so much of who I am today is due to this life altering time in my life. Although this refresh was unplanned, it reshaped my life in so many ways. Not only did it give me the gift of embracing what matters, but I also learned to listen to the inner voice in my heart talking to me. Additionally, I learned that life is not only about people showing up at a time of crisis, but it’s also about being with people who lift you up too.
It took me about five years to adjust to my body and heal from being diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. Then at 38, I hit my third refresh and moved from the East Coast to San Francisco. I had always fantasized about a life on the West Coast and was finally energized to make it happen. Aside from being tired of the cold weather, I wanted to leave behind my life as a cancer patient.
I arrived in San Francisco with very few expectations and lived my life very much like Mary Ann Singleton from Tales of the City. This series of novels centers around a single woman who comes to San Francisco in search of adventure and new beginnings. Just like the main character in this story, I too was eager to reinvent myself and get a fresh lease on life. Funny enough, I share the same initials as the main character!
I had a fantastic social life and enjoyed living in San Francisco for the first six or so years. Although some things in my life were going well, I was still struggling and deep inside knew that I just wasn’t happy. As a non-profit fundraiser, it was extremely difficult to save money in what is now the most expensive city in America. I also found myself getting overwhelmed with the spike in crime, major homeless problem, gentrification in San Francisco, and the change in the political landscape of the country.
During this time, my career was also in a rut. For so long, I had worked in the non-profit sector as fundraising director. At around the time I noticed I needed a change, I also realized that my career had stalled, mostly because I lost the passion for what I was doing. Furthermore, a voice in my head kept telling me, “I used to want to save the world, but now I just want to save myself.”
Although I took a leap to move to my dream city, the lessons from my cancer story, along with my passion for travel and not feeling satisfied in my career, led to hitting my current refresh. So at 46, I said goodbye to my amazing friends, a young woman who I mentored for over five years, a rent controlled apartment, along with the sweetest dog ever, and hopped on a plane to teach English in South Korea.
Korea wasn’t on my radar. In fact, I wanted to head to Panama. However, the voice in my belly that told me I needed to mix up my life and get back to basics by doing something that brought me joy, also told me to be a bit practical about my decision. While I could enjoy the gorgeous weather, finally learn Spanish and be closer to my family in Panama, South Korea offered me quiet stability with a chance to save money.
I had very few expectations about my decision and at first, coming to South Korea was just an escape from what wasn’t working for me anymore. However, I quickly realized that becoming a kindergarten teacher in Asia has been one of the most rewarding and meaningful decisions of my life. The hardest part was finally turning on the switch to make it happen and go!
I’ve been in South Korea for about nine months and know that I’m exactly where I need (and want) to be. Not only have I fallen in love with teaching and my kids, I am meeting goals that I was too overwhelmed to address when I was a city girl in San Francisco. For the first time in years, I have no credit card debt, my anxiety has significantly subsided, my migraines are less frequent and I can honestly say I am happy! I’m also taking advantage of living in Korea (which has amazing health care too) and using it as a base to travel to other Asian countries.
I am writing this a few weeks before I turn 47. As mentioned, each year I celebrate the day I was born by looking back at what I’ve done and thinking about goals for the coming year. To mark this year’s birthday, I plan to take part in an overnight temple stay where I’ll spend time meditating and learning more about Buddhism. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the transformational year I’ve had, and to ponder what the future holds. My gut already tells me that I will continue to be an avid traveler who is curious and eager to live life to the fullest.
So far, Marla has lived in, and/or visited 31 countries. To learn more about Marla’s adventures as a 40 something wanderlust, check out Marlita’s Atlas on YouTube. Marla is also a moderator for the She Hit Refresh Facebook group.
Member Spotlight highlights stories of inspiring women from our She Hit Refresh group. We hope that by sharing their stories of change and travel we can expose the unconventional paths that thousands of women 30 years and older have chosen. There is no one way to live a life, just your way.