Here’s the story of my 2023. The stuff I wasn’t ready to talk about or didn’t know how to share when I was living it. The hard truths that led to my semi-resignation and the reason I’m officially back in 2024.
This annual recap has become a bit of a tradition on Wit & Delight (read previous posts here: 2022, 2021, 2020, and 2019). I thought about skipping the 2023 recap altogether because, to be honest, looking back is uncomfortable, even if you’ve had a decent year. But these reflection posts are important to me because looking back from memory is often a distorted representation of what happened. I don’t remember much from my childhood or twenties at this point in life. So I know firsthand if I don’t write it down, my brain rewrites history. And I don’t want that. I want to remember the experience of living—the horrors and the misfortunes, all intertwined with the depths of love, joy, and daily delights.
While I’m writing this for me, I share it publicly because it’s not uncommon to experience this soup of emotions throughout a year. My failures and breakdowns are experiences that aren’t special or unique to me. They may seem tiny to some and massive to others. While my circumstances are unique (and privileged), we don’t see enough blueprints for what it looks like to return after massive failure. We don’t often see people choosing to get up and try again. The scale and circumstances of others’ experiences might be different altogether, but the feelings of hopelessness—and the places we find the hope to start again—are universal.
I know firsthand if I don’t write it down, my brain rewrites history. And I don’t want that. I want to remember the experience of living—the horrors and the misfortunes, all intertwined with the depths of love, joy, and daily delights.
It is my wish that this recap offers someone who is crashing through failure after failure—through bad timing, bad luck, and a lot of disappointment—the realization that there is always hope, even in times you cannot readily access it. There is hope even when you’ve not yet come through to the other side.
This was the year I broke down, but also the year I finally came to know who I am. Read my entire 2023 year in review below.
It’s the first day of the year and I am not hungover. Winnie and I embark on a snowy walk and follow it with time in the sauna. I shower and get dressed: red socks with black loafers and my favorite wool coat.
I am busy with work and spend time filming, writing, and attending appointments. We get a ton of snow and enjoy a slower, simpler routine. I do Pilates and spend a lot of time cooking and eating. I make a delicious pearl onion tarte from Mimi Thorrison’s French Country Cooking. Time spent across a table with friends is also a theme this month and my friend Leslie makes a French onion soup that renders all eight of us silent. The kids and I make letter-shaped pancakes on cold mornings and enjoy sledding and hot chocolate and all the wintery things. I eat a lot of greens and soups and roast chicken and braised beef with gnocchi. I host a raclette party, my friends make baked Alaska, and we celebrate friendship.
We escape to Duluth with friends to cook, browse antiques, and tour a haunted mansion. It is always a sight to see the great Lake Superior frozen completely. I bring everyone sheet masks for their faces, and the men cut them up to accommodate their winter beards. We play games and laugh. All things that fill my cup.
I am getting dressed every day and feeling inspired by the process. I am starting to feel more at home in my body through continual daily movement. My clothes are starting to fit differently. The Peloton is my friend at the start of each day, and I’m committed to the ritual of drinking water first thing in the morning. I watch movies like Love Story and 9 ½ Weeks. I read Bliss Montage. I am preparing to launch my first newsletter: House Call.
January was busier than I had planned. I vow to tip the scales in favor of balance. I have an epic thrifting haul on the first of the month. August and I play chess and ping pong. We enjoy our freshly painted basement. My friend hosts an Outlander-themed dinner party, and my niece Rozemie Kay Arends is born. She is the most beautiful baby I have ever seen. The kids and I make a puppet theatre out of cardboard and paint it with flowers and red and white stripes. I eat so many sumo oranges. Joe and I celebrate ten years since we started dating.
I feel better physically than I have since before the pandemic, but mentally, I am unsettled. I feel this sinking feeling that something terrible is coming. Joe is unhappy at work, and I find myself exhausted at the thought of doing the simplest tasks related to content creation. It isn’t the right time to be burnt out. In September 2022, my New Business Director left W&D to move on to other things, and by February, new business is starting to slow. It is time to find my passion again. We begin contacting past clients, and I realize I am uncomfortable with “selling” myself. I numb the fear with TV and mindless scrolling but don’t feel energized afterward.
COVID finally gets August and me on Valentine’s Day. Joe is traveling, and I’m trying to keep it together until he gets back home. I am in bed for three days and cry uncontrollably for two of them. Eventually, we both get better.
I am reading The Obstacle Is the Way and The Body Keeps the Score. I sit outside and let the sun hit my face. I worry about new work coming in. It is oddly quiet. I take consulting calls and enjoy them immensely. I work out, drink water, and feel strong.
We eat cheesecake and steak with friends and go on our first family spring break vacation. I eat a fancy meal on a frozen lake with new friends. I watch a few of my comfort movies: Lost in Translation and The Royal Tenenbaums. I chalk up my underlying dread to the winter blues and the lack of SSRIs in my system. Time starts moving fast, and the memories are thin. We book cheap flights to France for my fortieth birthday and our tenth wedding anniversary in November.
April kicks off with a foot of snow. Some trees in our yard bend and break due to their weight. While I’ve lost weight since going off my medication in October, my spirit can’t relate. Even as the snow melts, I find myself weighted down with worry about a circumstance many small business owners face time and time again: when taxes, cash flow, and the unexpected collide. I pay my bills and cross my fingers. It’s always worked out before.
The earth thaws. By the end of the month, the snow is finally gone. It is my first winter off antidepressants in six years and the side effects of my withdrawal process have faded. I find it takes effort not to let the grayness outside darken my view of the general state of things.
The good news is I’m busy with new product development opportunities. I design a slew of products for a new buyer at Target with the hopes a few are selected. It feels so good to be designing something again. I remember that feeling. I have also been approached about designing two home remodeling projects. I’m wary, considering I am not an interior designer, but the clients know this, and I cautiously take on consulting roles for each.
I start working on a new project called Nine Pines. The sun comes out. Then the ax falls. Two big clients who had verbally signed on for sponsored projects with Wit & Delight ghost us, and suddenly my cash flow runway gets very, very short. We had already started to eat into the cash reserve when our New Business Director left, and I know it’s time to make some tough decisions. At this point, I have a team of five, most of whom are working thirty to forty hours a week. I will be out of money by July if I don’t make a hard call soon.
I get in a car accident. Twenty-one mature bushes, trees, and shrubs die in our front yard. My dad and Joe’s dad are both fighting cancer. Joe is incredibly unhappy at work and is now six months into a job search that is weighing on both of us.
I go on runs. I go through all the scenarios. The most pressing issue is cash flow. The numbers are now unavoidable: My business can’t support my team without a dedicated salesperson and we do not have the runway to hire this person. But I crunch the numbers again and again. I deal with the resulting shame and feelings of failure by blocking them entirely and looking rationally at what I need to do.
I have difficult conversations with each person on the team. It is horrible, as these things are. I need to take some time to figure out what to do with Wit & Delight. The weight of it all consumes me, and I feel as if I’m in a dark pit and cannot see the edges. If I have to let my team go, it is clear I have failed not only them but also the brand and community. The snowball of dissatisfaction I had numbed out with avoidance, procrastination, and self-medication is so giant now I have to confront it. It blocks my escape route. There is no other way to go but through. And I deal with it the only way I know how, which is to tear everything down.
Joe finds a new job that fits what he was looking for and puts in his two weeks’ notice. At least we have some good news.
I take care of business. I tell myself to “harden up” and keep life as normal as possible so my kids have stability. Joe starts his new job, which requires quite a bit of travel. I solo parent and find time to run and play tennis to cope with the stress.
We announce that things are changing for the business. I ask our community and friends to help find leads for the team for new jobs. I consider what it would look like to carry on with W&D in a different, pared-back way in the future, but this feels impossible to face in my current mental space. I still have a few lingering brand projects and I do my best to show up when all I want to do is hide. It feels wrong to go on pretending like I haven’t let everyone down. I tell you I am stepping aside for a while without telling you exactly why.
Had I been at my best, I would have taken my time to decide to make changes to the brand; I would have done it when I wasn’t in flight mode. But I was not at my best, and I only write this realization now with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, to say I was “quitting” felt like the only way. So with my impulses and intuition in the driver’s seat, I jump off a proverbial cliff; I believe I will find wings on the way down.
What follows is confusion, questions (are you done or not done?), a mass exodus of followers, angry phone calls, and the intuitive knowing that I am about to face what I’ve been trying to outrun.
This internal storm is juxtaposed with summer activities like swimming and dinner parties. I feel like I’m keeping it together, and then something inside—an emotional dam of some kind—gives way.
We go on vacation with my extended family at the beginning of July and I am not myself. I take every innocent question about my future hard, like a rock hurled at my confidence. I cry every morning. I have little energy to interact with anyone. I have dwindled my business accounts to the lowest they’ve ever been and still have bills and quarterly taxes that require funds. It will take time to repair, but it isn’t impossible by any stretch.
I realize my options for a second career path are not panning out the way I had anticipated. The products I designed in the spring are squashed by executives spooked by Q4 projections and fears of the looming recession. Nothing is lighting me up. I play happy when I need to and we throw August the birthday party he wanted. I summon the energy to swim, watch thunderstorms roll in, and spend time up at the North Shore. It’ll be over soon, I think.
I am in the woods of my mind. I feel sorry for myself. I feel shame for being so self-absorbed. I am in a closed loop, pushing at the edges, wondering if I’ll slip further into darkness. I question everything.
I read a particularly memorable short story called “The Resident” by Carmen Machado in her beautiful book, Her Body and Other Parties. It’s a story about a writer who earns a scholarship at an artists-in-residence retreat, located where she experienced an unresolved childhood trauma in the forest. As soon as she arrives, she becomes violently ill, and we soon understand the veil between reality and her perception becomes blurred. She falls further into her psyche as she makes sense of her memories through present circumstances. The more she explores her mind, the farther from reality she floats.
In the story, Carmen writes, “What if you colonize your mind and when you get inside you realize it’s all cardboard cutouts and it all collapses beneath the pressure of your finger? What if you get inside and nothing is there?”
She asks, “What is worse, being locked outside of your mind or being locked inside it?”
The chapter ends with this:
“Perhaps you think I’m a cliché—a weak, trembling thing with a silly root of adolescent trauma straight out of a gothic novel.
But I ask you readers: Thus far in your jury deliberations, have you encountered others who have truly met themselves? I have known many people in my lifetime and rarely do I find any who have been taken down to the quick, pruned so their branches might grow back healthier than before.
I can tell you with perfect honesty that the night in the forest was a gift. Many people live and die without ever confronting themselves in the darkness. Pray that one day, you will spin around at the water’s edge, lean over, and be able to count yourself among the lucky.”
I fly to Montana with a friend to look at her property and reconfigure the layout for an upcoming renovation. On the way home, we talk about the state of the interior design and construction industry. I share some thoughts on what I’ve observed during my limited time dipping my toe into client work. I light up with inspiration and a role that doesn’t exist today in the field flashes in front of me with clarity. I come home ready to dig into the possibilities and explore a path forward.
People tell me I look healthy and happy. I feel strong physically and my eyes are clearer than they have been in years. Yet I cannot move from under the thumb of my inner critic. I write more freely than I have in ages and feel nothing. Logically, I have moved on with my life, but the inner voice continues to drum on and on. The soundtrack of my daily life is a repeating line: Why bother? I worry I’ve gone mad.
I Google intrusive thoughts. I begin to question the thoughts themselves and dismiss them as I would an internet troll. But I still worry. I feed my inner troll by obsessing over my obsessions. I think, How much longer? How much longer will we hold on to this loop? I fear the worst is coming but wonder if I just fear moving forward. I put one foot in front of the other anyway.
Then, while on a walk in late September, it hits me: I am afraid of what I’ll become if I stop beating myself up. What happens if I just… let go? Let go and live?
Then, while on a walk in late September, it hits me: I am afraid of what I’ll become if I stop beating myself up. What happens if I just… let go? Let go and live?
I am tipping my toes into the practice of letting go. Some things come easily. Some things, not so much. I move away from relationships that thrive on comparison. I invite relationships that cultivate possibility and collaboration.
Joe’s been traveling for work for six weeks straight and isn’t himself. We go up North for a quick weekend with friends and reconnect. I try to cancel our trip to France. I feel guilty about spending money when we need to save but I know Joe and I both need to find space to breathe and reconnect. We decide to make the trip work by dipping into savings and taking on consulting work.
The second we leave Minnesota, I am lighter.
In France, we soak in a change of scenery and sleep and talk. We drive, hike, listen to French electro-pop, and eat until we cannot eat anymore. We talk about money—what we’ve each learned about ourselves through the unexpected twists and turns of 2023. How we both avoid discomfort and seek pleasure and how we can be a united front when hard times come. We speak candidly about what we want for the future and where we both are afraid and hopeful.
We find underneath the problems of our day-to-day life is the foundation of a family that can handle a lot. With Joe and I both feeling like fragments of a whole person, somehow, our marriage sustains us through a long period of disconnection. If they say repair after a fight is akin to putting money in the bank, we’re relying a lot on the past decade of doing the hard thing and working out our differences.
Over dinner on the last day of the month, I am in a funk. I barely speak. Joe asks what’s wrong, and I lament about getting older, how it isn’t fair, how I barely recognize the person I’ve become. Joe looks at me in a way I cannot recognize, then says, “This isn’t you, Kate. You sound like you are struggling, but you don’t sound like… you.” I want to punch him in the face. Here, I’m saying out loud these embarrassing things I’ve kept to myself for months, and that’s all he has to say? We finish the meal in silence.
Later that night I feel a slight shift in my heart. I can’t describe it logically—it doesn’t make much rational sense at all. But there is a click of a switch that brings up the awareness that yes, I haven’t been myself. I have been waiting for someone to swoop in and show me what to do, how to get myself out of this loop of misery, how to remove myself from these circumstances and this identity crisis. As it turns out, that someone is me.
It is November 1 and I am forty years old. It’s funny how they say big moments like this are underwhelming. You’re somehow supposed to feel different, transformed in some way or another. I don’t feel different, but I do feel lighter. I don’t wake up ready to fight. I wake up ready to live, but not in some grand, go out and seize the day way. I wake up with the space to take a deep breath in my chest, to be present with Joe, to genuinely delight in the simple pleasure of a long hike.
When we arrive home from our trip, I worry I’ll lose this feeling. I sit down at my desk to work, imagining all my insecurities had been left in pieces in the French Alps, only to find the old drone of rumination appearing once more. This time, I stop it before it gains momentum. I open a new page in the Notion app, title it “A 40th Birthday Contract To Myself,” and begin to write.
Three pages later, I print it out and leave it on Joe’s desk to review, a pen resting atop for his signature. Throughout the next month, I reference it multiple times a day when I feel like throwing in the towel and doomscrolling. I start making teeny tiny, barely noticeable steps toward a different way of being.
I feel more energized and excited to spend time with friends. We host Friendsgiving with our neighborhood friend group and my close girlfriends throw me a little dinner party to celebrate a belated birthday. It takes me a week to open the cards they wrote. When I finally do, I remember that while we go through seasons in which loving ourselves feels impossible, we must still be open to receiving love from others.
I vow to do less this season. To buy less and to be considerate with my time, my energy, and who I invite into my space. This commitment doesn’t come without its challenges but it pays off. I spend time with the people who fill my cup. I cherish my time with family. I bake with my mom and talk with my dad and feel so thankful for the small moments of nothing we just have… together.
The small, simple things once overshadowed by the monster in my mind are clearly in front of me. I wonder, Is this what I was looking for all along? The ability to feel all of my emotions, to feel true gratitude for what is right in front of me? Was all of this inner turmoil brewing because I was afraid to feel the overwhelming joy and love in my life? Was it all because I feared the loss that comes with loving?
This thread I started to tug at one year ago—the intuitive feeling that something was missing, something I didn’t get, some reason to slow down—was leading me here.
Letting go of Wit & Delight in its previous form, letting go of my dreams of being “someone” I couldn’t even define, made me realize what I really needed. I needed to come home to myself. This realization has changed my life. It has shown me how often we look at people and things and experiences in black and white because we cannot handle the fact that almost everything contains multitudes; that life unravels in varying shades of gray.
As for what’s coming up for me in 2024? I’ll be sharing my plans and goals for this year later this month. Stay tuned. And thank you, as always, for being along with me on this winding ride.
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