“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — Mary Oliver
I am not where I thought I would be.
At the start of August, I arrived with 60 people in Split, Croatia as part of a remote work programme. If you read my earlier post, you will know I had a bumpy start. I fought every instinct to turn right around and leave.
Because I had been so excited about it, and because I had made my friends and family just as excited on my behalf over it, I felt doubly embarrassed and ashamed with myself for not loving the experience as I thought I should. Everyone continued to say this was an opportunity like no other. Twelve months, twelve cities, three continents – what’s not to love?
For me, it felt like when the guy sounds great on paper, so you doll up for your first date – only to discover there’s no spark. Making an effort was exhausting and pointless given the obvious mismatch.
It’s difficult to give shape to my discontent as it constituted multiple issues that perhaps individually would not seem like a deal breaker. Much like the way my divorce was not precipitated by one dramatic cause – like he hit me or cheated on me – but by the accumulated frustrations and hurts, the compounding sense of alienation and isolation.
The reasons in this case were partly to do with me and partly the programme. On my part, I had followed my old pattern of packing up my entire life after a big change. That is, I dismantled my base, put my life in a bag and hit the road. Whereas perhaps what I should have done after quitting my job was stay put – just take a holiday to expunge the imprint of the experience from my system.
It used to be that travel for me was life; but going away now felt as if I was putting life on hold, treading water, until I returned to what really mattered. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I despaired going all the way to Croatia and finding myself in a bubble predominately made up of Americans. Individually they were lovely, but they moved in packs, and group activities made me cower. They also always seemed to be active, never sitting still. I spoke of my bewilderment to the programme leaders – they were all so ceaselessly task-driven, so goal-oriented, so intent on conquering, crushing it, killing it, winning.
When my bestie Hilary* came to visit me from New York towards the end of the month, it reinforced my belief that you don’t go to a dinner party for the food but for the friends around the table. Croatia went from being bittersweet to celebratory when she arrived. We did what everyone else does when visiting Split – soaked up the sun, went island hopping, swam in the Adriatic, ate burek, walked to and from and around the Old Town. We fell in step with the town’s relaxed rhythm. The gorgeous backdrop got woven into the fabric of our long friendship, making me warm to Split in a way I hadn’t earlier.
Some days later, I left Europe to briefly visit the city** where I had last worked. I arrived late on a day of torrential rains. Our plane circled the airport, unable to land at its designated time. Past immigration, I stood in a queue for several hours to get a cab. By 3.30am the rain had stopped and the water levels were receeding. There were cars abandoned haphazardly in the middle of the roads, with no soul in sight; it looked like something out of an apocalypse movie.
The next day, with the ATMs out of service thanks to the flooding, I stood in another long line, this time at the bank to withdraw cash at the counter. The woman behind me launched into a refrain I had already heard numerous times that morning from other strangers – the corruption, the ineffectiveness of the authorities, this country will always be struggling. She turned to me and said, “You’re not from here, that’s why you’re smiling.”
It’s true that I’m not from here. This country is not mine by birth or nationality. I wasn’t raised or educated in it. In fact, it takes a great deal of effort to be here, because the place has uneasy relations with the countries of both my birth and that of my citizenship (and we live in a world where these artificial demarcations dictate who gets to live on which part of this earth). Though many close friends live here, I have no official ties to the place.
And it’s true that I was smiling, but not because her problems were not my problems. I was smiling because despite being flooded out of my Airbnb apartment and moving my luggage three times in one day up and down seven flights of stairs (thanks to flooded lifts), despite the lack of sleep and the jet lag, and feeling entirely helpless without a local mobile, and being uncertain about the next stage in my life, and the chaos and practical challenges surrounding me – I felt an all-too-rare euphoria of being aligned in myself. Of having the scattered parts inside of me click into position. To feel in my heart that everything was exactly as it was meant to be.
This was a far cry from how I’d been feeling on the work-travel programme, and before that on my insane job. In Croatia, I had been clenching my teeth and soldiering on, despite my deep unhappiness. I wanted to live up to the expectations I’d created about this “amazing adventure” and I didn’t want to lose face, to myself or other people. I wanted to prove that I could handle it, that I could handle anything. That I was tough enough. That I could conquer it, crush it, kill it. That I could win.
While I’m all for setting goals and achieving them, in this instance the prize for toughening it out was – what, exactly? Rather than acting on my instinct, I had turned it into a test of endurance, for no earthly benefit to anyone, least of all me.
I thought of my cousin Rubaiya who, following the recent death of her mother, booked herself into an ashram, saying she needed yoga, meditation and quiet reflection time. So I was surprised when I got a message from her soon after, asking where I was. Wait, where was she? She had gone to the ashram – but turned around the same day and came back. “I thought I wanted yoga, meditation and quiet,” she said. “Then I realised what I really wanted was to be surrounded by friends, laughter and love.”
Inner turmoil occurs when we know what is red but we’re trying to convince ourselves that it’s blue. We are here on earth for only a blink of an eye. I didn’t want to waste another moment of it not being true to myself. So I decided: if my heart knows what gives it peace, then my job is simply to honour it.
And so I corrected my course. I withdrew from the remote work programme.
While sorting through my paperwork for it, I came across a packing list I had revised halfway through my month, and scrawled at the bottom was a note to myself: STOP CAMPING AND SETTLE DOWN FOR FUCK’S SAKE. All right, then.
I went apartment hunting and found a cute and compact place. The building was gloomy, the road outside was unpaved, and it was over my budget. But I’d seen the options available (house hunting being an enterprise of timing) and this one was the best on offer.
I couldn’t help compare it to my beloved flat I had vacated a month and half earlier to travel the world. This was my Safe Place that I had first lived in seven years ago for a year. It had meant so much to me that I moved countries and rearranged my life to return to that apartment again at the start of last year. Like the way one knows every dent, rise and scar on a lover’s body, I knew its every corner and curve. I loved it for what it had given me – a space where I could decompress and recharge, where I had fallen in love and found myself. But now that I had left a corporate salary to start something on my own, I could no longer afford to pay its rent. It’s okay, I told myself, I’d had a good run there. I let it go with love.
The cute and compact place seemed to tick enough boxes so I went ahead and handed over the deposit cheque. I messaged my former landlady to ask about taking the curtains I had had made for my Safe Place to put into the new flat. My landlady saw my message and called me immediately – was I here? In this city? Why hadn’t I told her?
“Oh, I’ve just decided to move back. I’ve found a place, so if you don’t mind my taking those curtains –”
She shouted at me. “You silly girl! Why aren’t you staying at the old flat? Just move in there!”
“I can’t afford it,” I said. “And I’ve given these people a cheque.”
“It’s not a problem if you haven’t signed an agreement or registered it yet,” she said. “How much are you paying for it?”
When I told her, she said, “Pay me the same and just move back into your old place. I know you’ll pay more when you can afford it. Don’t worry about it.”
I was stunned and profoundly moved. Numerous frantic phone calls followed as my broker tried to dissuade me from changing plans, my landlady stressed her offer was sincere, my bestie Ro talked me through the reality of what was at hand, and I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for it all.
Twelve hours later, the following morning, my (extraordinary) landlady handed the same keys over to me for the third time in seven years. I let myself into the flat. And just like that, and against all likelihood and expectation, I was back in my Safe Place.
Even though I haven’t been around the world as I had planned, it still feels as if I have been on a very long journey.
I started this post by saying I am not where I thought I would be, and this is ridiculously, fantastically, mind-warpingly true. I still can’t stop smiling. She who honours her heart wins.
*I have not written much here about Hilary as she deserves a blog post solely dedicated to celebrating her all-round awesomeness. Here are three things as a taster: she is a brilliantly talented singer-songwriter based in New York, whose first solo album Secrets of Birds came out earlier this year. She’s the bestest, most empathetic listener ever – so it makes sense that she’s re-training to be a therapist. AND she has zero body fat – she’s all muscle, that girl – and can do fingertip push ups in her sleep (I exaggerate only slightly). Salute!
**I’m deliberately not mentioning where I am because there’s a person stalking me. For those who do know where I am, please do not mention details on social media, thank you!
In 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1 to study the solar system. In 1990, its probe took a photograph of planet Earth, showing it as the tiniest speck in a vast expanse of space. Astronomer Carl Sagan called it the Pale Blue Dot. He discussed it in his lecture at Cornell University in 1994: “We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. [...] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”