“Don’t feel stupid if you don’t like what everyone else pretends to love.” — Emma Watson
It’s been over a week since I left the comforts of the last home, my previous job, and my life as I knew it. I had hoped to write a sparkly post about the wonders of travel, of exciting new horizons, of new friends. I expected to be sharing pithy observations of a new life on the road. But I can’t.
The sea – five minutes away – is indeed a mesmerising blue. The sun is blazing in a way I find familiar and comforting – my showered hair and laundry dry in no time. After a year of yearning to do so, I at last have time to watch films, and not because I have to familiarise myself with a director’s oeuvre. I can read a book of my choosing, not to evaluate it for a possible adaptation. My time is my own. I have savings in my bank account. I have a comfortable bed to sleep at night. I have, it seems, everything I had actually wished and planned for.
Yet it’s been a long time since I have felt this low, this blue.
The wicked witch of work
Going from 180mph to basically zero is a shocker. Now I understand why retired people feel so bereft, even when they didn’t particularly care for their work. Jobs – even insane ones like the one I just left – give shape to our days. I was meeting filmmakers, working with an amazing team, enabling projects. My days were high on stimulation. I had purpose. My role gave me power – not in the external sense, but definitely a sense of vital, personal power.
It’s important to shed that work identity, my cousin Rubaiya tells me, in one of the numerous calls I’ve had to have with family and friends as they hold my hand through this time. That’s work, she says. That’s not who you are.
But what am I? I feel threadbare and a bit, well, pointless.
Some consider my circle of friends to be vast but it’s not, though my friendships do run deep. These are people I met often 20+ years ago, usually on films, though our lives have remained interwoven and absolutely current with each other.
I have close friends whom I consult for every major decision I take with my life. There are those I may not see for months but we pick up exactly where we left off the previous time. Then there’s my darling bestie, Ro, who knows all my shame spirals, who always hears me and never judges me. Until I share something with him, it doesn’t feel as if it has really happened. Lying to him would be like lying to myself.
These friendships have held up through trials, time and distance. Even the very new ones have developed intensely with frequent heady one-on-one meetings, scars revealed, secrets shared. They are more than friends, they are my tribe.
More and more, I find being away from my friends to be a challenge. For all my independence, I feel isolated without their cheer and company, unmoored without their support and love.
I now find casual friendships increasingly difficult to cultivate, and also kind of irrelevant. Like empty calories that don’t nourish but leave you feeling vaguely annoyed at the waste of it all. The very thought of small talk exhausts me.
I love walking and seeing beautiful things (old buildings, artwork, the way people live) but I am not a typical traveller. I can’t “do” places with a checklist of major sites. Neither do I have the urge to be sporty-adventurous, or hunger to explore every side alley, every winding lane.
But I have always loved the very act of going away. I adore the freedom of being anonymous in a new place, of weighing up each moment as it comes. The sense of lightness from the remembered realisation that all of life goes on without me so all that is required of me is to be exactly who I am.
Yet here, next to this sea of blue, I am having a crisis of faith. And as I stare into the void, I fear being swallowed by it.
So what’s wrong?
I wish there was an easy answer. Then I might know how to fix it. But I can’t pinpoint any one thing.
I am travelling with a large group of people, mainly young, lovely Americans. They seem to tirelessly explore everything immediately and comprehensively. We are on the same group messaging app, and all day it pings – “who’s up for a midnight swim?” and a half dozen people will respond within seconds with dancing emojis. Yoga on the beach at dawn. Trips to the local market. Concert at night. Dinner at a cool place across town. Drinks any time, anywhere. I check the app only a few times a day and I’m dizzy by the volume and range of their ventures.
Group activities have always overwhelmed me. This is amusing considering I’m used to working with 150 people at a time on film sets. My producer role requires me to bring people to the fold, draw them out, sort out their lives for them. In a work environment I can talk to anyone – and do. Though I derive genuine pleasure from it, there is a level of performance in it, I realise.
Left to my own devices as I am here, I withdraw into my introvert shell, relieved to be off duty yet feeling incompetent in the most basic of social situations, not knowing what to do with my hands.
I have to fight the urge to get the awkward stage of getting to know people over with as quickly as possible. Like where you know you’re going to be thrown together day and night for a long spell so you force some bonding. (This is what happened in college, what happens on every film shoot.) But I know genuine friendships will eventually form if they’re meant to, and I prefer them budding organically. This will be difficult here though, I realise, since I am barely socialising.
I do attend events organised by the programme but beg off the mingling. Although everything is voluntary I feel like a shitty participant, always saying no, maybe next time. I sense we are valued for being good team players. I feel guilty, even though I know I shouldn’t because it’s my time, and I came here to get away from feeling obliged to other people.
At my place
My attention span is still as horrendously fragmented as it was when I was working (a key reason I wanted to escape). I pick up a book then remember something I want to look up online then start to watch a film only to hit pause to write down an idea before I forget it. Isn’t this what Zen Buddhists call the monkey mind? Jumping, always jumping.
I give myself a week to settle into myself, catch up on sleep and see how I want to structure my days. I hadn’t realised how exhausted I was. I can sleep all night and still nap twice in the day.
I aim for a zero in-box and a zero to-do list. That is, I try to knock off everything on both by the end of each day. This hasn’t happened yet but it gives me an odd boost. When my tax accountant emails me with a list of figures he needs, it doesn’t even make it to my to-do list – I collate the information and send it then and there, then archive his email.
But I don’t want to spend my days patting myself on the back for having caught up on my chores. I have come here for bigger things.
I tell my friend Alex I can no longer keep doing these extremes – frantically busy or zero work; money saved up or panicking about next month’s expenses; really high or really low. Am I always going to keep oscillating from one drastic end to the other? I don’t want to live like this.
Have a schedule, Alex says. Plan to write for half the day, then leave the other half to do other things.
Yes, I tell him, I will. Write. Oh yes, I came here to write, remember? Inexplicably I haven’t started on the next draft of my novel yet. Not even looked through my notes. It makes me feel like a fraud.
The first week I keep thinking this is my opportunity to take a cold hard look at my life. To evaluate everything.
I tell my other bestie, Hilary, how I’ve pretty much spent a life bolting. When I feel uncomfortable/sad/helpless, instead of staying with it or going through it, I bolt. I bolt by distracting or numbing myself. And I’m not alone. We can numb ourselves with food, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, sex, shopping, gambling (travel…?) – you name it. Anything to avoid the discomfort/fear/darkness.
This is my time to stop bolting, I say. I’m going to face myself and my dark places.
And not only that, I decide, I’m also going to kick out all that’s no longer working and replace them with new, improved ways of living. I turn to self-help books with a frenzy. I plan to lose weight. I’m going to overhaul the way I think, feel, live, breathe.
This is encouraged by the very premise of the travel programme. Its organisers tell us our lives are going to change as we move around the world because we’re stepping out of our comfort zones. They say it’s okay to be uncomfortable because that’s the only way we grow. And it’s good to keep challenging ourselves, good to keep growing.
This is, of course, something I know all too well. I’ve moved my life over and over again – 13 times in the past 10 years alone. And even without moving, every time I have confronted discomfort (and more), I have had emotional (or on occasion even spiritual) growth spurts. I’ve just done it so many times in the recent past that it’s lost its lustre.
My sister (who is American) says Americans are always striving, always improving. I too have always had this persistent need to keep improving myself, because clearly who I am is not enough. But now I’m too fatigued to have AFGO (Another Fucking Growth Opportunity). A few days in, I realise: I don’t want to do this any more.
So, I stop. I stop everything. I stop trying to get to a zero in-box and zero to-do list. I stop sleeping endlessly. I stop feeling inadequate when I read the group messaging app or guilty when I turn down a social event. I try to stop bolting, but I also stop trying to improve myself and overhaul my life. I stop berating myself for not writing. I stop thinking that I’m doing everything wrong. Or that I’ll never get anything right. I stop telling myself that I am broken.
I don’t know much right now. I do know that when the storm clouds of depression start to gather, I have to do some specific things to take shelter, such as:
- speak frequently to my mother
- reach out to my tribe (who have been there with force, bless them)
- sit in the sun – the sun is immensely cleansing and healing
- do bodywork, such as meditation and massages
- and in no small measure, because it’s always better to take the chatter out of the head: to write it out
Maybe I needed to go halfway around the world to once more realise that for all my roaming, all I’m really looking for is peace in my heart.
“Don’t think. It complicates things. Just feel, and if it feels like home, then follow its path.” — RM Drake
Written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon (based on their real-life relationship), and directed by Michael Showalter, The Big Sick warmed and delighted me in equal measure. It’s about time there’s a mainstream American film with a brown Muslim lead, and about time that sensitive issues are discussed without getting heavy handed or preachy. Humour saves us all. It’s playing now, so run to the theatres.
While Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up helped clear out closets and homes around the world, I delighted in the far more radical Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki. It’s not for the faint-hearted but this Japanese book on winnowing down to the essentials more than “sparked joy” for me.
When I get too restless, my favourite cure is to go for a walk. Da Da Ding by GENER8ION makes me pick up speed.
Stay with me!