My journey towards my project of discovery is not a unique one. Around Christmas 2015, I had two weeks off and my monthly audible credits to spend. A friend had undergone a major life change a few years before and recommended Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to everyone she knew shortly after she read it. Maybe, I knew I would need it later and filed it away in my brain, but something made me search for that title that day. In the month before, I had been to see a film that had a major impact on me emotionally. It was Brooklyn. As an expat, I had immediately identified with the main character and her struggles. I loved the film so much that as soon as we got home from the cinema, I used one of my audible credits to buy the book. In one weekend, I had watched the film and listened to the book. It hit home. And I think, looking back now, it opened up the floodgate of all the fears, guilt, agony, torn between two worlds and scared emotions that I felt about being so far away from my mother after my father’s death. I had gone through (and fought with) all the stages that Ellis had in the five years before my father died. And, I had gone back to America just before he died to be there with him and my mother. I came back to Britain after his funeral and the holiday season. It had been so hard to leave my mother behind. In fact, I would say it damaged me emotionally. The need to do this project probably came from that point in Christmas 2015 when my subconscious began to wrestle with the emotions I had been suppressing with trying to achieve and busy-ness. But, I think that moment was only the catalyst. I think these emotions had been brewing underneath the surface for some time.
Shortly after my father’s death, I also turned thirty and the need to make something of my life became pressing. I started a blog of 30 things I wanted to do before I died and 30 places I wanted to visit. My rationale was that my dad always thought he would have the time, but he didn’t. And, I needed to both demonstrate that I had made a good life here, and that is why I couldn’t come home to take care of my mother but also, I just needed to feel like I was a success. One problem was, I wrapped that all up in my career and it was very stressful trying to be perfect in that so I could be considered a success. Less than a year after my father’s death I took on a post-graduate degree which would run for 3 years. About two years after my father’s death, I took on a new role at work which increased my hours to full-time and was a complete career change for me. Both of these things I tried to do perfectly and didn’t find the patience to understand I was still learning. I was and still am desperate to feel financially secure. Part of my lifeline that had always been there should I need it had been cut.
We purchased a house and I started to work my way through my 30 things and places lists. I also began a big diy project to strip all the wallpaper and repaint the ground floor of our house. With all of these things, I was so goal driven that I forgot to have some fun in my life. And the lists of 30, which were supposed to be fun, brought me no joy, no happiness. It was just two more things to work through. Two more things to tell me if I was a success or failure and these lists had no room for me to grow or to change.
Fast forward again to December 2015. After the emotional upset of the previous month, and my determination to complete our living room repainting over Christmas (after finishing my MSc, and repainting our downstairs cloak room and kitchen), I reached out for something comforting. A story that would relate to how I was feeling now and where I wanted to be. And I remembered, Wild. So, I grabbed the audible book. I remember listening to the first part over the weekend and I was so glad I had. It was a hard story to hear but I was ever so slightly amused that she came from the area in Minnesota where I had family and had spent summer holidays in years gone by. I was transfixed by her walk, her motivations and the subtle changes in herself and hooked on the genre of self-realisation memoirs.
The next one I picked up was The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. Again, I was in love. I adored her development of a topic each month and her ‘what I learned this month’ lists at the end of each chapter. She was an expat, but this time a bit different. Still her curiosity and interest in the world around her fascinated me too. She drew me into her research and kept me company while finishing my diy painting project.
Each month, often one of my audible credits would go towards a book from a similar genre. I was hooked. In this 2016, I read all the big hits: The Julie & Julia Project, The Happiness Project, Eat, Pray Love, Big Magic, and probably more in between.* But it wasn’t just the books. At the beginning of the year, I noticed that I was beginning to read all those articles put up by self-help-y kinds of sites on facebook. You know the ones. They promise to completely change your life or de-stress you, or whatever it is you want to be different if you just change these 4,5,7 – whatever number of things in your life. The articles always felt so superficial.
I had spent the last 5 years working so hard to have the perfect life, and running so hard from everything I was feeling. It wasn’t healthy. I remember clearly when I read Eat, Pray, Love and Elizabeth Gilbert described waking up in the middle of the night and going to cry on the bathroom floor. I just kept thinking, ‘Yes, that is exactly it.’ I would love to check out of life for a year and just focus on growing and building myself up again. Sadly, no one is going to foot the bill for me and I like having a roof over my head and eating, call me crazy!
So whatever I do will have to be something at home. I will say that despite the fact that I read it, I hated The Happiness Project. It felt too superficial and fakey for me. I won’t find my inner peace, happiness or whatever you want to call it by action listing my way through it. Believe me, I’ve tried. It also felt she was just trying to tout her wares and I won’t be going on to download all her materials or following her blog. But, (and let this be a lesson to us all, that you can often find a nugget of good in something you think is trash) I did like the idea of finding an authentic me and understanding my values as a person. That I will do. The rest, probably not.
I also wasn’t the biggest fan of The Julie & Julia Project. Again, it felt like someone who was doing a stunt and I didn’t feel like I could relate to her and her project. I will say though, that she sounds like just the sort of person I would be friends with in real life.
So, if the at home ones I hated, and I can’t throw it all in to travel around the world, what could I do? I felt at a complete loss on what to do, but I just couldn’t go on feeling the way that I did. So, I began to think about who I am. And someone, actually several someones, finally told me the words I really needed to hear, ‘You need to go out and have some fun.’ It was only when being asked what I found fun, that I realised it had been an incredibly long time since I spent time doing fun things. I didn’t even know what I found fun any more. It was a sad and a little scary. But, it was more than that. I had all these budding interests which I thought I would find fun and interesting but just never got around to doing anything about them. Being the amazing list maker that I am, I began to make my lists. It started out with ‘what do I need to feel comfortable and secure to go off and do happier things’ A sort of what are my baselines? My inner project manager was coming out and that wouldn’t really help me. So, I started again and I thought back to my books. I began to think of things I wanted to do and then I began to organise them. It may have taken me 6 months of thinking and feeling and planning, but I am finally here. I am finally ready to go.
*PS Sort of within this genre but mostly just a memoir is A Shepherd’s Life. It is a fantastic read, but didn’t really help me in this project.