It can be hard enough to acknowledge that we’re unhappy in our lives, let alone know what to do about it. Very often, the only certainty is, not this.
The changes that have taken place in my life over the last few years are not something I could have imagined or planned. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me as an inner city corporate lawyer in Australia that I would soon be living a slower, more creative life in the Irish countryside.
It might seem like it took one brave move to quit my job and change my life, but the reality was a much more gradual and intuitive process. There were many small steps before I took the big leap – before I realised that I needed to leave all that I knew to find where I truly belonged.
Sometimes going elsewhere is doomed to fail because you only take your troubled self with you. Other times, it frees you to discover and express yourself in different ways – to belong only to yourself.
THE LIFELINES OF CURIOSITY AND CREATIVITY
Finding the road home is such a personal journey. We all have different stories, starting points and desires for how we want our lives to unfold, so no one can tell us where or how to begin.
The idea of belonging is a complex one too. We might know that we don’t feel at home somewhere but not necessarily know where or how to find what we long for.
In my case, I was dissatisfied with my work but it soon became clear that there wasn’t a simple solution. It wasn’t a matter of changing my job or retraining. For one thing, I didn’t have a clear picture of what else I wanted to do.
All I had was the belief that there was something more, coupled with the desire to find out what that could be.
I began by noticing what moved me, what I was drawn to, and followed my curiosity to see where it led.
I used the time I had to myself on weeknights and weekends to make small changes and experiment. I pursued creative interests that had lapsed and others that were completely new and unfamiliar; I committed to self-care practices like yoga and meditation; I got out into nature as much as possible to quieten the noise of the city; I asked for help from loved ones and professionals; and I looked for interesting questions that would shift my perspective and challenge my thinking.
In this dance between understanding the person I already was and discovering the one I wanted to be, I also looked to others for inspiration. I sought out people who seemed to be living the kind of life that I wanted and listened to their stories. They gave me courage and hope. Poetry and philosophy offered a lifeline to truth and mystery, and a space to rest in contemplation. They invited me into the affirming experience of being fully human and helped me rediscover the beauty and wonder of the everyday.
Eventually I found myself straddling two worlds that felt increasingly incompatible.
My job and creative exploration required two completely different and discordant orientations. At work I had to armour up to navigate a demanding workplace and be on high alert to manage conflict and mitigate risks. Yet my creative projects and desire to find a new path required energy, openness and the courage to take a chance.
Trying to do both was worse than pursuing one or the other because I wasn’t making headway in either direction. I would have to choose.
The conventional wisdom is to have a strategy in place before you leap to something else and an elevator pitch to tell people exactly what you’re going to do.
I would have loved this kind of security but the only certainty I had was that I wanted to leave the path I was on.
I had tried tinkering at the edges. I’d pursued projects outside business hours and eventually went part time in the hope that I could be one of the people I’d read about who had a side project that took off while I gradually (and safely) removed myself from my corporate job. But it didn’t pan out like that for me.
I was forced to weigh up the costs of sticking with the orthodox path of a “good” career that would enable me to buy a house and settle down, but would also leave me feeling drained, frustrated and unfulfilled in living a half life.
I had to accept that the personal costs were just as significant, if not more, than the financial impact of leaving of my job, not to mention the regret I’d feel when I woke up fifty and wondered what had happened to my life.
The defining moment was being honest with myself that this wasn’t the way I wanted to live. Once I’d acknowledged that, I could no longer ignore it and continue compromising my integrity. I knew I had to act and the only sensible thing to do was to leave.
Even though I had no idea where it would take me, I knew I had to give myself a chance: to save the only life I could save.
FINDING FREEDOM - AND IRELAND
Within a few months, I had quit my job, broken up with my boyfriend, moved out of my apartment and put my possessions into storage. That might sound drastic but this change had been building for so long that when the time came, it was freeing.
And freedom was what I desired. I wanted to be able to roam and devote myself to new things. I wanted time away from the city to recharge and reflect, while also learning along the way through projects, short courses and travel. I wanted to be open to letting life unfold outside the tram tracks of the social and professional expectations I’d previously followed.
Of course, as romantic as roaming the world sounds, the reality is that freedom brings both exciting potential and anxiety-inducing uncertainty. I’ve had to learn how to sit in that uneasy liminal space, for much longer than I’ve wanted. I have had to both grieve and let go, and with the new space created, be open to explore new possibilities rather than rushing to lock in the next thing for the sake (or illusion) of certainty.
This all came to a head when my travels led me to Ireland and quite unexpectedly, I found I loved it so much that I decided to return for a longer period.
Trusting my desire to return to Ireland, and allowing myself to stay in the liminal space of not knowing what would happen next, let things develop in ways I could never have predicted.
Within two weeks of returning, I met my now husband, and within six months I was married and back living in Ireland.
REAL LIFE OR FAIRY TALE: BOTH/AND
To the degree that it sounds like a fairy tale romance, know that it is and it isn’t.
I’m really happy in my marriage and grateful to be living a life I had dreamed of in many ways. I have time and space to write and work on creative projects, to grow and make good food, to be immersed in a beautiful landscape, and to spend time with the people I care about. It’s a much simpler life but one that is meaningful to me.
I also know that home and belonging are much broader than binary perspectives would have us believe. I don’t have to choose between Australia or Ireland, city or country, analytical or creative – my life can hold all of these ways of belonging and expressing myself. There is also room for all my experiences to have a home, even the times when I felt that I’d lost my way or the parts that still don’t seem to fit together.
And naturally, the Irish fairy tale hasn’t been all happily ever after either. When I returned to live here last year, I had to find my feet on new ground. Like any move, it takes time to settle in. To this I had the added challenges of being an immigrant and a city person adapting to living in the country and in a very different climate, as well as the loneliness of not having my own family and friends around me, and in still seeking clarity and purpose in my work.
I have found a new path to walk, not a destination letting me off the hook.
I am no more exempt from the challenges of life than the next person, but I do feel more true to myself on this path, and that’s what matters.
That is the homecoming I went seeking and that I found, not in the big leaps but in learning to listen to the small quiet voice that gently, curiously nudged me forward and guided me through the unknown.
When I look back now, I am amazed at what has come from the series of tiny decisions I made; from keeping the faith that the process was taking me somewhere.
When I felt lost, I got quiet and tuned into what intuitively seemed to be the next right thing to do. It was usually a small step or experiment, or stopping to rest and stand back for perspective . Even when it was a big decision like returning to Ireland, I had enough experience by then to trust that it would unfold in its own way and its own time. And it did, far better than I could have predicted.
This is what I take with me as I continue on from here. As I wonder how much more there is to discover by learning to be in better conversation with that small quiet voice. How different life could be if we let go of the white-knuckled grip of fear and control, and instead let the soft animal of our body love what it loves.