Five years ago, I was working in a beige cubicle with no windows in downtown Chicago. There was nothing wrong with my job on paper – the pay was good, I had fabulous coworkers, a healthy working environment and a relatively stress-free commute. Every morning, I arrived early to enjoy my Venti Starbucks coffee before my coworkers began to trickle in and I thought, well, it’s not happiness, exactly, but I’m content enough…I think? I didn’t technically have anything to complain about. I had job security and health insurance. I didn’t bring my work home. So, I gained a few pounds from being largely sedentary and snacking on the pastries that inevitably filled the break-room at lunch. So, there were lulls of boredom or stress when working up to deadlines. So, it wasn’t my life’s passion…
My cubicle in Chicago (with bonus cupcakes – thanks Dad!)
At the time, I was a recovering from an eating disorder and a broken heart and had just moved eight-hundred miles away from my best friend. I’d left New Jersey because I couldn’t set boundaries – for my health or in my romantic life. At first, it seemed like a fresh start. New faces and new places and a chance to reinvent my life.
But then, a strange thing began to happen. I began to settle in and get comfortable. The glossy sheen of a new city began to tarnish. And worst of all, I kept getting older, but everything stayed exactly the same. And the older I got and the more I traveled the same routines, the same paths each day, the more the crushing inevitably of my eventual death began to permeate my cubicle walls. I felt like a rat in a laboratory running the same maze day in and day out for a measly crumb of cheese at the end. And I had to ask myself if that small crumb of cheese was worth it? Or if it was even what I wanted?
As a child growing up in the real estate and financial boom of the late 80’s and early 90’s in America, I was told I could be anything. And I believed it. But somewhere along the way, I became paralyzed by choice. Each year, as I made decisions on what to major in and what internship to take and and which job and which partner, the world got narrower and narrower. As a child, I’d wanted to be a vet and a marine biologist, I’d wanted to be a musician and an artist, I’d wanted to be a mum. I’d wanted to travel the world. But instead, I’d sort of bumbled along, finding something that would pay my bills and allow me enough money to buy some nice clothes or go out to eat every now and then. I was stuck in a cycle of soul-sucking consumerism, where my life and my time had become a product to be sold and traded.
Was I meant to live like this? Was anyone meant to live like this?
One day I woke up and said “enough”. And then I said, “if not now, when?” I was getting older and knew that a partner and kids and a mortgage might not be far off in the future. But for now, I was single and free as a bird. So why was I chaining myself to a cubicle?
Taking my TOEFL/TEFL course at UIC (Ahhhh, early morning Saturdays and Sundays, I don’t miss you.)
In March 0f 2014, I completed a one month intensive TOEFL/TEFL course that changed the course of my life. Today, I have lived in two different countries – Japan and South Korea. In addition, I have traveled to more than ten countries in the past two and a half years. I’ve met and befriended expats and travelers from all over the globe. I’ve become certified as a PADI scuba diver and dove the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the islands around Phuket, Thailand. I’ve discovered a love for Japanese Onsen and Korean barbecue. I’ve ridden a motorbike (and subsequently gotten in a motorbike accident – sorry mom and dad!). I’ve climbed a mountain (Mt. Fuji). I spent this New Year’s releasing a paper lantern into a black night sky strewn with lanterns in Chiang Mai. I rode a bicycle every day for a year. I became a better teacher and expanded my world view.
At Miyajima Shinto shrine, Japan, Itsukushima, Japan.
I found an old list I’d written in my early twenties when I was going through my files the other day and I’d completed most of the things on it. Except perhaps the thing I’ve put off the longest. My creative life. I’ve wanted to write a book since I was a little girl. I’ve spent sixteen years of my life putting it off or writing a bit here and there. Or hiding in fan-fiction, behind other people’s characters. As I was leaving my last job in South Korea, I debated about what to do next. And that old adage crept back into my head, “if not now, when?” There is never a better time to start living the life you’ve wanted. Not tomorrow or next week or three months from now, but now. And no, it’s not just making a decision and being done with it. It’s follow-through, it’s paperwork, it’s frustration. It’s what you were put on the planet to do.
My cozy room at La Muse Retreat, Labastide-Esparbairenque, France. (Website here: link)
I’ve spent the last two weeks at a centuries-old chateau in the South of France. I came here to write – and I have – but it’s not on the rigid schedule of planned word count I had set out for myself. I spent the first week wandering around in a daze, alternately crying and grinning. I didn’t realize how unhappy and unhealthy I’d become at my last job. So the first week, I gave myself permission to just be. I walked. I set myself a bedtime and a time to wake up. I cooked and ate mindful meals. I read fiction books and poetry books. I read books about how to be a better writer. I watched TedTalks about being a writer and planting trees and whatever else struck my fancy. I drank tea and coffee and wine. And best of all, I had fantastic conversations with the wonderful people who’ve chosen to come on this retreat to get back in touch with their creative lives. (The second week was more of the same, but with a little outlining.)
I have two weeks left here and while part of me is frantic I haven’t reached the goals I set before arriving, another part realizes I’m in a place where I can better reach those goals. I’m healthier and happier than I was a month ago. My vision of my book and its characters is more realized. I have friends who are helping my on my journey – to wellness and creativity. And I’ve realized that life won’t always go at the pace I’d like, but that sometimes just taking the first step towards something and then choosing to continue to walk is what’s important.
At the retreat, I’ve learned the importance of asking smart questions. So here are some for you, dear reader.
What are you putting off in your own life? What were your childhood dreams? What are some things you haven’t crossed off your bucket list?
And most importantly, If not now, when?