“I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial… I thought I knew a good deal about it all, I was sure I was sure I should not fail.” – Winston Churchill
There’s this funny thing that happens when you are in the midst of change. The “old you” does absolutely everything it can to keep the change from happening. It seeks to inject itself into any situation where there may be an opening, to control things the way it always has. Now, I know this may seem obvious to many people but it is has been the source of quite a lot of angst for me. So much so that I have literally been unable to write a coherent thought (and barely have been able to vocalize one beyond, “I am confused.”) over the past several weeks. The reason for my confusion is because I chose to make this change. I chose to take this time away from the alternate reality that so many people see as Washington, DC but which is (frankly) my safe and happy place. I chose to push myself out of the plane without a parachute, assuming that I could just sow the silks together on my way down and believing something would come together before I hit the ground. Put more simply, I chose to make this change and have been very confused and torn every time I am forced to grapple and put away the tendencies of my old self so that I can give whatever I am to change into space to grow.
I don’t know why but for some reason I had this naive belief that the moment I got off of the plane when I first arrived here at the end of September, I would be a new person. I thought that the mere fact that I was arriving with the intention of making a new city a home, it would embrace me with open arms and transform me. I am hardly the first person to come to Paris with this belief. There is a reason why so many people for centuries seem to escape here. There’s an inherent romanticism about the city and its seemingly magical powers. It’s only after having spent just over four months here that I understand why.
It’s because it is a hard city. And if you can survive it, then you will truly leave (or live, rather) a changed person. Thinking about it, perhaps it is too harsh to say that it is a hard city. Rather, it is a city that you can get lost in. It is so large. So layered. So filled with unanticipated twists and turns. Not just in the streets but in its energies. It upsets your every expectation, not just of where you are going but where you are – physically and spiritually – at that very moment. It forces you to reexamine everything that you originally intended when you set about your journey and forces you to ask the question, why?
At least, that is what it has done to me to date. This city and the experiences it has forced me to travel through thus far has left me breathless. Crumpled. Lost. Listless. At times, seemingly paralyzed with fear, tears running down my cheeks, wondering how I truly ended up here and if I would ever find my way forward. At times, fighting for survival, lashing out at everything around me like a caged rat being thrown in a tub full of water. Even as I write about this, I feel the power of anxiety taking over. A seeming ocean of anxious energy coming to swallow me whole.
Sidenote: The endless amounts of rain that this city has gotten this year has me think of a lot of water metaphors. That and wondering if there is a startup to be created in finding a way to transfer to excess water from here to parts of the world that are facing droughts.
It’s been ages since I have been forced to grapple with feelings like this. Truly, the last time was when I was in my early 20s, about to take the Bar Exam. I had just turned 25 and had spent months preparing for a two-day exam that, at the time, I thought would dictate the course of my life. For any attorney reading this, you will understand the extreme amount of pressure that is drilled into you about the importance of passing this exam. I have a tendency to isolate myself in times of transition (sound familiar?) and after spending weeks upon end of barely interacting with any other living soul besides my local barista, it was decided that I would catch rides with people to the exam. First my mother, who would pick me up in Washington and drive me to Richmond. And then with law school friends, who would drive me to Richmond to Roanoke. So, three days before the bar exam, I spent the morning doing the last of my practice exams, neatly packed up the flash cards with the various terms and theories to periodically skim, and then got in my car to go to the airport and pick up my mother, committed to “taking it easy” on myself for the next couple of days and clearing my mind of tension so that all of the information already in my brain would more easily flow on the days of the exam. As my mother got in the car, she asked a simple question, “how are you feeling about everything?” and I immediately melted into a puddle. A puddle of tears and anxiety about whatever my life was to become in the driver’s seat of a car in the middle of the road in front of passenger pick up at Ronald Reagan International Airport. And there I sat for who knows how long. I can only imagine how I must have looked then because every police officer who came up to ask me to move because of security reasons would swiftly shoo themselves away after a glance and few words with me. No one could get me to move from the driver’s seat. I was determined to drive off on my own, if only the mile and a half back to my apartment. It was only after talking me through all of the possibilities (effectively boiling down to, “So what if I didn’t pass the exam, I would simply take it again. However, chances are that you will pass. If you never move forward, if you don’t take the chance and take the exam, though, you will never know what the outcome is.”) that I was able to pull myself together and drive home. For what it’s worth, I passed. Easily.
Funny, I haven’t thought about that day in years and only now realize how appropriate it is for what I am going through at this point in time. I have worked to put myself in a new place, to push myself to embrace what my full potential is. And yet, I let myself only see the limitations of where I came before. To kill my own happiness, as one person recently put it to me. And they couldn’t be more right.
I have spent much of the past several weeks thinking about who I was. What I had. It’s no wonder that I have struggled to move forward, to feel and embrace what potential there may be. I haven’t let myself. I have been too scared by failure. What is failure in this context, though? There really is no such thing. As I said in an earlier post, I have spent much of my life moving and acting to appease the expectations of other people. I made this change in my life, in many ways, in defiance of those expectations. Despite that intention, I seem to continually let what other people think shape my day to day activities and the arc my life should take here. Or, rather, and far more dangerously, I seem to be continually letting what I THINK other people are thinking shape my life here rather than truly acting for myself and finding FOR MYSELF what makes me happy.
I was recently talking to a woman I have been working with as I have gone about this journey these past several months about the emotional and spiritual struggles I have been going through. I was put in touch with her upon recommendation of another friend of mine in Washington, DC. When I first started talking to her, I thought the idea of working with someone, a life coach if you will, to be a frivolous expense during a time when my professional and financial future was uncertain. But something about it seemed right so I proceeded. I told her the story about why I was moving, she being as equally excited and drawn in by its potential and beauty as I was myself. We had a couple of conversations before I left, each originally set for an hour. I can remember talking to her a week or so before I got on the plane. Before I even picked up the phone, I thought to myself, “I got this, I am not sure why I am even talking to her.” And sure enough, the conversation lasted for maybe 20 minutes because, truly, then, I didn’t need her. It’s only been months later, as I have faced disillusionment, abandonment, lies, heartbreak, and crushed hope, that I realized I needed someone. Someone who wasn’t my mother, or a close friend, or a lover. Someone who could see the truth of where I was for what it really was. So, I reached out to her a few weeks ago after looking in the mirror and seeing a person who I didn’t recognize. A woman who looked nearly ten years older than the person I was when boarded the plane four months ago. I told her I was struggling and needed help.
So, a few days ago, I got on the phone with her and as we talked, she cut to the heart of the matter. Using terminology that she knew I would understand, she said, “You are using the old operating system of your life in Washington on a new computer and, honey, that just isn’t going to work.” She reminded me that I came here to make a new life because something wasn’t sitting right in the life I was living before. Even more than that, she told me that I moved here to fall in love, albeit not the love that I was expecting. I moved here to fall in love with myself, with who I am. This is a point that has been especially hard for me to grapple with in many ways. I have spent so many years beating myself up. Telling myself that I wasn’t good enough, that I needed to be better at this that or the other, of comparing my seeming happiness (or often lack thereof) to others. Ironically, in many ways, many of the habits I learned in that self-destructive behavior made me good in my career because it kept me striving for something. I am also slowly beginning to realize how limiting it was – at least in the long run and my ability to know real happiness within myself.
As I sat there, listening to her words ringing in my head (and still having them bounce off of every corner of my brain), I asked, “Well, what am I to do?” “You need a reboot, you need to give yourself 72 hours of doing absolutely whatever you want to do, to just take care of yourself.” So, that is what I have been doing these past several days. If I want to sleep, I sleep. If I want to wander, I wander. If I want to eat, I eat (wonderfully yummy croissants that I have fallen in love with over here and full fat ice cream). As I said before, I have waves and waves of anxiety that come over me, of thoughts, of fears, of hopes, and of dreams that are so powerful that I am sure most doctors would recommend medication to handle them. Rather than running away from them, though, I think I am beginning to get a handle on what they are. They are the aftershocks of an old life. The trembles of a dying persona fighting with every bit of her might to hold on to the control that she once had. Rather than fighting or feeding these feelings, giving them air to grow and spread, I am learning to just sit with them, to let them wash over me, to acknowledge them for what they are. And, then, to let them go. I am learning that only by doing this, I will be able to make space for whatever is to come next, for the realization of the change that I have so long sought.
Ironically, it has only been by doing this that I have, for the first time in weeks, actually wanted to write, to share both the beauty and the pain of what I have been going through and put it into the crowded void that is the internet and the Universe, for that matter. I don’t know if any of these words ring true to others out there but, for whatever reason, I have felt the need to continue to share them.
I have repeatedly been told over the past several months that in order to assemble something new, you often have to fully disassemble the old. While I recognized some level of truth in that statement, I also realize how much I fought it. I wanted to build on top of the old, not knowing how many rotten boards sat beneath. It is only now as I am beginning to not only let but actively strip away the years and layers of this old persona – all of the expectations I and I alone set on myself – that I see how important it is to break things apart. To evaluate each level for its strengths and weaknesses, and only then decide whether I should keep it and use to make something new.
Time will tell where my life’s path will take me. When I set about this move, I thought that it brought me here to Paris to taste la vie en rose and maybe that is to come. For now, though, I am realizing that I was brought here to Paris to not just embrace but recognize her more raw and difficult side within myself. It is by accepting that rawness for what it is that I am fully beginning to see la vie est belle when we do not impose superficial limitations. This is the true opportunity that I have been given at this point in time here. An opportunity that, as I have been reminded, many don’t have the chance to take advantage of until they are in their late 40s / 50s/ and later. To recognize that the true change always comes from within and, much like the Bar Exam of my early 20s, if I don’t experience it or try to run away from it, I will never know the outcome.