Learning to Recognize Progress

I’ve been thinking about progress recently; what it means and how we define it in our life, either day to day or over the long term.  Ironically, these thoughts were sparked by the fact that I felt I needed, but also wanted, to post something on this blog. Almost immediately, though, I then found myself struggling with what to say after taking so much time away.  It wasn’t that words didn’t come. To the contrary, quite a few words and thoughts came almost immediately. But they also didn’t feel like the right ones to share just at this moment. So, I let them come, and then tucked them away for another time, another entry, another use.  But when I opened this document , I found myself staring quizzically at it for quite some time, struggling with where to start…again…here….. By the way, to the extent that periods of life have themes to them, which I think we can all agree they generally do, mine right now seems to be one of constantly starting over.  So, I have gotten used to the struggle that it presents, albeit a little more frustrated with myself in this instance because of the amount of writing, professionally and personally, that I have been doing over the past couple of months. Why, then, could I not find the words for now?

Sitting on my balcony a few nights ago, I finally figured out why this entry was not coming to me the way others had.  It’s because after having not put anything up in months, taking the time instead to focus on other projects (some of which I hope to share more about in the future), I have felt it necessary to include something showing progress in my journey.  That annoying little internal voice in my head that seems to always present questions but never put forward answers then asked, “Well, what is progress anyway?” Which…of course had me dive down another mental rabbit hole, thinking about not just the past several months but years.  Have I mentioned before that I think too much? (Those of you who know me, I am sure just snorted a little bit because that is an understatement, and I will grant you that.) It’s both one of my most significant attributes professionally and stumbling blocks personally. Anyway….

Objectively speaking, yes, I have made progress over the past several months.

Professionally, I secured my first European clients.  Project-based work, but work all the same. And with people / businesses who did not know me or my body of work in Washington. I feel it necessary to include this last point because anyone who has ever started a consulting firm, or really any business, will tell you how difficult it is to “finalize the deal” in the best of circumstances where you are a known entity.  As aware as I was of the potential added difficulty of doing so in a “market,” so to speak, where I was new and basically a totally unknown, I could not have known to what degree. And, in hindsight, I am grateful for being so blissfully unaware of that fact and how much I would need to sell myself and rationalize my value. If I had known how much “hustle” would be involved, I think the mere thought of it might have proven too exhausting or daunting to move forward.  But, I wasn’t aware. And, I did move forward. The result are signs, glimmers of things coming together

Financially, I established my credit here in France / Europe.  How might you ask? Well, first, let me say that the question of credit, or rather not having it, is one that I never thought I would have to think about again.  Frankly, it has been one that I have been privileged enough to never really think about given how young I was when my parents started the process of helping me establish it.  It was something that was always there, to be managed and taken seriously, to ensure all options were available to me in the future. But the thought of not having it never entered my mind until, well, basically I didn’t have it….here…in the country / Continent that I was navigating with at least the intention of being a forever home.  So, how did I do it? Did I apply for a credit card, like most normal people would do? Nope. For various reasons, which can only be summed up as, “The Parisian thought it was best,” I bought a car. Yep. A car. Now, honestly, this could be the subject of a whole other post. But, think about what goes into buying a car in the States. Now add a layer of “Frenchiness” to that.  It involved negotiations, huge amounts of paperwork (yes, in French and, no, I don’t think I understood all of it), and navigating the various obligations imposed by the dealership, French government (to register the car in my name), and local insurance company (oh yeah, that one was a real treat). Not the easiest way to go about the process or available to everyone, but effective.

Culturally, I have acclimated to my new home.  Don’t get me wrong, I have not assimilated in the manner that is expected here of long-term residents.  That is a much longer process and requires primarily a degree of fluency of the language that my ear has only recently begun to garner but not yet my tongue.  But, I have dived in deep to the world around me and sought to understand how and why it operates as it does; not as an expat (though I have explored this perspective and how it varies depending on differing circumstances, but these are thoughts for more lengthy writings in the future), but through the eyes of the French.  I have had long lunches, hosted dinners that ran well into the morning the next day, sipped coffee, drank bottles of wine, and walked the city streets with Parisians with roots so deep in this city and country that it is almost impossible for an American to understand. These conversations have meandered in topic, but they have all been peppered with anecdotes and explanations for their views and reasoning against their cultural context.  Interestingly, this has made me think quite a lot about my time at Vanderbilt University and the French philosophers I read at the time. Early in my studies, I almost didn’t pursue a degree in philosophy. This was in part because I was determined to get my degree in chemistry because I thought it a more pragmatic (and lucrative) path once combined with a law degree. But also because I struggled so fundamentally with the theories of absurdity and chaos that permeated so much the great French intellects of my 101 and 102 philosophy classes.  It’s only now, after countless hours and conversations about the culture, history, and politique of this fascinating country, that I have come to understand the thinking of their great philosophers more.  I still might not agree, but I am coming to understand.

These are just a few examples of the progress I have made in the constant whirlwind of the past few months, that have also included: operating effectively as an outside General Counsel to a new digital payments company The Parisian decided to start at the beginning of this year (because we didn’t have enough going on); beginning the process of potentially taking the French / Paris Bar next year (because just dealing with the French Administration as an expat wasn’t enough, I clearly needed to navigate the professional certification process); drafting legal agreements and patent applications for both here in Europe and back in the US (giving me first-hand knowledge in the business of so many legislative policies I have debated in the past); and, last but certainly not least, navigating every aspect of the French real estate market, both residential and commercial (this one is truly too long to get into at this point, except to say that it is absolutely fascinating).

So, yes, objectively speaking, you can say that I have progressed over the past several months.  That I have a firmer grasp of the ground underneath me. In thinking about what progress really is in living a happy and fulfilled life, though, these are just details.  I (and anyone going through a similar transition) was bound to realize some manner of similar points of progression almost no matter where I moved. The more meaningful change has occurred, as it always does, internally and is likely all but imperceivable.  Namely, I have begun to find, and respect, my own boundaries. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s best explained, interestingly enough, in the context of love, both for The Parisian (or others) and for myself.

When it comes to matters of love, I have historically had almost endless amounts of love for others (specifically, those close to me) and very little for myself.  This has manifested itself romantically over the years of committing myself to “wounded birds,” as my friends lovingly (that was used sarcastically, by the way). As you can imagine, this led to years of heartbreak and more than a little frustration.  The Parisian, though, was (is) not a “wounded bird” but a warrior. A true “look anyone in the eye and tell it to either be helpful or get the &*$# out of my space / way / life” sort of man. I’ve seen him do this on many an occasion – protecting me, his father, his business, at a restaurant when someone is being too loud and obnoxious, you name it.  That said, he has his own bag of tricks (as we all do) and spent my first few months here pulling each one out, one by one. Interestingly, for a man so fiercely protective of his own boundaries, all of these tricks somehow had the realistic impact of crossing / invading mine. It was not until I had hit a breaking point, though, did I realize that this was what was happening, leaving me questioning many times why I had moved here.  Oh yeah, and my sanity. I haven’t told the full details of these instances to anyone and I have only discussed the most significant of these moments with one person. It was during that discussion, though, that she told me that I needed to end things – either the relationship entirely or how it was currently progressing.

I took that to heart.  It made me feel like I wasn’t being wholly irrational or sensitive.  I took some time: to think, to write, to walk. I quickly knew that I loved The Parisian too much, too deeply, too truly to walk away at this point.  So, what then was he doing that was cutting me to the core? I knew he wasn’t trying to hurt me. So, why then did I feel so hurt all the time? I began dissecting each clear instance of when I felt moments of pain or hurt, not just as a result of his but my own actions (or inactions).  

When it came to interpersonal matters, I realized that we weren’t talking enough.  We weren’t discussing the little things. How any one of the million little things that we do in a day without thinking might be negatively impacting the other, be it not putting away laundry / dishes / assorted items (yeah, I have given up on that like every other woman in a relationship has had to) or being careless in deflecting frustrations with work or other people on to each other.  We were both letting all of those little hurts left unsaid and pile up to a point when even the smallest thing would result in an avalanche of emotion. The result of which being a more than a little convoluted argument, with references to obscure actions, claims of mixing everything up, all generally occurring in the very late hours. We would then wake up the next morning, say we loved each other, but still have almost no clarity about what had happened, and start again.  Toxic cycle, right? Exhausting and totally unsustainable, right? Yeah. But also, pretty fixable, if approached in the right way and with willing parties.

I have a feeling this pattern is all too common and anyone and everyone who is reading this can identify with it – whether based on experiences with their romantic partner or close friends.  It’s natural, really. We all want to please the person(s) we love and often find ourselves going through periods where we give more than we receive, where we don’t want to make an issue of seemingly small matters, where we then find ourselves so angry or saddened by someone we deeply care about for seemingly no reason at all.  So you push it down, push it down, push it down, until you just can’t anymore. More times than not, this results in people just ending the relationship, sometimes dramatically and in a blaze of emotion and sometimes quietly and in total ambivalence, because it’s just too hard to take away the pain. To rewire behaviors that had become habitual, interestingly by your very own inaction.  To start the conversation and relationship on fresh footing and with an unbiased perspective. It doesn’t make the love any less real, it just means that the pain is too close. Perhaps that’s why you see couples divorce / break up or friends fall apart / out of touch, only to reconnect years later closer and in more love than they ever were before. It’s because the intervening years gave the space and time needed to effectively wipe the slate clean.  

In my personal instance, this is where, for once, having two different native tongues helped.  The Parisian and I had already grown accustomed to having to take a pause, and sometimes take the temperature down, in our discussions to understand whether we actually understood what the other was saying or whether something was being “lost in translation.”  From almost the very beginning of our relationship, we knew we had to be cautious and reflective of these linguistic misunderstandings. So, when the point came that I was ready to discuss how I had reached my breaking point, how I couldn’t handle the cultural and interpersonal expectations I felt were being put upon me, we were able to do so calmly and rationally (even if, at times, defensively).  More fundamentally, we were able to do so lovingly.

Conversely, when it came to internal matters, I realized that I was talking to myself too much.  From the very beginning of my life here in France, well really for almost my entire life, for as much progress as I was making, I was plagued by the fact that it wasn’t as much as I envisioned for myself or that I knew I was capable of.  The result being a nearly daily reprimanding of myself to do more, to be more, to see more, to stretch more. Sound familiar? Likely so because I think this is the dialogue many of us have with ourselves, especially to those Type-A folks out there (am I right or am I right?).  We hold ourselves up to some subjective standard that we think others have of us. No matter how much we do, how much we succeed, how much ground we cover, we look back and always say, “if I had only done X, then I could have done so much more / better / etc.”

The longer I live here, though, the more I am learning just how much bull$#!* that really is.  And that has been my real internal progress. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my life is never going to stop being a series of “to do” lists and internal expectations that I set for myself.  That’s just fundamentally who I am and how I am wired. But I am beginning to learn to, without self-judgment, carry the action items / expectations over to the next day or just dump them entirely, figuring that if I haven’t done them in the three days / three weeks / three months (I’m being only a little hyperbolic here) when I first noted them on my “to list,” then clearly there is no real need to do or worry about it any more. In bumper sticker speak, I am learning to truly “not sweat the small stuff” and “cut myself a break.”  This has probably been both the most surprising and most welcome progress that I have made over the past several months. And probably one of most valuable gifts my time in France, no matter how short or long it ends up being, could ever give me because it is a step towards living a life of grace and ease.

A little sidebar, here.  I was recently reminded of a conversation from my very early 30s with one of my former mentors.  He was the General Counsel then of what can easily be described as a very large technology company.  For one reason or another, we were talking about emails and the angst that not having a “clear inbox” can have, probably because I was an even more hardwired, overachiever then.  He said to me, “Well, I just delete all my emails in my inbox older than a month. If it is really that important, the person will follow up. This then allows me to clear my head and focus on the immediately pressing matters.”  He then went on after this discussion to be the General Counsel of an even larger technology company and has since retired before the age of sixty, so clearly he’s doing something right. Oh, and this conversation was nearly ten years ago and I am only now taking to heart the deeper meaning.  Clearly, some of us have steeper learning curves than others.

The progress, then, that I’ve realized over the past several months has been more fundamental than can be measured by other objective ticking points.  But it has been / is slow and more than a little painful most of the time, feeling more like I am peeling off layers of skin than living “la vie en rose” that I imagined when I moved here.  But the days “en rose” are more frequent now and I’ve come to understand that the periods of angst / emotional pain / incredible discomfort are natural and a part of change. I am trying and increasingly succeeding to vocalize my boundaries when they are crossed and letting things go when they do not matter.  I am beginning to soak in those moments of clarity and feelings of success, no matter how small, that come and go with this progression. It might not be one that you or anyone else can see just looking at me, but as Antoine de Saint-Expury said in The Little Prince (yes, the children’s book and one which I have grown quite fond of revisiting as of late), “Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”  Or, in English, “And now here is my secret; a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Alors, et voilà!