Saying goodbye to friends is never easy, but the end of an era can be the perfect reminder to live in the moment.
Living abroad is an immensely rewarding experience: the constant sense of adventure; opportunities for language learning; a greater respect and tolerance for difference. However, as an ex-pat, one inevitably makes a lot of ex-pat friends. It’s only natural – you’re taking language lessons together, perhaps working in international companies, people helpfully introduce you at parties (“Jo – meet Svetlana – she’s Russian so, well, foreign, just like you! You must have lots to discuss…”). And, in my opinion, having ex-pat friends is no bad thing, it’s certainly not a worry.
Until your ex-pat friends come over all patriotic and leave.
My refined and notoriously indecisive Bostonian friend (it’s all very “Where do you summer?” à la Katherine Hepburn), whom I have in past musings referred to as Peggy-Sue, is returning to her native land, where a new job and her wonderful man await. Despite being thrilled for her, this imminent departure makes me unutterably sad. Peggy was a bridesmaid at my wedding; she’s spent Christmas with my family; I call her when I need to work out the Big Issues of life and when I have nothing other to report than what I ate for dinner. Her not being in the same country or even in the same time zone any more will leave a chasm in my life.
All good things
Quite a few friends have left Paris recently – sabbatical years, travelling, job opportunities – but they all plan to come back. Not Peggy-Sue. She’s leaving on a jet plane and not coming back again. Since I found out, I’ve been heavy-hearted, with an unshakeable end-of-an-era feeling. The fact that Peg’s departure coincides with my getting married and a number of friends either doing likewise or having babies only adds to my fin-de-siècle malaise. Like many thirty-somethings, we’re closing the Roaring Twenties chapter of our lives and starting a new one; and while, in its own way, it’s equally as thrilling, I can’t help but mourn the end of a glorious period of much spontaneity and few responsibilities.
Profit and loss
The French have a wonderful verb for which I’ve never found a satisfying English translation: profiter. It means “to make the most of” or to “fully take advantage of”, though neither seem to really capture the notion of living fully, enjoying, savouring. It’s a word I’ve often had in mind of late. Have I lived this era of my life to the full? Have I made the most of my twenties and of Peggy Sue, enjoyed time spent together, gone places and done things we wanted? I’m still trying to answer myself, and I’m guessing the reply is somewhere in the grey area of “yes, but could have done more”.
Making your mind up
So that’s what I’m trying to focus on in the run-up to Peggy’s leaving. Living deeply and fully. Enjoying every moment. Savouring the people in my world. I can’t redo the chapter of my life that’s slowly coming to a close, but I can learn from it and resolve to make the next one even more of a page-turner. I can make the trip to visit Peggy Sue (and not simply talk about it); schedule skype dates over a glass of wine (and not just collapse in front of the television); make more time for friends who are still in Paris (and elsewhere); book tickets for that stand-up comic/play/band (instead of simply looking at the posters)… I’m sad to see my friend move so far away, but I have control over how our friendship evolves and the time I choose to invest in it from a distance. I can choose to wallow and focus on all the things we’ll no longer do together (silly films, Friday night drinks), or I can choose to be here now and make the most of what is. One path leads to misery and statis, the other promises growth, joy and gratitude.
Even Peggy-Sue would see that’s no dilemma!
Seeing things through. Honouring your commitments. Giving your all. Noble thoughts, and laudable goals indeed, but are they always the best route to peace and happiness?
Stop pushing yourself
This week, as I was leaving the office after a hectic day, I faced a dilemma. I had a life coach networking event to attend and, boy, did I not want to go. All I could think about was a hot bath, a glass of wine and a comedy show that would relax my over-taxed brain. But wait, the type-A/achiever/self-motivator demon living inside me shouted: “You’ll regret not going and slobbing on the sofa when you could be making valuable new contacts!” I phoned a friend. “Don’t go”, she said, “You’ll regret going because if it’s anything other than insanely useful, you’ll just sit there wishing you’d listened to yourself and headed home”.
It took a lot of effort for me to overcome the dire sense that I was copping out – baling on something I’d said I would do. (Said to whom? Just myself and my diary!) And yet… as I unwound at home, I didn’t regret staying in one bit. It didn’t feel like laziness or doing myself out of opportunities. It felt something a little like… self-care.
Help those who would be helped
It has been theorised that when you decide to buy a red car, you start seeing red cars everywhere. In that spirit, a coaching client this week brought me a second example of when giving up is far from giving in. She was bewailing her failed attempts to help a friend, complaining that the friend just wouldn’t listen and was impossible to help: “I sometimes think my friend doesn’t want my help.” Ah, there it is. My powerful coaching question: “So, if this person doesn’t want help, what’s the result of trying to help him against his will?”
Cue fireworks, glass shattering, earth ceasing to rotate on its axis for a split second. “Yes”, said my client slowly, wrapping her mind around my unexpected enquiry, “I can only really help people who want to be helped. The rest is just a waste of energy.” When faced with intransigence and a lack of willing, insistence can only lead to frustration and even conflict; sometimes giving up is an act of self-protection and kindness.
Why shout them down?
I have recently been grappling with a difficult relationship with a work colleague. She does not listen. I don’t mean she hears what I say then ignores my recommendations. No, worse: she literally doesn’t let anyone speak – she cuts people off, talks over them; I even saw her get up and leave the room when another co-worker was mid-sentence answering a question she has asked. This kind of behaviour pushes all my buttons. A lack of consideration for anyone else’s contribution to the discussion (otherwise known as interrupting, not letting you finish, finishing your sentence for you) is a personal bête noire.
This week I realised (finally) that I was never going to change this woman (see my previous point!), and I am certainly not willing to shout in order to be heard. So I decided I’d just stop. Stop trying to make her hear, stop trying to give her my opinion, stop attempting to converse with her at all, in fact. And, oh, the relief! Essentially, I’ve decided that if she doesn’t want to hear me, I won’t waste my breath. I’ll give up, and in doing so, I’ll conserve my energy and spend it on someone who wants to listen and who shows me enough courtesy to deserve my precious time!
Obviously, powering through is sometimes the best course of action – who wants to be someone who doesn’t follow through or get anything done? But it’s essential to identify those times when the wiser course of action is to stop trying so hard, walk away from a damaging situation, or abandon a toxic project or relationship. Sometimes giving up is not equivalent to losing the war but to picking your battles.
Faced with difficult circumstances, you can choose to struggle and wilt or make the most of where you find yourself and bloom, right there where you’re planted.
I recently found myself at a party making small talk with a woman who had just moved to Germany. Following her husband who’d found a job there, she’d upped sticks and crossed the Atlantic, leaving a high-powered career, her family and her friends – without a word of German in her vocabulary. As we got acquainted, the woman whom we’ll call Anna revealed that her home is tiny and cramped compared to what she left in Canada, money is tight, and she’s having a lot of trouble finding a job in her field of expertise. Curiously, Anna told me all this without an ounce of self-pity or a hint of complaint; she really was just sharing her circumstances with me. It sounded like Anna wasn’t exactly having an easy time of it, yet she was upbeat, cheerful and optimistic. I asked her how she stayed so positive in the face of changed and challenging circumstances. Her four-word answer is the wisdom I’d like to share this month. She said: “Bloom where you’re planted”.
Accept and be free
The expression instantly struck a chord for me. How often do we rail and struggle against life and the things it throws at us. Sometimes we fight against the little things – I want to wear my new red top today, but it’s clearly to cold for its filmy fabric. I wear it anyway and am freezing and grumpy all day. Often it’s at work – a friendly “How are you?” to a colleague is met with “I just so don’t want to be here today”. Anna was going through some big things – living in a city she didn’t really choose and having to find a job when she never wanted to give up her old one, yet she was determined to make the best of where she was and what was on offer.
See with Betty Davis eyes
Anna’s words reminded me of a line I’ve often heard attributed to silver-screen icon Bette Davis: “If Hollywood didn’t work out, I was prepared to be the best secretary in the world”. Davis decided that whatever she did in life, she would do it 100% and be the best. She happened to be incredibly talented (though that doesn’t always mean much in Hollywood), and she bloomed in her chosen profession. However, she had the good sense to know that, had the fickle film world rejected her, she would have planted herself elsewhere and bloomed there instead.
Be here now
Facing a very heavy day at work recently, with back-to-back meetings and presentations, Anna’s words came back to me. I couldn’t do anything about my schedule, I had to be there and do the work. While I would have preferred to be lying on a beach drinking Mai Tais, that wasn’t the particular type of sandy soil I was planted in today. So, I decided to bloom in the clay-rich earth I was in and fully engage with my day, making the most of what it was offering me. Unsurprisingly, as I sat up and tried to propose ideas in meetings instead of letting my attention wander and wishing I were somewhere else, the time went by more quickly and I was even complimented by a colleague on my contributions.
Anna’s maxim, “Bloom where you’re planted” reminded me that, when circumstances are out of our control, we still have the power to choose how we approach them. In doing so, we gain control of how we feel about our situation and, ultimately, control our happiness. Today I want to go for a long walk, but it’s raining. What will make me happier? Being grouchy about the rain or accepting it and taking the opportunity to stay in, clear out the hallway cupboard, read a great book and watch a film? Anna found herself in a completely new set of circumstances, but instead of moping about her lack of job, she was taking German classes. Instead of being miserable about the state of her finances, she was going out a little less and taking the opportunity to improve her cooking skills at home. Instead of fighting the place she was planted, losing the battle, and becoming bitter and sad in the process, Anna had decided to bloom right there where she was planted.
Heavy-hearted heather or awesome azalea?
I guess it all comes down to making a choice about whether you’re someone who needs everything to be just right to be happy or if you want to be happy more often than that and have some modicum of resilience. I once tried to grow heather in my garden. It’s trickier than you might think. The purple haze that springs up willy nilly all over Scotland actually requires a specific type of soil to grow happily. So, it they looks marvellous over the hills and dales, it sulked like a depressed teenager in my garden. My azaleas, on the other hand, have been dug up several times over the last few years, moved around, planted both in pots and in the ground, and yet they continue to produce a lovely crop of flowers several times a year.
The choice is yours
It’s the azaleas of this world that will get the most out of life. Whether they have Alan Titchmarsh handling them or a clumsy beginner, they’ll do their best wherever they are planted and find a way to shine. The heathers, on the other hand, will spend a lot of time hating their circumstances and wilting. So, when we find ourselves faced with tasks we don’t want to do, circumstances that are less than ideal, and surroundings that we didn’t choose, the question we all have to ask ourselves is: do I want to be a heather or an azalea? Do I want to wilt in adversity, or do I want bloom no matter where I’m planted?
In the long grey winter months, it’s easy to be negative and hard to act cheery, but just as you are what you eat, so too you feel what you focus on. Choose to change your focus.
You can’t really argue with the Ten Commandments. I mean, as rules for happy and harmonious living go, they’re a pretty solid base: don’t kill; don’t cheat on your spouse; don’t steal; don’t lie. So far, I’m on board. Have a day of rest every week. Yep! Take care of your parents. Absolutely. Without wishing to labour the point, I don’t think many people would take exception to any of the above, whatever their religious leanings. Sadly, however, I have often felt that one commandment was missing.
Don’t get me wrong. Ten is a great figure – it’s even, pleasingly round, fits with our decimal currency, can be nicely spaced out into two five-item lists on a couple of handy stone tablets. I can totally see why Moses would get to the end of dictation, see a nice symmetrical pair of lists, and casually decide to leave commandment Number 11 at the top of the hill, but honestly, I really think he dropped the ball. Our lives would be infinitely more pleasant had he just added one last rule to the list:
Thou shalt not whine
The addition of those four little words to that fateful list would have made such a difference, wouldn’t it? Whining is perhaps one of the least attractive traits in a person, and is certainly one of the most draining. I have an acquaintance – let’s call her Wendy – who, whenever I ask the innocent question, “How are you?” replies with some permutation of, “Oh, I’m so tired. Yep, really shattered – I worked until 10 o’ clock every evening last week. It’s just crazy.” When I first knew Wendy I made the mistake of trying to help her with this apparent problem – suggesting she speak to her boss about her workload, asking whether she was eating properly, that sort of thing. Recently, however, I had an epiphany (I don’t know why I’m on such a religious theme today, I’m on a roll and I’m just going with it). I realised that Wendy isn’t actually asking for help, nor does she need to talk. The bottom line is: Wendy likes whining. And she particularly likes whining about being tired.
You feel what you focus on
I don’t actually know anyone who isn’t tired right now. In the bleak midwinter, it’s dark when you go to work, dark when you leave work. You’re trying to lose the Christmas bulge, keep that resolution to go to the gym, maybe even give up or cut down on something – cigarettes, chocolate, wine… The post-Christmas winter months can feel grim at times, and yes, they’re tiring. But does saying you’re tired all the time help at all? If, every time someone asks me how I’m doing I answer, “Crikey, this rain is getting me down, I just can’t seem to get warm, and I have a splitting headache”, all I can think of by the end of the day is the rain and the cold and the headache and, lo and behold, it’s all actually worse than at the beginning of the day. But if I reply, “I’m great, thanks! Looking forward to a quiet night in, that’s for sure”, miraculously, I can actually convince myself that I do indeed feel full of beans, and that quiet night has become a choice I’m making in order to take care of myself. I find that I feel what I talk about; which means that I don’t also choose to talk about what I feel.
Accentuate the positive
Now, I’m not suggesting we bottle up our feelings or lie, but unless mentioning aches, pains, gripes and groans will actually do some good, why go on about them? Now, whenever I see Wendy, I avoid asking how she is and instead pose very specific, fact-based questions: What did you do this weekend? Did you go jogging like you wanted? It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that not only does Wendy’s whining about being knackered exacerbate her own tiredness, it also exhausts me! If only she could take her focus off the negatives she’s feeling and concentrate on something – anything – positive, that good feeling would be increased instead of the bad. The mind is like a magnifying glass – whatever we choose put under the lens is what our eyes will see enlarged; whatever feeling we choose to talk and think about is what we’ll feel magnified. Luckily, we get to pick what we train our lens on. So, it’s precisely when I’m tired and a bit hungry and maybe a little paranoid that I try hardest to remember to apply the 11th commandment and silently order myself not to whine.