I fell in love with you and I cried
‘We look down on people who choose themselves first, people who make the most of the lives they’ve been given.’ Natalie Swift, The Darkest Tunnel, WordPress
“The coop is guarded from the inside.” Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
Chapter One Following the white rabbit
April 2017, Harleston, Norfolk, UK
It was a weekend morning, I was standing in the hallway between the bedroom and the bathroom, John, my husband was in bed. He said, ‘What kind of people would we have to be to sell the house and just leave everything and everyone and go off on an adventure?’
‘Strong’, I said, ‘We’d have to be so strong’. Electricity ran up the length of my spine.
‘Wow,’ John said, ‘I just felt a tingle go right through my body.’
I was forty-seven years old. In terms of career and property, I had gone as far as I could and as far as I wanted to. Head of Occupational Therapy at a specialist secure hospital and living in a three bedroom semi detached house in a pleasant little town on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. But now what? Was I just going to keep on working and living there until I retired, grew old and died (and that was if I was lucky/the best case scenario)?
The house was perfect, a solidly built three bedroom 1950s ex council house with a huge garden. It was near my job, near my mother. We were happy there, and with me no longer having a long drive to work I began to relax, to be happy, and we both began to dream. Just over a year after we had moved in and supposedly settled for life, we began to roll around the idea of dismantling it all, selling the house, buying a camper van and travelling the world or going to live in a healing centre in Mexico run by an old friend of John’s.
Work had got the point where I was bored and looking for progression or development that never materialised whilst simultaneously feeling exhausted from the pressures of modern healthcare and emotionally burned out from the heart breaking and shocking stories of abuse and sexual offending. I couldn’t face the idea of doing it for another twenty years. Funnily enough I got a new manager who actually asked me, apropos of nothing, if I were planning to carry on working until I retired, ‘Or was I going to go off to India or something?’
I began to ask myself, what would I do if I didn’t have to do anything? What would I do if anything was possible? What would I do if I could do whatever I wanted?
When we first had the conversation and I experienced the glittering thrill of possibility, it was the first time in recent memory that I had allowed myself to think about what I actually might want. Since becoming pregnant at the age of eighteen my life had revolved around my son in one way or another. Even though he was now twenty-seven years old, I hadn’t seriously thought about leaving Norfolk until very recently, when an advertisement had jumped out at me for a job in Guernsey.
We went to Guernsey for two nights, the job sounded amazing, the interview went perfectly, but we didn’t want to move to Guernsey. Looking back, this was practical action that shifted us. It got us both wondering if we could live away from our kids. The initial weekend morning conversation was in April, the Guernsey trip was in June and in September my manager, realising I was burning out, allowed me to drop down to four days week. So really, those two nights in Guernsey marked the start of a shift in mental attitude that ultimately was to propel us all the way to India.
Ironically, for the first time in years, John had a job he loved, caring for people with learning disabilities as part of a lovely team, several of whom became friends. His two children lived with their mother in London and were now teenagers and rarely came to stay with us anymore. Both our mums had downsized and we had ended up having the biggest house in both families, yet no one came up, hardly anyone came to visit, and anyway we never were huge entertainers.
Our previous house had been a small two bedroom house in the same village as John’s mum and sister and when the kids were younger we’d had a lot of fun there. The new house was bigger and his daughter had her own room at last but she never even put a picture up. It became really obvious that it wasn’t their home, much more so than the previous house. That house, although smaller was about everyone, this one, although bigger, was just us. Like most parents, we misjudged how fast the kids grew up.
We had bought the house in Harleston from a widow who had lived in it with her husband from when it was first built in 1952, with many of the original features and it hadn’t been decorated since he last did it in the 1980s. I was besotted with the original glass lampshades, small chandeliers and old garden ornaments. John and I talked about getting old and dying there; the conveniences of the shops, doctors, dentists etc were much better than where we’d lived previously, all within easy walking distance or range of a mobility scooter.
On evening just after we’d moved in, sitting by the fireplace we had a premonition of sitting there as old people and at the same time felt as if we’d always been there through all the time of the house. I saw us sitting by the fireplace through the 1980s, and then later John old and with a beard. We realised that if we didn’t do anything we’d get old and die there.
I thought about old people whose homes haven’t been decorated for years and who have had the same things around them for decades. As they do less outside the home and spend more time inside, maybe the wallpaper, the furniture, the ornaments all loom larger because those things are given more attention and are tied with the memories they hold. People say that possessions and objects are important because they hold our memories. When people customise their homes they say they put something of themselves into it.
It was at this time that we began to discuss what we needed, something big enough and no bigger, a one bedroom flat, a caravan, a boat. To have a solid shelter, with heat that comes on with the flick of a switch, clean drinking water and hot running water with the turn of a tap, comfortable seating and sleeping areas, plenty of bedding and warm clothes, a washing machine. These things are denied to many. Even one thing off this list would represent enormous progress, even luxury, to some. Many of us who have these things do not fully appreciate them.
Not only that, the progress and comfort they represent and provide becomes grossly extended, with people changing their furniture before it has even worn out, and painting the inside of their homes a different colour according to what is deemed fashionable that season. ‘Needs updating,’ such a spurious phrase that has helped give rise to the largely unnecessary industries of producing new ‘kitchens’ and ‘bathrooms’ and the mind boggling array of paint colours on offer.
Of course, we need to have shelter but there’s probably an optimum level of comfort. If things are too hard, that takes so much time and energy that there’s no space for creativity. If things get too comfortable, one can be lulled into a false sense of security. Somehow by being too comfortable we become less aware: in our centrally heated comfort zones it’s easy to fall back to sleep.
Everything is arranged so that our biggest and best experiences are early in our lives and this, plus the emphasis on youth in film, television shows and advertising means that people spend most of their lives looking back to ‘the good old days,’ and taking their power and energy away from the present. You can see this in young people’s gap year travels before they ‘settle down’ to work, marry, have children… and in big event weddings, ‘the best day of your life’ with just the photographs on the mantelpiece to sustain you for the rest of your ‘less good’ life.
We had met eight years previously. Meeting John and falling in love had triggered a full on tripped out spiritual awakening for me. Because his children were still young and my son still needed quite a bit of support, we explored ideas of spirituality, personal growth etc from the comfort of our living room. We were lucky, that we both had the same ideas.
At the start it wasn’t even about selling the house and leaving the kids (that was too scary at first) it was just about getting to a position where we could. The decluttering came first, before the travelling was a solid plan and caused the mental shifts required in order for the travel to become a solid plan. I had to declutter in order to go and the decluttering helped me to go.
I was petrified of the idea of doing something so unthinkable, of giving up the security of property. Yet at the same time I was really excited about the idea of letting go of possessions and leaving with just a backpack each and no keys. I wrote: ‘For me it’s not really about travelling per se, it’s about testing my long felt urge to trust-fall into the universe, to let my fingertips peel from the cliff face and slip into the unknown. Mainly, it is about freedom; about realising where I am, what I have and therefore what I am able to do, with a bit of guts and imagination. The thought of just going off for a while with no plan other than to go travelling and keep writing is thrilling.’
In the UK, there’s such a drive towards home ownership as a goal that selling a property goes so much against the grain; family and home owning friends were dead against the idea. We had to sell up to liquidate capital, to have sufficient money for the trip. Not only that, we wanted to simplify, practise minimalism. Renting out the house and returning wasn’t what I had in mind, even if we could have afforded to do that. I didn’t want to have, as an acquaintance at work had had, a life changing experience in South East Asia for a year only to return to the same life. I might not have known what I wanted, but I was very sure about what I didn’t want.
Because you are choosing to have less, and no matter what all the memes etc. say you are going completely against the herd, who are all focused on getting more, so it feels weird and hard. You are going against the conditioning of the society you have been brought up in. That was why, during the several months of thinking, planning and putting the house on market, I was mentally quite aggressive. I said to myself, ‘I need to smash this down with a sledgehammer; I need to tear it up by the roots.’
I ruthlessly decluttered sentimental items. The bigger the action, the stronger I felt. It took a lot more energy than I had anticipated. I found that I did a splurge on something then had to stop for a bit. It was like going up steps or stages. We got tired. At other times, decluttering would seem to release a spurt of energy that propelled us forward. It was a balance between theory and practical steps, between wrapping our minds around it and then taking the necessary steps, interspersed with rest. And of course all the time we were going to work and doing the normal stuff of life.
The more I got rid of the lighter I felt, the more energy I had and the more I began to feel like a traveller. As the objects from my old life were left behind, I felt that I could become someone new, the kind of person who can do this.
What do you think? Would you keep on reading?
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