“Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small,
Then we can never get away from the sprawl,
Living in the sprawl,
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,
And there’s no end in sight,
I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.”
Sprawl II—Arcade Fire
I have always been a city girl. Born and bred. From Hong Kong, Toronto, to Atlanta, and then London, the city has always been a huge part of my life. I loved the bright lights, the tall buildings, the sounds of traffic on the road, the trains, the conversations, laughter, the clinking of glasses and plates coming from restaurants, all sights and sounds that comforted me any time I felt lonely. Granted, living in close proximity to people didn’t mean I knew my neighbours, nor did I ever introduce myself to any of them. We would all just go about our business within our own individual bubbles not making eye contact and being perfectly fine with that. So imagine my surprise when I found myself choosing to live in a rural part of the world where the sounds of horses, cows, sheep, and birds have became my morning alarm, where the light comes from the moon, where neighbours have become friends, where a welcoming hello is said when walking past someone, and where the vista of rolling hills and farm land have become my view from my windows, taking me as far as my eye can see. The air I breathe is crisp and clean, filling my lungs with what feels like a promise of a day full of potential, miracles even, and the prevailing feeling of gratitude that this is now my home.
The decision my husband and I made to make this drastic change in our life came shortly after our son was born. We had both felt that sense of burnout after years of working at stressful jobs where our lives were not in our control, where our daily existence was dictated by the careers we chose. For the most part, prior to that point of exhaustion, we loved what we did and were (and still are) so grateful for the experiences, the people we met, all the things we learned and did, and the places we were sent. My heart still fills with this pride for that time where we were able to realise our potential as professionals, and those ‘pinch-me’ moments where we would look at ourselves and think ‘….and we get paid to do this??’ But like anything, if you have grown as much as you can somewhere, if the vision for your life is no longer in line with the vision of the company you’re working for, if there is another part of you that is crying for something, not necessarily more, but different, that voice only gets louder—and if it’s not answered, that voice can become bitter and resentful.
For more than 20 years, my work was my life. I’m not special. It’s the same for so many of us. My ambition was to make my dream of being a journalist come true. That ambition meant that everything else in my life took a back seat: family dinners, birthdays, holidays, weddings, pretty much everything had to revolve around my work schedule. And I was fine with that, especially when I was starting out and trying to make a name for myself. I was compensated well for that both financially and experientially so I can’t really even call it a sacrifice. I spent my 20s and 30s working and enjoying my work life. I travelled around the world and met some of the most interesting and creative people. I interviewed heads of state and companies, musicians in the biggest rock bands, Academy Award winners, and artists who were known globally. I anchored some of the biggest news stories and reported from events that were watched by a massive audience. Problem was, my life was unbalanced. With all the great experiences, there was also the the other side that I was ignoring. I had/have amazing friends and family but couldn’t really spend quality time with them. My working hours for the bulk of my professional life were not what anyone would consider sociable. And they certainly would not be considered healthy. I would be up at 2am to be at work for 3am, or I would head in to work at 10pm and drive home as the sun was rising. Weekends and holidays were also dictated by a shift. I spent the better part of a decade working on the overnight shift, ignoring what it was doing to me physically and mentally. Some people are fine working those hours but for me, it had a debilitating effect. I had had a benign tumour removed one year, kidney stones another, a panic attack that felt like a heart attack, and countless colds that would just never go away. I justified it all by saying I had a great job, great shows, and the great privilege of being in the front seat of events that would make history. Even when I was working a “normal” schedule, things could change in an instant and any plans that had been made would have to be scrapped. That’s just the way it was. Sure I would come home to an empty apartment but in my mind at the time, the pros outweighed the cons. Luckily, at that time, I didn’t have a partner or children but that in of itself told me the direction I was headed, especially as I neared 40. I began to feel this struggle inside me, one where I was realising this exciting life wasn’t enough. Not anymore. That struggle that began as a whisper was now screaming at me to change course. Mentally and emotionally I felt a shift.
That shift manifested itself in feeling extremely protective of my time outside of work. Where once my priority was my job, my personal life and time was starting to eclipse that priority. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice that time any more. That shift in me persisted even more after I met the man who would become my husband. When my contract ended, I took the much needed time to figure out what I wanted to do next. And the answer came in the birth of our little boy. That moment also crystallised the need in us to reevaluate our goals in our life. We’ve all read about the impossible search for balance in life. So many parents feel the guilt of it when working away from their kids. It’s a search that can be so frustrating and heartbreaking if it feels like you’re swimming against the tide. If you take a step back and focus on family, you’re at risk of losing momentum professionally. If you’re making huge strides at work, you feel you’re missing out on the day-to-day miracles that are your kids. And so many of us don’t have a choice because bills have to be paid, food has to be bought, and raising a family is not free. My husband I spent many sleepless nights stressing over all of these things. We aren’t millionaires and money isn’t on unlimited supply. All we knew was what we had been doing our entire professional lives as employees. We didn’t know any other kind of life. We wondered how on earth would we make a drastic change even though deep down we knew it was what we desperately needed? How do we take a leap into the unknown? How do we now be our own boss and afford to dictate how we live our lives? When I started to think about what I wanted out of my life both professionally and personally, I kept coming back to the same thought—I may not know what I wanted to do but I did know how I wanted to feel. And I wanted to feel free and in control of the direction of my life.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” —George Bernard Shaw
Essentially, we were seeking a slower pace of life, a pace where we could just pause for a bit and let ourselves catch our breath and allow our minds to slow down. For so long we felt we were running a race that just kept getting faster and faster yet the finish line was nowhere in sight. Maybe because we didn’t know what that finish line would look like. Maybe it was because that finish line was dictated by someone else. Or maybe we were too afraid to define it because by doing so it would mean taking a risk. So we started to reevaluate what we really needed in our life and how much a decent, but simple life would actually cost. Having lived in two of the most expensive cities in the world (London and Hong Kong) taught us what we didn’t need. Every month that went by we saw our incomes being spent on a life that was in a very expensive suspension mode. As exciting as it was to be there, for us it was starting to feel like we weren’t getting the most out of our lives despite spending so much to live it. I also didn’t like the person I was becoming in the city—I was always so irritable. The crowds were starting to get to me, as was the pollution, the heat and humidity. I came across a National Geographic magazine article about our brains on nature where writer and author of The Nature Fix, Florence Williams wrote, “Korean researchers used functional MRI to watch brain activity in people viewing different images. When the volunteers were looking at urban scenes, their brains showed more blood flow in the amygdala, which processes fear and anxiety. In contrast, the natural scenes lit up the anterior cingulate and the insula—areas associated with empathy and altruism. Maybe nature makes us nicer as well as calm.” I had what the 19th Century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted described as the “nervous irritation of city life.” I wanted out.
Wanting to do something and doing it are two separate things. Making the decision wasn’t easy because what we needed was a complete overhaul of our lives. One where we would be forced to redefine what success would mean, what healthy would mean, what a good life would mean both financially and personally, and ultimately, what contentment would look and feel like. I kept coming back to the English countryside. To me, it always felt like a place where time was dictated by nature, not by a clock. And nature is what I needed after living in concrete jungles my whole life.
“Nature is my religion…city folks are the odd ones, not us. Nature hasn’t gone anywhere. It is all around us, all the planets, galaxies and so on. We are nothing in comparison.” —Bjork
To say I was apprehensive when we left Hong Kong early this year was an understatement. When we got into our rental car at Heathrow we were literally driving to a place we had only known by name. When we found the place that would be our home for the year, we met people who made us feel right at home straight away and that helped ease my worries about being in a world that was so new to me, a world where I wasn’t an anonymous tenant, but a member of a community. I was then able to relax into a new life that is allowing us to find out what our decision to change and redefine our lives actually means. I have been able to breathe in time and space—two luxuries that have become necessities not only in making the most of our time with our boy but also to find our purpose. And the effect that nature has had on all of us has been tremendous. We appreciate moments, we appreciate what is just outside our door, we take so many photos of sunsets and flowers (perhaps the only reason we take our phones everywhere with us), and watching our son stop to look at leaves and pick berries just fills our hearts with joy and gratitude. I take to heart Socrates’ belief that “wisdom begins with wonder.”
Initially our friends and family members thought it was a great idea for us to take a proper break as they knew all about our hectic lives. But they would eventually ask questions like, ‘when are you going to get your lives “back on track?” Or they would ask, “what do you do all day?” It’s almost as if our lives are so alien because we are not part of a rat race, because we aren’t amongst those with a Big Title, working for a Big Company, and Being Competitive. It’s almost as if because we stepped off that crazy train and onto the slow boat we are missing out and need to “get back on track”. What I realised prior to our move, is that rushed race people seem to be on, that race to “success” wherever/whatever that may be is a race that goes on forever, it just doesn’t end. The climbing of that proverbial ladder just seems to get higher and higher without any summit in sight. The designer Tom Ford once told me that he realised at one point, while climbing that professional ladder, it was placed on the wrong wall, a wall that wasn’t built by him but someone else and it wasn’t what he wanted for himself. My husband was asked the intrusive questions more than I did. The pressures men are under to “be someone”, to have that big salary, or big title, to prove something and to provide for their families is immense. For him to have taken this huge jump into this different way of life took (and still takes) a massive amount of courage. I am so proud of and grateful to him for having done that. We both are there for our son every day and we both are witnesses to the changes we see in him every day. Every new word, every new movement, every new thing he learns we see and it is etched in our minds forever. We know this time won’t last forever, our son will start school and well, lets be honest, that rainy day fund that allows us this time will need to be replenished. But now we know that living a good life is defined by us and for us it means having that space without the weight of judgement and expectation from anyone. Success to us means having that time to be with our son and having the freedom to work around him. Professionally, we work on projects that we can do from home or travel when need be. My husband consults for companies. I moderate conferences and interview people who inspire me to think differently. I write more and feel I am able to engage with people in a way I couldn’t before and now I feel, more than ever, we as a collective need to get the balance of life right. Otherwise not only will we all feel the effects of stress physically and mentally (and so many of us are), but our kids will be raised thinking the only way to be and succeed is if we slowly kill ourselves by being stressed, by thinking our worth is determined by the amount in a bank account and a title on a business card.
“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbour — such is my idea of happiness.” —Leo Tolstoy
I am not saying the only way to get clarity is to pack up and live in the countryside. What I am saying is that for us, we needed to do something drastic in order to foster real change. We are experts in city living. And it wasn’t working for us anymore. It doesn’t mean it won’t again. It does mean for this moment, while our son is a toddler, we have the opportunity to try something different. Do I miss living in the city? Sure, I miss getting any kind of food I crave and I miss the convenience of not having to drive everywhere. That’s about it. I don’t need labels or fancy dinners. Instead of wearing stilettos I now wear wellies. And let me tell you, I feel great. I couldn’t agree more when the writer Emma Goldman said, “I’d rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck.”
I take full responsibility for the course that my life has taken, all the decisions that I made as a young professional. I didn’t know any better then and there was no one around who was showing me how to live a balanced life. Today, I have learned to look at my life as a whole—not just one part of it. I look at my life with the added view of being a wife and a mother. I remember telling my husband one weekday morning as we took our toddler to the park that this is what success feels like to me now, a sense of fulfilment, a sense of feeling whole. Albert Einstein once said, “look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better. Well, when I look out my window and I see the space and the comfort of the countryside, I know we are in the right place both in mind and body to be that change we set out to find.