Not My Dream, But My Life
“My Gutsy Story®” Jennifer Barclay
I spent my fortieth birthday not being whisked away to a Spanish city for a romantic weekend, as had been hinted in what now seemed the distant past, but weeping and shaky with my parents. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
My life had seemed to be coming together, at last settling into year two with a nice man. We were talking about moving somewhere beautiful together. Then he changed his mind.
For a while, the only option was falling apart at the seams.
All I’d wanted was a simple, comfortable happiness at the centre of everything: helping me to be the person who sang tunelessly as she cycled to work in the morning, had good friends and a fulfilling job and got out into the countryside on the weekends. I’d lost not only the potential love of my life, but my love of life. I hated being a miserable me who cried herself to sleep on friends’ couches.
How did other people manage to stay in stable relationships? What was I doing wrong? Gradually, I started to think of a better question: how could I take action to make myself happier?
I was suffering from more than heartbreak, clearly. It hadn’t felt like I was in a rut, but now when I asked myself what I would really like to do with my life, I realised I’d been putting up with things because I thought they were temporary. I had to replace the plans I’d made with my ex, and come up with new ones; the age of forty seemed a good time to take a good, hard look at what I wanted.
Why wait for someone else to change my life? In fact, I was lucky: now, there was only myself to consider. I’d so often compromised for a partner.
Two years earlier, I’d been invited for a weekend in the country where I was surrounded by happy couples with beautiful children. I’d felt inadequate for two days, and the dinner on the Sunday evening was offering much of the same. Then one of the father-husbands asked me if I’d been on holiday that summer.
‘Not yet,’ I said. ‘My job’s always busy during the summer. But next week I’m off for a week on my own in Ibiza.’
His jaw dropped, and his eyes assumed a dreamy look. ‘I would kill for a week on my own in Ibiza.’
All those people in their seemingly perfect relationships had others to think about. I only had myself. In fact, I almost had a duty to think about myself, and how to be happy on my own.
Holidays on Greek islands always gave me huge amounts of joy. My love of Greece started when I was a child on family holidays, and continued into my university years when I travelled around with a friend. I’d spent a year there after university, when I’d been feeling a little lost career-wise and didn’t know what to do. Then, Greece had been the answer – could it be the answer again? In recent years, holidays on Greek islands for a week or two snatched from my busy working year always left me feeling rejuvenated and wanting more. I wondered about going for longer, perhaps a month: two weeks of holiday and two weeks working remotely from there.
My boss took some convincing, but finally I had a month on a Greek island to look forward to; a month to swim in the sea, walk in empty hills, sit in the brilliant, warm sunshine; a month to think – but not too hard – about who I was and what I wanted to do next with my life. In the meantime, I’d put relationships on hold, and I’d start escaping from the never-ending cycle of work, beginning with a freelance day per week, taking a pay cut to invest in my future.
On my first morning waking up on the island of Tilos, with a view of deep blue sky and mountain from my bedroom window, and the glittering sapphire sea through my bathroom window as I brushed my teeth, I knew I’d done the right thing. In fact, it felt like the cleverest thing I’d ever done. Happiness is easy sometimes, as a Greek friend had once said.
I’d work in the peace of the morning, with sweet smells from the next-door bakery wafting up onto the terrace. At lunchtime I’d plunge into the sea, maybe doze a little in the sun as I dried off. After an afternoon of work, I’d walk around the bay, admiring the light and inhaling the fragrance of herbs on the hillside – herbs I’d pick to sprinkle over a simple dinner. In the evening I’d sit out in the balmy air and look up at the stars.
Halfway through my month there, I was snorkelling in a pretty pink-sand bay with my new friend Dimitris, when he found a fat red starfish and put it in my hand. I felt its feelers on my skin, then let it float gently down to the sea bed. Swimming back to the same spot ten minutes later, I saw it had fallen upside down and was slowly, slowly turning itself the right way up. Perhaps that’s what I was doing.
It was hard to leave Tilos at the end of that month. But I’d got my mojo back. And I thought of it not as an ending, but a beginning. Strong again, I decided what to do: not what was sensible or expected, but what felt right for me. The taste of freedom, working from home on a sunny Greek island, showed me the way forward. I could do it.
I used to have recurring dreams of Greek islands, especially in winter when things looked bleak: I’d see myself walking in sunshine on a wild hillside with clear blue water below, into the whitewashed alleyways of an old village. Now that’s not my dream, but my life.
JENNIFER BARCLAY is the author of Falling in Honey: How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart, and blogs about Greek island life at www.octopus-in-my-ouzo.blogspot.com. Her first book was Meeting Mr Kim: How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi, and she is the editor of many travel-related memoirs. Having worked as a literary agent and then an editorial director at a publishing company, she now works freelance from her home office as a writer, editor, writing coach and agent (www.jennifer-barclay.blogspot.com).
SONIA MARSH SAYS: What a beautiful, uplifting story to start a new week,, and a new chapter life, Jennifer. Your phrase,
“I decided what to do: not what was sensible or expected, but what felt right for me.”
is so uplifting and motivating. I truly believe that travel allows us to “re-connect” with ourselves and find out what’s important to us.
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