By fate, or lack of forethought, I find myself spending New Year’s Eve alone for the first time in my life. And, in a way, it seems a fitting way to end the year, because 2016 was the year when I learnt the difference between being alone, and being lonely.
As I write, I sit in my kitchen in my university halls of residence, listening to an Edith Piaf song (Non, Je ne regrette rien) that my best friend sent me the link to, and drinking peppermint tea that another friend gave me, in a mug that was a Christmas present from my sister (with the words “Well behaved women rarely make history” on it). Noodles and pak choy boil on the stove, and breaded aubergine bakes in the oven. Cookies sit cooling on the countertop. I don’t know precisely when, but at some point this year, I started living a life that I am proud of, and a life that I am fiercely protective of.
Yet even a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t find it within myself to be completely grateful for the life I lead. I was frustrated for seemingly no reason, jealous of people I had no need or right to be jealous of, and I had convinced myself that most of my friends couldn’t really be bothered with me. All in all, Eliza Brain had gone into self-destruct mode, and no matter how much my rational side tried to stop me, I convinced myself that I was dissatisfied with pretty much everything in my life. And even the few things I couldn’t bring myself to resent were not safe from this. If you reject the majority of things you hold dear, you will find yourself clinging even harder to the few things you have left. And so I found myself relying more and more on my best friend, and getting frustrated when they were unable to visit me, or getting jealous of literally everyone they spent time with. And naturally all of this happened during the height of exam stress, so I pretty much thought I would explode.
And then I had this moment. I was in the library, late at night, working on an essay that was due in the day after next. (I accidently live by the motto “if tomorrow isn’t the due date, today isn’t the do date”). And I was in the mood to procrastinate, as always, so I was messaging my best friend. Until it got to the point where he told me to get off Facebook and actually work on my essay. Of course, I was not in the mood to work on said essay. So I got off Facebook, as instructed, and started searching for other means of procrastination. And I started googling random things that came into my head, until somehow I was looking at holiday accommodation in Estonia.
For the first time in what felt like months, I found myself actually excited about something. Like proper excitement, where my heart was racing and my eyes were probably glowing, and I was filled with a joie de vivre that had been absent for absolutely ages. Cliché as it is, I “found myself” when I went travelling in Estonia last summer, and I’d vaguely thought about returning next summer, but I hadn’t dwelled on the idea much because it was so far away. So I let the idea simmer as I left the library (it was perhaps 10 p.m. – not the best time to write an essay). I went to Tesco and bought vegan gluten-free toffee ice cream cones (yes, such a thing exists), and began the 20-minute walk home. As I walked through the dark streets – lit only by a distant streetlamp – eating an ice cream and contemplating future travel plans, it began to rain. You know that type of light rain, which comes down like a mist, and is refreshing rather than unpleasant? The rain pattered down against the faded purple bob of my hair, and I found myself smiling.
I was smiling because I had unlocked the key to my own happiness, found the magic ingredient to becoming the healthiest version of myself once more. You see, I have somewhat of an obsessive personality. When I’m healthy, it makes me driven, but it’s not something I will ever get rid of. And hence, I must find a way to work with this part of myself, without letting it consume me. And that’s what clicked for me: there are two things in my life – going to Estonia, and writing my novels – which are the “perfect” obsessions for me. Because these are things where 1) I am reliant on my own hard work and discipline, and 2) other people cannot let me down/I can not blame other people or rely on them too much, because they are simply not part of the equation.
Whilst this was the first major shift in my outlook, I believe the pivotal point occurred a day or so later. I was sitting in the bedroom of a friend who lives in my building – we’d been studying together for our English Lit exam, which was two days away, and had ended up chatting into the early hours of the morning. This friend was someone who had unfortunately been on the receiving end of my jealousy because I found it hard to accept that she was also best friends with my best friend (sometimes I’m not as mature as I wish to be). And we ended up talking about this, and I apologised for being so territorial over this other friend of ours. And I also admitted to her that I’d spent the best part of three months thinking that she didn’t like me. She then told me that I reminded her a lot of herself at 16, and perhaps parts of herself that she wanted to forget. And then she said something that really struck me: she told me that she didn’t think I was who I wanted to be, and that she believed it was possible for me to become that person. I started talking, babbling on about how I could see who I was meant to be, and how there were times when I’d been able to grasp that elusive part of myself. And she laughed, because she recognised it. And I realised that in that moment, she saw me a whole lot clearer than I saw myself.
She gave me the wakeup call I needed. It hit me that sometime during the past three months, I had stopped striving for the “something” that had always driven me. I’d stopped trying to be my best self, because I’d found a life where I could be content, and get by on minimal effort. I am a naturally smart person, with a special talent for bullshitting my way through life and essays. And I thought that when I got to university I would have to get my shit together and actually learn to work hard. And then I got a B grade on an essay I’d started three hours before it was due in, and I realised that my bullshitting game was still strong as ever, and I didn’t have to go *too* far out of my comfort zone. So the comfort zone became even comfier, until it became like a comfortable pillow that was smothering me.
I went through life like a comfortable zombie. I spent my mornings in lectures, my afternoons with my friends, and two evenings a week at improv society. I’d start essays a day or so before they were due in. And everything was fine. If I ever began to worry that my grades might slip (which they thankfully haven’t yet) I’d tell myself “Ds get degrees”. Now that I’ve been woken to the reality of my position, I can see why I fell into such patterns. University – or certainly my university – is a hands-off learning environment. Throughout school I was used to being spoon-fed everything I needed to do well. And along with this was the pressure, or at least expectations, of striving to get the best grades possible. Whereas in university, no one cares what grades I get, except me. Even my seminar tutors tell me not to stress because all I have to do is pass. And somewhere in the back of my mind is the girl who spent the majority of her time in Sixth Form getting As in every subject. I’ve gone from overachiever to underachiever, and it doesn’t suit me at all. It’s not just my grades; it seems, but every area of my life.
Before I came to university, I didn’t really have friends. And suddenly I was thrown into this world full of shiny new people, and I had everything I’d ever wanted. I was naïve enough to think that my friends could be my whole world, and that’s just not how it’s meant to work. Friends should be the pillars which support us, but they should not be the foundations, and they should certainly not be the whole building. We’re not meant to live solely for our friends, or our family, or any of kind of relationships. Even if they are the most important things in our lives, they shouldn’t be our WHOLE lives. We have to have something within ourselves that gets us through, some kind of passion or spark that makes us want to wake up each day and live our best lives.
I don’t think I lost this spark, I think I just forget to look for it, so it got buried somewhere deep in my heart. And now I’m mining for it, digging deeper and deeper into the foundations of my self, to find out who the hell I actually am.
And that’s where Estonia comes in again. When I look within, and try to find who I am, my heart takes me back to the 11 days I spent in Estonia, when I was the most Elizaest I have ever been. I learnt to be alone without being lonely. Certainly, there was plenty of loneliness – I cried myself to sleep for the first five nights – but I also learnt to be incredibly comfortable with being alone. I was in a country where I could speak approximately three words of the language, and so my self was all I had. I learnt to be my own best friend, my own travel companion, my own caretaker. And there were so many significant life lessons I learnt from my travels. Perhaps the most important for me to remember right now, was I learnt my own power, and my own ability to achieve my goals. International travel is not the cheapest thing in the world. Especially when you work part time for the minimum wage… The were times when I worked up to four days a week, as well as being at school every day, in the weeks preceding what were supposedly the most important exams of my life. I worked hard, and I achieved my goal.
Of course, once I was IN Estonia, I was surrounded by examples of another kind of hard work. Everywhere I looked, I saw settings from my novels. I was in a world that had existed in my imagination for so long, a world in which three novels were set. I was surrounded by visual reminders of my own commitment, my own dedication, my own creativity. Whilst I was in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, surrounded by strangers, I was also surrounded by familiarity, with manifestations of my characters running through the streets, invisible to all but me. Whilst I felt powerless every time I had to conduct an exchange in this unfamiliar language, I felt damn powerful the rest of the time.
I should feel powerful now, should I not? I worked hard to get here (okay, I procrastinated my way through the weeks leading up to exams, and did near to no revision. But let’s not go into that!). I survived three years in the hellscape of school. I have earned my place here more than I’ve earned anything else in my life. So why doesn’t that drive me? Why doesn’t it motivate me to work hard for the next thing?
Because this is it. This is what it’s all been for. And I don’t know what comes next. There’s just this vague concept of the “real adult world”, and “employment” and “graduate jobs” and all those words which evoke fear in my heart. And I don’t know what they mean, for me. I don’t know where I’m going to be in four years from now, and I don’t know how I’m meant to work towards it. Do you know what the scariest part of my Estonia trip was? Standing on the platform at Penrith train station, waiting for the train to take me to London, and to the airport. The journey is most scary before it begins. And that’s how life feels. I’m scared of what I do when university finishes. Hell, I’m scared of not finding anyone to live with in 2nd year. I spend so much time thinking about this ~future~, without realising that the future is now. I create the life I lead. My future will one day be my present, and then my past. Instead of worrying about how to reach the top of the mountain, I should start building the staircase that leads me there.
Earlier today I sat in Starbucks (Google lied to me about Pret’s opening hours #thisiswhyIhavetrustissues), writing my resolutions/goals for 2017. I ended up with 24, because I’ve never been one to travel light, not even into a new year. And the majority of these goals were to do with self-improvement, in almost every area of my life. Not just the improvement of me, but the improvement of my relationships with others. For example, I want to invest more time and energy in my female friendships, and find myself a sisterhood of supportive women. Self-improvement doesn’t exist in a vacuum. No one lives in this world alone; we all have people we interact with every day, or every week. And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about other people, it’s that we learn by imitation, and we grow by watching others grow. We should strive our hardest to lead by example, and to spread the love. Another resolution of mine is to both find a mentor and be a mentor. You see, another thing I realised after that conversation with my friend, is that everyone’s at different stages in their self-evolution. Rather than being jealous of those who are ahead of us, we should allow ourselves to learn from them, just as we should impart our knowledge to those who can learn from us.
There’s this quote that I remember my mum saying once, and I can’t remember who it’s by, but it goes like this: “We’re all just walking each other home”. And I don’t know what it’s meant to mean, but I interpret it as this: we’re all going in the same direction; we’re all on this journey. And the best we can do, the most we can do, is help each other and support each other in this life. And that is the kindest thing we can do for ourselves and each other.
I hope you all take 2017 as an opportunity to live lives that you’re proud of, and to grow, and learn, and find beauty in the small things – and in all things.
Love and light and blessings for the year ahead.