Yesterday I had a meeting.
I stood on a busy San Francisco sidewalk watching the business people pass me, their lanyards fluttering, catching my eyes like bright lights on a broadway sunset.
I clutched my umbrella, shifting my weight nervously from side to side as I touched my recently dried hair, trying to catch glimpses of myself in the cafe windows.
The coffee line was long. Should I line up? Do I look business enough? Would other people here know?
My coffee date came towards me in a hurried rush and apologised profusely for her lateness. We were here to talk about whether she should leave her job, as she had heard through a friend that I had left mine the year previous.
As we sat perched on our high stools (stools, incidentally, that must have been designed by people over 6 feet tall) she told me a story of a stressed advertising executive, of work days that ended at 9pm, and of how grateful she was that I squeezed her into my calendar.
I nodded with a sort of robotic sympathetically, trying to remember how she felt. I drew up a few metaphors of change, likening her situation to a recent domestic challenge we were having in our house, and murmured with soothing agreement.
But I felt awkward, like I was close to her human struggle but distant from the packaging it came in.
The truth is, these days, I have time — tons of it. My Google calendar is creamy white, and lightly speckled with pantone appointment colours such as: “check your emails”, “meet a friend for coffee”, and “go for a run”.
She was my only appointment that day and I was grateful for someone to talk to. We could’ve chatted all afternoon: we could’ve devised her 10-year career strategy, discussed the machinations of Donald Trump’s rise to power, mused about the professions of the other coffee shop goers, or just watched the baristas steam milk.
It was nice to be doing something that other people think is doing something.
Just like Will from About A Boy, over the past year, my life has become a series of little pearls put together on a very long string. I bake warm spelt loaves each morning, I brew my own coffee from scratch, I’ve created an herb garden, I practice yoga every day, and I’ve discovered a small rocky outcrop in the park where the California poppies look best.
A certain portion of my day is spent on hedonistic pleasure — I got my nails painted for the first time ever (I recommend bright pink OPI after extensive discussions with my new nail technician Li), I’ve scheduled a massage for next week, and last week a pilot friend took me up for a spontaneous flight in her helicopter across the Bay. I could clear my schedule with ease to do all these things because there was no schedule to clear.
Let’s be clear here — I chose to have all this time. It’s not incidental to losing a job or being in-between projects. It’s not time I have on the way to somewhere else, it’s not really a sabbatical, and it’s not really something I intend to end after a defined period.
I choose to uncover a life based on who and what I really am when all there is, is silence.
This journey started somewhat earlier than my coffee date. One year ago I left Australia to follow an intuitive vision that my life could be something greater, bigger, and more complete than it was. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, but I knew I had to follow the bread crumbs.
So I left a job, friends, family, and a life I knew to answer my burning question — how could I find a life purpose of my own making and determination?
It took me 23 countries, the Himalayas, a yoga festival, a motorbike trip through Thailand and Vietnam, an earthquake, hanging out in Dharmsala with the Dalai Lama (somewhere close by), three weddings, a funeral, 60 hitchhike lifts, nights in a tent on the side of highway, three visa runs, countless conversations, and a whole ton of self-belief to get me to San Francisco.
During my journey, part of me was certain that by the time I took my last bus ride or got off the last plane, I would have my answer. I would be filled with a well of self-validation, life meaning, and purpose to just thrust forward into the world. I would then rejoin the world I had left, come back into the fold from my temporary hiatus, and shout to everyone how I had found the formula for a meaningful life (and no doubt package it in a five step series).
But that didn’t happen. There are days when I’m not sure if I’m living a life many people would envy or a relaxing nightmare of my own creation. Without any framework of social validation, time takes on an arbitrary quality. I’m never certain if I spent the day well or not: if I did enough, or helped enough, or made enough impact on the world. And I don’t really have anyone to ask — except perhaps my cat Shiloh, and her feedback is sporadic at best.
I have strange feelings of joyful jealousness when my partner comes home from work at 6pm each day and tells me what he has done. He regales me with stories of his company’s latest expansion, things he’s done to improve performance, and anecdotes from the exciting chat at lunch with the Zurich office.
Do I want to be him or the business executive I met for coffee? Do I envy that life?
You’re probably grumbling to yourself by this point — ‘get a job’ you say in a raspy mobster accent. Don’t worry, I’ve also thought of that too. I could plant trees with the Friends of the Urban Forest, I could hand out Jehovah Witness pamphlets with the dedicated long-coated ladies at the train station, or I could go back to the career I had before and commiserate with the advertising executive on how little time we both have.
But I struggle with this desire to fill my time simply to give myself the safety of busyness. I spent many years filling my time that way and created no greater sense of happiness than I might feel now.
I used to think it was the money that stopped me from living my dreams, but things are ok there now, and I still have the same fear. That fear is that there really isn’t a dream there after all, in the long silence of free time.
All these years I spent waiting for the time to follow my dreams, betting on my assumption that when that time came I would burst out into the world, shaking my dream bangles for everyone to see.
But in the waiting game, time plays tricks on us. The dreams we hold have atrophied. They are still there, but they haven’t grown or matured, they haven’t had the chance to expand under the weight of all the musts and shoulds of our lives.
The life of following dreams is much more precarious than anything I did before because listening to myself is something I haven’t learnt how to do. So those muscles are weak and my own voice is muffled inside me.
So it’s in these moments, in the glow of a white calendar in a city of the super busy, that I begin to take the tiniest of steps to fill my time in a way that matters to me. Like most adults, I’m used to feeling competent, directed, and in control — so when my deepest dreams come out they’re shaky and timid, like a calf hobbling on its first steps.
I don’t know yet if this experiment is leading me on a deeper path of my greatest life work or I am creating a life of a glorified bum. But it’s in this free time that the real work begins.
This story was originally published on medium.com.