Way back in the dimly-recalled shadows of the 1990′s an inescapable pop song called “Waterfalls” burrowed its way into my brain. Don’t go chasing waterfalls - implored the lyrics – please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to. My teenaged self took a serious disliking to this exhortation to play life safe: chasing waterfalls sounded like a much better plan. The song is barely remembered now, but the idea stuck so fast that I still think of following big, bold and slightly crazy dreams as “chasing waterfalls”, and lately that’s just what I’ve been doing.
If you thought perhaps I’d fallen silent because I’d had an attack of good sense and spent the winter relaxing and catching up on sleep, well you mustn’t know me very well. That may have been the sensible path, but this is *me* we’re talking about and if I’m not busy challenging myself and trying to do too many things at once I don’t feel quite properly alive. I’m curious, inquisitive and have a tendency to wander off poking at things that catch my attention.
For the last year or so South America has been a source of inspiration and fascination, particularly the mix of complex sustainability issues and welcoming culture I found in Peru. I came back from my last trip in April with a head full of ideas but no clue as to how to make them reality, so I did what I always do when I lack sufficient data and threw myself into learning how exactly one goes about trying to support sustainability management in a developing country on the other side of the world.
Weekends were spent reading research papers and NGO reports to understand the issues and governance frameworks. Free evenings were swiftly occupied by Google searches for programs and companies doing the sorts of work I was interested in. I enrolled in Spanish classes. I talked to my boss about opportunities for sabbatical leave and worked out how to go about packing up my life to follow a dream. I was all in.
I leapt, and as so often happens when you’re on the right path and making the right choices for all the right reasons, I found my wings on the way down. I have a job, for a year, in Peru, doing sustainability-shaped things!
I’m going to be light on the details to make sure I stay on the safe side of the code of conduct I’ve signed with its strict conditions for social media mentions, but what I can tell you is this:
- It’s a volunteering but with living expensed covered type of gig;
- I’ll be embedded with a Peruvian host organisation, the only foreigner working as part of a small team;
- I’ll be based in Lima and working in a Spanish-speaking environment, which is wonderful and terrifying in almost equal parts;
- I’ll be helping to develop environmental management processes and protocols for sustainable natural resource management for protected areas; and
- I may be lucky enough to visit and work in some of the most biologically diverse places on earth!
I am wonderfully, joyfully excited about it all, and just a little nervous and apprehensive too. Most of all, however, I am busy as I sort out my life and get ready to go.
I’ve got projects to finish at work, and I’m wanting to leave on a high note (especially since they’re letting me come back again) There’s background reading to make sure I’m informed and Spanish study to do, plus epic amounts of paperwork, medical and logistical planning to work through (I’m immune to rabies as of today, which feels like quite an exotic thing to be). There’s the huge job of sifting through my possessions and sorting out what to store, share or sell and still all the inescapable day-to-day work of running my very lovely but rather busy life.
Yes, I’m still harvesting veggies from the backyard (so much broccoli) and cooking myself proper food, still shopping at the market and the local grocer, still cutting more and more plastic out of my life, but I will admit that I catch the bus a little more often than I used to, and drive the car a tiny bit more to save time where I can. I’m not getting as much good sleep and rest as my body tells me I’m needing, and I’m not getting out bush-walking anywhere near enough. Sometimes I really can’t do everything I want to do, no matter how determined or stubborn I am, but I’m still doing ok. I’m still acting in ways that agree with my values, and I’m happy that even when going through such a big upheaval almost all the good changes I’ve made are being maintained. Certainly my learning to do without “stuff” is paying off in spades as I have so much less to pack and store than I did a few years ago: moving 4 times in 5 years really clarifies what you do and don’t need!
What good is material stuff, anyway, when you’re off chasing waterfalls?
Adventure called and I answered. I’m off just next month for a year of finding out what I’m really made of, trying to make a meaningful difference to this crazy, beautiful world. A year volunteering in sustainability management in Peru: that’s the shape of things to come!
As may be apparent, 2013 has got off to a busy start for me. Summers in Hobart are jam-packed with things to do, I’ve struggled to find time to write and I’m not as on top of things as I’d like to be.
It can be challenging to maintain balance during busy times and so often I hear people say that they’d like to be more environmentally-sound in their choices but they lead busy lives and they just can’t find the time. And so we let unsustainable choices sneak into our busy lives. We go to the supermarket to do our shopping, instead of visiting the local grocer and the farmer’s market. We drive places instead of cycling or walking. We buy ready-made and processed foods to eat on the run. Gardens get neglected… In the name of convenience, of saving time, we make a thousand small choices that make our lives less sustainable, that lock us in to being busier and busier, that have negative consequences on our health and the health of our planet, our one and only home.
If we really want to make this world, our home, a better place, sustainability needs to be a priority in our lives at all times, especially when we’re tired and stressed. That’s when our bodies and minds are telling us we need to slow down, to rest and to focus on the things that are really important: taking proper care of ourselves and our loved ones. That’s when we really need to nurture ourselves, and we do that best by making sustainable choices, by feeding ourselves wholesome and nutritious food, by connecting with our communities, by ensuring we breathe fresh air and get some exercise, by remembering that living in tune with our beliefs and values actually lowers stress levels and makes us happier.
So stop a while, take a moment to just breathe and remember how it is that you really want to live your life.
Making sustainable choices:
For me, I get through these busy patches by making sustainable choices part of my day’s structure. Daily routines and habits are much easier to maintain than big new changes, so when sustainability is part of your every-day lifestyle, sustainable choices just flow along.
Of course, I don’t have access to an endless well of time so some things do fall by the way-side when I get really busy. It used to be the healthy choices that I let drop. No time for a swim or a bush walk, no energy to cook a proper dinner, and I’ll just finish this or that before I head to bed (oh look, another night of not enough sleep…). Now I’m learning to stay off the computer when I’m tired, that blogging can wait. That I’ll feel better in the morning for cooking a real meal tonight and not opening that bottle of wine. That heading to the pool will clear my head and lower my stress, while an evening on the couch will do the opposite and that no-one is really going to notice if I didn’t do the cleaning this week, but I’m going to feel it I don’t get to the market and stock my kitchen with the sort of food I should be eating.
It’s taken an concerted effort to break these habits and I’m still working on it, but work it does and I’m getting through the busy patches now without dropping the things that really matter to me, without winding up sick and miserable as I push myself too far.
Learning new habits:
- Walk - the daily walk to work is so ingrained into my routines I don’t even think about taking the bus, plus the time and activity help me clear my head for the day ahead. Driving to work or the local shop doesn’t even occur to me now.
- Nourish - it’s very easy when busy to give into the temptation of easy food: processed stuff that will give you a quick energy hit but in the long run is bad for you and the planet (packaging, farming practices, food miles and the rest of it) but preparing and eating real food makes me feel better. When I’m tired and lack the motivation to cook I wander into the garden and find inspiration in what I can harvest there. I also over-cook when I can and stock my freezer with home-made insta-meals to get me through the busy times.
- Prepare - have the little things that help you make the right choices near to hand. I keep fabric shopping bags in places that mean I’ve almost always got one on hand and don’t get caught out needing plastic. I keep my swimming bag packed and hanging my the door. I have raw nuts on hand for snacking. I order seeds so I know I’ll get the garden ready!
- Share - turn chores into a social event by inviting friends, thus helping you to keep the commitment as well as spreading sustainable choices. I make dates with friends to sow the new season’s seeds, to go on foraging missions or get our preserve on to store seasonal surpluses.
- Decide - a friend introduced me to the concept of mindfulness a while back and it’s an amazingly powerful tool I use to keep myself going and being the kind of person I want to be. When I’m tired, grumpy or feeling over it I ask myself who I’m choosing to be, what impact will that choice will have on me? It’s usually enough to get me out and working in the garden or researching sustainability things!
- Stop - I’ve got into the habit now of giving myself a half-hour every evening to just sit and be quiet before bed; time I used to sacrifice in the name of productivity that now allows me to sift through my thoughts and feelings and work out where I’m heading each day. It’s keeping me grounded and has greatly improved the quality of my sleep.
How do you keep yourself on the right path?
I’m writing this on a Monday – that dread day of the week – telling you that life is beautiful.
Thanks to a weekend with the most excellent company, filled with shared laughter, food and affection, I’m feeling totally in love with life. My perspective is refreshed and I can see quite clearly that my life is amazing.
I look around me and see so many good things: the little cottage that’s become a cozy home, the community of warm and inspiring people I’m connecting with, the astonishing natural beauty of this place (that I get to appreciate every day), the loving and inspiring people I’m fortunate to call friends and the many excellent adventures I’ve had and have yet to come. In a few weeks’ time I’m off on an adventure of a lifetime with one such friend: the Atacama Desert and Machu Picchu (I’m almost imploding with excitement about this!). I have a job I enjoy, working with people I like and respect. I wake up in the mornings and I want to get out of bed, to see what the day brings.
This little corner of the universe is a pretty damn special place to be. This life – my life – is something astonishing. My life is amazing. It wasn’t always so.
Not so long ago, my life looked very different. I was lost, defeated and seriously ill. Disaffected with my career, isolated in a State where I knew no-one and with my life tied to another who was pulling me in the opposite direction to where I needed to be, it was a very different picture indeed.
I was not living my values, I was not listening to my emotions and I was very, very stressed. Every ounce of energy I had was expended running as fast as I could just to stay still. They call stress the silent killer, and they’re really not kidding: I developed severe Grave’s Disease, an auto-immune condition triggered by stress and a latent genetic susceptibility. I lost the best part of 5 years of my life to this illness and I lost my will to fight, instead watching my life slip further and further from where I wanted it to be.
Eventually, after two doses of radio-iodine, my body recovered and I finally found the energy to start re-building my life. It was a long, slow process, filled with challenges and difficult lessons, but it’s brought me to the place I am now, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Being sick was awful. Extracting myself from the unhappy mire that had become my life was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever made, but these experiences helped me to build the life I have today. Worth it? Yes, several times over.
- Life in tenuous, uncertain; the future rarely turns out the way we plan. Stop waiting, stop telling yourself “one day” and start living now.
- If your thought processes seem a little broken or you just can’t keep your head clear, find a good psychologist. Persist until you find one who feels right for you; it’s worth every cent.
- Without risk there is no reward. Taking risks challenges us and makes us grow. Playing safe constrains and cripples us. Put yourself out there.
- Learn to be resilient: build the support structures, emotional strength and coping mechanisms to roll with life’s punches and make the best of it. Fighting things you can’t change is a waste of time and the universe doesn’t give a damn about fairness.
- Stress is your body and brain telling you that something is wrong. Chronic stress is a sign that something is fundamentally off-track in your world. Find it and change it.
- Where you can’t change the circumstance, try changing your perspective. Sometimes looking at things a different way can change your whole world.
- As much as possible, live your values. Work out what they are, then how to build them into your every day: life feels much less like hard slog once you stop fighting yourself.
- Don’t underestimate yourself: you will be amazed at what you can learn / achieve / withstand once you’re making those choices for the right reasons.
- Trust your instincts. Our brains are processing so much more information than we’re consciously aware of and feeding it to us as gut reactions.
- Surround yourself with the kinds of people who bring out the best in you. Choose friends who inspire, motivate and encourage you to be the best version of you. Avoid the people who try to make you less than you want to be.
- Tell the people who matter how you feel. Be honest with them and with yourself, ask for what you need, give what you can and love freely.
- Make mistakes, and forgive others for making them. Remember that everyone deserves a second chance, including you.
- Take good care of yourself: no-one else can do it for you, so it’s up to you to work out what you need and provide it for yourself.
So have I won the war? No, but I have learnt how to win the battles that really count. I still take on too much, get over-stressed and under-slept and let life’s knocks bowl me over now and again. There are many lessons I’m going to need learn repeatedly: the ones about balance, about the warning signs of stress, about taking on too many things and trying to control too much, about security-seeking, risk avoidance and resilience. There will be many times I fall down, sliding back into old, broken thought patterns and behaviours. I will fail again and again and again; that is inevitable. But you know what? That’s not what counts.
What matters is picking yourself up again, dusting yourself off and getting back on that bloody horse, no matter how many times you fall. It’s remembering who you really want to be and putting in the work to get there. It’s about learning from each fall, challenging your behaviours and beliefs and finding a better way forwards, building the shape of things to come. It’s about making change sustainable, and stopping occasionally to look around and see just how far you’ve come.
So who do you want to be?
 Unless you’re a woman on the contracetive pill, in which case your instincts may well be broken.