The hardest part of any transition is when the initial enthusiasm and hope fades but the potential benefits haven’t materialised. I call it the mire.
It always happens. Three or four months after moving to a new city, I feel bogged down. Trapped. Mired in negativity and doubt. Bearing the burden of building a new life in a strange place.
This time it’s London. My seventh expat move. OK, I lived in London once before. Yes. But the last time I moved to London was over 20 years ago. I was a different person, and London was a different city.
And not just a different city – I was living on the other side of it as well.
The first time, I lived in the city’s west. Fulham was genteel and well-heeled. Gilets and chambray shirts with pressed jeans were the uniform. As much for the women as for the men.
Now I live in the city’s east. Hackney is edgy and artfully individualistic. Fluffy coats, animal prints, and mid-heel boots are the uniform here. As much for guys as for gals.
But in both places, despite all the differences, the mire found me, as it did in every city in between: Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore, even Tokyo.
After the long hot summer came six weeks of fun trying to settle into life in London. I took in galleries and football games. I found a new Pilates studio. I tried to make sense of the habits of the locals around me.
After those weeks of exploration came a month of travel. Tokyo, Hakuba, Adelaide, New York, Washington, and Toronto, and Paris. Time to see the sights, spend time with family, and draw inspiration.
Then back to London. To the cold. The darkness that draws in when there should be plenty of afternoon left to enjoy. The darkness that hints at the gaping holes in this new life I’m trying to build, the loneliness of being in a city where I hardly know anyone, where I don’t speak a word most days until my significant other comes home from work at dinner time.
All this was made worse by the time it took for my things to arrive from Japan. It was late November before I could start to unpack.
I could insert a whole diatribe here, thousands of words long, about how everything seems to take too long in the UK. I won’t.
Instead, I’ll focus on the deep emotions that stirred as each package and box was opened, from books to kitchenware, to small momentos brought home from distant travels. Coffee cups from Turkey and Vietnam, a statue from India and another from Kenya, a seashell from Jamaica, and a vase full of smaller shells from beaches all over Australia.
Being around my things felt like a turning point. My beloved dining table was finally filling what had been an empty room for so many months. Though at first it was covered with kitchenware, glasses, and mugs and pots, which hadn’t yet found a home in this new (and poorly designed) kitchen.
Maybe they could’ve fit. But it would’ve been a scary mess every time you opened a cupboard door. It was time for a few decisions, a few goodbyes, a few Marie Kondo moments of thankful farewells to things that had served us well.
Not that we threw a lot of things out. A few glasses, a vase, a handful of utensils. All to goodwill and hopefully to other homes.
Maybe it was trimming the excess that made putting things away easier. But I’m inclined to think it was refamiliarising myself with everything that was kept, touching it again, and taking the time to really go through the space in the kitchen, rearranging shelves, replacing the arrangement the previous owner had made with one that fit our needs, which made it all work and let everything find a comfortable home.
There’s a difference between putting things away and creating order.
The process was even more tiring than it sounds but the result was thrilling. It felt good to conquer a difficult task. It felt even better to start seeing a way out of the mire.
From that point on, boxes and unresolved mess started to disappear from the house. It’s not a finished process and there’s still some chaos. But it’s chaos in process. We need a word for a mess that’s being attended to, a mess that has a logic applied to it, instead of just a mess we don’t know what to do anything about.
Because that’s what emerging from the mire feels like. You’re still muddy. Maybe you still feel a little stuck. Or moving a little slowly. Or just plain cold. But your journey to freedom has begun.
Except it isn’t quite that neat – it’s not like an inspirational Instagram post. The mire is unavoidable at times of significant change (or very soon afterwards). The mire slows us down, makes us realise we are in a different space, forces us to consider how we can thrive in the midst of different constraints and fresh opportunities. A bit like the way rainy days mess with us, perhaps give rise to feelings of frustration, but also make us aware that even with the best planning in the world, we can’t control everything, and we learn to hold more loosely all our carefully scripted plans.