Dawn sunlight speared through the broken windowpane. Illuminating the sleepout, where my brother and I bunked down whenever we slept over at the farm. The enclosed veranda had no heating or insulation, but at least the fly screens kept the worst of the creepy crawlies out.
We crawled out of our beds and silently got dressed, before sneaking outside. Idle hands attracted chores to keep them out of mischief. We had long ago learned to make ourselves scarce.
Two little boys, wielding sticks as make-believe swords, marched through waist-high grass tinged purple by Paterson’s curse. Scotch thistles were the enemy. Taller than we were. Shown no mercy.
Eventually, we battled our way to the top of a nearby hill. Surveying our empire in the early morning sunshine. A magnificent vista stretching in all directions as far as the eye could see.
Then we grinned. Saluted one another. Threw ourselves sideways to roll down the steep hillside.
Faster and faster we tumbled. Giggling gleefully in a dizzy combination of exhilaration and terror.
If the gods were smiling, we would make it to the bottom with grass-stained clothes and big smiles.
If not, one of us would bust our heads on a rock hidden in the long grass. Find our descent rudely interrupted by a newly installed barbed wire fence. Steamroll over a poisonous snake.
Scratches and scrapes were a given. The toll to be paid for having so much fun.
More serious injuries were uncommon. But not unprecedented.
How we survived to adulthood I will never know, but that day the gods were smiling. Mostly.
After our third roll down the hill, my brother looked like he had slid the entire way on his face. Eyes swollen to slits. Tears streaming. Sinuses congested. Skin flushed and itchy. Breathing laboured.
We walked back to the farmhouse, where our parents were just finishing their breakfast, as quickly as his gasping for breath would allow.
Our parents goldfished. Their faces cycling through a variety of emotions.
Alarm. Giving way to panic.
Anger, as conclusions were leapt to. Guilt and blame allocated.
Who else but a big brother carrying a stick sword could be responsible for leaving a little brother looking like he had been on the receiving end of five rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson?
My mother whisked my younger sibling away to the regional hospital. A couple of hours later he returned like an all-conquering hero. High on antihistamines and parental guilt. It turned out the boy had developed an allergy to certain types of grass seeds. A superpower he would subsequently apply to get out of all manner of school activities over the years to come.
Some things that feel good at the time are ultimately harmful.
Some harmful things only feel good only once they have stopped.
Life has a funny way of happening. Ready or not, here it comes.
Randomly bouncing between two ends of the spectrum.
Sometimes we feel that all is right in the world.
Blissfully serene. Holiday brochure mode. Stretched out on a lilo. Umbrella drink in hand. Enjoying the sunshine while floating down a slow-moving stream.
Most times that stream ends at a tropical lagoon in paradise.
Occasionally it goes over a massive waterfall!
Win some. Lose some.
Sometimes we feel like nothing further could possibly go wrong. And then it does.
Stressed and uncertain. Juggling knives. While riding a unicycle. Across a minefield. With our hair on fire.
Most times we survive, largely intact. Bearing a few new scars to remind us of hard-won lessons learned.
Occasionally we blow ourselves up spectacularly. Failing to comprehend just how completely and utterly screwed we really were!
Win some. Lose some.
Sometimes those changes of direction can be abrupt and disorientating, resulting in feeling like I did as a boy tumbling down that grassy hill.
Spiralling wildly out of control. The imminent threat of mortal peril sharpening the mind and stimulating the senses. Knowing things probably won’t end well, yet lacking any viable means to arrest the descent or avoid the hard landing. Crash or crash through, there was no turning back.
Most times we live to tell the tale. Shake off the dust. Knock out the dents. Worse for wear. Poorer for the experience. Hopefully wiser.
Occasionally things simply cannot be unfucked. No matter how hard we try. Nor how much we may want them to turn out otherwise. A factory reset is required. Going back to square one.
Win some. Lose some.
Where we start out in life is a result of the ovarian lottery. It is an uncomfortable truth that so much of what comes after is determined by where we begin.
The fates arbitrarily decide which of us is born to rich parents in a private hospital, and who is born to a starving rape victim sheltering in a refugee camp in the Sohel. Starting the game with a score of zero or better is a luxury many of us enjoyed, but few consciously understand nor appreciate.
Where our lives end is also somewhat of a lottery. Accidents, illness, and misadventure will account for some. A fortunate few live to an inspiring old age, before going to sleep in their own bed one night and never waking up. Many of the rest of us will likely finish up in some form of assisted living, often chosen by somebody else. Our power reduced. Autonomy diminished.
The truth is we have little control over either endpoint on life’s journey. There is not much point worrying about them, all we can do is play the cards we are dealt.
What we do while journeying between those endpoints is far more interesting.
In that farming community, there was a perpetual rivalry between the farm kids and the “townies”, those locals whose families earned a living doing something other than directly working the land.
Both groups hated “soft” city kids like us. Intensely jealous of the education, employment, and lifestyle on offer to those living in the big city. Our daily existence of being surrounded by shops, restaurants, parks, and playgrounds was their special holiday treat. Reserved only for the good years, when the weather gods cooperated to produce bumper crop yields that made such a trip an affordable luxury.
But here is the thing. Many of those farm kids and townies dreamt of living in the city. A faster and more exciting way of life. Full of new and exciting culture, experiences, opportunities, and wealth
Meanwhile, by the time those “soft” city kids reached midlife crisis age, many fantasised about a simpler life out in the country. Living in a small beach town or a rural homestead far away from the bustling crowds, noise, and pollution. Growing some of their own food. Communing with nature.
As the old saying goes, “the grass is always greener on the other side”.
Migrants experience this phenomenon on a grander scale.
Many British people dream of living in an exotic sun-drenched paradise. Australia. Fiji. Spain. Thailand.
Meanwhile, many Aussies, Fijians, Spanish, and Thai folks dream of the opportunities and wages rumoured to be on offer in London, where the streets are said to be paved with gold.
Starting a new life.
Just like the farm kids, townies, and mid-life crisis suffering city-slickers did.
It is the sense of distance that provides the opportunity for rejuvenation. Reinvention. The factory reset.
Freeing themselves of obligations.
Escaping social circles that may at times feel stifling or oppressive.
Engineering a circumstance that forces the definition of new habits, routines, and priorities.
I know some folks who moved halfway around the world, while still maintaining daily interactions with their friends and family back home. I know other people who moved no further away than the next suburb and never looked back, vanishing from their old lives as completely as if they had been abducted by aliens.
That distance is not a geographical measure, it is a state of mind. Something we grant ourselves. The relocation merely provides a convenient excuse.
These major life changes often create upheaval. A feeling of spiralling out of control, like that experienced by my younger self tumbling down the grassy hill.
If we step back and cast an objective eye over daily lives and routines, they will likely resemble a familiar yet precarious Jenga tower. Cobbled together over many years out of accumulated compromises. Constraints. Stopgaps. Tradeoffs. Workarounds. Possibly the occasional consciously designed strategic foundation piece.
Pulling out any individual block is risky. Potentially weakening the structural integrity of the remainder. Everything interlinked. Often in unexpected ways that we do not consciously understand. Second and third-order effects are notoriously difficult to predict with any accuracy.
Add or remove enough blocks, and at some point, the whole tower may collapse.
Entertaining fun when it is a child’s game. Less so when it is your whole life.
However, just like the children’s game, disaster is immediately followed by rebuilding. Starting to assemble a new tower. Cleaner lines. More stable foundations. Compromise and workaround will inevitably follow, but in the beginning, there is opportunity to improve upon the previous version.
Include more of the things that worked.
Discard some of the things that did not.
When attempted rapidly and on a grand scale, this lifestyle design process creates a heady mix of exhilaration and terror, as we tumble headlong down the unpredictable journey of life.
Hidden traps and dangerous pitfalls abound.
If the gods are kind, we may survive the upheaval wearing huge smiles of relief. Step back from the feeling of spiralling out of control, and settle into the new lifestyle we have designed for ourselves.
The more I thought about it, the more attempting to design a lifestyle resembled playing chess.
Each move opens up a universe of potential options for future moves and counter moves.
Every decision made closes off a host of possibilities. The roads not taken.
Needing to concurrently think across multiple plains of gameplay. Over multiple timescales.
Tactically in the immediate term. The individual moves around the board.
Strategically playing the long game. Sequencing those moves in pursuit of an overarching goal.
Outcomes achieved via the correct sequence of tactical moves, collectively executing the strategy.
If incorrectly played, any one of those tactical moves has the potential to prevent our attaining the prize.
Sometimes short and long term moves might be in conflict. Disconnects that must be resolved if we are to stand any chance of winning the game.
Living location versus quality of schools.
House prices versus commuting times.
Work/life balance versus wages earned.
Career ambitions versus parenting.
Living for today versus investing for tomorrow.
Financial Independence versus the hedonic treadmill.
Each one representing a big decision, with far-reaching consequences and long-lasting implications.
None entirely independent.
No simple choices of black or white, right or wrong. The correct answer for each of us could lie anywhere along the spectrum.
The wisdom of the internet suggests that happiness resides in low expectations. Those who are content with little often find themselves being pleasantly surprised on the upside. Lacking ambition, that endless desire for more, they are grateful for what they have and consciously appreciate it in a manner that we could all learn from.
Where we set that bar is perhaps the most important decision of all.
Set too low, our smooth journey during normal times will be derailed at the slightest speed bump or pothole in the road. Our fun abruptly ended, like the time we tumbled into that new barbed-wire fence.
Set too high, and our expectations can never be met. Endlessly yearning for more. Better. Different. Like those farm kids and townies seeking endless excitement in the city, or the British emigrants searching for meaning in the sunshine of distant shores.
It is the question of how much is enough?
Not too little.
Not too much.
An answer that is unique to each of us.
One that I suspect is a constantly moving target!