After a long, harsh winter

After a long, harsh winter

This time, ten years ago, I was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, reading “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls. I was living alone and going through my own long winter. The isolation had gone from charming to lonely to sad and sometimes even scary. As my friend Kari and I say, there is Little House winter, and there are Doen winters. And I was definitely made for the latter.

Despite growing up with winters and having lived ski resorts in the Canadian Rockies and New Zealand Mountains, I was having a hard time as a single adult, without community, and with more demands like work and less outdoor activities. I wasn’t dealing well with being snowed in constantly and feared my icey drives to work. And as someone who doesn’t wear pants, you can imagine the challenges of staying warm!

But leaving Philadelphia would be hard because I had gotten into a rhythm of simplicity. I loved my home, I loved baking at home. I was spending my weekends driving the countryside, taking so many photos. My life was quiet, my work was really satisfying and my cost of living was great. I was content. But I was also lonely and freezing in a winter that never seemed to end. So I had to get intentional and honest with what I wanted. And that was that despite loving so many things (my home, my work, my general lifestyle, who I was and how I lived), I knew I needed to live somewhere warmer and more accessible. Winters, I realized, were not for me.

A few months later, a job opportunity in Santa Barbara, Calfornia, came up. The offer arrived the same day the third blizzard had. I didn’t hesitate to accept it.

In Santa Barbara, I had a charming little cottage that I really made a home in. I got pretty good at cooking (simple) meals. I biked into town every weekend, I discovered Yoga and went 5 days a week. I found my dog, Scout. I fell in-love. I created a community of incredible friends and colleagues, so many of whom have become my ride or die. It ended up being the place I had lived the longest – 2.5 years. When I look back at this time, I realize it’s when I felt the most me; the most successful, happiest and healthy. I had everything I wanted; affordable living, a beautiful little home, a community, a full, simple life. When I moved here, it was intentional and I had built on all that was working for me before.

But the thing about paradise is there aren’t always opportunities for work, and after doing the same thing for a while I was hungry to do more. This was driven by my new partner who was younger, less accomplished and travelled, and wanted to get a resume that matched mine. So he pushed the idea that work was the only thing that was going to matter for a while and little did I realize how true that’d become. Although work was really important to me, it wasn’t how I defined myself and I wasn’t ambitious in terms of career growth but more by enjoying the work that I did and rocking it.

Looking back, I can see that moving out of Santa Barbara was the start of my separation from myself and the beginning of my burnout from which it took me of what felt like a decade of winter to recover from.

I became so busy with very demanding, stressful jobs that were LinkedIn gold but required so much travel or moving or putting up with too many #MeToo moments because that was the status quo. I ended up saying more often than I’d like to admit that I had more money than time, so I began to buy everything; every meal out, people to look after my home or put things together, to walk my dog and gifts sent by mail instead of showing up and celebrating someone in person.

My life went from simple and being present to complex, expensive and a constant panic about the future. The pressure I felt from my partner and the kinds of jobs I had/the companies I was with was often unbearable. I felt more like I was in a neverending performance that had to show ‘more’ and less like I was living a life. I was moving towards a future I didn’t recognize or want. I lost my magic. I became sick and instead of taking time to heal – even after I had a really bad accident that left me immobile and almost losing my foot – I kept going. And going. I became isolated not from winter, but from my lifestyle, which seemed harsher.

I was in a self-fulfilling rat race and I had no idea how to get out of it.

About two years ago, I was sitting in my Topanga Canyon home. A home I loved more than anything, that felt like I had “made it,”that I had bought custom furniture for (and felt so fancy) and that came to define me – it was even featured in a book. But at the same time, I was not living the life I wanted or this house was designed for. A lot of the reasons why I took on the home – gardening, raising chickens, baking, evenings by the fire, reading in a reading nook – never came to pass. I was so burned out from work, I was really sick from years of neglect and then an accident I refused to really take time to heal from. And aside from friends coming to stay with me from time to time, I was lonely in the home because, despite having a partner, we lived pretty separately. The hygge house had lost its hygge and I was living a life of ‘shoulds‘ instead of the one I wanted. That whole cliche.

Also, I knew my partnership was over. We had different visions of how to live, how to care and how to be. We’d struggled with this realization for a long time but the fear of not addressing it had become stronger than the fear of not taking action.

Finally, one morning, I got a little brave. I knew something had to change and so I took the first step. I went to my partner and said we needed to move on. There was no disagreement on his part. There was no drama. But there was a lot of pain and sadness because I finally had to acknowledge who I really was, how I was really living, and the reality of all that entailed.

Ending the partnership meant ending living in the Topanga House. I tried for a few months to live in it alone but it was too isolated. The fire danger and constant evacuations, the lack of cell-service left me scared and the attention the home and yard required were too much. Also, it felt like a home for a family, and living there alone seemed too much to emotionally handle. So the house that seemed to define me, all that I worked for and ‘hygge’ itself, would be gone. I knew I had been living behind a curtain and now that it was being pulled back, I wasn’t sure what was really me and what wasn’t. Leaving that house and all that it entailed was the first step in breaking down. But at the time, I didn’t know I needed to rebuild so instead just kept rearranging all the things that weren’t fitting.

I am a Pollyanna and optimist by nature. I always have hope and look for possibility no matter what the situation. And for most of my life, I had been pretty fearless. If something bad happened, I’d figure out a way to handle it, or see it as an opportunity or a guide to a better direction. But ever since leaving Santa Barbara, I had taken on other’s beliefs about fear and started to feel less safe. Less safe in my beliefs, my abilities, my home, my work, my friendships. That fear, that lack of safety, had ket me paralyzed more than I was able to admit at the time.

It’s why I didn’t write much on Hygge House or post much on Instagram. I firmly believe in the Henry David Thoreau quote “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,” and I had not been living. I’d only been existing, which is the most depressing thing in the world.

2019 would be the year everything added up and knocked me over in a way nothing else ever had. But somehow, it would also become the most hopeful because it stripped me of every facade, made me live every fear and challenged me to get real about who I was and what I really needed.

Last February, my best girlfriend flew out to LA for my birthday and we drove up to Santa Barbara to celebrate. It was a weekend of quiet that we both desperately needed. And one of those quiet mornings, we sat on the balcony, drinking coffee and chatting, and I told her, “I want to move back here. I have no idea how or if that’s possible. But I want to come back. Or at least get back to the kind of life I had here, even if that’s somewhere else.”

I knew at that point my time in LA was limited – I had only moved back again because my partner at the time had wanted to. But it’s a place opposite of how I need to live. but I wasn’t sure where else to go. I always say LA is like that bad boyfriend you know you need to break up with but when you do, it calls you back with a ‘baby, baby, baby’ and you stay. I hated working in the entertainment industry – literally the opposite of every value I have – yet I kept ‘entertaining’ jobs with impressive companies because I was still caught up in what I should do, what looked good, what paid ginourmous amounts of money.

It wasn’t until October when I’d become really aware, honest and brave with leaving a life I didn’t want but had gotten comfortable with. But the transition to something else wasn’t easy because I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, and I hadn’t fully processed everything over the past several years. The moment I decided to let go of one life for good and really find the one that mattered, another winter began. A winter so long, dark and brutal that often I wasn’t sure how I’d get through it.

There were weeks I couldn’t see through to the other side and literally had days of just one foot in front of the other and taking the tiniest of steps. There were days where just walking the dog was the only accomplishment. But I knew winters couldn’t last forever and I used the time to realign, get intentional, get clear on what I wanted, needed and believed. I reached out to my community instead of staying isolated. I clung to hope and cultivated possibility. I started self-care and learned to sleep for more than 4 hours. I got comfortable with being uncomfortable. I purged the custom furniture, digital memories and other things that represented a life I didn’t want. Out of the past decade, these three months would be the hardest but they would also be the ones I really needed to finally find way back to me.

I’m generally not one for NYE celebrations or rituals but this one felt different. Leading up to it, I knew I wanted to leave the past year and decade behind and really start fresh. I was determined not to start it off in a place I didn’t want to be or in ways I’d rung in new years before. So I made my way to Santa Barbara, to stay with my friend (who was the first person I met when I moved to SB because she was my landlord) who provided exactly what I needed: a safe refuge to feel like myself again, a quiet place to begin to dream and manifest like before.

After what’s seemed like a decade of a long, harsh winter, I’m finally seeing the light of summer ahead. I’m not sure if I’ll move back to Santa Barbara at the beginning of this decade as I did in the previous one. But I do know that wherever I am, I’ll be true to me and cultivate and keep the life I need.

The one filled with possibility, simplicity, kindness, presence, purpose, sincerity, magic, curiosity, and joy. 

The one filled with hygge.

(I need to acknowledge the people who really helped me this past year in ways they don’t even know. Christine H, Emira M, Patty C, Mari H, Kari W, Jen L, Amber A, Rhonda H, KPB, Taylor W, Marcy W, Carrie L. And also to everyone who sent me DM’s and notes. Thank you.)

10 Comments

  1. Katy C.No Gravatar
    January 5, 2020 / 12:57 AM

    Alex, I started reading your blog after moving back to the states from Japan in 2004. Your words always had a way to my heart, and I wish you all the best in the new year (decade)! Thank you for always being honest and vulnerable with your supporters. Please know that spring is just around the corner and days will get longer and brighter. You are amazing!

    • alex at hygge houseNo Gravatar
      Author
      January 5, 2020 / 1:19 PM

      Katy, oh my word thank you so much for being part of ths for so long and for your note. It makes a difference. xo

  2. January 5, 2020 / 3:23 AM

    I’ve followed your blog from Alex The Girl, Girl at Play and Hyggehouse (over 15years now!) and I’ve enjoyed reading about your journey, the ups and the downs, the pretty and the preetier still! Through all these documented snippets of life, you’ll get to say, “I’ve lived and loved and climbed the hardest hills, but what a view… what wondrous views I’ve seen.” 🙂
    Thank you for still blogging.

    • alex at hygge houseNo Gravatar
      Author
      January 5, 2020 / 1:18 PM

      What a view – I love that 🙂 thank you so much for being part of this journey. Here is hopefully to another 15 🙂 xo

  3. January 5, 2020 / 12:11 PM

    Long before hygge was a trend, I used to read about it on your blog. My friend and I felt like we’d found a home in your words. In hygge. It connected with our souls. It made sense.

    There have been many changes over the past decade since reading those words and learning about hygge. Dark winters. But I found myself again. Or maybe just a deeper understanding of myself.

    Your hygge is coming. It’s waiting for you, having never left. I’m believing all the best for you. All the comfort and simplicity. But mostly the knowing. Knowing you’re capable of embracing your hygge world again.

    You taught us about the word. Thank you for your transparency that it doesn’t always feel nearby. But it’s always a goal.

    We’re still reading…

    • alex at hygge houseNo Gravatar
      Author
      January 5, 2020 / 1:17 PM

      Greta, thank you so much for this. I really appreciate your words + wisdom. I love the idea of a deeper understanding of onesself 🙂 xo

  4. January 6, 2020 / 7:01 AM

    Another 15+ years reader here. Reading this beautifully written reflection on your past decade made me realise how much I have missed your writing. Navigating life is so hard sometimes and I recently read about a study that concluded that our 40s are often a time of struggle and change, perhaps because we often asks ourselves if this really is the life we wanted? The good news is that, according to the study, we are much more content and happy in our 50s! I selfishly hope that you will share more of this new phase, as I just love your writing, and I wish you a wonderful, hygge, new decade!

    • alex at hygge houseNo Gravatar
      Author
      January 6, 2020 / 5:43 PM

      Johanna it’s so interesting you shared that study because when I was little, all I wanted to do was to get to my 40’s. All I heard from people in the 70’s & 80’s were that being in your 40’s was so great. Then I got here and was like, what happened? I know everyone says it but maybe 50’s is the new 40’s because there’s so much more for us to navigate -especially women who burn out/suffer hormone and health issues earlier or have children later. So here’s to looking forward to that time and hopefully many hygge moments in between 🙂

  5. January 6, 2020 / 9:30 AM

    I started following you a few years ago – I think you had recently moved to Santa Barbara. I love your writing and photography and miss it when there’s a big gap between your posts. My German teacher, who was a fount of wisdom in my teenage years, always used to say ‘all pleasure comes by contrast’. Whilst it’s not good to have to go through the stressful times and risk our health, I’ve done the same thing, I’m now very much on the other side, living a simpler life, but I don’t regret the stressful times and it means I really appreciate what I have now, the routine, the friends, my wonderful dog, less travelling – except from my armchair. I wish you and Scout all the very best for 2020. The right thing will find its way into your path.

    • alex at hygge houseNo Gravatar
      Author
      January 6, 2020 / 5:44 PM

      Jane I love that quote and I’ve been feeling that. Out of all of this the great thing is that it’s really help me be steadfast and create boundaries on what I want, what I won’t settle for, and what I won’t do. Thanks so much for reading, your comment + well wishes. Wishing the best in 2020 and beyond for you too.

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