Chapter 4: Re-light My Fire

I feel it coming back… my spark, my light, my lust for life. I can feel it start to glow inside me again and I’m gradually, tentatively, allowing it to flow out of me and into the world. And boy, it’s a good feeling!

And no, I’m not talking about the fire in the hearth (which I did light this week because it was COLD! In JUNE for goodness sake! What happened to SUMMER!?!)

A fire in June?! It's meant to be summer!
A fire in June?! It’s meant to be summer!

Let me go back a few steps… what was it, what happened that caused my light to go out?

I remember precisely the moment it went out. Tuesday April 10, 2018, somewhere around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I was at my best friend Anya’s house, with her mum and her brother who had travelled over from the Netherlands. The phone rang. It was Dave, who was at the hospital with Anya. He had spoken with the neurosurgeon and imparted to us the news we had all been dreading. More of the the blood vessels in Anya’s brain had started to collapse, and they now knew that at least 75% of her brain had been irreparably damaged.

It was still a waiting game, but the waiting now was for a very different outcome. We were no longer waiting for the swelling to go down so they could operate on the aneurysm that had caused the bleed which caused her to collapse at Charing Cross Station in London 6 days prior, from which she may have recovered. It was now waiting for the damage to spread to the brain stem, at which point she would officially be declared dead.

I remember when the phone call ended, we all looked at each other, somewhat stunned. I walked outside, stood looking out into the garden that Anya had designed and created and that we both loved so much, put my hands over my eyes, felt myself go weak at the knees, and I started sobbing. That was it. The moment my light went out.

Two days later, she died. It was the end of an era… the end of a 10 year friendship, a friendship which I cherished and appreciated every day of it. And while I had told Anya often how much I loved her and appreciated her and was grateful to have her in my life, it wasn’t until she was gone that the full truth of how much a fundamental part of me she had become was revealed to me. She literally left a gaping hole in my life.

Anya & I on her first cruise
Anya and I on her first cruise

And so I went through the motions, as you do… helping to arrange the funeral, caring for her elderly mum who struggled to absorb the news, helping her brother Marcel navigate the labyrinth of forms and bureaucratic processes that are part of handling a deceased person’s estate (further complicated by the fact he is Dutch and is unfamiliar with ‘the way things work’ in the UK), all while dealing with my own grief.

Two months later I went back to work at sea, only a week later than originally planned (delayed a week so I could attend the funeral of another very dear friend, Linden, who had succumbed to cancer a month after Anya died). I thought going back into this world would help me come to terms with both Anya’s & Linden’s deaths so I could begin to ‘move on’ with my life, by doing something I loved.

P&O Cruises Aurora in Alta, Norway, on a Northern Lights cruise - she would turn out to be my last home-from-home
P&O Cruises Aurora in Alta, Norway, on a Northern Lights cruise – she would turn out to be my last ship, my last home-from-home

I was a cruise ship photographer, paid to travel the world on luxury cruise ships for six months at a time taking photographs of guests on their holidays. It was a dream job! And I loved it! And Anya had loved coming on cruises with me… we had got back from a transatlantic cruise, sailing from the Caribbean back to the UK, just two weeks before Anya – aged only 53 – suddenly collapsed.

I remember vividly the two of us standing side-by-side on her cabin balcony looking out over the Atlantic Ocean on that cruise, sunlight glancing off the top of tiny waves, a warm breeze washing over us and saying to her “You know what? I’m not ready to go home! I know I’ve been at sea nearly seven months this time, but I could go on at least another few more. Why would I want to be in rainy, cold England, twiddling my thumbs, when I could be out here, doing this??!”

P&O Cruises Azura in Antigua, Caribbean - the last ship Anya sailed on with me
P&O Cruises Azura in Antigua, Caribbean – the last ship Anya sailed on with me

But now I was back at sea, I realised something inside me had changed. The job no longer fulfilled me. I was frustrated, I felt trapped and a long way from home, from my friends and family who had been a great support to me in the weeks following Anya’s sudden death. I didn’t settle. I didn’t want to be there. I struggled to make friends, I didn’t enjoy the social life any more. For the first time in 3 years at sea, I longed to be home. Which was a strange notion, as I didn’t have a home any more! I had packed up my flat and rented it out when I started the job. But in between contracts at sea, Anya’s house had become my home.

And so, two months into my six month contract I handed my notice in and made the decision to come back for good at the end of the six months. I had no plan, no job to go to, and didn’t really have a home either. But Marcel, who was now living in her house in the UK while he sorted out her affairs, very generously offered to let me move in with him.

So I left sea in December 2018 and spent Christmas at home with my family and New Year with Anya’s family. In January 2019, we scattered her ashes and said our final farewells. And then, that chapter closed, it was time to start looking ahead and thinking about my future.

Anya's final resting place... the beach in front of Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland
Anya’s final resting place… the beach in front of Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

I said I had no plan when I quit my job. That’s not entirely true… I had a vision, I just didn’t know how I was going to fulfil it. That vision was to take what I had learned during my 3 years at sea and to become self-employed, making a living for myself doing what I love.

After experiencing the lifestyle of a crew member, working seven days a week for six months straight without a day off (but not feeling a need for days off when I was doing what I enjoyed and it didn’t often feel like work), I knew there was no way I could go back to an office job or a Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five existence.

I anticipated that photography would be the vehicle that allowed me to achieve my vision. And so that’s where I started… but, after months of navel-gazing, deep-thinking, research, talking to other professional photographers, joining online photography business communities, attending online webinars about how to start a photography business, brushing up my Photoshop skills, creating a logo and a website for my photography business, creating a new Instagram account… I just wasn’t feeling it.

The logo I designed for my new photography venture…

Photography is my passion, it’s my hobby, it’s what I enjoy doing, it’s what I often can’t help doing! But the added pressure of making a living out of it just took all of the joy out of it. I couldn’t see a way to go about it that would give me the time-freedom and geographical independence I crave. Deep down in my gut something didn’t feel right.

Fast forward to May 2019, and I was struggling. I had been home now for six months and I still had no idea what I was going to do next. I couldn’t picture my future… to be fair, I couldn’t see much beyond the end of the week! I refused to make plans, commitments, arrangements with friends or family because I didn’t want to be distracted from spending time trying to ‘figure this out’. The clock was ticking. I started worrying more and more about money… I was living as frugally as I could and yet I was watching my savings gradually dripping away.

I started worrying about what people were thinking… I felt sure they must be thinking that I was “dossing about”, “being lazy”, “losing the plot”, “wasting away my life”. I started shying away even more from seeing friends, neighbours, anyone… anyone who might ask me, “So, how’s it going? Do you have a plan yet? Any idea what you’re going to do with the rest of your life?”

I felt pressure (which I know now was all in my head) because I know that in the past people in my circle have looked up to me, to the decisions I’ve made which have got me to this point in my life and felt inspired by my leaps into the unknown. Many folks thought I’d lost the plot when I went to sea in the first place! Leaving behind a successful corporate career and taking a massive pay cut and – in many minds – a massive risk (risk of what, exactly?). Imagine their surprise when I came back from my first six month contract at sea 10 kg lighter, tanned, grinning from ear to ear, bouncing off the walls with happiness and with an inner glow fit to blind anyone! I couldn’t wait for the six weeks to go by before I could go back to sea again! Yes, those people… I now felt their eyes gazing at me, wondering what my next crazy move would be.

But I had made myself a promise. When I quit my cruise ship job, I had said to myself, “The time is now Caroline. This is your chance. This is you giving yourself (read: forcing myself to take) the time – however long that may be – and the space to figure out who you are, and prioritise what’s important for you. For you to tackle head on the barriers that, until now, have stopped you achieving what you want in life, and becoming the person you know you are meant to be.”

Those barriers (which exist in my head) have prevented me from having the one thing in life I have ever wanted: a family. A husband and two children… that has been the dream, since I was a little girl. And with the big 4-0 looming at the end of this year, time literally is running out.

And so it was that, while binge-watching self-help YouTube videos and TED talks on all manner of personal development topics (how to handle grief, how five simple words can get you what you want, rethinking failure, the power of sitting with yourself, why you don’t get what you want; it’s not what you expect, feeling lost? How to find yourself again, rethinking infidelity etc. etc.) an advert caught my ear. I was half-listening, while doing the washing up, when a guy called Dan Holloway started talking about how creating an online business had allowed him to quit his high-paid corporate job in software sales and live the laptop lifestyle he has always dreamed of… and how he could teach me to do the same.

Yeah yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Sucker!! Just another one of those get rich quick schemes that are all over the internet these days. Another guy full of empty promises, trying to steal your money, and give you nothing of value in return. After all, it’s not that easy… if it was, everyone would be doing it, right?

Well, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain – and I was curious – so I clicked on the link to his website and put aside my natural cynicism for a few moments while I listened to what he had to say… and lo and behold, it resonated with me (he’s very good at what he does!). He spoke of a training program that would teach you the skills you need to create and build an online digital marketing business and generate a passive income from it – earning money while you sleep. Sounds too good to be true, right?

Well I thought about it (as I do), watched more sales videos, did some research and decided it was worth a shot… after all, what have I got to lose apart from a bit of time and a little bit of money (and a 30-day money back guarantee was a safety net there)? And, well, I have to try something. So I signed up with the company that provides the training and embarked on their training program.

And that brings us to now… June 2019 and here we are, five weeks into the program, and I feel energised again! I won’t lie, it has been a roller coaster of a personal journey filled with massive highs and some massive lows, but I am making profound progress. Not towards building an online business (that bit hasn’t started yet), but towards identifying and those walls that have held me back in the past, and learning different ways to dismantle them (ok, maybe not as dramatic as the bulldozer, but if it works…!).

And because of the promise I made to myself when I left my cruise ship job, I owe it to myself to follow this through, wherever it may lead. And dammit, no matter how hard it gets I will not quit! I am fed up of bouncing up against the same walls time and time again. The walls that have kept me single and overweight for most of my adult life. A wise man (Justin Woolf) recently said “Everything you want in life is on the other side of challenge.” It’s time to channel my inner bulldozer and pulverise those walls to dust!

This particular program – which, it turns out, teaches you far more that just digital marketing – is different from anything I have found before. It starts off with a strong focus on personal development and self-awareness, to help you identify your WHY – why do you want to do this? So that, when the going gets tough, you won’t fall off the wagon because you know where you’re aiming for and WHY you want to get there.

The second thing I love about this particular company, and which has been a significant factor in reinforcing my belief that this is the path I need to be walking right now, is that I am not doing it alone. When you sign up, you become a part of a community of people… people from across the world, from all walks of life, who have been there and done it, and those that are going through the program like I am, all helping and supporting each other along the way. They also offer mentorship programs, because they know that accountability is a big factor in helping people succeed in such a transformational journey.

And oh my word, the energy I get just from joining online webinars with these people! While I am uncovering and firing up that inner bulldozer, they are the ones filling it with fuel, and with their support & guidance & inspiration I have started working away at those walls!

I now not only have a reason to get up in the mornings, but I also have a new morning routine which involves drinking a pint of water, meditating for at least 15 minutes and listening to insightful and educational podcasts while I eat breakfast and plan out my day. Huh? Meditating? Yes! It’s great! Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it! I’ve also gone days without eating chocolate (yes, voluntarily I might add!) and I make sure I walk at least 2,000 steps a day (it’s all about the micro-goals and consistent action).

I recently came across the quote: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” And I believe that’s what happened for me. I had to go through the journey of experimenting with different avenues of photography to realise that wasn’t my path, before my path was revealed to me… but only when I was ready to receive it.

Ok, it’s early days yet, but I truly believe great things will come from this next phase of my journey. Because it’s not about the online business or learning about digital marketing, it’s the journey of self-discovery that interests me. I don’t know exactly where it’s going, but that’s ok because I have faith – in the journey and, more importantly, in myself. For as long as I can see just one or two steps ahead, that’s all I need. And hell, I’m going to damn well enjoy the journey; roadblocks, traffic jams, diversions, walls ‘n all!

And to circle back to the beginning, I think you can probably sense that the light inside me is growing in strength again… hallelujah! For the first time in the fourteen months since Anya died, I can see a future. And baby, I know you’re travelling it with me – your strength, your love of life, your eternal quest for fun and your ‘be rich now’ mentality are alive and living on in me.

Anya lived life to the full, enjoying every moment – good or bad

And through this journey I hope that I can shine that light on others too, to inspire them to follow their heart and go chase those dreams! And do it now! Because none of us know what’s around the corner…

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Walk with me on my journey of photographic exploration

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