Making Lemonade

Making Lemonade #13: Climbing the lemon tree

Taking life one branch at a time

Cross-posted from SubstackView original post

Hey friends,

Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful and gentle transition into 2024. Mine was very chill. I went out to the lake for a sunset swim with my partner and then we hung out at home, looking at the stars and talking about our dreams for the future. 

We have a few big dreams, including a five-year(ish) goal to get a sailboat and cruise around the world with the cat while I write books. It’s a compromise dream, but one that ticks all the boxes – including reducing our carbon footprint – and should work well for both of us. Just as long as I can get over my seasickness. 

In the meantime, though, I’m keeping my own dreams a little smaller. A little more doable. More like a framework for me to build upon – a map to gently guide me in the right direction, rather than a Sat Nav screaming at me that I’ve taken a wrong turn.

The lake is still my happy place, even if it isn’t anywhere this tranquil at the moment – thanks, school holidays! (Lake Leschenaultia, Dec ‘23)

I know that the beginning of a new year can also bring up a lot of feelings in people – and not all of them good. And so, it feels like an apt time to share one of my favourite quotes about this funny thing we call life.

I first came across it when I was living in Cambodia and it hit me so deep in the heart that I’ve carried it with me ever since:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

I just love how eloquently she sums up this idea that putting limitations and constraints on ourselves is the key to actually living better, more fulfilling lives.

This lesson is one I’ve had to learn (the hard way), over and over again, but it feels as true today as it did the day I first read it.

The reality is, that even though we may live in this infinitely-expanding-and-full-of-potential universe, we actually can’t do all the things, no matter how much the hyper-individualistic society we live in tries to tell us otherwise. 

As kids, we’re often told that the world is our oyster and we can be anything we dream of. I actually (perhaps controversially) don’t believe this to be a) true or b) beneficial.

As an already-anxious 16-year-old, I gave myself panic attacks trying to choose what to study at school and university, utterly terrified of making the wrong decision and screwing up my life. 

In the end, though, I learned that sometimes we just have to commit to one thing – one branch – and trust that it will work out for the best, no matter what. That whichever branch we choose will open us up to new branches and new opportunities we never could have envisaged otherwise.

And, while we may not want to narrow ourselves down or have limitations put on our lives – I certainly resisted them for a long time – we actually need them to help us reach our potential. We need boundaries within our own lives to help us hone our attention and push our limits. 

A framework to build off. A jumping-off point. 

Without that, eventually, we either just wither away like the figs (or lemons) on the tree – a wasted mass of unfulfilled potential – or life seems to choose for us. Like me being kicked out in China, or off my Chinese course, or being robbed in Cambodia, or crash-landing in Australia (yeah… It took me a while to learn this lesson!)

Note: by unfulfilled potential, I don’t mean potential in the most capitalist sense of the term, like jobs or high wages. I mean the potential to live a good, happy, and fulfilling life and make the most of our short time on this planet. 

This beach was my home for the best of times – and the worst of times (Otres, Cambodia, March ‘16)

My ex used to have a saying: “Men and boats rot in the sun”. He grew up in the Caribbean and attributed it to his Dad and all the things he saw on the islands, but it was the same when we lived on the beach in Cambodia.

There was a level of freedom there that I’ve never experienced before, and I’m not sure really exists outside of these fringe places on the edge of society. And yet, over my four years there, I witnessed far more mental breakdowns than most people will in their lives, and experienced a variety of losses – from addiction and overdoses to drunken mishaps and suicides.

It was interesting to live in a place where the majority of people felt free, but not actually happy or at least at peace – at least not in the ways they expected to be. And definitely not fulfilled, challenged, or pushed to reach those lofty branches that help us grow and evolve.

It’s almost like, when we have all the freedom in the world, there isn’t a reason to push ourselves; to shoot for the moon. At different points, most of us ended up languishing under the lemon tree, with too many choices, no direction, and no motivation, because it all felt too hard. 

It was paradise, in a lot of ways, but it was also purgatory.  Especially for people who couldn’t find that same depth of fulfillment in the absence of external challenges and/or deeper meaning in their lives – like the type Viktor Frankl talks about in Man’s Search For Meaning.

We all found different ways to give our lives meaning. Some friends even set up a weekly rave in the jungle, complete with Ferris Wheel and merry-go-rounds (Kerfuffle, Cambodia, June ‘17)

As I mentioned last week, I’ve just finished reading a book called Flow about the flow state. The author, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, claims that, despite what we might think, more people actually reach a flow state in work, rather than in leisure. And, that we commonly experience greater levels of fulfillment in our lives from said work, rather than from our downtime. 

On a theoretical level, this makes total sense. But reading it still felt ground-shaking. 

It explains why weekends and time off can feel so short and unsatisfying for many people – especially if we just sit in that crotch of the lemon tree, watching TV, scrolling on our phones, and imagining all the things we wish we could be doing – if only this, or if only that.

For the record, I’m absolutely not questioning the fact we need rest and recharge time. I’m merely saying that we could all also do with finding those things or activities that can help give our lives a little more fulfillment and meaning. A purpose beyond living for others, living for the weekend, or living for the next holiday, and then coming back to our everyday lives feeling unfulfilled and broke and tired and wondering “What now?” 

We’ve all been there.

What goes up, must come down… And the post-travel blues are some of the worst downs in the world. (Bandipur, Nepal, June 2016)

I remember seeing a post around this time last year by someone who said that even though they were exhausted, their goal for the year was to add more to their lives, rather than less. 

Their intention was to simplify, but they knew that more unstructured time would mean more languishing, scrolling, watching TV, and thinking about all the things they wanted to do with this vast expanse of time, rather than time actually spent doing them.

On the other hand, taking up a hobby like sailing, running, playing video games, writing, painting, sewing, or photography, for example, not only gives us something fun to do – but also means we set aside time to prioritise our own interests.

By committing and setting ourselves fun goals, we carve out non-negotiable time for ourselves and challenge ourselves in a way that can help us find deeper meaning and purpose in our lives.

I know most of us feel like we have no time in the world – especially not for ourselves. We’re working, trying to take care of other people, our homes, our finances, ourselves, and everything else, and juggling so much that we constantly feel backed into a corner. 

But, if you can, this year I encourage you to try and make something of your own. 

To let yourself climb up a branch and pick a lemon off the lemon tree to make some lemonade, just for you. To find ways to give your life that deeper meaning, or, as the French say, a raison d’être – a reason for being.

I wonder how this sits with you. I wonder if it all leaves a sour taste, or if it feels like a permission slip encouraging you to climb higher on your tree. To let go of the idea of having it all, to leave some of those shoulda/woulda/coulda lives behind, and commit to making the most of this one.

After all, if we’re too busy chasing lemons we’ll never have time to make any lemonade.

Love always, 

Cassie x

PS – Feel free to hit reply or share any of your goals or dreams in my comments, I love to hear from you!

As always, thank you so much for being here. Please feel free to like, comment, subscribe, and share with anyone you think may be interested or benefit from reading Making Lemonade. I appreciate you all so much and wish all the best for you as we move into this new year!

View original post and sign up for weekly insights sent straight to your inbox

No Comments

    Leave a Reply