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Making Lemonade #15: How I make lemonade

15 years of lemons, lessons & life – part I

Cross-posted from SubstackView original post

Hey friends,

Today is my 34th birthday, and so I thought it might be interesting to do a 15-year round-up of all the things that have happened between me turning 18 in my tiny hometown in the UK – with big dreams for how I thought my life would go – and how, 15 years later, as a full-time writer living in Western Australia, life looks absolutely nothing like I had planned.

I’ve talked in snippets about my life before, especially here, but I thought it might be “fun” to go into a little more detail. How I got to the point that digging up my life and pain points became fun I have no idea, but I do believe getting to know ourselves and our inner worlds deeply is one of the greatest things we can do with our short time on this planet, so anyway, here we are.


Last week we talked about all the different branches of our tree “lives”, so I thought I’d share some of the branches and twists and turns of mine (Australia, 2023)

However, as I sat down to write this, I realised that a) I had no real plan of attack, aside from tackling it chronologically. And so, even though I know this isn’t always the best way to write an engaging story – and literally teach it in my writing workshops – I did anyway. (Rules are made to be broken, right?!) 

And b) there have been a lot of things that have happened in the past 15 years that have shaped me into the person I am today. So rather than sending out some 5,000-odd word epic, I figured it was probably better to split it right down the middle and turn it into two parts. 

This first one will cover 18-28, the pre-travel and the travel years, and then the next one – which I’ll send next week – will cover the end of the travel years and my arrival and rebuilding of my life here in Australia.


If I’m perfectly honest, I’m still not 100% sure if I was writing this for me or you. Perhaps it was always meant to be both. But, while it is pretty personal (and a little more chaotic than usual), as I’m now several thousand words – and a lot of lemons – in, I figured that I might as well just share it instead of just condemning it to the archives and not sending anything this week. 

As a heads up, it includes references to one of my friends dying in a car accident and how it changed the entire trajectory of my life. I haven’t written about it in this much depth before – especially not in the greater context of how it impacted everything, so it felt kind of apt to go there.

But, if you’re not in the mood for a deep reflective musing on how one big thing (and lots of little things) can change the entire course of your life, I totally understand. Feel free to skip this one and check back in next week – or after part II – you do you.

And for those of you who are still here, thanks! I hope you’ll enjoy this little glimpse into my life and all the lemons that have made me, me.

And so, without further ado…


As tempted as I was to send this one soaring up to the archives, I figured I should probably share it – even if it makes me a little anxious (Bagan, Myanmar, February 2014)

15 years of lemons, lessons, and life – part 1: 18-28


18

When I was 18, I had big dreams about how my life – and the year ahead – would go. I’d applied to my dream university to study Mandarin, planned an epic summer trip to China to au-pair for a family, was about to move out of home for the first time, and had all sorts of thoughts about the exciting career path ahead of me. I wanted to join the UN or be an intelligence agent or be some sort of high-up person doing cool things and making lots of money. And, I wanted to travel.


19

Less than a year later, I’d started at a different university – Sheffield – as I didn’t get into my top choice; had to move accommodation because I didn’t get on with my housemates; had been kicked off my course after failing an exam (and fortunately allowed to transfer to East Asian Studies); and that “dream” trip to China had ended up with me unceremoniously dumped at a train station after I didn’t get on with the family. I was working three jobs in hospitality, and those lofty career goals felt further and further away.


21

By the time I was 21, I was doing better. I loved living in Sheffield. I was organising cool club nights and student hitchhikes, and was on the marketing teams for all sorts of events. I felt part of a community. I was utterly immersed in my final-year thesis, which was about the international community’s response to humanitarian crises in North Korea. I’d also spent the summer before backpacking from Beijing to Bangkok by myself (intentionally solo this time) and had been rebuilding those career dreams. 

And then, one of my best friends from home died in a car accident. In an instant, everything I thought I knew and thought I wanted was turned upside-down. He was a photographer and had just had his first photo published in a magazine. After a bumpy few years, it was like things were finally on the up for him and he was about to get his big break, and suddenly, it was all gone.

It all felt so unfair.

And it was unfair. It was one of those first big lessons where you realise that life is unfair. That it was never meant to be fair. We don’t live in some idyllic, utopian universe where everything works out for everyone all the time.

Luck, like life, love, lemons, and lemonade, can be made, given, and taken away. Sometimes all at the same time.


I’m pretty sure this was the night that Charlie and I made a drunken pact that if we were both single at 40, we’d end up together. Y’know, like the kind of thing you say when you’re 18 and feel like you have the whole life ahead of you

My grief – and subsequent obsession with my own mortality – took me to some dark but interesting places; like a figurative version of Sylvia Plath’s fig/lemon tree that I mentioned last week; where I could almost see the life I thought I wanted unfolding before me, and then, faced with the reality that it could all end tomorrow, decided it wasn’t actually what I wanted after all.

Heartbroken, broke, and with no idea what I wanted to do with my life anymore, I all but sleepwalked through my final semester of university and limped over the finish line.

Unable to face returning to my hometown, I dumped my stuff in a friend’s basement and hitchhiked down to the south of France to spend the summer helping with a Workaway* renovation project. 


*Workaway and Helpx are popular sites that link up people looking for help with travellers willing to work in exchange for food and accommodation. 


Although I’d only ended up there because I didn’t know what else to do, slowly, beneath the Mediterranean sun – and alongside the literal fig and lemon trees and centuries of history entrenched in the neighbourhood – I put myself back together.

Piece by piece. 

I wasn’t the same as I’d been before, but I also realised I didn’t want to be. It was like one of those “once you see it, you can’t unsee it” moments.

All I knew was that between the grief and my time in France, I felt like I’d stumbled upon the same truth that our ancestors knew but we, as a society, were conditioned to look past: that the same thing that makes our lives and our planet so incredible and miraculous and beautiful is the same thing that causes us such immeasurable pain and suffering – the fragility of it all.


Some of the best travel experiences I’ve had in my life have been free – like hitchhiking and volunteering on Workaway projects (France, 2011)

Arriving back in Sheffield, I felt as out of place as an alien. 

Looking around me, all I could see were people running around like headless chickens who genuinely believed they had all the tomorrows in the world. I could see how we’d all been spoon-fed the same message about “how to win the game of life and be an ideal citizen” that we’re taught from birth in the Global North. The ideology that if you work hard now, you’ll be able to play later – and be rewarded with drunken “living-for-the-weekend” weekends, a week or two of summer vacation, a nice car, and a house in the suburbs, from which to commute to work for the next few decades.

To be fair, my degree, experience of travelling outside of the Global North, and the findings of my aforementioned thesis (that the UN and international community were all tied up in politics and unable to make a big difference when it came to saving lives during humanitarian crises – a similar thing to what we’re seeing play out now) didn’t help my cynicism.

Nor did the collective cognitive dissonance we all seem to have in the West when it comes to facing our own mortality; like it’s something to be feared and put to the back of our minds (we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it), rather than something natural and inevitable that has happened to every living thing since the beginning of life. Even if sometimes it comes too soon.

Either way, I decided that I’d much rather just try and enjoy the now as much as I could and live a life I could look back on and be proud of, even if it ended tomorrow. Because the reality is, those tomorrows aren’t guaranteed, not for any of us.


Yet despite this realisation, I was struggling to find a job – and, unless you fancy giving up on the world entirely and surviving on foraged food on your own in the wilderness, it’s hard to be happy when you can’t pay the bills.

Given that we, as a country, were still in a recession and I lived in a city affectionately referred to as a “big village” that was about as far from East Asia as you could get, I can’t say I was surprised no one really wanted to employ a rather existential 21-year-old with a degree in a subject no one had ever heard of – or cared about.

So, as travel was still my main passion, I decided to pursue that instead. I dropped off a paper resume at the same travel agency where I’d booked my backpacking trip the year before and got myself a job sending everyone else on trips I could only wish I could afford.


I can think of worse places to be a hermit, but I still don’t fancy my chances. Somewhere in the Peak District (2009)

23

After a couple of years at the travel agency, I felt more disillusioned than ever. It didn’t help that it was a sales role, and, although I got on well with my colleagues, we were encouraged to take bookings from each other. I was sick of working weekends, I was sick of late-night phone calls from parents of kids who didn’t have travel insurance and had got themselves into terrible scrapes (please please please get travel insurance!), and I was sick of feeling like my life was out of my control and just passing me by.

I was so sick of it all that I actually made myself sick, and, after a late-night ride in an ambulance, a diagnosis of kidney stones, a week on the urology ward, and months of crying every time I tried to pee, I told myself I couldn’t live like this anymore.

Once I finally got the all-clear, I explained to my partner at the time that I needed to go and try a different kind of life for size, at least for a while. I gave him the choice of coming with me or staying behind, but I knew I couldn’t wait any longer.

He loved his job but he said he’d come with me. So, we packed up our life, gave away most of our possessions, and booked one-way tickets to Sri Lanka.


24

Just a few weeks into our new life, though, my ex decided it wasn’t right for him. I felt incredibly guilty and decided it was the last time I’d let someone make a big decision like upending their whole lives just for me.

We tried going our separate ways for a bit – me to Myanmar and him to Cambodia – and even spent nearly a month living together in a glorified squat in Bangkok (it was still one of the strangest months of my life), but he finally decided the whole unsettled nomadic thing wasn’t for him, and he wanted to go back and do a Ph.D. 

24 hours later, he’d booked a plane ticket, we’d said our goodbyes, and he was in a taxi to the airport. Not sure what else to do, I flipped a coin and found myself on the train to Cambodia.


I’ll stay anywhere with kittens (Thailand, March 2014)

26

My first few years in Cambodia passed like a fever dream, especially considering I’d arrived on a whim and never really intended to stay as long as I did. But there was a level of freedom and ease of life there that was intoxicating – like you were living on the fringe of society, where rules didn’t apply in the same way they did everywhere else.

I could write entire books about my time there and maybe one day I will, but as I’ve said before, it was paradise, it was purgatory, and it was everything in between. I loved it, but I also couldn’t help but feel like something was missing.

I had a great community and my everyday life was the simplest and best it had ever been – and probably ever will be – but I missed having a deeper sense of purpose. I felt like a tree with no roots.

It was a place of rebirth for me, in a lot of ways, but it was also one that helped me realise that I wanted to be part of something bigger. And, although I’d built myself up a fledgling career as a writer as a way to make money and keep my travel dream alive after being robbed, I realised that my dream was shifting, and I needed to shift too so as not to stagnate or get too complacent.


So, I booked a one-way ticket to Nepal, applied for a volunteer project doing earthquake relief work, and asked my partner – who I’d been with for 18 months or so by then – if he wanted to come along. (For him, not for me, this time!)

A few months later, we found ourselves living in a tent on the side of a mountain in a remote community with no power and no running water. We spent our days trekking into the village and knocking down earthquake-damaged buildings so that families – who were living in temporary shelters next to the shells of homes that had been in their families for generations – could rebuild. 

Although I didn’t totally love working with the NGO we’d partnered with (I was happy to be on a small satellite team and not part of a huge crew that had a hint of “Western saviour”ism about it), it was still one of the best things I’d ever done in my life.


Our job was to demolish earthquake-damaged houses like this one (Nepal, 2016)

28

After Nepal, we went back to the beach and spent a few last months in paradise before beginning the next chapter of our journey: a few months in Europe and a month together in Morocco. And then, for me, a winter in Amsterdam, and for Nick, a few months back home prepping everything for an epic road trip across the US & Canada that we’d been talking about since we’d first got together. 

We then reunited in Florida, ready to begin our next adventure; blissfully oblivious of all the lemons that awaited just around the corner.

Lemons like having to cut short our road trip after his dad had an eventually fatal heart attack; being held up at machete-point in the jungle in El Salvador; a once-in-a-century storm that totalled our tent while we were camping in the desert, and a sad and cold goodbye in a wintery Canada, to name just a few.

Lemons that I’ll talk more about next week.


Even despite the lemons, that US & Canada road trip was still one of the greatest adventures of my life (somewhere in Utah, October 2018)

I hope you enjoyed reading this little snippet into my lemons, my lemonade, and my life. While I’ve obviously skimmed over a lot of the details, if you’re interested and want to hear more about anything in particular, please let me know.

I think in the future I’ll probably do a bigger post or series unpacking how I got my career started as a travel writer and potentially one covering some of the lessons I learned from being a travel agent, too, as I think there are some good ones there.

I might also write more about my time in Cambodia and my experience volunteering in disaster relief, but we’ll see. I don’t think I’ll be running out of things to write about anytime soon, anyway!

For now, I’ll leave it there because of, you know, the whole birthday thing. It’s meant to be 40°C+ this afternoon, but as I have a car for once (yippee!) I was thinking I’d just take a trip out to the lake and read my book and go for a swim and just have an all-round chill day.

Catch you next week for part II.

Love always,

Cassie x



As always, I really appreciate all your likes, comments, shares, and subscribes! Thank you for always supporting me and this little project of mine, I see you all and appreciate you so much.

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