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Making Lemonade #9: Lessons from lemons

The sweetness on the other side

Cross-posted from SubstackView original post

Hey friends,

We’re now on week #9 of Making Lemonade. Thank you so much for being here and reading my words, week after week. It feels good to send them out into the world rather than just have them languish on my computer forevermore (although fear not, there’s still plenty of that going on, especially with my work-in-progress book draft!)

When I started this substack, my aim was not to try to pile onto the sheer noise and the horrors of life right now, but to find ways to cut through it – like how a little sweetness can cut the bitterness of lemon into something more palatable.

I wanted to write about some of the simple ways we can add just a smidgeon more sweetness to our lives to help make our everyday existence more enjoyable; to remind us how beautiful this world is and how lucky we are to be here – even when it all feels pretty terrible.

As the weeks have gone by, though, it’s been interesting to see how lemons can be an analogy for so many areas of our lives, too. How, even without the sweetness of lemonade, lemons still seem to have a lot they can teach us – like how we learn more from the bitter experiences in our life than we do from the sweet ones.

And so, this week, we’re talking about how those bitter lemon-filled times can also be an opportunity for us to try doing something different. How they can welcome in better seasons of our lives by giving us a chance to take stock, dream bigger, and course-correct to where we want to be.

How they can often be a bit like medicine – which often tastes bitter and might have some unpleasant side-effects, but it’s worth it when it makes us feel better.


While I hope that your life is full of sweetness and everything is going swimmingly, the end of the year can also be a good time for us to take stock and figure out if we’re on track to where we want to be.

It’s a good time to count our achievements and celebrate how far we’ve come, while simultaneously letting ourselves dream about where we want to go and seeing if that aligns with where life seems to be taking us.

I liken it to dropping a big rock in the stream of life. A small rock just bobs along, letting life carry it wherever it wants to go. On the other hand, a big rock means that the stream has to find another way around it. But instead of being an inconvenience, it can become a feature. A place for birds to land and take a breath; for animals and insects to more easily drink the water; for humans to sit awhile and daydream about what their lives could look like.

No matter how big the rocks are, the water always seems to find a way

When everything is going great, it’s easy to just keep on doing what you’ve been doing without even thinking about it, just letting the stream carry you along. You might think about dropping in a small rock and changing one area of your life at a time, like going on a dream trip, buying a car, applying for a promotion or changing jobs, putting an offer on a house, getting married, all those kinds of things.

Perhaps, from that good place, you might even decide to move across the country/world, and just let the momentum you’ve built and the trust that everything has been going well so far carry your rock onward. And chances are, it will, because you have the trust and belief that things will work out, and also that helps you be better prepared in case things don’t.

When things are going great, it’s also easy to plan for obstacles. To scan the horizon and see them coming. Yes, some of them still might come out of nowhere, but even if you get hit by one lemon – or a couple – they don’t tend to derail everything and you can easily find ways to get yourself back on track.



On the other hand, when things are tough for a prolonged period, we often feel beat down and those same one or two lemons can feel more like a lemon avalanche.

When you’re constantly operating in survival mode and focused on just getting through the day, it’s harder to watch out for those obstacles, harder to prepare and plan for them, and harder to get up – or back on track – every time you get knocked down. 

Life can soon start to feel more like you’re floating down a stream full of lemons, where all you can do is stumble forward blindly and react to what’s in front of you. Planning ahead and making changes feels next to impossible, even if you know getting that promotion or house or whatever will change things for the better.

Everything feels like climbing a mountain, and when your self-belief is low, nothing feels like it will work out for the best.

However, based on how much we can learn from these bitter experiences, this is often where the biggest breakthroughs and changes in our lives come from. When things are going well, we don’t want to upset the balance too much by changing all the things all at once.

But, when things are going badly and we’re close to rock bottom, this can also act as a tipping point – maneuvering us into a point of surrender where we have the opportunity to change everything. Like dropping a big old rock into that stream.

Me in Midigama, Sri Lanka in 2013. If I hadn’t got sick when I did, it might have taken me years to build up the courage to take the leap

I’ve talked a bit about leaving the UK with a one-way ticket in 2013 and all the things leading up to it, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned the real reason I left when I did.

The dream had been there for a long time, but there was an always an excuse not to go. I needed more savings; I had an upcoming work trip I was excited about; I wanted a couple of years at this job under my belt for my future career prospects; I didn’t want to miss a friend’s wedding; I needed more time to plan/prepare, etc.

All the things. All the excuses.

In the end, though, it was a middle-of-the-night trip ambulance trip to the hospital that was the catalyst I needed. I’d been vomiting blood and was in so much pain I genuinely thought I was going to die.

Having lost my childlike perspective of immortality a few years earlier after my friend died – I’d actually had a proper facing-my-own-mortality crisis where I couldn’t even walk down the street without thinking about all the things that could kill me – all I could think about was all the things I’d wished I’d done with my life, and how much time I’d wasted not doing them.

And so, I made a pact with myself that if I got through this, I was going to stop putting things off and living for tomorrow and start living for today. After lots of tests, the doctor diagnosed me with kidney stones caused by chronic stress.

Although the good old mortality crisis probably hadn’t helped, I also knew that the job I was doing wasn’t either. The dog-eat-dog sales environment and high sales targets didn’t suit my want-to-help-everyone nature. But it had taken me nearly a year of working full-time at the student bars at the university I’d just graduated from to get that job and I was terrified of losing it, so I’d stuck it out.

It took me three months to recover, but as soon as I had the all-clear, I booked my ticket, handed in my notice, and off I went. My manager even tried to get me to stay an extra six months by offering me a free all-expenses-paid trip to Machu Picchu, but, as tempting as that was, I knew I couldn’t do it.

It was time for a sea change – and by sea change; I mean a complete and utter upheaval of my life.


My second “awakening”, for want of a better word, was when I was robbed in Cambodia, which eventually became my writer origin story.

Looking back, the timing was actually quite funny. I was up in the capital buying a laptop, but I was worried about crime in the city so I’d left everything of value back in a place where I felt safe, forgetting that, even though my room was 3-storeys up, the walls were still made of grass and the padlock could still be easily cut.

My room (top right), was at the top of a rickety wood-and-grass building, but hilariously, it felt like the safest place in the world to me at the time

And so, I ended up with a laptop, my camera – which came everywhere with me – and the limited funds left on my bank card, minus the thousand bucks or so I’d had in cash and a bunch of my other favourite things (yeah, yeah, poor choices, but some lessons you have to learn the hard way).

In need of money and with nothing to lose, I started writing, and my writing career snowballed from there.

For years, I let the stream carry me along. I said yes to everything. I learned every single possible mistake I could along the way, but because I was still living my dream life on the road, I felt like I could dodge the lemons and keep on cruising down the stream.

It was easy to suck it up when you knew that every single dollar coming in took you a dollar further to keeping the dream alive.



Then, my third awakening, came about 18 months ago, as I mentioned in last week’s substack. I’d arrived in Australia, I’d navigated the visa issues, I’d made it back in by the skin of my teeth before COVID hit, I’d actually also had a terrible job and a boss who fired me and sent me death threats (that was fun), I’d just about got over my itchy feet (sort of), and I’d been doing okay navigating my mum’s Alzheimer’s.

I’d even done okay finding out we had to move out from our old house in the middle of a rental crisis and couldn’t find anywhere to live – incidentally, the one thing that did work out for the best – but in the end, I couldn’t keep up with the lemons anymore.

This photo from May 2022 makes me so sad because I was trying so hard to be happy, but everything felt like it was all falling down around me

It took me six months of being in total and utter survival mode to take much action, but when I threw that big rock in the stream and let myself disrupt the flow, I also let myself start dreaming of something better.

I realised that the writing life I’d built for myself wasn’t what I wanted anymore. I wanted to write things that might help other people, that might make a difference. Things like this Substack or this article about being a long-distance carer for my mum, things that I probably never would’ve written or at least would’ve put off starting for even longer if I hadn’t got to this point.

After Covid disrupted the travel industry, I also found myself taking stock and realising that I didn’t want to be part of the group clamouring for things to go back the way they were. I didn’t want to be writing travel listicles encouraging people to jet across the world to visit amazing places – especially when there were heaps of amazing places in our backyards.

I also realised that there were a lot of things about the travel industry that left a bitter taste in my mouth – like the way people spend their lives saving up and living for two weeks of the year, and then come back broke and disappointed.

I didn’t want to encourage wastefulness or exacerbate the literal waste problem that a lot of countries have, or the wealth imbalance, or the way that geotagging destinations and sharing amazing photos and writing about them can lead to irreversible damage to the environment, as well as an influx of tourism to an area that can’t support it all.

My Cambodian beach paradise may have felt like paradise, but there was trash everywhere, most roads were rutted and muddy, and the infrastructure couldn’t keep up with the number of visitors (Otres Beach, June 2017)

Cue another course-correct. One that involved leaving my travel copywriting job – and my only stable source of income – and going off into the unknown.

But one that also led to me just this morning finding out that an article I wrote about ghost towns in WA this year was Australian Traveller’s most-read story, with over 125,000 unique views.

A story that I never would’ve even written if I hadn’t been planning to leave that job. One that I never would’ve written if I hadn’t invested more money than I had at the time into a mentorship that helped me build my inner confidence back up again and rediscover that spark that had long gone out.

A mentorship that helped me see the value in myself and my writing, and how the two are absolutely connected. One that helped me start running workshops and mentoring and coaching other people, too. Because the stories I really want to share – through written or spoken words – are the ones that will help others.

And so, although I’m still only just starting to scratch the surface of where I want to go with all this, the last year has been so utterly transformative that I find it hard to imagine the sad, desperate person that I was before, caught up in the stream of lemons, unable to imagine another way.

But, in a lot of ways, I’m also glad most of it happened (obviously not the Alzheimer’s and my grandma’s descent into anarchy) because it helped me to imagine another world. One where the lemons are an invitation to dream bigger, to think about whether I really am where I want to be, and to put steps into motion to getting me there.

Where the lemons are the bitter medicine that helps me find the sweetness on the other side.

All my love,

Cassie



This week I’ve been:

Reflecting on my 2023 career wins on my public writer page on Facebook. I find bigging myself up really challenging but I’m actually really proud of myself for how far I’ve come this year and I feel like sometimes it’s nice to share your wins with the world.

Reading How to Fail by Elizabeth Day. It’s been a nice reminder of all the different ways we can fail in our lives and how they can help us get to where we want to go – and has probably been the main influence for the theme of this week’s substack.

Listening to an interview with London Writers Salon and Seth Godin about The Practice of Making & Shipping Work That Matters – which has also helped influence all the above, too, I guess! Two prime examples of how you are what you consume. (If you want to listen to it, keep an eye out on the London Writers Salon Podcast. It’ll hopefully be released there soon).

I especially loved this quote about the difference between writers and authors:

“The difference is that anyone who can use a keyboard can write down words. An author, I think, has to have a point of view. An author is somebody who’s showing up to make a change happen as opposed to simply saying something that is beyond reproach, saying something that is certainly true.”

Seth Godin

And so, although as I mentioned, my book-in-progress is still a book-in-progress (which I guess makes me an author-in-progress?!), I’m still trying to take that energy into my work. To show up as an author, not just someone with a keyboard writing things down.


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