How I Started: The Yearning for a Smaller, Slower Life. (Also Known As: How I Really, Really Messed up Everything and Barely Made it Back from the Brink.)

Aizuwakamatsu Castle – Fukushima prefecture

I wasn’t even a year out of college and I knew I had life all figured out.

I’d graduated from UC Berkeley with a pretty darn good GPA as an English major and had been hired on with a fundraising consulting firm in Calabasas – a rich, suburby part of Los Angeles (and yes, that’s where the Kardashians live). I quickly got promoted to Director of Operations and was making more money than I knew what to do with. An old high school friend named Cyrus had connected with me recently and sparks had flown.

From all angles, it looked like I was poised for a happy, fulfilling life.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

My boss was manipulative and passive aggressive, and I walked out of a big-name charity event one day, never to return. Cyrus dumped me after not being able to handle my controlling neediness and undealt-with rage. My roommate and I had a big argument and I ended up moving into my dad’s apartment, where my cat and I slept on the bed and he slept on the floor.

I might look fine to you here, but the truth is that I was a compulsive drinker, smoker and overworker, and struggled on and off with an eating disorder

From there, it only got worse. I tried to meet good guys, but I kept dating losers. I got promoted at every job I had but always ended up miserable and on the verge of losing it. I smoked cigarettes, drank too much, and exhausted my friends with all of the times I bottomed out.

Finally, in 2008, it happened.

I was dating my boss, who was also living with me (but somehow, I’d ended up paying the rent). We drank too much and fought like crazy – someone was always leaving the other one; things were always being shattered against the wall. My dog used to cower under the table if she even anticipated that we’d begun fighting.

It all collapsed. I blew it with a major client at work, and the owner came down on me, hard. My boyfriend and I had our most explosive fight ever, when I took the keys to his car so he wouldn’t drive and hid them in a planter outside. I sat on the roof of my building while my dog whimpered slightly and all the cars on Wilshire rushed by, oblivious to my pain.

How the hell had I fucked it all up?

Later that night, I sat in the emergency room at UCLA. I’d love to say that it was the first time I’d been there for a kind of mental-breakdown-situation, but sadly, it wasn’t. The doctor, a kind man named Felipe, looked me over and asked me a bunch of questions.

“Do you really want to hurt yourself?”
“No.”
“Do you think there’s something wrong with you?”
“Yes.”

Later he said to me, “I hate to break this to you, but there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re intelligent, and you’re miserable. Truth be told, I think you need to break it off with this boyfriend of yours. Change the locks, move out – whatever you need to do. And while you’re at it, quit that job. There are plenty of jobs out there for someone as talented as you. Third, spend some time with your family and friends.” He looked over at my friends Elizabeth and Marianne, who had come with me. “These people care about you. Maybe they can help you take apart this distorted view you have about yourself.”

“I can’t quit my job,” I said. “I’m like, really  important there.”

“You will, or you won’t,” he said. “But if I were you, I’d go somewhere where I was treated a little better.”

Cut to April of the next year. A few days before my moment of desperation with the kitchen knife, I’d secretly reached out and applied to teach English in Japan. It had been a dream of mine since graduating college, but I’d been so involved in getting promoted and quitting and falling in love and breaking up that I’d never gotten around to it. It was only when I saw – by total coincidence, of course – that the program was currently accepting applications that it even hit my radar again.

“You know,” I thought, “getting the hell out of here for a year might not be such a bad idea.”

So I applied. When super-sweet-Dr. Felipe had told me to quit my job, I hadn’t even remembered Japan. But on April 1st, the program I’d applied with let me know that I’d been accepted.

As soon as July, I’d be teaching English in Fukushima prefecture in a small farming town called Motomiya.

I read the email over and over again in disbelief. Motomiya? Where was that?! I searched google, desperately looking for anyone who had mentioned it.

Moving to Japan meant I’d have to sell all my things, say goodbye to my friends and family, and, well…move  to another country where I didn’t speak the native language! I was terrified. But even then, some part of my panicked self knew  I was doing the right thing.

If I could go back and comfort my younger self, I’d say to that girl: Be calm. The thing you’re about to do is going to save your life. 

My best friends at my yard sale, two weeks before I left the country. I sold almost all of everything I owned: my car, my books, my furniture – even the couch my cat had basically destroyed. I was left with a mattress and some clothes.

And so it happened: I gave it all up and moved to Japan.

Jet-lagged and exhausted with all my luggage for my new life in Japan.

My first impressions of Tokyo were that everything was sofreakingclosetogether – what if there was an earthquake? My friend Jonathan said, “Oh, they’re completely prepared for that here.” Another girl on the bus said, “Japan gets 220 earthquakes a year – that’s almost one every other day.” When she saw my eyes widen, she said, “Don’t worry – Fukushima barely gets any earthquakes – it’s one of the safest areas to live in the country.” She was quoting our “Welcome to Fukushima” guide we’d gotten in the mail, and man – we’d all come to eat those words.

But we’re ahead of ourselves.

Tokyo orientation was a blur. Three days later, I really started to panic as the bus carrying the new English teachers approached my stop. Motomiya. From every angle, all we could see were miles and miles of rice fields – the stalks shooting upward out of the muddy earth in the most intense green I’ve ever seen.

Home sweet Motomiya, with rice fields as far as the eye can see.

I met my supervisor and the two other foreigners living in my town, and the next few weeks were filled with experiences I could have never expected: finding gifts from my new students in front of my door, getting drunk with the principal of my school, having a 100+ person campout on the beach, teaching a class for the very first time, coming down with swine flu and being touched by the kindness of the crippled mini-mart owner who took pity on me.

Exploring Motomiya in the snow

Before I even knew it, six months had gone by and I walked to work in the snow for the very first time. By this time, my life was so completely different from how it had been in Los Angeles, but I hadn’t had a chance to notice just how much calmer I’d become. I’d stopped smoking and drinking, but saw no connection to how my nearly stress-less life gave me no desire to be destructive to myself. I spent so much time in nature and never stopped being astounded by how it calmed me down and made me grateful. My relationships deepened with every person in my life, and I became a better friend.

A number of things contributed to my newfound sense of peace, and I attributed many of the changes to the kindness of the Japanese people.  And while they are some of the kindest people I’ve ever encountered, I think there was more to it than that.

In my almost two years living in a small town in Japan, I never once drove a car. I walked, rode my bike or took the train everywhere. Mostly, I walked – roughly five miles a day, my pedometer told me. I walked to the grocery store to get supplies for dinner. I walked to meet friends for meals. I walked to work. It’s amazing how much stress driving a car can cause. I drive one now, and try to get away with doing it as little as possible. If I have the choice and my destination isn’t too far, I always take my bike.

Though I worked 35-40 hours a week, I had tons of free time. (Think of the skills you could develop if you didn’t spend 1-2 hours in a car each day, or you left work when your eight-hour shift was up.) I had the time to write (two novels and many blogs), see friends, travel, exercise and cook. I cooked a lot – more than I ever had in my life. I discovered so much good music. Sometimes there was so much time that I’d find myself walking in the neighborhood, just for something to do. I saw so, so many sunsets. My time spent in nature cleared my head when I was agitated.

I took advantage of my low cost of living and learned to budget myself down to the last penny (or yen). I used a service called GoLloyds to send half of my income to my American account, where, thanks to the strong yen, I made money on my money. I then used that money to pay off tons and tons of debt. (Very rewarding! I recommend everyone learn to budget and pay their debt off.) I thought I was learning how to manage my debt, but I was actually learning to live on less – and I don’t believe there was any lesson I learned in Japan more valuable than that. I watched tons of my friends blow their paychecks on clothes, alcohol and expensive gadgets – fun in the moment, but little to show for it in a few months. Sure, I felt deprived sometimes – but even meeting my friend for a $5 coffee began to feel like a luxury when I budgeted my money well. And once I got back to Los Angeles, I had so much freedom to figure out what I wanted, because I had so little debt to my name!

My smaller, slower life contained lots of walks among rice fields like this one

Basically – in Japan, I lived a smaller, slower life. And once I realized this, I felt complete.

I decided not to recontract for a third year in Motomiya. I wanted to go home, to apply what I’d learned about living simply to my life in Los Angeles. I knew it’d be hard. I was terrified. I’d finally found happiness – what if I could never find it again? But even as all my fears grew louder, I knew it was the right choice.

So on February 5th, 2011, I decided I’d be returning to LA, and let my supervisor know. That gave me six months to enjoy what Japan had to offer.

Except that, just over a month later, a 9.0 earthquake struck Fukushima, changing my life forever.

I’ve written a lot about what that earthquake was like, as well as the six days that followed where I tried to get out of country. I’ve also written a great deal about how hard it was to reintegrate back into Los Angeles living, especially after giving up the life I’d come to love so much. It took over a year to even feel normal. So I won’t go into that here.

What I will tell you is this: returning to Los Angeles was always going to be hard. My adjustment was temporarily paralyzed as I grieved for what had happened. Once I came out of the fog of my grief (and many, many hours of therapy), I saw myself from an outside perspective – overworked, stressed as hell, struggling with insomnia, sneaking cigarettes, moody. Uninspired, unmotivated, resentful. Basically, I’d replicated everything I was afraid of returning to when I made the choice to come back here. Funny how fear helps you do that, every time.

And then?

I quit my job, and got a new one that paid less that I liked more. 

Must be nice, you’re probably thinking. I’d love to just quit my job, but I have all this __________ I have to deal with! (The blank can be filled with anything – debt, familial responsibility, whatever. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re a twenty year-old DJ or a sixty year-old executive; we all have responsibilities to deal with that make us feel stuck in our lives.)

And I’ll tell you this – it was terrifying to quit my job. I had all the same fears you do – I was making good money, I was lucky to have a job at all, the experience looked great on my resume, I was being responsible for my future.

But look, sweetheart – it doesn’t matter how you dice it. I was miserable, and I knew better. I knew I could live the smaller, slower life that I’d had in Japan. Sure, it wasn’t going to be as easy in Los Angeles, but I was determined. So after some long soul-searching, mastermind group-talks with my besties, hours of talking aloud in the night to my boyfriend and plenty of more hours of therapy, I figured out that I needed to shrink my life.

And I had the idea to create this blog.

Americans love to tell you that more is better. And if you have enough, then by golly, it’s time to upgrade!

But I’m here to tell you how to downgrade, how to live on less, and that less is better. Simply put, less creates space, and space allows for happiness. 

I still struggle with all the same things you do. There are times I get overloaded, maxed out, exhausted, whiny, irritable, fed up – I just know how to get myself out of it these days, and in almost no time at all, you will too. 

I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that the key to happiness is living a smaller, slower life. I’m so passionate about it, so wholly convinced, that I could stay up all night talking to you about it.

So relax. Turn off the TV and stream some music you like. Even better – open the windows. What sounds do you hear – cars honking in traffic, or your neighbors yelling downstairs?

Listen deeper – what can you hear now? Is the wind blowing through the trees, are the birds singing, are there crickets creating a symphony?

(Did it take effort to hear the smaller things?)

Where is your life already beautiful? 

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