The department store below my New York apartment has been under construction for a year and a half. Seven days a week, from 7:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., they jack-hammer the foundation until stuff falls off the shelves, rivet things into the ceiling under my floor, bang, power-sand, and run their what-have-yous. They’ve cut the gas, burst water pipes—it’s your general nightmare.
How loud does it get? Give a listen.
It wouldn’t be such a big deal, because I’m fortunate enough to have my little Paris place—except that apartment is also under construction, thanks to a leak from my neighbor’s apartment above, which, for reasons that only make sense to a Frenchman, would not be repaired until I hired an attorney. Now, my apartment is gutted, walls scraped right down to the brick and beams.
“What do you think the universe is trying to tell me?” I asked a friend as I complained about my eternal search for a temporary place to live in Paris.
“That you’re in a period of transformation,” he replied.
Ruin is the road to transformation, wrote Elizabeth Gilbert in her now epic memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. She, herself, has become some kind of guru of change, a thing that probably surprises her more than anyone. She was just writing about her life in upheaval. Like me. Hers was divorce; mine, my mother’s death. Both events made us do crazy, desperate—and wonderfully brave—acts, as we searched for ourselves, and the happy ending we’d been promised since we were little girls reading fairy tales.
Three-and-a-half years ago, I created my fairy tale: I bought a sweet piece of Paris—my tiny apartment that changed my life and brought me joy in a dark time after the death of my mother. That one bold move begat others, and in 2014, I left a cushy job, went to Paris, got a book deal. Happy ending.
Except that dream apartment in Paris, the one I spend half my retirement money on, is indeed in ruins.
Our lives aren’t like our books, and that happy ending doesn’t exist. As long as we keep living, nothing ends. We continue on that roller coaster. Good things happen; bad things happen. It’s called life.
The court case for the leak that I thought would easily go my way, doesn’t seem such a sure thing now. Even though the leak was finally repaired, the humidity levels aren’t low enough for the court expert to conclude the leak definitively came from the neighbor’s shower, even though it did. What does that mean for me? If I can’t get the humidity down, the case could go unresolved—and Lisa could be out €26,000 in legal fees, repair costs, and alternative housing expenses.
“It’s so unfair,” my friend said about my leaky woes. “That apartment was your dream. Those people are robbing you of your happiness.”
A month before my friend Lisa Taylor Huff succumbed to cancer, she wrote on her blog, The Bold Soul, about the curveballs life throws you. I reread it recently because I needed one of her sisterly pep talks. In the post, she talks about realizing when things are out of your control, and letting go when you just can’t deal with everything coming your way. “Curve with it,” she advised.
Lisa was right; there’s nothing I can do about the apartment. Yes, I’m angry. Yes, I’m disgusted. And I’m definitely worried about losing all that money. But one thing that still seems intact, even as my apartment is falling apart, is my happiness. Unlike what my friend suggested, I don’t feel robbed of it. I’ve come to know that my happiness is not in the hands of others; it’s deeply rooted within me, unaffected by the events of my life—the constant in this roller coaster life.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to say the same thing. Maybe the leak has been around so long I’m finally learning to curve with it. Or maybe, living with a ruin is transforming me into someone who is more resilient, who can find gratitude in any situation. Whatever it is, I’m walking through this with arms outstretched. Let it be what it will be; it doesn’t define me.
I’ve come to know that my happiness is not in the hands of others; it’s deeply rooted within me
We brace ourselves through the tough times, try to deny them, dodge them, forget them. We figure once we get through the crap we’re wading in, real life will begin, and we’ll finally be happy. But the universe is going to throw you curve balls until the end comes. And if you spend your days waiting for things to get better, you’re missing your life.
You can pretty much count on bad stuff happening; it just will. How you deal with it is what decides your happiness. You can stay rigid and let it beat you up, or you can curve with it. That thing that’s turning your life upside down could also transform it for the better. Embrace it.