The Gift of Perception

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.  – Nelson Mandela

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.   – Robertson Davies

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio, Florence Italy

Back in January while I was spending my days as a woman of somewhat forced leisure, dancing alternately with both the fear monkey and his wayward sister, the dreamer monkey, I did a crazy thing.

I booked an apartment in Florence, Italy for the entire month of April. The apartment was located in the artisan Oltrarno district of Florence, a ten minute walk across the Ponte Vecchio from the historic city center. In addition to the apartment, I registered for a three – week intensive conversational Italian class, at the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci. The school is located just around the corner from the magnificent Florence Duomo.

Florence Duomo

Il Duomo di Firenze

Learning to speak Italian has been on my bucket list for a long time, and it seemed the perfect time to do it. I was ready to run away, to escape to my beloved Italy, and live like a local for four glorious weeks. I had money and I had time; so why not go?

The little apartment was a dream – on a quiet street, with two bedrooms (one for visitors), and a balcony overlooking a courtyard. My morning walk to school would take me past the Palazzo Pitti, through the Boboli Gardens, and across the famous Ponte Vecchio, through the Palazzo Vecchio and past the magnificent Duomo to the school. After four hours of school in the morning (I have always loved school), the afternoons would be mine to spend strolling the famous city.

I was to arrive in Italy on April 1.

The irony of that arrival date – April Fools Day – is not lost on me.

I DID feel like a fool back then – bouncing recklessly from idea, to fear, to dream, and back again. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or be in the next half of my life.

As Spring and my departure date approached, I began to waiver.

The Italian 1 class I was taking locally at the Jewish Community Center was hard. Memorizing vocabulary and conjugating verbs is fine, but trust me, fluent conversation is hard. Damn hard.

The work on my parents’ house in Virginia was stalled by bad weather and contractor delays. The sheer amount of STUFF left by my parents, in the house of their dreams, was staggering. The amount of work to clean it up was not going to get done in a couple of weekend trips.

I had packed my leisure time with tons of projects – including renovating the bathrooms in our Charlotte house and painting the entire first floor. Of course, those contractors were delayed as well.

My need for security, sobered by several meetings with a financial planner, got to me, and I started job hunting, albeit rather reluctantly. I thought it would take several months.

So on March 1, after several days of anxiety and indecision, I sent the Italian landlord a note to let him know I was cancelling my trip. Technically, I said ‘postponed.’

After I got past the hard decision to cancel, I didn’t give too much more thought to it. I was very busy with work efforts on two houses while actively job hunting.

I received two job offers in a little over two months, way faster than I imagined. I’ve now been in my new job for a month, and am traveling a good bit. So I decided to re-read Dan Brown’s Inferno, because fast-moving novels make airplane flights go faster, and I’m a sucker for fiction that is woven with historical details.

The first chapters of Inferno are set in Florence, in the very same Oltrarno. Robert Langdon and his partner in crime, Sienna Brooks, who are being chased by potential assassins, run through the 13th century Porta Romana, into the Boboli Gardens, through the Palazzo Pitti, and across the Arno River, via the famous secret Vasari passage over the Ponte Vecchio, to land at the Palazzo Vecchio, the ancient power seat of the Medici.

David Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio

I almost cried while reading those chapters. That was going to be MY neighborhood! I was going to sit with my journal on those benches in the Boboli Gardens! I was going to explore the Palazzo Pitti! I was going to stroll across the Ponte Vecchio each day to school!

medici lion2

Medici Lion

What had I done?

Who was the fool now?

I became a bit melancholy and not a little disappointed in myself. Damn it, I had not taken the road less traveled, as Mr. Frost says. My rational mind had told me it just wasn’t practical to go to Italy for an entire month.

I thought more about my choice back then, and what drove me to make it. We all make choices every day. Big choices and small choices. What motivates us to make the choices we do?

How much do we really see of the true landscape of our choices? How aware are we of what drives us to make the choices we do?

In my case, I came up with a particularly pointed question.

Was invoking ‘practicality’ just another word for fear?

Last year, before the December big event that ended my 33 year career with Bank of America, I felt trapped. I felt good and truly stuck, with no good options – chained by golden handcuffs to a job I had outgrown and in which I was miserable. I felt I just had to stick it out for another five to six years until I could retire. Our retirement nest egg needed further building, and my younger son was in law school.

Arthur Rimbaud said, ’I believe I am in Hell, and therefore I am.” That was me in 2015.

I couldn’t see any options in front of me, other than putting one foot in front of another for a few more years. The landscape in my mind’s eye was pretty barren. There was just one road, one path, leading through the desert to the oasis, a long way ahead.

Perception is everything, people.

Back then, I couldn’t see that I really DID have choices.

A LOT of choices. In fact, as it turns out, a lot of very good choices.

I had a decent 401K, and money and real estate bequeathed to my by my father. I had an entire year of severance. I had my health, my family and my talents, which are not inconsiderable.

Frankly, the world was my oyster, but I just couldn’t see it.

Why not?

Fear, most likely.

I probably made that Italy choice driven by fear, instead of hope, as Nelson Mandela advocates.

Could I have done both? Gone to Italy for a month, and then found my great new job later in the year? Probably. But it’s water under the proverbial Ponte Vecchio at this point.

But in reflecting on that choice, and my path over the last six months, I have learned the true value of the gift I was given on December 9th.

The difference between what I was able to see last year, and what I can see now, is like night and day. Literally.

There is always another way to look at the landscape in front of us. In every moment, we do have a choice. They may not always be great choices, but there are always choices.

I did not go to Italy, and maybe that decision was based in part by fear. But I can SEE that now.

I can see a lot of things more clearly now, six months out from my departure.

I chose to take this new job. I thought long and hard about it. No one or no thing forced me to do it. I know why I am doing it, and how it aligns with my goals. And I can change it, if it doesn’t work out.

That shift in perspective is a big deal for me.

I have a sticker on my computer, given to my by the author Patti Digh, as a parting gift from my transformational January writing retreat. It’s a simple question, but a powerful reminder of how we might all think about our choices.

What’s the BEST that can happen?

In my case, here’s the best that could happen:

  • I found a financial advisor that I trust, who understands my goals and will partner with me to make them happen.
  • I found a new job with a great company that values talent, experience and true work-life balance.
  • My current client is a joy to work with – professional, capable, personable and compassionate.
  • I am able to work from home – on my patio amongst my flowers – when not traveling.
  • If I choose, I can take time off to travel in between engagements.

Before my exit, in typical project manager fashion, I always went first to “What’s the WORST that can happen?” Over the years, I had been programmed to look for the worst, to make contingency plans and to NEVER expect the best.

That’s a toxic way of looking at the world. It took me six months of soul searching to clear my vision and to learn to see in another way.

Yesterday, I sent a note to my Italian landlord to rent that little Oltrarno apartment for a week in September. It’s not a month, but it will do just fine for now. I wasn’t kidding when I said “postponed’.

Change your perception and you can change your world.

The BEST thing that could have happened to me, happened on December 9. And I will never look at the world in the same way again.

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