The story of Pink Elephant

I was 30 and had just been hired into the role of vice president of marketing and communications within one of the world’s largest advertising conglomerates based in Paris, France. I had dreamed of living in Paris since my first visit there in my 20s when I came up from the métro and instantly felt like I was home. Thousands of miles from Canada, but home.  This job would report to a man I hold in such high regard – the kind, brilliant and funny combo (with a Parisian accent) that you don’t often find at work. I couldn’t say “oui!” enough. The. Dream. Job.

The visa process isn’t a quick one so until I could move to France legally, I remained in Toronto and traveled between the various offices. Trips from Toronto to New York, London, Boston, Paris – often in that order – were exciting at first but also left me perpetually jet-lagged, sleepless and weary of overpriced airport food. I realized, once in the job, that this travel schedule would continue even after I was Paris-based. What had been so ideal on paper wasn’t feeling quite right for me. When my boss changed and that treasured part of the job disappeared, all the baguettes in Paris couldn’t talk me out of my nagging doubts. The role itself changed too and no longer resembled the one I’d dreamed up with the first boss. My heart was getting heavy.

Where am I?

This is such a cliché but it’s the truth of how things happened; I awoke one morning and had to find a newspaper to remember what city I was in. (I still can’t remember if it was Boston or New York.) I sat alone in that hotel room and allowed myself so many of the feelings I’d been swallowing. I was lonely. It’d been weeks since I’d had a real conversation with anyone. It’d been months since I’d had brunch with a girlfriend, or caught up over tea. I felt disconnected from the people I loved but also from myself. This work – although it was important to me to do it brilliantly – wasn’t an expression of my joy in the world. I sat on the end of the bed, in a plush hotel robe, and cried into my hands.

So that was the beginning of the end. The new boss and I met in Miami to discuss my role. She ordered sushi for us, but I don’t eat sushi. (Signs abound.) We made a plan together for moving forward. When I returned home after that trip, I got terribly sick with a severe eye infection. The body just always knows, doesn’t it? I was contagious and had to stay home so I worked from my apartment. I worked double-time on marketing and communication plans. I put finishing touches on documents. And when I was finished with those, I tearfully wrote my resignation letter. I would submit it on Friday, and then I didn’t know what I would do.

Surprise!

But my boss had other ideas. When I returned to the Toronto office on Thursday, a friend at a sister business unit asked me to a meeting. Odd. The human resources head was there. Odd. Termination papers slid across the table to me while my friend read a script he’d been sent from my boss in London. I’d been fired.

This was great news because I’d now receive a compensation package whereas quitting would leave me empty-handed. But, but, but. When you’re an over-achiever and have won awards for your work at every professional job you’ve ever held, it messes with your identity to get kicked to the curb. It wasn’t personal and I got 100% of my performance bonus (my ego insists I tell you that), but I was smarting.

A week later, I got dumped. And then I really felt untethered.

Ok, now what?

What should I do? What should I do? What should I do? What should I do? Since I now had so much time to myself (you suddenly realize how long the work day is when all your friends are employed and you aren’t), it was just me and my own thoughts, 24-7. I look back and realize I was terrified, in full-blown panic. Old Carrie was disintegrating like tissue paper in water. I was more delicate than I realized. And, also, I was a mess.

But the answer came finally, as it does, in a whisper: Italy. I would take that bonus and spend six weeks in Italy to see favourite works of art, and to get fat. Noble goals. I landed in Paris and filled up on baguettes and glasses of wine and cheese and the smell of the spring flowers pushing their way through the earth in Les Tuilleries.

Then, to Vienna to see every Klimt painting I could. It eased my heart to see such beauty. I felt secretly – this is how selfish I was feeling – as though, maybe just maybe, a hundred years ago, Klimt knew I would need to see this kind of gorgeousness to cheer me, and he’d painted these women for me. The Beethoven Frieze, a work I happened upon by accident, felt like a love letter. In it, Klimt depicts Beethoven’s Ninth, which finishes with Ode to Joy. The Frieze shows the march towards enlightenment, its path meandering through darkness and demons and through art and beauty right on to joy. Joy is pictured as an embracing couple, a woman held in the arms of a strong and broad-shouldered man, and this panel is named Kiss for the Whole World. I bought a print of it (which factors into another story, but we’ll get there).

In the coffee houses of Vienna, I relearned what it was to be alone but un-lonely. I wrote in journals, sipped hot drinks, took in the smells of roasting beans and very old wood. It felt like magic. I made friends at the hostel. (Right, did I mention yet that I was staying in hostels with kids 15 years younger than me? I was recreating the experience I wanted at 18 but was too “responsible” to do then.)

Then on to Italy. I had a rough itinerary and a rail pass. I ate. Pasta, a little pizza and a lot of coconut gelato. I filled out what I named my Botticelli Belly (probably something every woman gets around 30 but I thought Italy had made mine.) I spat with Venice and FELL IN LOVE with Florence. (Oh, Uffizi, how you made me weep!)

I stood before Botticelli’s Primavera, a painting I’d always loved, and I saw it a-new. There was so much love in every brushstroke, so much care, so much passion. That’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to love the world through my work. I wanted to make a gift of my work.

But what? What? How? My thoughts were still my constant companion, although they were slower and quieter now. I meditated every day and prayed every day. I still cried a lot on this trip too. I did what I did to get the bad stuff out of my system and the good stuff in. I cried out the doubts and fears, wrote them out too. And I consumed art, beauty and Nutella. I drank in the compliments of Italian men, the tra-la-la of bellas and bellissimas. I was nourishing my creative soul.

A-ha!

On a hilltop in Sienna, sitting in a ray of sunshine, surrounded by wisteria vines (yes, I do know this sounds made-up), I meditated again on what I was supposed to do (at this point, I wasn’t even sure I should go home), and the whisper returned. A gentle voice said, “Go home. Start your own business. Write a book.” And that, well that just made all the sense in the world. Of course!

Sometimes a new thought feels like something remembered (it was that way when I learned Reiki, as an aside) and you know it’s the truth. So I stopped wondering what’d I’d do and decided to enjoy the rest of my trip. I traveled further south, made more friends (yay for crossing paths with English-speaking North Americans!) and got boozy on beaches. I re-toxed some of the detoxing. I got into balance. Then, I flew home and set to work.

How opera figures in

A few months into the life of Pink Elephant, I went for coffee with a man named Keith. A marathon-running, rock-climbing, big-hearted opera singer.  He claims he knew on our first date what took me another few weeks to figure out: we’d get hitched. A year after that – because the Universe likes to make sure I “get” it – one of Keith’s performances struck, ahem, a chord. If you’re in Ontario and haven’t been to Westben, you really must… it’s a theatre in a barn out in the middle of spectacular farmland. On this particular day, I was listening to the music, smiling at the feel of sunshine on my face and grass on my feet (you can listen from the fields, if you like). It was one of those moments when you become aware of the full height of joy, from sky to earth inside your heart. As I listened, beaming, I realized what Keith was singing. Beethoven’s Ninth, the Ode to Joy. I was engaged to marry the broad-shouldered guy Klimt had painted. This is what it feels like.

And that, friends, is the story of how Pink Elephant Communications was born (plus a love story footnote because I can’t help myself). Pink Elephant, in its way, is my ode to Botticelli and gelato, to gold-leafed paintings, to introspection, to prayer, to Italy, to gratitude and – of course – to joy.