An education in the unknown

I’ve received an adequate education, in the eyes of society. Excellent, at times, slacking, at worst. But I’ve gone all the way, excelled academically in most subjects and immersed myself in academic learning. Yet, before I started university, I discovered – without being able to put it into words at the time – a huge, gaping, black hole inside me. I was on the other side of the world, in the midst of my first parental-free overseas experience, away from the environment I had grown up in and taken for granted, and my mind spiralled out of control. I was on my bed gasping for air most nights, crushed by the sheer knowledge that we are spinning around randomly in space without knowing one iota about the world we live in, raising against the only sure destination we know: Death. The eternity that surrounds us is not ours; we are finite beings in an ethereal world. I was nineteen and utterly terrified, and I felt had no one to turn to for answers. My rationale at the time was that no human on this planet was able to help me, since no one possessed the answers I craved. I finally confessed to my mother, who proffered her and dad’s views (non-religious, very much representative of the secular society we live in) and started to send me books on philosophy. Though I will always be grateful for her stepping up at that time, it created only more questions in my head, and no answers.

The experience created a fear in me that stayed with me throughout my twenties. Before drifting off to sleep, I’d sometimes sit up in bed and hyperventilate, trying to anchor my thoughts onto a subject of comfort to keep the panic attack at bay. I lived with this for so long that I thought life, for me, would always be fearful at its core. The experience of motherhood created temporarily relief and a feeling of purpose, belonging, and a bond that surpassed death, only to be replaced by a fear of the ultimate separation that was more bottomless than I had ever experienced before. I had now made the ultimate investment in life; I had created a being that I cared for more than myself, and now I had to believe in it. What’s more, I would once face the same questions from my daughter that I had asked my own mother, and I was still exploding into panic attacks as soon as I ventured near the subject myself.

For the second time in my life, I tried a psychologist, but this time I picked one with spiritual views, and opted for psychoanalysis rather than cognitive therapy. I had started my own spiritual journey, one that I am still on. To kick start it, I first turned to the altar of science (against my psychotherapist’s recommendations), as I had been schooled in the same and needed the support of human work and theories in order to push forward. The work of Stephen Hawking offered a lifeline to the spiritual world, as his physics operates at the boundaries of what any average human is able to comprehend, and in my view requires a being of normal intelligence to take a leap of faith. It allowed me to make the jump to Dalai Lamai’s ‘The universe in a single atom’ and I have been reading Buddhist literature ever since, silently converting myself into a believing Buddhist. This, coupled with meditation, awoke my appetite for learning and has made me look at the world with curious, childlike eyes. I am amazed at the wonder we live in, and I no longer take anything for granted. With my children, I marvel at the mayflower’s buzzing flight, study the thin fine lines on a green spring leaf, and look for snails slowly making their way from ground to tree on rainy days. There is so much to learn, and I feel I am discovering the world anew. Casting aside all the rules I once knew, I no longer have expectations about where I am, who I am and where I am going; I just am. And I accept that I know nothing, but trust that I am meant to be here, that I am just as I am, and that everything is as it should be. I also allow myself to be open to other dimensions than the one we think we live in based on this reasoning: If we assume that life is all that us humans see, how come that an insect ‘sees’ a different world, or is able to respond to vibrations in the air that we don’t perceive? I no longer think that believing the former is scientific; I think it foolish. There is no world but in our heads. And reality is what we make of it. Hence, ‘the world’ is our perspective, and changing that will change everything. When I discovered that belief in Buddhism, I knew in my core that this was truth.

I long to discover more, I long to continue my education and I love living inside this open mind. I long for learning, and I feel like there aren’t enough hours in my day to soak up all there is to find.

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Time and change

Time and change

We all know that time and change are related, not like distant cousins, but closely interlinked. Everything changes with time. Time makes everything change. Time makes change easier to bear. Give yourself time, and you will adapt.

Recognising times of transition is for me the first step to adapting to that change. The second is to allow myself time. The first time I went back to work after having a baby, I didn’t pause for breath. Being grateful to have a semi-fulfilling position to come back to, I threw myself back into work to make up for lost times, always with the nagging sensation that I would have liked to be somewhere else. That somewhere else was at home, with my eight month old daughter, taking her for a stroll or watching her play. While on maternity leave, I even took pleasure out of the mounting housework involved, the extra planning needed to move a family from a to b, cleaning and washing. There were times I thought I could have been happy in the fifties, trading economic freedom for a calmer life taking care of my family.

While my eldest daughter was in her second year, my beloved grandfather died after a long bout with dementia. In his passing, he became the loving person that he had always been, as opposed to the muttering, grumpy, extremely confused elder man he had been for his last couple of years. I was in a hectic period, juggling nursery germs with deadlines and work performance, and I didn’t allow myself to grief properly. But, as is often the case with grief, it caught up with me, through panic attach and anxiety about my own mortality. I started going to a psychoanalyst who was also very open-minded about a spiritual dimension to life (this was no coincidence, as I had carefully researched her) which helped me recognise my full self and move me through to my next personal development stage. With my second baby, I allowed myself a long maternity leave. So long that my boss joked I would never come back. Returning when she was over a year old I allowed myself to feel the full impact of our separation and recognising these months, or year even, as a time of transition. I still miss them every hour I spend away from them, but I try to recognise the benefit of the hours spent apart, and I am very rigid about minimizing the amount of hours I spend in the office so as to allow long, lazy afternoons with my children. I mindfully forget signing us up for activities and most afternoons we just lounge about at home or visit the playground, watching flies and caterpillars go about their business. This is what it means to be a child, having seemingly unlimited amount of time. Time for them moves slower, as time is relative and they are tiny. A life is an eternity for a child.

When trying to describe becoming a mother in one sentence, I often revert to this: It has made me vibrate on another level. For me, no longer being the most important person in my life was a relief. I had spent too much energy on myself for far too many years. It also created a connection that surpassed death; as I felt closer to generations past and remembered within myself how it felt to be loved by my now-departed grandmother. I still revel in the feeling of motherhood. It is by far the most demanding and the most rewarding experience I have, and will ever have. It changed me abruptly, violently, but also softly – over time – in a loving and benevolent molding fashion.

Nostalgia. Friend, foe or something else?

I love the roaring twenties. Give me a Gatsby-backdrop in a novel, a movie or a café and I am generally sold, blending into the set environment with a vague feeling of being at home. I am also a fan or the thirties (what of those skirt lengths and those flattering jackets?), the forties (I imagine the camaraderie that must have ensued in the face of destruction and exclusion), the fifties (a hotly-debated era, but it has me longing for simpler days, when it was enough just to be a woman and a home-maker) but that’s where the fascination ends. I’m not against the sixties, or the seventies, but their pull is not as strong.

Idealizing the past has its advantages; it makes historic novels appealing, it has me gently plying open elderly people to unleash their stories, it sees me sifting through family albums of long departed and distant members for images to frame and decorate my walls with. Wikipedia suggests that nostalgia is ‘a yearning for past events, good old days or warm childhood memories’. This signals to me that nostalgia can be a foe in the sense that it tricks me into thinking life was better ‘back then’, preventing me from fully living in the present.

But – and this has been nagging at my conscious for a few weeks now – what if it’s more than that? What if it’s a real connection? I’ve suspected since I was a child, without being able to put it into words, that my ‘self’ is partly anchored in another time. When I was a child, the outgoing generation were young in the twenties. Their hairstyles, clothing, accessories and demeanor were a legacy from this age and for a young girl I felt an inexplicable understanding for their ways of being and seeing the world.

Had you asked me a year ago, I would have dismissed the theory of reincarnation without giving it another thought. Of course it’s not possible. How can the brain, which gives rise to my consciousness, pop into another body? It deteriorates with the rest of me, and that’s that.

The longer I practice meditation however, the more I manage to ‘see’, and a few weeks ago I had an experience that is still with me, loud and clear. I saw a woman that, judging from her clothing and hairstyle, was of the thirties or perhaps forties. I saw her in different life stages; in a red suit jacket about town, as an elderly woman in a chair holding a baby, and finally as she died and departed. She found it hard to let go of the geographical space she had occupied and belonged to, but as she swelled and swivelled away, the realization that she was too huge to fit hit and she let go, entering the universe that she had come from.

Above would sound wacky to a lot of my friends and acquaintances, which is why I keep this blog a secret. This may be easier to digest, though: I’ve also experienced death while dreaming. I found it difficult to let go of my grandfather, mostly because I had been mourning him for years before he passed (he was demented, senile and had changed his personality) but I wasn’t prepared for this: The moment he passed, he became the loving, generous, kind and caring man he had been throughout my life. Death resurrected his qualities. The last time I saw him I was feeding him coffee and cake in his bed; he was in emotional and physical pain and nothing I did was pleasing to him. I was silently crying, because I could sense that this was our last physical meeting. Months after his passing I had a dream that I was gliding over the small plot of land he had called his; ‘I’ was a speck of consciousness of that was once a human being. I was floating away from the house, through the same hole in the hedge I had burst through a hundred times as a child on my way to his little porch, about to exit in the direction of the backyard fence. This experience, whatever it was, calmed me. I had struggled to accept that he was gone, that he was alive for too long in his body, that his life was now over. But I realized in this dream that he had let go, that his departure had been peaceful after all. And that brought me a little bit of happiness.

Child in the City

As a mother of two young ones, I find myself questioning at least once a day whether it’s selfish of me to choose to live in the city. Before I settled, I’ve been an inhabitant of metropoles such as London, Hong Kong and San Francisco, and I do think that cities are playgrounds for adults. The countryside, with all its vast spaces and fresh air, make natural playgrounds for children, though children adapt amazingly to any environment. With a temporary residence in the latter, we thought we had set ourselves up perfectly for a balanced family life. A month in the summerhouse, followed by a re-transitioning into the city, to enjoy the fall season. So the plan went.

City life make demands on adults. At no time of the year is this more obvious than when returning from a family holiday. To enjoy all its low and high hanging fruits, we need to invest in our careers and extract decent salaries. That means less time spent with our children. It also means leaving our children in more crammed nurseries, working longer hours to stay in our chosen careers and paying a more expensive mortgage.

As I age and change, and settle further into my role as a mother, my career identity has come to matter less. In fact, my ‘self’ has come to matter less, for better or worse. At this stage, I could give it up completely, and find a new direction once the intense mothering years have passed. I’ve grown more and more bohemian over the years, though I certainly wasn’t from the onset, and my true-to-nature beliefs are that children prosper best when spending the majority of their time in a loving family environment. Opportunities such as travel, amazing schools and intellectual stimulation are secondary. I honestly think I could become a happy country mouse.

On that note, us city mice that visit the country for limited periods do have a certain advantage, at least from our own viewpoint. We allow ourselves to feel just a tiny bit more sophisticated, intellectual and richer than our fellow country mice. I cringe when writing that, and I am a little ashamed to make it public, but I promised myself that this would be a space for honesty. And when I take my children to playgrounds in the park to meet families from all over the world, cappuccino in hand, or explore art weekends for children at the national gallery, I marvel at the vastness of cultural stimulation their childhoods hold. Isn’t this what we worked for all these years? To be able to provide such a childhood, and such a privileged existence for ourselves?

Having grown up a county mouse is the reason I hesitate to make the move, given I would able to convince my beloved husband of course (I haven’t yet). My childhood also demonstrated the backside of country life such as small-mindedness, a fear of unknown cultures, a safety-in-numbers-and-known-ways mentality that I wanted to challenge with my own life. All is not well in the country, either, and once you give up city life and climb down from the career and housing ladder, that life is difficult to reclaim. We will stay in-betweeners for at least the coming year and see how much pull either direction has exerted when the year draws to a close. And, should all point in one direction, there is of course that convincing part yet to be done. Life together trumps all else.

Opportunity Insomnia

Being hit by a rare wave of insomnia induced by excitement, as the night grew darker I marvelled at the opportunity hidden in just one human life.

Last night I couldn’t sleep. Being a mother of youngsters that also works full-time, this is a rare event these days. Having spent the past week coated in a thin albeit ever-present layer of sadness, what kept me awake last night was excitement rather than worry and I tried to revel in that feeling. I marvelled at the amount of opportunity hidden in just one human life, feeling hopeful and optimistic about everything from our lives together as a family to myself as a professional. My feelings about the latter were enhanced somehow when receiving an unsolicited call from a headhunter last week that wanted to put me forward for quite a senior global role. Having lost myself a little in the work vacuum that prevails in the office presently, this was a welcome interruption and a pleasant conversation to have. We have also called in reinforcement from both sets of grandmothers this week so the children are well cared by loving extended family in their own home, which calms my mind, and contributes to the feeling of having an extended vacation.

A few days ago I tried a new, natural meditation technique. Instead of counting my breaths until my thoughts evaporate, I saw each breath as a gift from my environment. I am not able to exist in a vacuum; I depend upon my environment to give me life and air, and even if I at some point in my life should have nothing to be grateful for, I can be grateful for that. Instead of panicking at the fragility of life, as I have been known to do a few years ago, I saw each breath as a gift. This is really an extension of what I try to practice every day before I nod off to dreamland: looking back at the day that passed to evaluate how I used it to its full potential. Since I will never have that day back, I would have liked to use it as creatively and lovingly as I can. Of course, I am no superhuman, as this blog hopefully makes apparent. I get lost in feelings of sadness and frustration just as much as the next person, and I waste moments, minutes, precious days. But being aware of that absolute truth, that the day I just passed is an opportunity I lived through and tried to make the most of, helps me stay focused on the bigger picture, rather than losing myself completely in a tough week. It also helps me lift myself out of the daily grid a little and observe our lives from another angle. Taking stock, and pausing – for however short a moment – is at the heart of a content existence. No human that I know has become happy out of a fulfilling career, money in the bank, a fabulous apartment or a fancy dinner. Happiness is something else altogether, and as I am discovering: It takes daily work.

Survival of the Kindest

Two lives stemming from the same womb, sharing a kind, loving and natural moment between sisters.

My girls are better versions of me in every way. The thought came to me loud and clear one day, and as I tried it on for size, I realised the truth of that statement. In their freshness and newness, they are more intelligent, curious, compassionate, more beautiful and loving. This is not an evolutionary statement, though one can see the beauty in it, should it be proven an absolute truth (humanity bettering itself visibly, one generation at a time). These are the feelings of a mother, i.e. the perspective is as skewed as can be and not backed up by facts, but…nevertheless.

As I participate in their unfolding, I try to be curious about their personalities and natural traits, free myself of expectations and avoid leading them onto a certain path. This does not mean I don’t make plans and scheduled appointments, though I try to limit the latter in their young lives, but I watch their development and the joy they get out of certain activities before I act on it. For example, my eldest loves to dance and perform. Losing herself completely in the music, she is completely unaware of how her movements are perceived by someone else, whether she is following the rhythm or stomping too loudly. My husband and I have discussed dance lessons, but having had them myself from a young age, I have not yet signed her up. We tried a freestyle family funky class together but the outcome of that is that I believe she is happier and gets more out of just dancing around the living room with her little sister. Plus, there are no mirrors and teachers to tell her how best perform that step or swirl. She just does.

Always occupying some space in my consciousness is how to best raise my girls for this world. So far, I have shortlisted the ability to live alongside and in close relation to others is the most important skill and one, if mastered, leads to happiness and contentment. Life taught me this lesson through observance of a far-flung relation who is raising her son alone and tends to have a multitude of conflicts going at one time, be it at work or at home with the neighbours. Though she possesses good traits too, she is not a content person, and by being so uncompromising and focused on what she perceives are her own needs and rights, I dare say she is missing out on most that life has to offer.

Another important trait is to be optimistic at heart and create value out of any situation, be it dire or just-not-great. Being a citizen of a stable economic region and a welfare state, my girls are perhaps not likely to experience an existence of bottomless despair (although nothing is ever a given) but there will be times when they may have to endure. In my mid-twenties, when I was just out of university, I worked a job where they pay was bad, appreciation low and tasks often involved asking too much of others while offering little in return. While working to improve my situation, I also created value out of my days by making friends with colleagues, trying to be the best employee I could and finding pockets of breathing time, such as walking through SoHo to work after yoga in the morning and watching the neighbourhood wake up. Looking back, I learned a lot about the kind of work environment I need to thrive, which factors that are more or less important, and tied bonds of friendships that last me to this day. It was an experience worth having, though mentally painful and exasperating at times (as anyone who has felt ‘stuck’ in their life will testify to).

My point? The dinosaurs are no longer around, and perhaps a reptile society does not exemplify harmonious living. But they did live in harmony with Mother Earth, and they did thrive for a much longer period than us humans have, and probably will. The serve-only-your-own-purpose does not longevity make. So I tell my girls to be kind, be curious, to embrace all experiences to come, be they pleasant or painful. And I try to lead by example on the most important trait of all – the ability to love and relate to other humans.

Highway Away from the Soul of the Summerhouse

This dark-clouded highway brought me head first into post-holiday existence. Office life hits me like a bucket of icy cold water, and I fight with my entire being to keep hold of my summerhouse soul philosophy.

There are two kind of returns after a lengthier holiday. The one that slowly lets you ease back into the rhythm of things, taking you by the hand through pleasant collegial holiday experience exchanges by the coffee maker and good-natured jokes with the boss. And then there is the other kind, the one that hits you in the face like a bucket of icy cold water. The one that spells out revisited targets, restructuring, re-everything. It can feel like a dampness is spreading throughout your cellar, i.e. your core, until it permeates your entire office-being. Wham. Slam. Monday onslaught.

When subjected to the latter, it tends to linger in my subconscious, preventing me from focus on the tasks that need doing. The unfairness, the brutality, the brusqueness of it all keep nagging at my thoughts, my productiveness. ‘But I did that’…and ‘how unfair of her to throw this at me’ …and similar statements rush through my mind. Tackling the problem head on, with my newly applied summerhouse soul philosophy, I decided to take thirty minute to examine these negative feelings thoroughly, to see if I can make them evaporate into nothingness.

My first thought, that the assessment is unfair, may have some justification. Being part of a team, I am not solely responsible for the outcome of our collective actions, but I do share the responsibility. And stepping up to that responsibility to accept the opposite of praise is no fun business, but it is necessary. Of course I can do things better. Of course I can be smarter about how I work. I am not a fully-fledged, automated machine, I am a human being. We can always improve; it is the beauty of being human. What I do need to address, in a much calmer manner than I had originally intended, is that some tasks are impossible to combine, as there aren’t enough hours in the day. Once priorities have been set, I can attend to and improve our first priorities, possibly reducing my overall workload in the process. (Wishful thinking is allowed!)

My second thought, that the feedback is brutal, may also be somewhat justified. It is difficult to express ourselves in writing, and it sometimes comes out harsher than intended. My manager is responsible for our team as well as reporting upwards, and needing to mobilise our team to please the one above can require a tougher tone. Actions need to be taken. Targets need to be met. All possible holes need to be filled. On a human level, I can sympathize with his plight. But adding my own subjective me to the soup, I find my reaction to be one of intended fight or flight. If I try to focus on understanding the human behind the harsh words instead of just looking at the words, I may become a better interpreter. Perhaps I can even abandon the fight or flight reaction. Leaving a job because of demotivation is not a good idea. I prefer opportunity to be the reason any day.

And lastly: how do I tackle the lingering feelings of demotivation? After all, facing those is part of returning from a holiday. I feel better when there are no corporate demands breathing down my neck, though being a mother, my holidays are never free of demand or of tasks that need doing. I need to look deeper to find feelings of gratitude, starting with the most obvious one: I enjoy receiving a salary. In fact, it is a necessary pillar of upholding our family life. I also enjoy most aspects of my job, the fact that it involves some writing and creativity, and I appreciate the humans surrounding me, also known as my colleagues. Being the mother of girls, I also feel – though I fret about time spent in care, hours apart from parental love and external influences – that me having a career is a positive factor in their life. In the bigger career picture, though, I too have a responsibility to speak my mind about my own development and tasks rather than being exasperated about the volume of work. No one, least of all the boss that has plenty of bigger fish to fry at all times, is a mind-reader.

Did that make me feel better? Somewhat. And it only took the intended half an hour, otherwise spent munching down a sandwich at the lunch table. Good to see that the summerhouse soul philosophy is able to translate to the hustle and bustle city, though it will take effort, power of the mind over matter, and a lot of patience and understanding, to apply it to autumn and winter.