2014: A year of lessons and gratitude.

131

What I learnt in 2014:

  • Every person is a process, which means that every relationship is a process. We are changing all the time, our dynamics are changing all the time. Every cell in our body is changing in every second, and in every few years, we are literally, physically a different human being.
  • Change is natural. It is the most natural, most certain truth on earth, and of the deal of being alive on earth.
  • If you resist change or hanker after the past, it will only turn you bitter, frustrated, resentful, cynical and angry. You will surrender any power to change; you won’t stop growing, but you’ll be dragged into growth in whatever haphazard, reactive way.
  • The only thing that belongs in the present… is the present. The past and the future don’t belong in the present; they must be dragged, like wraiths out of time, ghosts out of their dimension. That’s why they grate against the present, against us, and cause depression or anxiety or bitterness– because they do not belong here.
  • Very few situations are ever all good or all bad. In fact, situations just are; they’re neutral. We give them meaning and value. And that meaning and value changes over time, our perceptions of those situations change over time, because we change over time. But what we will remember the most, what will never leave us is how we felt at the time. I am suddenly reminded of those lyrics, “In the end we will only just remember how it feels.” Which brings me to…
  • We decide in each moment how to feel and what to think of something. That is an ideal situation, of course, but with patience, mindfulness and time, we learn that skill– the skill of being present and claiming any agency we might have in a situation.
  • Mental illness, like depression (or bipolar, or chronic anxiety, etc.) strips us of this agency, of balanced perception, of choice in how we view the world; it takes over like a huge black cloud and blackened windows, pours tar into your chest and squeezes your ribs and heart and mind and soul shut with blackened twine. It is the biggest waster of human energy and talent on earth; it steals from both rich and poor the ability to feel positive emotions, to act, to care, to feel anything at all.
  • Every story has more than one side. Woe be the person who only listens to one. And bad journalism.
  • A sense of wonder, an ability to be excited, amused and amazed, are conscious choices, and they must sometimes be consciously fought for; sometimes one must even decide if one is willing to face the consequences of choosing to retain these things. In the same way, it is a choice to take the responsibility and consequences of remaining authentic, vulnerable, and loving.
  • Those of us who have the space, access and luxury of knowing or discovering what it is we love best to do, to do it, to live well, and not to be persecuted for it, are the luckiest of all. I hope we all discover for what we are put here, the courage to do it and keep at it, and the luck to be appreciated for it.

Congratulations on what you have all built and survived in 2014, happy new year, and may 2015 be all you hope it will be.

Dawn
xx

Advent Day 22: Lego and princess tents

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/ad7/62246168/files/2014/12/img_7377.jpg
Up until recently, I didn’t really know how to play with small humans. They’re quite a mystery to me, having been quite a serious, thoughtful, worried small human myself, prone to spending hours reading, building a sandcastle complete with moat and dams to protect it against the encroachment of the sea, concentrating on slowly forming very tall drip-sandcastles, or playing Lego in a blanket fort.

So, I did not become the child-friendly variety of adult.

Until recently…. when my aunt set up a pink princess tent for my very small, still-portable goddaughter. The little ankle-biter started putting all her fat-Lego pieces into the fort, so I went and sat inside and started making random things. That’s when the small human crawled inside, emitted a screech and a giggle…. And we ended up sitting there in amicable silence for the longest time– I clipping pieces together to make things, she pulling them apart with a satisfying “click”.

I even ended up having a wonderfully calming and entertaining time. She finally likes me a little more.

Yup, I’m grateful for princess tents and Lego.

[Mind you, if my “biological clock” (pffft, please; I question its existence) ever starts ticking, I won’t just press the snooze button… I’ll throw it out the window onto the pavement downstairs.]

Advent Day 21: I’m grateful for curiosity.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/ad7/62246168/files/2014/12/img_7367.jpg
The last time I made a list of things I wanted to study at university or learn at a good school of some kind, this is how it looked (in no particular order and following no particular logic nor, in the case of economics, sense of aptitude whatsoever):

  • Creative writing (poetry and creative nonfiction)
  • Disaster preparedness and recovery
  • Crisis management
  • Epidemiology and viruses
  • Economics
  • Languages (modern and Latin)
  • International relations
  • Patisserie
  • Jewellery-making
  • Music
  • Food studies/Nutrition

Even then, I felt that a few somethings were missing from the list.

I also want to learn classical European sword-fighting (not just that prissy, skittish rapier fencing in a tailored Darth Vadar suit, real full-on Lord of the Rings go-full-tilt-and-fight-an-Orc type metal-clashing sword-fighting), aikido, archery, Krav…. and be excellent at meditation, too. Oh and shooting! I’ve never held a gun before… I’d rather like to see how good I am on a shooting range, and learn how to reload a magazine of a pistol. Just because.

I love new things; they just fire up my brain like little synapse sparklers. I’m just as happy curled up on a couch for weeks with a stack of books, though.

Ah, thank you dear creator of the universe, if you exist, for bestowing me with terminal, pathological curiosity. (Let’s assume you didn’t accidentally drop the whole bottle on me on the production line). Mind you, it must be guarded against jadedness and depression and what society expects from a “grownup”. I’m grateful for curiosity!

Advent Day 20: Four things for which to be grateful.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/ad7/62246168/files/2014/12/img_7334.jpg
Swimming pools. When it’s scorchingly hot and sunny, and humid as a jungle.

Teletubbies. I am a young godmother to a small human, whose mother seems to have some kind of misplaced optimism in my child-minding (non-)skills. I don’t know what to do with a crying baby except to find the Sesame Street baby-equivalent on YouTube and desperately plonk it in front of it, gasping, “here! Here! Look! Teletubbies! You like Teletubbies, right??!!”.

IKEA’s small-things-I-never-knew-I-could-live-without section. Because Christmas and acquaintances.

Craft skills. Not drawing a regular pay check has its downsides! But it certainly prods out any artistic and creative craft skills….

Advent Day 11: La langue française.

16609db32fc62f8b2a591a27df760908

I hope any Francophone reading this will forgive my terrible grammar and anglicised turns of phrase:

Je suis convaincu qu’on est nés pour aimer chaque certaines langues. J’ai essayé aimer les autres langues: chinois, allemand, espagnol…. et j’ai aimé le son et les sensations du roumain, italien et russe. Mais, la langue avec laquelle je n’ai pas seulement tombé en amour, mais me suis retrouvé pris dans son étreinte, était français.

Un de mes désirs de cette année a été d’atteindre un niveau de français assez avancé pour écrire un poème en français. (Ok, on a déjà établi que je suis un peu trop ambitieuse).

Eh bien, je ne suis pas encore là. Mais, j’ai assez du français maintenant pour être en mesure d’écrire une courte blog en français. (C’est probablement incorrecte et plein d’anglicismes, et ma grammaire pourrait être mieux, mais je suis toujours prêt à essayer. Sans Google Translate, naturellement.)

Essentially, French is the second language of my heart. I’m an Anglophile first, but since I was really quite young, I’ve been fascinated with the French language, probably because of all its similarities to English. These days, I get a deliciously exquisite wriggly feeling whenever I find French turns of phrases that sound like old or formal English, or that translate directly, or even the false friends (because that in itself tells interesting stories).

I started learning French properly at a time when I needed a new language in which to feel anew and think anew. It was one of the things that took me out of my head and helped me sit in my heart. I’m grateful for the French language.


Picture attribution: Paris/French Culture by Sarah Benson.

Advent Day 6: I’m grateful for choice.

IMG_0882.JPG
Choice. We take it so much for granted, we who choose each day our outfits, what to eat and with whom, how we want our tea and coffee, what to watch on the TV or Apple TV. We choose our universities, schools, government representatives, where to take our holidays, where to rent or buy a house, what car to buy. But it’s a privilege that we were accorded by virtue of where we were born, into what circumstances, and sheer dumb luck.

One just has to look around the world not just at those who live under the poverty line or at its margins, but also at those running from conflict zones, from totalitarian regimes and dictatorships… just for a moment… to realise that external choices are afforded to the privileged of the world.

So, needless to say, I’m grateful for external choices. But I’m also grateful for lessons that came with learning to recognise and make internal choices. Older, wiser souls might not have to earn these habits, but I did, and I was pretty frikkin’ irritated about it too… because turning inwards tends to happen only when you’ve run out of places to run, so to speak, when you’re exhausted and when the old way just wasn’t working any more and you’ve really milked it dry.

It’s choosing how to feel at any one particular time. Choosing your emotions and thoughts. Not pushing them away or controlling them or twisting them into the shape you’d prefer them to be. Just choosing which ones to entertain. You know, like you’re the popular kid and you decide to whom you deign to give more attention.

On a related note, it’s also the power to choose your story, your narration. Like in the movie A Beautiful Life, only sans the sheer effort that would have required in concentration camp circumstances. It’s as Viktor Frankl said, that you have to have meaning, and you can choose your meaning, craft it (I am very broadly paraphrasing here).

Finally, I am grateful to have had enough confrontation, enough opportunity and enough freedom to choose myself. That means both choosing who I want to be at any given point (and the attendant failures and successes) and choosing to stand on my own side.

It can be as much of a burden as a privilege, because choice, like power, comes with great responsibility. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, because learning to bear that responsibility with grace, integrity and compassion in a world where nothing is sacred any longer is a worthy life goal. And I’m grateful for it.

 

Advent Day 5: Lessons in when to walk away.

walking-away

If you don’t have the courage or strength to walk away when a situation isn’t good for you,
you will always be someone’s doormat. 

These aren’t mine. These are from other people who learnt their lessons earlier than I did. I think, this year, I’ve finally learnt these lessons, too, the hard way.

  • Never lose yourself while trying to hold on to someone who doesn’t care about losing you.
  • Knowing when to walk away is wisdom. Being able to is courage. Walking away with your head held high is dignity.
  • One of the hardest decisions you will ever face in life is choosing whether to try harder or walk away.
  • When someone treats you like an option, help them narrow their choices by removing yourself from the equation. It’s that simple.
  • The moment you feel like you have to prove your worth to someone is the moment to absolutely and utterly walk away.

I’m grateful for the lessons in knowing when to walk away. They were awful and humiliating sometimes, but they were largely my own fault (and who hasn’t listened to their own gut instinct or dismissed their own needs at some point in their life?) and they were necessary. Because they were part of my learning to let things go.


Picture attribution: Modified from Elephant Journal.

Advent Day 3: I’m grateful for the space to play.

I think the moment we stop playing, stop letting ourselves play, experiment, dance and sing and be silly… is the moment we begin to age, grow old, stagnate, and calcify.

Someone once told me that you have to decide if you want to be an adult or not; but I think the thing that he didn’t understand was that there are many ways to be an adult, many ways of defining “adulthood”, and many ways to be a mature person. It’s all semantic, all relative, all cultural. I think it’s a sanctimonious and silly notion that one person’s or one culture’s idea of what being an adult is, is the “correct” or definitive, well, definition.

Because I think that if all of us were to follow one definition of adulthood, then nothing new would ever be created. Because newness, creativity, crazy ideas, passion, the courage to break convention, to question, to ask, “why”, the clarity of mind and thought to see through layers of conditioning… these things come from the parts of ourselves that are carefree, young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. It’s when we let ourselves play that we throw ourselves into things with abandon, find our true calling, effortlessly accept our true selves, and connect with each other at a primal, trusting, bravely vulnerable, lighthearted and emotional level that no conventional definition of “adult” could reach.

It’s not to say that they are at odds with responsibility, care, commitment, emotional management, self-discipline, and so forth. No, I’m saying that we should give our childlike selves the space to breathe, sing, dance in the rain and play with kittens and puppies, because that is the source of such divine inspiration. I think that it’s actually our responsibility to care for and commit to letting ourselves play regularly, that self-discipline includes scheduling playtime, and that emotional management begins when we can feel all our feelings, sit with them, hold their hands, play Pat-A-Cake them, listen to what they have to tell us, and then… let them go and let our adult selves handle the big decisions.

Without play, we lose our true selves. We lose childlike simplicity, the chance to develop deep and effortless self-confidence, and we lose the strength, energy, and courage to get up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again with renewed optimism, when life, as it sometimes does, falls apart.

Advent Day 1: I’m grateful for an ever-growing to-read list.

 

IMG_7244.JPG
If I had to choose an addiction, I’d say “books”; but, also, rather, that they chose me. I don’t even remember a time I wasn’t reading. My first memories consist of torchlight, blanket fort, and stack of books. And, very soon after, prescription glasses. Hey, all addictions have their price. There is something so juicily, exquisitely exciting about a new book by a favourite author arriving in the mail, whether fiction, non-fiction or somewhere in between. I feel all wriggly with delight on the inside.

Mind you, I have never been the fastest reader. I think I might be the slowest reader I know; so much so that I’m convinced I have some undetected attention or learning disorder. In fact, I tend to glare sulkily and jealously at friends with photographic memories who don’t so much read as Xerox pages of books into their minds.

But I love rollicking good fiction and well-written non-fiction. I love having my mind and ideas and fixed points twisted and pulled out of shape and entertained and squashed… I love being carried on new ships and seas and rivers and someone else’s dreams. I think it is one of the easiest ways to come out of ourselves, one of the laziest, one of the kindest.

So many books to get through! All the miles to go before I sleep, to borrow from and paraphrase one of my favourite American poets.

I’m grateful for experience and perspective.

It has taken a long time to learn to stand on my on side, and be proud of who I am. I was always “too” something: “too sensitive”, “too emotional”, “too shy”, “too talkative”, “too busy”, “too dreamy”, “too careless” (which made me terrible at mathematics, apparently), “too scattered”…. but along the way, one learns that any judgement that begins with “too” really is completely semantic (a liberal arts education can either screw you up or transform your consciousness… it usually does both).

Because every human being is a process; and in every minute is the potential to change. Sometimes it’s a sudden shift in one’s consciousness; sometimes it’s something someone says to us (See I’m grateful for wise bosses for examples… they may seem obvious or inconsequential, but they changed the way I did things, the way I was, the way I made decisions in one single instant), sometimes something tragic happens (a loved one dies, someone gets critically ill)… sometimes, all our little, collected, stray bits and wisps of experience, learning, secondhand learning, etc., all come together and fit, like a little Tetris puzzle. And then everything clicks and becomes clear as Gorilla Glass. And you know, suddenly, you just know, that there is no going back to the way you were just a minute before. Because that you is just an empty place now, where the Tetris rows have zapped and disappeared.

I could not have written a poem that conveys a classic growing up story very simply and poignantly (one day, I may get there!), so I shall use someone else’s words. This is one of the poems I found in my much-loved, well-worn ‘O’ Levels poetry compilation, that I loved very much when I was 15, and as much now:

NURSERY RHYME OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE

Charles Causley (1917 – 2003)

I had a silver penny
And an apricot tree
And I said to the sailor
On the white quay

‘Sailor O sailor
Will you bring me
If I give you my penny
And my apricot tree

‘A fez from Algeria
An Arab drum to beat
A little gilt sword
And a parakeet?’

And he smiled and he kissed me
As strong as death
And I saw his red tongue
And I felt his sweet breath

‘You may keep your penny
And your apricot tree
And I’ll bring your presents
Back from sea.’

O the ship dipped down
On the rim of the sky
And I waited while three
Long summers went by

Then one steel morning
On the white quay
I saw a grey ship
Come in from sea

Slowly she came
Across the bay
For her flashing rigging
Was shot away

All round her wake
The seabirds cried
And flew in and out
Of the hole in her side

Slowly she came
In the path of the sun
And I heard the sound
Of a distant gun

And a stranger came running
Up to me
From the deck of the ship
And he said, said he

‘O are you the boy
Who would wait on the quay
With the silver penny
And the apricot tree?

‘I’ve a plum-coloured fez
And a drum for thee
And a sword and a parakeet
From over the sea.’

‘O where is the sailor
With bold red hair?
And what is that volley
On the bright air?

‘O where are the other
Girls and boys?
And why have you brought me
Children’s toys?’