Life After My Mother

It’s been almost five months. Five months since I ran to the Byron Bay lighthouse and back in the evening light of the Australian Summer. Jess and I were road tripping on the other side of the earth. Run, shower and early dinner before the long drive back to Sydney. We didn’t have dinner as it turns out because I got a call – the kind we don’t really dread until we’ve been on the receiving end of one. It was my sister, with the news that my mom was gone. Whoosh, just like that. I could write a book about these last months. I’d have a chapter on the nightmare that was my flight home. The funeral. The sorting out of things. The wedding. And then trying to go on with life. But i’ll focus on this last chapter – the going back to normal when really nothing is normal at all.

Having someone removed from your life is both unfathomable and very painful, almost physically. If I close my eyes it feels like I’ve been sucked to the centre of the universe, to the very origin of my agony. The layers go down so deep that when I hear the sound of my own wail escape from under there it sounds like it will take years to reach it’s destination. I didn’t know that place existed before. I cry like that in the private moments I can find. When I get home from work or when I’m in the swimming pool behind my goggles. Sometimes my husband finds me and rescues me from what would be a much greater desperation without him. He is patient and caring in the face of what, for him, must feel like coming home to a record stuck on the same pathetic song. I regularly think that I’m feeling a bit better, that I’ve turned a corner and then realize I haven’t.

In the beginning I would count the days and the weeks without her. I noticed with unease the transition between waking up with a sick feeling in my stomach to waking up without it. From crying every day to wishing my tears would occur with greater frequency. I would see signs of my mom in nature in the weeks following her death, in the Knysna Loerie that visited her home or the ladybirds that kept landing on me (imagining you’re connecting with a lost one in nature like this is apparently common and called animism). I would notice doors and windows left open thinking she was letting herself in to be with us. Now I wish that my mom would appear to me in dreams so that I can feel what it feels like to touch her or hear the words she would use in a conversation. But she doesn’t, she’s nowhere to be found.

My intellect can’t make sense of this experience – what it means for life, the after life and about how we should live now. I feel an acute sense of fragility for myself and the people I love. I know that Death doesn’t discriminate and I fear that somebody else will be taken from me in cruel succession. I won’t be able to cope with more. There is an urgency to life now and what I should do each day in acknowledgement of that but at the same time I feel like something inside me has died and I’m unable to do very much of anything. I don’t have the capacity for this new urgent life I want. CS Lewis touched on the laziness of grief in his memoir of his wife’s death: A Grief Observed. “…I loathe the slightest effort…Even shaving. What does it matter now if my cheek is rough or smooth?” And this is how it feels, the slightest actions seem futile and require too much energy. The bigger ones, impossible.

The loss I feel is specific to my mother but translates to something  more general – a loss of confidence. I am fragile and exposed and unable to tackle a world that no longer makes sense. Physically I am weakened. My back goes into revolt almost as my mother passes and our wedding concludes. There is no obvious cause and no obvious cure. I fixate on my aches and pains and psycho-analyze that this is because deep down I want to be sick, that way I won’t have to leave home and be surrounded by all these people who have forgotten my mom is dead.

People say I should speak to my mom but the only question that keeps replaying in my head for her is: “Where are you?” She doesn’t answer. I want to know where she is but I don’t want to divert my grief with a spiritual quest to resolve that question. I’ve only recently started to read a few memoirs of what it’s like to lose someone and I’m intentionally steering clear of anything more theoretical. It seems our grief is all similar yet different. I like to think that mine is bigger and sadder than other peoples’ because I lost a mother or because my mother was better than other mothers. But I don’t really think that’s true, it’s just that other peoples’ grief is in the past or the future and not visible to me, as mine is not visible to them. As Meghan O’Rourke says of her experience in her book The Long Goodbye: A Memoir: “Other people – friends, colleagues – got used to my mother dying. But I did not.”

There is some small consolation in the circumstances of my mom’s death – she didn’t suffer, we had no unfinished business, she had met my fiancé and knew that I was safe. For myself, I’m grateful to have a sister to go through this with – the only person who could come close to know how I feel – and a husband to make a new life with. This is the first time I have really had to stare death in the face and I know that very soon it will be time to avert my gaze. As La Rouchefoucauld said: “Death and the sun are not to be looked at steadily.”

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Sunrise from Keurbooms Beach

So I will try to focus once more on life and hope that this reprieve will last long enough for my heart to heal. Losing my mother has been brutal but the days are finally starting to to roll on less tainted. I am not unchanged but I am in recovery.  One thing I know for sure is that the next time I see someone crying in an airport or on the street I’ll stop to ask  if they’re ok. Maybe they just lost their mom.

Conversations with my mom about flowers

Almost 4 weeks ago today my mom died, unexpecedly, peacefully. That probably sounds abrupt but it was.  It’s too sore to describe how I’ve felt from the instant I heard to now. I’m still on sabbatical so I have the ‘luxury’ of grieving uninterrupted with the support of my sister and loved ones, who are also hurting. I often think about how my mom would’ve handled losing people she loved. She survived many personal tragedies and emerged with a positive outlook on life. ‘Time is a healer’ she says said, but I try to imagine how she felt in the thick of it all, like we are now, and I know she too would’ve been hurting.

The thing that makes me feel closest to her now is nature, plants specifically. Most other things seem pointless or too draining to think about but seeing her garden flourish, doing flowers for her funeral or thinking about the flowers for my wedding make me feel happy.

Mom's Magical Garden

Mom’s Magical Garden

A typical Magical Garden arrangement

About a year ago I conducted this ‘interview’ with my mom about her life with flowers. I have so many more questions but I’m happy to be able to share these words of hers:

Me: What role have plants played in your life?

Mom: A very important role in my life. I was brought up with my mother teaching me about plants. My mother was my greatest influence. I couldn’t live somewhere where things couldn’t grow. When I cam to Plett there was no work and there wasn’t a florist here so then I went to CT on a course with a famous last called Joan Pear who used to do the flower arrangements for the ships that came from London to Cape Town. She started a school of floristry in CT. She was very good with bridal work. When I came back I opened blossoms…coming back from Joburg in the car we drove passed a valley full of beautiful blossoms. We collected branches from fruit trees and made pink paper blossoms on the ceiling. Opened in 77. It was very successful with weddings and Interflora. The people in Plett were old and their families would send them flowers. It was difficult to get flowers. Proteas were local but the locals don’t like Proteas. The other flowers came on the bus from PE. I sold the shop at a good profit when I had my first baby. With that money I built my house. Then I started doing the flowers for the Beacon Island Hotel, which I did for a very long time as well as weddings. Sometimes I’d have to drive out to try to find the bus. Sometimes the bus just threw the flowers off the bus on the street in the Crags when they were late. Weddings are very nerve-wracking things.

Me: Do you have any wedding disaster stories? 

Mom: I once delivered the wedding bouquet and the bride was in such a state.  Someone ended up putting the flowers in the deep freeze – they were frangipani and of course turned brown… Brides would often walk down the aisle without their bouquets.

Weddings were so rewarding but the mothers were always the worst. They thought they were getting married again. They wanted to choose the bouquets for the brides. You had to subtly tell them to shut up. I always had lots of pictures they could choose from. 

I learnt a lot about flowers – what flowers lasted. Agapanthus florets make the best bouquets, so do frangipane and orchids. Everyone wants roses but you have to be careful in the sun. In England they used to use Lilley of the Valley. And Tubor Roses but they only come in Spring. They last so well and have a fabulous perfume.

In the last 20 years or so the most popular colours are antique – antique roses etc, not white. People seldom used colours other than white. I once did a bouquet of red roses with ivy hanging down and it was a real flop.

Me: What plant moment are you most proud of?

Mom: I always used to grow plants to sell to buy things for my children. I once sold hydrangea plants at Christmas time to buy roller blades for you

Me: Is there a plant that cheers you up when you are down?

Mom: I love primulus. You don’t get them in bunches but they’re so pretty in the garden in Winter. Roses are the most amazing.

Me: If you had to choose between a pet animal or a pet plant what would you choose?

Mom: A plant definitely. You have to clean up after the animal and give them to someone when you go away.

Me: Do you talk to your plants?

Mom: Sometimes. Actually just this very morning, I said to my African violet: ‘you’re so beautiful! When did you have so many flowers?’ I don’t often talk to them…OH wait I do! When my white bouganvillae was dying I put my arms around it and said, ‘Don’t die, please don’t die’ and it didn’t it cheered up. It was sulking because its pot had been moved.

Me: Do you use flowers for eating/medicinal purposes?

Mom: No, definitely not. I know some people say you can eat nusturtum leaves but I’m not a salad person.

Me: Which do you think are the hardest plants to grow?

Mom: I’ve given up growing vegetables. I’m not very good at it. I have too much shade.

Me: Which are the most rewarding plants to grow?

Mom: Inca lilies are so rewarding, such marvelous cut flowers. There’s every colour under the sun. And sweet peas-I love the perfume. I love growing herbs and using them in my kitchen.

Me: What unconventional tips do you have for growing things?

Mom: Comfry is a wonderful thing. You can cut the leaves up and put them in the soil around the plant. The nutrients help the plant. People also make hand cream out of it.

Fynbos from up the hill in Keurbooms, where my mom’s ashes will lie in peace

Mysore Yoga for Beginners

On Day Two of my sabbatical in Shanghai I attempted Mysore yoga (which as it turns out is the DIY of yoga for advanced yogis) led by a militant yoga sergeant – I would say instructor but she wasn’t instructing – everyone was on their own mat flowing and breathing and binding at their own pace. So I thought I’d take a deep breath and see what I could recall from what must be at least 100+ hours of yoga in my lifetime. Not a whole helluva lot it turns out. The sergeant was quick to pick up on this and immediately placed me and my neighbor (who was looking good I thought) on a strict regimen of Sun Salutation Ones (the first nine postures in the pic below), with lots of corrections. This was welcome instruction for me as I quite like correcting my form but my neighbor turned to me and hissed “I didn’t sign up for this shit, I’m outta here.” “No don’t leave me” I whispered but she had stashed her mat before I could say chataranga. The sergeant intercepted her at the exit “You finish?” ” Yes, I paid to come to a class, I can do this at home” she said and stormed out defiantly. Ouch.

I made it through about 50 Sun Salutation Ones before graduating to Sun Salutation Two (postures 10 to 19 in the pic below and really not so different from Sun Salutation One…) and after about 50 more of those and thinking my wrists might be about to snap, I too snuck to the door. “You finish?” “Yes thank you” I said and, thanks to my pioneering neighbor, exited unscathed.

While, OK, I hadn’t signed up for this either, it was an enlightening conformation that I really didn’t know what I was doing. While I’d been considering some home yoga with the help of YouTube to save some mula on my travels I now had new motivation to educate myself on the basics and make myself a self-sufficient member of the yoga community. When Mysore hits NY, I’m going to be ready!

Images showing the Mysore Asana series in the Ashtanga tradition. Try the first two rows at home for free🙂

48hrs in Shanghai

As an avid traveller I’m sick of saying “Oh I’ve never been to China” so I was very excited about this little Shanghai stopover of 48hrs (or 53 to be precise). You can now not get a trasit visa for short stopovers in major Chinese cities if you spend under 72hrs there. I’ve learnt that 24-48hrs in a big city can be plenty more than enough so my plan for Shanghainwas to tourist on day 1 and chill on day 2.

I arrived on a Wed night at 7:30pm on China Eastern Airlines – I’m baffling at how they snuck into the global airline club that is SkyTeam.  Advice to future passegers is to carry your own food and minibar and don’t ask questions – the servious is attrocious and food indedible but hey, I’m on sabbatical and embracing all experiences.

I checked into this cute Airbnb apt in the French Concession that evening, a very convenient location and more interesting than staying in amongst the skyscrapers I thought. The cleaner was nowhere to be seen for check in but my nice taxi driver made some calls until she arrived on a scooter. Phew. First travel obstacle surmounted.

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Day 1:

Morning Yoga

I was up early with locals to Pure Yoga, Shanghai (making a strong start on sabbatical goals). Very chic studio in IAPM shopping mall filled with Prada, LV and other luxeties. Good bilingual teachers and a great way to stretch off the 14hr flight cobwebs. Must be expensive for locals though, with NY style drop in rates of nearly $20 a class. At least for this price you get spotless showers, hairdryers and everything you need to make you tourist ready.

Breakfast in the French Concession

Next stop breakfast at a street stand in the French Concession with a local granny staring at me while I muched on fried pork dumplings with pork fat oozing out of each bite, washed down by hipster coffee at Café del Volcán next door. Fuelled by Jiaozi and caffeine I motored towards the Shanghai Museum, heading generally north on Xiangyang S Rd and East along Huaihai Middle Rd.

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The great firewall side note: Google doesn’t work in China. I knew this before I left but I don’t think I really believed it. This means to Gmail, no google maps and downloading a serch engine like Bing or Yahoo. Yikes. I had downloaded an offline Shanghai Google Map that worked pretty well but trying to navigate listing and locations without Google was a challenge for me. The Shanghai Subway App on my phone was another lifesaver but if I go back to China, I’d probably buy a guide book.

Shanghai Museum and People’s Square

On the way I stopped off in local delis where people were lining up for fresh mooncakes for the Autumn Harvest Festival and strolled through the Yanzhong Park with its pretty ponds and young couples holding hands on benches. As you near the Museum and the river the buildings grow taller and you realize you’re in a city but I never got the sprawling, overwhelming, congested feeling I’d expected. For a first time visitor, the city is easily navigable mostly on foot.

A brief stop in the gardens of Peoples Square and then the iconic Shanghai museum, with anciet Chinese artefacts and a good temporary exhibition of Russian historical relics. Depending on how you do museums, you can get through this one pretty quickly. I spent lots of time on the floor dedicated to the cultural dress of China’s minority ethnic groups, which makes it sound like ethnic relations with the Governmnet are just hunky dory – no mention of Tibet or that they are in ongoing conflicet with the  Uighur people of the Xinjiang region in the Northwest.

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Walking Food Tour

At 4pm I joined a a Shanghai Foodie Walk by Intrepid. It was just me and the guide and we spent a pleasant early evening strolling around the Jing’an Temple area sampling things that were not too trying for my Western tummy. I consider myself more daring than the average foodie but I’d been burping up pork dumpling all day so this may have affected my curiosity.  I also don’t eat offal or dried blood, which, as it turns out put numerous nibbles off limits. Luckily my guide was understanding and we stuck with a lot of veggie and black and red bean treats. Pork is hidden everywhere, even in seemingly desert-like pastries, identifiable by that slightly salty sweet taste. We strolled around a popular fresh foods market, where apparently live chickens were for sale until bird flu put a stop to it.

More interesting than the food was my guide’s stories of her life in Shanghai. The same complaints as many other urban societies: the cost of living is high, property prices outlandish but also some things I don’t hear every day: the government profits from our savings while we suffer, I have to import diapers from Japan and baby formula from France if I want quality. We talked about the one child policy a bit and she seemed to think that people would continue to have one child to give them a good education, even if they are now allowed to have more.

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The Bund
After the tour at around 7pm I forced myself to head over to the Bund to see the starry lights of what was swampland until the 80s when global financial services swept in. It’s an impressive display of lights and action but aside from the view there’s not much to do besides have a fancy drink in a hotel bar or if you’re the South African dude and his dad I met, head to Hooters and TJIF on the main drag for some action. For me, it was time for club duvet.

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Day 2:

Mysore Yoga:

This time I tried a new yoga studio, Y+ Yoga, in the heart of the French Concession and a ‘class’ called Mysore. I’d never heard about it before but MySore seems popular in Shanghai. Technically its of the asana tradition but the best way to explain it is DIY or yoga at your own pace, with light instruction from the teacher, so definitely not for beginners. My British neighbor, also a newbie to Mysore actually stormed out mid-class and when I saw her in the street afterwards she complained that a) she wanted a proper teaching experience and b) that the class seemed available online but was actually packed: “It’s typical of the Chinese – they can’t be bothered to book anything.” To me, her commment sounded like such a typical expat thing to say, implying taking advantage of all the great expat benefits while passing scathing judgements the locals (in this case they’re too backward or lazy to use technology)

Chillaxing

I softened towards the expats when I found this Aussie owned treat: Baker & Spice, at 195 Anfu Rd, serving delicious coffee and the best of breakfast, lunch and dinner that kept me going back for all my nourishment that day, breaking only for shopping and a massage at Zen Massage. Zen is a good option for traditional treatments in a modern setting without paying hotel spa prices. HOWEVER, I would say, that when they ask if you mind having a male or female therapist, you should definitely opt for female, UNLESS you are very comfortable with a man massage ‘professional’ very liberally touching your butt. That will be the last time I am massaged by a male, ever, in any culture.

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Rush Hour

By 4:30 pm it was time to start heading to the airport. My internal ultra tourist forced me to stop in the historic district at Yuyuan Old Street (with my backpack!) before getting the subway to the airport. In hindsight I would say skip – it’s full of hangers onners who want to help you part with your money, tatty jewellery markets, and a few random traditional Chinese temples and pavillions. It felt like an unsuccessful attempt to preserve ancient Chinese heritage in a city long since modernized.

The sardine subway in rush hour was mayhem and took a lot longer than expected. If you do take it at that time of day be prepared to be absolutely crushed and fight for every inch of space. Forget about a seat.

I had really enjoyed my visit but was quite happy to move on after my 2 days. Shanghai would be a great place to do a 3 or 6 month stint, or longer if you fancy expat life, but as a tourist I wasn’t interested in extending my stay. It had been a nice tame intro to the country and next time someone asks I look forward to saying I’ve been to China (or Shanghai, for 53hrs).

Sabbatical Itinerary

After some months of careful crafting (budgeting, flight booking, convincing clients they don’t need me anymore and parents I am not abandoning my wedding) I am officially on a three month sabbatical.

It feels amazing! I was a bit stressed and emotional pre departure (sorry LOML) but I am on the road now and it’s as if the world of work has totally evaporated and been replaced with real life.

The Itinerary:

Day 1 (8 Sept): flight to Shanghai

Day 2-4: 53 hrs in Shanghai

Day 4: flight to Thailand (sleep in airport hotel)

Day 5-11: Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam with my sister (also on sabbatical but in Sandton)

Day 12-14: Train journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh with (2 nights on train broken up by 1 night in Citadel city of Hue inbetween) I am writing this from the train so as usual I’m a few posts behind my actual movements – will catch up soon and write in real time I promise. 

 

Day 15-20: Sydney, Australia with my girls

Day 20-25: Road trip up to Byron Bay and back with the realjessharrison

Day 25-27: Back to Sydney for one last w end

Day 28-33: Bali for solo time: beach, yoga, raw + not raw food ( Wedding day approaches)

Day 34-38: More Bali or silent retreat in Thailand (tips for 3-4 day silent retreats in Bali or Thailand welcome please)

Day 39-49: Back to Harlem for LOML time

Day 50-75: South Africa for family time pre wedding

Day 75-81: week in SA on ‘safari’ and in Cape Town with friends and family pre wedding

Day 82: Wedding!!!

Day 83-89: recover from wedding

Day 90: Let’s not talk about it

The goals of the sabbatical: 

Active goals:

  • Be fit and healthy: Do yoga every day, eat fruit for one meal (currently loosely in observance):

  • Blog regularly (currently in observance)
  • Develop the habit of reading more (currently at 7% – too many other fun things to do):

Passive goals:

  • Have one or more life revelations (but don’t think too hard about the meaning of life while on sabbatical)
  • Absorb elements from travels to incorporate in daily life when back in New York/find inspiration

Overall, my objective is to enjoy the experience of travel and to appreciate all new things ‘in the moment’ (very yogi lingo, sorry), initiate good habits that can be maintained when back to normal life and spend special time with family and friends, especially my parents, sister and family who are normally so far away.

Thank you world, LOML, sister, friends and fam for supporting this adventure. The objective I’m doing the best at right now is enjoying every moment in the moment!

Enough boring lead up and more fun travel stories to come next time.

The Sabbatical Dilemma

So we got engaged and I was on cloud nine. I was floating through the streets of New York imagining myself the star of a RomCom – glancing down at my ring, brushing back my hair with my left hand unnecessarily and generally feeling very pleased with myself.

But there was a little niggling question surfacing underneath the powder puff…’What about my sabbatical?’

The LOML and I had talked about it, but that was before we were engaged to be married. Could I still take it? Could I desert my fiancé or worse, husband to flit around the globe? And what was he thinking? Did he assume I was taking it, or not?
When I mentioned it to others they said things like: ”Look, you have bigger things to think about now.” Public opinion was not on my side. So no sabbatical for me then I guess? No first time in Asia, no visiting mates in Australia, no silent retreat, no hanging with my family in South Africa? Obviously I wanted to be married more than anything else in the world but I sort of still wanted the other things I wanted for myself before he proposed.
So I spoke to the LOML about it about a week after we got engaged, almost jokingly, with some eye fluttering thrown in for good measure; ”So what do you think this means for my sabbatical?” He wasn’t opposed to the idea but seemed to be more interested in putting together some of the other pieces of the puzzle, like when and how we were going to move in together and where and when we would have a wedding. Oh yea, the important stuff! We were able to make some big decisions quickly, like:

  • we would move in together asap to start the new year and our new life together
  • we would get married in South Africa over Thanksgiving 2015

And because those are not the kind of decisions that self actualize we then started to put the energy required into making them happen. We moved into a wonderful one bedroom apartment in Harlem on Feb 1st and started feeling our way around the industrial machine that is the wedding industry.

I didn’t mention the sabbatical again until a plane ride back from LA in about March, when I suddenly felt the need to unburden myself of all the unknown factors flying around in my head, like were we having an engagement party, what should I do about hints of job offers, when would my Greencard arrive, would my mom enjoy our planned RV trip around Arizona, what did I want to do with my life and what did this all mean for my sabbatical?
So the LOML and I wrote things down – what I was worried about, what my options were to address them and what the timing for some of those options was. A good thing about dating (or being engaged to) someone older than me is that he’s already had most of the thoughts I’m having now about 10 years prior and has good advice to offer.

So we came up with a plan, including dependencies and contingency and agreed that I would ask permission from work to take a sabbatical starting in September for 3 or 4 months, knowing that I would have the option to decide not to take it closer to the time if I decided it wasn’t what I wanted. Before applying for the sabbatical, I thought a bit harder about whether it was what I really wanted. The desire to see the world, while still there, was not as strong as it had been when I was single and even less now that I was engaged. What was the point? The LOML couldn’t leave his business to travel with me, what if he ended up feeling deserted in the months before our wedding? Was it worth risking the beginning of something so important? He was supportive in theory but how would he feel once he was left eating freezer meals on his own for 3 months…? On the other hand I didn’t want to regret not doing it, sacrificing something I’d wanted for a long time and feeling resentful once I’d popped out two kids and had ‘responsibilities’. It felt like now or never. I needed more reassurance that the LOML was fully supportive though, so I quizzed him and tried to give him the option of saying that deep down he thought it was selfish of me and bad timing. But he seemed genuinely supportive. He compared it to when he’d done his MBA – he thought it was good for people to take some time out to reflect before major life transitions, in this case my transition to wifedom and potentially a career change. Yes! No wonder I love him. The final test for me was whether he would take an interest in itinerary planning and share in my joy in the preparation phase – I didn’t want it to be an isolating activity. He said he would love to. Sold! I applied for the sabbatical to start after Labor Day (7 Sept) and finish after our wedding (just before Christmas). Three whole months of glorious transition.

It was approved, and after 7 years as a Management Consultant, today is officially my 7th day on sabbatical (more details of what I’m up to coming soon).  Here’s hoping it does wonders for my blogging output, and of course my future marriage!

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A Little Something Special

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The LOML and I got back from South Africa to a freezing cold winter in New York. I was happy that he’d liked the country and met my family. I’d also had time in South Africa to think about my goals for 2015 ahead of the usual Jan 1st New Year’s resolution frenzy and had settled on: 1. get engaged and 2. tone up my flabby tummy. Our talk about living together was my first proactive step towards resolution no. 1 and the ball was now in his court to come up with a way to make the experience feel special. For resolution no. 2 I signed up for Class Pass with the intention of doing lots of barre and tummy intensive things.

Two weeks before Christmas the LOML asked me if I was free for a full day surprise sometime that w end. I hadn’t made any plans yet (I love plans) so I told him I’d stay free (I also love surprises). As usual I asked for hints and the hint he gave was: “There is a risk of failure”. For my girl brain, that statement could obviously be interpreted as he was going to propose – the risk part being that I might say no. But I also knew that his clues are never decipherable and told myself to quiet my girl brain.

That Friday he picked me up from work so that we could drive to see our friends’ new baby. When I asked what present he’d picked up for the babba he looked sheepish, and I almost snapped that if he’d forgotten he should’ve told me so that I could’ve got one. But then he revealed that we weren’t going to visit the baby after all. Aha – my suspicion that babies sleep at night was confirmed but where were we going? We were going on our surprise, he said as he started to look a bit stressed and pretend he wasn’t making wrong turns. As we headed towards Brooklyn, a long line of questioning caused him to reveal that we were flying somewhere! But what about my clothes and passport? He had snuck into my apartment and stolen them (quick mental check – state of apartment thankfully ok that week). The surprise getaway, he said, was in honor of my upcoming birthday, which, being so close to Christmas and New Year, often doesn’t get the attention I would like. I was impressed that he was being so proactive, especially since at our one year review in August, birthday performance was highlighted as a development opportunity. At this point he revealed that Puerto Rico was our destination as we were apparently running late and I had to call Jet Blue to get us on a later flight. Now this was at a time when I was in Greencard purgatory and unable to leave the country so he had apparently called about 8 immigration attorneys to check whether Puerto Rico is considered US soil and in typical lawyer fashion, they’d said they thought so (hence the risk of failure).

We arrived in San Juan in the middle of the night and were whisked away in a taxi heading North after some secret dialogue between the LOML and the car dispatchers. T-40 mins to secret destinantion. As we got closer I thought I’d have another go at clues. This time his response was: “It requires lots of trust” On the one hand I thought ‘Oh crap, I hope its not some extreme couples-rain-forest-zip-lining thing’ and on the other hand I thought, ‘What requires more trust than committing to a lifetime together?’ Calm down girl brain! He’s only just met your parents and didn’t have any time alone with them to ask if he could marry you plus you’ve only been together just over a year and thats how long it took him to ask you out, so there’s no way its happening this w end.

My internal dialogue was shut down as we pulled into an immaculate lush rain forest garden and the Ritz Carlton, Dorado Beach emerged from a haze of splendor. We had arrived at an ex Rockerfeller playground and Beyonce’s hideaway when on tour in Latin America. I love birthdays!!

imagePiet from Belgium sped up in a golf cart to welcome us – he had arrived on vacation 8 years prior and never left. He asked if we were celebrating anything special. Nah, just a w end getaway the LOML said (he’s obviously not that into free gifts). Piet showed us to our ocean-facing suite, including gigantic bathing suite with outdoor shower and a bath tub so big even a tall person could enjoy it. For a couple whose preferred accommodations up to this point had been tents, friend’s sofas and Airbnb, this was setting the hotel bar very high indeed.  We washed off the airport grime amongst the Birds of Paradise and by the time our sleepy heads hit the pillow we didn’t even mind the deafening sound of the crashing waves (nature – so noisy!).

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The next morning, I was brusquely awoken by the LOMLs face in mine. Wake up he said, its time for an adventure. I was given permission to use the bathroom before setting off in our robes outside. Outside, as in, where there were people. Maybe he didn’t realize I didn’t have clothes on underneath but it looked like he was walking toward bicycles. He led me passed the bicycles. Phew. Down a garden path towards the beach. He wasn’t saying much so I made chit chat about the birds. On the one hand this was all so weird that my girl brain thought he might propose, on the other hand, he was acting very normal and he is very good at surprises, so this was probably just a romantic pre breakfast walk, all part of my 5 star birthday treat. Calm down Sylvia.

Then we got to a pagoda facing the Caribbean and I thought, ‘Ok, he’s definitely not going to propose – this location is waaay too perfect’. So we stood in the pagoda in silence watching the sea, in nothing but our bathrobes. “Oh look, surfers”. More silence (he doesn’t always feel the need to comment when I say something self evident). I love a bit of nature in the morning but this was getting painful, so I sat down on the ledge.

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“You know how I said I like going on adventures with you?”, he asked.

“Yes….”

“Well I want to go on a really big adventure with you”

Girl brain: Ok this really sounds like the preamble to a proposal

Silence

“When we were in South Africa I asked your father for permission to marry you…and he said yes. Now I want to ask you”

Girl brain: Oh shit, this is it!

More speech saying nice things I wish I remembered but I was just waiting for the part where he gets down on one knee and actually asks the question (and to see the ring of course).Then he did. He got down on two knees and said:

“Will you marry me?”

Just like that, will you marry me? I looked at him after a long stunned silence with very wide eyes and said:

“Yes.” (obviously).

He was holding a ring box but he hadn’t popped it open yet. He may have said “Don’t you want to open it?” and I may have said “Aren’t you supposed to?” And he did. I looked at it and thought ‘that’s not my Gran’s ring – where did he get it?’ But I think (I hope) I said “It’s beautiful”. As it turns out the ring I was looking at was his Granny’s. A very strong and special New Yorker I’d heard lots of great things about. It was perfect.

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We returned to our luxury oceanside terrace and ordered breakfast and felt like we were in possession of the world’s best kept secret. He had mentioned the night before that nobody knew where we were. Something about that made me refrain from whatsapping my sister to brag about the retreat and we decided to bask in our top secret for another day before telling anyone. This was probably the best decision we made that w end. Having 24hrs to ourselves to digest how we felt and feel the essence of our relationship change was probably the most intimate experience I’ve ever shared with someone. And our relationship had changed. There was no more ambiguity about how we felt about each other. No doubt that this was what the other person wanted. We could say things now that were better left unsaid before. We had formed a unit. Just like that.

And just like that, what feels like the best period of my life began. Immediately after it happened I felt ecstatically happy. I had received exactly the thing I most wanted and precisely when I wanted it – the ultimate synergy of satisfaction. I just couldn’t understand why the tears hadn’t come as he was proposing or immediately after but I guess emotion takes time to process. At breakfast the next day while he went to get a croissant I watched a family sit down together near us and the tears began to flow. I was crying at the thought of us being together, forever, multiplying or not multiplying, getting old, but always together. It felt like all the big moments that were yet to come had been concentrated into that very moment. It was time share the significant news with our families.

He had said he’d find a way to make moving in together special, and he did. It just far surpassed my wildest expectations.

Shacking Up

In September last year the LOML popped the question, or rather, made a suggestion: maybe we should move in together. It was a beautiful Summer’s day in Montauk and we’d just spent the morning discussing the timing of something big – when I would take a sabbatical and for how long. Taking a sabbatical to travel the world is something I’ve always wanted to do but when I had casually announced in the first few months of our relationship that I’d be taking off sometime soon it hadn’t gone down so well. He was not anti the principal of me exploring the world without him but hurt that I didn’t seem to be considering how he would be affected. Fair enough. To give this the proper consideration, it took me another 6 months to broach the subject with him again in a more thoughtful way. The conversation had gone well and we’d settled on me taking about 4 months off starting September 2015 so that we could have the US Summer together and get used to the idea of being apart. 

Lying on the beach with him after that discussion I felt so grateful to be with someone who would give me the freedom to explore my own dreams and support me in all the little things I do, like write this blog where I sometimes mention him. I wanted to tell him how appreciative I was and that if he ever felt like I was pushing the boundaries too far he should tell me. He said that everything was fine, he liked my independent pursuits. But then after a long time of silent basking in the sun he said, “Actually there is something I want us to talk about…”

Oh crap, I thought, I knew it! 

“Maybe we should think about living together”

I had to remove my large sunglasses and look him in his eyes to confirm he was serious. This was the last thing I had expected him to say. Our lives were great in our separate apartments. We saw each other all the time but still had our freedom. He loves time alone. I love time with my friends. We had a system. And because I didn’t think he was going to bring this up for another year I wasn’t prepared with my own feelings. I knew I wanted to be with him forever but I also wanted to savour this special dating phase for as long as possible. I equated living together with monotony and romance killing conversations like whose turn it was to buy milk. But I didn’t want to deflate his enthusiasm so I told him I was thrilled he’d asked and that I needed some time to digest it. 

And for the next few weeks, I thought. Which involved calling my sister. She thought that if I knew I wanted to be with him then he should put a ring on it if he wanted to live with me. That made sense. Then I called my friend Jess in Sydney and she said I shouldn’t let fear stand in the way of love. Here was the man of my dreams wanting to share every waking moment with me – I should embrace that. Gathering friends’ perspectives is valuable but is no substitute for one’s own opinion.  Deep down, I knew what I wanted – a committment to a life together. I didn’t want to move in with someone if there was a chance I’d have to move out again some day. I also wanted to be sure that he liked South Africa before we made any committments. He hadn’t visited yet and if for some reason he didn’t like the Motherland I could see it being a potential issue. So we agreed to postpone the discussion until after our planned visit in November.

Our Thanksgiving holidays were spent in Joburg, Cape Town, Prince Albert and Plettenberg Bay/Keurbooms. Naturally, he loved it – because South Africa is AWESOME! He also loved meeting my mom and dad for the first time and seeing how the locals live. While in SA, I got a pep talk by a good family friend who also happens to be a very successful real estate agent. “Bokkie’ (term of endearment meaning little buck in Afrikaans), she said, “he clearly loves you. And neither of you are young anymore. Now is not the time to treat him like your best friend and tell him all your secrets, this is the time to be strategic. You need to CLOSE! ” I knew what she was getting at, I just didn’t have a lot of experience with manipulating and keeping secrets from him. But then I thought, you’re a woman and you have all the cards right now – use them for good not evil. 

As agreed, we returned from South Africa and I raised the subject of living together. My monologue went something like this: ‘I love you very much and I really want to live with you. However, I also want it to feel special and I want you to know that this is a big decision for me. My version of closing went like this: “I don’t want to be one of those women, who, in two years time, when people are asking them ‘Do you think you’ll get married?’ I have to say, ‘I don’t know, I hope so.’ ” I think he understood. He said he would need some time to think about how to make it special. Afterwards, I summarized my speech to a guy friend and his response was “Oh, shit, poor J-dog!” Apparently in man language, my message had been pretty clear. Good, I hadnt ‘closed’ but I felt like I had agreed to what he wanted without completely compromising what I wanted. 

And so I relaxed and waited for him to find a way to make it special.  

Life in the Hair Belt

I wasn’t born hairy. At age 2 I was still completely bald and my mom was worried. Someone told her that rubbing chicken manure on my head would spur on my hair growth so she took me to my grandfather’s farm and dipped me in fresh fowl poop. From that moment on my blonde locks thrived.

But following the blessing of head hair came the curse of body hair around puberty. I had my first leg wax at age 12. By then the boys had stopped pulling up our skirts but were still chasing us around the sports field at break times. The first ‘Why are you so haaaaairy?’ was incentive enough for me to book in at the salon. The wax lady warned that it would sting but that it would get better with time, maybe I would even grow to like the tingle. Almost 20 years on I can say that while it is not worse, it is definitely not better either.

In these 20 years of hair removal I have waxed all over the world, in all imaginable positions – from Downward Dog in Paris, to Happy Baby in New York. I have lazered for more sessions than medically recommended – the administrators pretend to be baffled when the hair returns. I have shaved in emergencies (not an ongoing option unless you want to do it everyday like a man with a beard) and done everything in-between, from home waxing, stinky creams and going au natural.  I’ve survived countless physical hair removal hazards: butchers getting wax stuck in delicate places, home kit wax strips burning my flesh when ripped off and the inevitable onslaught of ingrown hairs that rival the length of tapeworm.  Aside from the physical risks, there is of course also the ongoing indignity of having to spread my legs for total strangers so that they can get to every last hair sprouting from my intimate crevices.

On the bright-side, I’ve developed close relationships with my wax ladies. The last one would spend the length of our appointment telling me how she’d missed me, sharing Buddhist analogies and then breaking down into tears telling me about her estranged son. As much as I liked seeing her I had to end our relationship when I realized she was totally blind.

I’m baffled by the injustice of my hairy plight. With my fair Caucasian genes I should barely be sprouting hair after all these years of grooming. I want to smack white girls when I hear them say things like ‘Oh I hardly ever have to shave’. The injustice!  If I have to trace my hair genes, I’m convinced that somewhere along the way, my ancestors got mixed up with the people of the Hair Belt, that Southern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, North African line of women whose follicles grow strong and proud, resistant to Egyptian sugaring techniques and Mandy’s wax strips.

Poor little Calliope describes the reality of the Hair Belt so perfectly in this passage from Jeffery Eugenides’ Middlesex, as signs of her girl mustache appear (spoiler alert: Calliope goes on to become a boy):

Euginedes hair belt

She is so right, the enemy, hair, is invincible. At 31 I accept that for Hair Belt descendants like myself, waxing is my only defense against this unstoppable life force. I am hopeful that in future Science and Technology will solve this issue for my offspring. If Google can make self driving cars they can surely make a little thing like hair disappear…right?

Motivational Monday from the Mother City

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It’s Monday in Cape Town. People are chilled. Or ‘super chilled’ as many of them like to say. My long time Cape Tonian friend says the ratio of hipsters per capita here are higher than anywhere else in the world. Which means there’s good coffee, so this holiday maker is happy.

What’s inspiring about Cape Town is 1. The natural beauty and 2. The fact that you don’t have to work toooo hard to live a good life here. People work to live, not the other way round. They really spend time in nature: running on the promenade, hiking on the mountain, open water swimming in the freezing Atlantic Ocean.

The Capetonian message to us is: Relax wherever you are and take advantage of your environment.

One of my favourite things to do in Cape Town is to take the train from Cape Town Station (nicely refurbed for the 2010 World Cup) all the way through the Southern Suburbs and along the little seaside towns of Muizenburg, St James, Kalk Bay, Fishoek, Glencairn and finally Simon’s Town, a short local taxi ride from the home of the African (formerly known as Jackass) Penguin at Boulder’s Beach.

Boulders

                                 Boulders

Many South Africans have sadly never ventured on to public transport but I would encourage any visitor to Cape Town, foreign or local to embrace this adventure. The train runs right next to the sea and is so much more scenic than a car journey and a round trip is only R30 (about $3)

Sea Train

                           Sea Train

The Penguins are a delight to watch as they preen their fellow mate for life and if you are brave enough to swim in the icy temperatures you can frolic with them between the beautiful pre-historic looking boulders.

Train turns

                    Basking Penguin