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.

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 🙂

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?

Turning 30

I started planning for my 30th birthday when I was 28. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a shitty day. As I wasn’t sure I’d ever have a wedding I sent a save the date to all my favourite people asking them to spend my 30th birthday with me in my favourite place in the world – home. I wanted to avoid my usual January birthday doldrums, trying to squeeze a celebration out of people who are pooped and broke from Christmas and New Year and clearly would rather stay home. I managed to lock a number of my besties into this birthday tour, including three Aussies (consistently voted most likely to travel) and one Frenchie (consistently voted most likely to travel with foie gras de canard and champagne) and we had a three week South African birthday extravaganza replete with…

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                                                                         Friends…

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                                                                   Family…

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                                          and Pool Parties

While I milked turning thirty for two weeks of celebrations when it finally came, the two years leading up to the Big Three-O were quite rough in patches and it felt subconsciously linked to the looming loss of my twenties and everything I thought I should’ve seen and done in them. Time was slipping away and at age 28, I felt quite panicked about it. It was easy to look around and see lots of things I didn’t have or hadn’t done that others had: no boyfriend, no property, no dazzling career, no extended travel adventures and most worryingly, no real plan.

It’s hard to share these kinds of internal fears and perceived failings with others, mostly because they refuse to agree and prefer to point out what they see as your talents and accomplishments – but you’ve lived in 3 countries, but you have a good job, but you can ride a bike. While it’s kind of them to point these things out, none of them feel exceptional.  I wonder if the pre 30-year-olds with dazzling boyfriends, properties and careers also feel some sort of apprehension towards their turn of the decade. Maybe. They will probably just be able to tick off more than I could when reading the never-ending ‘X things you should know/do/try/save for before turning 30’ articles. If I had my way, they would all be banned. The stress it induces to read about all the things you should’ve done but haven’t, doesn’t help the ageing gracefully process. I honestly wouldn’tve been shocked to read in one such listicle that as a woman you should have a baby before 30 or freeze your eggs. The unsolicited advice that threw me most was a Planet Money podcast that suggested by the age of 30 you should have saved the equivalent of your annual salary. For the first time in my life I wished I earned a lot less!

The panicked year that was 28 gradually subsided and by 29 I started to mentally accept where I was in life. I began looking forward to a calmer, wiser, wealthier decade once I’d turned 30, hoping it would bring more focus and answers where my silly, searching twenties had brought predominantly questions.

Making an occasion of turning 30 and the 18-month build up to my birthday trip certainly helped ease the pain. On the day of my birthday I asked everyone for some of their favorite words of wisdom. The most meaningful words were shared by my dad:

 

Strive for whatever peak you desire. But remember ’tis no sin to rest awhile, nor to change your mind. Eternally until thine own self be true.

I love the honesty of this advice. It’s saying we should work towards a goal but not persecute ourselves when our attention diverts for a minute or sacrifice our integrity at the expense of achieving it. This is advice I carry with me every day now.

Sometimes when people ask me how old I am I still want to say 29, but really I’m so pleased to have left my twenties behind me. I’m still not where I want to be in many aspects of my life, but I’m so much less stressed about it. There’s a kinship between us thirty something’s, the recognition that these next ten years are probably going to be the best years of our lives. The age bomb we were expecting to explode didn’t. Food still tastes good, sunshine still feels warm and we’re free to enjoy it all now that we’ve stopped obsessing over ourselves.

Motivational Monday: Do Something Scary

Someone told me recently that you should do something you fear every day. The thought of that scared me. Or rather, recognizing how many days go by without me doing anything scary, scared me. I realized that while sometimes I take big leaps (like learning to ski) I seldom create daily opportunities to stretch myself.

I’m struggling to think of how I can stretch myself today actually. I have a normal work day and am seeing friends in the evening. Friends shouldn’t be scary, so that leaves work. I will tackle a difficult conversation I need to have. I will not leave it until Friday.

The logic behind this fear factor, I guess, is that you learn something and /or effect a positive change through doing something challenging. If you succeed in the task there’s a beneficial outcome and if you fail then you learn something about why you failed and how to cope.

Other things I have on my scary list:

  • Adult ballet classes (where dancer chicks eye you out while twisting their legs behind their necks)
  • Formal public speaking (judgement judgement judgement)
  • Swimming (every time I think about doing laps in a pool)
  • Skiing (still)
  • Networking (telling your story, selling your brand)

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I won’t be able to work on all of these fears every day but by writing them down I can sort between the ones that I want to work on and those that are so too torturous I should just let them go (maybe skiing).

Similarly, by looking out for a daily challenge I’m more likely to find things at work or home that I can volunteer for or tackle as they arise.

What can you do today that will give your adrenaline a buzz?

Motivational Monday: House Bound

I was feeling particularly unmotivated this Monday but as the day wore on I started to look forward to the order that Monday night brings after the general business of a w end. I’m not set on a strict Monday night routine of chores – I think it helps to schedule something exciting to look forward to every few Mondays – but sometimes its also good to just stay home and get your affairs in order. My 3 standard Monday night activities include: gym, laundry and cooking. And let’s face it, sometimes its hard to fit even as few as three chores into a night. Tonight I managed to complete only phase 2 of the butternut squash soup making process (scooping out the flesh from the skin roasted the day before in phase 1). Liquidizing remains for another day. Nonetheless, I made incremental progress towards living a tidy, well nourished life. I love cooking but it often gets sacrificed for activities that lure me out of the home. If I can do things like grocery shop and/or cook on a Monday, my entire week is set up on a healthy note. The same goes for the gym – if I manage to exercise on a Monday I’m much more likely to keep up the trend for the remainder of the week. If I don’t go on the other hand, I’m even less likely to want to go on Tuesday.

As for laundry, it’s by far the most boring task of any day of the week so you may as well just get it over with. Or, if you are as un-into laundry and house work in general as I am, here’s and idea on how to make it a bit more palatable…whether you have to hire in a houseboy or can find a willing candidate at home…

Happy homely Monday!

 

Motivational Monday: Do something you love

It’s Monday again. Back to work. Not everyone loves their work, but I’ve discovered a useful secret that will help you get through the week. If you do things you love outside of work, Monday to Friday becomes a lot more bearable. An alternate focus can give you perspective and something to be excited about on a daily basis, even if you’re only dedicating an hour a day or less to it.

I love lots of things outside of work but a list that has long made up some of my favourite ways to spend my non working hours includes: friends, food, traveling, reading, writing, flowers, gardening, tennis, dance.

This year, I’ve been good about deciding which of these to prioritize and it has brought me a huge amount of joy. Take flowers and gardening. A month ago I did the flowers for a friend’s wedding. I loved the creative process of working with the bride to understand what kind of experience she wanted her wedding to be and how the flowers could help create it. Then I had to conceptualize what flowers would be needed, plan where I would get them from and how to keep them alive, and finally how to put them together in a way that wouldn’t ruin THE MOST IMPORTANT day in my friend’s life to date.

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                                        Keeping alive and assembling the flowers

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                      Finished product – a very heavy basket for a very tiny flower girl.

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        Relaxed and beautiful flowers, just like the bride.

This kind of activity is what Kevan Lee describes as a ‘side project’ as opposed to a ‘hobby’, in the Fast Company article How Creative Hobbies Make Us Better At Basically Everything. It has a defined product and outcome, whereas hobbies are more of an ongoing interest – repeatable enjoyable activities with no time pressure.

Dedicating time to a side project can be really rewarding. With the wedding flowers, the bride and groom were extremely grateful, but I really felt like the experience had done more for my happiness than for theirs.

Being able to differentiate between projects and hobbies has been really useful for me. While I loved doing the flowers, I couldn’t do something like that every week as it would be a second full time job. Before this revelation, I had a tendency to want to treat all the interests I had outside of work as side projects, instead of casual hobbies. This is way too overwhelming and you’ll end up feeling like you’ve accomplished nothing. Now, I’m happy doing larger projects, like wedding flowers, from time to time and tending to my tomatoes (my less intensive gardening hobby) on a regular basis.

What do you love outside of work? Can you make it into a side project with a mini goal? Or is it better off as a hobby? Either way, identify your list of creative loves and plan to dedicate time to them. It will be your sideline of joy during the work week, I promise!

Motivational Monday: It could be worse

Every so often on a Monday, I get the blues. I guess they are called Monday blues for a reason. Today I’m ok actually, even though work is kicking my ass. Last Monday I was blue, even though my life was great. You can’t predict it. So, for those of you who find yourself in a little slump this Monday, or may do in Mondays to come, I’m committed to sharing some coping strategies with you.

A good friend recently pointed out an obvious and miserable fact: we are born and die ALONE.  This is a great example of a depressing Monday thought but one that would be encouraged by Stoic philosophers, who believe that worst case scenarios can be extremely helpful and that we should invest time actively preparing for the inevitable miseries of life.

The two videos shared here should 1. help you better understand the stoics and 2. help you apply their wisdom.

Enjoy! Remember, tomorrow you could be dead…

The School of Life giving us a fresh perspective on how to man up!

Wise words from Tim Ferris on how to practically convert pessimism into motivation:

 

 

How to be sad

I am happy right now but sometimes I get sad. This is something you don’t often hear people talk about, which seems silly, because everyone gets sad sometimes, right?

I like hearing people acknowledge that sadness or that special brand of sadness, melancholy, is a normal part of life and should be expected.


Melancholy is a species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult and that suffering and disappointment are core parts of universal experience. It’s not a disorder that needs to be cured.


This quote is from In Praise of Melancholy, an article in The Philosopher’s Mail. Read the full article for a satisfyingly depressing reality check.

I tend to think of melancholy as a glamorous downer, the kind you choose to wallow in for a while. It’s a transient sadness that should be indulged for short periods of time but not be allowed to overtake you.

How much melancholy is too much?

Melancholy, like any emotion you nurture will want to stay and basque in the warmth you provide, so you need to be clear with yourself about how long it will be a welcome guest in your house. Five days is my personal limit. Longer than that and Melancholy loses its sexy edge and starts to resemble depression. To make sure it doesn’t overstay, I note its arrival date and then make the most of it. This usually involves playing lots of songs from my favourite band, the National, who are appropriately happy sad.  As the departure date looms I try to force myself to do something that will jolt my endorphins back into gear, like a dance class or some other high energy sport. I say force, because I would most likely have stopped exercising during my melancholy period and will not be bouncing out the door for a top up. Some days I’ll want to let my friend stay a bit longer and wont make it out the door at all, which is why the other thing you should always do when Melancholy arrives is tell someone that you have a visitor. When you are asked how you are feeling you should say ‘Melancholy right now, but ask me again in five days.’

How do you best be sad?