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

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.

Smug ‘Together’

Are you two, um, friends? Together? Married? Asks the yoga instructor at 6:15am. She’s seen us arrive together. I can barely open my eyes but I’m thrilled by this question. Yip, we’re together, that hottie’s with me! We love each other soooo much we do couples yoga together. The next 90 minutes dripping in 100 degree heat should be hell but I get to look in the mirror and think, ‘oh yes ladies, step aside that body’s with me!’.

I’ve had the feeling for the past few months that I’m too happy. Too happy in love. Like if I’m not careful I’ll appear smug. Or more concerning, I am actually already smug but too smug to even realize it.

Why am I so happy and in danger of smugness? Well, because I’m with the most incredible man on the planet, obvi! I’m dumbfounded that he has managed to remain single for uncharacteristically long and has now attached himself to me. I’m sure everyone in love feels like they’ve met the best person in the world or the best person for them. But I actually believe that the American is vastly superior to any other man, in an absolute sense.

Supporting facts:

He’s handsome – people sometimes think he is Bradley Cooper

He’s sensitive – he gets an anguished look on his face in movies when there’s a scene depicting emotional hardship

He’s generous – he puts energy into creating surprise experiences for me and the ones I love. He also knows when to pay for things.

He’s competent – he can fix boat engines

He’s funny – he makes me laugh unexpectedly in a raucous unflattering way

So, yes, I get that my list isn’t unique – we are all looking for a handsome sensitive man with a sense of humour. But I think what makes me feel so lucky and borderline smug is that I can see that he really thinks he’s won the lottery. Not just thinks, he acts like it. He really behaves like he respects me and wants the best for me, instead of his first thought being ‘is this going to inconvenience my life?’ or ‘how can I prove that I’m superior to her?’. I think the best illustration of love is in the ways we don’t behave. He is NOT trying to compete with me, NOT overreacting about little things, NOT acting jealous, NOT holding me back, NOT judging. And it’s this behaviour that really stands out as exceptionally rare to me.

So why do I feel intermittently panicked?

Stop being so self-congratulatory, a little voice whispers inside, or you’re going to have that smile wiped off your face.

It feels too good to be true. But there are only two ways to respond to that – freak out and self sabotage or stay calm and be thankful. I’ve decided to let myself get swept away by it all. If it hurts later it will be worth it.

Three things I learnt in my 3 single years

In my post about what I learnt from a 4 year break up I mentioned that I also learnt ‘lots of other things, about myself, the kind of person I want to be and the kind of person I want to be with.’ This is true and here’s a breakdown of that journey.

Single Year 1: Learning about myself

In my first year of being single, amidst the initial trauma of a break up, the first thing I learnt is that I knew my own mind enough to have made the right decision. While I was stuck with some feelings of guilt, the focus shifted to what I really wanted in life. Where did I want to live? What kind of career did I want? I realized I could be anyone I wanted to be and anywhere in the world. I only had myself to consult. This was liberating but also overwhelming. Should I quit my job and work on yachts in the South of France? Or should I get a job in a cinema on a ski slope and learn to ski? I seriously investigated any kind of life that was nothing like my current.

I concluded that I didn’t want to live in London anymore. I was stagnating there and I wanted an adventure. And that’s how I got plotting to move to New York. I had a goal with a unique focus and it made me feel like my own person again.

What I also noticed about that year, on reflection, was that I sought male attention. I wasn’t used to being alone and made a string of bad dating decisions. I dated more than one person at a time, I hooked up with a friend, I had my first one night stand. All a disaster. I slowly realized that I was affected by the behavior of these men I supposedly didn’t care about. The common advice for singles is ‘make the most of it’ but I would be more selective if I had to do it over again.

Single Year 2: Learning about the kind of person I wanted to be

Freshly arrived in New York for my adventurous new life, I adopted the ‘yes man’ approach. I said yes to everything. I didn’t necessarily stay friends with all those people I met in the early days but sometimes I met other people through them. I also did a lot of solo travel to locations I’d always wanted to go to, like Mexico and girls trips to party places like Ibiza. I even went on a mom daughter cruise around the Caribbean and discovered that my mom was a very cool person and travel buddy.

Girl Time in Ibiza

                                                               Girl Time in Ibiza

Party Boat with Mom

                                                             Party Boat with Mom

While on this busy exploratory streak, I also learnt that I had some work to do on myself. There were things I was fearful of, things I was angry about and things I didn’t know what to feel about. I decided to self examine more. The easiest way to do this (if you live in the US and have health insurance) is to go to a therapist. I don’t say the best way, just the easiest. If you can’t afford a therapist, I would suggest setting a timer at home and talking to yourself as if there is a therapist listening on a chair opposite you. One hour of uninterrupted time with yourself will tell you everything you need to know.

With a little bit of probing I learnt that I could let go of certain emotions and stop fearing certain others. I felt much calmer about life in general, less like I was racing against a clock or competing against a sea of un-named faces. I spent more than a year away from my family that year, fighting against the balance of what was expected of me and what I wanted to give. By the end of that year, there was still lots to learn but I felt like I knew what I was striving for. I’d made enough mistakes to see what needed more work but I stopped self-flagellating.

Single Year 3: Learning about the kind of person I wanted to be with

In my third year, I decided to reset. I was looking for discipline and rigour. I was tired of saying yes to everything, tired of eating out and staying out late. I moved into an apartment by myself, stopped drinking for a month and signed up for a cycling training program with New York Cycling Club, doing long distance rides in a group every Saturday for 10 weeks. I felt fit and strong and focused. I stopped dating (for a bit) and I don’t recall but I apparently told a friend at the time that I wanted to be in a real relationship. So I know that I knew what I wanted.

I spent the Summer with friends going to the beach, sailing, cooking at home. I didn’t realize that in amongst this group of friends was the person I would end up being with. We would talk about everything, including what we were looking for in a person. I recall citing a list of ’10 things I was looking for in a man’ to him on a car journey home.  Things like ‘quietly confident, ambitious, must think he’s won the lottery, good face’. I remember it fleetingly crossing my mind that the American fit the description of most things on my list other than thinking he’d won the lottery (he showed no interest at the time). I think it was this exercise of actively naming what I wanted and recognizing that there was someone in front of me who represented the majority of the criteria that prompted me to explore the option when it became available.

7-10 of The 10 things I look for in a man: Feed me, take me to the beach, take me on a boat (please):

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Don’t get me wrong, three single years is a long time to learn all these lessons and if I were to find myself single again, I hope I wouldn’t have to re-learn all of them. I was also 3 years away from 30, trying to make a life in a new country, hating my job and at one point adjusting to the idea of having a very sick father. But we all have things going on all the time and break-ups and being single probably won’t come at a good time. Whatever your circumstances, I guarantee it will be a great time to learn about yourself.

Four things I learnt from my 4 year break up

It will be four years ago this month that I ended a relationship of four years.

Here are the four most important things I learnt:

  1. Rip off the Band-Aid – if you’re thinking of breaking up with someone it’s the right thing to do, so do it, and quickly.

I don’t like to think that I regret being in the relationship I was in, but I do know that I thought about breaking up with him after two years and very seriously after three years. So why did it take four? Because I loved him and I wanted it to miraculously work out. I wanted to not want to break up with him. But in the end I was so anxious and annoyed every day that I had to do something. I psyched myself up (literally) by speaking to a clairvoyant tarot card reader. She told me I was standing alongside a gushing river, unsure whether to jump in or stand on the bank and watch it flow by me. So I jumped in. Well, first I dipped my toe in and moved out for a couple of weeks….then I escaped with my family on holiday to think about it some more…then I came back and told him what my decision was and we debriefed our four year relationship over a bottle of whiskey. I wish I hadn’t protracted things for so long. I wish I’d ripped off the band-aid sooner and suffered the pain. The sooner you make the decision, the quicker you’ll know whether it was the right one or not. If it was the wrong decision you’ll end up together again. If it was right, you can both start your quest to alternate happiness.

  1. Find a friend with a sofa bed – while you might be starting your quest to future happiness, you will probably be doing it from a mate’s living room floor.

When I left my ex, I was homeless and displaced. I moved from friend to friend for about 10 weeks, before finding a new home of my own. Splitting a relationship in two brings practical challenges, like cutting financial ties and deciding ownership of shared things. If you’re the one who moved out, this can is a good excuse to revisit the place you lived together. Nobody understands what you are going through quite like the person whose heart you’ve just broke, so it feels good to seek solace in each other. Don’t! Gather your belongings and get out of there. Every trip I made back to our shared home left me an emotional wreck and my friends soon forbade it. I needed this stern advice and living with them after living with a man was also fun. We stayed up talking girl talk and planning our futures, we dressed up, we went out, I practiced flirting. It’s hard to be sad when you’re around people you love so I surrounded myself with them all the time by squatting with a new friend every week for 6 weeks. They fed me and dried my tears. I also cried less than I would’ve liked because, let’s face it, nobody wants to deal with a blubbering mess and  didn’t want to burden them with my emotional needs.  Surrounding myself with normal life was the quickest way back to my own normal.

  1. Fall in love with yourself again – when your relationship ends you will be left with only yourself so you better get to know who that is and what they like.

Once I had found a new home of my own and was starting to reconstruct my existence, I found it hard to know what I wanted to do with my time. Suddenly, I was the only decision maker and I didn’t know what I wanted – what I wanted to eat, whether I wanted to go to the beach for the day or to a movie, whether I wanted to quit my job and travel round the world, whether I wanted to be alone or start date. I was unsure of everything and it was disconcerting because the independent self-assured vision I had of myself didn’t seem to hold true anymore. So I fought against indecision. Every time I found myself deliberating over what to do with my Saturday, I forced myself to just do something and start to gauge how much I enjoyed it. I started dating myself. My favourite date with myself was, and still is, to the cinema. I found the Prince Charles in London and would go there on a Monday, because I could. Then I’d take myself to dim sum at Beijing Dumpling across the road. I also took myself to Highgate Cemetery because I like cemeteries and to the British Library because I like libraries. When I’d conquered such simple outings, I started taking myself cycling in the countryside and then off on holiday to Montenegro. I had the best time. The great thing about being alone is you are never really alone – you always meet new friends along the way but you can arrive and depart whenever you please.

Communing with the dead at Highgate Cemetary

Communing with the dead at Highgate Cemetery

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Private beach at Villa Milocer, Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

DSC04273

Islet of Sveti Stefan, where Sofia Loren used to holiday.

  1. Allow enough time for a full recovery – the reconstruction process can be slower than you think and you need to protect your heart until its properly healed.

My path to reconstruction was probably more self-destructive than I realized. I thought I was doing all the right things – putting myself ‘back out there’, getting ‘back on the wagon’ and all the other post breakup clichés that are supposed to make you feel better about yourself and excited about the world. But I was in a fragile emotional state and should’ve been more selective about who I let in. The trouble with casual dating is that I’m just not that good at it. If you like someone enough to show them who you are then you will probably be sad when they go away, even if it is ‘casual’ and you are told you shouldn’t expect more. I was hurt by men I didn’t care about for a long time before I realized I needed to auto-protect. I remember leaving a Bikram yoga class one day, and getting soaked in the rain on the way home. Bikram always leaves me feeling exhausted and sometimes emotional if other things are going on and suddenly the raindrops had turned to floods of tears. I felt like nobody loved me and nobody cared about me and never would. The casual relationships I’d attempted had taken my confidence away instead of adding to it. The guys I’d dated didn’t mean any harm but I just didn’t have enough me-reserves at that time to risk losing them to anyone. So I started to guard them more closely. Instead of giving away little pieces of me – personal information, time, energy – I started to hold on to them, until I felt someone had really earned it. I think the full healing process took me two years. This isn’t to say that I was a broken human being for that entire period, but in retrospect I exhibited behaviour that showed I was still in recovery.

I also learnt lots of other things, about myself, the kind of person I want to be and the kind of person I want to be with, but I’m saving that for another list.

What did you learn when you went through a big break up?

Love 101

I sat next to a colleague today who moved to NY it feels like just a minute ago. He’s been here a year and a half, max. And in the city where people only date, he met someone and proposed a year later. I just learnt about the proposal today and what I said to him was ‘OOOOOH, I love love!’. I do, I love everything about it. How people meet, why they’re attracted to each other, why they sometimes run away together and sometimes throw knives at each other. The giddy irrationality, the heartbreak and what we learn from it. As my mom says: Love is the elixir of life. More choice quotes from my mom in my last post.

My friend Leigh and I were inseparable at varsity (that’s uni in the UK and college in the States). We we studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics but couldn’t understand why there were no Politics of Love, Philosophy of Love or Economics of Love courses available. These would’ve been so much more applicable to our lives. To make up for the lack of quality courses available we frequented Love 101 lectures, held by and attended by, ourselves. As neither of us had boyfriends or went on dates the course material was totally fantastical. I also don’t think that at the time people were as academically interested in the subject as they are now. Many years on (Leigh and I have thankfully acquired more personal material) and there are lots of legitimately clever people talking about love.

I’ve selected some of my favourite reads and resources to share with you as the foundation of my Love 101 curriculum

The brain in love:

When to watch it: when you know you’re acting crazy and need some reassurance that you’re just behaving the way you were programmed to.

The secret to desire in a long term relationship:

When to watch it: Uh, if you’re in a long term relationship  – obvi. And also if you’re not, for the pure sexiness of this woman’s voice. It’s a great conversation starter for couples but also just fascinating.

How to Think more About Sex, Alain de Botton: 

Alain

When to read it: Today. Whether you’re in a relationship or not. This book demystifies all the crap you’ve heard about sex from the world and teaches you to think intelligently about it, for yourself.

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje:

eng patient

When to read it/watch it: Literally on a journey or when you feel like taking one. If you’re a reader, read it first. If you’re a film lover, see the movie.  Both are slow and beautiful.

OK, lovers of love, I’m excited for you to go forth and feast on this Love 101 course work, whatever stage your heart is in.

Let me know what you learnt and what you loved please.

Respect for my elders

My dad turned 70 yesterday. My mom turned 70 three years ago. Here are some other numbers:

  • My mom had me when she was 43. My dad was 40.
  • My mom had been married once before but her husband died 6 months after their wedding.
  • My dad had 2 daughters before he married my mom.
  • My dad has 4 daughters in total. I grew up with only 1 of them.

If I look at the numbers I see that my parents had entire lives before us. Before each other. They loved and suffered and experienced things. Then they were just my parents. Until about 5 years ago when I started growing up and and seeing them as real people. I started to imagine what it must have felt like to lose the person you love and have to start again. Or to have a child out there who doesn’t know that you’re her father or one that doesn’t want to know you at all.

My Dad as a Dashing Young Man

                                My Dad as a Dashing Young Man. Happy 70th!

I think this is a common phenomenon for us children. To gradually have the veil lifted and see that our parents are more similar to us than dissimilar and that we are more similar to them than we realized. Ten years ago, I saw a lot that I thought was wrong with my parents. Five years ago I was actively aware of the traits I’d inherited from them that I did not want to display. Today, I’m focused on how I can be more like them and emulate the characteristics that I love and respect in them.

Like my mothers curiosity and resourcefulness. She once flew my sister and I all the way from South Africa to Wimbledon where we slept on the rock hard pavement with only a borrowed blanket from a B&B so that we could get tickets for Center Court and see my idol, Steffi Graf. People told her she couldn’t afford it but when we got home she rented out our house and we spent the summer holidays in a Caravan Park down the road. She even let me paint our gypsy caravan my favourite colour, turquoise, and wasn’t embarrassed when we set up camp next to the sleek motor homes with satellite dishes for their TVs. Now that’s the kind of person and mom I want to be.

Or my father’s creativity and gentle nature. While my mom is more conservative, my father would sketch nude hippes in the Knysna Forest back in the day. I think the stillness and focus of drawing must’ve appealed to his nature. I’ve never seen him raise his voice unless unduly provoked. When he said no, it meant no. ‘Finish ‘n klaar!’ he liked to say or ‘Finishinkla!!! if exasperated. He was a quiet but not a passive leader, making his voice heard when it was important. I think it must be thanks to him that I’m attracted to the quiet confident types (or type) now.

It has taken me years to learn that I want to be more, not less, like my parents. They learned lots of lessons for me before I was even born and right now, they are still here to teach them to me, for which I am very grateful.

A selection of my mother’s favourite mantras, etched in my brain for life:


You’re Face is Your Fortune


Where there’s a Will There’s a way


Never Give Up


There’s no such thing as bored


Sunburnt Little Girls Make Wrinkled Old Ladies


 

 

Sail Away With Me Honey

In the last post I spoke about falling in love. Well, the story goes, we fell in love and then we sailed off into the sunset, quite literally.

The American is passionate about water and floating on it. He went to sailing camp as a child and now owns a sailboat of his own and dreams about traversing the world in it one day, emulating couples like Alex and Taru, the ex sound engineer and yoga-model-hottie, whose blog he follows. This video gives you a taste of their adventures (warning, the first 30 seconds are total gratuitous boat yoga porn):

Naturally, with roles models like these, the American’s first choice for our first ever couples holiday, was to do a bareboat charter. Note: bareboating is a disceptively sexy word. While it does mean you will be alooooone, it also means you will have no crew whatsoever and have to do all the hard work.

Despite having grown up at the beach, my own boating experience is tainted with apprehension. The first time I went proper sailing for a work regatta I almost chickened out twice, first when I heard I would be sharing a boat with four middle aged men from our Technology division and then during the safety briefing, when one of said middle aged men concluded by telling us how many people die every year by ‘silly’ things like being hit by the boom. When I expressed concern, he told me I’d be ‘just fine honey’ and assigned me to winching duty for the next 48hrs, during which I abstained from a single toilet visit but was briefly released to cook the boys rice and beans over an open flame at high sea. I winched and boiled like a trooper but cried when I got home.

Subsequently, friends have tried to convince me that the the right kind of sailing is more cocktails and sunsets, less rope burn and I’ve had enough pleasant outings on the American’s boat to realize that I got off to a wrong start. And as the American hadn’t had a proper holiday in four years, I thought it was only fair that he get to go on the holiday of his dreams. So we booked seven nights onboard a 37 foot Moorings Monohull boat in the pristine BVI (British Virgin Islands) and the countdown began.

GB_Virgin_IslandsBefore we left, we talked playfully about what it would be like working together on the boat. I suggested that shouting at me under hurricane or other unforeseen nautical conditions would be unacceptable. He seemed in total agreement and assured me I wouldn’t have to do a thing. I could provision (Boat for shop and cook), keep an eye out for pirates and do boat yoga like the hottie in the blog. It sounded idyllic. I would read, tan/freckle and impress him with my galley (Boat for kitchen) and not getting seasick skills. While I had mentally psyched myself up for the trip I was a little surprised by peoples reaction to our choice of first couples holiday together. The thought of seven nights ALONE together, AT SEA, seemed to freak people out. Wasn’t it a lot of PRESSURE? What would we SAY to each other for all that time? What if I needed to POOP? What if we needed SPACE? All good questions and I had no idea what the answers were but I figured as long as I wasn’t yelled at or left to starve I’d be fine. And I wasn’t (yelled at or starved) and I was (fine).

Some time has passed now since that trip and I fondly refer to it as TOAL (Trip of a Lifetime). It was in many ways the trip to end all romantic trips:

Sunrises and treasure hunt surprises,

IMG_0539followed by on-board breakfasts to fuel sunny days at sea in the Caribbean trade winds,

IMG_0691swimming with techni-colour fish in turquoise blue water (sad side bar: the coral is going brown and disappearing),

bluefishPina Coladas on secluded sun loungers,

IMG_0606and bareboat exploration…

DCIM100GOPROWhile it was amazing, it could have been stressful. People are people, whether we’re in paradise or going about the daily grind. We get moody and tired. Sometimes on vacation, when all the noise dies down, we can be even more reflective and plagued by more existential thoughts than usual. I sometimes find that the more sublime the location and experience, the more my petulant mind will wonder, to the past and to the future, suddenly wanting to confront things like meaning and failure and hope.

Our boat, Escape Yourself, was aptly named:DCIM100GOPRODespite the serene refuge of Escape Yourself and the extreme proximity to the American, I felt needier than usual. I wanted him to stop fiddling with the boat instruments, hold me tight and gaze into my eyes for seven days straight. I also missed missing him like I do in the city when I don’t see him for a day and hoped we’d still miss each other when we returned and not be saturated from our sail time together.

Luckily, I know how my mind works on holidays and decided to shut it down for the duration of the trip. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, meditation helps with this.

GOPR0299As I also mention in that post, I haven’t yet mastered the art of meditation. I’m still on 5 minutes, which is apparently not enough to totally silence the mind on a TOAL vacation in paradise with the LOML.

And having thought long and hard about why this is, I leave you with a great sea faring quote:


All the thoughts of a turtle are turtle
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Special thanks to Maureen Muller for providing us with provisioning recipes fit for sea gods

And to Simon and Cate of Surfsong BVI for being such wonderful ambassadors for the island and almost hosting us on on our return from sea.