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.

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Love after Love

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I’ve been thinking a little bit lately about the idea of loving yourself. It seems obvious – of course I love myself. But like any big love, a relationship with oneself is bound to have its ups and downs. To be unconditionally appreciative of yourself is hard, especially when we live in a highly competitive and comparative society. It’s often easier to dwell on the things we think we should improve in order to deserve our admiration, than just be happy with ourselves as we are.

This reflection made me think back to two very beautiful things I encountered on a visit to The National Gallery in London a few years ago with my brother-in-law. The first was this painting:

The Toilet of Venus, Diego Velázquez

My eyes gaze straight to the soft, silky exquisiteness of Venus’ back. Her flesh is so smooth and peachy, her form so supple and relaxed. It seems natural for her to be frolicking in a bed of drapery, checking out how fine she is in a mirror held by her little Cherub slave. Being the goddess of Love, Venus clearly doesn’t have self-esteem issues. If there is a lesson in this painting it is clearly that we should all take more time to admire our own Toilet.

A more accurate interpretation of this work of art can be found on the National Gallery’s website

The second beautiful encounter that day in the National Gallery, was hearing this painting described in a podcast by the Nobel Laureate for Literature, Derek Walcott. I don’t recall a word he said, but the he officially has the most mesmerising voice on the planet. It sounds like the rhythmic lapping of waves on the shores of Saint Lucia, from whence he hails. It was this initial encounter with his sexy voice that led me to read more of his work, and find this, my favourite, and a very moving expression of our relationship with ourselves:

Link to Derek Walcott reading Love after Love, From SEA GRAPES, 1976

Derek Walcott, Love after Love, From SEA GRAPES, 1976I love this poem because it so brilliantly conveys the complexity of our interaction with ourselves over time. The neglect and abandonment and the eventual reunion that comes with wisdom. It is a necessary reminder that the longstanding relationship we have with ourselves is the most important one in our lives.

A timely reminder to us all to go forth and feast on and with ourselves!

Five Minutes of Mindlessness

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I can’t remember the first time I officially came across the concept of meditation. I think I originally thought of it as my favourite part of Bikram yoga. The part at the end where you lie down on the mat and do nothing:

savasana sketchThere are lots of official schools of meditation but for me the simplest way to describe it is the act of emptying your mind to create space for thoughts that are bubbling beneath the surface. Another description I like is one by the great meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, who says meditation is ‘training our attention so that we can be more aware’. This kind of mediation is often referred to as ‘mindfulness’ (making you more mindful and aware of yourself and others).

I actually prefer to think of it mindlessness. I like the idea of actively trying to think about nothing. It sounds hard but I think it could bring a lot of calm to a modern way of life that has us rushing from the moment we jump out of bed in the morning clasping our iPhones, to the moment we collapse back into bed at night

When I started asking yoga teachers for advice on how to meditate, the response was varied. Some people advised practicing on a noisy train and others suggested taking a class. I knew I would need a group to keep me disciplined so I asked the teacher at my local yoga studio if she would volunteer her time to teach yoga and meditation in our Community Garden. It turns out there was more demand for yoga so we started offering that on a Friday, but that’s how I was able to trick myself into doing five minutes of meditation on my own in the garden every morning before work. I must confess that I didn’t stick to it for very long but long enough to get a first hand sense of how it should feel and what some of the benefits are.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. I set a timer for 5 minutes on my iPhone. I recommend calming frog chirping sounds to ease you back into the world at the end.
  2. I crossed my legs in a Buddha pose and tried not to think about the passers-by staring at me through the fence. The experts say you don’t have to be in a Lotus pose but your posture should strike a balance between alert and relaxed.
  3. I closed my eyes and focused on breathing in and out of my nose. Other techniques to help you focus include counting or concentrating on an object.
  4. As banal thoughts like doing the laundry crossed my mind, I recognized them and then dismissed them. As deeper thoughts and emotions crossed my mind, I again recognized and then dismissed them. The experts say we shouldn’t be frustrated with ourselves when we get distracted by silly thoughts or emotions. We should take note of the experience and then return to focus on our breath.
  5. I sometimes ended my session by telling myself things like ‘You are Beautiful’ and ‘You are Powerful’. While I’m not sure this is officially recommended by the experts I don’t think it can hurt.

What I experienced:

  1. Observing my thoughts go by from a distance gave me a sense of perspective
  2. I’d sometimes have a good idea pop into my head like a lightening bolt, probably because I’d freed up some space for it
  3. If something had been bothering me, I’d suddenly become aware of what it was
  4. If unforeseen drama erupted later that day I was less likely to be swayed by it
  5. I emerged feeling much more focused and in tune with what was on my mind

Other people might have different epiphanies from meditation but all practitioners agree that it brings a keener sense of focus and calm. On days that I hadn’t meditated and disaster struck I found myself wondering if my reaction to the situation would’ve been different if I had spent five minutes in the garden that morning preparing myself for the world. I’m convinced I would’ve responded with less frustration and been less personally affected. I think that while we can’t dictate what the world throws at us, we can control our reaction to it. That way we can preserve our energy for the things that are important to us.

Now that I’ve convinced myself (and hopefully you) of the benefits of regular meditation sessions, all that remains is the actual doing part. I’m not sure why I slipped out of my morning ritual but probably because, like most rewarding things, it requires a bit of effort and discipline. But as Spring is here and it’s time to de-clutter, I commit to starting my day in half lotus pose again:

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I highly encourage you to give it a try. None of us can say we can’t spare five minutes a day…

Further reading:

An Antidote for Mindlessness – the New Yorker

Meditation transforms roughest San Francisco schools – SFGate

In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career – Wired

Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program – Susan Salzberg