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Tuesday, 29 December 2015

64. The Power of Fear

A positively glass-half-full kind of girl who has mostly grabbed life by both horns, as I inch ever so closer to the big 5-0 (WAIT!  Can I still call myself a “girl”?!?), I am mindful I must have been exhausting to those around me in my younger years. But I make no excuses because I am what I am and there has always been so much to accomplish. And yet, I am far from fearless.  For while this organised chaos is a deliberate choice I made for myself many years ago, whenever I press the pause button from the whirlwind of life, I find myself slipping into the dreaded overthinking gear – the one that sends me into a cyclonic tailspin of irrational fears. And then, the horrible inner chatter begins – the kind that turns me from a ball of energy into a quiet mouse as I withdraw and hide within the walls where my mocking self-doubt bounce about and echo.  Next, the physical manifests: a knot takes up permanent residence in my stomach, sleepless nights, a loss of appetite and a need to go ‘underground’.  And that is where the fun begins.  You see, whilst helpful to have a football field full of people who believe in you, I have learnt that at the end of the day, you have to be your own strongest advocate.   It all begins with self.

Many a book has been written of how the sum of all battles is two-fold and has to be won twice – the first time, in your head.  They say in order to succeed in any endeavor, the first step is seeing it in one’s own mind, walking through the steps necessary for success and then believing – all before even taking that first physical action.  That AND the acknowledgement that any failure encountered along the way is part of the learning process and integral to the whole journey.  While it all makes sense, it does not necessarily spur me into action either.  After all why would anyone want to sign up for anything knowing that both “fear” and “failure” were lying in wait?  Is not the status quo better?  Everyone will have their own answer but for me, because of the alternative, the answer was and always will be “no”.  As such, I have had to learn to make the power of fear work positively for me.

Growing up, I was often told of how I could NOT.  NOT smart enough.  NOT pretty enough.  NOT capable enough.  And certainly NOT worthy enough to have any sort of voice or opinion – not one that would be listened to, less respected.  They told me that if I dared to even step outside of the confines of that existence, I would fail not just miserably but spectacularly.  And you know what?  I believed those messages and adopted that narrative as my own.  Thankfully, I guess at some point in my late teens, I must have unconsciously thought: “hmmmm.. what if I at least tried?”  And so I did, taking small steps to find my voice, however small.  And as time went by, I realized I had nothing to lose by taking that proverbial leap -- whatever the “leap” was at the time.  And there have been many.  Some bigger than others.  Leaving home with nothing but a swollen lip and a bag of clothes at 17.  Applying for the multiple jobs I had zero experience for (but drive aplenty!).    Walking away from situations/people that were not right for me. Taking control of problems created by other people – regardless of my lack of expertise.  And just saying “yes” even when I felt intimidated by the unfamiliar.

Each and every time, fear has been my companion.  The fear of being stagnant.  The fear of being taken advantage of.  The fear of not being authentic.  And the biggest fear of them all?  The fear of being too much of a chicken-shit to at least try.  After all, the faint-hearted do not command respect nor inspire.  Which leads me to my now.  Whilst I had unknowingly harnessed the power of fear in my younger years to achieve and ‘conquer’ new adventures and worlds for myself, it was not until I became a mother (thanks girls!) when I started to conscientiously harness my fear (whatever it happened to be at any point of time) to believe in myself, trust in my own abilities and unlock all sorts of opportunities and possibilities.  My girls make me want to be my best possible self -- if only to lead by example.

With over sixteen years now under my belt of embracing the positive power of fear, as I step into 2016, I aim to continue to step outside of my comfort zone to deal with the new challenges and opportunities that await.  Getting back to glass half full, in the book The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal writes: “stress happens when something you care about is at stake.  It’s not a sign to run away – it’s a sign to step forward”.  So I take a deep breath, give myself a pep talk, and take a gigantic step forward. 

**** end ****

Sunday, 1 November 2015

63: EVERYONE has stuff..

It has been a while since my last offering, where I have had a moment to sit down and be in a clear enough ‘space’.  Of late, life has been filled with far too many matters that needed urgent and focused attention – dramas of all sorts – leading to a struggle to find any semblance of the balance I preach to my three girls.   Have I finally leapt over the mythical hump and am now in a calmer space?  Actually no.  The only reason why I am even sitting down with a remotely untaxed mind is because I am waiting for some work on the car to be done and I am in the middle of no man’s land – ergo a perfect time to pull out my laptop – although after so many nights up worrying about things I know I have absolutely no control over, a pillow to rest my weary head would have been better!  But then, it has been an eternity since I last used my laptop and I feel a need to reacquaint myself.

It has now been just over a year since we arrived and it feels as if no time has passed.  For a few of my friends though, time has been painfully slow as they struggle with different challenges and wonder if the fog of grief from their individual losses will ever lift.  An acquaintance recently took out her grief on me as she raged about how life was so unfair with her new ‘situation’.  I tried to share about the countless friends who had gone through her current situation but were now, in hindsight, in a much better place.  I did stop short of the age-old “time heals everything” refrain as I had recently read somewhere that time did not ‘heal’ per se but rather “accommodates” the pain, loss and change that an event can bring.

And so I tried different approaches, from being a sympathetic ear to cheerleader, to pragmatic advisor.  I soon got tired of the tsunami-sized animosity that kept coming at me though.  She attacked my seemingly good health.  I responded I was dealing with issues she was not aware of.  She challenged my claim and I shared things even my husband and GP are unaware of.  She scoffed, finding injustice at my seemingly charmed life.  I told her she did not know my story and that everyone had stuff they were trying to deal with and get through, myself included, that what you saw was often not the whole ‘story’.  And then she attacked my mothering skills. That hurt.  She had found her mark.  I bit back any retort and chose not to go into any sort of verbal combat, pushing down my anger at what I perceived as her lack of grace, realising she was lashing out through her pain.  She followed me around the house throwing more barbs.  I retreated more and more into myself and slowly but surely pulled away; but at the same time feeling like a failure for not being able to help her.  Her parting shot was that she had come to me with her heart in pieces, with the inference I had failed her by not helping put her together again.  But I guess, in hindsight, I was the wrong person to help.             

In the days and weeks following, as my mind replayed the encounter like a bad playlist on repeat, I had many conversations with my girls about life, challenges and the challenge of climbing out of the emotional pit when you have had one of those days/weeks/months.  We talked about empathy and of how every single person is going through ‘stuff’ -- be it personal or through association.  We talked about how the content of certain days can feel like the worst day ever but how to symbolically, psychologically and emotionally recover -- and come out stronger on the 'other' side by feeding the soul.  My timing was ‘lucky’ because not long after that topic du semaine, Faith came home absolutely devastated about the day she had had, where everything felt like an uphill battle every which corner she turned. 

After her tears dried, we spoke about how what she was going through is real life and as such, there are always going to be good days and bad.  I explained that every single day cannot be perfect as that is just the way life is but that how one reacted to and tackled any sort of challenge often shaped the severity of that ‘blow’ and what kind of ‘state’ you ended up in after that ‘bout’ in the proverbial boxing ring.  That earned me a beautiful smile.  Although I was not able to be helpful to my acquaintance, I was grateful I could be somewhat ‘useful’ to my child.

Shortly before I sat down to write this, I came across the following piece: “Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them.”  We ALL have stuff.  We ALL have good and not so good days – regardless of how well we might be able to mask it to the rest of the world.  BUT, what we need to get through another tough day is already inside each and every one of us – we just need to take a moment to reach for that courage and take that leap of faith that WE are ENOUGH.

****** end *****

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

62. Self-worth. Self-love

Self-worth.  Self-love.  Interchangeable in the plethora of self-help books on bookshelves and ‘self-improvement’ airwaves everywhere you look.  Some people, for example Matt and my best friend Miriam,  have it in bucket loads – one of the many reasons I tell them that when I ‘grow up’, I want to be just like them.  And then they remind me that I am the older one!  

I don’t normally give too much thought about how my self-love barometer is doing.  But maybe I should.  As a mother to three daughters, should I not be mindful of leading by example?  But how authentic can I be as I am painfully aware that my ‘reflection’ varies from day-to-day and more often than not, infected from my warped childhood.  And yet, from the confessions I hear around me, perhaps it is human nature to be better at giving up wonderfully sage advice on self-love than it is to practice for ourselves.

Enough about me.  I feel the need to talk about the next generation.  Right now, I have one navigating the challenges of being the only new girl in a small close-knit community on the playground, another in the throes of negotiating the hallways of middle school (complete with the tightrope dance of invisible lines and boundaries!) and the last who is on the brink of womanhood and all that entails for the heart.  Throw into the mix: having to find their ‘place’ in yet another new country AND the rollercoaster ride of PUBERTY with all its accompanying bells and whistles!  Fun.

But how do I shine a reflection on these three most precious beings?  Of how amazing their father and I think they are?  That their kindness, compassion and ability to make anyone feel welcome makes us so proud.  Of how our chest swell when we witness their collective positive attitude when faced with so many new environments and the requisite accompanying challenges – all part and parcel that comes from the privilege of being owners of well-travelled passports. 

To one child, how to impart that if someone “doesn’t want to be friends”, it is not a reflection on them -- nor does it mean they are any less amazing; but rather because it is impossible to be friends with every single person you meet.  But that it also does not mean they should withdraw into a shell to protect themselves from being hurt -- after all, life is about taking chances.  And then how to guide them so they make smart choices and stay away from the toxicity and drama that seem to follow teenage girls?  I sometimes lie awake wondering how to teach them to navigate the terrain when someone is friendly one minute but frosty the next – and whether to confess that it happens in adulthood too!  To share that I have learned that sometimes the animosity you face is not really about you but instead stems from something else going on somewhere else -- that people will act out and that it is TOTALLY okay to walk away from things/people/situations that make you sick to the stomach from anxiety.  And then finally, the importance of being true to themselves and valuing their own worth instead of yearning after someone who is too wrapped-up in themselves to appreciate and cherish them. After all, if  a certain ‘Mr Darcy’ needs to be enlightened on how amazing they are, then surely the 'un-suitor' is not worthy of someone as funny, smart, kind and beautiful as they are! 

And then I realise this is all just part and parcel of ‘growing up’.  For them and for me.  I have to trust in the process.  To remember that if they have even half the self-possession that their father has, it will already be more than what most people can dream of – and luckily for them, that it is already in their DNA.  Add to the fact that their childhood has been filled with so many wonderful memories and love from us, as well as from our friends who form another layer of family, should fill them with the confidence and self-love they will need as they go off on their own adventures in this journey called “life”.  And should all else fails, I hope an imprint of all our conversations will cling to their memories and then magically reappear should ever they forget how wonderful they are.  

*** end ***

Sunday, 22 February 2015

61. Learning new skills

I was wide awake with the fairies early this morning.  For some insane reason, at the vampire-worthy time of 1am, I started trying to recall how many times I had moved houses and countries.  For the sake of not driving you (or myself!) mad, my tally will commence from when Matt and I started dating: four times in Australia, five in Hong Kong, twice in London and twice in Singapore. That’s 13 to add to the home we have now settled in the US – bringing the total to a mind boggling 14 houses we have called home since we met in 1996. 14 times in 19 years!  Holy Toledo!  Which brings me to my subject du jour: moving so much can be character defining, forcing you to either swim or sink – gracefully or not, is another matter!

More a glam-per than a camper, though I keep a tidy-ish house, a domestic goddess I am not -- not even by the furthest stretch of anyone’s imagination!  While I do find myself constantly shutting doors left open about the house and picking up socks and other paraphernalia strewn around (laying-in-wait for me to trip over!), cooking is my only ‘domestic’ skill - something I picked up in earnest after the girls were born.  No Nigella nor Delia, my hands are often covered in some sort of burn or cut.  Oh well, there goes my career as a professional hand model but at least there is always something yummy on the stove.  Which brings me to ANOTHER activity which ensured my non-existent hand model career never took off: IRONING!!

Full disclosure: I am quite possibly the worst ironer in the world.  In fact, if there were an Olympic Games for NOT being an accomplished ironer, I could very well take the gold!  So, somehow, right up until recently, I managed to dodge the whole ironing ‘thing’! When I was younger, everything was either sent to the washers or the dry cleaners. Then, once the girls came along, I lived in a la-la-cloud whereby the countries we lived in offered very affordable housekeeping – COMPLETE with fabulous ironing.  So, in the summer of 2014, shortly after landing on the fabulous shores of Connecticut, I found myself sobbing over the cold hard reality of an ironing board one Saturday night

That night, panicked by my meltdown, Matt began madly researching cleaning companies on the Internet.  “You don’t understand!”  I gulped between tears, “nobody irons here! They only clean!” What Matt did not realise was that was the same week I had learnt that a. nobody ironed,  b. if they had an ironing lady, they weren’t sharing, c. the local dry cleaners charged in excess of $30 to do sheets - PER piece!  And my list of discoveries went on! More than once, I found myself being assigned the role of ‘chump’ when I confessed my conundrum.  I was even led on a merry chase in search for some mysterious laundry spray which ‘relaxed’ clothes enough to make them look ironed -I think someone was having a laugh at my expense (aka “taking the mickey”).

Anyway, getting back to Matt. Ever so practical, my husband was irritated that I wanted to solve this by myself.  “I don’t understand it!  At 40-something, you want to start ironing?  Why would anyone want to start doing this at your age?  Besides, you are REALLY bad at it!”  I didn’t have a comeback line because he was right.  I was really bad.  But that was probably my a-ha moment when I became determined to get at least a little good at this whole laundry thing – I hate being “really bad” at anything.

Fast forward 6 months and I have found my rhythm and thankfully no longer burst into tears at the mountain of ironing beckoning my not-so-bad expertise.  I find myself earnestly wondering what mysterious portal that second sock could possibly have disappeared to, how one child could possibly manage FOUR changes of pyjamas in one day, and other (as one friend put it) first world country ‘problems’.  And yet, I am thankful.  For a new skill aka making me more independent – to add to my other newly learnt skills since moving here:          1. driving on the other side of the road

                                                                                2. lighting a fire

                                                                                3. shovelling snow

                                                                               4. thinking in imperial vs metric                                                                                                               
And so the learning continues.

*** end ***

Saturday, 24 January 2015

60. Walking away

Many years ago, I was brought up by an angry man.  Easy to offend, I still recall the ringing in my ears and the sting from getting a backhand that sent me clear across the room for ‘insulting’ him. How?  I had made a Father’s Day card and drew a series which started with a baby and ended with old man.  The caption: “Through the years, I will always love you.  Happy Father’s Day!”  The reason for the violence?  I had insulted him with the “old” bit.  Sigh.   A memory that is as unbelievable as it is unforgettable. Luckily for me, many years later, I met and married an incredibly good man who taught me what real love looked and felt like – and that I deserved it. 
Which brings me to another angry man in my life.  Because of our shared history, I often made excuses every time his angry rants arrived in my inbox or showed up on my mobile.  His heavy workload.  His difficult upbringing.  The chip on his shoulder that he had no control over.  Under that guise, I allowed him to treat me unkindly for many years.  Accepting all the blames he piled on me – regardless of how petty or crazy the charges.  It was always my ‘transgressions’ that caused him to get so angry with me.  My fault. Except the load recently became too heavy.  Tired of the mood swings -- vacillating from being incredibly charming and funny one minute to becoming mightily insulted and a raging mass of ill humor the next, I finally said I was “done”.  A slammed door was predictably followed by childish emails and messages.  And yet, if I was to be honest, my initial reaction was relief from the realization that I don’t have to do this silly ‘dance’ anymore.
As I often do when unsure how to proceed, I walked away after writing the above paragraphs.  And I slept on it.  I dreamt vividly.  In my dream, my mother was there.  And I was angry with her.  I woke with a start and a question.  Maybe, without realizing, I too am an angry (wo-) man.  Psychoanalyzing my dream, I obviously still have residual feelings of disappointment from our mother abandoning us and leaving us with the angry man who was our father.
Can it be that I too am like the angry man I grew up with?  Do I also have rage just simmering under the surface, ready to explode at the first sign of a perceived slight but not realize it?  I had previously read somewhere that quite often, you are drawn to or repelled by someone because they possess traits that you also possess.  Am I being a hypocrite? 
And so I have been mulling over this these last few days.  Wanting to be fair.  Yearning to be honest with myself.  Trying to be a good role model for my children.  And this is the conclusion I have reached:  I am a flawed human being who like so many others have had to deal with a childhood filled with less than stellar memories.   I use those memories to drive me to be a better kinder person every day – to make a difference whenever I can. To learn, correct and improve as I go along.  I also realize that having tried for the best part of these last 20 or so years to help this angry man without getting swallowed whole by the toxicity of it all, I have reached the point where I no longer want to be anybody’s punching bag, no matter the shared history or blood connections.  After all, what good is “blood” if it makes you sick to the stomach with anxiety?  As such, with an affirmation to surround myself with kindness, I draw a line in the sand to acknowledge my limits and to move on without prejudice or hate.  One cannot be drawn into a storm if one chooses not to participate and instead just walk away.

*** end ***