Time Keeps Flying…

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…but that’s okay because I’m not wasting it. My days are filled, sometimes to overflowing, but that’s okay too because it all belongs. And there is so much joy in my life, it fills my heart and my soul. And that, my friends, is the stuff happiness is made of.

My soul is firmly seated in my body once again, no longer trying to flee reality. Am I sounding like a mystic? Too bad, there’s nothing I can do about that. Be it shamanism, witchcraft, giftedness or new ageism – I am coming alive and feel like i’m more or less consistently in control for the first time in my life, regardless of external circumstances. Which is great, but also the tiniest bit scary because if I screw up, there is no one I can blame.

Apart from all this metaphysical wonderfulness, I have been knitting (a little), dyeing (a lot) and enjoying life with my children, family and friends. (Yes, and working, cleaning, ranging, running after children, doing the administration, dropping into bed exhausted and much more not so fun stuff – but that is part of life, too.)

Too much to share in a single post, of course, so I’ll conclude with a couple of pictures of roses, rose leaves, achillea, hydrangea, buddleia, maple and a sprinkling of iron on tussah silk wrapped around a copper pipe.

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Courage is love

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I have never felt I was a particularly courageous person. Even as a young child, I tended to be aware of all the risks involved in any undertaking. Climbing rocks? What if I slipped and fell and broke a leg? Or worse, my neck? Swimming in the sea? Those waves looked really big and scary, what if I drowned? I fear that my countless fears have kept me from many wonderful experiences. I have often felt (or been made to feel) like a coward.

I was also a hugely sensitive child. I cried easily (and still do, which I hate), feeling the pain and suffering of animals and people around me. Whether in a movie or in real life, I tended to get overwhelmed by their misery, drowned in their sorrow. Or so it seems when I look back at my childhood, and beyond. I have also come to believe that I unconsciously absorbed the emotions of others, which accounts for some of my inexplicable mood changes and the fear that I could not really rely on my own judgement.

I never learned to shield myself and boy, the sorrows of the world are way too big to carry for a young child. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Curiously, I was also totally fearless in the face of injustice. As a teenager, I faced down the doctor parents of a girlfriend who suffered from the advanced stages of anorexia and yelled at them that they should stop seeing only what they wanted to see because their daughter needed help. I told off bullies who harried my friends (quite naturally, I tended to befriend the bullied).

Aged 11, writing my first essay for school, I asserted that the civilisation of the American Indians (which fascinated me) may well have been more civilised in many ways than our so-called Western civilisation. My essay was assessed by the head of my school and I remember being totally pissed off that he had not recognised how completely and incontrovertibly true that statement was (and for not giving me a higher grade). Such unfairness! Can you tell I was also a tiny bit precocious?

I was a little slip of a girl with a big mouth. And way too big fears. An unhappy combination, I often think. Particularly if you do not get the spiritual guidance such children require.

Today I look at my children and wonder how I can help them love this big, bad world and its teeming mass of defenceless creatures while refusing to get so caught up in its suffering that it incapacitates them. The two eldest are just like me, particularly my daughter. The youngest, I think, is more self-contained.

I am 42 years old and only now learning how to keep the world’s suffering at bay, how not to be overwhelmed by it. It would have been easy to become a cynic, to withdraw into myself and give up on the world. I understand how this happens. I was sorely tempted. But it would have made me even more miserable to cut myself off from the world when it needs all the help it can get, as do I.

I know it sounds crazy, but it is true: I am learning to encounter the negativity with love. When I talk to someone who is suffering or needs help in whatever way, I offer what I can from my own experience, however humble that wisdom may be. And I give them all the warmth and love I have in me, and some that is offered through me.

While I am unsure that it eases their pain or helps them solve their problem, it is sometimes all that I have to offer. An added benefit is that it helps me be stronger and keeps me from being overwhelmed.

Perhaps this is my particular kind of courage. To get up and struggle on against the odds, to persist in seeing light even in the darkest hours of my life (there have been a few), to speak up for what I believe even if it makes me an annoying firebrand. And to love beyond reason.

Thank you, Oscar.

The hat has me worried

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Its maw is threatening to swallow my peace of mind. Even though it is actually getting along just fine, since I have reached the decrease section without further mishaps. To date, that is. I sought out some expert online advice on the knit4togethers and althought I would like them a bit tighter, they actually look fine and very… controlled. A miracle in itself, considering the intricate fiddling and fuzzling that is involved in knitting four stitches together (the online expert handed me a cheat: knit one, slip back onto the left needle, pass three stitches over, slip back onto the right needle. Still lots of fiddling but it beats the alternative: actually knitting four stitches at the same time!).

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As you can see, I have come a long way already. What has me worried, though, is that I am supposed to continue decreasing according to the pattern until I have 16 stitches left. Now how on earth am I going to knit in the round with just 16 stitches? It is getting pretty tight already and I’m shifting the stitches around all the time. Does anyone have any suggestions?

On a positive note, it’s much better worrying about my knitting than all the other things in my life that are clamouring for constant attention in the background of my mind. It seems that problems can never await their turn like good little soldiers; they always have to come knocking all at the same time.

There have been times where I got totally overwhelmed and felt like I had no control whatsoever. That made me passive, angry, and totally frustrated with myself for being such a wimp that I was unable to make a better life for myself. Sound familiar?

These days, I am slowly learning to let things come as they may. I am being forced to learn, the alternative being drowning.

And it appears that my unhappiness in past times was as much of my own making as it was caused by the actions or inactions of others. I have found that the way I responded to events was at the heart of much of my sadness, fears and unhappiness, as well as the numbness, the sense of detachment and ‘deadness’, that these emotions caused. My way of dealing with external events and internal emotions also had a huge impact on how long such periods would last. Never having learned to deal with my emotions in childhood and then going through a long period of traumatic experiences often left me feeling like a ship set adrift by the storms of fate. I was also much too dependent on the emotions and opinions of others, letting their ideas of who I was determine how I saw myself.

Perhaps you are aware that depression (and I suspect any kind of psychological upheaval) causes changes in the brain. I won’t go into the particulars but what it boils down to is that if you have ever had a depression, you are more likely to experience further periods of depression in your life. It is as if the tracks associated with depression in your brain are carved more deeply and therefore more likely to be used. This is just like what happens to forest paths more frequently travelled; they are worn more deeply into the soil.

On the other hand, it seems that you can learn how to be a happier person, as well. And this is the path I started following some time ago. It is darned hard work, I can tell you. Similar to digging the Panama canal perhaps. It is not so much physical as psychological and emotional hard labour. I am slowly figuring out how to deal with negative emotions like fear, sadness, anger, anxiety and the resulting depression in such a way that they do not result in total paralysis.

I suspect that what works is different for each individual person. For me, part of it is seeking out the company of people I like instead of hiding in a corner. My mother once said to me: ‘When you stop calling, I know you are not doing well’. This was some time after my first life partner died. I still need solitude from time to time, to recharge, to reflect, to regain my balance. But I also know that isolation is one of the worst things I can do to myself when I am feeling down. The hard work is in seeking out company and being ‘sociable’ when it is, in fact, the last thing I may want.

I also rediscovered what is now fashionably called ‘mindfulness’ – simply being, instead of always thinking. I have always had this ability to see the beauty in the smallest, simplest things but in the past years – and indeed in periods throughout the past 20 years – I forgot how much love and balance can be found in the enjoyment of simple beauty. For instance when I am outside riding my bicycle, I try to stay out of my head (thinking about work, the children, all the stuff that needs to be done and worried about in general or particular) and simply see, smell, hear, experience what is around me. I enjoy the time I spend with my children, pay attention to nature, read good books. When I spend time surfing the net, I seek out blogs with beautiful pictures and lovely words, the stuff of life written by people who struggle, who fall and get up and seek moments of happiness, just like me. And I try to laugh as much as I can. It is an absolute truth that love, hope, and beauty heal. And so does laughter. The hard work here is in not falling back inside your head but staying outside, in your senses as it were.

The hardest work, however, has been in how I perceive things. In how and how long I let outside events affect me. Personally, I think it is impossible not to be affected on an emotional level and this is what I always found difficult about Buddhist detachment as I understood it. How can you not let things touch you? I am finding, however, that it is not so much about not letting things affect you but about how you deal with the resulting emotions.

I had two methods to deal with my emotions, both miserable failures. Either I would dive into them totally, immerse myself until I suffocated in my misery and found it nearly impossible to return to normal. I always did, eventually, but this generally took me a lot of time and a nearly inhuman effort. My other method was to drown my emotions out, to repress, ignore and neglect them. After all, what you can’t see (or feel, in this context), doesn’t really exist, right?

Wrong, of course. I think many of you who read this may know from harsh experience that it doesn’t work. It usually makes things worse and above all, it makes you do a whole lot of other stuff that you will come to regret. And regret, I’m sorry to say, is definitely an emotion that we need to avoid like the plague. Because while useful to make you see the error of your ways, regret keeps you from moving on and seeing all the things that are worthwhile in your life.

All this has given me a new understanding of the lessons many religions try to teach us. Now I must first acknowledge that I do not belong to any faith in particular. I take what feels right from each and so cobble together, pebble by pebble, my own private faith. I respect those who need a more structured, dogmatic approach but that has never worked for me. I ask too many questions that usually cannot be answered and I simply cannot accept that I will suffer torments eternal just for using the brain that the Almighty (by whatever name he or she may go) has given me.

But I digress. I am learning that it is alright to feel anger and fear and sadness. In other words, it is right and even needful to experience your emotions in full. But you must also learn to take some distance from them, to realise that your entire being is not wrapped up in them for all eternity. When you are angry, even in that moment you can remember that you will not stay angry forever (or at least you shouldn’t since that would be very unhealthy). When you are sad or depressed, even in the depths of your misery, you can recognise that you will not be sad or depressed forever. And when you hate or dislike yourself or think you are a loser, you can remember that this will not be so forever. There will always be good things to experience again, like love, laughter, beauty, your own accomplishments and those of the people you love. Or in layman’s terms and however dumb it may sound: there will always be sunshine after the rain, even if it is just the smallest ray or the tiniest spot of light.

Like life itself, emotions are temporary. They do not encompass the entirety of who you are.

And while you should not repress or ignore them, it is in fact possible to distance yourself from them and say: Yes, I am angry (or sad or depressed or lonely) and I acknowledge that emotion, but I am going to let it go for now. If I need to, I will come back to it later but at this point it is an obstacle in my life that I need to remove before I can move on.

And this, my dear readers (however many or few you may be), is the hardest work of all. Because emotions (and the memories associated with them) are pesky things that crop up at the most inconvenient times. I tend to get caught up in them before I even realise it. I fail miserably all the time. But I refuse to give up. I will keep rolling that bloody huge rock up the mountain no matter how many times it squashes me like a bug.

So what do I do, exactly, at moments like this, you may ask? I think this will be different for everybody so it may take some experimenting (and failure, obviously) before you find what works for you.

What I do is to tell myself firmly: ‘You are now letting this go. It is not useful, it is wasting your time, and it is unproductive. So you are letting go of your [insert whatever particular emotion or combination thereof I am feeling] right now’. Then I take a couple of really deep breaths, exhaling forcefully so as to really, physically, expel the emotions. And I move on.

Or rather, most often I try to move on. Because as I am still learning, it does not always work immediately. And when the emotions are really intense, my body also needs time to get rid of the adrenalin and other stuff it released in response to the intense negative emotions.

The key here, again, is time. When I am really really angry, upset, nervous or afraid, my entire body shakes and trembles. It is in full fight-or-flight response. This strong physical response is partly due to violent events in my past, I suppose, which may make my physiology respond more quickly and more intensely than it would otherwise have. But everyone’s body responds to emotions in some way or another. And it needs time to get back to normal.

So while I mentally may have made the decision to let go of the emotions, my body has not, in fact, let go of them yet. And I think this is where Buddhism’s detachment comes in handy – you can be aware of the fact that your body is still in condition red while the rest of you has already made the decision to let go. There are all kinds of ways to get through that time: going for a quick run, jumping up and down, listening to a favourite (preferably upbeat) song, getting involved with something you love to do. Pretty soon you will find your body is back to normal, as well.

There is one other method that works for me here. Crazy as it may sound, I sometimes choose to just ‘wait it out’. Some of you may recognise this from addiction therapy as one of the things you can do when you experience a trigger that would normally have made you use (or engage in whatever addiction you had to deal with). Once you know your body’s response and you also know that it will go away in a little while, you can just wait for it to actually go away. And then get on with your life.

I think this is an extremely enlightened response, in fact, in that you really learn to separate your being from your mind and body. Theoretically, anyway. Because I’m still learning.

So there you have it. A glimpse into the life of Iris. I hope that those of you who know me will deal gently with what I reveal. And that those of you who don’t, recognise me as a fellow human being seeking her way through a complex world. There is one thing that Jesus said that has always struck me as the essence of compassion: ‘Let those of you who are without sin, cast the first stone.’ I have learned the hard way that none of us are without sin. Compassion and true forgiveness are among the most godly gifts you can give another. The greatest lesson I have learned in the past year is that you must also learn to give compassion and true forgiveness to yourself.

Street Wisdom

I have always been a touch rebellious, never liking to walk the paths that everyone knows. I am still not sure whether seeking out the untrodden paths is wisdom or foolishness. I guess it depends on where each path leads.

I see this graffiti frequently and every time, it makes me ask myself the question: Which would I choose, if forced to? I believe I would rather be free than safe.

Still, looking back, I wonder why I managed to be neither safe nor free?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m in my early forties, I think. Time to spread my wings and find both freedom and safety by discovering who I really am, and who I want to be.

A table

I have rediscovered a craving for good food – real food, not the kind that has never seen the sun nor felt the rain. Amsterdam has a lovely eco market at the foot of the Noorderkerk, nestled amid old canals and narrow streets with old-fashioned cobblestones. It attracts the usual eco nuts, people so obsessed with eco that it has leached the joy from them, but there are also many people who simply love food and believe the best food is not just cooked but also grown, harvested and made with love.

It is a perfect Saturday morning passtime… A bottle of sweet olive oil that, when you close your eyes and breathe in deeply, still smells of the hills and trees it came from, a few onions in soft, papery skins and a perfect bulb of fragrant garlic. A beautiful bright orange pumpkin that makes you think of the sun. A generous helping of coriander and Italian herbs, some freshly ground salt and pepper. A couple of earthy potatoes and, if you like, a few sweet carrots, still covered in little chunks of the soil that nourished them.

I like to softly sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil before adding the pumpkin, potatoes and carrots, cut into hefty chunks. After letting the edges of the pumpkin soften in the oil, I add a generous measure of water and let everything cook on a low fire until tender. Blend and you’re done!

One night, when my children were in bed and my boyfriend was away for the evening, I felt like really, truly savouring my food for the first time in a long, long time. So I unwrapped a beautiful ball of soft goat’s cheese rolled in herbs and a cup of olives from the same olive grove that produces my favourite olive oil, added a few chunks of yeasty, chewey French bread (remind me to tell you where to buy the best bread in Amsterdam), a bottle of eco cider, all the bountiful harvest from my morning’s market ramble, and sat down to savour, in my opinion, some of the best things mother nature has to offer.

I could not resist taking a picture to remember the moment. Since I could not find my camera, I used my iPhone – not the best of pictures usually. However, as has happened before, the imperfectness of the picture adds a lovely vintage feel to match the mood of the moment…