New year, new mantra

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I started out 2017 by setting an intention for the year, embodied in a mantra. Instead of resolutions, which are often brought on by guilt and rarely kept, defining a mantra is a way of keeping a ‘fil rouge’ or gentle guidance throughout the year. When the clarity of the new year starts to fade in months long past January, it’s useful to have a small chant, or inner wisdom to defer to.

Last year, whilst basking in the sunshine on the Andaman coast, I set ‘strong core’ as my words for 2017. It came from a yoga session (as these things tend to do), when Adriene was talking about how having a strong core enables you to do what you want to be able to do: climb mountains, carry your neighbour’s shopping bags, stand tall. But ‘strong core’ was nothing to do with flat abs (although they would also be nice). Strong core was about working, concentrating and succeeding at a few core things: love, work and studies. I knew that 2017 would be a crazy busy year for me: it was my final year of my MA degree, my career was taking off, work trips were on the table. At home, Carlos was due to finish his PhD and we were planning for this to be our final year in Switzerland. I needed to be prepared for a lot of hard work and a lot of change. And I knew I could only succeed if I leave other things, those not core to the mission, to the side. That doesn’t mean that these were the only things I could do, it was more a question of where I could focus my energy.

Yet I find mantras often only reveal why they were chosen until after they have been used. Looking back on 2017 is like looking back at a storm, or even a wild, powerful, all consuming hurricane. There were small respites in the storm, but the next mushrooming and heavy cloud was always on the horizon. ‘Strong core’ was about being the solid tree trunk, and not being uprooted. Many beautiful and successful things were a result of the storm, and my strong core was just as much supported by myself as by loved ones. But there was no doubt that it was an intense year with moments of fierce stress. My friend Trish often signs off texts with ‘Hang in there!’. Strong core was very much about hanging in there, and maintaining a sense that at some point the storm would be die down, and that work could later start on sorting, regenerating and growing.

The beginning of this year has involved a lot of sorting out the mess from after the storm. As we prepare to leave the country, we are downsizing accumulated possessions (shedding debris in a sense), dealing with paperwork, ending contracts, closing chapters. My new year is not a perfectly instagrammable picture of fresh white snow, or a blank new page. Instead, I’m living through a transition phase, not quite autumn, not quite winter, not quite spring, nor summer. White snow covered in pine needles, leaves, and storm debris.

Yesterday, a week into 2018, my mantra for the year came to me (doing yoga, again, as these things often happen): ‘honour your inner teacher’. I don’t know exactly why this is the right mantra for 2018, but it seems to fit. The year ahead is uncertain, it is about change, adventure and growth. It seems natural that I need to make space to hear and listen to whatever is to be learnt from the experiences ahead.

Do you have a mantra for 2018?

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Freedom

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A melodramatic title, I’ll admit. But three weeks ago, I handed in my MA thesis, took a week off work for a much needed break, and went on the perfect holiday at a yoga retreat in Portugal. After so many months of intense work, it really did feel like freedom. Just looking back at these pictures transports me to such a happy place and gives me an unforgettable sense of peace.

I flew very very early from Geneva to Faro the day before the retreat started. By 9am I was sat in a sunny roadside café drinking coffee, eating natas and reading a novel. I had a wander around the town, and sat on top of the cathedral reading and enjoying the light sea breeze. I then went to a great little restaurant for lunch, and another for dinner, and ate garlic prawns, sea bass, monk fish and some local wine at a table-for-one. Travelling solo can be so so nice.

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On Saturday, I took the train to Lagos, where a large taxi picked up six of the retreat guests. We drove through windy country lanes, and then off-road down a dusty rocky path through a national park and towards the sea. The retreat was held in a house in the middle of park, a five minute walk to the beach. It was perfectly secluded, with only the noise of the waves, the birds, and the crickets as company. The power came from solar panels, filtered water from a well, wifi was limited to one small corner of the house, and there was absolutely no light pollution so the stars were incredible. The scenery was wild and absolutely magic.

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The leader of the retreat and yoga teacher, Shaini, made us all feel welcome and at ease with her humour and friendliness. Each day involved two hours of yoga in the morning, and two in the late afternoon. Some of us took surf lessons, others took cooking lessons and had massages. I did all three (albeit, taking it easy on the surfing, but that’s a story for another day) and also went on a couple of early morning walks and runs. Shivani, the cook, made the most incredible vegetarian food. It was so delicious that our group gained the reputation of being a ‘wolf-pack’. We all joked that this was possibly the only retreat where you could spend four or more hours a day doing exercise and eating healthy vegetarian food, and actually gain weight.

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The whole experience was perfect: from the yoga, to the setting, to the peace, to the food and sunshine. Best of all, we bonded as a group and spent evening after evening laughing until we cried and our abs hurt.

What a way to celebrate two intense years.

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Identity Chronicles 1.0

If you ask me where I’m from, I’ll always hesitate. I never know where to lead with. If I know a little about you first, I’ll know in which order to start. Grave northern accent? I’ll say my family is from Yorkshire. Slightly reserved demeanour, speaking French? I’ll tell you I grew up in Nyon, Switzerland. From (anywhere in) Latin America? ‘I was born in Chile’ I’ll start with a smile, ‘and my husband is Puerto Rican’. Aussie twang? ‘I spent a while in WA’, I’ll say, nonchalantly. (‘yea, I thought you sounded slightly Australian!’, you’ll say, inevitably). Scottish? ‘I grew up there too’, I’ll say, really quite wistfully.

You see, I want to bond with you. Bond over memories, words that I’ve picked up along the way, places that have shaped who I am.

But, you ask me where I’m from, or where I feel I’m MOST from (many of you put the intonation on that ‘most’), with emphasis on that deep down allegiance… and I have no answers. The countries that build up my identity are constantly jostling for first place, but they never settle. And I’m never able to pick.

Answers that come naturally to some are mysteries to me. What does patriotism feel like as a sensation? Why do I feel hurt when distant family members say I sound American? Which team do I support, why does it matter? If I have children, how will they identify? Am I a migrant, or an expat? I feel like neither. Dual-national, third generation, third culture kid? Will these titles matter in the future? Maybe so many of us will be kaleidoscopes of experiences that we won’t lead our conversations by ‘where are you from’ and we won’t expect only one or two answers. Maybe breaking down these boundaries in our heads may break some boundaries in our hearts. Maybe.

Carlos fondly calls me an identity mongrel, living on the fringes of nationalities. And it’s true that most of the time, I feel like I’m living on the fringes of a variety of different clubs. Clubs I can access the basic membership for, but never the premium version, the version in which you truly belong. In every place, I’m a little too ‘other’.

I’m fine being on the fringes of these clubs; I am not complaining. It does not escape me that I have access to other clubs which oh-so-many do not. I’m just exploring the borderless space on the outside, hoping that there are others out here. Hoping that we can make it a tolerant place to be. Maybe some of you have some questions. Maybe some of you have some answers. Maybe we can be friends?

Bittersweet

Thoughts on finishing one book and moving on to the next…

It’s not me, it’s you; it’s time to call it a day.
At the edge of one relationship and not quite ready for the next,
Caught on the cusp of sadness and anticipation.

Wistfully remembering the little details which unfolded on the pages,
Yet glancing guiltily over to the other side of the bed,
The next adventure winking, waiting to whisk me away.

Tenatatively, I’m letting go of the familiar script.
The intoxication, the polluting tendrils of a fiction which blurred reality,
Mirrored, distorted and reimagined chapters of my own life story.

I’m losing a friend, breaking things off with a lover,
Time has run its course and we push forward.
There are so many other possibilities waiting to tempt me.

Will the next one live up to the last?

Restart, Reboot, Reset

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Here is a picture of me, embracing 2017, in the warm Andaman sea. A very welcome, special holiday, to celebrate a marriage (a late honeymoon), and a huge year.

The second half of 2016 felt like the fast lane. Working full time and studying part-time, my brain felt pushed, electrified, frazzled. I got to the end of the year, guilty about how many times I had dropped the ball with friends, about how many invitations I had turned out. Guilty about how I couldn’t manage to maintain a conversation about anything too far beyond the boundaries of the humanitarian sector. And guilty about procrastinating in my little time off, for lack of creativity or energy. No time for blogging, no mental space for creation.

The final days of 2016 were slow, sweet and quiet. I rolled out my dusty yoga mat and started to reconnect with the untended corners of my self and work through the kinks of stress. I’ve done the occasional yoga class for years, but never often enough to notice any change, or to reap more than small moments of calm. Every time I did it though, I heard a voice in my head ‘you should do this more often, you should do this more often‘.

So, I thought, as the New Year grew closer, what if I did do this more often? What if I did it every day? For 31 days? For 100 days? For a year? What would happen if I could turn down the constant whirring of my mind, shut off the demands of the day, and carve out some quiet, every, single, day?

I didn’t want to make a resolution, as resolutions inevitably fail. But I signed up to Yoga with Adriene’s January challenge, with 31 days of yoga videos. Each video, complete with a theme, emotional or inspirational, arrived in my inbox every morning. As I packed to leave on my holiday, I fitted my mat into my suitcase, along with some extra t-shirts and leggings. And suddenly I was off, and I was practicing yoga every day.

I practiced in my hotel room at 11pm after 24 hours of flying, when all I wanted to do was shower and sleep. I practiced on a balcony overlooking the Andaman sea. I practiced in the torrential tropical rain, under a giant wooden roof, in a class taught by a fierce Thai teacher. I practiced in the corner of a treetop hut, between the bed and the door, in one of the oldest rainforests in the world. I practiced on the 24th floor in my hotel room, over-looking the sun setting on Bangkok. And then I came home, and I kept going. Before work, between essay writing, last thing before bed.

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Railay Beach
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Outdoor yoga studio on Koh Yao Yai
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Khao Sok National Park
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Bangkok

Some days, all I could manage was 15 minutes of a slow, relaxed practice. Other days, 40/50 minutes of something stronger. Most days, somewhere in between. Some curious things started to happen. Instead of hearing the voice in my head ‘you should do this more often, you should do this more often‘, the voice became quieter, with less to say. I began to see change, a little more strength, better posture. I felt the millennial plague of needing to reach for my phone lessen. It became easier to listen. Easier to remember who I am, who I want to be.

Now it’s February the 14th, which means I’m 45 days in. This weekend, I went to the mountains with friends, and a few of us practiced together. My friend Tamara even took pictures of me: pictures that reveal postures to improve, feet turned slightly wrong, shoulders to relax.

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Stormtrooper-yogi

I intend to keep going, both with Adriene, and with some classes. Hopefully, this will help me glide through 2017, with a little more rhythm, a little more peace, and a lot more deep breaths.

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Little Trinkets

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Four objects sit to my left on the desk beside me whilst I write this, collected from their various places of safe keeping and display in my bedroom and precious to me more for their sentimental than monetary value; the best of things so often are.

img_0190The first, a small cigarette tin which I’m told my mum used to keep her chalks in at school. I like things in a particular place, sometimes in an intentional, seemingly haphazard arrangement reminiscent of an antique emporium filled with second-hand fripperies.

At one stage in my life I lived in higgledy piggledy house and the bedroom which I occupied was a later addition to the original space, squeezed in between the ground and first floor with the staircase wrapping round it. It was a cheap and cheerful living in a cupboard under the stairs just like Harry Potter. In my little room I could touch the ceiling with my hands above my head and just below ceiling height was a little shelf on which I kept all my favourite little items and books including my little red and gold cigarette tin.

Fond memories of this mildly impoverished stage in my life are still shared with my old housemate and friends that witnessed firsthand the eccentric details of the whole place. I see that little room, and relive moments of that time in my life often, the memories woven into stories of mad working hours, late nights and early mornings up to all sorts of capers.

img_0191The hip flask and silver match case were leaving presents from work colleagues and my darling friend A. a couple of years ago before I flew off to the other side of the world. Drinking paraphernalia made quite fitting gifts for our little work family unit, saying something quite telling about the way we passed our time on a day-to-day basis, and I carried these two keepsakes with me to Australia and back again.

Recent binge watching of the TV series ‘Peaky Blinders’ made me polish up my hipflask a few days ago after sighting a similar one being passed around by the 1920s mob of troublemakers and gorgeously stylish bad boys of Birmingham. Next time I’m out with A. I must remember to take it with me, top it up with something potent and share a wee nip together.

img_0192Finally, on the first day of postal service for the new year I received a belated Christmas present from K. all the way from Morocco. She knows how much I love to send and receive letters and must have read my mind from afar when working in Marrakesh because she sent me a beautiful silver letter opener. I love it. It’s just the sort of thing I would choose for myself and put it straight to use the following day to swish open a letter from Suzy.

A Little Thought

9be1d65047e3ecad604a30784be44507I received your letter today and you’re right friend, our blog has been ‘napping’ and our brains have been doing the exact opposite. A number of times over the past months since I last posted I have felt that I should be writing something, yet I couldn’t find the words to form a suitably coherent line of thought on the page that didn’t concern itself with my studies or the weighty contemplations that come with seeing in another year.

But it’s okay to have taken the time away from writing; if you can’t get the words out, that’s okay, leave it to one side and come back to it another time.  Saying that, a few ideas have come to mind recently since I took a break from student teacher demands and shut the books away for a couple weeks and I hope to make something of them before my focus is drawn in and it all begins again next week.

So in preface to those posts, here’s what I’ve been listening to today :

London Grammar: Rooting for You

Hall & Oates: I Can’t Go For That

Earth, Wind & Fire: Shining Star