Category Archives: self-help

THE LONG GOODBYE

Shortly after graduating from college, having decided to move to England with a vague and optimistic master plan on how to succeed in the music industry, I did the rounds to say goodbye to a number of professors I had particularly liked during the years. While visiting my French professor who, on hindsight, I liked more for his dashing looks than for any Proust he might have taught me, he asked me what I thought was a strange question: “Why would you leave a place where you can be a Queen Bee and move somewhere where you will be a nobody?”. I was slightly stumped at the time – other than a need to follow my instincts, I wasn’t quite sure why I was going. Call it wanting for some new experiences, broadening my horizons, or just being young and foolish, I knew I had to leave my hometown and move on.

As I live in a personal belief system that won’t allow me to look back, question decisions and play the what ifs game, in my world that original decision worked very well for me. I don’t know what kind of Queen Bee I would have become if I had stayed but I have certainly transformed into a butterfly, perfectly happy with my imperfect kingdom.

That question posed so long ago recently resurfaced when I decided to leave my latest job. I had been with a generous and interesting company for over 8 years; I was respected and beloved by my staff; I had a dream commute (not something to discard when living in LA) and I could have comfortably stayed on for many years to come. None of those thoughts did indeed cross my mind when I was mulling a change; rather, I was reminded of them this when the time came to say goodbye to my coworkers and clients,  a process that seemed to stretch beyond the last day and was filled with tears and vaguely nostalgia. I knew it was time t face new challenges, reinvent a third act that, on paper and rationally, has very few reasons to succeed. But how do I define success? Is it the paycheck at the end of the month? The number of people who will like me on Facebook?

On my last day, I told my mostly young staff not to forget their dreams. Ever. To water them a little bit everyday and to go after them, as outlandish and improbable as they are, because no one else will do it for them. In the end, it’s no so much the dream itself that matters but our willingness to embark on the journey to get there. That the “there” might not be the one we had originally envisioned matters little – we will have changed in the process and that is what I am seeking with my “foolish” choice.

It was probably foolish to leave a career path that a couple of university professors were more than happy to guide me on and to go fold children’s sweatshirts in a clothing store in London, pinching pennies to afford some meat  now and then, all the while sending handwritten and made-up resumes to every single record company, recording studio and management company in town, trying to get a foot in the door. It turned out I got both feet in, happy to relinquish the Queen Bee position to someone else who, I am sure, enjoyed it a lot more.

 

 

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THE VOICES INSIDE HIS HEAD

Pippo means Goofy in Italian

The door clicked shut behind the wheels of my carry-on. “YOU ARE LEAVING ME BEHIND!” the shriek pierced my brain loud and clear and my heart started pounding, as I fumbled with those credit card look alike’s that pass for door keys in most hotels, always making me pine for the heavy brass keys of old to be dropped with the concierge on the way out. Of course I was checking-out past my due time and my credit card-key had been deactivated. A mad rush to the front desk had the door promptly reopened and there he was, lying among the crumpled white sheets, all ready to go, had it not been for my forgetfulness.

I stuffed Pippo into my carry-on and, on the way to the airport, I vowed never to bring him on another trip with me. That had been too close a call.

Linus had a blanket and I had Pippo, with the slight difference that Linus probably  outgrew his blanket at age 10 while I, at age 30, was still shuttling around the world with a teddy bear. And not just any teddy bear. Not a teddy bear from a long ago boyfriend or anything with a remotely romantic attachment to it. I actually stopped liking teddy bears at age 6, always recycling well-meaning boyfriends’ gifts of a stuffed toy nature as Pippo had no competition.

Old black and white photos celebrating my birth and my first few years prove that Pippo was indeed my first toy – his face bigger than mine sitting next to me on the high chair, his fur as shiny as my black hair, his eyes as alert and as big as mine. It wasn’t always a cozy relationship – abandoned for fancier toys for long stretches of time, Pippo would wait patiently in a corner of my room, awaiting my need for him to become my sleeping companion again. He always knew such need would arise and he would be there to fulfill it.

His relationship with my sister was contentious at best. To get back at my meanness, the little devil pulled Pippo’s eyes out during a particularly fierce fight and his world went black for many years. No matter. He still had me to tell him bedtime stories and recount my adventures once the lights went out. He made it to London with the few possessions I took when I left home and, at this point inured to his ragged appearance, Pippo had to depend, if not on the kindness of strangers, at least on that of friends and family.

It was a friend who,  moved to pity, restored his sight with a bright new pair of fancy eyes from Harrods and it was my mother, during one of her visits, who sewed his dangling neck and hid the wound with a red scarf. His fur was still a bit worse for wear but he was very pleased with his new lease on life. Besides, his globetrotting days had started in earnest: wherever I slept, he slept (or nearby at least) and, as my job demanded a busy, if not constant, travelling schedule, Pippo got to know very many hotels around Europe and beyond, until that fateful day in Cologne, Germany, where my lack of sleep and tardiness left him screaming between the sheets.

Pippo was retired from flying, unless it involved a full-on relocation. He flew business class to Los Angeles with me when I moved, my only friend and calming presence in a city where I virtually didn’t know a soul. Gradually, he started spending more and more time at the foot of the bed, rather than in it,although, when alone, sometimes I still resort to the warmth of his presence on the pillow next to mine. In his 50 years, he has not uttered a single word of complaint. He knows his lot has been much better than most of his contemporaries. He still listens patiently, he spends his days on a comfy pillow on a beautiful chair and still gets to talk to me. We have both grown up and aged gracefully. His Harrods eyesight is still going strong and the red scarf gets washed periodically. I even thought of sending him for a make-over to a toy repair laboratory but he reminds me he is not a toy, and shouldn’t be treated as such. And he is right: fancy toys have long come and gone while he endures, gentle breeze from the window tousling his fur, memories of fun trips taken together to liven up his days. And, still, my bedtime stories.

 

 

 

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A LONG EXHALE

 

A new dawn

“You inspired us to think that it’s important to remember our dreams” one of “my” girls told me, right after I announced to the staff that I would be leaving my job in a matter of weeks. Her reaction told me everything I need to know about my decision, a decision that was long in coming and with which I struggled, mainly because I really love the people I work with.

I never set out to inspire anybody – I go through life just like everyone else, bumbling along, acquiring more skills as time goes on and, unfailingly, trusting my instincts. I didn’t even tell the staff what my new venture is (more to come on these pages in the following weeks) but I clearly exuded happiness and excitement.

It would have been easy to stay: not only do I love the people who work for and with me, and our clients, I love the company and its mission. But the proverbial thrill had gone. It would have been the comfortable choice to stay and show up at work in the fabulously beautiful setting we never took for granted and carry on with my duties for years to come. Just because I can, though, it doesn’t mean it’s what I want, deep down. In a tight job market, abandoning a position that pays well and comes with great benefits in an industry where paid vacations and sick days are unheard of, could be misconstrued as the foolish choice. Time will tell. Fortunately, I am not prone to looking back and wondering what if.

I will miss “my kids” and, for a little while, they will miss me. As I led them through good times and difficult ones and we all learnt to coexist and understand each other, I have no doubt that, collectively, they taught me more than I did them. I will miss their eager faces, their sleepy eyes coming in to work, their energy and their laughter and I hope they remember what their dreams are and they never let go of their expectations. If I can only inspire one of them to do the “foolish” thing, the harder thing, so they will never find themselves with regrets on their hands, that would have been enough.

 

 

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MONKEY MIND

Drawing from howstuffworks.com

In Buddhism, monkey mind is a term used to describe restlessness, that jumble of thoughts that clouds one’s mind and is often hard to untangle. Most meditation practices, all aimed at stilling the mind in order to reach detachment, teach us  to focus our mind on one item only for a sustained period of time, be it a mantra, an affirmation, a sound, a color.

Despite my 17 years of on and off meditation practice, I can still fall prey to stupendous cases of monkey mind and, even if, conceptually, I know I should drag my meditation cushion out of the closet and sit on it, I choose to remain tangled in the jumping jacks of my thoughts, none of them particularly helpful, unable to see the tunnel, let alone the light at the end of it.

Tiredness usually plays a part in this process. It all starts innocently enough, a minor annoyance maybe, followed by someone’s unhelpful comment or my version of how things should be and are not and it all snowballs from there. My worst habit is to revel in this momentary darkness, perversely enjoying where it will lead me, invariably to an unkind word, to shutting out those around me or to a generic black mood, unpleasant for anyone unfortunate enough to stand in my path.

Other times it is just an inability to focus. Have you ever tried to follow the inane train of your thoughts? The best way to do it is to actually sit still. It goes something like this:

What shall I have for dinner tonight?

There are some tomatoes on the counter I haven’t used yet

Forgot to call Richard back today

What did he want anyway?

I have plans with Meg tomorrow. Can I fit a work-out in?

All the while interspersing a mantra in between random thoughts to try and reel my mind in. If nothing else, I have learnt to forgive myself. If I could sit in the absence of thoughts for hours at a time, I would be Buddha and look like a female version of Keanu Reeves. For now, I content myself with a few minutes of stillness at a time.

A few days ago, during a particular ferocius episode, I chose to watch with some detachment what was happening to my mind and I observed that it was definitely I, and not outside circumstances, that was creating a chain of endless negative thoughts. Maybe sometimes it’s easier to blame the world at large for the minor unpleasant details of our life, when it would be so much easier to stop at the first annoyance and turn it around on its head, or sever it altogether after dealing with it.

At least, I can now recognize when this happens and know it is temporary – eventually I will apply the brakes and halt my downhill rush. I watch the dogs and how they focus on one thing, and one thing only, at every junction of their day. They make choices and stick with them, they go from chasing a bird wholeheartedly to sensing it’s time for dinner and devote their whole attention to the bowl of food. Funny, I trained them and they learnt some. Now I watch them and I learn more.

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A CHANGE IS GONNA COME

Before his stomach took a turn for the worse

As I was sitting down to write a post on some tips and shortcuts for booking a trip to Italy, saving money on unexpected items, Ottie started behaving oddly, frantically pacing around the table, stretching his hind legs, forcing himself to vomit and not succeeding. I didn’t worry about it at first, dogs do get stomach aches, but something in the urgency of his behaviour made me pay closer attention.

Unlike humans, dogs are adept at forcing themselves to throw up if they want to – no fingers down the throat needed – so the fact he wasn’t able to was the first clue that something was terribly wrong. I lost a dog to bloat once: it happened at night, while I was asleep and when I found him completely blown up in the morning, he was barely breathing and died on the way to the emergency.

This time I was not taking any chances. I threw Ottie in the car and flew to the ritzy clinic that saved Portia’s life a few months ago. By the time we got there, I could see his stomach was starting to swell. Good call. Coincidentally, the same surgeon who saved Portia was on duty that night too and, after quick x-rays, confirmed my diagnosis. “How did you know?” she asked me. A lot of dogs under my belt at this point. And Carl’s death which, it turns out, saved the life of his old buddy, as my friend Sue pointed out.

Emergency surgery was performed immediately. Two hours later, Ottie was breathing on his own, stomach stapled into place and spleen removed. Bloating happens suddenly and can kill in a matter of less than two hours. The stomach turns on itself, air accumulates causing the dog to bloat and cutting off the blood flow. It’s a painful death.

While all of this was going on, I wasn’t thinking of another horrendous vet bill that would take months to pay off, nor of my imminent trip, the one I have been planning for months, to celebrate an important birthday. Then reality sank in – my plans would have to change.

I have always been a very blase traveller. I make my plans, don’t think about them that much prior to my departure, professionally pack a bag a couple of hours before leaving and off I go. This time, I had been planning for a long time, meticulously carving the guest list to my party, renting flats in Venice and Rome, enlisting the help of my best friend to hunt down the perfect cake…a madness not usually associated to anything I would normally organize for myself.

Now it looks like I will spend the first week of my vacation at home, taking care of a recovering puppy. I convinced Alitalia to waive the penalty for changing flights by telling them a family member was sick (total truth as far as I am concerned) and my Venice landlord has accommodated my change of dates. I will be cutting my time in Italy down to two weeks and it looks like my birthday party will have to be scrapped. After the initial sadness, I have been trying to find the silver lining – if this had happened  while I was gone, Ottie would have died. And who am I kidding? I never was a party girl anyway. I organize parties for other people.

Change never comes when conveniently planned, that I learnt a long time ago. Adapting to it is a skill one acquires over time, and sooner is better than later. Next week, I will treasure my time with the dogs and spend some time writing. The week after, I will still be with the people I love most in the world, shepherding my entrance into a new decade. If all goes according to plan, that is.

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THE DIRTY BUSINESS OF LOVE

Drawing – aldrinbogi.com

Love is a dirty business. As women, fresh from the indoctrination of fairy tales and happy ever after stories, we embark on finding true love early in life, whatever our idea of it might be. Boys….not sure what boys are after once they figure out the best way to satisfy their hormonal needs but, judging from the brisk business of dating sites the world over, they are also looking for love in all the wrong places.

Love is not for the faint of heart. We post flattering photos, write clever and witty profiles about ourselves, about our likes and dislikes, our material and spiritual goals and, by so doing, we hope to separate the wheat from the chaff, trimming our search down to the truly desirable (or so I am told, as my information in this department is purely second-hand). This process is not so different from inhabiting the facade we all create to interact with the world – be it business, friends or lovers, it’s the best of us we want everyone to see. Therein lies the problem.

First of all, forget giving it a try with someone with whom the proverbial chemistry is not there on the assumption that it might grow on you. No, it won’t . Like animals in all kingdoms, our mating rituals are determined by hormones, pheromones and chemical reactions – whether you belive on the fittest of the species theory (i.e. who can give us the most babies) or not, our first instincts are all based on physiological reactions, so there is no point denying that urge or pretending it will develop. It’s what happens after, once the bouquets of flowers have faded, the romps in all corners of the house decreased, the life stories start repeating themselves and we are simply left with each other.

Love is hard. Walk behind the Hollywood set of our cleverly put together facades and we are confronted with the less desirable facets we hope our partner will take in his/her stride. That moment of reckoning is bound to happen to all of us, over and over again, blissfully married or dating for ten minutes.

Love requires an enormous amount of letting go: of ourselves, of our preconceived notions of what a relationship should be, of our plans and, above all, of our ideals in the love department.  Compromising and acceptance are par for the course but what  I am talking about is the crude and impossibly difficult unveiling of ourselves in front of another human being. This is me, with my very packed Samsonite of fears, shame, rage, meanness, vengeance, criticisms, treachery, humiliations and bad intentions. Behind my brilliance, my accomplishments, my beauty, my riches, even my Zen attitude to life, this is the miserable sod I can sometimes be. Now what?

Love takes courage. Twice. The courage to love not only another human being’s imperfections but also their darkest corners. And the courage to believe that we can be loved for all our appalling shortcomings.

 

It would be tempting to put all that in the next Match.com ad. But, then again, why spoil the surprise?

 

 

 

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THE ART OF GETTING LOST. ONE’S WAY.

Photo: vectorforall.com

My sense of direction is so notoriously off base that, given a fork in the road, I now take the way that feels instinctively wrong, in the near certainty it will lead me where I need to go. GPS was most definitely invented for people like me.

Getting lost has its benefits, when you are not in a hurry or if you are travelling – I wouldn’t have come across many a sight, an interesting neighbourhood or even a shop, had my efforts to get somewhere been completely mis-directed. Although I descend from a people of sailors, there is no possible way any of my ancestors ever rode the waves – the progeny would have drowned long before getting to me.

This penchant for getting lost, I noticed, sometimes translates into losing myself emotionally. It’s as if the roadmap to my feelings gets displaced or my inner GPS goes haywire. I have come to accept this, at times discomforting and disconcerting, state as part of what makes me who I am, an intensely loving person at heart.

Getting lost in the maze of what one is feeling has its rewards – people like me do not think about the consequences when they throw themselves in an endeavour, a relationship, a new job, a baby. There is no list of pros and cons, no barriers are erected, there are no expectations. We just let ourselves feel what comes naturally, we explore the nooks and crannies of the emotions that arise, we’ll turn a corner and will be blinded by a moving sunset we didn’t know was there.

On the other hand, we can veer so far from our original destination or home, that we will be caught in a sudden downpour we didn’t expect, then faced with the choice of running for cover or getting wet to the bone. While wet clothes clinging to the skin might not be a particularly pleasant sensation, I will choose being caught unaware over following the intended path.

Getting lost, literally and figuratively, has landed me many adventures – long before GPS was invented and a three lane freeway was built in the Yucatan peninsula, my friend Sue and I attempted to navigate the Mayan ruins with a rickety jeep and a map that, even in the absence of map reading skills, I could tell was approximate at best. Following the only carretera available, with only a handful of Pe-Mex petrol stations along the way, we still got lost in the Mexican jungle, in a torrential downpour, when we realized the top of the convertible jeep did not belong to that particular car and the wipers didn’t work. With Sue at the wheel, I was hanging over the windshield, mopping with a towel to create some visibility. With no money for fancy hotels, and with only a cluster of hotels available to begin with in the whole area, we ended up sleeping in somebody’s garage, with a shower that rained a few measly drops of water to wash out the mud. But, sitting next to a British couple of gargantuan proportions and freewheeling spirit (which I deduced from the unshaven legs of the female half), the owner of our “room” grilled us the best piece of fish we had during the entire vacation.

That’s when I probably learnt that, for someone who meticulously plans her daily activities, compulsively writes list, is always on time and will not go to bed with a stack of dishes in the sink, getting lost on all levels is my way to live in the moment. That is why I haven’t followed a map ever since. Not even an emotional one.

 

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BACK TO THE MAT

Image from healthcare9.com

A colleague sits in my office for half and hour and pours her heart out about her relationship problems. A friend calls me to ask advice on a recent quarrel she had with another woman. At the same time, my cell phone rings – another girlfriend, newly divorced, asking if she could stop by for a cup of tea (and for dissecting her defunct marriage). Emma’s post about a young person dying. Maybe that is why I feel incredibly sad, weighed down by so much sadness. Or maybe I should start believing in horoscopes and this has all to do with Venus transiting across the sun or one such astronomical happening I don’t know much about.

After 17 years of working things out on a yoga mat, falling in and out of love with yoga but always sticking with it, it’s a yoga mat I want to be on tonight. This intense desire hasn’t manifested in a while. Oh, I still go to class religiously, I even have a yoga app on my i-Pad for when I am too lazy to come up with routines and want to practice at home, but too often I feel like I am just going through the motions. I might have fun, I might get a kick out of it, a good workout or a good relaxation but the proverbial thrill had gone.

Yet, it was to a mat I took my sadness tonight, for a long yin classes with very few poses held for sometimes unbearably long minutes. When I leave class, the sadness has not gone but the weight has lifted enough to come home, eat dinner, sit at my laptop with enough enthusiasm to write a little.

Very few daily activities take me inside the way yoga does. My mother favours ironing but, unfortunately, I don’t seem to have inherited that gene. Getting my nose to my knees does it for me. Or dipping my hands into flour. When too much baking takes place in my kitchen, some problem or sadness is clearly being worked out.

And I am intensely grateful for these physical activities that are able to steer me back into harbour. Sometimes sticking with something, even when the thrill has gone, has its unexpected rewards.

 

 

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ON A QUEST

It must have been in my early 20’s that I wondered, for the first time, whether there was more to life than I was experiencing. For reasons long forgotten, I found myself one night at a meeting of followers of a branch of Japanese Buddhism, chanting “nam myoho renge kyo”, wishing for my dreams to come true. Or that is what I came away with. Plus the knowledge that Tina Turner was also an adept. This form of Buddhism was predicated on reaching your material goals first, leaving you free to move on to higher spiritual pursuits. My love affair with this group didn’t last long, mainly because of the pressure of bringing new adherents on a constant basis. And then I moved to London anyway, where I became more concerned with making ends meet, furthering my career of choice and just having a modicum of fun. Spiritual matters and the pursuit of meaning of life had to be shelved for over a decade.

It wasn’t until I relocated to Los Angeles, severely alone, with everything I knew left behind, that the question “What am I doing here?” became to encompass more than just my geographical circumstances. The quest every human being embarks on once their basic needs are met, had started in earnest. For some it’s just as simple as following the religious teachings they began to study as children. As to me, I always had trouble believing in an all sentient God that looked down on us and sent us terrible misfortunes on a global scale. But I always envied such blind and unquestioning faith – if there is a God, it’s his fault he made me so argumentative to question his own existence.

Whether there is a God, an afterlife, a parallel universe or spirits hanging around are all questions I stopped bothered asking as there will be no definitive answer. What I am more concerned with is how to live this one and only life I was lucky enough to get: with integrity, passion, fulfillment, compassion, love and ethic principles I could abide by.

Like most people, knowledge of self is where it all starts. I believe that getting to know ourselves intimately is sometimes harder than getting to know others. In my case, learning to embrace my darker side, the one I am not proud of, has been the most challenging process. Along the way, there has been Jungian therapy (twice), study of yoga and basic Buddhist principles, meditation and a lot of ink on blank pages. What I am left with, on the verge of turning 50, is a much better understanding of who I am and how I work, more forgiveness for my shortcomings and a realization that happiness is conquered one day at a time and not bestowed. Not by others, not by wealth or circumstances. It’s a fundamental choice.

When I look back, I know I have been given so much. I was born in a developed country, free of mortal infant diseases, in a family of means. Like everybody, I had my share of sorrows, heartaches, battles to fight, people lost, fears to conquer. But, by and large, I ploughed  on with enthusiasm. I really couldn’t have asked for more.

With all the books piled up I still have to read, I do hope for another 50 years ahead of me. But, were it all be taken away from me tomorrow, I can honestly say I gave as good as I got. And what I got was plentiful.

PS

If you are wondering what sent me spiralling on this tangent, I blame two recent posts: 100 Words by Emma, an exercise I encourage you to do (I couldn’t get to the end) and Gingergirl’s Let go and be happy and its 15 things to get rid of to achieve a better life.

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