Archive | April 2012

My dog the Zen master

I am trying to live more consciously, savouring every moment. Rather than running from one task to the next I want to really experience every moment. This would be easier if I had more time, but that is just excuses rearing their genie heads. I am taking inspiration from the Buddhist concept of mindful living, and from the “carpe diem” philosophy of the Epicurists of Antiquity. I am learning that it does not actually take more time to consciously live through everyday experiences. All I have to do is keep my mind switched on. Which can be tiring, but it saves time in the long run: I learn more from my experiences.

My musings were rudely interrupted by my dog nudging me, and it struck me then that my dog has this mindfully living in the moment concept down to a fine art. She goes through her day something like this:

wake up: yay – morning cuddle!

breakfast! my favourite thing!

snoozing the morning away – heaven!

biscuit – yeah yeah yeah!

walkies! my absolute favourite thing!

foodies! best ever!

snoozing in the sofa as long as I can get away with it – heaven!

Every moment in her day is the best ever. Every day. She is the ultimate Zen master!

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Excuses were made to be put to use

The French have the brilliant expression “les excuses sont faites pour s’en servir”: excuses were made to be put to use.  If that isn’t the best excuse for using excuses. Put that way, one owes it to the stock of excuses to set them free occasionally and let them have some fun. It would be rude not to.

The expression conjures an image of a dusty shelf with lots of pigeon holes, each holding a blob of different size and colour. Much like the old apothecary shelf  my mother inherited from her doctor dad that we used as a library and display-a-bit-of-everything. It had a gazillion small drawers in the lower half, and cell shelves at the top. It filled an entire wall of the living room. As a child I thought it an amazing treasure trove. I could never quite remember which drawer held what because there were many more than I could count, so I liked to go open a few drawers on a rainy afternoon just to see what I might find.

Our apothecary shelf looked similar to this, minus the gothic arches

Or it might look like the shelves in the Ministry in Harry Potter where the prophecies are stored. In any case, excuses are like little creatures that want to come out and play, tiny genies with a mind of their own.  Take one off the shelf and it senses what you need right that moment. It will work with you if you let it, and if you have chosen wisely. Pick the wrong excuse, or fight it, and things can go badly wrong. The genie doesn’t gel with you and takes over the agenda. You end up with a story that just sounds fishy. Think Joey from Friends. Pick one that suits you, and it can carry you far and wide. No matter how outrageous the excuse, you are so attuned it just works. Whether you are convincing yourself or somebody else. Although I find it works particularly well on yourself.

You mustn’t work with the same excuse too often either. Again, think Joey: the genie gets stuck in a rut that digs a deeper ring around you every time. I did try this for a while, thinking the excuse would warm to me and get ever more personal and real. It doesn’t. It starts to enjoy its power and stops caring about you. Better to pull out a few different ones and let them vie for your attention.

Remember that you are doing excuses a favour by using them – it is ok to remind them of this from time to time. They like to shine, and they learn and get richer with every use. Which means you are really training excuses for the benefit of your fellow human beings. Noble, right?

The Ministry stores prophecies here

Back to a long time ago

I had been debating with myself whether to revisit my childhood town and the home where I grew up over the last couple of weeks. I left for Belgium still very much undecided. A few days into the trip the perfect day presented itself when every other family member had something planned, leaving husband and me to make our own plans. My hand was forced, I had to indulge husband and plug his gap in the history of me. I kept telling him I had not been hiding anything, that there just was not very much to it. I had wanted to add “my life only started with you darling” but he would have heard the grin. Truth be told, I was dreading the visit (I almost wrote “confrontation”) all the way there. Didn’t know where to park when we got there. Twenty years is an awfully long time for a city. It had changed so much I was surprised to find several shops I remembered from my childhood still exist. Mostly though I was left trying to work out what was there before. I would look at a building and instantly think “ha, there’s a design shop here now”, for example, but not be able to recall what was there before. I just know it wasn’t that.

Oudenaarde City Hall

Oudenaarde City Hall

Husband was duly impressed with the city hall – really I should stop calling it a town 🙂 -, which is the little sibling of those in Brussels and Leuven, and the two beautiful churches. I showed him the school I went to, which has now entered the modern era and merged with the boys’ school next door and removed the fences that were designed to keep us girls safe from them, at least while the nuns were responsible for us. Whilst I do agree with all that I can’t help thinking that kids now miss out on the thrill of looking forward to meeting up with their boy / girlfriend in the little alleyway across from the school gate. Preferably while nun on duty was looking.

With all the change I felt detached from my memories. It didn’t quite feel like the place I grew up anymore, even if I rationally know it is.

So far so easy. The tourist treatment. Now I had to drive to the village and the home where I grew up. Still hating the thought of it as I was edging closer, fearing that regret for what was loved and lost would take over. And then there it was: the castle and the pond where we went skating; then the garden appeared in view, and finally, a glimpse of the house itself. I stopped the car in front of the drive and peered in. You couldn’t see much, just as I remembered it. The house is nestled behind tall hedges, trees and bushes, which all still looked familiar. Waves of emotions crashed over me, all different hues. I drove around the back, where I could only glimpse into the garden but not make out the house. I sat there for a while until the seas inside me calmed down. Then I told my husband I was glad we had visited. The dread I had felt before, linked to the bad memories of the final year or so of us living there, was being pushed down below overlays of the many more memories of all the wonderful years there. Growing up there was a privilege: we enjoyed a space and freedom my children couldn’t dream of. We waged wars with the other children throughout the village, built camps and rope bridges in the garden, built dams in the brook down the road. I wished I had brought my walking boots so I could trace back some of my favourite walks. It is beautiful out there. Too muddy without boots right now, but it gives me a reason to go back. I might even take the children to see where their roots lie. Because now I feel freed to do so and enjoy it.

Somewhat paradoxically, my restored connection with my childhood home has made me even more comfortable being at home where I am now. I feel as if I have been given a bright new room to keep my childhood memories in, one I can visit and feel good about, but only a room in my existence alongside so many others.

I didn’t have the presence of mind to take pictures but I found one of the castle pond, where we used to skate:

A Little Indulgence

Indulgence is a bad word, isn’t it? It is selfish and lacks self-control – concepts we tend to frown upon. Which is exactly what makes indulging so sweet: allowing yourself to enjoy something that you would rather not anyone knew about. To me such secret guilty pleasures are extremely valuable. They belong only to me, and the few people I choose to let in on them.  They provide a brief retreat from the usual hustle and bustle, a private pause in my busy life.

Now indulging has gotten more difficult for me lately. I have always enjoyed a strong black coffee with Belgian chocolate in the afternoon. I keep my own 1-person cafetiere and my own carefully selected coffee at work, and a choice of delectable chocolate in the back of a desk drawer. Everyone is used to me making my coffee in the kitchen and traipsing around with my cafetiere, but very few people know about the chocolate stash. I have always found it shameful somehow that I crave chocolate. Something to do with the expectation on women to be watching their weight I think. But now scientists have confirmed that people who eat chocolate regularly have a healthier body mass index and are slimmer. That throws my guilt right out of the window.

Luckily for me, that still leaves a glass of wine or a tripel beer once I put my feet up at night, taking a pillow day occasionally, and a few other things I am not ready to share.

Even allowing myself to do nothing is a luxury. It is also difficult, so I am not sure it falls under indulgence. I told myself this morning not to do any chores at all today, and instead allow myself to relax. That was an impossible mission, so I am excused for not completing it with full colours. I did manage to laze away the whole afternoon though, which has put me in a wonderfully dozy state of mind. Unwound. Whereas I could have ironed clothes, washed windows, taken the glass to the recycling bin… which is all still waiting to be done some time … back to indulgence!

Me as seen by them

Remember the guy who got arrested in a disused metro station in a full wetsuit? That and a bunch of other wacky stories were tossed at us during a dinner this week. They were meant as an ice breaker for a colleague’s leaving do, even if there was no ice anywhere near our group. Lots of laughs.

I thought I knew most of the people there pretty well, I have worked with them for years. But in some cases I guessed from the way their story was written, rather than what they had actually done. The Regulatory Affairs guy’s story was longwinded and rich in detail, the sales guy’s ebullient ego dripped through his. And then of course Mr “Friday the 13th” had unlikely stories of bad luck that could only have happened to him – the slapstick kind.

What I found really revealing was what my colleagues thought I had done: more than half the room thought I had been the one to have gone down vomiting during a parachute jump, and when that turned out to be a mistake about as many thought I had overtaken a traffic police car and then been stopped for speeding. As if. I have never done a parachute jump, but I quite fancy trying it. I am certainly not going to vomit; I fully intend to absorb the sensation of freefalling, and then, once drifting, enjoy the view. And speeding? Me? Not past a police car I wouldn’t. I’m not stupid. It does make me wonder exactly what image my colleagues have of me. At work I am often told I come across very reserved, so I had been assuming a bit of a non-entity. While actually they think I am fast and furious! I think. Apart from the vomiting. Not sure what to make of that.