Fog, walks, DVD boxsets, sisters and Amahit

December 28, 2016

When I was a child, I sometimes looked up to the sky and wondered how it would feel to touch a cloud or be inside one.   I was sure I could cosy up in the soft white fluff or bounce on the cotton wool.

It’s nothing like I imagined. Clouds are cold and wet and leave little icy beads on everything they touch. They are very disappointing. I know this because, for the past few weeks, I’ve literally been inside one.

brouillard

Every year around this time, there is some sort of temperature difference between the air and the lake and it produces a blanket of cloud over the water. It settles over the Lake Geneva basin like a heavy, grey lid. The bleakness depresses even the most upbeat of people.

We live further from the lake and higher up the hill so sometimes we bask in the blue skies and sunshine and look out at the tablecloth of cloud below us. It’s so pretty when viewed from above, not from below. However, recently this cloud cloth has crawled up towards us and shrouded our village. Most mornings I open the curtains and the cloud is so low and so near that I can almost reach out and touch it with my fingertips. It’s very misty moors, like a scene out of Wuthering Heights.

Walks

Even though it’s like a fridge in the cloud, I still try to walk the girls every day. Children are like puppies so they need their daily dose of fresh air and exercise.   What is it with kids and walking? They can be inside bursting with energy, tearing round the house and bouncing off the walls but as soon as you say, ‘Shoes on! We’re going for a walk!’ there’s cries of resistance and they can’t seem to muster enough energy to put one foot in front of the other. We take about 20 minutes to put on their winter layers and then they sit like lumps in the double pram while I heave it round the block as if it’s their wheelchair.

Sometimes walks start off well and they take their scooters or maybe a doll and mini pram. Half way through the walk, they lose interest and then I have to somehow lug this paraphernalia home. The idea behind a walk is to tire them out but it tends to tire me out. My friends have the same issue and one even said, ‘It’s a conspiracy against parents.’

walking-with-child

One of the keys to successful walks in winter is to make sure the children are dressed appropriately and that all body parts are covered and warm. Children will moan for the smallest exposed area so if the baby toe is chilly or a sock gets damp, then the excursion is a disaster and you have to head back home. With children, there’s a fine line between contentment and sheer misery and they can swing from one mood to the other in a flash.

o3gug7hIn winter it takes a long time to dress for going out but it takes Megan and Jessica split seconds to remove the clothing on our return. They detest being either too hot or too cold. It reminds me of the scene in the movie Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey uses his powers as God to remove his clothes instantly. Al and I now call it ‘doing the Bruce Almighty’ so we may arrive at the shops and Megan and Jessica wave their bare toes at us from their car seats and then we say, ‘Oh dear, they’ve done the Bruce Almighty on their feet.’

Boxsets

Every year around Christmas time Al and I work our way through a DVD boxset. Last year it was Suits. Recently I stumbled upon the American series called Parks and Recreation. It’s about a group of people who work in the civil service in a one-horse town in America. It’s a hoot.  I think the reason why I love this series so much is because it reminds me of the public sector work I did in Johannesburg.

parks-and-recWhen I first started working after university, I was a missile of enthusiasm but after some public sector jobs my optimism, motivation and faith in the efficiency of government sank like a lead balloon. Everyone works in slow motion and I found no one worked under any pressure whatsoever. The day revolved around food and breaks – coffee breaks, snack breaks and lunch. The highlight of the day for people in the civil service is home time at 16h00 on the dot and no later. Try calling someone at 16h03, impossible. They exit the building as if there’s been a bomb scare and they have to vacate the premises at high speed. It was like a parallel universe but great if I needed a low-key, loaf off of a day after the more demanding, high achieving corporate clients.

I was involved in accounting software so I sometimes had to train people at their computers. I often wished I could use surgical gloves because people in government always had greasy, glistening keyboards. It was as if everyone munched cheeseburgers at their desks.

Government offices were either located in the dodgiest parts of downtown or in repossessed buildings. The Department of Agriculture was in an old hospital and had a maze of corridors.  The Department of Correctional Services used an old jail so every office had a heavy duty iron gate. It was surreal.

Because it’s so difficult to get things done in the public service, they celebrated even the smallest milestones as a major breakthrough. When I added the slightest bit of value, it called for the can-can and they thought I was God’s gift, like some sort of savant. It was fantastic for my ego.

True Love

Moving on. This is a photo of one of my happiest moments this month. I was driving and realized that Megan and Jessica had been holding hands for the entire journey. I quickly took this photo at a traffic light so that I can remember how much they love each other even when they are quarrelling and at each other’s throats.

holding-hands

Amahit

To end off, I present you with a princess drawn by Megan aka ‘Amahit’.  She can write ‘Megan’ but she always deliberately and slowly signs her name as ‘Amahit’.  It’s her thing.  I can’t figure out why.  Our house is adorned with the art and crafts of the eccentric and imaginative Amahit.  She’s one of my favourite artists.

amahit


Progress report on the 2016 Happiness Jar

December 1, 2016

In 2016 we continued filling up our Happiness Jar. Every night we think of a moment in the day that made us happy and then we create a visual reminder of it by writing it down on a scrap of paper and placing it in our big glass jar.

jar

These are not things we are grateful for. Gratitude and happiness are different. Gratitude is not necessarily a guarantee of joy, peace or contentment. The Happiness Jar is a targeted, specific exercise to identify an actual instant in the day when you felt most joy or, if life is crap, the moment in the day when you felt the least miserable.

One of my favourite French words is profiter. It literally means ‘to profit’ and the French use it like this, ‘Did you profit from the sunny weather?’ or ‘Let’s profit from the snow and go skiiing’ or ‘My brother now lives in Chicago so we profited from it and visited him.’ It makes me think of taking advantage of situations in such a way that you become richer, like you collect gold coins in your pocket.

10689529_10204231760046429_2292307505744023189_nThese happy, gold-in-the-pocket moments are rarely anything major – cuddles, lying in bed watching DVD boxsets, a real and authentic conversation, moments of fun or connection together, scenery, good weather, a laugh, a coherent French conversation, a delicious meal, cute things Megan and Jessica said or did. The little things stand out and we’ve realized, in doing this exercise for two years now, that the little things are in actual fact the big things.

As Jessica and Megan are growing up, they are getting the idea too. Jessica has the same happy moment every day – it’s drinking breastmilk. We call it ‘milkies’. Megan and Jessica both adored milkies although it is now only Jessica who has it. It’s her crack. She is completely and utterly addicted to a regular fix of milkies from me, as you can tell from her happy moment in the video below:

Based on my life experience so far, I’ve realised that happiness is not something that you wait to fall on you like magic fairy dust. You have to be proactive and do your bit by angling your life in the way you want it to go. I’ve learned that life does not make you happy. You make yourself happy. You choose to be happy or not. You decide.  One of the famous quotes of Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is ‘A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy.’

swissI read somewhere that children need security, self-worth and significance above all else. I always felt loved in my life but never secure. Over the past four years, for the first time ever, I feel settled and in control, as if I’ve finally come in to port and dropped anchor. It was exhausting living so much of my life out on a dinghy in the open ocean. Now I feel a lot less buffeted about and it’s such a nice feeling. That in itself is a happy moment.

Life is a series of battles and blessings. As I’ve just said, the last four years have been a period of blessing for me. Do you think I can sit back and properly appreciate it? No. Because at the back of my mind I freak out that I am due for a battle and I fret what that will be. I’ve mentioned the paradoxes of parenting so many times on this blog. It’s bizarre that being a mother can make one so happy but also so fearful at exactly the same time. I’m particularly terrified of my mortality and that of my family too. I get stuck in these morbid mental cul de sacs because I desperately don’t want anything to eff up the status quo.

While all my life I’ve sought out the actual, physical place that will make me happy, this year I’ve realised that the only place where I can feel truly content is inside my own head. My mind is very powerful. It can be a chaotic and cavernous place. Until I tame and discipline it and make it a place of peace and refuge, then I will never feel 100% anchored.

mind2In 2016, I’ve taken deliberate, bold steps to get my mind under control in order to live joyfully. I like the concept of mindfulness. It’s the buzzword in self-help circles these days and it makes so much sense to me. What’s the best way to sail a boat? First, make sure the boat is in the water and, second, make sure there is no water in the boat. I see mindfulness as keeping water out of my boat.

First of all, mindfulness is about purging out toxic influences. You wouldn’t pollute a river with industrial sludge so don’t do that to your life, to the environment, to your body or soul. I hold toxic people at arm’s length. I keep toxic substances out of my body and home. I’m conscious about what we eat – minimal pesticide-doused food, no processed junk, no e-numbers, no artificial ingredients, no weird preservatives and reduced sugar. My friend’s mom has cancer and her oncologist said, ‘If you want to beat this disease, don’t eat sugar. Cancer thrives on sugar.’

mind3Modern day technology means that we are constantly overwhelmed by the roar of humanity. It’s difficult to escape from it. The news is full of raw ingredients and I struggle to process and filter them properly. It’s like taking a sip of water from a fire hydrant.  It requires almost monastic discipline for me to turn away from the buzz of connectivity and have a focussed, distraction-free conversation or sit still with my hands on my lap and listen to nothing but my own thoughts.

I’m also controlling toxic sentiments that come from Facebook. I defollow friends who regularly share depressing or fear-mongering information on social media. There are certain subjects, particularly accidents, tragedies and illness, that I don’t want to be force-fed through my newsfeed. I see great value in numbing myself. It is not that I don’t care about the suffering of the world – it is more that I can’t cope with it.

saneI’m trying to be more awake and aware of every moment. That’s the point of the Happiness Jar. I don’t want to pass my days in a stupor and robotically go through the motions like I used to. I’ve noticed wrinkles on my forehead that initially distressed me but then I realized, ‘Hey! Growing old is a gift!’ There are many people who don’t have the privilege of growing older and I want to soak up and appreciate every moment of this powerful, humbling, extraordinary gift.

The problem with being upbeat is that the world tends towards the negative. This year I experienced many WHAT-THE-HELL-IS-GOING-ON moments, what with Brexit, Trump and, closer to home, a sudden change of leadership at our church. I sometimes think it would be nice to pack away my family and isolate ourselves on a deserted island, away from the frustrations and nastiness of humanity.

The wall in the bus stop near our house. It's hard t

This is wall in the bus stop near our house. It’s difficult to feel zenned while standing there. That’s Jessica’s head at the bottom of the picture.  I’m glad she can’t yet read.

The other day a friend invited me over. Her 94 year old grandmother was visiting from England and we had a sweet little chat (a happy moment, actually). I said, ‘Wow you’re 94 years old. You’ve lived through a lot. Tell me, is the world a better place now compared to how it used to be?’ I was thinking particularly of the horrors of World War 2 and how we’ve progressed so much since then. Do you know what she said? No. The world is not a better place. People used to be kinder. She said, ‘These days, everyone is so self-absorbed. People care only about themselves. In England, even during the war, people looked out for each other more.’ Wow, I didn’t realise that.

So, our family project for 2017 is to continue the Happiness Jar but expand the focus. I want us to not just seek out happy moments for ourselves, but to create more for others too. Let’s see how it goes.

DAYS by Philip Larkin

What are days for?

Days are where we live.

They come, they wake us

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:

Where can we live but days?