treasures from my notes app, pt 1

02.2016

I’ve been sitting in the heart of the Amsterdam tourist centre for the past two days, a place where tourists gather and mill around. It’s so interesting, actually, to sit in a business meeting while observing the silent language of tourists wandering around on a warm sunny Tuesday with absolutely no obligation or agenda. Glam grown-ups rolling up in convertibles. Groups of slightly stoned boys lounging on benches. Newly coupled pairs unable to detach themselves from each others’ mouths. Lonely stragglers watching the crowds out of the corner of their eye while pretending to read their phones. Ordinary people just standing alone in the middle of the street, listening to music and staring blankly into space. Groups on tours. Friends eating. Girls taking pictures. Picture-perfect groups of millennials strolling through. Busy locals zipping through on bikes. Smokers. Dogs. Scooters. Suitcases. Multicoloured hair. Questionable fashion choices.

Of all the useless activities that tourists engage in, the couples are the hardest to watch. It’s not so much that I wish I belonged to one of them, it’s more that any demonstration of ‘in-lovedness’ seems to me as something so utterly doomed. So fragile and so fleeting. It feels like I’m observing an ephemera, something so gentle and fundamentally unprepared to exist in this hard, vicious world – a veritable kitten of a thing. Because the next couple that walks by is marching along with two-people’s distance between them. They split up to walk around the new couple’s bench. Their fantasy is already dead.

Meanwhile he’s stroking her hair. She’s brushing his arm. She turns around and lays her head in his lap, he cradles it like it’s the most precious thing he’s ever touched. If they weren’t so still and quiet I’d assume they were under the influence of heavy party drugs.

And all I can think is: doomed.

But what soothes my sharp discomfort is seeing an elderly couple sitting together on the same bench 4 hours later, in the sun, side by side, watching the world go by together. Their body language is identical. They are totally at ease with each other. They sit without talking, because they don’t need to prattle to be entertained. They are content. She strokes his arm. He fixes a twist in her collar. He carries her shopping bag. They walk away, in step, together.

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exhale

In scuba diving they teach you that if you feel like you’re out of breath, you must exhale. It means you’ve taken in too much air for fear of not getting enough and you’ve forgotten to let it out. It sounds ridiculous but it happens to me on every dive. I start suffocating underwater with a tank full of air on my back.

It’s a paralyzing fear that comes on out of nowhere, that hits you like a brick as you’re floating along in the big blue. And trust me — there’s nothing you want to do LESS when you find yourself panicking under 30 meters of water than exhale, instead of taking a big gasping gulp of air. But that’s what you have to do – that really counterintuitive thing – and it’s the only thing that works.

Around this time last year I went to something called a “mensendieck” therapist, because I was struggling with being unable to breathe on land. My sudden attacks of shortness of breath could not be explained by any apparent lung problems (thankfully) so the doctor assumed it was psychosomatic and sent me to this lady, who looked like the crazy girl from Orange is the New Black and in the full 5 weeks I saw her never learned to pronounce my name.

Over the course of those sessions, she taught me various relaxation and meditation exercises, guided me through a lot of breathing techniques, et cetera. But the most important thing she asked me was in our very first session: “Exactly what are you so afraid of? And what will happen if that exact situation occurs? And why don’t you stop, just for a second, and let yourself process whatever it is that you are trying so hard not to imagine?”

I’ve since come to realize that those two pieces of advice – the physical and the emotional – are so complementary as to be almost identical.

When, like today, I find myself so overwhelmed with work that stepping away from my computer seems physically impossible, and climbing the three flights of stairs to my apartment totally insurmountable, I remember these two pieces of advice. Stop. Exhale. Process. And I close my computer and go for a run, even though my legs feel like lead, and it takes me twice as long as usual to run a puny distance. By the end of the run I’m taking full, slow, deep breaths of air, and I’m not thinking about work, and I forget about the panic. That’s the power of exhalation.

We must remember to exhale in a tense, panicked situation. We must remember to give slack when every one of our instincts is telling us to push harder instead.

And at the end of the day, asking, and really imagining, “what if that terrifying thing happens? What then?” and realizing that nothing is so bad that it warrants forgetting to breathe.

So please – if you need this today – ask yourself “what are you afraid of?” And then – trust me. Exhale.

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catch

There is something so sad and beautiful about suddenly catching a shadow of a feeling, which itself is a ghost from your distant past. Something you vividly remember feeling but which doesn’t belong to you anymore, like walking through the streets of your childhood home or flicking through your ex’s Facebook pictures.

It can be triggered by something so insignificant – a particular way the light catches on the buildings and mingles with the sound of passing cars (and suddenly you’re 21 again, careless and giddy with wild adventure, overcome with joy on nothing but a simple afternoon errand run); or getting dizzy from the hint of someone’s perfume, painfully familiar and yet gravely distant (a visceral gut-wrenching reflex which makes you want to bury your face in their hair and laugh and cry).

The beautiful and sad thing about it is knowing you can’t hold on to that feeling, because it’s not yours – it’s not of this world, of this time. You just try to stretch it out, hold on to every breath, every second, remember it, live it, until it inevitably passes like the dissolution of a late-morning dream, the wisps floating away until even the memory of the feeling having been there is no longer sad but simply nonexistent.

sun

 

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Rebirth.

‘This year will be a time for inner work’, my Chinese horoscope tells me via the third-from-the-top Google search result for ‘Snake Horoscope 2017’.

And actually, I could see how that makes sense.

2016 was a year I would consider to fall largely in the bucket of “procrastination”. My main priority was to get good at dancing, with a secondary priority of getting in some good travel. A check on both counts, but is either of those really progress?

There’s nothing wrong with hobbies, but there’s a problem when your hobbies take over your entire life. I haven’t written anything great in months, I last finished a book 6 months ago, and the only new thing I learned in as long is how to do a handstand. I haven’t even been able to meditate, something I credit with once saving my life.

It’s time to return to the essentials, the things I have always relied on to carry me through a difficult and confusing world, and it so happens that all those things require some inward focus.

I hope that this will be a year of rebirth. That by the end of it, I will have cleared the fog of distraction that has kept me entertained but stagnant for so long, and that I will be better for it. That I will destroy the lull of routine and complacency that have been keeping me from growth.

This post is self-centered. But then I plan to be self-centered. As I once saw scribbled on a bathroom wall, “there is only this”.  And I want to make it mine.

rebirth

 

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My love letter to Sevilla

I firmly believe that the are some places that each of us is destined to love. Often these are places that hold special meanings to many; occasionally they may be polarizing. (For example I still can’t bring myself to love Barcelona, even though many consider it to be a magical place. And yet I deeply adore Paris, which many find cliched, overcrowded, and frigid). But the point is that which cities you are destined to love don’t always make intuitive sense.

For me, Paris makes sense. It’s full of itself, sure, but not because of its impeccable style or riches (hey Milan, which I hate). It’s because of its deep adoration for literature, which is tucked into every available corner, competing for space only with cafes serving wine or places selling cheese, which I also love. 

But Sevilla theoretically has no reason to capture my heart. Much as I’ve tried, I can’t say I’m crazy about the Spanish language, Flamenco dance, or hot landlocked cities. And frankly, there’s nothing THAT special about it. It’s old and beautiful but so are many, many other cities. It’s not usually on the list of must-see destinations, even in Spain. 

And yet Seville, for some reason, has been calling my name ever since I first looked at a map of Europe. And when I finally landed here, I felt the rightness of my being here resonating deep within me. I felt that magical “click” that I didn’t even know I had been searching for ever since I found Paris. “I LOVE this city,” I thought the second I turned a corner and landed on the square where I would have breakfast. “No wait” thought commitment-phobic me, “not so fast. Surely you don’t LOVE it. Surely you just like it, and it will disappoint you within the hour, and you will be over it just like most other cities.” But it continued to not let me down. I walked and walked and walked, turning corners, getting lost, constantly losing my bearings, constantly becoming even more deliriously happy. 

In Seville, I didn’t feel the profound sense of loneliness that I frequently experience when traveling alone. In many cities I’ve felt deeply sad, frustrated or uncomfortable being alone. But in Seville (as in other cities I believe I was fated to love), I felt that being alone there was the way I was supposed to be. I was complete. Me and the city, together, were complete.

I never thought that a city could teach me so much about love, but astonishingly, it really did. Because this is real love: It may not make much logical sense to you or anyone else around you and yet it feels inevitable. It feels too strong to be more than a mere infatuation, and yet it persists far beyond its expected expiration date. It requires nothing else but you and the object of your love. No activities, no distractions, no third wheels to make you forget the tedium of existing. It’s complete in itself. And I am so happy that I have, at least, found it in one more city (and that cities don’t require me to be flawlessly loving, doting, monogamous, or consistent in any way).

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warning: dark content ahead (re: suicide, not my own)

When we still lived in Northern Russia, my sister developed an obsession with a Russian boy band. I’m sure they seemed cute at the time and they had perfectly simple, earwormy songs about being sad and sitting in the rain. (Obviously as I was 6 years younger and thus copied everything she did, I began to love them too even though I wasn’t quite in my emo phase yet at age 8.)

There was one band member in particular who – well, I can’t remember how I felt about him at the time, but looking back today he was certainly the most striking character out of all of them. One guy looked like a goofy Ron Weasley type, not really sure what he was doing there; another looked like your typical underwear model and spent the whole time making sex faces at cameras; and the last – of course he was as idiotic as the rest of them (as boy band members tend to be) – but he had a chameleon-like quality about him, and these other-wordly, cavernous eyes – and the uncanny ability to look like he was experiencing genuine emotion even while singing rhyming cotton-candy crap…

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Well, this guy, the one in the middle, with the eyes – he killed himself at age 28. He jumped out of a window.

It’s chilling to re-read accounts of this incident – he was brought into the hospital after being found on the ground, but died in emergency surgery. In that brief stint between ground and surgery, he was asked if someone pushed him out of that window and “he insisted that he had jumped out himself, but he could not explain why”. (Wikipedia)

I remember hearing this from my sister. And at 8 years old I just remember being completely unable to comprehend why, how, someone could (as I imagined it) simply open a window and step out of it. It was probably my first encounter with mortality that I could actually process. I spent many months trying to understand. Imagining what was going through his mind. Imagining what the last moments felt like.

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Last night for some reason he re-surfaced again in my mind, probably for the first time since that year. Mortality and helplessness in the face of it have been on my mind. And (frankly) having experienced depression, and witnessed many instances of it far more severe than my own, I feel that now I understand better why, and even perhaps what was going through his mind. But even so, when I think about it now, I still feel the same sense of bewilderment and helpless frustration that I remember feeling at age 8. It’s not fair that depression happens to people. It’s not fair that humans are capable of making and acting on stupid irreversible decisions. It’s not fair that we can’t read each other’s minds when we need it the most.

There is no sense to this post because it’s about a senseless thing. But it’s been going around in my head and I’ve decided to let it out. You can never understand someone fully by looking backward, despite what my English Literature courses might have taught, but that hasn’t stopped me from poring over the videos for the past 3 hours, reading his face, reading their body language, listening, trying to understand. It sucks that he died. That’s all.

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residuals

Let me be upfront about this: this post relates to a relatively recent break up. Obviously I am not one to shy away from sharing feelings on this blog but this somehow feels more visceral and personal than ever so tread lightly (oh and hello, I know you are going to read this post eventually, and I’m sorry for the bad publicity). Here goes: 

I want to say that I have stopped feeling guilty. But the truth is that I still catch myself wrecked with it, constantly in its grip, in everything that I do.

It is still inexplicable to me what happened to us, or why, and so far no theory that I’ve thrown against it has made even a little bit of sense. But what has fallen out is a lot of residual hang-ups that are starting to come to light.

Some of these hangups are simply exaggerations of my natural tendencies, such as an oversensitivity to fighting and an intensified flight instinct. But the most deep-seated issue that I’m struggling with is a particularly firm belief that has somehow been wired into my brain (that I think was not there before): that I am, and always will be, a disappointment.

This leads to some odd behaviours. There’s the rabid aversion to expectations. A fear of any kind of display of self-appreciation. And perhaps the most insidious – that I am  now deathly afraid to make promises about my own future behavior.

It seems I’ve learned that I will always be a let-down. And this means that (unless I prevent making absolutely any promises or commitments that imply that I should or will do something), I will always create more situations for myself to feel guilty, simply by failing to comply. In other words, I’m always going to fuck it up, so I may as well try to save face pre-emptively (by refusing to commit to absolutely anything).

I’ve also noticed that I’m pathologically opposed to allowing anyone to do anything nice for me, for fear, I suppose, of it being seen as entry into some sort of reciprocity contract my end of which I will inevitably fail to uphold.

Basically all of it makes me seem like an indifferent, insecure, stone-cold bitch to my friends, coworkers, etc., because it cuts out an essential part of making human connections – the vulnerability to (inter/personal) failure.

I don’t think this belief is necessarily something that my ex explicitly or intentionally caused through any kind of mean or callous behaviour. Frankly I think it’s due to the fact that I was frequently a disappointment. I was to him and he was to me. Somehow the things we thought we were didn’t line up with the things we were in real life to each other. Again, I have not even started to understand why. But the point is that (I think) this constant letting each other down interacted badly with my existing over-sensitivity to people’s approval of me (or lack thereof), and it has left me mildly scrambled.

There was a line on a recent episode of Girls (of all things) that reflected exactly the level of commitment I am willing to take on literally any issue in my life at this moment:

“You know that I would never disappoint you on purpose, right?”

So that’s the best anyone is going to get out of me for a while… But know that it comes from a place of trying to be a good person. Not a stone-cold bitch.

xo. V

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the killer question

I used to struggle a lot with meeting new people; beyond the classic introvert tendency of ‘disliking small-talk’ I simply panicked at the thought of having to (as I saw it) entertain another person in an attempt to get them to like me. Then I finally internalised the (also classic) rule that it’s actually all about asking them questions. But I still struggled with coming up with the right questions to ask.

Lately I’ve found it much easier to stay engaged in conversations with new people, though I don’t know if it ever leads to them liking me. Because perhaps my method has now become a bit of an interrogation. I’ve noticed that no matter what the topic of actual conversation, the questions that I end up asking, over and over again, are all digging relentlessly towards one (perhaps somewhat inappropriate) query:

Are you happy?

Happy. It’s such a nebulous concept. But I mean a very specific kind of happiness. The enjoying being the person living your life kind. The kind that’s ongoing, perpetual. Where you regularly experience waking up light and comfortable and secure. And going to sleep calm, satisfied.

It’s not always easy to gauge whether or not someone is happy, of course. In fact I suspect it would be a difficult question for anyone to answer if asked directly. But it’s not impossible to get a hunch from reading someone’s voice, eyes, intonations, word choice, story selection. It’s an imperfect science, but I believe that it works well enough.

So what have I gathered so far in my year of this super-imprecise hunting -for-happiness experiment?

So far I’ve learned that people who have a life outside of work tend to be happier than those who don’t…

…And consequently that many people in advertising are not happy with their lives.

I’ve learned that people who are destined to be travelers and explorers seem to be perpetually unhappy when forced to do any kind of regular job, no matter how rewarding or fulfilling…

…And conversely that there are people who need the comfort of home, and so will find themselves truly miserable on a tropical island beach after a four-month-trek around some beautiful tropical country.

I’ve learned that people who spend too long thinking about “what they really want” to make out of their lives without doing anything about it tend to be constantly unhappy even if they’re living a hypothetical dream life (e.g. living on a Caribbean island surrounded by friends, daily parties, and no need to work for a living)…

…And that people who never think about “what they really want” are also pretty damn unhappy.

And that there are some people I truly can’t figure out…

And that I’m not really at the level of happiness I’d like to have.

And all of it just makes me ask myself, why the hell does any one of us continue to put up with a life that does not make us happy, if not every day, then at least often enough to be able to confidently answer “yes, I am happy”?! What on earth is the point of all of this if not to be happy, and how is it that we can let weeks, months, years pass by of waking up and going to bed miserable, in total complacency?

I am often criticized by others for my stubborn resistance to all kinds of long-term commitments, but the reason I refuse to definitively decide on a country to ‘set up a life’ in, or so adamantly rage against the idea of marriage, is that my biggest fear is having my personal life turn into the equivalent of my professional one – where you’ve signed up to do something for a long-ass time, you’re living it every day, and trying to change it is insurmountably difficult compared to just going along with it.  I can’t say that the alternative (my desperate clinging to freedom and independence) makes me happy either but at least it guarantees that I can make new choices every day.

So here’s to freedom and independence, and breaking routines, and finding our way towards the answer to the killer question being “yes!“…

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making space

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time meditating on (and attempting) making space. There has been a popular thought floating around the internet for a year or so on the importance of boredom in stimulating intelligent and creative thought, hence the urging of various lifestyle blogs to put your phone the fuck down and get off Facebook to give your brain some time to process and breathe and come up with new things. I absolutely think this is true. But I also think that this concept goes beyond creative thinking.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to deal with the unhappiness I felt in my work and personal life by making myself as busy as possible. When I was busy at work, time went by faster. When I was busy outside of work, I didn’t have time to fight or brood or drink myself to sleep. And the more I felt like my life was slipping out of my control, the more I felt compelled to fill it up with things:

I filled my (ever-shrinking amount of) time with dance classes, side gigs, and going out to brunches, coffees and dinners.

I filled my empty, uncomfortable house with stacks of books, unworn jewellery and clothes, and kitchen accessories.

I filled my (ever-emptying) life with anyone who would be willing to spend time with me, even if deep down I knew that I never would be, or would want to be, friends with them.

I filled my (constantly buzzing) brain with podcasts, music, and industry news.

It’s a compulsive reflex that many of us have – this desire to fill empty spaces. When we go on vacation, our brain comes up with new stresses, worries and panics to replace the ones that were normally created by work. When we remove a person from our lives, we almost without thinking try to fill the gap with someone, anyone else. When we wake up on Sunday morning with nothing planned, our fingers unwittingly type ‘facebook.com’ in our browser windows, the other hand snapping open the Instagram feed.

But once I stopped filling up my time with random events, the skills I really cared about developing suddenly flourished. Once I stopped grasping desperately for social contact, I was able to connect on a more in-depth level with those who mattered. And once I stopped creating stress for myself at a job I was done with, a new opportunity came along.

In the past week that I’ve been temporarily unemployed and not on a seaside vacation, I’ve been trying (and struggling) to make space. To just give myself some breathing room. Whether that’s sitting at home and doing nothing but reading a book, or choosing to miss a dance party just because, or just biking to my desired destination without putting headphones in my ears.

Just giving myself room for processing, reflection, and dreaming. Giving myself room to breathe, to think, to be happy, to be frustrated, to be alone. To simply not be occupied by something every second of every day.

And although it is a struggle, I can feel the difference. And as much as it sounds like some zen/feng-shui bullshit, I believe it’s true that only once we make space can something better come and fill it.

So here’s to space, breathing room, and zen bullshit. Namaste.

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music is life

When I was an angsty teenager and my parents would make me come with them on long boring day trips, I used to make the music I was listening to into the soundtrack to the movie of my life. Headphones in, I would listen to some particularly fitting tune and imagine that this moment – me leaning my head forlornly against the car window as rain streaked against the glass – this was a scene in the movie of Varia’s life, and something very profound was supposed to be happening in my head (made clear by the preceding scene, obviously). It made those moments so much more interesting. It made my perpetual teenage sadness so much more  bearable.

I think it’s also related that when I experimented with playwriting and putting on plays in high school, my absolute favourite part was choosing the perfect soundtrack. I like to think I had a knack for it.

But what I really want to talk about is the incredible serendipity of shuffle mode.

There’s a series of Russian books called ‘Day Watch’ and ‘Night Watch’, among a few others, which features, essentially, people with supernatural abilities who fight each other – doesn’t really matter. But one of my favourite quirks of the main character is that among all of his “magical” abilities like seeing the future and making people behave the way he wants them to, the one constant positive in his life is his regular old mp3 player, which he always has on ‘shuffle mode’ and which just happens to ‘pick’ the perfect song for the moment every time he switches it on.

I’ve always felt like I have this ‘magical ability’. It probably sounds insane, but I genuinely feel that the universe and I have a special little understanding when it comes to shuffle mode.

I don’t (always) pretend anymore that it’s the soundtrack to the movie of me, but the music that plays in my ears when I press ‘play’ is usually exactly right. Whether it’s the lyrics, the melody, the rhythm, or just the mood – it’s always a salve for a wound or an infusion of positive energy.

And just today, in yet another moment where I was reminded of being profoundly lost and alone by my own making, I put in my headphones and I received Swept Away by Parra for Cuva… and suddenly everything was a little bit better. I was able to get up off the bed and make myself some coffee. Suddenly I was back in the movie, and what had happened was simply another scene on the way to an inevitable happy ending.

Run with your life, not behind
Behind the scenes
On the street
The shadow’s broken
Swept away
Trust your body and your head

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