The first day of a new life

Ok, it took a while to readjust to a new kind of writing or, rather, a different theme; one that didn’t revolve around a specific person but instead around the common feelings that every human being is faced with.

The last three months have been incredibly painful, in many ways, but more inspiring than they were painful.  I have met people from very different walks of life, shared a few steps of their paths, learned about their families, ate with them, slept with them, talked about their past, their lives, their parents.  Many of these people I have not met in person.  And it’s strange to think that I’ve shared a meal that for me was breakfast and for someone else was dinner over skype, during which they told me something outrageously intimate without having ever seen my face. Or that I flew next to a woman in a niqab who bent down to pray as I was downloading Tinder at Heathrow, and in spite of our differences we still managed to become great friends. Or that I keep in touch with a one night stand because he needs to talk about his concerns for his son who may be gay and my lovely date thought he was ready for it but he isn’t, and doesn’t know how to deal with it. Or that I ended up holding someone’s hand during an HIV test, after he claimed to be a sex machine and broke down crying when I approached the subject of HIV. Or that…

All these things, and many more, sound insane, and yet they happened because I let them happen.  And I’m not regretting them or thinking that I could have stepped out of them a moment sooner.  I’m actually glad they happened because they opened such a huge window onto a world I didn’t even suspected existed, they have shown me sides of humanity that – for different reasons- I had never been ready to see.  It’s not because I was judgemental, but rather because I was focused on my life.  Now my life has become others’ life too and this means that like in the Pink Floyd’s record their lives can filter through me and turn into mine.  Like light filtering through a prism.

It is possible that someone lied, yes, but the discussions that came out of that lie, or the reflections that were triggered by it were real and so, does it really matter if they didn’t stem from a crystal-clear truth?

A sort of fil rouge that a lot of these conversations had in common was the issue of time.  For different reasons people are very aware of time: either because they are running out of it (not necessarily in terms of time to the end of one’s life, but more time left to the achievement of a set goal), or because they don’t have enough, or because they would use it differently than they are doing if they had the chance to.

So, time.  Time heals all wounds.  Living on borrowed time. Time flies like an arrow.

Everything that is being said about it is true, and it’s also false.  Time escapes us, and that’s why it’s so important.  We can’t control it, we can try to manage but it’s inexorable.

We have all wasted it and, likewise, we all wished we had more of it, sometimes we have hoped it would go faster but, regardless of what one’s relationship is with it, almost no one is able to live the present.  “Living the present” or “enjoying what you have” are two sentences that I’ve always cordially despised, but the essence is true: even the pain is necessary and I’ve personally just experienced how much pain has taught me in a relatively short time, compared to how little I’ve learnt in periods of better emotional stability.

Somehow, I’ve regained the grip on my life I had when I started this blog: the year I never said no.

When you say “no”, you may say no to an adventure, to a small window into somebody else’s life, to cheating time by living two lives at the same time, are you really sure some more safety is worth it?

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Giving a name to your pain makes you stronger

Sadly, this will be the last time you hear about French Village Boy.  It’s time to move on: love, rejection, lust, desire, rejection (yes, twice), seduction, friendship, acceptance, rage, jealousy, competitiveness have all been widely explored and we will certainly find some other proxy to analyse our feelings.

One last reflection needs to be made though.  The relevance of the acknowledgment of pain in our everyday life.  While describing the church scene in the movie “Paris can wait” (previous post) I left something out: when the protagonist tells the French man that Virgin Mary is the only character she can relate to, because “only those who have lost a child can understand what it means”, he responds with a very simple, and yet very empathic “But you are normal, you are human”.

Well, there.  Those of us who have lost a child, at different stages of pregnancy or because an adoption fell through, know what it means to have your life thrown back at you, your compass shattered and be left in the middle of a hungry ocean.  When things fall apart, as African writer Chinua Achebe would have said, we need to find a tree to cling on.

Few men understand parenthood in the physical way women experience it: they may be amazing fathers, but the process leading to having a little being in their lives is less powerful, and less exhausting.  And when it doesn’t happen, on average, men are more likely to move on and start planning the next phase, whether in the shape of a new baby, focus on work or decide to run a marathon.

If I look at my situation carefully, the end of my relationship was not as painful as expected because it built on the unspoken blame of having been left alone when I felt I was drowning.  Ironically, the blame was placed on me, for not being “excited enough about motherhood”.

How many times have we all been blamed for apparently not wanting something that was too big for us to even consider a possibility?  A career advancement, a new house, and for some even a child.  Growing up to believe that “this may be too much for us” is the very root of the inherently female-driven impostor syndrome.

Without any knowledge of my situation, and definitely without agenda, French Village Boy simply acknowledged my pain, he eased it by saying “Your body screams for children”, recognising with those five words that I could dare to desire, and placing that power right in my hands.

Before him my pain had never been acknowledged: it was considered by my family of origin as a little more than a nuisance and by my partner as a first step that we missed but would be luckier about the next time around.  My pain was also overlooked by me, I didn’t give myself time to grieve and overcome it. And French Village Boy did exactly that: he gave me time and space.

Watch the movie, or don’t watch it, but try and think about what gave you pain and you didn’t allow yourself time to overcome.  Everyone has something in their closet, and if you are really lucky you come across someone who opens that door and is ready to take what comes out of it.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the person who can take your pain is doing it for love, often there’s an asymmetry that leads us to misunderstand situations: whoever takes your pain may be doing it just because they know they can, or without realizing it.  In the same way, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the gratitude you feel is love, they delivered you for your pain, love is built on other grounds.

It was a minute, and it’s already passed.  But it left you lighter and stronger.

Save me

My feminist self would have never in a million years imagined to hear me say these words, but I’ve reached the point in my life when I come to terms with the fact that there’s a wound that no one will ever heal.  And it’s something that I don’t often talk about, because I wish it was healed but it’s not.

A year and a half ago my partner and I filed for adoption in the country we lived in.  We got through most of the process and were ready to meet our baby girl when we were told that it wasn’t going to happen.  For a stupid bureaucratical reason.  We would have been amazing parents, she would have been saved from a life of misery (and please refrain from commenting “you don’t know that”: it’s my job, I know that) and yet it didn’t work out.  We even picked a name for her.  We bought her clothes, we read books about what to do with babies, we learnt how to change diapers, we made plans.

This keeps haunting me.  It’s not my fault, it’s nobody’s fault, but I still think of her every day, she’s almost two now. I try not to think about what my life would be like with her, but the truth is that it would probably be happier.  I would be more settled, quieter and less in the constant search for something.  I wouldn’t be running, I wouldn’t be reckless, I wouldn’t be as professionally successful and French Village Boy wouldn’t have found a place in my life and in my heart.

I’m currently attending a training in Europe, on my way here I watched a movie on the plane without much expectation.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s own way it’s a little gem – I will talk about cultural shock in my next post.

There’s a specific scene that has really hit me: in a church the American lady travelling with the French man (the two main characters) explains how she lost a child 39 days after he was born.  She then parted from a her first husband, who didn’t cope with the pain in the same way she did and married someone else and had another child, but she never forgot that one, gone so long ago.

In the church she says something that resonated with me: “When I’m in a church I always light a candle for Virgin Mary, only who has lost a child can understand how it feels to lose a child”.

I haven’t technically lost my child because I never held her in my arms or carried her in me, but I dreamt about her, I bought her clothes, I worried about her cultural shock of being from one country, being raised by parents from two different countries and in a number of other countries, I worried about her health when I learnt she was sick, I pre-worried about when she would have friends and fight with them, I pre-worried about racism against her, I pre-worried about the men who would see in her only a pretty Asian girl and planned ways to prepare her to fight back.

I did lose a child.  And I’m inclined to believe that the root of some of the big issues (bigger than French Village Boy, but that include him) come from the sense of loss and loneliness I felt after that.  My partner suffered, in his own way, and then moved on.  I didn’t move on and probably blamed him, albeit subconsciously, for not being closer to me and feeling my same pain.  But can someone ever feel the same pain?  Can pain be measured?  Can pain come out years later, as something that was forgotten in a drawer and suddenly comes out?

I recently found out that a friend of mine is pregnant.  She has been very close at a certain time in my life, one of those friendship that grow strong very fast more due to the circumstances than to the actual similarities between two people.  She is very different to me and I have been mostly a support to her than an actual friend. I needed a friend who didn’t belong to my professional context (as it turns our humanitarians ALWAYS hang out with other humanitarians) and she needed someone who would behave as friend, without a hidden agenda.

I don’t have a good relationship with several new age techniques (or rather blunt appropriation of millennia-old philosophies, like Qi Gong, Tai Chi and the likes) and therefore I tend to process change while running.  Running in Africa comes with a perk: life around you.  If in the West people have dedicated places for running, or the most narcissistic choose to run in the middle of the shopping areas of their towns (honestly dude, you are just showing off), in Africa there are no running tracks, often not even sidewalks, so you run where you can.

Running in your neighbourhood can be quite an experience.  First of all because of the pace, most of us usually drive everywhere and miss the details of life around us.  Of course we notice a beautiful tree in full bloom, but we miss the lady selling roasted corn on the side of the road, the stray dog with a litter of puppies behind a bush or the massive stork nest on top of your head.

These are the small things that, while I run, put the problems I went to run to process back into perspective.  Life is beautiful, not because of the big scheme of things, it’s beautiful for the small things that decorate it. Quite possibly Life can be compared to an average apartment in a very average neighbourhood, but what you manage to see around you, the details you can grasp, make it a dream home or a shithole.

The other thing you notice when running in Africa is that the only one person out of context is you.  Whether you run to lose weight or to steam out stress, anger, frustration, no one around you shares your same concerns.  Most people around you don’t have such sophisticated problems (and the fact that your problems are sophisticated, in this context, is unflattering, trust me) and, by the end of your run, if you have looked around you, this difference affects you.

 

You looked better as an hypothesis

I took a few days to reflect about where I am and where I am going, a rekindled friendship with French Village Boy –who seemed genuinely interested in my next career moves and took an unexpected interest in me being stranded in Amsterdam- has forced me to take a deep breath and look at things as they are.

Everything about French Village Boy is appealing to me: his literary tastes, (to a certain extent) his music tastes, his sense of humour, his fast-paced intelligence.  And yet he is so much better in an hypothetical world than in the reality of his day to day life.  Which is what he chose, and I am no one to judge, but I have this feeling about him, that he is a perfectly fit general turning their back on all the wars to fight in the world.  He would tell you he simply chose a different war, and to be fair a vast part of me envies his balance.

I would love to be able to plan a life in one place, pick my battle and fight it until the end.  Instead I’m a mercenary, not for money but for the adrenaline rush, and my battles may seem driven by the final objective but really they are mostly driven by novelty.  I want to change the world I live in, yes, I want to fight side by side with women to ensure that by the end of my life, meaningful steps towards gender equity will be achieved, but I’m unable to stick to one thing.  As soon as I arrive in a new country I start looking at where I would like to go next, as soon as I start a job I start applying for others.  I’m restless.  And reckless.

And the fact that I get so upset at all of French Village Boy’s wasted talent for wanting do his bit, while carving out enough space for himself, to go surfing, probably comes from the fact that I wish I was able to do the same.

The truth is that I live for passion (which has the same root as patience – being able to feel pleasure comes from the same essence as being able to suffer while waiting) and unless I wake up with a fish tank full of sharks in my head, maybe not every morning, but often enough, I really struggle to keep up.  In order to have the highest of peaks, which I live for, I need to go into the deepest of depths.

I could train myself to be different, I guess, to equalize my expectations and feelings, flatten out the peaks but also raise those depths.  But once that is done, once I have learnt to keep a job for several years, I have friends that don’t change cyclically, once I have a lease agreement for a house that lasts longer than a year, what’s left of me?  Who am I without my peaks and depths?

I would like to find out but I’m also scared, and I envy French Village Boy, and for a time I thought that if I had to embark on this journey I could only do it with him, but the truth is that I don’t want the journey.  Or the outcome. Not yet.

“You looked better as an hypothesis” and “a fish tank full of sharks in the head” come from this song by Italian band Lo Stato Sociale.

We are siblings of the same pain

It was a simple realization, I was running the other day and it just hit me.  I need pain.

It’s not some emo phase, I had to keep running and think about what had crossed my mind to fully understand what I meant.

My friends have prompted me to meet other people to try and push French Village Boy out of my mind.  They know about all my healing path (urban parcour, rather, considering the piroettes and face smashes that stand between me and “getting over” French Village Boy) and they are convinced that another person would ease the pain and eventually make me re-define FVB for what he has been: a pleasant four days in the French countryside.

What most people struggle to see – and don’t get me wrong, I have no answers, I struggled to see it more clearly until a couple of days ago- is that the connection between me and him has been sparked ten years ago and rekindled a few months ago by the need I have to find someone who understands my pain.

As Tolstoj says “All happy families look alike, but every unfortunate family is unfortunate in its own way”: the same goes for pain.  Everybody thinks that their pain is more piercing, more intense, more difficult to overcome.  Over the years I discovered that more or less we all suffer the same amount of pain, but we suffer it in different ways.

I lost my father when I was 17, which in itself was a horrific amount of pain, but what came after is what shaped me and took me the remaining fifteen years to overcome.  The next fifteen years are the void I need to recognize in someone else’s eyes to be able to trust them with my heart.  And once that agony is recognized in the other person it becomes very difficult for me to detach myself from them.  It’s about finding comfort in pain, it’s about knowing that even without speaking the other person knows exactly what you are desperate about.

It’s not about sadness, not about having a bad day.  When the void manages to grab you again, after a period of relative tranquillity, it does it with claws, and right into your guts.  There’s nothing you can do about it, but let it rip you apart, until it’s done with you and moves on.  You have no control over the void, the best you can do is to wait until it has torn you apart and got tired of you.

Perseus. My liver is being torn to shreds by a pain I can’t describe, and it feels – it felt- comforting to know that next to me there was a person who didn’t need to ask, but looked me in the eye and took me for a walk.  French Village Boy has been through a similar pain, and though it’s not my place to disclose details of his personal life, I can tell that all this running to finally end up in a small village between the sea and the forest is his way of finding a safe haven.

It hurts to say that I don’t know him well enough to tell whether this is really a final destination, or simply a shelter from the storm.  I know that all the safe havens I had thought I found in my life have turned out to be temporary solutions, because when the storm is inside you there is no shelter strong enough to keep it at bay, there is nowhere to run.

The reason why I struggle to find other people interesting, in the end, is because fortunately the world is full of people who have gone through some degree of pain but in a physiological way.  They have overcome it and they worry about other things.  They may be angry, stressed, frustrated, but they are not unarmed facing an enemy.  We are.  And we ran for long enough to have learnt how to deal with the beast on a day to day basis, but let’s not fool ourselves.  We deal with it only because the beast lets us, not because we are stronger than it is.

Astral connections

“Zahir means, in Arabic, visible, present, unable to go unnoticed. Someone or something that, once it has established a connection, ends up inhabiting our thoughts little by little, up to the point there is nothing else we can concentrate on.  And that can be considered sanctity, or folly”

– Paulo Coelho, The Zahir

I have been swinging between maintaining a friendly relationship with French Village Boy and avoiding contact with him.  Partly because I wanted him to look for me and partly because I needed to put space, mostly mental, between us.  The other day he sent me a picture of a dawn, beautiful and pink, very romantic.  The irrational side of me thought he was thinking of me as he was talking a walk at dawn, whereas the more rational side of me thought it’s just a picture followed by the question: who was he awake with, to watch sunrise?

The thing is, as much as I try to put space between us, something about him keeps coming back. In an attempt to look for change (the irrational kind of change – move move move as long as moving keeps you from staying still) I have applied for a job in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and got an interview.  As I applied for it my mind was split into two: on the one side I felt empowered as I may be embarking on a journey with no return, on the other I am terrified because I may be spiraling down a journey with no return.

Same journey with no return, different feelings about it.

In order to prepare for the interview, which I’m going to do as best I can regardless of whether I will accept the job, I have asked on the expat facebook group of the city where I’m living if any French native speaker would be willing to have lunch with me and give me a mock interview.  An hour later I got a response and today I had lunch with her.  As it turns out she comes from a small French island in what the French (oh, the French) call the territoires d’outre mer.  Since French Village Boy’s sister worked as a midwife on said island I mentioned her.  It goes without saying, they know each other.

Now, as I apply for a job in the literal middle of nowhere and I find someone from an equally obscure middle of nowhere willing to help me, I come across the only person in the whole of the country that has been his sister’s friend for 10 years.  I do try to move on, but somehow life keeps bouncing him back to me.

I think that there’s a lesson to learn here.  I’m not sure what it is, and I’m afraid to say out loud that the lesson I need to learn is about closure.  But the truth is that life keeps throwing hints about him, his village and his family members to me, not because it’s pushing me towards him, but because it’s trying to make me come to terms that whatever there was, or wasn’t, is over.

It’s over.  Whatever there was or wasn’t is over.

And this bitch of a life keeps putting glimpses of him in front of me as if it was saying “you can’t sweep him under the rug, you have to say the words out loud.  That’s the only way you have to move on”.

But the truth is…  maybe I don’t want to move on.  All this pain has taught me so much, it has put on my way people who live half way across the world who recognized my pain as their own (thank you Kostas!) and without knowing me are offering me their support and their love.  This pain has brought closer to me friends who were already close but whose friendship had never been tested.  Likewise, it has pushed away friends who proclaimed their undying friendship but then weren’t able to handle a heartbreak.  This pain has opened a door onto myself and I slowly come out of it stronger and more self aware.

This pain is in a way comforting, and while I can say out loud that between me and French Village Boy there will never be love, I am unwilling to let go of the feeling that there may be.

How much are we willing to compromise, for real?

Compromise.  We are all extremely open when it comes to negotiation and concessions, until it hits close to the heart.  A lot of people claim to be ok with an open relationship, especially if distance is a factor, or with adding another person to some of their sexual interactions, or to try swinging.  Very few actually act on it and fewer still are able to manage a, de facto, intruder.

Of course, a sexual intruder can be kinky and at the same time extremely dangerous, but what most people don’t seem to realize is that only in a fraction of cases compromise relates to the sexual sphere.  More often than not we are called to compromise in our daily lives.

I am struggling a lot with the realization that I want to be in a relationship, but I also want to accept none of the clauses that come with it.  I want to have a partner who is willing to put his career on hold for mine, but I also want someone who is successful in what they do. I want someone who wants to build a future with me, but I also don’t want to be bound to that person. I want a poet, better if a revolutionary AND a poet, but also someone practical who cooks dinner and doesn’t forget to pay the electricity bill. I guess that, in principle, I want everything.  Then in practice I will have to agree to some things and stand my ground on some others.

I really envy people who naturally fall into each other’s needs.  I always felt that I had to fight for what I have, and I’m irrationally afraid of losing it.  And it’s irrational because I was born privileged and I have worked hard to be where I am, but as hard as anyone who works hard, I have done nothing exceptional to be here.  However, there has been a time when I thought my dreams would never come true: it was a difficult time for my family and I had stepped up to be more responsible.  Like many people I didn’t see the end of a tough time and thought that was going to be my forever.  I even fell in love with someone who would fit into that narrative (a doctor, from my same city, very attached to his family too) so that I wouldn’t be tickled to stray and change everything.

But then of course life happens, people get better and you are less needed and that perfect partner you had found yourself is not so perfect anymore and you move on.

After being dumped in Ethiopia (Yeah, I get dumped a lot) I remember I felt nothing for a while, and then I felt this amazing sense of power: from then on I could do what I wanted because I only had to respond to myself.  And I did.  In the process I found a man who was exactly like me and fuelled my super power with ideas that I didn’t even dare dream.  We acted on them and had an amazing ride, but then we had to be amazing on our own. I got dumped again (this time in Zambia) but mostly because of my inability to compromise and give space to another person.  Again, I wanted everything.

The thing is: I literally understand everyone who dumps me/tells me they don’t want me, because I wouldn’t date me, let alone spend the rest of my life with me.  I’m unpredictable, mostly, sometimes unreliable and majestically selfish.  But also demanding.  So yeah, not relationship material.  And yet I really do want a relationship, I’m just unable to do what it takes to accommodate the need of another person.

And this is, I think, one of the main lessons that I have to learn (it only took 32 years to get there): compromise is not always a bad word.  Accommodating literally means “making space”, I need to learn how to make space for another person, because learning to love is nice, because it’s to each other’s mutual benefit to be able to live together and not always run after the next adventure.

Because sometimes the war inside us has to end, even when it has gone on for so long that it’s comforting to know that there’s one place in the world – the inner war- that identifies us.