Monday, December 27, 2021

The golden week

The comedian Michael McIntyre does a funny sketch about the week between Christmas and New Year's. He jokes we don't know what day of the week it is anymore, we can't remember if we get mail or not that day. In general we are in a sort of post-Christmas haze.

Like so many of you, I have fond memories of Christmas. I like the hectic preparation before, dashing into a shop, running to the grocery store for a few more items. I don't like crowds but I like to be part of the buzz. 

Then of course there is the warmth and fuzziness of Christmas Day itself: giving and receving presents, hanging out in your pajamas longer than usual, gorgeing on a big lunch and playing/relaxing in the afternoon.  My more recent expat experience is also FaceTiming with relatives back home in the US. 

But then there is the week after which is usually off for me. Firstly it is a well-deserved and long overdue mental break from thinking so much about work! As my company is closed this week there are no work emails pouring in, no small fires to put out. Work thoughts may creep in my head, of course, but I get a chance to remember who I am without my job tasks.

And it is also a lovely week when not much is scheduled at all so each day is free for small errands and outings or just hanging out without guilt. If there is any sort of schedule it reads like this:

  • go to Christmas market
  • play with kids and their new toys
  • bake something
  • watch Christmas movies
Of course, the need to cook and clean and do laundry still never go away but it can also be a time to catch up on a few home things and projects, clean out a drawer or organize the little one's room.

Mostly I do like the rest, being able to sleep later, not worry about staying up later to watch a movie and catching a nap if possible! I think most of us need this week of rest or at least a change of pace.  All the better to face a new year and all the responsibilities that come back in January...

What do you like the most about this time of year? 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Black and white

I had a student the other day say that for her, things were black or white. She was referring to a work issue and how it was hard for her to make her employee understand something that seemed quite straightforward to my student. It made me think of an issue I had had myself earlier in the week where I could see all the shades of grey but my colleague was staunchly black and white.

Then I started to think that maybe the world was made up of two categories of people, those who see things in such a logical, clear-cut way and those who ruminate, get lost in and maybe never find their way out of the forest of greys.  I am clearly in the latter category.  

There are some simple decisions that I can make quickly. But even "easy" decisions that have no major consequence on my life sometimes put me in that gray dilemma zone.  Should I stop to buy some bread now? But if I do I'll get in traffic and get home later.  If I go to this bakery I have to park here and it's hard to pull out onto the street.  If I go to the other one I could get those good homemade pizzas.  Or I could make my own pizza. But that would take more time at home... by which time I will probably have driven past all the bakeries and have arrived at my destination!

Sometimes I truly wish I could be one of those clear-cut, logical people. But my brain is just not often that way. Take changing cars. After saying I wanted to change my car for one with actual a/c and not that wimpy fan that I have in mine, I finally put it for sale on an online site. When I started getting actual interest and messages I started panicking and wondered if I had made the right decision. Answering messages stressed me. What if this person was a crook, unreliable, trying to pay in counterfeit money? Maybe I shouldn't sell my car at all and just keep it because change is too scary!

Aha! I think I put my finger on it.  In some cases I see the grey because I cannot see the clear advantages of one or another choice. My stress level rises in this totally indecisive area.  Another student told me they hate making decisions and would actually prefer someone else make decisions for them! I totally agree!

But in other cases grey is good. I think the ability to see the nuances and not just a binary choice is positive. When discussing and negotiating, recognizing the other party's view as just a darker shade of your perspective, can lead to compromise. Nilofer Merchant, TED talker and kick-ass business woman, says the same thing. She suggests walking meetings and has found that getting "out of the box", literally, helps people to see things differently and more as a spectrum instead of diametrically opposed. 

So maybe we need the grey to come together and overcome what sometimes seem to be impossible odds. Just as long as the waves of grey don't slow us down in everyday life.  I am still not sure what to do about my car. Which happens to be a grey one! Coincidence? I think not!

Monday, May 24, 2021

I heart the world

I don't think I have ever used the heart emojis as much as I did this last month. The big red heart. The two pink hearts. The face sending a kiss.  And I received a lot of those same emojis back.  The take care one with several hearts around it.  And you wouldn't think it, but an electronic symbol that is smaller than my pinky finger nail can mean so much at times like these.

On my birthday my husband got a call from a doctor announcing that his father had had a stroke. He had already been in the hospital for about two months at this point due to liver problems which we were hoping would get better.  Turns out they were much more serious than we realized or we had allowed ourselves to believe.  And after not being able to properly visit him during this time (thanks again, Covid), now we learned he had suffered a stroke and that it was serious.

I went through my birthday in a bittersweet haze.  Took the kids to the woods as I had planned and my girlfriends surprised me with some cake in the afternoon.  But my heart was heavy with worry. 

Our worst fears were confirmed a few days after that when the neurology department asked us to come to the ward.  We knew they wouldn't ask us to come during Covid times if it weren't serious.  The doctor from Cameroon with a strange bedside manner explained there had been too much bleeding in the brain for his dad to ever recover.  He was now in a coma.  He would go to hospice care.  We didn't know how much time he would be with us.  

He was basically in a coma. Sleeping peacefully in his hospital bed.  Still looking tanned (but we later learned the jaundice was responsible for part of that) and pretty much like his normal self.  We held his hand and talked to him.  Something we would do for the next week on our daily hospital visits.  We brought him cut flowers so his room wouldn't be bare.  The kids made him a card that he would never see.  We told him goodbye from countless friends and relatives who passed on their messages.  

My husband talked to him about the greenhouse, this man's life's work. What was blooming, how things were selling.  I recited the names of the flowers.  Told him that his grandson and I had planted things in our garden. That his granddaughter liked succulent plants just like her Papy.

His breathing got weaker, slower, and a week after entering hospice care, he left this world for the next one to join his wife who was already keeping a place for him.  We cried a lot.  But we knew he would never suffer again.  We knew we had that opportunity, so precious, to say goodbye to him, even if he couldn't answer us.

They say you know how deep your friendship is in times like this.  I can tell you my friends and family are just gold.  They sent me text messages (my church friend even sent me twice per day at her prayer times), watched the kids so we could go to the hospital, made me lasagna, and two even came to the funeral and cheered the kids up especially by their presence.

They took time out of their own busy lives to be with us and think of us and pray for us.  And that's why I say, friends, family, I 💓 you.  So much you'll never know.  And I'm here for you if you need me to return the favor. Out of a painful situation, I have felt so much love and know how blessed I am by the people in my life.  Who knows if God listens to all those prayers we send.  But I think He put the right people around me, and for that I am forever grateful. 

Saturday, April 17, 2021

When working from home becomes a nightmare...

Let's just say things have been a bit wild at my place the last two weeks. After the French president announced that schools would be closed for at least three weeks to stem the rising numbers of Covid cases and hospitalisations, I wondered how I was going to manage.  Like so many parents, especially moms, I had no choice but to watch the kids, especially my 3-year old.  My twelve-year old would happily draw and do tutorials and lounge around her room all day if I let her, but a toddler is obviously a different story...

I can do this, right? I asked myself.  I had already done a few online lessons with Alex in the background.  Sometimes jumping on the couch, sometimes pulling on my arm for a candy.  My students understand as most have kids themselves.  There was one week earlier this spring I had to do it when his class was closed due to one positive case in a pupil.

But three weeks of homeworking is another story.  I got off relatively easy during the first lockdown as I didn't have many online classes then.  Our days melded together in a strange schedule of sleeping in (for the kids), playtime inside or out, games, lunch, nap for the boy.  We got stir-crazy for sure.  But I didn't have the pressure of preparing and doing lessons. 

Now I feel the craziness that so many other lockdown parents have been.  Keep the kids (especially the little one) happy and calm, make a quick lunch, spend some time with them, while still delivering quality work!  Fortunately my schedule wasn't overly full the first two weeks.  It will be busier this upcoming week! 

I feel a constant push and pull of needing to do my work (prepare and actually DO the lesson) and be there for the children, provide for their physical and emotional needs.  And it doesn't help matters that my son is at that age where a tantrum is never far off.  My greatest fear is that he goes full tantrum mode during a lesson!  Most of my students have already seen his blonde head pop up on the screen as he asks for chocolate or the "tabou-lette" as he calls my iPad.  Yes, I am far beyong limiting screen time these days.  Screens are my babysitter.

So whereas before I would look at my schedule and calculate when I would be getting home or need to be leaving in the morning, now I look at it and wonder when I can feed the kids and get Alex down for a nap.  And is my lesson at a time when he is relatively calm and amenable or getting antsy?  If I have three hours in a row can I put my student on a task to put him (my toddler, not the student!) to bed for a nap (if he's willing!).

It has created a new kind of stress that is added to my existing anxiety about doing a good job and meeting the student's needs.  And there is nothing I can do about it.  One more week, I hope that is all, because I feel guilty not being able to be there fully for the kids and this stress is certainly not good for anyone.  

On the bright side, I suppose I am getting to spend a bit more time with the kids.  But it is often associated with this anxiety.  I can only do so much.  I can't change what is beyond my control.  And no doubt one day I'll look back on these three weeks and the respective ages of my kids with a bit of nostalgia.  If only I could enjoy this time a little more now!

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

It's time to breathe

I have been working too hard.  I have not been taking enough time for me or what I love.  I have gotten two bacterial head colds in two weeks.

I have also taken a big step (for me).  I have started seeing what the French call a "sophrologue", a relaxation specialist, who is helping me to slow down and breathe.  The techniques are quite like meditation and though this is something I have done on other occasions in my life, I am hoping this time the practice and the benefits will stick.

I have always been a checklist, do-er kind of girl.  Always study hard for the test, fill in all the blanks, get the job done on time, receive a gold star and move on to the next project.  Call it Type A personality, achiever-reward system, whatever you want.  It gets things done but does it fulfill *me* in the long term?

But I found despite all the recongition, praise, good comments or personal feeling I had done a good job on something, I still doubted myself, got into a panic and flop sweat in front of bigger groups of students and felt altogether anxious.  This was despite being well-prepared and even feeling things were going well.  My body automatically went into fight or flight mode and triggered a nervous system response as if a bear were chasing me.

That is what prompted me to see a sophrologue.  I was tired of anxiety or the habit of anxiety taking me hostage.  My therapist said she couldn't necessarily solve all physical symptoms of my anxiety, but she is helping me to focus and take time for me.

At our second session when I told her I had been trying the abdominal breathing when I was at a red light, she said, well, that's good, but you've got to commit more time to it.  The next week I made more of an effort to take ten minutes for me each day.  It doesn't seem like much but with a toddler, a tween, a job, a house and a husband, those ten minutes can be tough to find.

Sometimes I do those ten minutes with Alex, watching toddler yoga and meditation on youtube.  Or we dance to our favorite songs with my daughter and work up a good kind of sweat.  Or when the kids are asleep I listen to a ten-minute meditation on my phone.  Sometimes it is just watching what I want and not what the kids want.  I say, my turn, and take the remote and watch my happy place baking show, Nadya Bakes, and Alex watches or plays next to me.

I just started watching Headspace on Netflix which explains the benefits of mediation in a light-hearted way and ends with a short meditation you can do on your couch (perfect for this couch potato).  

Don't worry, I am not booking a flight to Nepal yet nor becoming a Buddhist monk.  I am just trying to be still for longer than a second.  To be patient with me.

I fall off the wagon and get irritated and frustrated still.  But I feel a change coming over me.  The other day I didn't get irritated when my 12-year old was getting crazy about her homework.  I told her to take a break and come back to it when she was calmer.  I say "no" a little more often because I feel my health depends on it.  Strangely I feel like I need to speak my mind a little more (but that could also be age). 

So I am on the path and I know there are times I will stray off it but I hope that I will continue to enjoy this walk.  And remember it's about being, not just doing!

Monday, December 28, 2020

The year the world got smaller

If 2020 were one of those cheesy hostage-taking action films on cable, we would be in the phase where we thought the bad guy was practically dead (vaccine found!), breathing his last raspy breath, when suddenly, his fingers started moving slowly (new more contagious variant!).  It's the year that won't quit, that knocks us on the head and waits for us to get back up feebly then gives us a sucker punch.  Not to mention just all the regular tragic news that happens any year: deadly explosion in Lebanon, terrorist attacks in France, Santana from Glee dying, for goodness sake!

So many of us are just over this year.  Millions of families have experienced loss due to this virus or disrupted work and loss of income.  Those are the biggies.  But there are also the less tangible things that have changed this year.  

The world got smaller.  

When the first spring lockdowns arrived in many countries, we were confined to our homes or gardens- the odd trip to get groceries was practically the only outing allowed.  Even with restrictions lifted, travel to my country, the US, was off limits this summer.  My sister had to postpone her wedding (shout out to her and her beau, who said "oui" at the courthouse anyway).  In the fall in Europe we were restricted again, not even a day trip to Belgium was authorized.  And then in late October a second lockdown, (albeit less restrictive than the spring) began, and we had to trot out our paper or electronic authorizations every time we left the house.

When you know you can't do something, it makes you want to do it even more.  We used to be able to get in the car and go visit another city on Sunday and not think a minute more about it.  With the lockdown we were limited to 1 km (0.6 miles) around our house for daily exercise.  Day trips to the UK are still out of the question.  For a girl with wanderlust, this year has been frustrating.  I tell my husband and students that once we can, I think people will travel like mad next year!

And so our borders have shrunk in around us this year, forcing us to appreciate what is close to home.  And this second wave of restrictions has coincided with fall and winter as the days are shorter and colder.  As I was working mostly from home these past two months, walking Alex to school and picking him up were sometimes my only ten minute-outings.  I would take him around 8 as it just started getting light in my part of the world.  I would pick him up around five as it started to get dark again.  

I would imagine us hugging the earth with our feet, a bit like the illustrations in Le Petit Prince.  The bare branches of the trees silhouetted by the blues and greys of the sky surrounded us.  

"Come on, come on, it's dark and cold," I would tell him, as he stopped to pick up a rock that had chalky qualities and started drawing on the sidewalk for the third time.  We dodged the dog poop on that one sidewalk every time.  Sometimes he tired of walking and I picked him up in his yellow coat and hugged him close.  

We would reach the home stretch where he recognized our street and he could walk more confidently to the front door.  And so another evening would start, play time, squabbles with his sister, dinner, bedtime, and we start again the next day.  At least most days I don't have to deal with a commute.  

My world is smaller, and like winter, I must find comfort and beauty where I can.  Like the colored rose-hips on the rose bushes or the last stubborn golden leaves hanging on a tree.  We are looking inward, building strength for the next challenges and keeping hope alive.  The buds are already on the trees, if we look closely.  It has to get better.  Even bad cable movies have happy endings.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

There's your moment

Lockdown is practically a distant memory now.  We have fallen back into the rhythms of school and work and seeing each other briefly, grumpily in the mornings. Hectically, a bit less stressed in the evenings.  But homework and bath time and egging both kids to do what they need to can turn that evening quality time into a quagmire.  

Then there is usually one moment (if I am lucky more than one!) where I pause on purpose or in spite of myself and say, this is the good part of my day.  I try to find that moment and hold onto it, even if I have to turn back to the computer for lesson prep or some other admin task once the kids are in bed.  Even if I have left pots and pans in the sink (every day!) and must just avoid eye contact with that area of the kitchen as I dash in for a yogurt after dinner.  I try to keep that takeaway moment with me even into the next day, when I am back at work longing for the next reunion with the kids and family time.

It becomes that little nugget that keeps me going.  

Sometimes it is a very short moment.  Sometimes it is a photo that I can look back on during the workaday week and remember.

Sometimes it is a moment I am not even participating in fully but just watching between my children or my husband and one of the kids.

Here are some examples:

When my oldest reads my youngest a bedtime story and the put their heads so close together.

When my youngest comes into my lap first thing in the morning and takes a strand of my hair.

When my daughter says something so very American that makes me realize, hey, I have done a decent job at making her bilingual!

When, miracle of miracles, there is a moment of silence at dinner because everyone thinks my simmered pork is tasty.

When I drop my pre-schooler off at school early and he sees the moon in the sky and points it out excitedly.

When a student tells me they enjoyed our lesson.

When a friend sends me a joke or silly GIF on my photo and we both think it is just so funny!

When my US family and I go off on some private joke or crazy idea that makes me smile at my screen.

When the cat comes right smack on the middle of my lap and my fleece blanket when I have settled down on the couch. 

When my husband and I talk about new ideas for the garden  (and we actually agree!). 

When said husband comes into the living room with ice cream cones for us both. 

When I catch the sky looking particularly lovely. 

And I often say in my head, there's your moment.  And it might not keep all the stress and anxiety at bay.  It may not stay with me eternally but if I string all those moments together, it makes for a pretty good life. Perhaps we won't remember all the years that pass, but it's those little moments that will sparkle and glimmer back at us when we are older.  

What are your moments? How do you "keep" them?