Saying Yes

“Take the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. At least it’s done. It’s over. It’s gone. We can all learn from our mistakes and heal and move on. But it’s harder to learn or heal or move on from something that hasn’t happened; something we don’t know and is therefore indefinable; something which could very easily have been the best thing in our lives, if only we’d taken the plunge, if only we’d held our breath and stood up and done it, if only we’d said yes.”

– Danny Wallace, ‘Yes Man’

Something wasn’t right. It was the second weekend of January and at around 6pm on both Saturday and Sunday I got weepy. I had lost my phone earlier that week and had made no plans for the weekend, in an attempt to be spontaneous. However, being without a phone and leaving my weekend social life up to chance had not paid off. I spent the whole weekend in my flat, venturing out only to go to the supermarket.

Spending a weekend in on my own hadn’t really bothered me before. I have enjoyed it – sometimes even relished in it – and I freely admit that I have spent quite a few Saturday nights in. So why had this particular weekend affected me so much?

First, I put it down to the January blues. I soothed myself thinking that everyone gets them. Then I piled the fact that I couldn’t call or text on top of the January blues. I flung another excuse on the pile: I recently got a bit of disappointing news concerning someone I had a crush on. “That’s it!” yelped my eureka moment, “It’s January, I’m phoneless and my crush is unavailable! Yes, three very good reasons for feeling down in the dumps.”

And once that downward spiral started, there was really no stopping it. Pity-party Peter, Johnny no-mates and Sally self-loathing invited themselves round to my flat, parked themselves on my comfy couch and long out-stayed their welcome. Over the next couple of days I told a few friends about my depressing weekend in. I didn’t quite understand it: I love my own company. I have a lovely life here: a lovely flat; a lovely job; lovely friends; a lovely social life. Weekends are supposed to be a light relief to the working week. Why was I longing for the weekend to be over?

I was determined not to repeat the experience, but it wasn’t until I had lunch with a friend did this scary thought finally dawn on me: by spending my weekends in, my life was passing me by. I had my weekdays evenings booked with various activities but my weekend pursuits were a bit meagre. Take for example my knowledge of Brussel’s nightlife: I didn’t really know where the good nightspots were and I had only been clubbing less than a handful of times (I’ve lived here nearly three years). Dude.

I had no excuses: I couldn’t blame the commute to city centre – I live 15 minutes away by metro. I couldn’t blame my finances – I earn a decent salary. There is no language difficulty, there is always some event going on. No, I was being rubbish and hiding behind something.

About seven or eight years ago, my brother lent me Yes Man by the English author Danny Wallace. Danny Wallace was coming out of a long-term relationship and saying no a lot – mostly when it came to socialising. He met a man on the bus one night who simply told him to ‘say yes more’ and he decided from then on to do so. What ensued were wild adventures and finding the love of his life, not to mention getting a book and film deal out of it. Not bad going for saying yes.

I was reminded of this book when I came across the advice of dating guru Matthew Hussey on how to find my ideal man. One of his suggestions was to say yes to every opportunity that presented itself during the month of January.

I didn’t say yes to everything, but I said yes to a lot. I said yes to drinks, to parties, to exhibitions, to brunch, to coffees. I said yes to social events with complete strangers. I said yes to spontaneous adventures and trips, I said yes to going after crazy dreams. Most importantly, I said yes to not being in my flat on a Saturday night. If I only manage to stick to one Yes this year, it will be the last one.

Of course, sometimes by saying no, I am saying yes to myself. For instance, on occasion I do need to just relax, enjoy being idle, and slow down. The key – with everything in life – is balance. But what Danny Wallace makes really clear is that if you don’t say yes, things just stay the same. I think it’s ok for things to stay the same,  until you start feeling stuck.

That weekend was a turning point for me. So far, I’ve been out every Saturday night since. For Danny Wallace, saying yes changed his life: “The fact is saying yes hadn’t been a pointless exercise at all. It had been pointful. It had the power to change lives and set people free… It had the power of adventure. Sometimes the little opportunities that fly at us each day can have the biggest impact.” Matthew Hussey talks about how the smallest shifts in our dating lives can yield the biggest results. Saying yes is a small shift.

I challenge you to say, “Yes”.

Generous Ramadan

One of my favourite articles about Ramadan first appeared in The Jerusalem Post back in July 2011 and later in his blog, the Chronikler. It is written by a Belgian-Egyptian journalist named Khaled Diab. I love this article because he writes about the wonderful events that happen during Ramadan: the feasting; the celebrating; the entertainment. He also writes about the similarities of fasting in the Abrahamic faiths and accounts a story of the Jewish man that does Ramadan. What I love most about this article is that it makes me think about what Ramadan means to me.

I began fasting in my early teens. I am pretty good at observing the fast but to this day I am yet to fast the full month. I found some years easier than others, and usually this was when Ramadan fell in the winter months! Now Ramadan falls during the long, lazy days of summer, to my dismay. When I was younger, Ramadan was more was about the excitement of eating delicious food before sunrise (suhoor) and during break-fast at sun-down (iftar).

Each morning, my Dad would get my brother and I up. We would come down bleary-eyed and lethargic. But as soon as I saw the food on the table: the cakes, the rice and curry, I instantly became alert with excitement at the thought of devouring everything. I often left the table with a rotund belly, feeling like lead. Iftar was pretty much the same. No wonder I didn’t lose any weight!

In more recent years, I have used the abundance of free time (it is amazing how much time we spend eating or dreaming about what we are going to eat) reflecting on the significance of Ramadan. It is a time for giving up: not just the food, but the ill-thoughts; the material things; the small things. It is a time for thinking about those less fortunate than us, and a time for taking action: serving others; treating people well; spending time with one-another.

When it came to eating at suhoor and breaking fast, the food had lost some of its charm. I discovered that I could live very well on much less, and I don’t just mean food-wise, but materially too. I seemed to have more energy and I had this very strong feeling of well-being. It is a strange feeling: like a warm glow engulfs your body from the inside. I felt pure.

I find doing Ramadan hard on my own. One of the reasons why I enjoyed it with my brother and my Dad was that we were doing it together. At suhoor, we would talk about different things, and Dad would usually teach us something new about the Qur’an or the teachings of Prophet Muhammed. During the day, we would encourage one another to keep going. Iftar was always really special because Dad would have the dates out on the table, Mum the cups of tea, whilst I would be counting down the time. Taking the first sip of tea or the first bite of a date was absolutely glorious.

When Ramadan was over, I tried my best to maintain the good examples that had been set during it. Unfortunately, I could never sustain them to the same degree. Fortunately, doing Ramadan has taught me one last lesson: that these wonderful actions and moments of sharing and giving should not just be confined to one month, and not just confined to one faith; but to all, and every day.

I wish you all a “Ramadan kareem”.

July 2012: My "F**k It" month

“I once asked a Jesuit priest what was the best short prayer he knew. He said, “F**k it,” as in, “F**k it; it’s in God’s hands.”

– Anthony Hopkins

When I came back from London after my interview (that I mentioned in my post 29), I decided that July 2012 was going to be my “F**k It” month. I would literally apply this glorious phrase to every decision I made. Every day, I noted down what I said this magical obscenity to and would just see what happened in the process. To celebrate the first anniversary of my new attitude, I would like to share with you some of the things I said “f**k it” to this time last year and how it began to change the course of my life.

The F**k It Life was created by John C Parkin and his wife Gaia. They worked in advertising in London and had spent many years studying Eastern philosophy and meditation. Even though they liked their jobs, they had enough of their life in London and decided to leave it all behind them and move to Italy to start retreats. They claim that saying this phrase can be just as powerful as practising Buddhism and meditation, because when you say it, you immediately become detached and non-judgmental, which are some of the central tenets of Eastern philosophy.

I became instantly hooked when I read that little picture book last year. Since then I’ve devoured more of their books and passed them on to others (they are an excellent gift!).  I found these two simple words so liberating because essentially the philosophy is based around the idea (or the truth) that things really don’t matter so much. So when I started realising that things really don’t matter so much, I became less attached to lost dreams or what people thought of me. I became more forgiving of trespasses against me and those of my own doing. I worried less about what I should be doing and focussed more on what I was actually doing. And the great thing about all of this? I was actually having fun! I said yes more, I tried out new things, I stopped doing the things I disliked and I swore a lot!

So here are some of the things that were getting me down that I decided to let go:

1. Not having a life plan.
2. Not having any savings.
3. Failing to become a practising lawyer before I even started.
4. Seeking approval from others.
5. Caring about people who were just not that into me.

And on the flip side, I:

1. Ate more chocolate.
2. Wore pink jeans.
3. Did an Art Nouveau cycling tour.
4. Wrote articles about my life in Brussels and my failed legal career.
5. Revelled in the boring bits of my job.
6. Joined a musical theatre company.
7. Tried different dishes and new restaurants.
8. Let people go who were hurting me.
9. Enjoyed the rain (it rained a lot last July).

By just even saying it, I immediately relaxed: the tension lifted; my breath deepened; my pulse steadied. There is something really magical about it because as soon as you say it, the worry does disappear; it may be temporary at first, but just remember that feeling of relief and keep going.

I did not do any wild stuff during this month but I noticed the changes. I became more accepting of my lot, and yet at the same time more willing to expand my comfort zone and re-configure my lot. I became more trusting of my ability and consequently I felt like I used less brain power but achieved better results. I also realised that I didn’t need to be anyone or do anything to be ok. Perhaps that is what freedom is.

So, why don’t you take up the challenge? Let July 2013 be your “F**k It” month and see what changes it brings about? As one caption in the picture book says, “Be open to something spectacular happening today.”  But please keep it lawful; I take no responsibility for any f**k ups.

Driving with the headlights on

My Dad is great at emailing me motivational and inspirational videos. I am very attentive when I listen, usually with a pen and paper in hand to jot down useful insights or words of advice, making sure some of it will stick. The one I saw lately was of the 2013 Ivy Orator speaker for the Havard Graduation Class, Blythe B Roberson. At first you wonder where she is going with her speech but keep watching, she’s incredibly smart and funny and she provided inspiration for this post.
The main theme of her speech is don’t try to construct a single narrative for your whole life. She encourages the Class of 2013 to make “whatever weird, scary choices” make them happy. She referred to a wonderful quote by the American author E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.” When writing this blog, I sometimes struggle with my thoughts on what to write about; and in finding the right balance between providing entertainment and enlightenment.  This quote encourages me to just keep going.
Since I moved to Brussels, I too am moving away from a single narrative. I moved here two years ago to do an internship in law. I managed to convert my internship into a short-term post; however, I was only offered a two-month contract. Out of sheer desperation, I took it. I wanted to stay in Brussels until the end of 2011, and I felt that anything beyond that was simply a bonus.  
Since then, I have had three pretty different jobs. When one job was coming to an end, I managed to get another. I didn’t have to try so hard to find them, they were opportunities that seemed to pop up at the right place, at the right time.  Every time I got a job, I told myself the same thing: that I wanted to stay in Brussels until the end of the year and anything beyond that was a bonus. I never felt terrified of what was going to happen next, I just trusted that it was all going to be ok. 
I do laugh about the number of jobs I’ve had in the last two years and yet, I feel very proud of this feat. I’ve taken chances and gained a lot both professionally and personally. But, the most important lesson I can take away from all of this is that sometimes (or even most of the time) you just have to follow your gut, try something new and trust that it will all work out. I am by no means in a “stable” position job-wise but I have never felt more stable in myself.

As we approach the summer solstice, my goal is still to stay on until the end of the year. Yet, maybe next year it will be time to leave, to construct a new narrative, and to drive just as far as my “headlights” take me. As I finish this post, I am also reminded of one of my favourite quotes by Dr Martin Luther King Jr: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” 

Lessons from an arch-nemesis

An arch-nemesis is more than just a rival. I’ve had quite a few rivals in my life: people who you are sort of in competition with, whether at work or playing football. They have been members of family, colleagues and sometimes very good friends. Yet, I never really minded the rivalry so much because we rivals generally liked each other (even loved one another) and the rivalry was usually in one aspect of life, not many.

An arch-nemesis somehow manages to sort of linger in and out of your life, and yet is always present: they share mutual friends; they go to the same places you do; they take the jobs you want; they go out with the men you fancy; they meddle in your life long after you have deleted them off Facebook.

I had an arch-nemesis. She was a friend of a good friend. When I first met her, I thought she was friendly and we had fairly common interests. Yet, something was niggling at me about our connection, that perhaps her friendliness was not completely genuine.

As she started hanging out more with my friend, I was spending more time with her. I noticed that she was quite secretive about job hunting and relationships. Since we three had just finished our studies, finding a job was starting to cause us anxiety. I eventually found out that she got a job that I had set my sights on. Around the same time, I also found out that she had started dating a guy that I had a crush on. This may sound a bit melodramatic but her getting the job and getting the guy didn’t just happen once, but twice!

I felt like the Universe was conspiring against me and she was deliberately out to get me. She was my arch-nemesis: every where I turned she would be there, grabbing any opportunity out of my hand.

In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. The problem did not lie with her, but with me. At the time I was threatened by her because she seemed to have the things I wanted: the jobs, the drive, the attractive personality and the sex appeal. I was feeling so inadequate and insecure on the inside that I was looking to the outside for blame, and she was the easiest target. I also realised that she wasn’t really my “arch-nemesis”: she was not out to get me, things just seemed to come to her more naturally and that was all. Whilst I was wasting my time feeling hard done-by, she was out there living her life, and I am sure not wasting a minute of it on me.

The last I heard, my former arch-nemesis was travelling the world pursuing her dreams. I wish her well and I am thankful for the lessons she taught me.