In every second
With every breath
Universes expand and collapse
Endless opportunities open up
The countless choices we have
But don’t see
Vanish with the blink of our eye
Due to the trodden paths of our own perception
In seas of limiting beliefs
Of the judgement of others
And Expectations that burden us
Our own creative force
But it’s a choice
That everyone faces
Every single moment
Choose to be the creator
Or be a victim
It is up to you
It’s a jump
Trust is the safety net
And bliss the prize
Painting: Rene Magritte
Our breath the anchor
Between presence in this world
And a sphere where time doesn’t exist
The difference between time and timelessness
The birth of the cosmos
As we understand it
Through the first sound
The beat of a drum
Turning into the never ending
Of the clock on your wall
Sound and time
Conditions to one another
Incapable of understanding the vastness of infinity,
The interconnectedness of self and world
And the paradox of being a creation and creator
Uncomprehending of chronology,
And the illusion of certainty
Finding itself caught in a body
A fine playground to gain experiences
Learning about self and other
Where the self
And the other
Are in fact
Nothing but reflections of the same universal truth
Existence of each individual
Dependent on interaction
Visible only through the light you shed on me
Our unique dynamic
Without a “you”
Without a sound
Without a breath
Painting: Pablo Amaringo
We were driving down the highway
Me on the steering wheel
You next to me
I see your face freeze
As my sister from the back
Merrily touches your hair
Grabbing into it, massaging your skull
“It really feels like sheep’s’ wool!
You’re our family’s little black sheep, sweetie!”
It painfully reminds me
Of how I learned
That I was racist,
When we first met
I used to tell you:
“I don’t think Germans are racist.”
And specifically, I wasn’t racist, of course.
We don’t really have much of a history with Black people in Germany, do we?
What are even the stereotypes we hold of Blacks?
I couldn’t see any issue.
Racists are those Americans
Where policemen shoot Blacks without proper reason
Or the South Africans
With their long history of Apartheid
But with time
I learned to understand the kind of racism
That left scars in your heart
Isn’t just the punch in the face
The angry yell
Or the shot of a gun
The hundred unthoughtful remarks
The curious gazes
And the closed doors
That you encounter
Because of the colour of your skin
The frizzy hair
The full lips
When I say:
You dance so well
You got the rhythm in your blood
Probably from your tribal festivals
When the photos I bring back home
Portrait only the mud huts of the Massai
But not the skyscrapers of Nairobi
When I say
You’re so good in bed
Much more driven by your instincts
Wild, like an animal
That feeds stereotypes
Tells the same old story
Of Africa as the uncivilised continent
With people close to nature
So head-driven like us
So materialistic like us
Cause in the end
What does that mean?
Underdeveloped, underprivileged and less intelligent
Just put in a different way
Ignorance is bliss
Are those who are unintended racists
Ignorant of the pain they cause
The catch 22 is this:
The ignorant doesn’t know about his ignorance
I was ignorant
And I learned my lessons
The world will only become a less racist place
Who is racists without intend
Gets the chance to learn their lesson
That even well-intended, even curious remarks
Can cause another scar
Awareness can only happen
By making what may seem obvious
Visible to those
Who don’t see it,
(Painting: Sam Spratt)
"Whenever I want to laugh, I read a wonderful book, 'Children's Letters to God.' You can open it anywhere. One I read recently said, 'Dear God, thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy."
(Quote: Maya Angelou, Photos: Tanja Schomann)
When I’m mad, I’m like a storm
In the evening of a hot summer day
My angry voice
Awakes the neighbours
Makes people shudder
Vases, like lightning, hit the ground
My lust a humid day in the jungle
My arms like lianas
Wild and untameable
Grabbing what they long for
The smell of plants and the earth
The song of birds, the roar of a feline
All senses focussed
Sweat dripping down the body
My sadness is like the monsoon
In a big Indian town
It pours and pours
and won’t stop
Mascara runs down my cheeks
Like the splashes of a dirty puddle
On a white summer dress
The vortex of misery
Is sweeping down the streets
We are two
You and me
I’m like the seasons
Change is unavoidable
Hope and fear, love and hate
I try them on and let them pass
Like the leavy dress of a tree
They come and go
Are not a fan of seasons
When the thunder hits your ear
You say I’m dramatic
The heat of the jungle makes you drowsy
And you want to move back to colder climates
The running tears of the monsoon
Leave you overwhelmed, soaked and uneasy
I’m too much for you
You’d be much better off
In a stable climate
Composed and understanding
Like sunny California maybe
But I can’t help myself
I am what I am
With all the intensity
With all the brutal force
And with all the passion
You could be a caring witness
And provide a space
For me to go through my emotions
Natural spectacles aren’t about you
They are about myself
I don’t demand a reaction
I demand acceptance
Embrace the authenticity in it
Embrace me as I am
Painting: Henri Rousseau
Here’s the thing with pain
It is like a spider,
Weaving its net around you,
So tight that you lose your breath,
It’s like a scorpion,
Pushing its poisonous sting into you,
Racing heartbeat, shock
It’s like a boa,
Absorbing you with its massive jaws,
Eating you alive
But then it’s not,
Because you’re in charge
It’s up to you to end it at any point
You can decide to see it not as pain,
But as a challenge
An opportunity for growth
Marcus Aurelius once said:
“Choose not to be harmed -
and you won’t feel harmed
Don’t feel harmed -
And you haven’t been ”
So why would you ever decide to feel harmed?
Instead of choosing strength?
It’s the habit of suffering,
That we are so used to
The momentum of pity,
That drags us along
And jumping off that high-speed train
That the jump will set us free
Yet we decide to be
Captured by the spider
Stung by the scorpion
Swallowed by the boa
Again and again
Instead of choosing liberty
Which is a present reality
At any point
Open to us to embrace
Naked skin. Perfect intimacy, yet so far apart.
The side of my face tightly pressed against your chest.
Kaboom… Kaboom… Kaboom…
“Isn’t it crazy”, I say to you “that our life depends on the rhythmic cramps of this one big muscle in our chest? How the “person” inside us is just gone, when it stops beating?”
I imitate the pumping of a heart with my tiny fist.
Clench, release. Clench, release.
“Mmmhh”, you answer.
I shut up.
I know it’s not exactly a chatty moment, but I like the comfort I get from thinking aloud about topics that distract me from my deeper worries.
Your smell has changed since you came to my house.
From a fresh herb garden and the sea breeze running through the leaves of a coconut palm
To the scent of an angry tiger, moist and acidic.
Ain’t we a match made in heaven?
You tell me your past and I feel you’re talking about myself.
The struggles you went through, the decisions you took.
Your conscious effort to be more than what you were conditioned to be.
The choices you make and your reasoning behind it.
The relationships you foster and the freedom you are fighting for.
The freedom you demand, the freedom you give and the freedom you discover in the nature of being.
The sentences I start and you finish, the co-creation of understanding simplicity.
You clear your throat.
My attention switches back to the present moment, the bed we lie in.
Bliss and embarrassment collide.
So close, so far apart.
The pressure of expectation, the cosiness of your arms and the disenchantment between us.
I wanted you, didn’t I?
When we got to know each other, I wanted you, didn’t I?
When you hugged me, I wanted you, didn’t I?
When you kissed me, I wanted you, didn’t I?
When you ate me, I wanted you, didn’t I?
When you stepped out of bed to grab a condom, I wanted you didn’t I?
Lust is a fragile bond.
Triggered by the mysterious,
kindled by spontaneity,
inflamed by wanting gazes and welcoming touch.
Lust is a fragile bond.
Shaken by doubt,
Hit by reason,
Extinguished by worry.
A match made in heaven,
You’re my mirror.
In our aspirations as much as in our hesitation.
In our spiritual climax as much as in the erotic abyss.
I found this sculpture of Maria & Jesus in the old town of Artà. The red colour on it made me hesitate and take this picture. Technically, it is nothing more than a sculpture of a woman with some red splashes on it. But cultural imprint left its marks on me, so I was wondering whether the red splashes were an act of vandalism or even religious heresy. Did somebody try to make a statement against the church? Was it a member of a different church who acted out of anger? It seemed brutal to me to splash colour on such a meaningful persona as Maria.
But isn't that exactly where so much trouble in our world comes from? We turn random items into "symbols" and give them heavy meanings. Splashing colour on a Maria becomes an act of religious hostility - no matter if the person who did it had this meaning in mind or not.
It reminded me of a situation in which I was the organiser of an event called "Students for Europe". The attendees were - as the name suggests - students from different European countries. We had used flags to decorate some of the tables in the lounge area, which didn't land well on some of the participants. They said we're degrading their countries by misusing the flag as a tablecloth. Again, in the bottom line we were using an actual piece of cloth as a a tablecloth. In our own eyes, there was no deeper meaning or act of hostility involved. The meaning and all those heavy associations are just a societal construct.
I wish more people were aware that all of these heavy meanings are totally made up in the end of the day and that churches, flags, crosses are not inherently what we associate with them. Maybe, if less people were so obsessed with religious and national symbols, we would all live a more relaxed life in this world.
"Friend" is a term that we use for vastly different people in our lives. Some friendships last a lifetime, other just for the time of a holiday. Some friends know all our secrets and others are fun to party with, but we would never open up about intimate topics to them.
Sometimes, I got the impression that only a long-term and intimate friendship is a “real” friendship. This led to me feeling obliged to stay in touch with everyone I had a close connection with for some time. It also made judge those friendships, which are heaps of fun, but rather superficial. I felt that these friendships don’t live up to my standards of deep discussions and soul bonding.
But then I read a quote, which changed everything:
There are friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for a lifetime.
(author unknown to me)
Basically, the quote takes a lot of pressure from those friendships, which are not “friends for a lifetime”. Let me explain this in more detail.
Friends for a reason are those friends that change your life in one way or the other. A friend for a reason might be a person who you meet at your first Salsa class and who teaches you the first moves of the dance. You click, you have fun together, you learn from your friend. But other than Salsa, you don’t share much. Once you are a good dancer yourself, your reason to meet up with your Salsa friend is gone and you move on.
Friends for a season are those friends, who are part of our daily lives. A friend for a season might be a classmate at high school. You sit next to each other in the classroom and you hang out in the breaks. You have fun discussing the latest gossips with the friend and you help each other with home works. Despite the comforting feeling the friendship gives you, the friendship is not based on common interests, but shared environment. Once the season (high school, your undergrad, the internship,…) is over, the friendship slowly fades away.
Friends for a lifetime, in the other hand, are not necessarily present in our daily lives. These are friends we have an intimate connection with. They know our secrets and no matter for how long we have not seen them, once we start talking to them, we feel like coming home and open up about secrets, plans and dreams.
For me, these categories helped me understand why certain friendships are fine and totally fulfil their purpose, even if they are not friendships for life.
(painting: Auguste Renoir)
It’s so easy to judge people, when you’re in your own environment and in your own comfort zone.
A short while ago, my friend Govoi moved from Kenya to Germany and I was his go-to person during the days when he was settling in. It was his first trip to a Western country. One day, he wanted to come back home by train from his university. I sent him the train connections including directions on how to change from train 7 to train 18 at a station called Neumarkt. At some point, Govi called me and said that there is no train with the number 18. I checked Google maps and another transport app and told him that it MUST be somewhere at Neumarkt and that he should just look on the other side of the road. 20 minutes later, he called me back and said that he tried everything, but he still can’t find his train. I asked him to approach other people around the station and ask where the train leaves. “I don’t even speak German and people stare at me, cause I’m a foreigner”, he replied. “Ok, let me come there to pick you up then”, I replied slightly annoyed. It turned out that train number 18 is a subway train and not an over ground train like the other ones that leave at the station – and Govoi simply didn’t know about subway trains.
Now, to be honest, my first thought was that it can’t be that hard to change trains and that Govoi is clearly a very confused and naive person.
But then I remembered our trips to rural areas of Kenya. I didn’t understand a word of the local languages and it was impossible for me to remember the difficult names of the different villages we were traveling to. What is more, I had no idea how to figure out where the Matatus (minibuses) are going or where to get off. It was a mystery to me how people find their way without bus schedules and roadmaps. I was lost – at least as much as Govoi was lost in Germany.
So, I thought to myself that we easily take the systems that we are used to for granted and we forget that in other parts of the world, things work in entirely different ways. We judge people, because they fail to understand our systems and we act arrogantly when they need our help.
Let’s keep in mind that all foreigners – immigrants, refugees, exchange students – might be helpless in some situations, but at the same time they are more knowledgeable than us in the systems where they originally come from.
(The photo shows Govoi sorting out our transport in Kitale, Kenya)
In a previous life, when I was still doing my undergrad in International Management, I took a course in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). CSR is in the first place the compliance with any law and policy a company is operating in. But it has become fashionable for companies to claim that their CSR engagement goes beyond compliance and that they actually foster some social good such as improving workers’ rights or environmental concerns. But how much CSR is possible, if the companies goals are inherently bad for people? What if the product is harmful to consumers? Some experiences during my travels made me ask these questions.
When I traveled to places like India, Rwanda and Kenya, I understood what a global corporation is. I want to use Coke as an example, but there are a bunch of other companies that are comparable. Coke is ubiquitous. I mean, I have seen Coke simply in EVERY SINGLE PLACE that I have ever traveled to.
Even at the tiny island called Wasini in the Indian Ocean - where there’s no electricity and no running water – you will find Coke. Sure, you could say that the market regulates itself. There’s demand for the product and Coke has such a good supply chain that they can cater the demand for Coke better than electricity companies can cater the need for electricity. It’s an absurd setup, but fair enough. But there are three points that really bother me about the fact that people at Wasini island (and similar places) get to drink Coke.
Firstly, it’s the brainwash which is created through Coke advertising. Yes, also in Germany you can find Coke advertising and people here are also exposed to marketing brainwash. But whereas in Western countries the question is whether to buy Coke, Pepsi or maybe some local brand, people in places like Wasini face a different choice. In these communities, people have hardly enough money to survive and cover the basic needs such as doctors’ bills and school books. A Coke at Wasini island costs around 100 Kenyan shillings. If you earn 3,000 shillings a month, buying a Coke is an investment. You can either buy a Coke OR a school book for that money. Due to Coke’s crazy marketing activities in these regions, for many people the wish to consume Coke might be in fact as urgent as the need to cover other basic needs.
Secondly, we are talking about regions of the world where malnutrition is a real problem. In the West, we see Coke as an unhealthy sweet treat, which is an add-on to our (in most cases) sufficient diet. In many of the remote places where Coke is being sold, it is an unhealthy add-on to a totally insufficient diet. There are numerous studies on the negative effects of sugar on your body, so I don’t want to go into detail about this topic. What is more, caffeine is addictive, leading to symptoms such as headaches when you stop your usual caffeine intake.
But these financial and health concerns are not the only thing that puts me off about seeing Coke in rural areas of developing countries. The third and last point that I want to mention is garbage. Products such as Coke (and to be fair even more so products that are being sold in plastic packaging) create garbage. Again, the problem exists also in Western countries, but in most Western countries we have well established waste collection systems. These do not exist in places like Wasini island. Obviously, the lack of waste collection is not the fault of Coke and other corporations that operate in these countries. But at the same time, it is a known fact that waste collection and recycling is a serious topic there.
Going back to my initial point about corporate social responsibility, I just want to drop a few questions. Just ask yourself: is it ethical to sell an addictive, costly and unhealthy product to people who are poor and suffer from malnutrition? Should companies be allowed to sell their products in places where collection and recycling of the packaging is impossible? Personally, I don’t think so.
What can be done? According to my own observations and reports of local friends, governments in these places are often highly corrupt and change (such as the implementation of waste collection) is too slow to keep up with changes of purchasing behaviors. In addition, it’s pretty likely that governments have crude incentives to tolerate the market entry of Coke. CSR departments exist, but do they have the power to do anything? Or do they only exist to maintain the neat façade of corporations? The fact that garbage problems like the one I have described exist in most developing countries makes me doubt the effectiveness of CSR departments.
(Photo: Tanja Schomann, taken at Lamu Island, Kenya)
5.30am, I am drunk, the sun is shining purple and I’m preparing tea for this random stranger in my kitchen. „Did you paint this picture?“, he asks, pointing at the framed Picasso print in my kitchen. Obviously I haven’t, it’s a Picasso. Such a strange coincidence. He’s the third guy who asks me the same question. Do they know it’s a Picasso, but they try to be flattering? It’s a little ironic, because the other paintings in the kitchen and hallway are actually my own paintings. But if a person can’t even recognise a Picasso, there is no point in starting a discussion about art. Generally speaking, far too few of the guys who enter my kitchen are able to have a worthwhile discussion about art with me.
Like this dude. God knows why I even let him pay for my drink at the club in the first place. Well, actually I do know. It was because the cocktails at this place were totally overpriced. Still. Letting a guy pay for your drink means you’re trapped. You can’t just wander off and say “bye”. You need to stick around for some time, listen to their palaver and smile nicely. Guys talk an awful lot when they are nervous. Most guys who try to hit on a girl in a club are somewhat nervous. And if not, it can be a fun game to make them get nervous. But yeah, then you got to listen to them.
Nervous guys also tend to ask very few questions. Sometimes I wonder if that’s because they assume the woman doesn’t have anything interesting to tell or if it is because they are so scared to be intimidated by the woman and her achievements. These are the only two explanations I can come up with and both kind of suck. I want to be a feminist, so a couple of times I (without being asked) dropped that “I am a PhD student at UCL. In Art History, you know”. Awkward silence. No question back. And then they would keep on rambling about their own career and their political views and all that. Really, there is no point in emphasising that you’re an actual (and maybe even smart) person when a guy has already decided to see you as a sex object.
Back to this guy and how he ended up at my house. After he paid for my drink, I was stuck for so long with him that all my friends went home in the meantime. A few more drinks appeared out of nowhere, we danced (the only way to stop him talking) and don’t ask me how, suddenly I felt his tongue in between my lips. Slightly dizzy from the drinks (not from his kiss, it wasn’t that mind blowing) I checked my watch. Damn, 5am. No chance to get home by public transport and the taxi fare is easily 30 pounds. As if he read my mind, he asks whether he should drop me home on the way to his place. I say “yes, sure” hoping that he won’t make attempts to stay over at my house, but suspecting that he will.
I fell asleep in the cab and when I woke up, his arm was tightly laid around me and he was paying the driver. The car was in front of my house. “Get out”, he said in a somewhat featureless voice. In the crack of dawn, I looked at his face and found it even less attractive than earlier in the club. Maybe the alcohol was also losing its effects already, I don’t know. Such an embarrassing situation. Now he had paid already and I didn't feel like telling him that he can’t come up into my flat with me. I wanted to be alone, just go to bed. But how to get rid of a guy who just paid all the bills for my drinks and then even the cab back home? Such an annoyance of nights out. So I said nicely, “can I offer you a cup of tea upstairs?”. “Sure”, he replied with a smirk, touching my ass as I got off the cab. “Just a cup of tea and then I’ll firmly send him back home” I swore to myself.
So now you know how he ended up in my flat, commenting on my Picasso. I take a closer look at him. He has money, that I can tell. No idea about art and no sense of style though. What a pity. He doesn’t have a genuine interest in me as a person, all he wants is to end his night inside a warm and wet pussy. He looks at me questioningly. “Did you paint this picture?” he repeats and knocks me out of my train of thoughts. “Yes”, I say and give him a fake smile. He takes the tea cups which I had just taken from the shelf out of my hands, kisses me and presses me against the wall. “Well, now it’s too late to say no”, I think to myself. Next time, I’ll pay for my drinks myself.
(Photos: Unsplash.com, David Drebin)
Racism is bad. Nobody can possibly deny this statement. But living right next to Berlin’s renowned Görlitzer Park has taught me a few lessons about people’s - and my own - susceptibility to racism.
Let me first tell you a little about myself. I have lived for a while in Kenya and I have many Black friends. In fact, my only long-term boyfriend was a Black Kenyan. I’m not a person who would claim that “we’re all the same”. I do believe that cultural norms leave a stamp on us and make us perceive and act in the world in different ways. At the same time, my experiences abroad and friendships to people with different cultural backgrounds have taught me that there is no “right way” of living and that everybody lives in a way that makes sense to them personally.
I liked to believe that I am free from any racist sentiments.
Now I live in Berlin, right next to Görlitzer Park. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the park’s legacy: According to Yelp, the park is the top rated place to buy weed in Berlin or, as Deutsche Welle puts it, “Görlitzer Park is an open-air marijuana emporium”. But you won’t find a mixed crowd of dealers. Both news articles about the park and my own experience confirm that the vast majority are African immigrants. I can say that I have been approached easily 60-70 times within the one year that I have lived next to the park – and every single time it was a Black dealer.
And this is exactly what I want to speak about. About the experience of being approached countless times by African dealers and what it did to my emotions towards Black people around Görlitzer Park.
When I walk down Görlitzer Park, I feel uncomfortable. I would estimate that 80% of the times I enter the park, I will be approached by one of the Black guys. Sometimes they would openly ask me whether I want drugs. Most other times, they would just ask me how I am doing. Generally, there is nothing wrong with approaching another person in a park. But coming from Germany, the cultural norms that I have been conditioned with tell me to act with suspicion. German strangers just don’t randomly chat to each other whilst crossing a park. Do African strangers do so? Well, even my experiences in Kenya have shown me that they don’t. When strangers approach you, it is because they DO have some intention. Maybe not always selling drugs, maybe they are interested to hook up with me. Or they want to sell something else. God knows. But in the bottom line, my emotional reflex is to feel very uncomfortable, to look away and to keep on walking. Repeated experiences of that kind have led me to the point where I don’t even look towards Black guys when I am in reach of the park, but I stubbornly keep on walking with a fixed gaze.
And this is actually the crucial point. You can’t control your emotional reflexes. The human brain is conditioned to develop stereotypes and form groups (if you doubt it, read some scientific evidence). And my experiences have made me develop feelings that even I would describe as racist feelings: I feel uncomfortable about any Black guy who I meet around Görlitzer Park. But despite being unable to control these emotional reactions, people ARE able to rationally control their actions and further generalisations.
In my example, I reflect on my experiences and say: “Black guys who hang out in Görlitzer Park are NOT representative of Black people in general.” I have too many Black friends who prove the exact opposite. And I can make myself aware that not even all Black guys around Görlitzer Park fall into the category of annoying drug dealers. I just remind myself that my Kenyan boyfriend would have been judged the same way if he hung out in the park – and obviously I would find the judgment totally absurd and unfair.
Lastly, I remind myself of the viewpoint of the guys at Görlitzer Park. Selling drugs is a shitty job. It is dangerous. Chances are high that they would have chosen a different job if only they could. And the random approaches in the park are mainly a product of their pressure to make money.
So what is my main point? It’s basically, that on the emotional level, we can all become susceptible to racism. Experiences like mine in Görlitzer Park make it all to easy to develop negative sentiments towards ethnic groups or people of a certain nationality. But then, between the spontaneous emotion and our response, our intellect must serve as our emergency break. In my case, I easily get back to my senses when I recall all the positive experiences with Black people. But what about those people, who are only exposed to raging news articles about Black drug dealers? Or even those of my neighbours who never actually talked to a Black person apart from those drug dealers in their life? At least in Berlin, there are many initiatives that try to build bridges between immigrants and Berliners, such as welcome dinners and the huge Welcome Party at Tempelhofer Feld. It’s that kind of events that in my opinion have the potential to lead the change.
So instead of arrogantly judging those who hold racist ideas, we should understand that it stems from one-sided exposure and strong emotional reactions. In my opinion, we need even more positive exposure to break the vicious cycle of racism. Help those who experience negative emotions towards foreigners by providing as many opportunities to interact with immigrants with all kinds of backgrounds and stories.
Life is one long decay, no? There's a lot of beauty in it. Like the patina in an old city.
(Quote: Urs Fischer, Photos: Tanja Schomann)
Once upon a time,
I fell in love with a man
He was like the moon
His silver light calming my thoughts
Silent attraction, like a tidal force
Moving inner oceans
He was like my father
Considered and knowledgeable
He could explain the world to me
The history of foreign lands
And the origin of species
Both feet firmly on the ground
yet inspired by utopia
A rational poet,
a romantic scientist
Cultured and sophisticated
Once upon a time,
I fell I fell in love with a man
He was like the sun
His burning heat kissed my cheeks
Made me dizzy, gave me calenture
He was like my mother
Sensuous and intuitive
A creative soul,
seeing beyond the visible
Breaking down the walls of my preconceptions
His head in the clouds
yet making a change in people’s lives
A poetic fighter,
a rebellious artist,
Indomitable by societal norms
Once upon a time,
I asked “who am I?”
If I can find love
In two men with qualities so far apart,
Identify with all my heart
With such disparate worlds?
I’m a nighthawk in the moonlight
A seagull in the sunshine,
I’m my father’s daughter,
My mother’s child
Many different worlds unite in my chest
Identity is complex,
It changes, confuses
Why even try to define its boundaries,
if love can show me oneness of contraries?
(Painting by Rene Magritte)
Truth can be stated in a thousand different ways, yet each one can be true.
(Sculpture: Tanja Schomann, quote: Swami Vivekananda)
Bagheera: "Birds of a feather should flock together. You wouldn't marry a panther now, would you?"
Baloo: "I don't know... Come to think of it, no panther has ever asked me."
„Shit“, Jeannie cried out as the rickshaw splashed dirty water all over her white cotton t-shirt. It was a hot and humid day in Mumbai and she was on the way home after work. Even after years she had not gotten accustomed to India’s monsoon season. The thick mud on the roads, the litter which was swimming in the puddles, the constant moisture that just wouldn’t leave her clothes… It was one of the moments that made her question those major decisions that she had taken a few years ago. A moment that made her think of Adrian.
Adrian was the crisp smell of freshly washed shirts, the soft feeling of cashmere sweaters against her cheek. Adrian was picnic on the impeccable lawns of Cambridge’s botanic gardens. He was May balls and chess games, he was philosophical walks by the river Cam. He was champagne and strawberries and Beethoven. Joie de vivre. And above all, he was her first love. They had met during orientation week at Cambridge and had never let go of each other. Until the day India called her name and she had to leave.
It had a reason why Jeannie and Adrian had gotten along so well during their times in Cambridge. Yes, they both loved exhibitions, classical music and red wine. But the crucial thing was that at the bottom of their heart, they despised those who merely consume, those who let societal chit-chat numb their spirits. Adrian and Jeannie were artist, they were makers. Their philosophical discussions sparked each other’s imagination. When they were together, Adrian’s poems became more vivid and Jeannie’s paintings more colourful. Together, they experienced what passion really is. The flourishing of two souls’ true nature, fostering creativity, fulminating ideas. Oneness, in an explosive way.
They were both living lives of inner conflict and that might have been what united them in the first place. Society and their parents had made them follow their talents of the left side of the brain – their intellect. Instead of chasing their dreams of becoming artists, they had ended up pursuing university degrees that are designed for a mainstream career. He followed applied mathematics and she had chosen biology. But despite enjoying their courses, they always remained restless.
She had moved to India almost four years ago, straight after her graduation at Cambridge. Even as a small child, she had always dreamt of India. It had started with an old coffer in the attic of her grandparents’ house. The coffer was filled with photos of elephants and men in turbans, with musky scent bottles and colourful scarves. Relicts of her grandfather’s colonial adventures. As she grew older, India had become even richer in meaning for her. She had fallen in love with Indian philosophy and she was passionate about development work. So when the day of her graduation came, she did not hesitate for a second, but booked her plane tickets to India. During the first year, she explored the entire country by bus, train and foot. Captivated by the unexpected intensity of this foreign land, its colours and smells, its buzzing streets, she was not able to return to the grey skies of England. Instead, she settled in Mumbai. Its crumbling Victorian architecture made her feel like she had found a tropical and more inspiring version of London.
Only once Jeannie had visited Adrian in London, 2 years after her escape to India. He picked her up from Heathrow airport, a red rose in his hand. A slightly aloof, but familiar smile on his lips. He had not changed much. Same style. Dapper as always. She would have not even been surprised to see him in a black tie. He was one of these people who never seem overdressed. Rather, he elevated the classiness of places around him. His eyes looked paler than she remembered though and his hair had started thinning. Wasn’t he a bit too young to look like that? She was taken aback.
“How is the City treating you, sweetheart?”, she asked as they sat in the cab to his house. “Isn’t this banker’s life boring you to hell?”. He thought for a second. “No, it’s quite a cute job, you see”. She raised an eyebrow, teasingly. “I mean it”, he emphasised. “The long working hours can sometimes be annoying, but it’s not too stressful. And I get to do what I like - mathematics. Plus, it pays well”. “Ha!”, she couldn’t hold back, “you get to do what you like? You know as well as I do that your true passion is something else!”
“There are times in life when you have other priorities”, he replied briefly. “So do you still write poetry and fiction at all?”, she asked provocatively. “No”. Silence. “And do you still paint?”, he asked her back with a firm glance into her eyes. A perplexed feeling hit her as she thought about her life in Mumbai. She lives a colourful, creative life and everyday she is surrounded by art. In the mornings, she teaches art classes for this NGO at the slum and in the afternoons, she runs an art gallery for upcoming Indian artists. But she couldn’t even remember the last time she had found time to draw, not to mention paint a canvas. “No”, she answered sheepishly.
Her visit to London passed by like the grey and dull waters of the river Thames. Dinner parties, useless chit-chat about politics, too many drinks in bars that looked all the same. Jeannie felt depressed, uninspired. Adrian’s new friends seemed all too predictable to her, so politically correct and well adapted. No creative spark in sight.
On her last night, whilst packing her luggage, she finally burst. “Look at yourself and your comfortable life! All the time discussing politics and all those issues that neither have a direct impact on you nor do you have a direct impact on them. You’re lulled by the idea that what you do matters, just because you’re in London, at the centre of the universe. Tell me, what do you really know about the world out there? All you do is sitting at your desk in your ivory tower, pitying the rest of the world whilst keeping your own hands clean. You don’t know anything about the world until you have experienced it! Until you have taken a deep breath of the rotten stench in the slums, sweat in the unforgiving heat of the deserts and held a crying refugee baby in your arms.” She took a breath, still beside herself with rage.
He kept quiet for a long while and then said calmly, “Jeannie, I know I haven’t set out to save the world like you have. I am not getting my hands dirty. But with my job, I am contributing my small part to the functioning of our economy. This might not seem much to you, but I help to keep this machine running. What is so wrong about that? And let me be a bit critical of your own life. You ran away from England to play the Samaritan in the developing world for some time. But let’s face it, you will always be the patronising English girl in India. Imposing your Western standards and ideals on people. Are you changing the world for the better? Or just running away from your own problems? Listen, get back to me once you have found your way back to where you belong. I can’t stand this do-gooder attitude that India has taught you.” He walked over to his study room and closed the door behind him. She felt disheartened, packed her bags and left without a goodbye. Tears were standing in her eyes. So who of them was seeing the world as it was and who was running away from reality? The answer had ceased to be so obvious.
Not much had changed in her life in India since she had come back from that visit to London. Another two years had passed by and she was still working in the same jobs, still unable to find the energy or time for her own creative work. Her easel was getting more and more dusty in a corner of her living room. One thing had changed though: She had lost much of her enthusiasm for India. She still loved her job, but she felt stuck in between two worlds. Adrian had been right when he said that she would always be the “English girl” in India, that she would always remain a foreigner with different ideals and views. At the same time, she couldn’t picture herself back in the UK, following the do’s and don’ts of English people’s etiquette. How would she be able to relate to people who had not seen what she had seen abroad? People who had never experienced the intensity of life in a developing country?
Lost in thoughts about the past, her t-shirt wet from the incidence with the rickshaw, she continued her walk home. Adrian… It was probably too late to return to his world. Maybe she and Adrian had never quite lived in the same world at all.
When she reached her house, she found a large letter on her doormat. It was soaked from the monsoon rain and she could hardly make out the name. Eleanor Ramsay, St John’s Square, London… Adrian’s mother… She opened the letter with trembling hands. Why would Adrian’s mother write to her after all those years of no contact?
Dear Jean Louise,
You must have heard the tragic message already from somebody else I suppose. If not, I am afraid to inform you of Adrian’s death. He passed away in January in the unfortunate event of a car accident during a holiday in the South of France. I know that you have always been dear to his heart and a big inspiration for him. Let me share with you this manuscript of the novel that he started to write after quitting his job at Goldman last year. I thought he would have wanted you to read it. It is a shame that he was not able to finish it.
With cordial regards,
Jeannie didn’t put down the manuscript of Adrian’s novel until she finished reading it entirely. Exhausted and in tears she collapsed on the rug in the hallway at 3am. The next day, she didn’t go to work. She went to her living room, set up a canvas on the easel and fully lost herself in the world of colours and shapes. For the first time since she had left Cambridge.
Claim: There are these two types of art. One that creates a mood. It can make you cry, give you goose bumps or leave you trembling. The other one which makes a point. It leaves you with some “aha” of one sort or the other. Makes you learn about yourself or the world. And this is unrelated to form. A story can make you cry. A painting can make you go “aha”. And the other way round. Some pieces of art achieve both in one go. Other pieces achieve neither. Are they still art? I don’t think so. You might want to call them decoration instead.
(Photo: Tanja Schomann)
My heart is longing for you,
Seeing you from afar,
living through all those fantasies
Of us together, happy, after all
Living in a continuum of "what if” and “when finally”
Surviving on a diet of well kept memories
Sweeter than honey, almost too sticky
When I look at photos and I see this perfect couple that we seem to be
Watch us in videos, so fond of each other
But then the reality looks different
The reality is a life on my own
A waiting state
As if I got lost in the large halls of King’s Cross station
Scared that my train has left without me long time ago
And I am just too ignorant to notice that it really has
Sweet bits of memory,
But what lies in between, really?
I’m putting myself on hold,
Preserving my precious love for the few occasional moments I spend with you
Are we even on the same page about our love?
I thought so, but then we weren't
My sweet dreams clash with how you really are,
Not just my lover, but a lover of women
Someone who doesn’t put his life on hold, just to make the memory of me more precious
But somebody who actively lives his life in between our occasional adventures
And yes, that may be a healthy thing to do
But we don’t get to choose where our heart takes us
At least I would not have chosen being stuck in a love
That feels so intense and so pointless at once
That makes my thoughts go round and round
The same drill everyday
These thoughts which are an interplay
Of burning hot and freezing cold
So intense that I sometimes scream into my pillow,
Scream so loud that my mind is muted
For a second, at least
Ups and downs,
Hate and love
Breaking free from you in one moment
And pledging my eternal loyalty to you in the next
Typing down emails full of accusations for the pain you make me feel
And never sending them
But a goodnight kiss instead
You want me to be easygoing
But see, I’m not
My morales are too high to be able to make peace with betrayal
And my intellect too sharp to ignore the flaws in your stories
The dates that don’t match, the numbers that don’t add up
I have become jealous, resentful
I have not chosen to go to this inner place
but the whirlwind of our relationship
has led me into parts of my soul that I never wanted to see
This intensity, these ups and downs,
When will they be over?
I picture you holding me in your arms, tightly
Calming me down,
saying “Now your heart is safe”
But even believing your words is not an option anymore
Too many times have they misled me
What can I do to find peace,
Tell me, what can I do?
(Photo: Tanja Schomann)
His knee gently touched hers. A second, two. He didn’t pull back. She didn’t pull back either. Now it was officially not a platonic date any longer. How the glimpse of a second, a movement that nobody else in the bar would have even noticed, could be such a game changer. Their eyes fixated on each other. Agreement. She felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness creeping up her spine. Took a sip of wine to avoid the intensity of his gaze.
She wanted him. Badly.
As they walked out of the bar, he put his arm around her. A gesture that she never knew how to return. Put her arm around him as well? No, she liked the feeling of being held by his strong arms, without giving a direct return. Their steps were out of sync. She felt self-conscious.
The subtle balance between being a flirt and being aloof. She had never been good at playing this game. “I need to turn right to go home”, she said. She didn’t want to go home, she wanted him to pull her towards her, kiss her. Say “Don’t leave yet…”. He got her wrong, gazed into her eyes, but couldn’t read her desire from them. The breeze of the approaching romance evaporated. Awkward silence. “Goodbye, get home safely!”
I am a fan of adventures. And I don’t just mean obvious adventures such as traveling to foreign countries, trying out new activities, meeting people from different cultural backgrounds… Adventures, in my opinion, can also be personal challenges such as writing a PhD or learning to design my own website.
But when I have to decide whether or not to embark on my next adventure, I often hit a point of doubt and fear. Most of the time, the new project seems a little too complex. Too many components are uncertain, new, daunting… Let me give you a few examples and share the one lesson that I’ve learned from all this.
There were two trips that were quite different, but that scared me in a similar way.
One trip was a road trip with my friend Tim through Israel and Jordan. The logical consequence of traveling through two countries is that you need to cross the border at some point – and as it was a road trip, we had to cross the border overland rather than flying in with a plane. I had never crossed a border overland up to that point (other than within Europe at least) and I could just not visualise what it would be like. Combine that with one country that has a lot of military-related media coverage (Israel) and another country which I literally didn’t know of until Tim recommended the trip (Jordan) and you might get why I was concerned. What is more, we had booked a rental car from a town close to the Jordanian border, but no other transport was pre-booked. A nightmare full of uncertainty. In the end, I decide to ignore the issue until the day of the border crossing was there. And guess what? It turned out to be the least complicated thing ever. We just had to take one step at a time. Take a bus from Jerusalem to the border town, take a taxi to the actual border, get a couple of stamps in our passport, walk across the border, get a few more stamps in the passport, take a taxi to the next town, pick up the rental car.
The other trip was initially planned as a city trip to Marrakesh. But as both my friend Lucas and I are easily bored of cities, we decided to do something else. “Let’s hike up Mount Toubkal!” was Lucas’ idea. I should add that he is probably the most adventurous person I know and keeps on rock climbing and trekking in all sorts of crazy weather conditions. So phrases such as “strenuous winter trek” and “This trip is designed for confident trekkers who have some experience of trekking on snow. Some sections can be steep and rough. It is expected that large parts of the mountainside will be covered in snow, therefore ice axe and crampons will normally be necessary on all departures” didn’t bother him too much. As I had never hiked in snow and never used crampons before, I was downright scared. But since I am quite bad at saying “no” once I get curious, we decided to go on the trip. And guess what? The same pattern as on the Israel trip applied. One step at a time. Get to the mountain, find the mountain refuge for the first night, get all those unfamiliar tools together (ice axe and crampons), start walking, put on the tools, reach the top. Whenever I needed help, there was somebody around to explain the next step to me. Even using crampons turned out to be really fun and not scary at all!
Lastly, let me tell you about my PhD. It’s a hell of a project and so many times I lose my nerves, because it looks all too complex and challenging and no end is in sight. But then I think of those travel experiences and I see the same pattern once again. One step at a time. What is the next thing that needs to be done? Break it down in chunks and just walk that one next step. And the next one. I’m still only halfway through, but whenever I feel scared, I remind myself of this simple approach.
One reason why I decided to write about this story is also, because I wanted to show how living an active life outside job / academia does help you in everyday life situations. Sure, you can say you really want to focus on your career. And I’m sure you can learn a lot of interesting facts and figures purely by sitting in the office. But a lot of life lessons can be learned so much easier and so much more obvious when you are faced with challenges and fears that have nothing to do with a computer screen. At least I am convinced that crossing the border between Israel and Jordan and ascending Mount Toubkal made me a better researcher. I have internalised my “one step at a time” approach and in my mind, it is illustrated with the most scenic pictures. That’s more than any office learning can offer ;-)
“I feel as though the cardboard box of my own reality has been flattened and blown open. Now I can see the edge of the world.”
It’s cute to see artists as creators. The sculptor who created his sculpture, the poet who created his Haiku and the painter who created his painting. It sounds like they have taken every step deliberately, brought a new “life” into being. A quick and easy birth, by snapping one’s fingers.
But let’s face it – as artists, we are not free. Creating anything from scratch, deliberately? Nah, far from it.
If you have ever worked on a crumbling stone or painted with too watery paints, if you have ever chosen a word, simply because you couldn’t find one that actually matches your sentiment, then you will know it. You will know that art is a whole lot of improvisation. Working with imperfect materials. Making decisions on the go, because you couldn’t foresee where the process will take you.
But maybe that’s what makes a true artist. That despite all the challenges, he makes his audience smile, sigh, clap. Artists are no gods who just create from thin air. Artists play games (and sometimes fight wars) with the gifts and boundaries of their medium.
(Sculpture and photos: Tanja Schomann)
"Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first they have to understand that their neighbour is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions."
(Quote: Paolo Coelho, Photo: Tanja Schomann)
So some American pop songs do actually have kind of interesting lyrics. There is this song called “If you like Pina Coladas” which I had probably already heard a dozen times before I got the actual point of the song. It’s basically about a guy who is bored with his lady. He then finds a lonely heart advert saying:
'If you like Piña Coladas, getting caught in the rain
If you're not into yoga, if you have half a brain
If you like making love at midnight
in the dunes on the cape
I'm the love that you've looked for
write to me and escape'
He’s fascinated and decides to go on a blind date with the author of the ad. When he arrives at the agreed place, he realised that it’s his own lady who wrote the ad and they have all those cute things in common which they didn't even know about.
So in the bottom line the song talks about how we often fail to see all the different sides and interests of people – even people who are as close as friends or lovers. I have made quite similar experiences in my personal life. Let me give you an example: During my Masters studies in London, I used to go out quite a lot with friends who work in the financial sector. Usually we would go to nice cocktail bars or restaurants in the posher parts of town. At some point, I made a remark about backpacking, camping and trekking. One of my friends was extremely surprised and said something along the lines of “But you don’t actually travel that way, do you?”. He knew that I travel a lot, but just because he would generally see me in nice dresses and high heels, it never occurred to him that most of my trips are pretty basic backpacking trips - moving around by public transport and sleeping in hostels. He had pictured me in the pool of fancy hotels.
So where did this incomplete picture come from? Firstly, human beings tend to make a massive amount of inferences based on small pieces of information like clothes, age and ethnicity. In this example, going to nice bars in London directly translated into nice hotels on holiday. And it is at least a conclusion that is reasonable. Other stereotypes are much more extreme. When we see a football fan, we would never believe that he might be into Shakespeare, when we see a lawyer we wouldn't believe he is a DJ at nighttime, when we see an elderly lady, we wouldn't believe she's good at programming. The list goes on and on...
Secondly, the occasion determines what we share. In my case, those nights out in London were just not the place where it would have felt natural to talk about buying a new sleeping bag for my next trip for example. The discussions naturally focussed on other topics such as work, concerts, current affairs,… And that had nothing to do with hiding parts of my personality. It was just about acting out one aspect of my personality more than other aspects. A wine tasting creates a different environment for sharing as a mountain hike, a meeting with a professor creates a different environment than a Tinder date. All these situations shape what another person is able to learn about us.
But what can we do about these communication issues? How can we reveal more about ourselves without dropping a brick or being socially awkward? How can we truly get to know each other?
Maybe the answer lies not in telling more about oneself, but in making oneself aware of the fact that we probably know surprisingly little about friends, colleagues and even family members. I guess it’s worth asking people about their hobbies, dreams and attitudes as often as we find the opportunity! Every single person has such a unique personality and beautiful talents. Let's be more curious about each other :-)
Another interesting observation in relation to the same topic is this: Social media can help us to get to know each other better. Given that most of us share photos / links / comments with all of our social media friends or followers (instead of selected few), we often show our true colours to people who might not normally have seen them. I can remember many instances in which I had thoughts such as “wow, Kalifa is such a brilliant painter” or “I never knew that Kathleen is into yoga!”. There are obviously a lot of reasons why over-sharing can also go wrong, but at least in terms of getting to know more about others, open sharing on social media can be quite useful.
I’d be curious to hear your views on this topic! Any similar experiences? Which sides of yourself are often overlooked?
(Painting: Bauhaus Colour Circle)
“As she came closer to him she noticed that there was a clean fresh scent of heather and grass and leaves about him, almost as if he were made of them. She liked it very much and when she looked into his funny face with the red cheeks and round blue eyes she forgot that she had felt shy.”
( Quote: Frances Hodgson Burnett, Photos: Tanja Schomann)
In German, the word genital area can be translated as “Intimbereich”, which basically means “intimate area”. Maybe that is the reason why I used to equate intimacy with being naked and making love. But is that the case? Can we only be intimate with a person when we take our clothes off? And does taking your clothes off automatically mean that we experience intimacy?
Frankly speaking, it was exactly in a moment when I had gotten off my clothes without feeling a great deal of intimacy that all those thoughts occurred to me. So the simple answer would be, “no, intimacy and nakedness or lovemaking do not always go hand in hand”. But then what is intimacy all about?
In my personal case, the moments when I feel most intimate with a person are often the moments when I behave really silly and childish. When I make funny faces and when I giggle until the muscles of cheeks start hurting. But then I thought about other people who I know. And I am sure that many people would disagree about this sentiment. I have often realised that for other people being childish is an easy thing to do. So probably my rather composed personality makes it an intimidating thing for me to be outright silly. Therefore, I concluded that intimacy might be connected to showing people sides of ourselves that we don’t usually show to others.
There is another observation that I have made that would confirm this idea. An observation about men. Often when I speak to men about emotions and they too open up about their emotions (not necessarily emotions that we have for each other), they would emphasise how much it means to them to open up about certain topics and that they would not speak to many people about these intimate topics. The interesting thing is that in most cases, I did not perceive those situations as particularly intimate, but these men seemed to do so. Again, probably they found the situation intimate, because they do not speak about emotions usually. It is a face of themselves which they usually hide. I, on the other hand, did perceive exactly the same situation as much less intimate. The reason may be that I am simply above average upfront about personal matters or that stereotypes hold true and women do speak about emotions more easily than men do.
Slightly contrary to what I just said, a friend of mine made a remark about intimacy and sharing of emotions that struck me. He said that sometimes we feel so much intimacy that we do not dare to share certain emotions. What he meant is that intimacy goes hand in hand with the fear of losing the person we have created that intimacy with. And that might be the reason why many people speak to a doctor rather than a friend / lover about topics like addictions or psychological problems. Accordingly, sharing secret sides of our personality might be an important aspect of intimacy, but the two are not the same.
Another related question is: Who do we feel intimate with? Although I do agree that getting to know a lover is often related to creating a zone of intimacy, I do not believe that intimacy can only exists between lovers. I gave the example of being childish earlier. I can definitely confirm that this type of intimate moments do exist between me and close friends as well. In my opinion, being in love simply speeds up the process of creating intimacy, but it is not a necessary component of intimacy. We often experience more intimacy with lovers who we have only known for a short time than with people who we have casually known for a longer period of time. But long-lasting friendships can result in equal amounts of intimacy as that between lovers.
Speaking about intimacy between lovers – there is one more interesting question. It is the question of causation. Does being naked and making love cause more intimacy? Or do we need to create intimacy first to then enjoy being naked in front of another person or sleeping with them? I think the answer lies in the extent to which we are influenced by societal norms. In most societies there is still a certain taboo around nudity and lovemaking. So the more a person is influenced by those norms, the more the person will feel that he or she is allowing intimacy when sleeping with somebody. What I mean is that because society makes us believe that lovemaking should be hidden from the public, we automatically connect it with feelings of intimacy.
And that brings me back to the term that I have introduced in the beginning of this post. Intimbereich. The term is an example of how society wants to make us believe that our body and sexual experiences are something that needs to be kept intimate or hidden from the eyes of other people. But whether being naked or making love is an intimate experience for one particular individual still depends on their personal attitude towards those experiences. In scientific terms you could say that there is a correlation between being naked and feeling intimacy, but it is not a perfect correlation.
What does intimacy mean for you? Do you agree with my ideas? I’d be interested to hear your views!
(Photo: Tanja Schomann)
The air is so cold that I shiver.
The silence is so suffocating that I feel dizzy.
It's a dilemma where the borders of love, attachment and freedom have become blurred,
Where joy and pain seem inseparable.
There is a thin line between fighting for something special and clinging to a lost dream.
How do you know on which side of the line you are standing?
(Photos: Tanja Schomann)
This time is about...
... letting it evolve instead of pressing it into a shape.
... forgetting the idea that I know better what's good for you.
... saying goodbye to images that I created in my head.
... saying hello to reality.
Being instead of making.
Freedom instead of attachment.
Accepting instead of cursing.
(Sculpture and photos: Tanja Schomann)
I used to be a butterfly,
I used to move freely in the world,
From town to town,
Country to country,
Wherever the wind would take me
Sometimes I would rest for a while in somebody’s palm,
Take a breath,
Share some moments,
But I wouldn’t stay,
Because butterflies need to fly.
One day a man’s palm felt like more than a roadhouse to me,
It felt like a home,
I would still fly out into the world,
But I was always eager to return to him,
To his warmth and his shelter.
But he knew better than me,
He saw that I was a butterfly.
He didn’t even see my dreams,
Of resting in his palm forever,
My boredom with flying.
And then, when the breeze turned into a storm,
He failed to keep me safe.
I couldn’t hold onto his opened hand,
And the wind blew me away,
And here I am again, flying like a butterfly.
(Painting: Jackson Pollock)
She was just in the middle of ordering some take-away curry at the tiny Thai restaurant at Hermannplatz when she saw him. Big brown eyes, charming smile and wild curly hair. No doubt, it was him. He sat in the corner of the restaurant, vividly talking to a Spanish looking girl. A smile flashed over her face.
People like to think of feelings as colours. Like singer Nina Simone who is “bluer than blue can be” and wants to “lie down and die”. And Tyler Swift who thinks “loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street, loving him was red”. Blue, red, black and white... They all seem so deep and dramatic. But some feelings are just green.
The first time she met him was on the bus. She had just arrived at the airport to start a new chapter of her life in Berlin. He had dropped off a visitor at the airport and was on his way back downtown, too. He offered her a hand with her luggage and his number. She enjoyed how bubbly he was, especially with his Italian accent. Simple, funny, boyish.
A few days later she found herself sat on his couch, waiting for his friends and some homemade pasta. Turns out he works at one of Berlin’s poshest restaurants and he is the boy toy of the restaurant’s owner. While handing her a glass of wine, he’s explaining his Berlin way of life. Weekends are usually spent at the nightclub Berghain. “How do you get in? I heard they have the toughest bouncer in town?”, she asks. “Toughest bouncer? I just slept with him last night”, he replies with a wink. The doorbell rings and he steals a small kiss from her before letting in his flamboyant friends.
Some feelings are green more than any other colour. They don’t speak of big beginnings and dramatic endings. They speak of the little joy, some smiles and continuation, almost as if nothing ever happened at all.
When she saw him at the Thai restaurant, many years had passed since the small kiss on his couch. They had not seen each other ever since. She watched him while waiting for her take-away curry, not sure whether he had spotted her as well. It didn’t actually matter. She felt kind of green.
(Painting: Amadeo Modigliani)
When I look at you,
I see this trusting look in your eyes,
How you believe someone will catch you
When you fall
When I hear you play your guitar,
I can see your ambition
Your ambition to be just in the now
Live the moment
No need to plan
I see it from afar
It is not my world
My world is full of commitments
Of requirements and obstacles
And who’s competent to judge?
I see my world creeping up from behind
Stealing your innocence
Cracking your confidence
Or was it just naiveté anyways?
These worlds make my head dizzy
My heart heavy
Am I bringing you closer to reality?
Or further from creativity?
Spoiling or strengthening you?
And who’s competent to judge?
(Painting: Rene Magritte)
A few months ago - I had just moved back to Berlin - I went to a coffeeshop in my neighbourhood. For those of you who aren't that good at geography: Berlin is in Germany and the only official language in Germany is German. Many people don't even speak any foreign language. So I was pretty surprised when the waitress couldn't understand my order and simply replied: "Sorry, I don't speak German. Could you repeat that in English?". After spending some time in Berlin, I realised that there are actually quite a few hip cafes that are run in English.
You might say "So what?". But to be honest, I think how you deal with languages has a profound political power. I'm not only talking about English-speaking cafes in Berlin, but about a variety of scenarios that I have experienced in different countries. Let's look at a few examples to illustrate what I mean.
My first example is Majorca, a Spanish island. There are heaps of German and British tourists there and the restaurants have adapted to them. The menus are in German / English and you would often hear tourist use their mother tongue straightaway without even attempting to order in Spanish. My second example are French restaurants in non-French speaking countries. It seems to be a default that they print their menus mainly in French, although it is obvious that Brits, Americans and Germans aren't particularly good at French. The third and last example are Indians within India that don't use the local languages, but English for their personal conversations.
The common pattern that I see in all of those examples is that language is used to emphasise power relationships. In the case of the tourists, using their mother tongue instead of the local language is a sign that they don't even need to adapt. The tourists bring money and they want convenience. In this case, forcing the waitresses to speak German or English is part of the holiday convenience. The French restaurants use French to create in-groups and out-groups. You don't understand what artichauts à la barigoule or vol en vent means? Well, looks like you're not a true connoisseur of good food. And in the example of English-speaking Indians their use of English is a clear status symbol. Mainly private (boarding) schools teach their students in English. In order to feel comfortable enough to substitute their local language with English, they must have visited one of these upperclass schools or have spent some time abroad - which is also more an upperclass thing to do.
In the bottom line, I think the political power of language is often overlooked. I think the examples above show that languages can easily establish master-servant like relationships, discourage people from culinary experiences and reinforce social status. What is more, many people might not reflect about the impact of their choice of language. As long as you're not the disadvantaged party, you might not even realise that there is any harm going on.
And in the case of hipster cafes... Well, I think it is yet another example of the double standards in the German attitude towards expats versus immigrants. If you're an "expat" from the US or other English-speaking countries, you get a lot of freedom to do whatever you want to do. But would Germans accept if immigrants from other countries (e.g. China or Turkey) decided to run their cafes in their own mother tongue? I doubt it. Probably there would be a major anti-immigrant outcry in BILD (a German tabloid) against those stubborn immigrants. And that's the injustice I realised when I thought about English-speaking cafes and that made me reflect on this topic.
A few years ago, my parents went on a trip to South America. They hiked around at Machu Picchu, visited the Iguazu waterfalls and chilled at the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. When they came back, I asked: “So, how was it?”. And my dad replied: “Oh, it was great. But I don’t think I need another trip like that. After all the traveling in my life, seeing new places just doesn’t excite me anymore. I’ve seen enough.” Traveling is one of my greatest pleasures, so this statement shook up my believes a bit. When you feel like you have seen enough, aren’t you giving up on life in a way? Isn’t it a total resignation from the world? Let me tell you some of the thoughts it provoked.
Basically, I started asking myself what exactly it is that makes traveling so appealing. First and foremost, there is this huge curiosity. The wish to see new landscapes and foreign architecture. In a way, traveling makes us feel like explorers. Traveling makes us feel like we are the ones who discover new species and lonely beaches. We forget that thousands of people have climbed the same hills and swum in the same rivers. What is more, traveling allows us to meet people with different cultural backgrounds and see the world through their eyes.
But then I tried to think about the limits of traveling - limits that I have experienced myself and limits that I observe with regards to other travellers. The biggest limit is probably our own comfort zone. Let me give you an examples. A bunch of my fellow students decided to spend a semester in “exotic countries” such as Thailand and China. But when they showed me pictures of their stays, it turned out that they spent their time with other international students, stayed in posh apartments and went to clubs where you find mainly expats. In other words, they got exactly what they have here in Germany just with some exotic plants in the background. Traveling didn't help them to broaden their horizon.
The next limit of traveling that I would like to talk about is what I call travel narcissism. I guess travel narcissism is on a new peak since the rise of Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram. People spend their entire holiday checking in at the coolest bars and posting selfies in front of the Taj Mahal. What is it all about? Your own experience? I doubt so. The more we post and share, the less we get to focus on the actual experience. Traveling becomes a mere gratification of the ego instead of a valuable personal experience.
The third and last limit of traveling is a little more philosophical. I like to think that I need traveling to develop empathy. The more I travel and the more people I meet, the more I understand their situation and rethink my own impact. And as much as this might be the case, I wonder if it is true that traveling is the most efficient way to work on ones empathy. The most empathetic people are simply the ones who manage to hold on for a second and take the perspective of somebody else. In a way, it is more about introspection than about exposure to many situations. It’s the ability to imagine “what if I was that other person”. My favourite example is that of a yogi who is sitting by himself in the Himalayas and developing profound understanding of the world. No traveling needed at all. Just a lot of work on your own attitude and imagination.
But let’s go back to the initial question. Is the feeling that you don’t want to travel anymore a resignation from life? Well, after thinking about it for some time, I concluded that it’s not. It might just mean that you don’t need the ego boost of posting travel photos anymore. Or it might mean that you realised that you can work on your empathy from home. Or it might mean that you realised that you never actually step outside your comfort zone, so there is no point of travelling at all.
But hey, maybe it’s not that complicated after all. Maybe traveling is just a fun way to waste some time. At least my dad stopped his philosophical thoughts and is back on the road – driving on his Harley Davisdon through the United States. Sure, he has seen enough... ;-)
People around me keep on saying the phrase "I want to take some time to find myself". And yes, admittedly I have said that phrase at some point myself. As a next step, people would go off on holiday, spend some time at a retreat or visit their families. But rarely have I heard anybody say "I just found myself when I was in China / at the retreat / at my parents' house!". At some point, when yet another of my friends was about to search herself, I couldn't help but wonder how the hell we have lost ourselves? And does this entire paper chase for ourselves make much sense at all?
To begin with, I would like to question whether anybody has lost himself or herself at all. Yes, that is the feeling that people have, so there must be something wrong. But what is it? Personally, I think the main reason is a lack of bottom-of-the-pyramid problems. I'm talking about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy says that humans have a tendency to focus mostly on the lowest need that has not yet been fulfilled. The most fundamental needs are physiological needs (water, food, sleep), then comes safety followed by love and belonging. The two least fundamental needs are esteem and self-actualisation.
In my opinion, Maslow's hierarchy of needs is the ideal visualisation of a mindset that is constantly focused on new problems. We just don't function the way that we satisfy our basic needs and live happily ever after, but we move on to the next problem. So what am I aiming at? My view is basically that the reason why me and my peers are so obsessed with self-realisation is simply that most other problems are already solved. In a way, there is nothing left to worry about apart from self-search. My point is not that people should not strive for self-realisation, but that they should also appreciate what they have reached already. I'm sure this will bring about some peace of mind.
A second issue is the dilemma of choice that my generation is facing. And this holds true in many aspects of our lives. There are too many jobs to choose from, too many leisure activities and too many potential partners. On the one hand, it is certainly a nice thing to be able to choose what you like. But on the other hand, it increases our responsibility for our own happiness. As a result, we feel paralysed under the burden to make the right decisions. We start to hope that if we knew who we really are, all those choices would become easier. But is this the case? Wouldn't it be wiser to decrease the emphasis on individual choices instead? Maybe it doesn't actually matter that much which university or job we choose, but it is more about making the best of whatever decision we took?
Last but not least, I really wonder whether the search for ourselves is a reasonable pursuit at all. Let me explain. First of all, it presupposes that there is something like a real me. Something that is the essence of our being. Our real values, our real interest, our ideal role in this world. But what if that is simply not the case? I recently came across the quote "Life isn't about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself" (G.B. Shaw). What I like about the quote is that it shifts the attention away from something already existent to something in progress. It points out that the true self is emergent. It can't be found, because it is yet to be determined. In away you could say the attempt to find yourself is as absurd as the attempt to get hold of a photo of yourself taken in 2020.
In the bottom line, thinking about this topic left me with three things that seem to make more sense than self-search:
1. Focus also on what you have reached (bottom-of-pyramid needs) and not only on things that are lacking (self-realisation)
2. Don't be paralysed by choices.
3. Be pro-active, create yourself.
What is privilege? In the past, I used to see it as something beautiful. Privilege was a term that was related to moments in which I would think “oh, lucky me”. I suppose I’m more used to the bright side of privilege. My last few months have been centred around my boyfriend’s visit to Germany. He is Kenyan and his struggle to get a visa has been an eye-opener with regards to the dark side of privilege for me. I realised that the very concept of privilege is only possible as long as it stands for an exclusive right for a particular group of people
Let me start with the example of freedom of movement. I’m a citizen of Germany. Not only can I move around freely in Europe, but even most other countries of the world. I have never been denied a visa. All this just felt normal to me. I never really questioned the overall concept behind it. My boyfriend, on the other hand, has a Kenyan passport. Not only does he have to go through much more rigorous visa application requirements, but he has also been denied a visa simply for the reason that he can’t prove his intention to leave the EU within the visa period. In terms of freedom of movement, I’m privileged and he is not. I’m allowed to travel, because the Kenyan government sees me as a rich Western tourist. They want me to visit their country to earn money. Germany, on the contrary, is not really dependent on tourism. The German government rather sees African travellers as a threat. A threat, because they might stay illegally and benefit from welfare and infrastructure in our country.
Another example that came to my mind were gender-related privileges. In Kenya, I spent some time with friends from the Masai tribe. One day, we went to a restaurant in a local town. Apart from me, there were about 40 men, but only one other woman present. When I asked about the reason for this, my friend replied that it was too expensive for women. He said women don’t make money and hence they can’t afford to go to restaurants. I replied that I had seen women working all day at the villages: they had been cooking, washing clothes, collecting water and even building houses. Yes, my friend answered, but only selling cattle brings cash and us men sell the cattle. Therefore, only men enjoy the privilege of spending their afternoons at the restaurant.*
I have intentionally chosen two examples that are quite different. But they do have several aspects in common that I understand as the core of privilege.
Firstly, privilege is the pretty nickname for unfair distribution of resources. With regard to my first example, it is clear that Germany wants to prevent Kenyans to benefit from its wealth. But the economic situation of both countries is not a random coincidence. It is a result of exploitation. I think it is undisputed that Western countries have reached their prosperity partly because they have exploited the African continent for decades if not even centuries. In the Masai restaurant example, being able to go to restaurants is solely due to the distribution of money within families. Both Masai men and Masai women work hard, the only difference is that the tasks of men are the cash-earning tasks.
Secondly, privilege is systemic, but it is reflected in rights and resources of individuals. In the visa example, it is not a matter of individual differences that are the most decisive factor. Authorities would mainly base their judgements on nationality. The same holds true in the restaurant example. It doesn’t matter whether you are a hardworking man or woman, the privileges are distributed solely based on group membership. And I think this is exactly what makes the concept of privilege so unfair. You can neither choose the group you are in nor can you destroy it through hard work. Whether you are privileged or underprivileged is just a matter of luck.
What I found particularly shocking about my recent thoughts about privilege is how little understanding I used to have about this concept before. As I said in the beginning, I often found myself in privileged positions. What kept me from realising that there must be a downside of privilege? I think one of the reasons is the lack of public discourse - at least here in Germany. Whilst most Germans / Westerners are aware that our countries are much richer than most African countries, there is still too little understanding about the underlying causalities. It is always easier to blame others for their misery instead of seeing our own impact on their situation. What is more, humans tend to develop empathy for those who are similar to them. If a person has never been part of an underprivileged group, he might struggle to imagine the pain that people in the underprivileged group are going through.
So travel, meet people, listen to their stories and get out of your comfort zone. It will help you to understand your own role in society and impact that you have on the world around you.
*Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that gender differences amongst Masai are worse than in other culture. It was just the first simply example that came to my mind.
There are 2 types of people in this world: Type 1 finds it hard to let go of things and likes to stick to what they have. Type 2 easily throws old patterns, places and relationships over board to explore something new. I think that currently, at least in my social circles, type 2 is en vogue. It seems normal to date a lot of different people, change jobs every other year and move spontaneously to a different country. Everybody has this constant fear of missing out (FOMO), the fear of stagnancy. And yes, I'm totally a type 2 kind of person, too. But after living this lifestyle for quite some time, I started wondering if it really pays off to behave that way. Let me give you some examples.
After endless casual dating, I finally ended up in what one might call a first "serious" relationship. And I love it! But every now and then I miss being single and those exciting first dates a bit. Or I think of bygone crushes and wonder if it was the right decision to let them go. But then I realised that it's all an illusion. It's easy to focus on the pros of something that you don't have. These pros might be there, but you will only realise the cons until you are in that new situation. In other words: even if I decided to change boyfriends or be single again, life wouldn't be all rosy. My struggles would just be struggles of a different kind. The other aspect is that you trade intimacy for excitement. And it takes a lot of time to reach the level of intimacy that you had with your old partner.
Another field in which I tend to be mercurial are my hobbies. As a teenager, I have probably tried any hobby that one can pursue in my hometown. I did everything from tennis to ballet, gym to jiu jitsu, from painting to pottery. I found it interesting to try out new stuff, but I guess I got tired of the effort that it takes to practice and become good at a hobby. And I assume my expectations were often so high, that it was impossible to satisfy me. Why play tennis, if I can't be the next Steffi Graf? Why go to the gym, if it's not super entertaining? The result is that I know the basics of a lot of sports and creative fields, but I'm not particularly good at any of all ex-hobbies.
Lastly, I would like to talk a little about cities. I'm actually about to move houses later today. I've just counted: it will be apartment number 17 in 6 years. The number sounds quite intimidating now that I think about it. And it seems so obvious that you cannot possibly feel rooted anywhere when you move so many times. But whenever I took the decision to move again, there was something intriguing in the next place. A new country, a new culture, an exciting job, a fancy university. What I didn't realise at the time is that I miss out on depth. With all those moves, I never managed to be member of any club and I have 5 dentists. And just think of all the time I spent on the administrative side of moving houses... Insane. So right now I have a huge urge to stay in a place for some time ans finally feel part of my local community.
In the bottom line, I don't want to be dismissive about my type 2 personality. I'm glad that I had all those experiences and lived in all those different cities. But I do want to question the entire concept of FOMO. So what I'm trying to say is this: When ever you are about to start something new, hold on for a second. Maybe the thing that you are about to give up or leave behind has more pros than you think. Maybe you're not missing out when you are sticking with what you already have. Maybe you are missing out even more, when you're going for something new.
Let me tell you 2 stories that have happened to me lately.
The first story happened just before Christmas, when I was on my way from Kenya to my parents' house. I had just arrived in Frankfurt airport and had to catch a train for the last part of the journey. Because of the holidays, train tickets were entirely sold out - I was lucky enough and had bought one in advance. Unfortunately, the plane was late and I basically had zero time to get to the train station. But persistent as I am, I ran like a madman with my 35kg of luggage across the entire airport und caught my train in the very last second.
Ok, now listen to the second story. I have recently moved from Cambridge to Berlin. I was determined to take my bicycle with me on the plane. And then everything went wrong. My taxi to the train station was 30 minutes late, I missed my train and had to take a taxi for the entire way, the airline sent me to the wrong counter, the promised "bicycle-wrapping-service" didn't exist... So in the end of the day, I had to leave my bike at the airport -R.I.P. beloved bicycle.
So what's the common thing in both stories? Apart from me running around with a lot of luggage? In both cases I had the choice between taking it easy and being persistent. And in both cases I decided to be persistent. I ran after my train in Frankfurt and I did everything I can to take my bicycle with me to Berlin. The outcome was pretty different though. In one case, I was lucky enough to catch my train. In the other case, I did not only lose my bike at the airport, but I also spent more than100 pound for the bulk-luggage fee and for the taxi.
The reason why I told these 2 stories is that they made me wonder about the consequences of being persistent. There is the saying "never give in". But in my case, I realised that being stubborn and sticking to your initially decision can also be pretty costly. And there are actually a lot of moments, in which you face that kind of decision.
Take relationships. When your partner has left you, you have the choice between accepting it and fighting for the partner. If you're lucky, you might get the partner back. But you might also look pretty desperate and clingy for running after him. It's similar with jobs. Pushing hard to get the job can look like real interest in the company and shed a positive light on you. But the company might also get the impression that you have no other options and you're a pretty bad catch.
In the bottom line, I learnt that my stubborn character helped me to achieve a lot of things, but it also made me look pretty unteachable and unreasonable in other moments. And basically I'm still trying to find the right balance between fighting and giving in...
What are your own experiences around being persistent?
I had a really interesting discussion about "my favourite dinner guest" with some friends the other day. Imagine you could choose any person and have a dinner with them. Who would you pick?
My first friend said the question is too obvious, because everybody would pick either a dear person (relative, friend) or a celebrity. He himself said that he would like to have dinner with his own father who died when my friend was 14 years old. So in his case, the choice was all about overcoming his fate and turning back the clock.
He was right that one other option would be to meet a celebrity that would otherwise be out of your reach. Another friend said for example that he would like to meet his favourite rap musician Prinz Pi. He said that he feels so close to Prinz Pi, because he can relate a lot to his lyrics. Having listened to his music throughout many years, he feels almost like a friend to him. He said it is a weird to feel so close to somebody you have never met and who doesn't even know about your own existence. He would like to close that gap and get the chance to have some face-to-face interaction with Pi.
But relatives and celebrities did not turn out to be the only choices. My third friend immediately answered "I would invite a street kid for the dinner". He said that most other people get the chance to have nice dinners all of the time. Why not invite a person who normally won't have a nice dinner? What is more, he said that the stories you would hear from a street kid are usually not heard by anybody. He loved the idea of giving the kid the room to speak about dreams, ideas and worries.
Personally, I have often imagined what it would be like to meet a true guru, so I would invite that kind of person to my dinner. I don't have a particular person in mind, but it would be somebody who has reached a high level of personal growth and maturity. Maybe somebody like the Dalai Lama, but not necessarily a famous person. Just somebody who would tell me wise ideas and speak about philosophy with me.
What I liked about this thought-experiment is how much it says about some of our inner longings. The longing to overcome fate, work against social injustice and the quest for deep wisdom. Who would be your own favourite dinner guest?
The other day I stumbled upon a post by one of my favourite FB pages berlin-artparasites. It said "Beware of Destination Addiction - a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job, or with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are" (Lauren Britt). The statement reminded me very much of my own journey, so I decided to write a few words about it.
I think my greatest Destination Addiction happened when I was a teenager. I had constant quarrels with my mum, I was bored at school and I thought that there were too few inspiring people around me. I was sure that life would be much better as soon as I would be at university. Guess what? That never happened. I hated most of the courses of my undergraduate degree and studying was quite a pain. What is more, the ratio of "interesting" to "not-so-interesting" people around me was the same as before. And the quarrels with my mum? Instead of arguing face-to-face we were now arguing over the phone.
Another case of Destination Addiction happened when I chose Cambridge as the university where I would do my PhD. Cambridge is known for its beauty, its famous researchers and its rich cultural life. Just what I was looking for. But again, the reality was disillusioning. I mean, I love Cambridge - but the day-to-day life of a PhD student is the same as everywhere else. After the first few weeks of excitement, you start thinking more about the weather and your laundry again. And you learn that even the most renowned researchers in the world put on their pants one leg at a time.
So I finally started to realise that happiness has very little to do with where you live and study. But I don't mean that we're not in charge of our happiness or that we have no choice. Quite the opposite actually. Instead of just moving somewhere new or hoping that a change in our environment will solve our problems, we need to be much more proactive.
In my own case, I realised that my relationship to my mum will only change if both of us work on our attitude towards each other. With regard to exciting topics at work / school, I found that it's not the big changes that made a difference, but the small changes. At each of my universities, I had to put a lot of effort into the choice of my courses until I finally found topics that I love. It was not the university that mattered, but dealing with subjects and papers of my choice. In terms of friendships, I realised that it's normal that you cannot identify with a lot of people around you. But it pays off to invest in friendships and cherish the few that you really click with. I had to be proactive and understand what I really need to be happy - instead of focussing on labels and shallow ideas.
In the bottom line, Destination Addiction is the false belief that happiness comes from outside yourself. It's easy to blame your circumstances and say "oh, once my situation has changed I will be happy", because it means that you're not in charge yourself. In reality, however, being happy comes from taking responsibility and working on your attitude. Learn how to get the most out of what you already have and understand that even if you move to that better place (new job, new relationship, new city), your basic problems will still be the same. They will only change if you change from within.
To be honest - I got the idea for this blog post when I told my boyfriend: "Sorry that I didn't call you during the last days. I just didn't have time for it". In that very moment, I realised that it's actually not true. The last days have had the same amount of hours as any other day, it was just that I chose to spend them on other things than calling my boyfriend. In this particular example, I had visited a friend in Hamburg and spent some time at my parents house. Sure, I was busy and surrounded by people, but I could have taken time for the call.
This is a pretty straightforward example, but I think that it holds true for much more profound situations. Did you ever feel envy when friends told you about their fancy hobbies? Things like weekend trips for rock-climbing or modern dance competitions? And your own reaction was "How cool, I wish I had time for something like that"? I would claim that what it actually takes is not more time, but more commitment. In the rock-climbing example, it means that you don't go out for drinks on the weekend, but you stay sober to get up in the early morning to drive to the mountain. In the modern dance example, it means fewer evenings in front of the TV / laptop and more evenings for practice. It might also mean that you have to defend your working hours. My friend Sarah is my role-model in that respect. In many cases, she had to tell her boss that she can't do over-hours on a particular day, because she needs to attend her vaulting class.
Another classic is that we tell people that we don't have time to catch up with them. Similar to my first example actually. If the person is a dear friend or even your partner, I guess we need to rethink our priorities. Are all the other tasks really worth losing touch? If it's your job, ask yourself if it's just a temporary problem or if it generally takes too much of your time. And if it is a general problem, is the job really that awesome that it justifies risking your relationships? If you simply have too many friends to devote enough time to them, rethink how much different people matter to you. If you spend more time socialising with acquaintances than with your best friends, ask yourself why. Just for the sake of being popular? For professional networking? Once again, be in charge of your time. Decide who is worth spending your time with and who isn't.
In the sum, what I'm starting to realise is how much influence I have on my own time. I can be in charge. I don't have time for friends, family and hobbies. I take time. It's all about defining priorities and having the guts to stick to them.
How about yourself? What are your challenges about managing your time? How do you set your priorities?
Did you ever ask yourself what your inner child is longing for? Well, I just happened to discuss the topic with some friends at a dinner party the other day. And I found the different answers really interesting!
My first friend answered adventure. She remembered a day last year, when she and some other friends just jumped into a random river in the middle of the night. The feeling of doing something unexpected is something that she is missing in her daily life. My second friend answered carefreeness. In the sense that you don't have responsibilities like earning your income, dealing with appointments and chores. She loves the memory of a caring mum who cooks for her and guides her through the day. My own answer was warmth and a feeling of security. I felt that all the traveling and moving from one country to the next has made me lose my sense of grounding and the presence of family-like people who are around me, not just on Skype.
The most interesting part was that we didn't have the same longings. Which basically means, that even as an adult you can manage to integrate adventure, carefreeness and feelings of security in your life.
Let me talk about adventure first. Personally, I feel that there is quite a lot of adventure in my life. Ok, I don't jump into random rivers very regularly, but I love to step outside my own comfort zone. I take singing classes for example. It's an adventure for me, because I am a terrible singer. Every single time I go to my class, I feel a little nervous and I have to jump over my shadow. I also like interpersonal adventures. A few weeks ago, I set myself the task to speak more to strangers when I'm at coffeeshops and libraries. Again, every time I have to overcome some social fears and embarrassment, but so far each encounter has been interesting.
Regarding carefreeness, we came to the conclusion that it has a lot to do with trust and outsourcing. The reason why we feel that we're in charge of too much is often caused by our compulsion to control. Take teamwork for example. The reason why it feels stressful is because in many cases we don't fully trust our teammates and we feel like the entire responsibility lies on our shoulders. If we work on our own attitude and entrust more to others, we can get closer to this child-like carefreeness again.
Last but not least, let's have a look at warmth and feelings of security. My friend spontaneously said that she gets all that from her relationship. So this might be the most straightforward way to have this warm family-feel again. But we also came to the conclusion that a slightly more stable lifestyle (living in the same city for more than a year...) or the choice of habitat (living in a supportive flat-share, frequent visits to close friends) can make a huge difference.
In the bottom line, the cravings of our in children might be easier to reach than we think!
What is your inner child longing for? And what do you do to satisfy these needs?
My ex-flatmate Kaylan is writing her PhD about a pretty interesting topic: the expectations and experiences of Western students who volunteer in developing countries. Since I have volunteered a couple of times myself, her PhD made me reflect about my own experiences. I have basically participated in 3 bigger projects. The first one was a trip with Habitat for Humanity and M.A.D. to Mississippi, USA, the second was a summer camp for kids South England (with Kids Company London), and the third one involved supporting blind students at Niwant in Pune, India.
One of my main concerns, especially when I was supposed to "build houses" in Mississippi, was whether my volunteering work is the best use of money for the charity. Because despite working for free, a volunteer is expensive. I had to raise around 800 USD to pay for flight, accommodation and food for the 2 week trip. I guess Habitat for Humanity could have made much more progress on their houses if they had just hired a worker for that amount of money. But then, I understood that the impact might not come from the actual volunteering work, but from the change of my own mindset. Spending time in Mississippi has definitely raised my awareness of social injustice and my wish to continue volunteering work. And since this project was organised by my business school, chances are high that some future leaders will run their companies in a more sustainable way.
My voluntary work with Kids Company had a similar impact. The actual project was just one week long. One week of looking after some tough, but really cool kids. I can tell you, that was one of the most intense weeks of my life. But again, the main impact did not happen in that one week, but afterwards. I see the UK (and Europe) with different eyes now. Most of the kids had an immigration background, so I have learned a lot about the struggles of immigrants. What is more, many of the other volunteers decided to become buddy of a kid and to commit to meet them once a week, for at least one year. I also took the decision to spend more time with kids on a regular basis and I joined Wellcome in Berlin. Working with kids has taught me so much about myself. I'm more aware of how self-centred my normal life actually is and how detached I am from some very basic human needs like playing, giggling, hugging and sometimes just wailing in somebodies arms.
In India, I tutored blind students, printed their study materials in Braille and joined them for leisure activities like chocolate making. First of all, I developed a much greater understanding of disabilities and how they influence a person's life. Other than expected, these kids were super jolly and motivated. On my first day, I saw them in their dancing class and I would have never thought that blind people can move around with such a pace and ease. Same with computers - they are probably faster at using the PC than I am...! And I have definitely lost any fear of contact with disabled people in that time.
In the sum, I can say that volunteering never felt like a selfless act to me. On the contrary, I benefited so much from my volunteering experiences that it felt more as if volunteering was a very selfish thing - spending time outside my own world to broaden my horizon, question my attitudes and develop understanding for others. However, I hope that I also inspired the other people on my volunteering projects. Because the actual impact had certainly little to do with the walls I painted, the vocabulary I taught or the game I played.
I would say it is a relevant assumption that most of us want to be financially independent. But what exactly is financial independence? A common answer might be that it means you're able to cover your needs and afford most things you want to buy. So if you look at it carefully, there are actually 2 elements to it:
1. Financial means
2. Wants and needs
In other words, you have also 2 ways to be financially independent. Either you try to make so much money that you cover all needs, no matter how excessive they are. Or you can work on your wants and needs and keep them so low, that you don't need to worry too much about the amount of money you're making. It sounds so obvious, but I believe that everyone from companies with their advertising to parents with their job recommendations make us focus on way number 1.
At first sight, it might seem easier to just try to earn amount XYZ in order to reach financial independence. But considering that even Rockefeller replied to the question "how much money is enough?", with the answer "just a little bit more", it seems difficult to ever reach an amount that does actually leave us satisfied. The reason is simple: the more we earn, the more we get used to conveniences, status and luxury. What is more, the more we buy, the more money we need to maintain our property. Cars need to be fixed, houses need to be painted and gym memberships need to be paid.
So how to make way number 2 work for us? The first step is probably to reduce reoccurring cost like rent, loans and membership fees. "Own a small house" as Sukadev puts it nicely in one of the Yoga Vidya podcast episodes. This way, there will be less struggle to cover our daily treats (restaurant visits, cinema,...) or big adventures (traveling) - and those are things that do make us feel more independent, that's for sure. The other big aspect is the location where we live. Personally, I love London and after my M.Sc. studies there, I never wanted to live anywhere else again. But the cost of living there is just so high that I would need to take a job that I don't want to take. So I decided to leave.
In the bottom line, I started to understand that being financially independent doesn't necessarily mean to take a crazy banking job or anything like that. It's more about finding your right balance and rethinking your needs, so that they match the professional steps that you want to take.
I guess everybody would agree that "real" addictions are a serious issue and they often require professional help to get over them. I'm talking about drug addictions or gambling addictions for example. But what about all these "every day addictions"? Is it worth fighting against them? Or shall we just resign and accept them?
Let me give you an example. I'm a coffee addicted person. In the sense that I simply can't handle moderation with coffee. I go through phases of having 3-4 cups a day and phases of withdrawal when I try to avoid coffee at all. 1 cup a day? It just doesn't work! When I give up coffee, I go through 3 days of terrible detox. Headaches, dizziness, depressive feelings - almost like having a proper flu, really...!
Once when I was in the middle of my coffee detox phase, my dad asked me: "So what's so bad about being addicted to coffee? I'm totally addicted, too. But as long as the world is not running low on coffee supply, why should I care?". He has a point there. On the other hand - don't we claim to be self-determined beings? When I picture myself structuring my day around coffee breaks, I sometimes doubt that I can be addicted and self-determined at the same time...
The other thing is the YOLO argument. If you only live once, why deprive yourself of the pleasures of life? And I do enjoy my coffee..! But if you argue that way, you easily get into trouble drawing the line between small guilty pleasures and ruining your life by eating unhealthy stuff and being lazy. Because in the end of the day, a lot of these "every day addictions" are actually quite unhealthy. Too much caffein is bad for your blood pressure and fertility, too much chocolate is making you fat, too many cigarettes give you cancer.
The mindful answer to this dilemma is moderation. But isn't moderation the hardest part when it comes to addictions...?
What's your view? Are you happily addicted? Or do you live an abstentious life? Or are there people out there who just don't get addicted that easily?