The Unlearning of Softness

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I used to think of life as a series of lessons, like slippery but sturdy little stepping stones gradually leading you to a better version of yourself. Each stepping stone was an experience – something challenging or joyful or overwhelming or exhilarating. If you were able to find your balance on the stone, to reflect on what the experience was teaching you, then you could keep that wisdom in your pocket for the journey ahead. So with each and every stepping stone you would gradually become stronger, more balanced, more confident in your own steps and your ability to navigate the stones ahead.

Within this perspective, it made sense that throwing myself headfirst into this crazy Jamaican adventure would ultimately lead to a new, improved me emerging from all the huge lessons I would learn. But of course reality is not quite that simple. In fact, I believe I have adapted to this new life not through learning but by embracing a constant state of unlearning. I have had to let go of beliefs, expectations and patterns of behaviour that have served me well for my whole life – until now. Many of the things I am unlearning are so closely tied to my sense of self that letting them go has been at times both painful and liberating. I can no longer say with any certainty that placing yourself in a hugely challenging situation and simply having to adapt will necessarily result in positive changes. There will be changes, for sure, but like most things in life, whether you see them as positive or negative is entirely down to your perspective.

Take, for example, one of the most unexpected and difficult elements of my experience here: the unlearning of softness. Although I came here for the express purpose of giving my time, energy and skills to help others, within this context I have slowly unlearned my natural inclination to be open, friendly and generous. It is somewhat heartbreaking to realise that I now say “no” far more than I say “yes”. With an onslaught of sleazy men, pushy teenagers and (beautiful but) challenging children waiting outside my door each day, I quickly realised that if I continued to give whenever it was demanded, I would have nothing left. To put it simply, if I don’t look after myself here, no one will.

After spending a whole year dedicated to living the power of kindness, unlearning the habit of giving freely and openly does not seem to be a particularly positive development. It certainly does not feel like progress towards a better version of myself. However, after reflecting awhile on this particular stepping stone I begin to see something else hidden there. Along with letting go of softness, my time here has allowed me to see that I am much tougher and much less breakable than I thought. I am now rarely emotional, anxious, or stressed, even though logically I have more reason to be all those things than ever before. And perhaps this isn’t an entirely new me, just a side that had never had the chance – or need – to reveal itself.

Unlearning softness has also opened up the space to be more considerate of my own wants and needs. One of the biggest lessons from the Year of Kindness was that being kind to yourself is always the most difficult kindness of all. While I could eagerly accept, encourage, support and nurture others, I found it hard to do the same for myself. But in my new life, faced with the very real possibility of having nothing left to give, I have begun to draw much firmer boundaries around my own needs and truly consider what I must do to maintain my own wellbeing. I make “Cat time” a priority every single day – yoga at sunrise, writing, listening to happy music, preparing nourishing food – and for once in my life I do not feel guilty for making sure I give to myself before giving to others.

While my current circumstances may be peeling away some of my softness, the flip side is they are shining a light on inner-strength I never even knew I had and pushing me to care for myself in a way that was never quite possible before. I can only hope that once I move on to the next stepping stone I will be able to find the balance between inner-strength, kindness to self and softness towards others. For now, I accept this new version of myself, and continue to unlearn.

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Safety Last, Kids (And Other Surprising Habits I’ve Picked Up In Jamaica)

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Talking to animals
I have officially become a cat lady, greeting Stella and Tiger as if they are good friends and chatting to them about the weather or what I should cook for dinner. I also find myself saying hello to goats and donkeys as I pass them on the road and to be honest they are usually far more talkative than a lot of people.

Safety last, kids
The other day I got into a car and it wasn’t until the end of the journey that I realised there was actually a seatbelt and I didn’t even attempt to put it on. (Sorry Mum.) Safety is the absolute last priority around here, and you do start to get used to it – still, I do wish that women with newborn babies wouldn’t ride on the mini buses on incredibly bumpy roads with their baby in their arms while sitting on a milk crate.

Eating to live
I was joking with a friend recently that I have become like a squirrel in constant preparation for winter. If I am near a supermarket or fruit and veg stall I stock up with weeks worth of food as I never know when I’ll be able to buy more. I also pretty much eat anything that I can get my hands on. After a decade of being vegetarian I now pick the bones for every last scrap of meat – hiking up mountains is hungry work and meat is expensive so I don’t intend to waste any!

Cleaning like Monica Geller
I’m not sure if its an attempt to “nest” and make my house feel more like a home, or because I have so much free time, or because everything always feels dirty, but I find myself cleaning constantly here. I get a ridiculous amount of satisfaction from knowing all my domestic duties are completed: water has been filtered, floors swept and moped, benches wiped, wasp nest sprayed, cats fed, mongoose shooed out of the house, all the usual stuff.

Treating certain material goods like Gollum treats The Ring
My laptop. My iphone. My stereo. My pillow from home. My favourite skirt. My peach scented body wash. My Tim Winton novel. I thought living in a developing country would allow me to rise above such superficial attachments, but in fact they have only grown stronger. Because these items are much more than objects now. They are my link to loved ones, my source of connection, or entertainment or comfort. And all those things are fairly in short supply right now. My precious …

If You Wake Up, It’s A Good Day (And Other Jamaican Wisdom)

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“If you wake up, it’s a good day.” Even when there is more than enough reason to complain, many Jamaicans like to remind themselves that it could always be worse. It’s all about gratitude and perspective. Just being alive is reason enough to be thankful and happy, because not everyone is so lucky. That’s a pretty good motto to live by if you ask me.

“When man make a plan, God be wiping it.” Usually this is the response I get when I attempt to organise anything even slightly in advance. As much as this can be frustrating, it is undeniably true that we never have any idea what the future holds. Some use the metaphor that living life is like riding a train backwards – you can see where you have been but you can never be sure where you are going. Especially in Jamaica, where time and schedules are not really a priority – so you may as well just go with the flow!

“A rotten leaf always sinks.” I think something gets lost in the translation of this one. I’m still not entirely sure if it means that people will eventually show their true colours, or what goes around comes around. Either way, it’s true! So trust that time will always bring clarity and things will unfold as they are meant to.

“Take a hard life easy.” I was hiking up the mountain singing along to Bulletproof (with a fair amount of enthusiasm, not realising I had an audience) when someone called out to me and said they could see I was taking a hard life easy. And it seemed like the perfect way to sum everything up in that moment. There is no escaping the fact that life can be hard – sometimes you do feel like you’re climbing a mountain physically, mentally or emotionally – but since challenges are inevitable we may as well accept things as they are and try to enjoy the journey.

“One love.” On a recent visit to the Bob Marley museum the thing that struck me most was his smile. I’m not sure why I never really noticed before, but he had an incredible smile, just bursting with pure, authentic joy. He seemed to be in on something (apart from an abundant source of weed) that gave him an incredible aura of bliss. And his mantra of “one love” was surely a big part of that – he believed our differences were irrelevant because we were all deeply connected, and we should treat each other as such. It’s all about peace and love, man.