November 07, 2013

Now, is the only time there is

A young child dies unexpectedly at the age of 11 from a minor illness; a 42 year old mother is fighting an aggressive cancer & her two young daughters are worried she is not winning the fight; a 60 year old teacher is losing her battle against cancer, despite clinging to life because she feels she still has so much to offer...
Every time another friend is affected by illness or death, I feel bad for every time I was too busy or frustrated or tired to pay attention to what's important in my life. I feel bad for every time I was too busy to play dolls with my 3 year old. I feel bad for every time I shouted at my son for not completing homework or bringing home a poor test result. I feel bad for every time I snapped out of irritation at my children for interrupting me while I was trying to sit on the toilet for the 3rd time!
Bad things happen to good people all the time, unfortunately. Death and illness do not discriminate between good and bad, old and young, or righteous and wicked. The one thing we act like we have in abundance, is the one thing we do not have, i.e. time. A full and long life is short enough, but you have no idea how long you actually have on this Earth, or your loved ones for that matter.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross devoted much of her life to researching death and dying. She wrote several books on the subject and spent much of her time with terminally ill patients, young and old. She was by no means a negative person, nor were her books depressing to read. On the contrary, her message to readers was to live their lives fully with joy.
From the minute we are born, we begin to decay. Nothing lasts in this world. Apples start to rot, flowers start to wilt, dust settles in our homes, clothes get dirty, our health and strength waneswith the passing years... We devote so much attention to cleaning, fixing, maintaining ourselves and the world around us. We want youth, we want newness, we want perfection. These are things that do not exist.
Accepting that death is a part of life need not be a negative or depressing step. NOW, is the only time there is. Tomorrow is a but a dream until then. You do not have time to worry, to stress, to be irritable or to feel sorry for yourself. When I think about my friends struggling through difficult circumstances, I no longer worry about my flabby stomach, my dwindling bank account, my broken gate motor and the hundreds of other trivial things that dominate my daily thoughts.
I want to embrace life and do more with it. I want to love my family and hug them more than I chastise them. I want to enjoy myself more, rather than drive myself harder. I want to appreciate my life, my body, my blessings and stop worrying about what I still need or want. Nothing can make my life more perfect, it is already perfect. I want to feel blessed and grateful every day for waking up healthy and happy with a loving family under my roof.

Is it fair? When 2 young girls are left without a mother, is that fair? When a parent loses her daughters in an air crash, is that fair? When a toddler dies of cancer, is that fair? We waste energy pondering the fairness of it all when it just is what it is, a sad fact of life. Accept that it happens for no good reason and make your life meaningful instead of trying to find meaning in death.
My granny used to tell me, "don't grow old, Toni" as she applied her make-up in front of the mirror. Well, Gran, I would feel blessed to grow old and see my children grow up! When the final bell rings for me, I know I will not feel ready, but I do want to feel that I have no regrets and I absolutely lived the heck out of my life!

October 21, 2013

Marriage IS hard work!

When I was younger and heard people talk about how it took hard work to sustain a good marriage, I couldn't understand why. If you love someone, then surely it's easy to make a long term relationship work, isn't it? 

After 22 years with my long-suffering husband, I now understand that marriage IS hard work! Loving someone is easy. Sharing your life with someone is the hard part. As your life moves through stages, so too does your love. 

You may know that love begins with attraction, moves onto a honeymoon stage and then settles into a deep and committed love, if you're lucky. Add to that sharing your space with each other and bringing children into the fold as well as job stresses and life changes. Now we're cooking!

Like a bank account, your relationship can only bring returns if regular deposits have been made. It is too easy to get comfortable with each other, forget to say "I love you" and neglect the romance that was so much a part of your relationship in the beginning. 

It's great to be so familiar with a person that you don't have a need for illusion, games or delusion, BUT familiarity can also be the enemy of passion in a good relationship. There are the obvious things such as taking care of yourself by keeping well groomed and maintaining your looks. But there are also less obvious habits (and sometimes more vulgar) that can creep in and turn things sour. 

Parenthood is possibly the greatest game-changer in a long term relationship. There is the real danger of immersing yourself in your role as parent and neglecting your role as spouse. The two of you can live side by side sharing your love for your children, while the intimacy you had between you begins to fade, along with the passion. Fatigue and stress are valid excuses so you can see why the relationship is now starting to resemble hard work! 

As your children grow older, you need to start growing closer together again, slowly rebuilding what has possibly been lost. You need to remind yourself that once your children leave home, which is the end game, it will just be the two of you again. You need to still be on the same page, sharing the same dreams, setting new adventures for those child-free years that are to come. This means your friendship still needs to be intact, but you are also more than just friends...

So much gets written and spoken about when it comes to intimacy in the bedroom. Couples have been told to introduce toys, wear lingerie and role play to keep things interesting and exciting. However, I don't want to ask, "is there enough intimacy?" but "is there enough romance?"

After a few years it isn't necessarily important to bring flowers and go on dates, despite those being great habits to continue. Romance comes in many forms. There is no one right way to be romantic. Use your personality and the nature of your relationship to set the tone, be it playful, serious or creative. 

The bottom line with romance is that you are not a robot that can be switched on and off. You two don't owe each other anything just because you're married. Try to behave as you would if you were dating. In other words, don't expect without asking or thanking (dinner, coffee, intimacy). If you were seducing someone you would compliment them, romance them, be courteous, helpful, charming and more. 

If you want passion and intimacy on the bedroom, then try to be more passionate outside of the bedroom too! Hold hands, hug and kiss regularly and NOT just when you desire intimacy. 

Treat your spouse better than you treat anyone else! Hold them in the highest esteem, be proud of them and respect them. Always be your partner's biggest support, rather than being the one that often pulls them down. Point out their strengths, not their weaknesses. Remind your partner why you love them, they do sometimes forget!

While you're working so hard on your relationship, one less obvious tip is to carve out time for yourself. It isn't necessary to do everything together all the time. You are two people sharing one life but it is okay to have separate hobbies and interests. It is healthy for your relationship, even if it is just a quiet time-out to read a book. 

You shouldn't have to sacrifice part of yourself to be part of someone else's life. You were attracted to each other when you were separate entities and part of that spark came from you pursuing your own interests. Two happy, fulfilled individuals can benefit a happy and fulfilling relationship. 

Encourage your partner to pursue their dreams and support them. The sacrifice and compromise that comes with marriage need not be a personal sacrifice of one's hopes and dreams. It's more a compromise in terms of doing things differently and managing one's time. 

To benefit a relationship, one cannot sacrifice oneself. You must be whole to be of any use to anyone. 

Lastly, have FUN! If you spend all your time on responsibilities and obligations, don't be surprised that passion is such an elusive guest. Create more opportunities to let down your hair and have a good laugh. 

Enjoy life, enjoy each other and you will grow closer together. That's been my experience :-)

August 06, 2013

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams - Eleanor Roosevelt

"Mrs Stephan, your child has a vivid imagination"... I have heard this too many times about both my older children, and the youngest is set to follow suit. My son talks of building hovercrafts, my daughter makes houses for fairies to visit and my youngest daughter plays with a plethora of "imaginary" friends daily. 

I am so proud of their vivid imaginations. 

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” - Albert Einstein

"Aren't you afraid your children won't know the difference between fantasy and reality?" one mother asked me. No, I am not. Our lives as adults are so full of reality that sometimes the only escape seems to be drugs and alcohol. Reality is everywhere, in the news, on the roads, at the grocery store, on the streets... South African children get a large dose of reality every day!

Growing up is TOUGH. Adults need to be responsible, for themselves, their spouses and their children. Adults have obligations, to pay bills, hold down a job, raise decent children, take care of aging parents, and so much more. 

“Listen to the mustn'ts, child. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me... Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”  - Shel Silverstein

Adults must let go of childish pursuits, step up to the plate and lay claim to their adult lives. The future is where it's at so adults focus on working hard, playing a little and saving for the future. Children look up to adults, emulate them, and want to become them. What a pity :-(

Adults tell children how it is... how reality is. In so doing, we adults hem them in, place boundaries on their thinking and limit their possibilities. Every failure, every disappointment and every bit of reality that bit us on the nose becomes a lesson in hardship to prepare our kiddies for LIFE. 

"To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk." - Thomas Edison

I have always encouraged my children to be imaginative. From invisible friends to the magical world of fairies and unicorns I have never placed a ceiling on their creativity. I have not told an outright "lie" (by someone's definition of a lie) and said something does or does not exist. I have only said that it is possible

Through possibility the mind can expand. Through limitations the mind can only contract. Think about that for a minute. What are the implications?

“Everything you can imagine is real.” - Pablo Picasso

Millions of people believe in a place called heaven, a place they know exists only through their faith, their religion. They teach their children about religion, and about having faith, without worrying about the line between material reality and spiritual reality. Children's minds can perceive both. The same children grow up and are still able to find someone to marry, have beautiful babies, work in productive jobs and live a healthy, full life!

I'm not saying that heaven is the same as that magical world where fairies live! I'm merely talking about the mind being able to perceive the possibility of different realities without affecting one's ability to function in this material reality. 

Possibility... If you don't first believe in the possibility of something then you will never invent anything, solve any problem or work hard on a cure. I believe imagination is the start of creativity. I believe creativity is the start of ingenuity. Characteristics such as ingenuity are found in entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers, scientists, and writers. 

“People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.” - Ursula K. Le Guin

Where would modern man be without Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walt Disney, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs...? How does an engineer conceive of a bridge that will extend miles across a body of water, withstand strong gusts of wind and be sturdy enough to safely travel? How will a scientist create a vaccine for a virus responsible for so many grave illnesses and fatalities? How do we improve the lives of paraplegics without the creative minds behind prostheses and robotics?

“If you can dream it, you can do it. Always remember that this whole thing was started with a dream and a mouse.” - Walt Disney

A realist sees what already is. A dreamer sees what could possibly be. The dreamer then creates that and makes it REAL. 

Let your children DREAM!!!

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July 17, 2013

Embracing change

Change is often scary. The familiar is so safe and comfortable that the idea of changing it instantly increases our anxiety. Change is very much a part of life, whether we want it or not, e.g. the death of a loved one. Other times change is necessary for us to move on and move forward, or at the very least, realise our full potential as human beings. 

Without change, we stagnate. The very safety of our familiar status quo is what imprisons us in the end. We become bored, unfulfilled and even depressed. Adventure excites us, wakes us up and ignites in us desire, dreams and passion. If change is so promising then why do we resist it so vehemently? How do we embrace change? 

Firstly, try not to over-think your decisions. Often our judgement is clouded by factors that distract us without having anything to do with the issue, e.g. how a change in you will affect what others think of you. Ask yourself 3 basic questions:

  1. Is this change in my best interests?
  2. All things being equal, is this what I really want?
  3. Will I deeply regret not making this change?
Secondly, don't play the "what if" game. What if you fail? What if people don't like the change in you? What if you regret the decision? You can try to alleviate your fears by coming up with a plan or an answer for every "what if". Or you can reverse the game and ask, what if I succeed? Perhaps success IS your real fear. Are you afraid of higher expectations placed on you if you succeed? 

Lastly, take a leap of faith. The definition of faith is complete trust or confidence in something. You may not possess a crystal ball but you do know a few truths about the future. You will always be okay. You are never alone. You may not always make the best decisions but you can always make the best of them once they're decided. 

One day, your story will be told, and the ending relies on the decisions you make today. Romance, mystery, adventure and intrigue are out there waiting for you to make a change and invite them in. Change may be scary but stagnation = boredom = death... death of a flame that should be burning brightly inside you. 

Go live your life!

June 20, 2013

Bask in your own light

Madonna sings, "I tried to be a good girl, I tried to be your wife, I diminished myself, I swallowed my light". When I heard these words for the first time, they resonated with me. Think about it for a minute, how many times do we change who we are to fit in and make others feel better about themselves? We worry that we intimidate others, or we don't want to offend their sensibilities. We're afraid people may misinterpret our intentions or label us in a negative way. We're constantly anxious about being judged, so we judge ourselves, monitor our behaviour and change accordingly.

It is possible that extroverts like Madonna are a bit much to handle! Some people are full of vigour, passionate about what they do, and expressive in the way they put that across. Although Madonna may not be everybody's cup of tea, does that mean she should try to tone herself down for the sake of others? We are who we are and I don't believe we should be apologetic about it! 

There are of course other reasons we swallow our light. Motherhood is a most challenging, albeit rewarding, phase of life that requires much in the way of sacrifice and compromise. My friend, let's call her Mandy, put it this way, "it's like I had a baby and put Mandy in the closet. There is no place for her anymore and her needs just don't matter". Another friend said, "it's as if I've been asleep for the past few years and I don't know how to wake up". These women feel as though they've had to pack away their dreams, push down their desires and ignore their yearnings for "something more" because they take care of their family's needs first. 

So whether you believe it isn't right for a woman to be outspoken (or in the workplace), or you're biding your time until your children grow older, please take a long, hard look at yourself and establish whether you're fully expressing your personality. Judgement and criticism will always come and remind yourself of the direction from which it came too! You cannot be everything to everyone, even if you try. 

My oldest daughter is a bubbly, joyful child who has been this way since birth. When in social situations her excitement and enjoyment intensifies these personality traits, making her appear somewhat wild to some children. It started with her brother calling her crazy, then another child called her crazy, and now she thinks she is crazy and wants me to tell her why. How can it be crazy to be happy? Is that why it's crazy? Because misery is normal? She never complains, she gets along with all children in all situations, and she loves life! She is normal, and happy, and very likable (and popular)... and well, a bit crazy! 

In my house, crazy is normal, crazy is happy, crazy is good. That's what I tell my kids. Let the rest of the world be boring, miserable and judgmental if they so choose. To my daughter, I say, "DON'T swallow your light... EVER!"