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Thursday, 16 April 2015

My latest article on The Huffington Post

13th April 2015

Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 13 April 2015

How to be happy

Old acquaintances share a walk together along a lake in the countryside. The day is perfect- crisp blue sky, waves that ripple so gently they appear to skim across the placid lake. A gentle breeze nudges both men along under a bright yellow sun. They continue walking, their two dogs ambling behind or in front, sniffing, investigating spent clam shells littered along the shoreline. Both dogs dip their paws into the shallow water near the edge of the lake and decide in canine unison to wander along dry land rather than dive in. In such an idyllic environment on a picture perfect postcard day, the subject of happiness comes up. And one acquaintance looks at the other and declares that he has never known what happiness is. Ever. Bad luck and financial hardship have blighted his entire life and seem to be his only companions.


Not that far away from the bucolic lake and in the village where I currently live, there is a lady of a certain age whose deceased husband was once prominent on the world stage. This lady is always impeccably dressed replete with pearls and fingers laden with priceless gems. The hair is coiffed par excellence and one can tell, of course, that Madame has lived a comfortable life. Her house is the finest in the village and through the windows one can spy possessions of exquisite quality – antiques, oil paintings, etc. and yet when one meets the lady in question, not a pleasant word ever passes her lips. Her latest vendetta is against the pigeons that must be eliminated at all costs. She brandishes a petition at me- will I sign it? No indeed! I remind her that the pigeons were here before us and shall outlive us all as well.  “But they carry diseases!” she exclaims. “Oh, well, I will die then,” I reply.

What therefore is the elusive happiness? How many books have been written on finding that particular unicorn? Thousands? Perhaps millions. We all know someone who possesses an entire library filled with self-help books. You know the type- the one who calls constantly usually late at night to offload their latest drama and who is the first to whip out a paperback from nowhere and suggest we read it because it really ‘helped them sort out their s…t.” and yet when we do cast an eye at the said ‘bible’ it makes absolutely no sense to us at all. And that, ironically, is probably what happiness is.

Human beings are all on different journeys- visualise this: a school of fish all swim together in the same direction. Now imagine that same image but with the fish choosing to head off individually in random directions and without following each other. That is exactly where each of us is on our life’s journey and no two people will ever evolve mentally or spiritually in an identical way. The idea for example that one religion could possibly answer all of life’s dilemmas is precisely why many have abandoned their faith. There is no book that has all the answers  (if there were one, the writer would be very rich indeed). Finding happiness is not an impossible or elusive a goal in one lifetime but the solution is surprisingly simple (and perhaps disappointingly so). It requires responsibility on the part of the individual to accept themselves with all their flaws. It also requires that the individual seeks to know themselves above all else. Whilst this may sound easy, it is anything but. Human beings are social creatures and without an inbuilt need to be surrounded by other people, we would not have evolved into thinking beings. Our interaction with each other is what has essentially civilised us. This also brings about a neediness to be accepted, loved and even admired. In our money-oriented society we tend to compare ourselves to others from a materialistic perspective only. We are driven to managing appearances, and on a more subtle level, measuring ourselves against the success of others hence the term ‘keeping up with the Jones’. In our pursuit to follow others, the self becomes pure ego effacing the spiritual core. Put another way, someone who is constantly being put down ends up losing their confidence completely. Similarly that is what happens to the part of ourselves which wants to flourish but we keep suppressing- if we don’t exercise the most private innermost self it will become lost forever to the more voracious ego. I should clarify here that I use the word ‘spiritual’ as not necessarily being connected to God or a faith but as the closest we can be to discovering who we truly are and finding innermost peace.

How therefore can the process of finding happiness be termed as ‘simple’? Once we get over the first step of taking responsibility for our lives on our terms - which is the hardest part of self-discovery and which takes real courage- the rest is easy. Ironically, we all function better when we are calmer and less encumbered by the stuff that truly does not matter. The riddle locked in the enigma is separating the metaphorical chaff from the wheat, which can’t be taught because remember, we’re all on different journeys. Our search for fulfillment, contentment and yes, happiness is the one thing we can truly control and which belongs only to us.

 Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 6 April 2015

A simple life

For those seeking eternal youth, you should know this: life just isn't the same after 50; the body slows down and takes longer to recover, the mind chooses tranquility before drama, unfettered by ulterior motives and hidden agendas. This is a glorious time to be and think and relax at a much slower pace. But you have to want to be who you truly are otherwise you'll just keep dancing as fast as you can.
Photo copyright S. van Dalen

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Spring- the first flowers

These are the second flowers (to be truthful, not the first which are Wild Yellow Primroses) of the impending Spring: Wild Damsons. If you like jam, hover near a Damson tree in mid Autumn. The jam is particularly delicious for its tangy, sweet, plummy flavour. Pitting damsons to make jam is a task for the saintly and very patient- those of us who have zero patience make the jam anyway at the risk of our teeth!

Photo copyright SvD.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Unspeakable hatred and the lost concept of freedom

I live in a very green, leafy part of Surrey in England. We're a genteel type- dog walkers anonymous are essentially professionals, retirees, and/or those who like a stroll in a rambling common and woods that thankfully have never had a close encounter with a chainsaw. This park and woods once had an illustrious history- has did most of the UK during the war where we all pulled together in order to defeat the enemy- but over time, the place has fallen into a more natural and un-manicured state. People like me come here to think- I walk for miles each day in deep meditation and without which I would probably end up in an asylum chattering to an imaginary fairy sitting on my shoulder. I actually dislike running into other dog walkers when I am lost in my thoughts as I absentmindedly keep an eye on the hound as he trotters along sniffing (and sniffing) in canine ecstasy. And of course being of a gregarious disposition, the hound has a coterie of friends who he simply must lick, sniff and play shag (preferably boy dogs) every morning. My vocabulary is usually limited to "I'm so sorry!!" as I pull off the hound yet again. We all nod at each other or laugh off the gay dog thing. But then we keep walking because that's what we do and the common and woods are our cathedral, sacrosanct and a repository for our most private thoughts. So private that my undertaker friend has cut loose many a local who has chosen suicide suspended from the ancient oaks and beeches. Imagine therefore our surprise to see caravans and cars one Saturday morning in the middle of the common. And so began a most interesting week....

The truth is when we're not familiar with something or someone we react with a grave apprehension which turns to dislike almost immediately. I remember one disastrous birthday spent in Paris where I ate a meal so awful that all I could do was complain vociferously to the restaurateur. Imagine my complete shock when he stated that because I was not accustomed to eating the dish in question I probably would complain anyway. Well, he got an earful from me that day but I never forgot his remark...

And so it came to pass that when a travelling community descended into my beloved park I became guilty of the worst homophobia one can imagine. I was livid that my tranquillity was wrecked by their presence. Even more interesting was the response of my fellow dog walkers.

In fact, all of the dog walkers exhibited a type of universal hatred. A dislike so intense that no redeeming feature of the community in question would ever make up for how much the travellers were reviled and hated. The police was inundated with calls for their removal. The local council could not keep up with the number of angry callers spitting vile at 'those people'.

What is it about the travelling community that everyone so disapproved of? I mentioned one day to my fellow dog walkers that the travellers' lifestyle raised an interesting question about the concept of freedom. That whole debate landed on completely deaf ears. Everyone was too busy 'hating' to enter into a philosophical debate about freedom. But yes- as that community relieved themselves in the woods and left scrunched up used toilet paper the same having been produced by globalisation giants whose goal is to control the supply of foodstuffs (and toilet paper) to the masses, the logical conclusion to that debate was right there: there is NO freedom in this world, just a bunch of misguided individuals guilty of littering: crisp packets discarded along with the ready made lasagna packaging. And so answer me this:  how are those people different to you and I?

Photo copyright SvD.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Will you post me rose petals?

A recent house move has necessitated a ruthless clean out of those old boxes lurking under stairs and in the loft and which contain memories of a past long gone. My dream of living in a very small space is about to become a reality but more on that later.

I opened the letters: "I wish the word 'sadness' didn't exist," wrote one former lover (he was French and we were in love), "Why don't you respond to my letters?" wrote another (he was German). "I'd love it if you came to the ball with me on June 21st," (he was English) and so it went on. How I am holding on to these old mementoes of a time long disappeared is really one of those quirky things I can't explain. You see, I've moved a total of 23 times in my life- sometimes around the world. My late mother would usually facilitate these moves by arranging packing and shipment of my things (and I am deeply indebted to her for humouring me for so many years). And so another few boxes would arrive. Even I would be amazed at the letters I received in my life- and moreso the ones I wrote. I remember sending a lover envelopes filled with rose petals I had grown myself- the most perfumed and a deep, dark red- need I say more? Pathetic or a hopeless romantic?

Anyway the point of reading old letters is exactly that- they belong to a past that has little if any bearing on the present. "I shall miss you so," one opined. Well, where exactly is he now? There were old lovers who have remained friends and it was their wishing to maintain contact in spite of everything that was their own doing and not mine. Now when I read their letters, I see that they were genuinely in love. But I wasn't. That halfway house of half-baked friendship after the end of a love affair is quite an heroic thing to do.

One old lover wrote : "I have never been lucky. Honesty gets you nowhere. Fate has not been kind to me." Was he a manic depressive? No. Just someone who longed to be living a different life to the one he chose. Did he ever find happiness? No.

Another lover advised me to treat men badly - or rather, don't show them I care. That way, they'll love you more. True- looking back I can see that was absolutely the best strategy but I was never very good at playing games. In fact, my no-nonsense directness leaves zero room for subtlety. Men enjoy the chase so why hand them everything on a plate and when you do, they don't hang around. But this article is not intended to be a guide to love rather an exploration of times past and the relevance of the present moment.

It occurred to me reading those love letters that the present moment is a type of recurring episode in one's life. We never un-live the past but we are effectively living it every day whereby in its recycled form it becomes the present.

I re-read letters from my father and my sister, written thirty years ago and there were signs then of a storm brewing within our family. There should have been no surprise when the 's....t' eventually hit the fan. I also saw in those old letters how much I had squandered my good fortune- there were men who were deeply in love with me and for whatever reason, I tossed them away like an unwanted rag doll. But surely that is the riddle of life? What we think we want is what we don't know that we need. Yet.

The truth is looking back at one's life one sees how crystal clear all those signs were. Yes, he loved me and I should have never let him go. Yes, our lives are a type of groundhog day every day. Not that we re-live the same situation every day but everything we fear will happen does unless we resolve the issues our intuition is screaming at us to address.

Do I regret any of it? It's a strange, strange sensation to open a box one hasn't touched in thirty years. Everything somehow falls into place but the awakening that occurs looking at the mirror of the past is this: we do not value the moment in time that is our life. In the grand scheme of things, we are mere specks. But in our lives we have had the chances and opportunities that mostly we squandered. Not just in love and not from a solely material perspective- but what we should have done, could have done and for whatever reason, didn't. We let time pass. We never made amends. We didn't say sorry. We just let the river of time flow around us as if we were demi-Gods, and who like Moses, could change the tide at will. Not so. Time and chance wait for no man.

And so I'm moving yet again. Will I take my boxes with me? No. I am getting old, certainly, but I do not relish spending more hours re-reading any of these letters in the time I have left on planet earth. What's done is done and relegated to what has been lost forever. In thirty years once was quite simply enough. Some memories are worth keeping but the rest remain too abstract lacking both a pulse and beating heart.

The sweetest perfumed rose that I grew. Photo copyright SvD.