A puzzle

Then

they seemed to click together

a piece for each space

a room for each block

a perfect puzzle to be completed

with each part

each desire, need

and choice of my life

fitting.

 

Now

they hang

not exactly fit

these pieces of my soul

the borders eroded and damaged

modified by time (or never right?)

and struggling I must choose

an image distorted

incomplete.

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Agatha Christie’s fault

I started reading Agatha Christie’s books when I was about 15 years old, I loved them and read all the ones I could find – right until I started to know who did it…

I then read a few more of her books, just to be sure that I could actually guess who the murderer was, before I finally stopped looking for new ones. Turned out I could guess, every time (although I’d already read Murder on the Orient Express & And Then There Were None, so I couldn’t test my new ability with these great books), and the stories became a bit less appealing.

John Keogh, flickr
John Keogh, flickr

Maybe I also realized that my education was done – though to be fair The Famous Five probably helped there too, a few years back, to lay some good foundations 🙂

Anyway, the other day I realized how these books may be the culprit for the strange look I can have on things. They appear to have given me a strong taste for deduction and the envy to solve mysteries, or maybe even to see mysteries everywhere…!

In fact, I’m always looking for questions and oddities to solve. I’m always noticing things. Who is that child’s mum? How many people live in that house, based on their groceries? Why is that man standing there? Is she actually a hippie or is it a style-for-the-day? Is she successful in her apparently high level job? Could she be a mum in disguise? Etc…

It makes me quite aware of my surroundings in ways that (it seems) most people are not, or just don’t care. In truth it also does make a fair bit of background noise when I’m grocery-shopping, and there are days where I just try to turn it off.

But when I’ve got the time and the inclination, I go for it (it annoys my husband sometimes “who cares what she does for life?”). I look for clues, look at the clothes, the type of food people buy, the hair style, the state of their hands (if I’m close enough), the general look and feeling you get out of people from their posture, eyes and expression (and if I don’t like the answer I come up with, like for the man standing alone in the middle of the square, I take my distance). I suppose that I can be quite curious and observant about people, when I’m focused. Though you could also say nosy 😉 Agatha Christie is to blame for that, I’m sure!

Highway bikers

So the other day, we were on the highway/motorway/snelweg when I noticed a motorbike passing me by. Nice motorbike, rider wearing very thick leather trousers and jacket fitted at the thighs (it gave her nice thighs!) and at the waist. Waist-fitted yellow shirt for safety – I was actually impressed, I never thought it was possible to find yellows that could be tightened at the waist! Nice helmet. A woman I believe.

Behind her, another bike, skinny person, trousers super-loose, yellow super-loose. Young lady or young lad, I’d vote for a lad, but you can’t be sure.

Third bike, large one with one of these boxes at the back. Tall, broad shoulders and straight waist. Very nice, thick and tight fitted leathers too. A man, I think.

No signs on the bikes. They were driving carefully, right in the middle of their (busy) lane, their speed the same as all the cars around them.

From what I saw, what do you think?

My theory is that it was a lesson (great and fascinating deduction, Miss Marple!): three bikes, two experienced bikers, one in front and one in the back (hence the -probably- expensive thick and tight fitted leathers: you don’t buy that kind of leathers and yellow shirts when you’re just learning to ride), and a younger, learning, biker in the middle.

The fact that there were no signs on the bikes (no L for “learner” on the middle bike either) could mean that the young one already had his licence and was practising on the highway, or even going on holidays with mum and dad? I suppose it could also mean nothing, I can’t be sure that they’re supposed to have signs.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter and we don’t really care, in the end. But still, I find it fun, it keeps me occupied for a few minutes here and there and it trains my powers of deduction… Maybe it could be useful, one day?

Though now that I think of it, hopefully not…

My personal favourite. Source: Jeremy Crawshaw, flickr
My personal favourite! Source: Jeremy Crawshaw, flickr

Burning Books

We don’t have a garden, but I would love to. Our garden are the different trees of all our downstairs neighbours, full of birds, and they keep cutting them down. I cried when the last two idiots downstairs cut everything in their garden (including a 50 years-old tree higher than our four-floors building) to put tiles…

Of Books and Bugs

18777516955_317332837a_k Creeping Charlie in our yard, sprayed by our neighbor – June 2015

For close to a decade I’ve been documenting the plants and the animals that can be found in our yard, a rectangular lot in the city of Northfield, Minnesota. This is not a grand project, but a small, cumulative task, providing a lot of enjoyment and many surprises. Dragonflies, butterflies, bumble bees, mining bees, orchard bees, leaf-cutter bees, great golden digger wasps, grass-carrying wasps, ichneumon wasps, braconid wasps, stoneflies, caddisflies, soldier flies, gall flies, hover flies, crane flies, tree crickets, tiger beetles, may beetles, fireflies, ground beetles, long-horned beetles, lady beetles, jumping spiders, crab spiders, orb-weaver spiders….the list goes on. Just the number and diversity of moths attracted to a light on our garage astonishes; over a single year, well over two hundred different species visited.

Last year a newly married couple moved in next door. One of the first…

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Planning and anxiety

Comparing my behaviour with those of friends and family, I have come to realize that I do not like to plan anything anymore. In fact, I have been avoiding it for a while.

I believe it is a side-effect of the anxiety levels I reached during the pregnancy, where I had to learn to postpone and prioritize. Is this thing that I think I must do really important? If it is not, it can go. If it is, it will be done eventually. If it is not for today, and even if it is, it is cancellable. Nothing has to be done, everything can be moved or cancelled. Tomorrow is another day. Go to sleep.

Further than that, I turn out to be quite superstitious: IF we plan, something will happen. Which is evolving in that WHEN we plan something, I start imagining the worst (and stressing in advance for the preparation).

I struggle to plan – just about anything. A playdate for our Duck, a day out, swimming lessons, holidays, hairdresser appointment (my hair is long!), or even an hour spent at the playground with some friends. Whether it is to happen in a few hours, a few weeks or in a month.

But there are some things that we should plan, I believe, to make them work. But I can’t, really, really. I need to keep everything movable, flexible, to be decided at the last minute, just in case. We’ll see if we can do it, how he is, if he naps, etc.

It can be a bit difficult for others around us, as I understand it:

  • We’ll try to go to the playground today. When? Pfff around 2. No, make it 3. Oups, we can’t make it today, sorry…
  • You want to go to the museum/aquarium/beach/restaurant/etc. Sounds good! At what time? Aaah, but he usually naps around there. I’ll try to see if we can make it, I’ll call you. No if he doesn’t nap then, he’ll have to nap later and he’ll be super clingy, the best would be in the afternoon for us. Can we decide on the day itself? It would be easier… Sorry…

The reality of it is that with a little one, you can not easily plan things. If he doesn’t nap at the right time, it screws things up; if he is sick, he won’t be able to go to that party – though it is true that it doesn’t bother some parents, they do the things anyway, and the children nap in the car/pram/arms, and eat what they have or what they can find. But I want him to be rested, sleeping in the car is not the best, sick I’d rather he rests at home, and he needs some quiet when he eats otherwise he doesn’t… Sorry…

It remains true that, with children, you can never be sure and might have to cancel your plans at the last minute. Like when he got chicken pox before we were to leave on holidays and we were advised to limit his contacts with small babies and elderly/sick people for about a week, until the spots dried out. So we left later than planned and moved the whole holidays down. (Did we overreact?)

Still, I think it goes further than that for me. Right now I really need things to be flexible, and planning goes against it. I don’t want to plan. It makes me anxious.

And I end up with two solutions:

(1) plan anyway. Say yes to all the parties and playdates being organized, take appointments to the hairdresser or the dentist – knowing from experience that I will be nervous, and that there is a good chance that we/I won’t go because he won’t nap at the right time and I don’t want a clingy/crying toddler with me the whole time, or he might be a bit sick, or because I won’t get myself organized on the day itself…

Buy train or boat tickets and book hotels, because it cannot be done at the last minute – knowing that I will be super stressed in advance, and that to calm down I’ll have to keep telling myself that the money doesn’t matter, if we (I) can’t, we won’t…

Not nice for the friends and family waiting for us (though we don’t tell them and cross our fingers that everything will be fine and we’ll be able to go), and not very nice for us either, actually.

Or (2) don’t organize anything, or reply, or plan holidays, until the last minute, and then reply accordingly to what we are doing.

Send emails around at 11am to see if people are available for a playdate at 2pm, hope that nothing will come to crash this last-minute plan, and blame the lack of apparent forethought on the unpredictability of the weather.

Buy tickets three times the price, and take the risk that there aren’t any tickets left.

Also not so nice… Especially since people are often already busy, in three hours.

Anyway, lately I’ve been using option (2) more and more, excusing myself by saying that with a little one it is difficult to plan, of course, and the weather! Accepting invitations and cancelling at the last minute, we were running the risk of not being invited anymore… But we still try to buy the tickets in advance despite the fact that I will be stressed and anxious, of course. Even though I know that a lot of people just plan and go, don’t stress so much, and their children follow, whether they napped or not. It must be nice.

Duane Mendoza, flickr
Duane Mendoza, flickr

Evolutionary Mismatch

What an interesting concept! Wikipedia* defines it as: “In evolutionary terms, a mismatch occurs when an individual possesses traits that were adapted for an environment that differs from the individual’s current environment.”

It has been linked with myopia, diabetes, and osteoporosis, as well as with anxiety disorders.

Link to anxiety

It is apparently one of the factors which could explain today’s high levels of anxiety: “It has been theorized that high rates of anxiety are a reaction to how the social environment has changed from the Paleolithic era. For example, in the Stone Age there was greater skin-to-skin contact and more handling of babies by their mothers, both of which are strategies that reduce anxiety. Additionally, there is greater interaction with strangers in present times as opposed to interactions solely between close-knit tribes.” Source: Wikipedia

Indeed, who, in all his or her sanity, would choose to spend 45 minutes or more everyday in a closed metal container, a.k.a. metro, with dozens of strangers often less than a meter away?

Our first instinct when getting on a train, tram or metro is to get as far away as possible from the other people – get a double seat or put one or two seats between yourself and others, put headphones on or read a book, and hope that the empty seats will stay that way (until they don’t and you’re just glad to have one).

Just having to take the metro everyday tired me, and I’m so glad I don’t have to at the moment. It’s a war, to get in, to stay in, to get out, to find a seat at the detriment of others and all politeness (“she seems nice but I’m not giving her my seat. Smile nice lady, I’m NOT moving”) so ingrained in me, and maybe inherited from my ancestors?

Furthermore, and according to Wikipedia again “in the wild, vulnerable individuals, for example those who are hurt or pregnant, have a lower threshold for anxiety response, making them more alert” which can be a good thing since ”it has actually been shown that those with low levels of anxiety have a greater risk of death than those with average levels. This is because the absence of fear can lead to injury or death” and a reason why anxiety would have helped us survive – those with higher anxiety levels are more alert to dangers and have therefore more chances to survive and reproduce.

This could explain why my anxiety levels were so high during my pregnancy as well as, maybe, why I suffered from anxiety disorder: being pregnant I was more vulnerable, more anxious, but in an environment and with a mindset which did not allow me to do what I wanted/needed to do. You’re pregnant, not sick, so go to restaurants (and maybe catch toxoplasmosis), take the metro (full of potentially sick strangers) and go to work.

In fact, my acupuncturist told me that one of the reasons that I was in such a state may have been that I was ignoring my instincts to rest, to stay away from possible threats to the baby such as diseases or accidents, and to slow down, as most mammals do in the middle of winter and when pregnant. Ignoring these needs I pushed myself too far, until I cracked.

Women and work

Thinking further on the subject of evolutionary mismatch, I find that we, women, might also suffer from it in our work.

A friend told us the other day that we are apparently quite bad at social networking for work, we worry it will have bad consequences, when most men just get on with it. Is it true? No idea, though

In my experience, we also do not ask for promotions, but work hard and hope that someone will notice; we decide a lot of things based on our emotions; we cry at work when things do not go well (I did anyway and I know other women who did too).

I struggled mightily with working from home or at out of office hours, until I had to stop and draw a clear line between work and home. My husband does not have that issue. Could it be because we unconsciously feel that our duty is to take care of our family, and feel guilty that we work so much, or when we are not supposed to? Apparently it affects even single and childless women

I also noticed that I agonize for weeks over decisions that will affect our family life – changing job, or even worse moving us for my work! How could I do that to them?! It does not seem to be such a problem for most men, or not for my husband anyway. We talk about it, and find a compromise.

Actually it is almost logical that women might be a bit “mismatched” with the work place and work environment. It was primarily occupied by men after all, with a high regard for masculine qualities and values.

Ok the work place has evolved towards women, but in truth, if we want a great career don’t we have to act like men, putting many hours at work, travelling, work during evenings and week ends, etc., even if it negatively impacts our output? Worse even, don’t we still have to choose between our career and our family life, while men do not seem to have to (The Guardian1; Psychology Today; The Guardian2)?  And women are still rare in leadership positions… Why is that?

The work environment was primarily meant for men, and we try to fit in, even though we have different needs (evolutionary needs?) and we are different, in some of our reactions and priorities. It is sometimes seen as an advantage, that we bring diversity and another way of thinking. Some companies try to accommodate women’s differences.

But often we should still work the same number of hours than men, or than before having children, or whether we are pregnant or not, despite the fact that when pregnant we are more worried, with headaches caused by the increased amount of blood running through our veins, nausea, pains in the legs, digestive issues, need to pee, bad sleep due to the size of the belly… and more! Some are lucky that their bosses do not look too closely at their work, or are understanding.

Then please give birth and get on with it in three months – when doctors say we need 18 months to get back in shape (and also before getting pregnant again), to up to 4 years or run the risk to suffer from depression.

I know… if we waited 18 months at home a lot of of us would go crazy and we’d lose our careers… So most go back after 3 months, stop breastfeeding or pump as long as they can, and leave the baby with a family member, a babysitter or a child care centre. Even if many don’t actually want to, but have to for their careers or for financial reasons.

What would they choose if their careers were not at risk? If money and social pressure were not involved? If the work place was adapted to keep women in and succeed, the way they are and with what they need, rather than asking them to be men?

It’s an important question I think, we are talking about our place in society here, as well as the way we raise our children, the next generation.

There is still work to do. In the meantime, I am a stay-at-home mum – with a master’s degree, years of experience, and no intentions to go back to work yet.

To conclude…

I find it so funny in a way, and so interesting, to think that through natural selection and our species survival we may have inherited certain traits and characteristics which are now useless, or might even put us at a disadvantage, in the world that we have created… Comical.

Evolution: Esther Dyson, flickr
Evolution: Esther Dyson, flickr

* I know that Wikipedia is not a reliable source, and other sources do not necessarily use the same words, but the meaning remains the same, for instance: “Natural selection adapts organisms to their past environments and has no ability to foresee the future. When the environment changes, adaptations to past environments can misfire in the current environment, producing a mismatch that can only be solved by subsequent evolution or by modifying the current environment. Mismatches are an inevitable consequence of evolution in changing environments. They are especially relevant to human affairs, since modern human environments are so radically different from ancestral human environments.”

 

10 things to know about bikes and bike-riding in Amsterdam

When I started this blog, I told myself that it would be about being a mother but also about more than that – about writing, books and everything else I could think of. Anyway, it turns out that most of the things I wrote so far are about being a mum, or about my fears, anxieties and other niceties, relating to my becoming a mum.

Now to come back on that promise, I thought I would give myself an assignment, something silly, with lots of pictures and hopefully easy to write.

So, here it is, in English: 10 things to know about bikes and bike-riding in Amsterdam!

Riding a bike in Amsterdam is probably on the lists of the must-dos in the city, especially considering how awful it is to drive and park a car here, and at night with trams and most buses stopping around midnight. Bike-riding is great, it’s part of the Amsterdam experience. It’s also quite crazy…

Emiliano, flickr
Emiliano, flickr

1. Everybody rides a bike. The office man on his way to work, ladies with high-heels on Friday night, 8 months pregnant mums-to-be (not me), students at 2 or 3 per bike, children on way-too-big bikes on their way to hockey, mums with 2 children plus the dog in a bakfiets. Apparently, 40 to 60% of all transport is done by bike.

Bakfiets: Amsterdamized, flickr
Bakfiets: Amsterdamized, flickr

2. No-one wears body protection, no-one. When my 16 months old son is on my bike (he rides before me), he is probably the only child with a helmet on for 2 kms around.

3. There are thousands upon thousands of bikes in Amsterdam, so keep your elbows and knees in, please. People like to bypass and the bike lanes are not that wide. Especially considering that the bikes themselves can take some space.

Tandem: nothing to hide, flickr
Tandem: nothing to hide, flickr

4. Be careful with cars and trams, and tourists in the centre, they like to walk on the bike lanes and can’t recognize a bike-bell when it rings to tell them to get off the lane 🙂

5. Do not, ever, ride on the tram lanes, especially parallel to the metal parts. You could get one of your wheels stuck in these metal lines which are are just the right size for a bike wheel to fit in, and then you fall.

6. Gears are no use. The country is flat, the highest climb you will have to do will be to climb bridges, which can be quite high, but still… The gears on my bike were never used, now I’m stuck in gear 5, which is fine.

7. Dutch bikes aren’t usually equipped with brakes, they work by back-pedalling. It may be best to rent a bike with brakes, at least for the first time.

Thomas Vander Wal, flickr
Dutch bike: Thomas Vander Wal, flickr

8. A lot of bike-riders do not pay much attention to traffic lights, road signs, or the direction of the traffic. They’re ok, usually, they have great balance, speed and eye-hand-foot coordination (they even get off the bike on one foot!) having been on a bike since infancy, but you might not be all right.

9. Bikes are stolen all the time. So most bikes have two locks: one on the back wheel, and a chain with which you protect the front wheel and the frame. It is also possible to register your bike with an engraved number. They still get stolen and sold again for 10 euros on markets. For that price it’s usually a stolen bike.

10. And last but great: Bike lanes are usually completely separate from car lanes, and are therefore a lot safer than in most countries!

Bike lane: Daniel Duclos, flickr
Bike lane: Daniel Duclos, flickr

Riding a bike in Amsterdam is maybe the best way to get anywhere. If you come here and decide to try it, take care and enjoy it!

The way other people live

RecipeforThe other day, I was reading one of these funny books on parenting. Amongst many advices that the author gave (in a less funny part of the book) was a list of all the things we should do while we still can – carry our child, kiss him, embarrass him – before he or she will not want us to do these or be too old for these, and these aspects of being a parent would be over with this child.

While I was reading this, my son was playing on his own in the same room, a play-list of videos of French songs in the background, and I felt afraid, an emotion I am very familiar with.

Fear is a constant companion of the mum, I believe, and it is surely one of mine. As such, I could even say that I am a “naturally” anxious person. Though I have always been a little anxious, during the pregnancy things went up to a whole new level. I was afraid of what I ate, of going out, of walking for too long and too far, of taking the plane or the car, that the baby would have defects. Basically, I was afraid of losing him and not doing the right things, absolutely all the time. In the end I had to get help for this.

After his birth and once my hormone levels went back to normal, things got slightly easier. But I was still afraid. Afraid he wasn’t growing well, afraid he didn’t get enough milk, or wasn’t sleeping enough, afraid he would catch diseases.

Fears just kept adding themselves to the pile. The vaccinations. That he would fall in the stairs. Hurt himself on the balcony. Fall from the couch, not looking at what he is doing. Get sick. Not eat enough, or too much, or too sweet. Doesn’t talk enough. Too much screen time for his eyes and his brain. That he would fall playing with his dad, or using his walker. That he could lose us…

In a less dramatic way, but still very frightening to me, I also worry that I will miss out on him. That I will miss the important milestones by not being aware or present in mind at those moments. That he will grow too fast (it is already happening). Afraid that I am not spending enough quality time with him – him alone in the living room while I read… And books and articles reminding me that “they grow so fast!” are just not helping.

My son is healthy as we also are with my husband. We have a good house, if a little small. My husband has a good work. We have family, who, if they are a bit far, could still help us if we needed help. Things are good, and I am afraid. And while fear can be useful, to prepare ourselves and to be careful, it turns out that constant background fear is actually paralysing, debilitating, until I find myself enable to care for my son at times, and unable to take basic decisions – should we go out this afternoon? Maybe not.

The last time I remember not being afraid at all, at least for a moment, was already a few months back. We were the three of us, listening to music one evening before our son’s birthday, and there was a perfect moment there where I remember feeling amazingly happy. No cloud, just joy. Wondering what had happened, what the difference was, I realized that for just that moment I hadn’t been afraid. Only enjoying.

Later that night, I sat there, watching my son play with his dad, afraid, always. Afraid of what? That he would hurt himself, that he would grow too fast, or not well, that I would finally lose it for good one day. Thinking of all that I could do to protect him and us. Terrified, paralysed. Until lightning stroke. I cannot live that way all the time. I cannot waste more time and spoil happy moments with unnecessary, non-useful, if not unrealistic, fears. I cannot take more decisions based on fear – decisions and actions, such as playing with my son or taking him to the playground, should be based on hope for joy, not on the fear that he will grow too fast.

I also cannot bear the thought of transferring my fears to him, of risking to paralyse him, for nothing. For what could possibly happen, but might not, ever, happen, or not the way I think they will anyway. He should have the possibility to be free of my worries, or in Teri Carter’s words: “This is what normal people are like, I think, and this is what I envy: the luxury of true spontaneity. The lack of expectation of impending disaster.  How comforting it must be to never imagine and imagine and imagine such an event. The lack of worry and anticipation. The lack of mentally creating and dreading what-might-be.“ I find it hard to believe that people can really be free of worries that way, but maybe it is true for some, and it would be great if it could become true for me and for him.

Worrying will not stop things from happening, as being afraid of something will not make it happen. I cannot ignore my fears -it is like a pressurized container, after a while it blows up- but I’m doing my best to work on them. One by one leave them behind. To work on today. Now. Enjoy. Believe that tomorrow will come. Because it usually does.

 happylife