Author Archives: Rana Hanna

About Rana Hanna

My school teachers in Lebanon and France did everything in their power to suppress my creativity and so accepting that I was well and truly a writer took some time. About forty years. I always thought that my flitting interests and avid curiosity were due to a lack of rigor until I accepted that it was part and parcel of being a creative person. I was liberated. Still, it was a bumpy road. Starting in my Politics tutor’s office in Nottingham, 1990: “Yes, yes, it’s well written but that’s not how we write in English. You’re writing in English, French style!” And continuing to Oxford in 1994: “You don’t know economics for s**t, but you write very well.” And so a love story began, not with my professor nor with economics, but with writing. I paid dearly for this love, because the only job I could find upon graduating was writing about kitchens and bathrooms. The upside? I got to write catchy punchlines for the in-house marketing department. If you can write five hundred words about shower heads, you can write about anything. And so I did for a few years until a man jumped on the treadmill next to mine at the gym and my current novel was born. Writing is very much like acting, my first true love. You can be whomever like, but you get to create your own characters! And so, I am first and foremost a mother, writer, editor, observer, runner, dog-lover, reader, writer, sister, and daughter. I love to eat, I love to drink, I love to have engaging conversations, I love to have coffee in bed and I love to read. I love music and I love to sing out loud. I love my kids, I love my dog, I don’t love my husband half as much as I should, I love my mother, I love my siblings, I love movies and I love popcorn. Of course, I am a Gemini and I am on Day 19 of my cycle so tomorrow I may feel completely differently about all these things. Tomorrow I may be someone else entirely.

It’s just a job: What Hallmark doesn’t tell you about motherhood

Today is Mother’s Day in Lebanon. That it coincides with the first day of spring gives it a more poetic, ethereal feel in my mind. On this particular day in a mother’s yearly calendar, she may be glorified, revered and generally feted for getting knocked up. It’s kind of cool. Let me get one thing out of the way first: I love my children. No, I adore them. I love them with every ounce of my being but here’s the spoiler—I don’t always like them. See, kids are hard work. They keep you up at night, regardless of their age. They put a stopgap in your career, your dreams and aspirations and they ask a lot of questions. Sometimes they drive you to drink. A lot. 

Motherhood, you see, is not the glamorous job it is cut out to be on memes, WhatsApp messages and cards. There are many things a Hallmark card does not tell you about motherhood. It is a job, like any other. And like any other job, you need skills and tools. Here are some I have found to be useful over the years.

Face shield

A face shield is particularly useful to protect from flying urine. It is particularly useful if you have baby boys, and if you happen to be the one changing their diaper.

Hazmat suit

If you are unable to find a hazmat suit, then opt for a cloth, preferably water-proof, poncho. It will protect your upper body and your clothes from milk, spit and other projected food items. It will also protect your dignity. If you spray perfume on it occasionally you may get away with changing it only once daily.

Martial arts headgear

Headgear is particularly useful if you occasionally, or always, allow your child to sleep with you. A mouthguard is an added plus although I have to say I have yet to hear of a mother’s teeth getting knocked out in the night. If unable to find, or afford, said headgear, using the face shield is better than nothing. Make sure to wipe the pee off before using.

Wine fridge or thick foam wall panelling

I will leave this one up to you for when you are too frustrated and are at risk of throwing your child out the window. I have taken the wine route myself but, a layer of fat later, may advise the wall panelling. Make sure the foam is thick and sturdy so as not to hurt your head or break the wall.

I will not mention the earplugs. I think there is not one mother in the world who doesn’t have those.

In addition to these tools, you will need a set of skills for a successful experiment. As with the earplugs, I will not mention patience. It is a given.

You will need a lot of self-love for those days when your children are reminding you exactly how bad of a job you are doing. Or they tell you that they hate you and that you are the worst mother in the world. That said, I feel quite strongly about my chocolate too.

A sense of humour. They will make fun of you, particularly your technological and cooking skills. And maths. The sooner you laugh the quicker they will stop. Try your best not to mock back, sometimes they will remind you of it many years later.

Boundless energy—so that you can essentially survive on 3 hour’s sleep a night for the rest of your life. You see, as soon as your kids start sleeping through the night you find that you’ve hit perimenopause but let’s not get started there.

Resilience—for those moments when your children make you doubt every single decision you’ve ever taken, including smiling back at their father that fateful first meeting.

Intelligence—this one’s tricky because you don’t actually have to be intelligent in the absolute. You just have to be smarter than your smartest child.

Here’s the thing with children: they push you, challenge you, drive you to the edge of despair. And back. They pull you down to the abyss and lob you back up to heaven, all in a single day.

On top of that you have to keep yourself at peak physical and mental fitness so that you may be a good role model. You have to continually strive to be a better version of yourself so that you may live up to their expectations. If you engage in a conversation with a child, you better know who you are and what you stand for: or you’ve lost the argument before you’ve even started. Children force you to recognize yourself for who you truly are and to accept yourself because they love you regardless. They continually surprise you, want to impress you, make you drawings, write you poems, buy you flowers and cook you breakfast in bed and lunch on the barbeque.

Children drive you to the nether reaches of yourself. They take you on the best rollercoaster ride of your life. So that in the end you have to thank them for allowing you this opportunity, this journey of a lifetime and for the privilege of being their mother.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the boys and girls out there. As mothers we are but the guide but you are the spirit. Thank you for letting us be part of your journey.

Letter to my boys – 3

On love, sex and relationships

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

There has been much talk in the British press, following the killing of Sarah Everard, of the social responsibilities of men and their behaviour towards women and the role that parents play in instilling responsibility. As a mother of three boys well on their way to manhood, I naturally felt concerned and targeted. Two of my three boys have been in relationships for a while (longer than I did at their age at least) and the third one looks to be following in their footsteps. And while the chimp in me is saddened to have my boys turn their attention elsewhere and love other women, my sadness is more than compensated for by my satisfaction at having raised normal social beings, capable of loving and relating. In other words, I am happy that I have not reared mama’s boys, incapable of leaving their mother’s petticoats. 

For some obscure reason tradition has dictated that fathers speak to their boys about sex. That tradition has well and truly broken, with boys now probably more knowledgeable than their fathers about such issues. And if it hasn’t yet broken, I am breaking it now. And while I understand that this is only one perspective, that of a heterosexual woman, it is the only one I can offer with confidence.

On the subject of love, I say to my boys: “Trust yourselves.” When you love you will know. Do not shy away from love, on the contrary, lean into it, embrace it, for without it nothing has meaning. Do not be afraid of love on account that it may hurt you, for it is the lack of love that hurts a lot more.

You can love your friends, your parents, your pet or your partner. Love comes in many tastes and flavours but the recipe is always the same: Respect, attention and empathy. Do not mistake love for anything else. Love is not lust, love is not anger, love is not envy. Recognize love for what it is, and when you do, throw all caution to the wind and dive headlong into it. 

Respect, attention and empathy

If you love, do not be distracted. If you choose to love, and it is always a choice, do not be distant. Do not enter into a relationship if you will not engage. You are never trapped in a relationship—leave it physically if you must but do not choose to remain and disengage mentally.

On sex, I say to my boys: it is not PornHub. There are two forms of sex: sex as a physical expression of love and sex as a form of release. Sex for love is usually between two people, any other number becomes sexual play. Which is fair enough, both forms are natural. But do recognize them for what they are and more importantly, understand the difference. How will you know? Again, I would say trust yourselves. But I will give you a hint, sex for love is not on YouPorn. (Though you may want to check out Bridgerton).

On dealing with women. 

No means no. Take it as it is. It is not your problem, or prerogative, to decide if no means something else. If your partner is being coy, or unsure of her desires, it is her problem, not yours. Give her space and let her deal with it. Accept the no. Walk away. Take a cold shower. Watch porn. And never touch her without her prior consent. And by the way, women also watch porn though they may be too shy, or socially conditioned, to admit it.

On relationships I say to my boys: In any relationship there are two equal partners. I stress the equal because a successful relationship can only be made through an equal contribution from both partners, a sort of dual carriageway, if you will. You are two separate entities and only as separate entities can you stand stronger, more solid. Do not meld into each other. If you become the same person, sharing anxieties, worries, and neuroses, then you become boring to one another. And to everyone else.

But do share your dreams if you can.

Do not let your partner’s fears and insecurities drag you down. You can be a support, but you cannot be the answer.

Do not fall into the trap of the “fragile” woman. Neither your trap nor hers. A woman has made you, borne you, carried you, and fed you and in many cases, raised you. Women are strong, resilient creatures, you do not need to treat them as fragile but you do need to treat them like anyone else, with respect, attention and empathy—just as they should you.

Do not lay your weight on her either, for as strong and resilient as she is, she cannot carry both of you. Stand up tall and be responsible for yourself. Ask nothing less of her.

And whatever you do, do not try to be the strong silent type. That never works. Even in the movies the girl ends up leaving him.

Our Christmas without a tree

This year my family decided to forgo the traditional, natural Christmas tree we put up every year in December. It didn’t seem to make sense to pay what would feed a Lebanese family for a month over a plant we would put up for two weeks. It also didn’t make sense to place it right next to our broken cabinet. After the explosion this summer, we’d just about put back our windows in time for Christmas but some of the furniture was still broken. As were our hearts. 

So much has happened this year. As Lebanese, we battled an unknown, invisible yet powerful enemy with the rest of the world, but we also battled with our own. Our beautiful country, which had started a slow, downward spiral since its inception, continued on a steeper slope in 2020 as more and more people were separated from their dreams, their livelihoods, their loved ones and in August, from their homes. The August explosion was, in the words of a dear friend, just the watermelon on the cake.

So it seemed wrong to celebrate. Wrong to bring back the tree as if nothing had happened. Wrong to spend what would feed a family for a month on a plant. And yet, not having a tree of my own to admire made me notice and appreciate all the others. In the darkness of the country, the few lights on the trees shone even brighter. In the absence of traffic lights, the Santas hanging on the street poles lit the way.

My mother did not put up a tree either. We usually buy them together. She didn’t put up a tree because she was not having the huge family gathering she traditionally has on Christmas Eve. No children, no grandchildren and no Christmas photos. But she still made and distributed Christmas cake and has offered to make and stuff a turkey for each of her children celebrating alone, or in smaller gatherings.

It felt wrong to buy a tree on my own.

I almost lost my eldest son in the August explosion. Miraculously he wasn’t even hurt. He was in the wrong place at the right time. Many whom I know were not so lucky. Many whom I know lost loved ones or are now having to tend to their injuries. 

It felt wrong to buy a tree when so many were hurt and others were mourning.

And yet, in the absence of a tree, I have felt Christmas more than ever this year. This may not be a time for loud celebration but it was a time for gratitude. Gratitude for being in good health, gratitude to be surrounded by loved ones, even if virtually in some cases. Gratitude for having choices. Gratitude for being able to admire other Christmas trees. Our gifts this year are not under the Christmas tree, they are all around and they have come in many shapes and sizes.

For years, worried about the material trumping the spiritual, I have been trying to explain to my boys that Christmas was not about gifts and stress and running around, it was not about parties and clothes, but about togetherness, music, love and taking care of one another. I think now they understand. The use of trees for decoration apparently started in pagan times with Europeans bringing in branches of fir and holly and mistletoe to decorate their homes and brighten their spirits during the bleak winter. In Lebanon, despite the surrounding gloom, the sun still shines quite brightly. Maybe this year, to celebrate, we’ll buy a lemon tree after Christmas.

Because, because.

In 1999 I went back to live in Lebanon after sixteen years abroad. I missed my family, I missed hummus, and I missed the mild winters and cool springs. Plus, I’d already been married a few years and had started thinking of starting a family, which was an impossible feat in my 40 sq.m. apartment in central London and Milton Keynes was out of the question.

In Lebanon you feel something is off the moment you land. Maybe it’s the grey soldiers in grey suits and grey berets. Maybe they’re grey because they chain-smoke. Maybe it’s because of the pollution, or maybe grey is the colour of giving up. Whatever it is, they are somehow the first things you notice at Beirut airport. But, you persist. You persist because this is home and you miss your family and you miss hummus and you miss the weather. 

Driving through the city, the second thing you notice is the contrast. These are so striking and so widespread that they are too long to enumerate, be they language, dress sense, radio stations, whole neighbourhoods even. At some point in my neighbourhood there were donkeys chained to lampposts and chicken on the roads. If, at the time, you’d wanted to research why the chicken crossed the road, Lebanon was your best bet. It felt as if different species were occupying the same space and driving through the city was not too dissimilar to Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi walking through the cantina in Mos Eisley, as they did in Star Wars. Yet you persist, because this is home and you miss your family and you miss hummus and you miss the weather.

A few weeks, or maybe months, after arriving—who remembers that long ago after all the trauma we’ve been through—my container with my car arrived and I had the pleasure of dealing with the people at the Port R.I.P. There were two kinds of people at the port R.I.P.: those who wanted to help you and those who wanted to fleece you. They co-existed thanks to Prime Minister Hariri Sr.’s then brilliant plan of keeping the old guard while bringing in his own team of technocrats. He had to get going and there were people in the way. If you can’t beat them, keep paying them and sweep them under the carpet. But there were no carpets at the Port R.I.P. at the time and everyone just mingled, a situation that, I imagine, persisted. At the time I did not know who was whom but I could guess, mostly by the colour, some were grey and some were not. I refused to pay up. I was young and stupid and mostly poor and it took me two painful weeks to separate my car from its container.

Like I said, you feel something is off the moment you land in Lebanon. The longer you stay, the more it stinks. But you persist. You persist because, because. It was during my adventure at the Port R.I.P. that I came up with the idea of a weekly column entitled Trials and Tribulations of an Honest Citizen. I was suffering and I wanted the world to suffer with me. But this was the early 2000s still. Euphemisms still ruled. A spade was still being called an implement to dig the earth with. The title of my column was deemed too politically incorrect and unpublishable. Surely, I couldn’t claim to be honest while accusing the government of theft and larceny, corruption, craftiness and deviousness.

Well, guess what?

Next post: I have the solutions to Lebanon’s problems

Of boys and horrific stories

Today I did the one thing that any good mother would NOT do—I failed to protect my children. Not only did I fail to protect them, but I willfully subjected them to awfulness.

I had my reasons. Perhaps the most selfish is that I needed someone to share my sorrow with, I needed someone to help me reason through the roiling thoughts in my head. I wanted someone to hear and understand my helplessness.

Earlier this morning I watched a video on social media that showed a mother falling to the ground, baby in arms, having fallen victim to a stray bullet. The woman held groceries in one hand and her child in the other. Caught in a crossfire, she tries to dodge the first bullet but does not escape the second. She falls, baby still in arms. She is gone in a second and the baby is left reeling on the ground while all those around her run away. 

I said all of this to my children.

In the animal kingdom, there is a lot of cruelty. Animals attack each other’s babies. Animals that travel in packs often leave an ailing family member to die alone, choosing to sacrifice the one to ensure the survival of the many. These are necessary and instinctive behaviors to ensure survival and propagation.

Human beings are supposed to have evolved. They are supposed to have surpassed other species thanks to the development of their brains that enabled them to tell stories that enabled them to build a moral code by which they could then live. 

What happened to that young mother today was not human. It lacked any sense of morality. It was beyond animalistic. Whoever killed her certainly didn’t need to eat her child for survival nor was she impeding the movement of the pack. Killing her was unnecessary. Traumatizing her child was unnecessary. Widowing her husband and orphaning her three children serves no higher purpose. Her death was a senseless act devoid of humanity. She died for nothing.

I said this to my children.

I said this to my children because I wanted them to understand the city they lived in. The country they lived in. The world they lived in. I wanted to expose them to the cruelty in this world because I believe in them. As they embark on the rest of their lives, I want them to become better citizens than I ever was. I want them to deny what I accepted. I want them to fight where I capitulated. I want to use their energy to spur me to do something.

This crime happened less than five kilometers away from our home and yet it happened worlds away. It took place in the Chatila camp, far, far, away from our sheltered space. And yet just next door. The victim was a young woman of Palestinian origin. Watching that video I had two choices, reclaim my helplessness of previous years, get overwhelmed with emotion and put my head in the sand, again. I could decide this was all too big for me to deal with, too much for me to handle. I cannot, after all, single-handedly solve the world’s problems. 

But I can try. I can use any arsenal I had to do something, anything, if only use words to tell one person about it. Just because I brand myself as a writer does not mean that I always find the right words. But, again, I can try. I can try to put this story out there in the hope that someone, with another skill, can apply their touch and another theirs. And then maybe this cumulative action can bring change. Maybe one day my children and I can live in a Lebanon we can believe in. Maybe one day lives in Lebanon will start to matter also, even if they are not Lebanese. 

I said that to my children too.     

Am I in therapy because I’m fat?

In the movie Molly’s Game, Kevin Costner tells his screen daughter that a therapist knows from the first session what three questions their patients are seeking to answer. As a favour, he tells her, he’s going to give her her own three questions and answer them.

I asked my therapist if this was true. If therapists know immediately what three questions their patients are trying to answer. Always a sucker for efficiency and speed, I asked her if I could have my three questions and answers and be on my way. I had started therapy six months earlier after a cycling accident and I was starting to feel the drain on my temporal and financial resources. She demurred, explaining that it defeated the purpose of therapy. I had to come to the questions myself and the answers would align nicely once I did.

But in my last session, something happened. I think she gave in. I had just finished telling her about my latest idea for a script when she asked why I had chosen sports as a topic.

“Do you think it may have something to do with your image of your body?” she asked.

I assured her that I was interested in the subject purely from a social perspective. That I was merely concerned with the social pressures women in my region constantly face.

“Of which body image is an integral part.” She was nudging me along.

I assured her, again, that I hadn’t thought of the idea in that respect.

“Not consciously, at least,” she said.

In my past two years in therapy, I have analysed all my relationships, from my grandfather, through my parents and siblings, husband, children and closest friends. But there was one I hadn’t truly tackled yet: my relationship with my body.

Yet many, if not all, of these relationships that I had been exploring, scrutinizing and dissecting had in fact been affected, if not shaped, by my body or at least by my, and their, perception of it. My body had been constantly reflected back to me by the same people populating my therapy sessions.

My mother continually expressed her sorrow that I had inherited her genes.

My father never thought my body a problem because I had a beautiful mind. Yet, when I was around 10 years old, he would make me do 200 rope jumps a day every day in a bid to lose weight. Maybe so that my body could then match my mind.

My sisters are both taller than me and have been, for most of our years, thinner. But accepting that was acknowledging their physical superiority over me. I had to be different, so as not to compete.

When I was a pudgy teenager, my brothers, who had already gone to university, put on the requisite freshman 15 and lost them again, offered to help me lose weight. (It lasted for about a day.) Acknowledging that I had body image issues, therefore, took me to all the places I did not want to go. Of course I didn’t have any! Body image issues were for losers. And I, I was a winner.

During the first 20 years of our marriage, my husband had to continually reassure me that I did not look fat. I lashed out at him once, after my trousers wouldn’t zip up, because he had not warned me that I was getting bigger—I grew up in a family where telling someone that they have put on weight or are not looking their best is a duty, a sign of love and that you care. My sister-in-law once chastised me for eating a slice of pizza. She was helping me take notice, caring for my body when I obviously had no idea what I was doing.

I am surrounded by dieters and restrictive eaters, men and women. The thin ones succeed at it. The bigger ones less so but that doesn’t stop them trying again at the next meal. Growing up, gadgets were important in our household. Family and guests often gathered around the latest scales, those that stored your weight and that of others, or that measured your fat and water weight as well. We always had either a stationary bicycle or a treadmill. I used them all, along with the jump rope.

My body has been so good to me. First of all, it moves. In all directions. Up, down, laterally, diagonally. It does squats, push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups, runs, cycles, swims. You get it. It moves with ease, without pain and rarely ever complains or gets sick. It has borne me three wonderful children and grants me many moments of happiness playing or walking with my dog. So why on earth I have been trying to squeeze it into a smaller size all my life, I have no idea. Why I have starved it, gorged it, poisoned it, ironed it, forced it to follow a certain imposed ideal I don’t know.

There were times when I would rebel, usually a few weeks into a new “diet” to end all “diets”. I should not have to worry about what I look like! I am a writer, a professional, what does it matter what I looked like? As long as my thoughts and my words were aesthetically pleasing, did I have to be too? Of course not! I would take out the wine, eat carb-laden meals and dessert, not necessarily for enjoyment, but because I could. Because I was finally out of alimentary jail. And then along would come a famous and successful writer, musician, poet, or scientist, who also looked slim and I would regret my rebellion. I would find another, more suitable, “diet”. I also wanted to have it all, just like them.

When I told people I was writing an article entitled Am I in therapy because I’m fat? They were amused, interested. No one said, “Oh but how come? you’re not fat.” That, I understood, was not a reflection of my own body but of theirs and their own struggles. They also would benefit from losing a few pounds. We all could. We’re all fat. We’re all in this together. And if we’re not yet fat, we’re in a death-defying struggle not to be.

I asked my therapist once when one finishes one’s therapy. “When one grows up,” she said. I understood that to mean when we truly take responsibility for our actions and accept our own mortality. With all due respect, I’d like to disagree. I think in my case, it may just be when I finally accept my body and treat it with the respect it deserves. I may be finishing soon.

On leaving home.

My boy is leaving home. My first. He is off to university 3,000 miles away and that has triggered all my sensory perceptions and electrified all my neurotransmitters. In other words, I have separation anxiety. I am very nervous.

Neurotic, some would say.

I have long argued that as mothers we are, essentially, animals and that we have a lot to learn from birds who leave their offspring to fend for themselves as soon as they can fly and think nothing of it. On the other hand, I also like to think that I have a brain slightly bigger than a bird’s, which translates into an ability to process thoughts and feelings, as loud and dizzying as they may be.

Naturally my fears and my agitation have translated into rants about very minor incidents and fights, with said boy, about everything and nothing. I have been saying all the wrong things and uttering all the wrong words.

I figured I would do us both, and all the other members of our household, a favour and articulate a little more clearly and maturely the myriad thoughts that have been swirling in my head over the last few months.

This is what I want to tell my son before I drop him off.

I want to tell him that education is a privilege.That not everyone has access to the joys and benefits of higher education. That he is lucky to be taking this time to invest in himself and advancing his knowledge in a discipline that he enjoys so much.

I want to tell him not to take this privilege for granted. That he should take full advantage of the new worlds and experiences that are opening up to him. That he should make full use of all that his university has to offer, whether in terms of facilities or people or activities. That he should not waste his time and assume that his time at university will last forever.

I want to tell him to be adventurous but not careless. That he should approach everything with an open mind, try everything, throw a bit of caution to the wind but that he should always make sure he has a way back home.

I want to tell him that I am a little envious.That I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to go through the same life-changing experience again, to feel like every single cell in my body is regenerating, to feel like my mind is growing, to feel like a world of opportunity awaits me. That I wouldn’t mind to still be counting up rather than counting down.

I want to tell him to take care of his finances.That now is the time to start investing in his future. That being lucky enough to have his education insured is not a reason to neglect learning how to save and invest and make an income of his own. That he should start building his own self-worth, to enrich and invest in himself.

I want to tell him that I will miss him. That I may cry. That after avoiding looking in the direction of his room and the piano for the first few weeks, I may find myself spending more time there. And that while I understand that he is only away to study, my primeval cells, my inner bird, cannot help but see his departure as a death of a sort. An end to a life that was, and the beginning of a new one. And that that is what scares, and excites me, the most.

And finally, I want to tell him that he cannot begin to understand how much he will change over the next few years and may not understand all that I am saying until he himself sends his first child off to university. And that, that too is a privilege.

Open letter to my son for his 18th birthday

Go. Fly. Don’t look down. Don’t look back. But if you do, I’ll be here.

You’re not ready. I understand. You’re scared. I understand.

And I’m glad.

Because you’re being called for the biggest adventure of your life: that of being on your own. And if you were ready, if you weren’t scared, then it wouldn’t be an adventure.

Go on, be scared. Embrace the fear, what’s the worst that can happen?

Over the past 18 years you have grown. You now stand over six foot tall. But now is when you need to start to grow on the inside. Now the learning starts. Now the adventure begins. Now you fly.

Go. Learn to dance. Learn to use your own voice. Learn to be independent, it’s the best thing in the world. Learn to play. Learn to cry. Learn to live.

Go. Fly. Go while we can still catch you. Go while we can still fix your wings.

Get uncomfortable, it’s where the growth starts.

You’re scared. I understand. Who knows what will happen? Who knows what’s at the end of the journey? No one. There’s the beauty of the adventure. You will come out of it transformed. You will be different. Your outlook will be different. The world as you know it may look stranger, or more familiar. Maybe it will look bigger, or maybe smaller. But it will change and so will you.

And that’s scary. I know.

So, go. Fly. Don’t look down. Don’t look back. But if you do, I’ll be here. I’ll be watching.

Letter to my boys (2)

In 1911, the Egyptian-Greek poet (Constantine Petrou) Cavafy wrote:

“As you set out for Ithaca

Hope the voyage is a long one,

Full of adventure, full of discovery.

[…]

Keep Ithaca always on your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.”

As so eloquently put by Cavafy, we are all on a journey.

If we are lucky, we are accompanied on our journey by twin sisters Synchronicity and Serendipity.

And if we are meticulous, if we complete our journey with an open mind, we shed our heavy baggage. We arrive lighter, transformed, energized.

Today is a pit stop on the journey that we are on.It is an opportunityto reflect on our past and consider our future.

Today is the day we share our stories. And then we pack up and continue on our way. Forward bound. Always.

Ithaca. Are we there yet?

As we enter, truly and undeniably, the era of Industry 4.0, it feels as if time has sped up. The lines between the physical, biological and digital are blurred. The merger of man and machine has begun. And it is all happening so fast.

When everyone is running, it is normal to start running too. The faster they run, the faster we must run too. But as we transition into warp speed, it is more imperative than ever for us to stop and reflect. Not only where do we come from, where are we going? But also, why are we going there? What do we hope to achieve on the way? What do we want out of our journey? What impact do we want to make?

Which road do we want to take? It is not the road less taken, as Robert Frostsaid, that makes all the difference, it is knowing which road to take and when. Sometimes what is needed is to stay on the main road, and sometimes it is better to get off the beaten path. Sometimes we have to forge our own path. And sometimes, as the Wright brothers rightly thought, please excuse the pun, it may be better to get off the ground altogether and fly.

In a previous article I wrote, I mentioned that we are lucky to be living in the age of revolutions. We are lucky because we are being challenged, and challenges ultimately make for a richer life. In this accelerating world, what does it take to survive? What does it take to lead? Well to lead first you have to survive. (That’s a bit of a no-brainer). And to survive you need to adapt. You need to be agile.

I used to have a red sticker on the kitchen wall that read “think different.” To survive in this new economy I thought, it was no longer about working hard, it was about working intelligently, it was about thinking what no one else was thinking. But when I see the effects that technology is having on our daily and social interactions, when I see how we are subsumed by technology, how we are constantly staring at a screen, I thought we needn’t worry about thinking differently anymore, we just had to think full stop.

But life is not about just surviving, it is about leading.

When I talk about leadership, I want to make a distinction between people in power and people who lead. There is a big difference. People in power rule. And leaders inspire.

So with this in mind, what is the difference between those who lead and those who simply survive?

Courage.

But not necessarily the courage you are thinking of. I am not talking about the courage to stand up for yourself or the courage to speak your mind. Sometimes that is not enough. If I am standing in front of a six-foot bear right now, I’m going to need something a lot more than just courage. I am also going to need the athletic ability to run really, really fast.

The courage I am talking about is the courage to be human. The courage to be vulnerable, to risk being wrong and to admit it, to get rid of perfection. The courage I am talking about is the courage to recognize success and failure, and to rejoice in both.

And belief.

And that is not a belief that you talk about or justify, a belief that you need to show. It is a belief that radiates out of you. It is a belief in your authenticity, in your reality.

It is a belief in your ability to leave a positive impact.

So are we there yet?

In 2012, Alex Honnold, a professional rock climber, achieved a great feat. He ascended the 600m vertical wall of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park unaided by rope or harnesses, using only his bare hands, in an exercise known as free soloing. But Honnold was unhappy.

He hadn’t prepared adequately beforehand. He had decided he said “to skip the preparations and just go up there and have an adventure.” He felt, he said, like he had been lucky, like he had gotten away with something. He wanted to be a great climber, not a lucky one. In fact, he took the next year off from free soloing so he does not make a habit of relying on luck.

What mattered to Honnold was not the result, it was the process. He wanted to master the mountain.

Honnold admitted his shortcomings, and by doing so, could address them adequately. His humility and self-examination paid off. Five years later in June 2017, at the age of 31, he climbed the much harder 900 metre-long granite face of El Capitan, also in Yosemite, the crown jewel of free soloing. And despite the climb being much harder, Honnold said it felt much easier due to his diligent preparation. This time, he said, it felt like mastery.

Getting to Ithaca is not about the destination. It is about how we get there. It is about getting to know ourselves, who we are and what we stand for. The journey to Ithaca is about what needs to be done, today, to get there. By concentrating on the process, the journey, and not the outcome, Ithaca, we will not feel that we have arrived to Ithaca but rather, that Ithaca has come to us.

 

Of boys and data-driven questions

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Disclaimer: what I am about to say is controversial.

Do not let your boys read books.

Here’s why: because books awaken their brain. It makes them think. And then it makes them ask questions. 

Now, asking questions, in esse, is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is to be encouraged. The problem arises when boys confuse where facts and babies come from. Sometimes they think it is the same source: their mother. And if you are a mother of boys, that means you.

Be careful, go and hide your books.

On a recent trip away from home, my youngest found himself wi-fi-less, 3G-less and, horror of all horrors, Fortnite-less. Not knowing what to do with himself, he found a book and a bicycle and, after careful investigation, decided to try both.

Little did I know, while smirking in my little corner and congratulating myself on being the best mother ever by offering my son the opportunity to leave his technological lair and experience the fresh air, that I was creating a monster. A data-driven, question-mongering monster.

“What is the fastest sports car?” He asked on a recent car excursion. It was hot, humid, with a hint of traffic. I was tired and nursing the beginnings of a headache. 

“I don’t know,” I said and politely suggested he ask his older brother, not a book reader by any means, but a bit of a data friend—a scourer of facts and figures.

Dissatisfied, he asked me, “What is the most fattening fast food?” 

I was happy to be able to answer that one, remembering when my husband brought back the menu of a certain cheesecake restaurant so that I may ogle the gazillions of calories on offer. 

“But that’s a restaurant,” he said, “that’s not fast food.” In that case, I ventured, I didn’t know. I was praying for a fast arrival to our destination.

Two minutes later he asked me which I thought was the biggest shopping mall in the country.

“Please leave me alone,” I pleaded.

“What?! You don’t want to make conversation?” He was incensed.

And that’s when I lost it.

“But that’s not conversation,” I screamed, “that is you expecting me to know the brand of every sports car currently being manufactured and its maximal speed, the brand of every fast food, its menu and the calories of every item on that menu; in addition to me knowing the floor size of every mall, the number of shops it has, its daily footprint and the amount of money it generates, depending on WHAT YOU MEAN BY BIGGEST!!”

He was disappointed in me, I could tell. So in an effort of appeasement, I told him how proud I was of him being so curious and that that was a sure sign of a bright and successful future. I then suggested that Google would have all the answers he was looking for. Also his brother.

His own efforts at appeasement sounded more like this: “so what’s your favorite Ferrari?”

We drove the rest of the way in silence.

Upon my arrival home, I promptly renewed his data bundle and made sure the television and Fortnite were connected. I then snuck into his room and removed all the reading material there was.

All is now back to normal and happiness, once again, reigns on us all.

You have been warned.