The curse and blessing that is YOLO

Decisions. For some reason people around the world struggle with them. I do too. They’re like blank pages we feel like we need to conquer. But how to get those first words onto the page? How to know they are the right words? Decisions very much feel like that. You toss and you turn and you hope that when you do decide, it will be the right decision.

“Yes, he is the guy you will be able to spend your life with, happily ever after.”
“No, that is not the right place for you to move to, far removed from what brings you joy.”
“Perhaps, maybe this job opportunity is the right one, but how to know for sure…?”

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because we’ve all been there before.

The problem is that making decisions is hard. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how wise you might be, they’re always hard. Because the uncertainty of making the wrong move is a fearful task. More so even in this world than a world of years ago. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am overjoyed by the opportunities screaming at my generation to get noticed, to be our roads less travelled by our ancestors. Growing up in today’s day and age is a privilege, if nothing else. But let’s face it, in a way, things were “easier” way back when.

I use that term loosely, “easy”, as I don’t want you to mistake it for “better”. What I am aiming for is that, once upon a time, you were born and depending on which family you came from, which gender you were etc., life was almost “pre-decided” for you. It may not have suited you perhaps, but in a way, you knew what to do. You knew how far you could go and what limitations life held. While I’d never want to go back to a world like that, I do confess it sounds appealing in a “Gosh-how-amazing-would-it-be-to-not-have-to-make-such-important-life-altering-decisions-all-the-time.” I mean, hell, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this?

In my opinion, a lot of people make choices nowadays out of fear for going into the golden years with too many regrets. It’s what my generation, the #YOLO-generation is all about: You Only Live Once. And that belief, that fear that you only live once, well it means that you have to carpe the hell out of that diem, doesn’t it? It means you can’t let any kind of chance of greatness go to waste, or you’ll be the fool who let it all slip through his/her fingers. There’s pressure behind making decisions now, not just because life is no longer “pre-decided” and you actually control your own fate (for which I’m sure you’ll all say with me: Halleluja!) but if you make the wrong one, you’re not living up to your YOLO-potential. Shame on you!

Let’s be honest: I have felt that pressure massively as well. Who doesn’t? But the absence of said pressure can have negative consequences too, I feel. Say you find yourself in a life you didn’t specifically ask for, you never really wanted, never truly dreamed of in the way that you’re experiencing it, yet… You can see it being stable, presenting you with a future where you know what to expect. Finally, the pressure is off! And you can rest a little easier. You can breathe more carefree, even as the days, weeks and months pass by and you have to admit to yourself, that while you’re not unhappy, you’re not exactly happy either. The relief of knowing what’s coming next keeps you tied to your present state.

As this is my first day where I am truly no longer employed, the pressure is back on in a major way. While it’s an added weight to carry, in a way I welcome it back with open arms. Finally I have the power to make decisions again! Who’d-a-thunk I’d be glad to feel that stress?! Ha, I genuinely am though. To be honest, I always had the power to make my own decisions – of course I did. But my carefree state made me unwilling to change. Now though, I’m ready for something different. So with that in mind, I’ve made two decisions:

  1. I am starting an online copywriting course at the College of Media & Publishing. I’ve always loved writing and I’ve got a solid background in marketing, it’ll be awesome to truly combine the two and see how I do. I have the time nowadays anyways, so why not? Sitting at home day after day just doesn’t interest me – now that I have the opportunity, I want to make the most of it and learn about something that interests me greatly!
  2. This Saturday I’m attending a Creative Writing course at the Faber Academy in London. Not sure what to expect from it, I’ve only been told to “bring my favourite novel”. But I’m definitely so looking forward to it! This course to me is not about learning per se, like the CMP online course is. It’s not about helping me look for the next opportunity in my life… This one just tugs at my heartstrings. This one… Is just for me. :-) And I can’t wait!

I’ll keep you updated on how it all pans out. In the meantime, I’d just like to stimulate each and every one of you to never lose that pressure. Never lose that feeling where life has no more different stories to offer you, because everything is simply going full steam ahead towards the predictable end. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: life is unpredictable. And that can be such an amazing thing to experience! I’d hate for you to lose that excitement, to lose that joyous buoyant feeling of being deliciously alive. Stop being content if you’re not, not truly anyways. Change it. You have the power to make that decision. I encourage you to do so.

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From: Invictus, by William Ernest Henley (1888)
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Life is unpredictable. Expect that.

The other day I was chatting with one my BFFs – yes, I know, what a cheesy way to describe someone, but in my defence: I did grow up in the age of “BFF” and “NWLY” and “ILY”, also known as the MSN-generation. And there’s simply no better way to describe this particular foxy lady. Anyways, I digress: we were talking boys, as us girls tend to do. And in the midst of it, I was advising her to not have too many expectations of how life was supposed to be. Especially not in the love department.

Why? Well, a lot of us – and with “us” I mean “girls” – grow up thinking that we need to find the right man. And once we do, we need to make that relationship a top priority in our lives together, so that when a sufficient amount of time has passed, it will have become appropriate for us to move in together with said man. After which another period needs to pass, so that it will become acceptable for the man to propose to us and we can finally start our “happily ever after”.

Simultaneously though, we are also expected to work on our self-actualisation and be our own woman. To go out and enjoy a movie, you don’t need a man. Same goes for dinner and every other activity you’d often need a partner to “enjoy”. We are told we don’t need a man to feel worthy of love, to feel worthy – period. Which, in my opinion, is so true! But I find it to be a conflicting message, because if we can enjoy our lives on our own, then why can we not have a happily ever after without that other person?

One of my dear friends is a stunning woman. She was married. It didn’t work out. All of her friends have gotten married, started on kids and look at her with that look of pity – because “her plans” didn’t pan out. And it’s heart-breaking. Because her life is freakin’ fabulous. She does what makes her happy. And sure, she’d love to meet a great man and maybe have kids with him. But it’s not going to define her. Instead, she just landed a job abroad and she’s going to be kick-ass amazing at it. I’ve not been this proud of someone in a long time, because – while she doesn’t know it – it gives me hope for my own future. That I can be me and chase after my own dreams, the way she has done no matter what happened.

She’s taught me this: I can be my own woman. And that will already be enough. The rest of it… Will sort itself out, I hope. But I’m not counting on it. I don’t need to follow that “traditional roadmap” in order to achieve happiness. Because even when you do, my friend’s story proves that it doesn’t necessarily mean happily ever after. Expecting that everything will be miraculously wonderful once you’ve got a ring on it, well it just ain’t realistic.

Which brings me to my point, something I’m taking a long time to get to – I know. But as I was talking to my friend who was having all these expectations about how her relationship was “supposed to go”, as us young women have always been unconsciously taught to have, I told her to stop having them altogether. Because life is totally unpredictable. And while I understand that human beings don’t do well with insecurity, it’s madness to think that there’s only one way your life can go, one plan that will deliver happiness. Because that’s not real life.

So I told my friend: Life is unpredictable. Expect that.

A year ago I didn’t expect to be out of a job right now. I didn’t expect I would have moved out from my place, a flat I’d only just moved into at the time. I didn’t expect to have lost a lot of my self-worth in the months past. I didn’t expect to have to do all of this rebuilding on my own self right now. I didn’t expect a lot of things. But I did expect that nothing would happen according to planBecause it wouldn’t happen that way. Because it hasn’t been happening that way for years.

From the moment I applied to business school – something that would never have occurred to me in a million years in the years preceding that decision – I threw everything out the window. My plans I’d had. My future I’d always seen so clearly. I threw it all away. Because what’s the point? Life doesn’t work out that way. And while it was hard at first, somehow I ended up in another country. And then I started building a life here, somewhere I’d never envisioned living – besides in my wildest dreams. Clearly not everything has been smooth sailing, but is that what I did it for? To lead a charmed life? Or is it more interesting to lead a life, experiencing both the good and the bad – whatever it likes to throw at you and see how you do?

I still haven’t got a plan. I have no idea what I am going to do. But I’m sure I’ll find out. As time moves forward, I am totally confident I will at least find out. It’d be awesome to have a bit of certainty, but since it’s been uncertainty that has brought me here… Even through the bad, I’m actually OK living my life this way. As the unpredictable mess that it is. I’ve come to expect it. More even: I’ve come to love it.

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War on Terror comes to Belgium

It was Tuesday morning. I was in my car driving to work – my last day before going on holiday to Belgium & seeing my friends and family for Easter. The sun was shining brightly and I was smiling, because it was going to be a good day. I was looking forward to knocking down my to-do list and leaving the office with the happy expectation of travelling home – my real home. I remember thinking that I was truly “loving life” at that moment.

My phone was getting messages whilst I was driving, but I hadn’t had a chance to look at them until I arrived at the office. I turned the key in my ignition, silencing my car and got out. As I was walking into my office building, I looked at the messages on Whatsapp. It was a group conversation and several people were saying they hoped “the Belgians were all right”. I didn’t quite get it. So as I plunked my bag down next to my desk, I opened my News app and waited anxiously as it was scouring the web for new stories. And then there it was.

There had been an attack in Brussels. At the airport. Just that morning. My heart stops. My breathing stops. And I try to remember how my mom was going to Paris that morning. She must be on the train, right? She never takes a flight to Paris. Never. But there’s always that possibility. I text her a quick message to check she’s OK. Next I open my laptop to find more information on what’s happened – the tiny screen of my phone isn’t enough for this.

My favourite Belgian newspaper’s landing page is… A disaster. It’s in big letters: “Attacks on Brussels” – my heart skips a beat when I read the use of plural. Apparently it’s not just the airport, but the metro as well. Who do I know in Brussels? Who might be hurt? As I list more and more people in my head, my dread becomes insane. Currently there’s only one victim reported dead – it makes me feel confident somehow. Maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe the wounded number will be low as well – and they will hopefully survive.

One hour passes and the whole world has changed. My world has changed. The death toll keeps rising. The images and videos online show disastrous circumstances. My email pings. Something from my to-do list in the office today, something I was excited about ticking off. I can’t think right now. My mom hasn’t texted me back. I need to call her. NOW. She picks up and sounds OK. She went by train. And she left right before the attacks. Before the city was on lockdown. She’s safe and she will be for the next couple of days at least.

I text my friends. As many of them as I can think of to have ties with Brussels, whether they live there or work there or both. Most respond back. But I can’t find my sister. She works about a mile from Molenbeek, where some of the terrorists have been found in the past. She teaches Dutch to immigrant high school children, who are hoping to integrate. Despite the circumstances, the irony’s never lost on me. I send her a text. It doesn’t arrive. The newspaper’s website says that the mobile network is down due to overuse. There’s a request to use mobile data instead, so as to keep the lines free for emergencies. I send a Whatsapp. Just one checkmark next to my message. It doesn’t arrive.

I have meetings in the office that day. One really important one. I can’t think. I can only watch the news. And text my friends. And find out all transport has been locked down, including the Eurostar – which I’m supposed to take the next day. I can’t deal with this. People in the office are coming up to me to ask if everyone I know is safe. I don’t know how to answer. I haven’t found everyone yet. Where is my sister? I know the likelihood that she was somewhere in that area is small, but I don’t know her route to work. And the city is on lockdown. What if she’s in the middle of a manhunt? I try to breathe.

I walk away from my desk and find a bench outside. The sun is gorgeous. There’s a pretty flowerbed. But I don’t notice anything. I just sit down and start crying. From worry. From fear. From anxiety. From shock. From pain. From heartache for my country. From everything at once, because I feel everything at once and I can’t get out. I can’t find reason within this morning. I don’t understand. My throat constricts and I don’t know how to be me. A friend comes up to me and hugs me. She doesn’t know what’s happened. But as soon as I tell her, she just hugs me tighter.

And so the morning continues. I try to focus on work. Find that I can’t and break down. It’s like a circle and I keep going round and round the loop. My team takes turns in being there for me. Trying to ease the pain. But I always come back to the same circle & I start crying again. Tons of people see me cry that day. Probably the whole office. I just can’t believe it. This is Brussels. This is Belgium. We are laid back. We eat waffles. One of our most famous landmarks is a little boy who pees, for crying out loud?! We haven’t done anything wrong.

In the end, it makes no sense for me to stay. I leave the office, hours earlier than I had planned on. My to-do list virtually untouched. My last day, my joyful day before my holiday has completely disappeared into the fog of my anxious self. Then my phone beeps. It’s my sister. She’s been in Antwerp all this morning, planning to go into Brussels in the afternoon. Those plans don’t exist anymore. She’s going to try to go home. She’ll let me know once she gets there. My breathing, which I’d been holding since that beep, starts back up again. I take a few deep breaths. And feel relief. Like a massive weight has finally been lifted.

My phone beeps again. It’s Facebook, of all things. But when I read it, I am overjoyed. It’s a safety check, where everyone can indicate whether they are safe (or not) and friends get the automatic update. In that moment, in that very instant, I am loving social media. I thank God we have it. Because  the list is long. Some of my best friends, some friends who I’ve lost touch for a while, but all of them people I’ve been worried for. They are OK. They are safe.

As the day comes to a close, the Eurostar announces it should run normally the next day. Travellers are advised to double-check the next morning and if all is going smoothly, to make sure to be extra early for check-in. There will be heightened security. Of course. I try not to mind. I don’t mind extra security for the guarantee of safety. But Belgium has always been the complete opposite of this: more about living life, less about infinite amounts of worry and “what if?”. The Belgian lifestyle is relaxed, slow, chilled out, something I’ve always loved. But for how much longer? In the back of my mind I wonder what I will be coming home to.

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Breathless

It’s the calm before the storm. It’s the moment before the wind will pick up speed, making the waves crash against the cliff walls. It’s the time where I hold my breath, knowing there is no other way to go but with both feet forward, taking a plunge into the deep. I feel like I’ve been running for so long and now I’m at a standstill. There’s no way back. And the way ahead may prove to be filled with some tricky waters. I can’t do anything but wait a little longer, until I’m breathless and I have to swim my way back up to survive.

Everyone has good days. And everyone has bad days. You need to experience both in order to distinguish between the two. Perhaps most staggering of all is when they follow up on each other at a breakneck speed, but perhaps it’s only normal. When you go high that fast, you will fall down in equal measure. And that’s okay.

These are the days I will remember. They are the days I will memorize in my mind, in my heart, in writing, in music, in whatever medium I can find. Whether good or bad, it’s the intense days that remind me of what it means to be alive. I’ve had too many flatline-days: days that don’t make a difference in the grand design. Days that don’t make your heart skip, but where it keeps flatlining at a steady beep. A dime a dozen, I suppose. Days that you’ve forgotten before the clock has struck midnight to announce a new sunrise ahead. They are not the days when inspiration will hit. They are not the days where my mind will soar, for better or worse, and bring with it all that I have pouring out.

*

Today I will remember. Today I know that I am breathless. I am immobile. I am in hiding. And I am trapped. Because I know what lies ahead. And yet I have no clue at all. There is a vast landscape ahead of me, filled with uncharted territories. In some I may find joy, others might bring grief and worse, some could forebode danger. For all intents and purposes, I suppose that is what growing into adulthood feels like. In the past I’ve acknowledged fears about it, as well as the excitement coursing through my veins, but never my inability to make it feel real in my head. I don’t how to make something feel real when I’ve never, not once, experienced it before. Again, this is a day where the range of the human emotional spectrum astounds me. To be honest, if I could, I would draw up a cocoon around me and let that be my safe world. Like a safe blanket, which ruffles softly against my toes and can be held close without fear of suffocation. I’d be alright living life as a caterpillar. Not everyone is meant to be a butterfly, least of all me. But there is no return ticket on the clock that is otherwise known as life.

I’ve read that some cultures see time as a circular motion. That’s in stark contrast to here in the West, where time is linear. There is a beginning. And there is an ending. And you can only go one way. Perhaps my lungs will kick in again if I familiarize myself with a circular way of viewing time. Perhaps that will take the pressure off and my chest can rise once more. Yes, this Western world of ours might have all the technology “inferior worlds” are still lacking… But we have a terrifying notion of growing older. And in that respect, we could learn so, so much. Because not only do we radically judge all human beings at the first sight of wrinkles, but we teach our children that there is a limited amount of time where you can “live your life to the fullest”.

When you are a kid, you cannot wait to be tall. When you are a teenager, you cannot wait to be taken seriously. When you reach your twenties, the full weight of adulthood hits you like a flatiron against your skull. But in your thirties you already start feeling like your best years are behind you. By the time forty looms around the corner, you’re due for your midlife crisis, because that’s when you’re deemed “old enough” for it. And anyone past fifty is considered old, in mind, body and spirit. A fate worse than death, I think. So I say… I say we revolt. I say we yank the rug out from under society’s norms and values and choose our own. I say we choose our own damn fate. Our own damn path. And I say we do not wait too long, before it is too late. A final statement, which I hope will be seen for the irony it depicts.

*

I am not going to divulge my secrets today. Not here. Not to the world. I will not spill the details on the innermost workings of my soul. Not today. Whether high or low, today will be remembered only by me. And through my experiences, I grow. Through my memory of those experiences, I learn. And today, I have learned many a thing. Maybe the most important one being that you can never go home again. Not that home is unsafe or unfamiliar, but it holds no more new experiences. Which translates in a standstill once more. So I will go forward soon. And I pray that the dreams I chase and the doors I choose are the right ones. But in all fairness, the world isn’t perfect. And my life has never been a fairytale. So I can only hope that, when I do start breathing again, I will feel my pulse quicken once again.

From down in the valleys below, anyone with enough willpower can rise. So here I go. Any minute now…