Tuesday, 22 April 2014

How my Perspective on Easter Has Evolved

Have you always celebrated Easter in the same way, or has the way you've celebrated it and its significance to you changed throughout your life? Today, as another Easter period draws to a close, I reflected on just how much my own perspective on Easter has evolved over the years.

When I was growing up, Easter meant going to church three times in four days. It was all about religion, and ceremony: reenactments of the washing of the feet and the nailing to the cross, abstainence from meat on Good Friday and the glorious breaking of that forty-day annual chapter sans junk food known as Lent.

When I was eighteen, living in Sweden during that year that signified the bridge between my childhood and my adulthood, Easter meant the sampling of forgein culture and the savouring of new experiences. It meant lighting bonfires and observing an Easter tradition similiar to Halloween, where little girls dressed up as påskkärringar  (Easter witches) and went door to door collecting sweets in baskets or saucepans. It meant painting eggs and feasting on a traditional Easter feast of herring and schnapps. After eighteen years of experiencing Easter through a very religious lense, it was refreshing and exciting to see it celebrated in such a different way. This was the beginning of a time in my life where the gaining of cultural experiences would become my currency.

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When I was twenty-two, I was (surprisingly to many) already a mother, and my son celebrated his very first Easter. Easter suddenly meant bunny rabbits and bilbies and his first taste of chocolate. For the next few years, Easter was a magical time of childlike innocence and excitement, of counting down sleeps with Ben till Easter Sunday and watching him squeal with delight when he discovered his chocolate treats next to his bed when that morning finally arrived.

When I was twenty-seven, living in Sicily with my now five-year-old boy, Easter once again meant the witnessing of a different cultural approach to Easter. This time it was about parades centered around enormous statues, the entire village congregating together in the streets, fireworks during the day and right into the night and banquets of food prepared painstakingly by mammas and nonnas. Easter in Sicily, like so many things in Sicily, is all about spectacle. I felt both overwhelmed and honoured to have been able to witness this spectacle, but I also started to question within myself where religion ends and spectacle begins, not just in this culture, but in all cultures.

When I was in my late twenties, Easter meant taking the time to gather together with family. As Ben started to read independently, it also meant taking the chance to marry education with adventure and I started organising complicated Easter Egg treasure hunts for him with rhyming cryptic clues, similiar to the treasure hunt we did for his ninth birthday. As it turned out, he's not much of a sweet tooth, and he savours the challenge more than the chocolate :)

When Annalisa was born, Easter meant new beginnings. The symbolism of new life carried particular signifiance for me that year: I had recently turned thirty and become the mother of a daughter. I felt like I had rounded a corner, both physically and figuratively. I now saw the world through the eyes of the mother of a daughter. We had kept her placenta and umbilical chord after the birth and at Easter we buried the umbilical chord and planted a tree on top of it (I'll tell you some other time what I did with the placenta!)

I remember wishing that afternoon that life could remain forever just the way it was that day; a day filled with hope, a sleeping angel in my arms and a fluffy bunny toy in her crib.  I wished I could always protect her from the harshness of the world.

But life did change. Frighteningly. Irrevocably. Spectacularly.

Easter this year crept up on me and its significance, in comparison to my relationship breakdown and everything that came along with it, seemed negligible. But then, on Good Friday I had a quiet moment to myself in the garden while one of my children was sleeping and the other was on an areoplane. And as I collected my thoughts, I realised that, far from being insignifiant, this year Easter means more to me than it ever has before.

Because this year I truly understand the meaning behind the Easter story for the first time. This year I understand the true meaning of betrayal and sacrifice and unconditional love. This year I truly understand the necessity for forgiveness. I understand that forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves. I still have a long, long way to go in that journey, but at least I know where I'm heading.

And this year, for the first time in my life, I acknowledge, without guilt, that I believe in God, but not religion.

It has taken me thirty-one years of trial and error, searching and questioning, confusion and resentment, rejection and experimentation,  anger and disillusionment, to find the courage to admit that. It took me thirty years to realise that that was even an option.

So this year, I didn't go to church three times in four days. I didn't go at all, although although many of the people I love and respect did so. This year I acknowledge that I don't need to make a choice between being religious or not being religious. I am no longer afraid to say I believe in God either, because believing in God can be separate from believing in religion.

This year, on Easter Sunday I sat quietely for a moment all by myself and I thanked God for giving me the strength to crucify the toxic circumstances of my past and the insight to resurrect my thoughts and my way of perceiving the situations and the people around me.

This year, I feel like my perspective on Easter has finally reached the place where I need it to be.

How do you celebrate Easter and what is your perspective on it? Has your perspective changed over the years? 

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Bikini Bridge - and the beauty of hindsight

Perhaps you've heard about it already.

It's the latest in thinspiration, the younger sister of the 'thigh gap' and the current measuring stick - in the eyes of countless susceptibility young women - for beauty.

They call it the bikini bridge. A girl who has one is a girl who, when lying on her back in a bikini, has a gap between her hipbones and her stomach. The 'bridge' is the material of her bikini bottoms that stretches over that gap between her hipbones. All over social media, young girls have sent in their selfies of their bridges in their droves. It seems that everyone who has one wants the whole world to know about it.

But where does that leave everyone else who doesn't? With just one more reason to hate their body and feel horrendously uncomfortable in their own skin?

There are literally thousands of photos of bikini bridges on the web, many of them purporting messages such as these:

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I first read about this trend in an online article at the beginning of summer. I expected the feminist in me to feel outraged by it. But I surprised myself. What I actually felt was a profound sense of sadness.

I did not feel sad because the article impacted in any way on my own self esteem. What I felt was an aching despondency for the fact that such a huge number of young women were allowing themselves to be objectified in this way and feeling beautiful because of it. Not even realising how they were being used.

Young women just like the teenagers I used to teach.

Young women just like my nieces will be in just a few years' time.

Young women just like my own little girl will be one day too.

No matter how hard to try to protect her, this is the reality of the world she will grown up in: she may grow be the smartest of all the girls she knows, or the funniest, the most talented, the most capable or the kindest, but all anyone will seem to want to know about is what she looks like in a bikini.

And then I realised, with that mixture of regret and sagacity that can only come via error and hindsight, that not so very long ago in the scheme of things, I too was one of those naive, susceptible girls, horrendously uncomfortable in my own body for no good reason, except the fact that I had no understanding back then of the difference between what is truly beautiful and what is, tragically, actually the objectification of women. If I were a teenager now, would I be one of those girls sending in their bikini bridge selfie to Instagram or to Facebook? I would like to think not, but I honestly cannot say. I do know that my teenage self would have believed that having that coveted bikini bridge might have meant that someone would actually notice me and admire me and possible even love me. How many years of my life did I waste feeling miserable and inadequate when all along happiness was so close, waiting patiently for me to befriend it, and all I had to do was say yes?

But I packed these thoughts up and buried them. I had no time for regretting the past or fretting for the future; the present was so intense that it consumed my every moment. I didn't think of the bikini bridge trend at all for weeks. Then a few days ago, I was sitting on a bus, my daughter asleep in my lap, and I overheard a conversation between two young girls seated behind me. One was showing the other photos she has taken of herself showing off her 'bridge'. The other was complimenting her, saying how lucky she was to be so skinny, while simultaneously putting her own self down, saying she'd never be able to have a 'bridge' because she was too fat.

How I would have loved to have turned around to these young girls and gently told them my own thoughts on the topic. But would they have listened to me? Of course not. Would I have listened myself at their age?

So I stayed staring out the window and as the bus drove on, I thought about what I would have loved to have said to them - what I would give anything to go back and be able to say to my own self - if only they, and I, would have listened. I would have said something like this ...

Dear teenage girls, dear teenage Me, 

If you really want to be happy, you must reassess what you believe to be meaning of beauty.

Beauty has nothing to do with the gap between your hipbones or your thighs, or the number of lines on your face. Beauty is not something you starve yourself to achieve. It is not something you can purchase. It is not something tangible that can be weighed and measured. 

Beauty is not about constantly striving to outdo other women or objectifying yourself to satisfy men.

Striving and objectifying are not beautiful.

So what is beautiful? you ask.

Patience is beautiful.

The patience of a mother who moves at the pace of her child, not at her own. 

The patience of a lover who waits faithfully when their love is far away. 

The patience of a mother whose heart has been broken by the cruel words and rebellion of her teenaged child who waits, all the time loving constantly, for those years to pass and the love of their child to return. 

The patience of a spouse who has watched their love grow away from them throughout the years but who waits, with a hopeful and forgiving heart, for their beloved to remember the reasons for their love and to turn their heart back to them. 

Confidence is beautiful.

Not the confidence that comes as a result of make-up or expensive clothes or being thin enough to feel accepted into an exclusive tribe, but the confidence that comes through inner peace and satisfaction; the confidence that comes from a place of self acceptance.

Contentment is beautiful.

A women who constantly strives to outdo others and is never satisfied with her achievements, her body or her face is not a beautiful woman. A beautiful woman is a woman whose soul has stopped striving and is at rest; in her presence you do not feel scrutinised, measured or assessed. You can relax when she is with you. She is not selfish with her beauty. Her beauty make those around her beautiful too.

Courage is beautiful.

The courage to say yes when everyone else is saying no, and the courage to say no when everyone else is saying yes.

The courage to walk away from all the people around you who call you friend, or lover, because you know that their friendship or their love does not  make you happy and does not allow you to be the person you were born to be. And yes, because of your courage, you will be lonely, but that loneliness will pass. I promise you that it will pass.

And I also promise you this: unless you walk away from those who drag you down, who try to change you and turn you into what they need you to be to satisfy their own desires or to lessen the pain of their own insecurities, you will never have the chance to go out and find your own tribe - the ones who were meant, all along, to call you friend, or lover. The ones who want you to succeed; who celebrate your talents. The ones who can help you ignite that fire inside of you.

They are there. Believe me, they are there. But they are not going to come knocking on the door to rescue you. First you need to be brave enough to step away from what is not right for you, no matter how comfortable and comforting your zone of security has become.

That means not everyone is going to like you. That means some people are even going to hate you. But open your eyes: people already dislike you. No matter what you do, there will always be people who dislike you. That thing you fear most? Let it go. It has already happened.

But how do I find these things? you ask

Find your bliss. Your bliss is what you do without counting the minutes while you are doing it. Your bliss is what you would choose to do, over and over again without getting paid, rather than sleep. It took me thirty years to find the courage to start following my bliss, but I always knew what my bliss was going to be since I was a little girl. Sometimes I wonder how different my life might have been had I had the courage to follow it earlier. I have a feeling that most people know in the back of their minds what their own bliss will be, but few actually ever dare to talk about it, for fear of being ridiculed.

Do not underestimate the power of music. Music has to ability not only to lift your spirits, but to heal you on a subconscious level too. You are never too old to gain pleasure from playing an instrument.

Leave your comfort zone. Travel. It could be to the other side of the world, but it doesn't have to be. It could be travelling to the other side of the city to do voluntary work with people from a different background or demographic from your own. When you re-enter your comfort zone again, you will see things from a different perspective.

Listen to old people. They have a lifetime of stories, wisdom and hindsight to share. Savour their wisdom. Learn whatever you can from their hindsight. 

But why should I bother? you ask

To understand that, you need to understand the bigger picture. You need to understand that the media wants you to hate yourself. In fact, they need you to hate yourself. When you hate yourself, you are weak and vulnerable. It is easier to sell things to you when you are weak and vulnerable, when your self esteem is rock bottom. Diet pills, diet shakes, diet plans, exercise machines, tanning lotions, anti-aging potions, the perfect make-up, the perfect tummy-tucking underwear - the list is endless. As long as they can keep you hating yourself, they can keep bringing out new products to improve the way you look and you just keep buying them. An inexhaustible market. 

You need to remember how hard women have fought to ensure that the generations of women who came after them would be given the same rights as their male counterparts. Not so very long ago, suffragettes starved themselves in prison so that someone might actually start paying serious attention to their cause. If you are going to starve yourself. do not do it to make yourself look sexually appealing for the male population. If nothing else, I think we owe that to the women whose suffering pathed the way for the rights we now seem to take so easily for granted. 

You know in your heart that what you really want is a fulfilling and lasting relationship with a man you can trust and who can respect you. You do not want a man who is distracted or tempted by the bodies of other women or by the lure of pornography. To find a man who will respect you with his body and his mind, you need to first respect yourself. You are not a piece of meat to be masturbated over. Throw away the photo of your bikini bridge or your ambition to have one. You do not need thousands of men masturbating over you. You are worth far more than that.

You are a unique, extraordinary and powerful human being. No one other person in the world has or has had or will ever have exactly the same DNA or finger prints or tooth formation as you do. No one person has ever had an identical set of experiences or thought every thought that you have ever thought. There is a purpose in this life for you to pursue that you alone can fulfill. 

And lastly, remember this: You are enough. You have always been enough. But you will only start to feel it when you start to think it. Your thoughts are the most powerful thing you have. Shift them, if they need shifting. Destroy them, if they need destroying and then rebuild them into something mighty and radiant. Let your thoughts radiate the beauty that has always been inside you.

You are as beautiful as you think you are.

This will always be my favourite photo of me in a bikini. I will never feel more beautiful than I did that day.

So what are your thoughts on the bikini bridge?