donderdag 6 juli 2017

A Month of Final Moments

The final month in Karlskrona enters the stage with a bang. My beautiful longboard, a birthday gift from all my friends, rolled faster and faster down the hill, round a curve, when I saw the fence was closed. I dodge, I skirt, and dive straight into the hedgerow, which smells sweet with its fresh late-spring leaves in that split second, before my head crashes on the concrete street and everything stops. A soundless gong ringing, the sensation of my brain quivering from the impact inside its skull. Disoriented moments follow, blurred colourful houses, strangely unfamiliar in my own neighbourhood, no notion of what I’m doing there or what month it is. I wander till I recognise a house and stumble in. The concussion is well-timed, as these things always are: three days before our thesis defense presentation. I do my bit, mellow as a fruit, seated on a bar stool flanked by my two thesis mates. The care and concern of friends and housemates these days is heartwarming. Breakfasts left at the top of the stairs, a red balloon brought home for me, and my most loyal buddy carrying my bag for me everywhere.

I’m forced to go slow those days, which all things considered was exactly what I had wanted. And so one evening, when all my roomies have left for the final impromptu house party of the year, I fall asleep on the couch. I shift and turn when the first of them comes home in the faint dusk of the Swedish summer night. “Oh Steffiiiii!” he scuttles over to stroke my arm in apology before retiring to his room, and after that I lie awake, hit by a sudden wave of sentimentality. You make different choices when you are face to face with the horizon of a life. In my PJs and flip-flops I climb the hill in the fresh midnight breeze to join the Cheese House for what remains of the party, and tell whoever’s still there how much I like them, before it’s too late.

Oh Time… These weeks I watch its bizarre workings with perplexity. I stand back as it speeds ahead of me in its untamable, furious gallop. I tried to grab it, slow it down, but what can you do? Finally I throw my hands up and let it run. Oh! we’re doing our thesis defense. Oh! we’re deep-cleaning the Mustard House. Oh! we’re closing the year with the class. It steals my moments from me until there are none left, and all familiar ground rolls away from under my feet. I totter behind in those weeks, picking up the moments left in Time’s wake, stealing back some hours here and there to move through them at my own pace, reliving them gingerly through journaling. That is why I write, as Anaïs Nin says: ‘to taste life twice, once in the moment and once in retrospect’. In intervals, I catch up, trading some precious presence for reflection.

The week is marked by closing ceremonies. We close as a class, as a house, and finally as a cohort, receiving hugs and speeches and diplomas in our finest clothes (the only ones we haven’t already seen a thousand times on each other this year) and meet everyone’s folks. What a gift to have my mom and uncle here those days, delegates of the Heckman clan, witnessing this momentous milestone with their feet on my ground. On our last party night we watch the sun fall and rise within the span of a few short midsummer hours in the sweeping pink and golden brilliance we have come to know so well from the marvelous Karlskrona skies. We are on the barbecue island of Långö, the same place where it all began, and we jump from the diving board just like we did all those months ago to launch this awe-some journey. In every thinkable way, we are coming full circle, back to a season we’ve experienced here before, as we make ready to leave.

So quickly, one after the other, we do. The first Mustard leaving feels like an amputation, and we howl as she rips herself from our final group hug. So glad I am, to be staying in Karlskrona some weeks to slow down and wean off. But I hadn’t anticipated that staying behind, as our people drain from town, would be so uncomfortable. Dreams of an empty Mustard House find me at night, and so do all my classmates, meeting me in desolate eerie dreamscapes. The remaining Mustards, hemorrhaging housemates every day, huddle in the empty kitchen solemn and forlorn. In hushed voices, afraid of the echoes in the hollow rooms, we share our destitution. Stripped of its soul, the timeless nature of the house rises to the surface. It is now as much ours as it’s ever been anyone’s, and we see ourselves in our historical context: how many times must this kitchen have held grieving, leaving MSLS’ers? As we hum our final stories into the walls, and make room for the new, we wonder at the other years’ worth of stories in them. We can feel them, now more than ever, but we can’t hear them. What matter? It would be the same stories humans have told since they first learned to speak. About the complications and simplicity of life. About encounters and goodbyes. About heartbreak and hilarity. We add our own, as old as they are new, for good measure.

Oh Time… These weeks I witness it in defenseless deference, as it consumes all my precious final moments with insatiable greed. I stand by helplessly as that unfathomable human brain moves in on my near-complete year and begins to consolidate all the fine nuances, the most cherished details and innocent-seeming little moments. All my countless jewels are molten down with all the dirt into one clunky, multifaceted semi-precious stone. All moments compressed and downloaded into a single file for my memory cabinet. Now only with codes and secret keys will I be able to access a mere fraction of the richness: a scent, a song, a memory shared, a picture that surfaces in months from now, or the face and the embrace of one of my dear ones that I will now have to miss. This is why I write: to capture the Original Interpretation, if not snippets of Original Experience, before the moments are stuffed into that shifty memory, where every attempt to access them inadvertently colours and reconstructs them.

More and more over the course of those days, I retreat to the Cheese House where my two good friends live, who will stay behind with me. The last intact bastion of our dwindling Karlskrona life. Our bubble shrinks by the day as more of us break through the translucent film that separates us from the world, leaving traces of their presence: empty rooms, heaps of donated food. When the last Mustard leaves I move into the Cheese House permanently. That is, into a tent in the backyard where I find my own happy little niche. Finally I can feel Time slowing down as we sink into summer, spending our days idling in the sun, swimming in the sea, collecting bird feathers as trinkets and foreboders, and trying to force our sputtering bodies to still do some work on our planned summer projects. Time has slowed down enough to make those final weeks, wonderful and capricious, bitter and sweet, roll by like a languorous eternity. Yet at the same time I feel the pressure building on the other side: the day is looming closer where the bubble will have shrunk so small it can no longer contain us and will finally burst, leaving us leftovers, too, stranded in the big wide world again.

Before the end we shift into a different gear with the arrival of brothers. Two of them, my friend’s, fill the house. Suddenly I find myself inside the family space of three bros kicking back, relaxing into family being: the simplest being without being alone. I love this particular family’s space, and gladly accept the invitations to enter, joining on Midsummer nighttime adventures, celebratory dinners, and even their overnight Brotrip. Drama turns what would have been a nameless camping trip into an Epic Adventure, involving two messenger crows, a kayak adrift, getting robinson crusoed on an island, unyielding winds, long distance swims, early stage hypothermia, a dead swan, heightened stress levels, and lots of fodder for campfire stories that evening when we finally make it safe and sound to our camping spot. The two brothers provide my friend with some padding on his departure, of course, but their warm inclusive presence is also an unexpected comfort and support for me, and I’m loving those final days.

Oh Time… How I’ve been wishing this past month you would. just. STOP. For a minute. For a day. So I could catch my breath, and catch up with my presents as they roll by unendingly. Unbelievably, the moment I knew would come one day, does actually come one day. The great goodbye rolls into my present, and rolls out again on its way into the dim past, leaving me shipwrecked in tears. Unbelievably, the moment in the train as we roll away from our home gets its turn to be my present, and elapses. Unbelievably, the moment of sitting alone in a Copenhagen Station coffee shop, free at last and on my own two feet in between lives, becomes my fleeting present, and passes too. What can I do but let it happen.  Time marches on relentlessly and spares no one, not even Ozymandias king of kings, who bowed to none until he bit the dust for Time.

At breakneck speed, that inhumane pace of modern traveling which leaves our spirit scattered across a continent, I end up in a plane to Amsterdam, and three hours after landing, in another plane to Belfast. Here I spend five days to feel the land that will become my next home. In this place called Corrymeela, people have gathered in the name of peace for the past fifty-odd years, all through the violent Troubles of Northern Ireland. A place atop towering cliffs, with squawking seagulls circling, boisterous North winds blowing, rugged hills strewn with echoes of kingdoms risen and fallen, and the waves of the sea lapping on the shores like they did in Karlskrona. I meet the people, who receive me with utmost welcome and understanding, and give me the softest possible landing: going slow and taking time for all the pieces of me to arrive. Even so I feel shellshocked, and it takes me three days to arrive in spirit. We take walks, eat food, have conversations. We identify birds together, share political analyses and family stories, clean freshly picked gooseberries, and finally suss out the internship I will start after summer. I felt at home even before I visited, and my visit only seals the knowing. But just when I’ve begun to settle down I’m on a plane again, back to the Netherlands, where I am now, waiting for my poor spirit to catch up with me again.

My current, prolonged present is the moment I’ve been longing for more than I’ve feared it: the exhausted, full release of collapsing on my mom’s couch. Here now, finally, this magnificent year, equal parts inspired exuberance, heart-wrenching pain, and fulfilled contentment, has come to an end. Here now, the time for decompressing and processing, for grieving, healing and regenerating, has come. Here now, Time, I have come abreast with you: If I can’t stop you, I will stop myself for a while. But Karlskrona… that happened, and we made it to the end. This year will from now until forever be one of our most prized jewels, an open sea that became a safe harbour. It will prove to be a gift that will keep on giving, like a pebble in a pond, like the wind that makes the waves, like the sun that falls and rises every day in that glorious Karlskrona sky, as it does here, and there, and everywhere.

donderdag 25 mei 2017

Thesis Brain, Thesis Body & The Antics of Time

It is the morning after thesis hand-in. Yesterday we sent off our brainchild, emptying our hands and jumping in the sea for a cleansing. But still I barely feel the breeze, and my vision has become shockingly fixated on screen distance. I sit in uni writing this now because I can’t go cold turkey on my laptop yet. I still feel a bit wobbly after our passage through the birth canal, the high pressure moment of hand-in after 5 months of toil, where with increasing intensity our lives came to revolve around thesis, all other things pressed to the margins of perception by the centrifugal force, where they blurred from view. So much we’ve learnt, about research, about our topic, about teamwork.

Our brains at work

The scientific method has captivated me. So quick and insidious our minds are, and it was only through constant questioning with every mental step of the way, that I could catch my brain in the act of making assumptions, jumps in logic to make an argument. So trippy the intricacy of our own mental labyrinths, let alone finding our way in those of two other thesis mates! A few weeks ago we experienced ‘data paralysis’.  This whole year we’d been learning about the importance of shared mental models (maps for navigating collective mental labyrinths), and still we found we had neglected ours and that the compounding subtle inflection points left us stranded with three mutant models. So bogged down in the research we were, that we could only still see the complicatedness. Luckily we had felt good about every step of the research, so we could trust that our subconscious had been making very clever, strategic decisions, and now it was for our consciousness to catch up. We made the best choice we could have made, a week before the final draft deadline, and gave ourselves a whole weekend off to give space to the simplicity to resurface in slow time, while we relished the first days of Swedish summer. It worked like a charm.

After sorting our brains out, it was time to apply them. My thesis pal described it as travel sickness: for two weeks we had (attempted to) stayed at the high level overview, and now we were freefalling into the detail of re-writing and editing. Two of us entered the Thesis Cave and pitched camp there, not leaving its and each other’s side for 6 straight days and nights of work. We could only still see and hear everything through the structure of our research, were writing and re-writing in documents and in minds 24 hours of the day. At night, my brain tried to fit the entire world into conceptual frameworks, so active in its processing and puzzling that its whirring woke me up at 6:30 for mornings in a row with new revelations. It was delicious. There hasn’t been a moment where I wasn’t fascinated by our work, such a passion project this has been.

The heart of our thesis

Our thesis is on youth empowerment, nature connection, and on sending young people on camp to build a care for nature and others deep enough that it will translate into action when either are in trouble – on raising empowered sustainability advocates. We have interviewed and met such inspiring practitioners from the field, their hearts high with the power of the work they’re doing. We have seen their hunger to share knowledge and experience with each other, and in extension their eager interest for our work. And we have felt how this research has become a doorway, a flexible platform, for our personal futures that want to build on this. All the avenues and initiatives to be explored. Last week we were on our second visit to the thesis cave, five days this time of pizza and all-nighters, deconstructing our whole thesis again and building it back up for the final submission. In the middle of this, we went camping for a night with a group of us on the island of Aspö. It is early summer here now, and the birch forests are bright green, and the great crested grebes are mating, and sky is filled with geese migrating. And the great tits and blackbirds are singing. And the magpies, the wood pigeons, the woodpeckers, the nuthatchers, the oystercatchers are talking. And since a few days even the swifts are back. And the wind was at our backs around the campfire on the rocks by the open sea, blowing fiercely around our stories. I have been camping all my life, yet this time it was different. I have so much more knowledge now about the value this brings to young people who’ve never experienced this, about rituals and practices that foster connection, compassion, confidence. We are becoming experts of theory on something that has been with me my whole life, and wants to come back in my future. It is beautiful.

The bodies of our team

To be sharing this passion and deep process is such a gift. It is one of the Great Learnings from this transformative year. That you can choose to work with friends. That you can not only get lucky with coworkers you like, but that you can actively choose to share something that takes up so much of your life, passion, purpose, with people you love! Speaking of empowerment… I want that! And yet, part of the thesis process has been accepting the fact that I shared this with one, not two, of my thesis mates. This brings me to another of the Great Learnings from this year. That while we may differ greatly in our translations and satisfying strategies, we as human beings all share the exact same needs and emotions, and can therefore be understood, and then accepted. And on this basis, we can be honest and transparent about our needs and emotions, knowing they ultimately all make sense. How much suffering can be resolved and avoided by being honest, and acting from that understanding! In this way, I have been learning so much from all those very different from me, as well as those so much like me. Housemates, thesis mates, friends… They are the first mirror, the most revealing. They show me to all the demons, all the rocks, all the blind spots that need healing. That’s why I don’t live alone, I’d be stealing so much waxing consciousness from myself!

Consciousness training

That’s it. It is this consciousness that MSLS trains and elevates in us. In this consciousness my future work lies. It is this consciousness that I came home to at the Art of Hosting training and YIP Initiative Forum, where it is so present in the room; that led us to start a tradition of gratitude beads in our thesis team, a practice gleaned from one of our partner organisations; that moved us to set up a thing like the Future Council, a tribe within a tribe that meet weekly to move together through the big questions of what’s next, and will maintain its role as council when our bodies part ways. It’s the same consciousness that is the portal into the deeper layers of the people world, as well as spirit world. And for those of us who are onto its trail, we are sorcerer’s apprentices, learning to work with forces we don’t yet understand. It caught our attention, a fleeting movement in our lateral vision. We can’t grasp it yet, can’t name it yet, but we have ventured in. I am seeking it with my hands, this sense. I am testing the air, resting my empty hands in there, waiting for that feeling to become tangible and land in them, so I can grasp it like reins and my body becomes the tool. I know it’s coming.

Back to the wider present – the antics of time

Now that we are on the other side of the thesis deadline, we can shift our attention back to the wider present: we are moving into our last month here. Time has been behaving as strangely as ever, writhing and curving, circling and stretching, slack and taut, fast and slow. With the coming of summer, we are coming full circle to a season we have experienced here before. It brought back remembered feelings, thoughts, body sensations so strongly, so instantaneously that it was like time looped back onto itself. The depth and speed that we’ve been moving at with thesis has left us with no capacity to engage with the realisation that the days of this beautiful Karlskrona life are almost up. Slowly now, the thesis dust will settle, opening up space to arrive in that wider present again. And then we will find it will be such a sudden drop into lazy, luscious summer that it will feel like vertigo. Vertigo all the more because that drop will also be the abrupt end of this Karlskrona life, and we will find ourselves balancing on the edge of the abyss, the void of a life disintegrating.  The transient nature of time will roar back into life, we will hear the wheels churning. It will force us into that bittersweet gift of retrospection, reflection, selection of what to take with you, what to leave behind. I will try to walk slowly these last weeks, soaking up and savouring this everything. And after that, close my eyes and take that leap. Hi Future! Catch me please.

woensdag 5 april 2017

The Diamond Journey and the Flashflood

This thing about time

Unbelievably, the current has picked up even more speed these past months and dipped me under with barely a moment to breathe. I’m content to follow the flow though because everything I’m involved in here, whether it’s our thesis, organising the Art of Hosting training, or the many smaller projects in between, continuously infuse me with new inspiration and energy.

At the end of it all will be a time for breathing and recovery. But for now I am still deeply committed to presence with this big watershed year that I will surely miss for the rest of my life once it’s over. So despite my thrill in the busyness, I wish time would slow down a little. Luckily, with the coming of spring, there’s the lilts of the blackbird, and the churring of the great tit. There is the most soothing sound I know, the rookoo of the wood pigeon. The calls of geese and the huge sound the swan’s wings make. There’s the screams of the sea gulls, the only thing that can make me miss the blonde dunes of my homeland coast. They are the ones who help me taste a bit of Deep Time here and there, as the weeks rush by.

Whereas a few weeks ago I was still, with passive curiosity, observing the first dreams and visions for my future after MSLS float by, I have now stepped in to actively engage with them. We have set up a Future Council with a few friends, dedicating time and space to help each other explore our future questions. I have entered into a wordless conversation with faraway lands as possible new homes, and am midwifing my own next steps. My future is shapeshifting and evolving alongside me, my walking partner on this path through the final months of this precious Karlskrona year.

The Diamond Journey

I have anxiously been awaiting spring, hoping that she would lift me out of the bottom of the U-shaped journey I descended into last Fall and I couldn’t seem to escape on my own. If I must, I can sit still and carry it all, but I can’t describe the impact of sunshine and bird song on my inner state. They are pulling me up the steep slippery slope of the U like a pair of extended hands.

I’m learning ever more about myself and my journey here in Karlskrona. New realisation sank in a month or so ago that the hard parts of my year here are integral not only to my own but also to the universal MSLS experience. I’ll bet you there’s a lot of solidarity amongst MSLS alumni when it comes to hardship. It seems like personal challenge has been purposely designed into the programme. There’s our curriculum, the collective MSLS journey, and then there is each of our own ‘diamond journeys’, deep in the trenches of our being, for those who choose to take our class learnings home with them. The mental models and processes we’re taught in class, they are the stuff of transformation. I owe so much to them, how they have supported and guided me, as beacons and footholds into the crushing darkness of my own crevasses where, under heavy pressure, diamonds are formed.

I’ve been learning new things about stepping back from the rush of life, about where to steady myself when losing balance. I love people and I am of the school of talking about your stuff, but a two day solo trek along the forested coast of the archipelago, camping in the freezing February snow, alone with the sea, the granite, and the birds, rejuvenated me in a way that a thousand conversations could never have. I can’t imagine that after this year amidst such natural beauty, I will settle for a home base that can't offer me this.

Art of Hosting

And then the swelling wave that we’d heard thundering closer for months, suddenly came and went. For the past five months, our dedicated organising team of nine had been laying the groundwork for the Art of Hosting training in participatory process. It’s organised annually by MSLS students, and designed and hosted by an international team of experienced practitioners. By the time the hosting team arrived in town, we were marvelously ready to set afloat all our work and just watch it unfold, smooth as a baby butt. This past week, we did not only learn about participatory leadership and the power of self-organising, but experienced it firsthand as a team. It was an incredible gift that I will carry as a glowing example into my future work.

It was the first real flicker of insight, taking a step back and looking at ourselves in our natural habitat through the eyes of visitors, into how far we’ve come as a class, a group of friends, a team of teams. How we reached that point of shifting into high performance. How much more I have come to understand and accept about my and others’ basic humanness, and how to adapt to the diversity of working, thinking and communication styles. The ripening and the wisening have been profound and the fruits of this journey will only really begin to reveal themselves as we’ll step back into the world this summer.

While we were supremely prepared as organisers, the reality of the event never sunk in until a hundred strangers were suddenly on the doorstep of our little life. We had never been to an Art of Hosting training, how could we have prepared for the experience? Yet, as I had known would be the case, it was a glorious homecoming for me. I recognized the methods - World Cafe, Open Space, Theory U, circle practice, Appreciative Inquiry, storytelling, checkins and checkouts - on a mental level. But more importantly, the training showed me how these methods have already begun to nestle in my body, from where they will grow, until I myself become the tool. And methods are only one aspect of Art of Hosting. Also the language, the focus on personal practice and the seasoned wisdom of how to understand and sail the 'social undercurrents' felt deeply familiar. Part of the reason, I discovered in the training, is that Art of Hosting practice is so deeply embedded in the MSLS programme, that we have unwittingly been raised in its tradition. We are its children.

It was a week that I have barely begun to digest, three days after the end. It came and went like a flash flood, leaving me stunned and stranded on the shore of my Karlskrona life, turned inside out in the blink of an eye. I’ve been dipped into human experience, building community and relations in a flurry of timeless moments, witnessing an overwhelming outpouring of generosity and care in myself and those around me. I will not forget how I thrived this week, and I will carry that too, as a shining example into my future work. Layers on layers that we can continue to peel, and ripple effects that we will increasingly feel, for a long time to come.

On top of all that, I got to celebrate my birthday with all these beautiful people on the last day. Some of my dearest friends, and a dozen new ones, dancing me into my new cycle around the sun in a midnight jungle jam session. More hugs than I have ever received on a birthday. Party after party, being sung to in English, Swedish, Dutch, German, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Japanese. I’m happy I am owning my existence like this, not shying away from celebrating it extravagantly for days, in this one time opportunity to celebrate it with all these people, in this dear place. 

The training ended too abruptly for a clean transition. The Rotundan, our round wooden room on the Baltic sea where the training took place, charged by now with our energy, was full of new-found community and then deserted from one moment to the next. Lucky us, for being able to stay in Karlskrona our home, with some dozen hosts and participants still lingering over the following days, so that we could walk ourselves out of the experience at human speed. The reflection and critical questions have begun to sprout. Good, because that will help nuanced rather than naive enrichment. Even so, I’ve walked around in an afterglow, held in a warm web of old and new dear ones, defying the divide between colleagues and friends, and now extending far beyond Karlskrona.

But Karlskrona is the source, the place that is remaking me. What a big giver you are, a gift that keeps on giving. I love you Karlskrona, you and your seasons, all the allies and the demons. Your steadying granite rockbed and the ebb and flow of your teacher sea. I love you and your children, the friends that have become family. I love your epic sunsets and your morning fog, the different rhythms of your clock. Your darkest twists and your most brilliant gifts in the diamond journey. I love you for the fruits you've born, the allegiance I've sworn, the ripening I have done, and the future that will come from you. I love you for the tribes you’re giving me, and the land that I have married, and your soul that I will carry in my own to the end of my days. There is a deep magic in this place.