Thoughts on a Train

On a packed London train from Kentish Town to Peckham on a nippy Monday evening, I watched two young women take their seats in front of me. They didn’t know each other. One was wearing a Barbour scarf that matched her business casual office outfit and the other wore a t-shirt and jeans and a jacket that seemed a little too big. Serious faces. It must have been a long day.

The train pulled forward as they took out their smart phones. It was one of those train carriers where the seats are facing each other. Makes for a nice chance to mingle, if you’re so inclined. But on Monday evenings in Londontown, most people are not so inclined.

So I kept reading my book with one eye, while observing my two neighbors with the other. I wondered what went through young Barbour lady’s mind as she glanced over her seatmate’s shoulder and read the texting conversation that appeared to be taking place on the phone that wasn’t hers. I also wondered what t-shirt woman was wanting to say with her eyes when she gave a short and silent stare back to Ms. Barbour, as she adjusted herself in her seat a minute later.

And then we sat there for the next half hour, all three of us, in such close proximity. No words. No smiles. Just three strangers sharing a strange space.

We people can be so good at huddling together, while remaining apart.

IMG_1777We stand on a train and look at the floor and pretend we don’t notice our neighbors, when in reality we are all very conscious of each other’s presence. We work hard to keep our so-called cool and make it seem like we have it all figured out. We pass one another on the street as if we couldn’t care less. As if we need nothing and no one and can’t be bothered to acknowledge the people around us.

Honestly though, none of us has it all figured out. You don’t and I sure don’t either. We all have our moments of loneliness, self-doubt, anxiety, embarrassment, frustration, and sadness, and we were all born naked. Not one of us wants to be rejected and we all need support and connection to thrive.

In the grand scheme of things, all we have is each other.

Cultural Diversity in Iceland: Who Gets to Be Icelandic?

Cultural diversity in Iceland is a preschooler. So young and yet maturing oh so fast. In the past 15-20 years, a decent number of people from around the world have been settling down in Iceland to live, work, study, raise a family, make it through the dark winter days, and join other sunstarved Icelanders in savoring bright summer days three months out of the year.

Over 52.000 people in Iceland have some “foreign” background. That is 16% of the total population. Roughly half of those people have moved to Iceland without any Icelandic roots. Some have lived here for 55 years and some came six months ago. Some are Icelandic citizens, know the national anthem better than the average native 30-year-old, and speak fluent Icelandic, while others are still getting acquainted with Icelandic society and struggle with the impossible grammar (and the varying pronounciation of words with the exact same spelling…). And some are somewhere in between.

Then there are folks with roots in more than one place. Those who have parents from different countries and cultures, those born abroad with both parents of Icelandic origin, and those born in Iceland with both parents of international origin. And let’s not forget all those who proudly trace their Icelandic ancestry way back, but may not be aware their mama was conceived after grandma’s brief encounter with a French sailor back in the day…

Who gets to be Icelandic and who does not? How do we split each other into “us” and “them”, Icelandic and non-Icelandic? Do we define Icelandic-ness by country of birth? By citizenship? Icelandic language fluency? Skin color? When it comes down to it, many of us would struggle to define what being Icelandic really means. Do we want it to be a VIP party where only a selected few get invited? I sure hope not. Wherever in the world we may live, we are responsible for contributing to a healthy, peaceful, and thriving society where everyone is included and valued. If we shut the doors to our fellow community members, we all lose out.

A current TV program in Iceland, Rætur (Roots), is perhaps the first to point out the commonalities and differences of Iceland’s diverse inhabitants in a warm, engaging, and respectful way. Persons who at some point migrated to Iceland have shared their experiences and perspectives in personal interviews and these conversations may have done more to shake up the stale stereotypes of “immigrants” than any other single intervention I know of in Iceland. Talking to each other is so very different from talking about each other.

We – Icelanders of all backgrounds – have a precious chance to collaborate on building an inclusive and welcoming society. After all, it takes a village to raise a preschooler. Icelandic nationality defined in a narrow, exclusive way can never unify a diverse population. We are so much better together!

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Five Ways to Give Poor Advice

Giving poor advice is a form of art. Like other forms of art, it requires both talent and diligent practice. Here are some simple techniques you can use to hone in on your poor advice skills. All you need is a brief moment of silence (optional) and a vulnerable person who has not asked for any advice, opinions, solutions, or guidance whatsoever (essential).

  1. Give it at once. Do not waste time waiting until your target person has finished explaining their concerns. Poor advice must be shared as quickly as possible. You do not want them to think you are really listening.
  1. Pay no mind to objections. Know that your person may attempt to redirect the conversation or disagree with your solution. Although you may feel tempted to stop the advice-giving due to feeling unappreciated, do not give in. Similarly, ignore any hesitation by your person and proceed as planned. They will appreciate you later.
  1. Impose your worldview and values. Do not forget this part. What you believe goes. Likewise, what worked for your aunt last year will definitely work in this situation too.
  1. Show superiority. After all, you have figured out how to live. It is your responsibility to reach out to those unfortunate others who have not made it as far. Your person might even claim that their problems are complex. You know better. Now tell them!
  1. Be adamant that your person follow through with the advice. Poor advice is like good wine – it should never go to waste. Use words like “must” and “should”, and be clear that not doing what you suggest will be a mistake.1936896_100012509999_4257113_n

In rare cases, these steps may not suffice. You may have encountered an ungrateful soul who insists on finding their own path or stubbornly rejects your unsolicited help. If so, your best course of action is to exit the conversation with an audible sigh and an at-least-I-tried expression on your face, thereby communicating your concern for their wellbeing. One day, they will regret not taking your word. Who could possibly find their way without your clear and simple directions? And when that day comes, you better mention you told them so…

Where Do You Go From Here?

Imagine looking back at your life as if it were a rocky mountain path and saying to yourself: This is where I walked.

Imagine looking at the miles of distance you have traveled with appreciation for the beautiful scenery and acknowledgement of the painful falls and difficult climbs you overcame. Imagine noticing how you have changed and grown along the way. How you may have collected heavy rocks in your backpack during your hike. Imagine taking that backpack off and placing it on the ground. You have carried it far enough. Those rocks were not even yours to begin with. Imagine then turning around and taking a breath of fresh air. You have traveled far and you have the freedom to choose where you go from here. There is no need to retrace the steps you have already taken. There is no need to pick up the backpack. You can leave it right where it is. And then, you can look up at the clouds and ahead at the unexplored landscape in front of you, and take a step in any direction you choose. Rest assured that wherever you go will bring you a beautiful view, new challenges, and unexpected detours.

There is no wrong way to go.

The path will unfold as you walk.

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Freezing Over

It is time for winter to be over. By the end of February people at the northern end of the northern hemisphere have got all the freeze they need for one year and right now it is time to move on to other weathers. It’s that simple.

Sunshine at 1 pm in DecemberThis may be a surprise, but being from Iceland does not automatically mean that one is a fan of winter and loves being cold. For example, I don’t… At all. And I’m not alone in that. Darkness and cold weather have the side effect of changing many people’s habits and make them less likely to do some of the things that actually help lift mood and improve general quality of life. When it’s freezing outside, many of us are less likely to take walks, go to a gym class, leave the house to visit friends, bike to work, get sunlight on our face, and mow the lawn, and this can leave us inactive and moody. We may blame our low mood on the cold, but chances are it’s largely affecting us indirectly through our change in habits.

Personally, I don’t like too much winter. A three-week winter would be just fine and I don’t need it to get dark at 4 pm at any point during the year. I say this despite having some good winter clothes and a well-insulated place to call home. I’m not the construction worker staying outdoors all day and I’m not the homeless person who sits next to a hot-air vent on the sidewalk to keep herself warm while strangers pass her by and don’t even bother to check if she is dead or alive.

IMG_1397And yet, I complain. I complain to myself in private and once in a while I share my complaints with whomever seems equally tired of ice. In reality, my complaints are relatively senseless. I’ll be fine whether it’s freezing outside or not. Complaining about winter will not make spring arrive any sooner than it plans to and it keeps me in a mentality of unnecessary negativity. A wise woman has told me many times that a wind can be awfully cold or invigorating – depending on how you define it.

So if I were to take her advice, I would put on a scarf, embrace the storm, and get myself out for a walk. An invigorating walk… And then I’d welcome spring whenever it gets here.

But to be completely honest, that type of positivity requires advanced skills. Level 5 positivity skills…

I am at level 3.

When Plans Fall Apart

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I have this habit of wanting things to go according to my plan. The plan can include something as simple as what I want to do on a regular Sunday or something as broad as major life goals I want to accomplish, ideally in a particular order. When making decisions, this means I often spend a lot of time thinking about possible actions and consequences, as if there were one “correct” choice to be made. This also means I don’t like when things change unexpectedly and I definitely don’t like my plans falling through. When my plans don’t work out, I find myself caught off guard. As if things were supposed to happen the way I wanted them to.

This habit has been curiously persistent. I have had life-changing experiences where my well-thought-out plans have completely fallen apart and yet I have found myself getting right back up to design new plans and become mentally attached to particular outcomes that – again – may never materialize.

A friend of mine listened recently while I shared my frustration about not knowing how to reach one of my big goals in life. When I was done talking, she looked at me for a second and then moved her glass and plate apart on the kitchen table, put her phone squarely in the middle, and said: “Let’s say you want to travel from this glass to this plate. Turns out the phone is in your way. It seems you keep bumping into the phone, over and over again! It’s like you don’t realize you can turn to the right and go around it… or turn left… or jump over it… or go somewhere else!”

Of course she was right.

Most of the time, there is more than one way from A to B.

Also, B is just one of many possible destinations.

In other words, there is no one right way to live my life. I even dare say there is no one right way to live yours either.

Life keeps taking unexpected turns whether I want it or not. Time after time, I find myself in the middle of things that were not at all on my agenda and the more I try to stick with my plan, the more frustrated I get when life does its own thing.

At one point in my life, when I had experienced a series of difficult events and transitions, I decided to help myself recover mentally by setting only one big goal: To be. The result was a year where I ended up feeling more alive than I had felt in a long time. It was like an adventure – starting each day with a sense of appreciation for being present and curiosity about what I might encounter. I decided that all I really had to do was to be myself, breathe, and be ready to accept whatever the day were to bring.

The following year I made a different agenda. Instead of planning to be, I planned to accomplish. Needless to say, this plan didn’t work so well. The more I chased after my goals, the less often I remembered to look up and breathe. And the more frustrated I got with my lack of “progress”, the more stuck I became inside my own head, worrying and thinking things over… and over… and over. It is actually hard to be present in the world when you are stuck inside your head.

It seems simple, now that I think about it. But knowing myself, I think this may be one of those lessons I need to learn a few times before I finally get it.