Sunday, 22 February 2015

Next year in Jerusalem

Israel and I are a classical example of beshert.

About three decades ago a fellow nerd and my best guy-friend (turned world-renowned eye-surgeon who gave me the gift of 20/20 vision last year) came to me all excited: he had found a way for us to be out several evenings a week without any of our parents objecting - namely my mom and his dad. We would join a choir! And there was more good news - it was a Jewish choir so we would be spared singing revolutionary songs!

Funnily, all these years later I feel nostalgic for my long-dead and disintegrated 6-in-1 home country of Yugoslavia. I even miss songs about Tito - I catch myself humming them sometimes... while shovelling!

The Baruch Brothers Choir LP 
My newly-found freedom seemed like the next best thing to living the TV show "Friends" in real life. Three evenings a week plus every Sunday morning we would attend rehearsals. What that meant was, we high-schoolers would be hanging around 'older' people such as students as well as really cool folks of all ages and backgrounds who found time and reason to dedicate themselves to music. My social life instantly improved. My somewhat raspy-sounding second alto suddenly became a part of something beautiful. My spirituality - though not in a religious sense - awoke. I didn't understand it at the time but I felt alive and connected to something divine and much greater than myself.

The Jewish City Hall where the Baruch Brothers choir held their rehearsals also smelled divine. Out of a tiny kitchen, a little old lady - I forget her name - was baking the best pretzels I had ever tasted. Always piping hot with coarse salt on top, they were such a ridiculously low price that even my modest pocket money could easily absorb the expense.

The best times with the choir were concerts - especially if travel was involved. This not only meant escaping school and chores at home, it meant packing onto a bus, over-using make-up, losing sleep and sharing snacks. Several guitars would pop up every evening and we would easily be surprised by the arrival of dawn, night after night. No regrets. "I'll sleep when I'm dead" became my battle cry. I was having the time of my life!

So when the concert tour of Israel was announced, I was beside myself with excitement. A whole month on a trip, visiting Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa... lodging in kibbutzim! Witnessing this land in the most authentic way - not just as an ordinary tourist. And to travel with friends?! Oh man - Yes!!!

Jerusalem of Gold
My mom and dad said "NO" in unison that evening leaving no room for argument. They had to sign the parent approval form in early July when I was still 17 - 17 and devastated. I didn't care if they thought it was too dangerous because the tour bus was scheduled to pass through some villages close to the Gaza strip and the West Bank. This was supposed to be my best summer, the one between finishing high-school and starting university. "But, in three weeks I am an adult!!!" To no avail. I had to return my lavender-coloured 100% polyester dress. And oh, how I loved wearing that dress!

So what does the Hebrew word "beshert" mean? It's a somewhat fatalistic way of saying "it's meant to be". In Arabic it's "maktub". It is written. It was always meant to happen.

It was no surprise to me that day, several years ago, when I was browsing the travel section in Bayview Village's "Chapters" that I opened a book on Jerusalem to the page of the holiest site - Kotel, the Wailing Wall. And no surprise that when the man with the smiling eyes asked me from the other side of the table if I had ever been there and I offered numerous explanations of how my parents had wronged me, "ruining the summer I turned 18" that we ended up having coffee for hours in Starbucks talking travel and life. No surprise that soon after that, we were planning travel and making a life together. And no surprise - he is a "sabra" - born in Israel. A Jerusalem boy.

For the record, the summer I turned 18 that my parents "ruined", our family travelled to my favourite place in Greece for a month and afterwards they sent me to visit our amazingly fun relatives in Hamburg Germany for two weeks. These were no longer 'the good years' under Tito. And even those good years were never as good nor easy for my parents as they had refused to be members of the Communist party and so had to paddle upstream for the the entire length of their professional careers. This was a major sacrifice they made for me. Belatedly, thank you Mama and Tata. Hvala. I'm sorry I was such a spoiled brat.
Good reason to buy a turntable

If you look really carefully at the photo at the back of the LP, you can see me in the form of the few pixels located in the middle 'girl' row second from the right - I participated in this recording in 1988 at Gallery Of The Frescoes. Or check out the YouTube clip of the Sephardic song we taped for Spanish television at the Belgrade's beautiful old fortress of Kalemegdan. You might recognize me as of the very first frame. The one with short spiky hair and a facial expression depicting a burden that only puberty that was nowhere close to being over could display. Gosh I am grateful that social media was not there to make more of the timeless memories of the moody and awkward teenage me!

Nevertheless, at the time of this writing, that bratty and disappointed girl is no more. Why? Because in about an hour I will be boarding an EL AL non-stop flight to Tel Aviv for my first-ever trip to the Holy Land - my sabra and kids in tow.

Some things in life simply need to be waited out. Some delays are necessary for the experience to be full. There is no such a thing as denial. Just one already written and required step, after another, after another. If you have to fight it, either the time is not right or this is not your story. Or, as so eloquently put by Elizabeth Gilbert: Trust the timing of your life.

Jewish Belgrade

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

ATSL: 362 days 'till next Valentine's, now what?

It is eight years plus into my very loud yet ridiculously happy right now and I still haven't forgotten my many single Februaries. I don't think I ever will - I keep learning about myself every time I have a flashback of that long stretch of single-hood. Coincidentally, my file of funny stories featuring a Serbian immigrant single mother - meant for one day when I have a legitimate stand-up routine - keeps growing. Here is one:

My old stomping ground
Danforth Avenue in Toronto is a delightfully European stretch of the famous Bloor Street into the East York. It is also the neighbourhood where my oldest son and I grew our first tiny immigrant roots, buying a red brick two-bedroom bungalow exactly two days short of our second anniversary in Canada. Thirteen became my lucky number on an extreme-cold-weather-alert weekend just before Christmas; it was the good old times before the multiple offer frenzy had become an unavoidable part of house hunting in this city. Still, I remember tossing and turning at night for the first six months wondering who would pay all this debt for the home the bank and I now jointly owned. 

Soon after relocating I also got a new job in downtown Toronto that included Greek Town. So on an insanely cold yet sunny and crisp February morning, I wore a fluffy white winter coat and a fancy pair of new sunglasses. The kind that you just have to slap on the shades to your existing prescription glasses that have built-in magnets. Needless to say, I checked myself out in the windows I passed on my way to a clinic I needed to visit. There was a spring in my step - I felt optimistic. The equivalent of the European Ski bunny (someone actually coined this term for me that winter) stared back at me. We've got this, girl! Finally.

About an hour later, elated by the great news of a successful work-related meeting, I reached into my pocket and clipped on my shades just as I was emerging onto the bustling street. Remembering that "attitude is everything" and the "fake it till you make it" mantra, I straightened up, deciding to walk, not drive, to my next appointment that was only a few blocks down the street. As I was strolling down this busy stretch of the Danforth, I noticed that a few guys looked straight at me as they passed by. Although it had been a while since I had been in the head space of noticing there was another gender that inhabited the same planet, a feeling came over me: "Alright, I guess I can handle the attention!" And this was followed by yet another crazy good interaction with a client. Woot, woot!!!

Back on the Danforth the sun was shining and I took a few deep breaths enjoying the cool relief. "This is going to be a good year" - crossed my mind, then I picked up my pace. Optimistic or not, the Canadian winter is not my favourite season.

Again, every single guy that passed looked at me. I even noticed a few double takes. Involuntarily, I reached and moved my then much shorter hair behind my ear, suddenly remembering a recent body-language study finding which claimed this was sure proof I was flirting. "Well, guess I've still got it!" - was my surprised yet delighted conclusion. With my confident cover starting to crack under the wind-chill factor of -22 C I hurried towards my car. 

Once inside, with the engine started and my music on, I self-consciously pulled down the vizor, sliding away the cover for the mirror. I was curious to see exactly what was so special about me on this particular day. The mirror light turned on and I saw my lip-glossed smile and my frost-enhanced blush. And my very cool new sunshades. But, wait - what??!! Right in between my eyes there was a shiny quarter, standing straight up, as if it was a third eye! The strong magnet of my snap-on shades must have picked it up from the inside of my pocket and I had been sporting it for as long as... the sun was shining!

I am sure that random passers-by on the Danforth must have noticed a parallel-parked dark grey Saturn VUE that was shaking as if the epicentre of an earthquake was right underneath it. That's how hard I laughed on that day that just coincidentally also happened to be Valentine's day. Valentine’s day of the year I was very, very single.

Perhaps it was the lucky Jupiter in my sign that day bringing good energy or the contagiously sunny weather paired with deceivingly blue skies, but somehow that laughter came so effortlessly. So organically. It rang true.  Way more true than an attempt to generalize and awfulize why or how embarrassing and stupid things, I truly did not deserve, seem to be happening to me.

With the price tag of twenty-five cents, this is by far the most inexpensive life lesson I've ever received: Don't take yourself so damn seriously. Life is good. Your life is good. Be the best company to your own self first and everything else will fall into place. And for me it did. 

Or perhaps it was the choice of music that blared out of the speakers when I started the car - ABBA - Dancing Queen. Be aware of the company you keep - your thoughts, your tunes and yes, even what you carry in your pockets! Now go ahead, I dare you, play this real loud and try your best to feel bad!
                                                              ABBA - Dancing Queen

Monday, 9 February 2015

In Confidence

My mom never believed in the "yellow press", therefore, our household did not subscribe to the fashion or entertainment magazines such as Elle, Hello, Us Weekly or the like. She also didn't believe in activities that wouldn't serve a monumental purpose in life: instead of taking ballet lessons or learning to play an instrument, my sister and I were sent to study foreign languages: "You are not going to be dancing on the Champs Elysees to find out where the train station is..."

She was right, so I am not doing this post in interpretive dance, thank goodness!

Still, those women's magazines always held a special allure for me. Ever since I was eight or nine and could read without difficulty, I searched for their inviting front covers buried below the black and white all-serious and boring daily newspapers atrociously named "Politika" (Politics) or "Borba" (Warfare). We would visit friends and while the moms were having coffee and chatting, I salaciously rummaged though piles of magazines I'd find in a rack. Even better was going to the hairdresser's with my mother as there was a myriad of choices for me to plow through.
Early influence

Let me explain: I was actually not interested in fashion or celebrity gossip or the latest trends or recipes. I would always focus only on the regular two-page column, lodged somewhere towards the end just before the weekly horoscope. It used to be called "In Confidence" or "Tête–à–tête" - the Serbian version of "Dear Abby". This is where anonymous readers would send letters seeking advice on various topics. One was resentful of her successful sister. One was in love with her married boss while she was engaged to be married herself. One had a dark secret and was now wondering whether he should tell his grown-up children. These little snippets of everyday human drama that were life-altering for the senders but mere page-fillers for the magazine left a deep impression on me. What I equally loved reading were the answers of the in-house psychologists. I loved their cool-headedness and their dedication to getting to the truth, although sometimes neglectful of the outcome for the involved family members. Or bosses... 

Many years later, relocating to Canada, I re-discovered my interest while waiting in doctor's offices, reading Mary Walsh's (Elle Canada) snappy, funny and sometimes down-right mocking and inappropriate responses to similar questions. Each time I read her answers my intrinsic sense of fairness got triggered. As a result the literary equivalent of the DIY child-psychologist awoke. I started thinking through then writing down what I thought the response should have been, both to solve the problem at hand, but also to honour the confessor for her or his bravery, always aiming to leave them better off then when they started. I never abused their vulnerability. 

This quickly spilled over into my day-to-day life. Whether because my life up to that point resembled a conglomerate of all Danielle Steele's novels zipped up messily together or because of the sheer fact I never - no matter what - lost the essence of the "I-will-figure-this-shit-out" attitude, people - especially women - flocked to me. I started solving not only their marital problems (in-laws included), I helped them parent difficult teenagers, talk to the bossiest of bosses and even master on-line dating, all the while keeping their sanity. They actually got to know themselves better. They actually got to like themselves better. And along the way, I actually got to love myself for real and for the first time.

With that one unexpected visit of the West Nile Virus that left me very sick and in bed for six months, unsure if I would ever drive again let alone keep my job - I finally stumbled upon what I know is my true calling: I am a Life Coach.

It's been over seven years since I graduated from the outstanding and reputable CTI, but more than that, it's been over seven years since I fully accepted that it is my unique style of life coaching that makes me come alive. There is something both elevating and sacred in the connection that forms between me and my... friend. I know, I know - I am supposed to say "client" instead. This is a legitimate career I've been told. But somehow, that doesn't really work for me. I doubt it ever will. 

I somehow feel - or rather I have this knowing this is my life's Work. Capital W. And other than twice when, not really thinking it through, I hastily agreed to do career coaching with 'climbing the corporate ladder' being the ultimate measure of the success we co-created -- I never charged a dollar. 

How can I put a price on the electrifying experience of asking unusual yet thought-provoking questions and witnessing the answers appear? How much for a mind-blowing 90-minute power-walk session where meditating on our happy cells was a major part of it and led to a surge of happiness? How do I link my mortgage payments to the divine task of what I feel is the wings assembly project? How do I combat dependency if I am creating and expecting a steady revenue stream?

These last few weeks, all of these answers simply and effortlessly unfolded in front of me as I had the best time at work in a very long time. There is nothing like being excited, alert and engaged while conquering an area to which one feels deeply connected. For me, that is working in the field of diabetes care. Deciphering blood glucose readings, recognizing patterns, matching insulin time action profiles to daily routines, sports activities and food preferences - it is like playing a nerdy version of the pharmacist's sudoku and completing perfectly every single row and column. This week I felt very grateful, very chosen indeed.

And then on Tuesday night's "me time", I got to meet face to face with what I am truly the most passionate about: nine unbelievably brave young single moms and their wise counsellor who have decided it's time to reach for their wing assembly kit and kick off the preparation for the day they’ll be ready to fly. I dreamed of this kind of work for a very long time and it has just started to happen. In the sacred manner of co-creating, we laid down the ground rules, we bravely opened up the vaults of wishes and vulnerabilities, and we clicked and danced as if our lives depended on it. 
What was it like? Pure magic! My reward for this volunteering? When leaving the group home where these extraordinary moms live with their children, I felt like the superhero who made it home for dinner. There was this clear sense of leaving the world last Tuesday quite a lot better than it was before. No need to be modest -- I got to witness my super-power. It is a gift.

As a woman, a life coach and a “friend like me” I love, LOVE decoding the mystery of feeling everything from loneliness and low self esteem to becoming my own best friend and stumbling on happiness much sooner than expected; becoming the sassy, confident, best version of myself in love with life,  “channeling” all it takes to witness a profound spiritual experience while in this human body.
My favourite quote

"Friend like me" stems from an old wish of my own: "I wish I had a friend like me, like I am today", when I was sorting through one very eventful decade starting in my mid-twenties, trying to make sense of my seemingly unfortunate events

The time has come to pay it forward in the most meaningful way. I don't have any daughters so, twice a month for two hours at a time, I will be adopting nine and likely more!  

How am I qualified, skeptics might ask? Occasionally I run into a psychologist who is beyond freaked out by the outstanding results life-coaching can produce, given that it is still an unregulated field. 

Let me put you at ease. My education includes courses and credentials such as: street smarts-y-pants, heart-break recovery expert, master level of single mama-hood, black market navigation champion, civil war evader, immigrating 101, snow 101, shiksa no more, 4ever honeymoon, mothering teen-toddler-infant simultaneously. 
It is like a blended B.Sc.Life, Masters and PhD with the medal of honour, made out of fairy dust & PlayDoh. 

Let's play - it is Dear Abby with a Serbian accent!