Returning to my alma mater

I know, I know… how long has it been since my last post?! Let’s just say too long. Crazy to think that it’s already 2018 – the year in which I turn 42 (eek!). And I started this blog to record my endeavours on the path to turning 40…wow. It’s been quite the journey so far.

Even though I continue living intentionally and deliberately – savouring the present as much as possible and embarking on the adventures of The List, there are some things that come across my path that were not on The List, but were so special to me, that I want to share them. And this post is about one such experience.

As you know, I grew up in Bloemfontein (yip, I’m a Free State girl 🙂 ). And even though it’s been more than 20 years since I’ve lived in Bloem, it retains a special and significant place in my heart.  And so towards the end of it last year, when I was invited by St Michael’s School, my alma mater, to be their guest speaker at the annual Speech Night, I was absolutely humbled (and excited!!). SMS badgeAnd so, on an early October evening in Bloemfontein, I found myself facing a few hundred St Michaels high school ladies, and as many parents, with expectant faces focused in my direction, hoping for some pearls of wisdom… gulp! I may have missed a few parts, or ad libbed a few extra words here or there, but in the main, I shared my heart that night, and so would like to share my ‘speech’ now with you too. (Be warned – it’s a long read – it was a twenty minute address. So you may want to grab a glass of wine before settling in. (And, as always, may I say thank you for joining me on this journey – I so appreciate all of your support, feedback and the love I feel in general. Thank you!!)

St Michael’s School – Speech Night 2017

After I accepted the invitation to speak here tonight, Mr Cromhout emailed me and asked me to send a copy of my CV through to him. A week or two later, he emailed again, asking for my CV, and I responded that I would indeed send it through. Which I never did, until Monday, after yet a further request from him. As you can see, he was clearly pulling his hair out with me, wondering why I couldn’t do a simple thing like send my CV through to him. (As an aside for purposes of this blog, an abbreviated CV was read out to introduce me as the speaker – it was a mere few lines, describing a few of my achievements over the years, my degree, my law practice, my mountain climbing, running the Paris marathon, writing a book, etc.)

The reality is this. The person described in that CV … she sounds pretty cool, even if I do say so myself. She sounds successful, confident, and together. She’s done a lot, both personally and professionally. But, if I’m completely honest with you, I don’t find anything particularly significant or inspiring about her. She could be one of a number of people that you encounter in the business world every day. And so, based on that CV, I was hesitant as to what I would be able to inspire you with here tonight.

And so, I’ve decided to take a little bit of poetic licence here, and talk about a different person, if you’ll allow me. I’d like to share with you a little about a person who has inspired me, and who I thought it may be more appropriate to talk about, than the girl in the CV.

So let me give you a bit of background about this person. She is someone who was born with a physical handicap and spent most of her childhood trying to prove to herself and others that she was ‘enough’, despite her disability. She started experiencing frightening nightmares as a teenager, accompanied by a low self-esteem and was first diagnosed with depression at the young age of 20.  She longed to find love, get married, have kids (and of course the white picket fence and golden retriever that comes with that picture), but this did not happen for her.

Although she was deeply loved by her family, which saw her through her 20s, in her early 30s she had fought the deep depression for what felt like too long, and she just wanted it all to end. So, at 35, this person planned her suicide. She knew the how, the why, the where…. all she needed was to pinpoint the ‘when’ so that she could end her suffering.

As I mentioned, though, she was lucky enough to have some special people in her life and, between one particular friend and her family, they ensured that she saw a psychiatrist who immediately hospitalised her.  She called the Sandton Psychiatric Ward her ‘home’ for the next few weeks and, through medication and therapy, she was able to return to work and a ‘normal’ life.  I say ‘normal’, because life would never be ‘normal’ again in the way she previously knew it.

Okay – I can see the confusion in you right now… I can virtually hear the questions in your minds. “Nicky, why on earth would you want to tell us about such a person on a night like tonight. We’re here to celebrate the hard work and successes of ourselves, our children, our students…We’re here to focus on the collective bright future that is contained in these four walls tonight. Let’s rather get back to someone like the girl in the CV – she’s far more appropriate to be talking about tonight.”

So let me cut to the chase – I am. I am talking about the girl in the CV. On the one side, the girl in the CV – the headgirl, with multiple degrees, the partner at the biggest law firm in Africa and the author; and on the other side, the physically handicapped, single girl, who suffers from depression and all that has brought along her path – they are one and the same person. Yip, that’s me.

So why do I tell you all of this? So-called “civilised“ society dictates that those parts of my life and my story that I’ve just shared openly with you, without shame, should be hidden away and not talked about, except perhaps behind whispering hands in sharing some form of ‘skandaal’ in the school parking lot. I’ll tell you why. I believe that I was saved and that I am still here in order to share my story, to help reduce the stigma around any form of depression or mental illness and, most importantly, to encourage people – and that includes you – to be real. That is my life message. Be real. Just… Be… Real….

As you sit here tonight, rightfully celebrating some remarkable achievements, you should absolutely be very chuffed. Very proud of yourself and all that you’ve done to get here. And parents – you should similarly rightfully be so proud. Have warm hearts when you think of your daughters, and all that your daughters are already doing in their young lives. Ladies, the reality is that I’m not qualified to give you any message here tonight encouraging you to work harder (you’re all clearly doing that), or to be diligent (you’re doing that too), or to persevere (you’re also doing that!), so that you can all excel.  What I do believe I’m qualified to talk to you about, however, are three simple lessons that I’ve learnt along my journey.

And the first, obviously, is to be real.

We live in a world where being real equates to being vulnerable, which is then often SMS6perceived as weakness. So being real is usually not particularly encouraged. I think this is partly a product of the social-media dominated society we live in, where everyone’s lives are reflected as a highlights reel on Facebook or Instagram. When last have you seen a post on social media from one of your friends that tells you they’re anxious, sad, or even lonely? And I guarantee you your Facebook friends experience all of those – and yet we feel that we can’t put that out there, because then it doesn’t look like we’re living a happy, fulfilled life that everyone is envious of. We are ashamed of the less-than-pretty parts of ourselves and our lives, so we can’t be authentic and put those out there as we’re scared of being judged.  But if we can’t put those out there and be real with ourselves, then how can we expect to be real with others? To meet them in their place and space where they may be vulnerable and where they so desperately need us?

I recently wrote a blog post (This was not on the List … and I’ll tell you a bit more about my blog in a bit), but it was about how I was feeling after I had been retrenched. Yip, there’s another “real” fact for you, I was retrenched a few months ago. After being a partner at a law firm for twelve years, I had moved to a smaller corporate in order to gain a bit more balance in life. And it was from this corporate, after six years, that I was ultimately retrenched and following which I have now set up my own business. And one of the things that I was writing about was (surprise surprise) being real and meeting people where they are. Allow me to read an excerpt of what I wrote at the time:

“Following my retrenchment, the people in my world have gone above and beyond to be encouraging. There’s been loads of “this is going to turn out to be the best thing for you” and “your new business is going to fly” around me.  It’s been all about looking towards the silver lining. And I have so appreciated everyone’s encouragement. But do you know what I’ve really needed? More than positivity and encouragement? I’ve needed someone to acknowledge how painful this process has been. I’ve needed someone to just be with me, put their arms around me, and recognise the pain and hurt that comes with a retrenchment, without trying to fix it.  Just to sit with me in the fire so to speak, and say “Nix, this is really rough. And painful. I can’t change it, but I’m here with you.”

I’ve found it mind-boggling that, by and large, we all tend to practice positive psychology in tough situations, always encouraging others (and ourselves) to look up, look forward, look at opportunities, stay strong, believe, etc. etc. And before you start shouting me down, hear me out….positive psychology is largely awesome, and encouraging, and all those good things.  What I’ve experienced over the last while though is that we seem to treat each other ONLY using the principles of positive psychology, with little acknowledgment of what is really happening and how we’re really feeling.

The realization of needing to be acknowledged in the space that I’m in has impacted how I’ve been relating to the people in my world. I’ve been trying to first acknowledge where someone is and the reality of their situation, whether good or bad, before offering any “positive psychology”-type encouragement. Whether it’s been with someone who was struggling with leaving a job, someone who has been ill or someone struggling with a relationship.  And it’s been amazing how well that acknowledgement has been received. It creates another depth to the relationship when we’re willing to just sit with each other in the fire first (and I say ‘first’, because I’m in no way advocating that we leave each other there…) But let’s just sit in the fire with each other, where required, for a while.

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The breathtaking artistry of Dog Meets Girl

It’s perhaps summed up best in two lines from my favourite poem, The Invitation, where the poet says “I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it…. It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.“

An amazing friend of mine, Shannon, who is a dog photographer (must be the coolest job in the world – www.dogmeetsgirl.com) responded to that particular blog post of mine in such a special way. If I’m having a bad day, or something has happened that wasn’t quite planned… she says to me “Nix, I’m in the fire with you. I’ve brought the marshmallows, and we’re going to roast marshmallows until we’re ready to move forward”.

Her response, and just her general amazingness (if that’s a  word) brings me to my second point, after being real. And that is – be kind.

I know, how simple? This sounds like something we could and should be learning in Grade 0 surely? I think the reality is that we all try and teach our kids that, and then as we grow up, that’s replaced by other so-called more serious stuff. While the reality is that we should ALWAYS be aware of being kind. Sometimes it’s the simplest stuff that falls by the way side.

If you’re faced with a situation where you’ve got to choose between being kind, and being right, choose to be kind. And you’ll be right every time.

I can’t and won’t prescribe to you what you should do to be kind – that’s up to each and every one of you. But it’s like Maya Angelou said “People will often forget what you said. But they will never forget how you made them feel.”

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12 October 2017 #DurbanStormHero risks life to save elderly woman trapped in her car

And seriously? It really is easy if you’re just aware of it.  Yes, it may be something huge someone did to be kind, like the guy recently in the Durban storm, who threw his clothes off and waded through the raging waters to rescue a lady stuck in her car on the freeway, which you would have all seen on social media recently. But it may just be what I did yesterday, when I went past the office of my bestie, Mands, the morning and took her a Seattle cappuccino which I picked up for her. Because it’s her favourite coffee. And because she was feeling particularly stressed because her dog is sick and the vet can’t figure out what’s wrong. All it was, was a coffee, delivered with a hug and love. But it gave her some brightness on her otherwise dark morning.

Mands

My bestie, Mands (incidentally with her furchild wearing a Christmas bandana creation from my new business, Chuckles & Co. – a story for another time)

I am super aware of being kind wherever I can, and I literally hear a voice in my head prompting me about certain people when I see them. More often than not people I don’t know.  Again yesterday, I had to pop down to Pick n Pay to get a few things– and while I was wondering up and down the aisles looking for Brown Onion soup of all things (you know you’ve reached adulthood when you shop for Brown Onion soup!), I walked past two gentlemen dressed in their blue overalls, clearly from the construction site next door, who each had a loaf of bread under their arms, and a cooldrink, and they were comparing the prices of the cans of chakalaka, which they clearly wanted for their lunch.  I walked past them, and after walking past them, I clearly heard a voice in my head (yes, I have those), that said to me “Nicky, they’re yours to bless”. Somehow you just know you’re called in a particular situation, so I walked up to them, and asked them if it would be okay if I paid for their lunch. And when they accepted, I gave them some money so that they could choose whatever tin of chakalaka they wanted. In essence, all I was doing was buying two hard working men lunch – not much more than a few tins of chakalaka – but we connected, they were so thankful, and I was so blessed. Those are two examples, and I don’t share those with you to try and show you that I’m some great person – I’m not. All I am is someone who is actively aware of being kind when and wherever we can.  But we need to be aware of it, to practice it. And like anything, it becomes so much easier with practice. If you practice it enough, it becomes second nature.

I’ve got a challenge for you right now. You’ve been sitting listening for long enough – now it’s time for you to do some thinking. Each and every one of you. I’d like you to think of something kind that you can do for someone in your world tomorrow. It can be anything. Send them a text saying you how much you value their friendship. Buy them flowers. Give someone a hug. Let them go through the door first. But think of something right now that you can do, and someone specific that you’re going to do it for. I’ll give you a minute….. Okay? Once you’ve thought of what you can do… the specific thing… and the specific person… then stand up. Don’t be shy, stand up (but DON’T stand up until you’ve got it). Now look around you, out of nowhere, we’ve got three hundred random acts of kindness that are going to be done tomorrow. That’s at least 600 people that we’re going to effect tomorrow (because trust me, you’re going to get as much out of it, as the person who is on the receiving end). Now imagine those 300 people go and do just one random act of kindness the day after or the week after. And on, and on. How quickly and easily can we impact our city. And our world? All because, we took 30 seconds here tonight, to just stop, and think of a way we can be kind. Watch your kindness spread. Watch it grow. Kindness achieves miracles!

Which brings to me to my third point. Be deliberate. You can say that in lots of different ways – be intentional, be mindful (one of the current catch phrases), be present. In my head and heart, I view it as being deliberate.

Being deliberate has led me on untold adventures, and I can’t wait to see the ones that I’m still going to have.  I remember being very blessed to go on a trip to Kenya about ten years ago, and on the flight, looking out of the window, I saw the top of Kilimanjaro peaking above the clouds. It took my breath away. And right there and then, I knew that I had to climb that mountain. And I would! Just to be clear, I couldn’t afford it, nowhere near. But I booked the trip and found money for the deposit – because I just knew that once I’d committed, I’d find a way of making it happen. And I did. I trained, I saved, and I found myself heading up that mountain, with a group who I’d just met at the airport the night before. Now it may not appear so, but I am an introvert. I am not immediately comfortable in groups of new people. So going away with a group of strangers, was going to be challenging in and of itself. I could spend the evening just telling you about what I experienced on the mountain and the lessons I learned, (but don’t worry, I won’t 😊). Suffice to say, I suffered horrible altitude sickness on the one day, just horrible. But I got through it and carried on going.  And I summited (and, of course, when I summited, I cried. My go-to emotion is crying – I cry when I feel deep emotion, whether it’s happiness, sadness, disappointment, you name it). But watching the sun rise from the highest point in Africa – indescribable.

Which led me to more mountains, and taking on more challenges.. deliberately. I trekked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, through the Himalayas.

Everest1

Everest Base Camp at 5380m with the notorious Khumbu Icefall in the background

As you can guess, the first time I saw Everest, I just cried.  And then I climbed Mount Elbrus a few years ago, the highest mountain in Europe, which is in Russia. Make no mistake, on summit night, when we’re climbing in the dark, (we departed for summit at about 1am. They say you leave so early for summits because the weather is more stable at night and early morning… personally I think it’s just so that you can’t see in broad daylight the sheer monster in front of you that you’re climbing, which would make you turn around in terror). So yes, when climbing in the dark, after a night of restless tossing in your tent on the snow, having melted snow on a tiny gas stove at midnight to get water and some hot tea in you to give you the strength to get going, and encountering gale force winds and -35 degree temperatures, I certainly wondered about the wisdom of these ‘deliberate’ choices that I make in life.  And then stumbling past two Russians during the blizzard we struggled through a couple of hundred metres from the summit, who had given up, and collapsed in the snow to succumb to death (as altitude also affects your cognitive abilities), you can understand that I’m not always convinced of these deliberate choices at every given point. 🙂 (And not only do I make these choices, but I pay for them!!! Who does that?!)

And, as an aside, ladies… please can I give you a little more unsolicited advice here. In living deliberately – I’d like to encourage you to make deliberate choices about what you want to do, and to go after those dreams. Every mountain I’ve climbed, I’ve gone with a group of people I don’t know. If I had to wait for my friends to do the same things I wanted to do in order to travel and climb mountains, I’d still be waiting. Yes, it’s daunting. I still get anxious if I decide to go on a trip alone. But you know what? I’ve made some of the best friends ever. Had unbelievable experiences. Please don’t wait… don’t wait for your friends to do something with you, or a guy to come along and sweep you off your feet. Don’t be the person who says “I’ll do that thing after I get married.” Or after I finish studying. Or after I’ve had my first child. Please don’t…. live a FULL and DELIBERATE life every day.

My more recent encouragement into living a deliberate life is reflected in my blog, which I mentioned a short while ago. It’s called 40 before forty.  In the year before I turned 40 (and yes, this is where you’re allowed to gasp and say “ooh, you don’t look forty!” 😊), I was very anxious about that event. I feared that turning 40 may signify the end of some chapters in life. Would it be the end of being considered young and adventurous? Would it be the end of any possibility of still having a family of my own? A lot of trepidation! And so I decided that, rather than just wait for those months to whiz past, in a blur, I would attack those months leading up to my 40th deliberately. I wanted to really LIVE those months, do things intentionally, being fully present and aware. To help me do this, I put a FB post out to my friends and family, telling them what I wanted to do, and that I wanted to create a type of bucket list of 40 things I wanted to do before I turned 40, and I asked them to contribute ideas. I didn’t mean ridiculously unachievable things, like circumnavigate the world, or summit Mount Everest – I asked for things that would just make me appreciate the moment and bring joy, things I would remember. I was inundated with suggestions – so awesome, and so I came up with my list.

One of the things on my list was to start writing again. I’m a bit of an English nerd (for which I largely give credit to my ridiculously amazing English teacher, Mrs Ploos van Amstel). She instilled in me such a love of language and literature, so much so that my most valued possession at home is my set of Shakespeare plays published in the 1890’s.) So, in fulfilling that thing on the list, I decided to start a blog about my 40 before forty journey.

There are some big things on the list, and some small things.  By way of example, one of them was to take my dog on a beach holiday. Another was to throw a dinner party (sounds really small, but it was a big deal to me). Another was to pay for someone’s coffee at a coffee shop, dance in the rain, get another tattoo, run a marathon, climb another mountain…. a whole lot of things that required me to be intentional about them.  Let me share what those things have done.. the living intentionally, it has made me just stop and breathe in so many more moments. Properly experience them, in the moment.

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Proudly South African on the streets of Paris

Take my marathon. As you can all see, I don’t have the body of a runner 😉 And as I indicated at the outset, this girl was born with a physical handicap. I was born with a club foot. For those of you that don’t know what that is, my left foot was turned inwards and my toes were basically touching my calf. I had a cast on for the first year of my life, which had to be redone every six weeks, and I had three surgeries before the age of five to try and rectify my bones. I have very little movement in my ankle and so, in reality , I shouldn’t really be able to run or play sport the way I do. But here’s a little lesson for the parents – you know why I can run? And play sport? Despite having a limp and walking on the side of my foot and having no flexibility? Because no-one told me I can’t. And when I was a little girl and everyone had to play sport at school – my parents didn’t let me feel that I was any different to anyone else. I just had to get on with it and do it. The only difference I knew about, is that my feet were different sizes. I found it many years later that my parents shed many tears behind closed doors that I knew nothing about, but I just went out and did these things. When I was born, they weren’t sure I would even walk, let alone run a marathon. But, for my 40th birthday, my brother Craig gave me an entry to the Paris marathon (my favourite city in the world, apart from home of course). And that took months and months of very deliberate training. Getting up for training runs and races at what my bestie calls “stupid-o-clock”. Missing out on a few big parties because I had to get up to train. Going to run my longest training run, of 34km, two days after finding out the guy that I had been seeing had been double-timing me – but I had my goal. And I set out to get there. Deliberately. Intentionally. And yes, I finished the Paris marathon in April this year. Without a doubt one of the best days of my life.

semi colon

There’s more to come…

My act of living deliberately and living intentionally, often encompassed the other two main messages in my life, the being real and being kind.  Take my tattoo, that I got the week before my 40th birthday, and revealed to everyone at my party, which is this, my semi-colon. So, even though I’m passionate about books and writing, you may be thinking that having a punctuation mark permanently imprinted on my body is a bit much.  Well this semicolon is much more than a mere punctuation mark – it is a bold statement, and has become an international symbol for those who have attempted suicide or been suicidal. Just as a semicolon is used in writing where the author could have put a full stop, but chose to rather put a semicolon and carry on with the sentence, as the author of my life I could have chosen to put a full stop in my life in 2012.  However, I instead chose to use a semicolon. It’s my symbol that my story did not end there, that there’s more to come. So this small but powerful tattoo, which is on my right index finger where I will see it all the time, is my constant reminder to stay strong, be expectant, things are getting clearer, there is more to come….live deliberately. Live intentionally.

So, at the end of all of this, if you remember nothing out of everything I’ve said, but these three phrases, please remember to Be real. Be kind. Be deliberate.   But, I acknowledge… it’s the end of the year, that time where our brains are all a little bit overfull (if that’s such a word) and it’s even too much to remember three things, then please just carry this one thing with you. Please… be real. The world needs YOU. The real you.

 

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