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photo by Mikkel Schmidt, from unsplash.com

Defining Life

(photo by Mikkel Schmidt)

Who are you? Who do you want to be? How will you get there? Everything in life seems to be asking me this.

Autumn asks. For me, this has always been a time for new beginnings and important decisions, much more so than New Year’s. With autumn comes my birthday, too, and this time it’s the big 30.  It feels like no big deal, and a really, really big deal; I zigzag between the two like a bolt of lightning. A birthday is a wonderful thing, another year of life I’ve been given. Zig. By the time my mother was thirty, she had one kid and another not far away. Zag. Thirty now isn’t what thirty was thirty years ago. Zig. At thirty, my mum had released six records and toured every part of the country. Zag. I have such wonderful friends now who want to celebrate with me. Zig. I have three “educations” (a year of English studies, a bachelor in pop/rock vocals, and a fashion consultant diploma), but no job. Zag. I wouldn’t be eighteen again if someone paid me. Zig. I wish I didn’t feel like I’m running out of time. Zag. When I’m properly  old I’ll laugh at how young and naïve I was at thirty. Zig, zag, zig, zag.

My pen pal in Finland asks. She wanted to know if I have a future/dream-version Maria in my head, and if so, what she’s like. What does Maria do when she wakes up in the morning? What fabrics does she like to wear? What does her home feel like during the different seasons? How does she spend her days? What is her soundtrack? I know some things right away: Maria lives by the ocean, she wears red lipstick to the grocery store, she has a huge kitchen table and her house smells like books, coffee and flowers. I know which people I want in her life. I want her to be as happy as I am now. I also hope she is a little less insecure, in all interpretations of the word.

My friends ask about their own futures, and thus make me ponder my own. We’re in this weird situation where most of our group are looking for new jobs, or considering school options. We have to make important decisions, and it’s exciting and hard. We’re bombarded with thousands of opinions, presented to us in minimalistically designed websites, in coffee-stained articles in a newspaper, in the slightly nasal sound though a telephone, in half-whispered conversations late at night, through guidance counsellors, health employees and family. “Do what you love.” “Find something that pays the rent.” “Try everything once.” “Don’t become a teacher.” Good advice. Contradicting advice. Advice to sift through like gold diggers.

The part of me that wants things, asks, the part some call the spirit or soul or heart. That part is why my closet is overflowing with stuff, stuff for painting and writing and recording music and dancing and sewing and cooking and taking pictures. It won’t let me rest on any kinds of laurels, but grabs my hand enthusiastically and pulls me along, wanting to experience as much of life as possible, to become as good as possible, to learn, to change, to explore, and I love it because it’s a drive that comes from me, so it’s not pressure, but desire.

Unfortunately, that part of me is stuck in a body with the brakes permanently on. That makes it hard to plan for tomorrow, not to mention next year, or the next ten years. Having a chronic illness means balancing a hope and will to get better, with a realistic knowledge that it might not happen. I know life is always uncertain, for everyone, which is sometimes a relief. But I still wish I could depend more on my body for everyday things. For the future.

My doctor asks, my physical therapist asks, my psychologist asks, my counsellor at NAV (the part of the government that support me financially because of my illness) asks. They want to know I have hope, that I’m motivated, that I’m ambitious enough, but not overly so. They want me to get to a place where I can support myself financially. They want me to do it in a capable, long-lasting way. Because I’ve been sick for so long, my life has moved slower than for other people my age. In many ways, I still feel very young. So when these questions swirl lazily in my head on the tram, when they are hurled at me through the iPad screen, when they crash through me while I’m trying to sleep, I think about my anchors, the important things I’ve discovered about myself through my (soon) thirty years.

Firstly, I want to be happy. After all those years of depression, I know what strong, long-lasting happiness feels like. I don’t want to lose it again.

Second, safety. For me, that means having people in my life I can trust and rely on. It means to love and feel loved. And yes, to some degree it means financial safety; it’s not a need for a lot of money, but having enough to keep the everyday running.

Third, I think I understand what I most desire to do with my life. It’s actually hard to say out loud, because it feels so selfish: I want to tell stories.

Funnily enough, my gut knew this almost ten years ago, when I was a wry little music student. In one of my first years there, we had a somewhat… creative substitute teacher for a few of our band lessons. He made us sit in a circle, and asked each of us what we wanted in life. You have two choices in situations like that: you either take it seriously and give an honest answer, or you find a flippant reply without being straight-out disrespectful. The first guy said (honestly, I assume) that he wanted to have a good time, to do something cool. The next said he wanted to be the world’s best guitarist (said with an eye-roll, but perhaps not a lie after all). I was next. The Hermione in me had been thinking frantically while the others answered, but when Substitute Teacher looked at me expectantly, I forgot all my clever thoughts. “I want to tell stories,” I blurted out.

I want to tell stories. So simple, and so true. Looking back, I can see that desire running through everything I’ve done, from making songs to writing stories to painting to dancing to getting dressed to cooking dinners. It’s so ingrained in me, I think, that for a long time I simply couldn’t see it. It’s easier, now that I do, though it would have been easier still if my wish was neatly tied to a profession or even a role in today’s society. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for that simple line, and the powerful desire behind it.

A whole life, a person, isn’t as easy to define as a wardrobe. There’s no dictionary or encyclopedia entry for “Maria Hansen Troøyen”, with a convenient three-line summary. Like you, I have to figure it out on my own, the multitude, the facets, the contradictions and abiguities. It helps, though, to have found some anchors. Happiness. Safety. Stories.

 

 

 

You might as well dance

(image source, under this licence)

I want to make a case for more dancing. I mean everyday dancing, not the kind you only do when you’re drunk or attending a class. Aretha Franklin’s sense of rhythm isn’t a requirement, nor as good control over your hips as Elvis. No fancy shoes needed. There’s no pressure to impress, because everyday dancing should be like breakfast. As long as you can put slices of bread in the toaster and pour orange juice, you’re good — fancy sauces and soufflèes don’t belong on a breakfast table anyway.

My mum often talks about stunda. The best English translation I can do is “the moment”, or perhaps the grammatically incorrect “the while”. It’s a period of time where the whole point isn’t what you’re doing, but that you’re spending time together and it’s nice. Just like the best breakfasts are about stunda, so is this everyday kind of dancing. Not about the steps, or how “well” you do them, but the other stuff. That good glow in your stomach from being in a crowd that’s having a good time. Holding someone’s hand (it might even be a bit sweaty). The freedom to be silly, or serious.

You look ridiculous if you dance. You look ridiculous if you don’t dance. So you might as well dance.

Gertrude Stein

Still not convinced that more dancing would be good for you? Say you want to meet new people, then. Romantically, friendship-ly, both. Everyday dancing gives you a way to meet someone in a rather clever way. Yes, you’ll have to muster the guts to ask someone to dance (which shouldn’t only be the lead’s job, by the way). But, at least in an ideal world, you’re also much more likely to get a yes. A three-minute dance is just less of a commitment than giving away a phone number or saying yes to a date. Not to mention that since you’re dancing, any awkward silences will be filled with music.

When it comes to people you already know, think of dancing as an extended hug. Though there is something romantic about dancing as a concept, especially in pairs, it doesn’t have to be a romantic activity. It can simply be nice.

So, how do we bring dancing back? First, we get inspired. And for that, there is no better place than the silver screen. The links may lead to spoilers, so consider yourself warned. We’re looking for dance that, to the people in the movie’s world, isn’t a set choreography; they’re just having a good time.

Starting with one of my favourite TV-shows, we have the dance party from season 2 of Orphan Black, which shows beautifully how different people dance differently to the same song. While you’re watching the show, you might want to check out the unexpected slow-dancing scene in episode 6 in the same season. For a grander version of slow-dancing, who could be better than Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina? I also think Buffy and Angel have their charm (and I’m team Spike, so that’s generous of me). A heartbreaking version happens in a tent, proving that hardwood floors are optional.

If you’re more of an exhibitionist, the Pulp Fiction twist is a classic for a reason, but still low-key and (supposed-to-be) improvised. Sam and Patrick do have a choreography in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but it’s so charmingly free-spirited I think it belongs here anyway. For anyone stuck in the idea that dance “has” to be perfectly, professionally done, I suggest watching Silver Linings Playbook. Bradley Cooper in duct-taped sneakers might convince you otherwise.

Finally, my favourite-casual-dancing-scene-of-all-time is in the movie Only Lovers Left Alive. I suggest you allow yourself two hours to watch the whole thing, but if you’re impatient, you can watch a low-quality clip of the dance scene by clicking here.

“My parents danced together, her head on his chest. Both had their eyes closed. They seemed so perfectly content. If you can find someone like that, someone who you can hold and close your eyes to the world with, then you’re lucky. Even if it only lasts for a minute or a day. The image of them gently swaying to the music is how I picture love in my mind even after all these years.”

from “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss

We’re all tapping our toes or shimmying our shoulders by now, right? Good. The next thing we need is music. Pick your own favourites, or give my “Bring Back Dancing” playlist a go. It’s a goodie bag of songs that will all get me to my feet, though they have wildly different characters, and therefore different uses.

Personally, I think the best songs for casual dancing should have at least one of three qualities. One: the goofy, peppy and/or ironic kind. Good if you’re not sure about your dancing partner(s), since they allow you to do retro moves with a silly face, and touching your partner isn’t necessary. Try “This Old Heart Of Mine” with The Isley Brothers, or “Come on, Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners.

Two: the hip-swayingly sensual, or even straight-out sexy, kind. Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” is cheesy enough to be funny-in-the-beginning-but-maybe-suddenly-properly-sexy. Try “Head Over Heels” with Tears for Fears if it’s dark outside.

The third kind are the romantics. There’s quietly-dancing-in-the-kitchen-in-morning-sun-romantic, like Tim Moxam’s “Live In The Bedroom” or Daniela Andrade’s version of “La Vie En Rose”. Or go all-in with Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful”, if you’ve got a starry-eyed someone like me in a garden somewhere.

“Dance with me.”

“Why?”

“Because you want me to hold you, but you don’t know how to ask.”

a book I haven’t read, but it’s a pretty smooth quote

As for the actual dancing, the teacher in me had a long list of tips and tricks. But the writer in me thinks this blog post is bordering on too long already, and there are far better dance teachers than me out there anyway. I will say this, though: if someone puts out their hand to drag you to your feet, be a good sport, if you can. If it was you who was asking, you’d appreciate that, right? And if you’re being turned down: they have their reasons. Accept it, gracefully.

Finally, some tips on leading and being lead, since one-on-one dance is probably the most foreign kind to most of us.

To lead well, use the “guy’s” arm positions, with your right hand placed on your partner’s back, and your left holding your partner’s (right) hand. Take charge, nicely. Your partner will probably wait for you to make the first move, literally, so make up your mind and just move your foot.

To follow well, don’t go limp and expect your partner to physically move you around. Your arms should have a little resistance in them, just enough so you can feel a gentle push, and can react on your own. They’re leading you, not animating you. Despite what many think, following can be even more tricky than leading. If you’re not leading, you usually have no idea what the other one will do, after all. Try to not get lost in your own head, analysing everything your partner does. The more you can “let go” in your mind, the better.

Disco’s are tricky. You look a total wally if you dance too early but after one crucial song tips the disco over, you look a sad saddo if you don’t.

  David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Casual dancing encourages so many things I like about life. Connection. Non-sexual physical contact (or pre-sexual contact, if the moment is right). A break from being stuck in your head, in your life. Everyday romance. Play. Music. Stunda. So you might as well dance.

Corgi Orgy

Today has been surreal.

First, I almost bought thirty-two meters (or 105 feet) of shelves. Then I was so anxious I almost gave half of my clothes to Fretex just to feel like I had any control over my life at all. I finally nailed how to make scrambled eggs (lower heat, longer time, who’d have thought). I forgot to bring my bathrobe to the bathroom when I showered, and had to do a weird half-run half-covered with a too-small towel so the construction workers outside wouldn’t see me naked. And I was so anxious I couldn’t get my period cup to sit right, which was annoying as fuck.

Ole came over to help me plan how to mount the shelving I didn’t buy. Neither of us wanted to measure things, so we just sat quietly staring at the wall for twenty minutes. It was oddly comforting. We went to our home-away-from-home-café, where I flirted outrageously with the bartender (she’s my sister’s boyfriend’s sister, so it’s okay) and I ate a chicken salad with a napkin stuffed into my shirt like a bib.

To end the day, I went on my first ever date with a complete stranger. I’m sure he’s nice. It was a bit odd, though, to be asked questions like “how many children do you want?” five minutes in (well, it might have been six, to be fair). Nor am I ready to declare eternal love via padlock-on-a-bridge, or to hold hands with someone I’ve known for all of thirty minutes (I only do that with people I have Disney-like feelings for). Also, statements like “tell me about your bed”, including follow-up questions like “how wide is it?” are a little bit creepy. At least he did say I ought to blog about this evening, so I won’t have to feel bad about sharing a few details with a couple of thousands of subscribers.

My phone died on the bus home. All I could hear were the handsome French tourists behind me, and an echo of tell me about your bed. I was so confused I didn’t even stop by the grocery store to hoard chocolate, something I bitterly regret even as I’m writing this now, four hours later. My sister kindly shared her pizza, though, and some of her own awkward dating stories. We also watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, the one where Christina shows Burke all her mess. I wondered if someone will do me on top of my pile of dirty laundry some day.

“It’s the first time I’ve walked this far without even caring if I step in dog’s poop!”

Malin

Then, somehow, I ended up crying in front of my computer. I was exhausted, and resigned, and slightly lonely. About a year ago, I guess that would have been the end to this story. I would have cried a little, almost not bothering to do it properly, then gone to bed with a book. But things have changed.

First, I found three cuddly toys in my bed: a penguin, a mouse and a puppy. My sister and I move them around the apartment to amuse each other (just like we do with an action figure of Aragorn), and today she’d apparently decided they belonged in my fuchsia linens. She’s so weird.

I’d e-mailed a short description of my evening to Malin (my sister’s boyfriend’s sister, the bartender from earlier, remember?). She called me, having read it on her way home, and told me  “it’s the first time I’ve walked this far without even caring if I step in dog’s poop!”. I guess it does make an engulfing story.

On Skype, Ole let me spill the whole story, then distracted me by asking about my favourite chocolate. Good move. Øyvind (my sister’s boyfriend, Malin’s brother, are you with me still?) was kind, as always. Then he reminded me how, once I finish my book and get famous, I’ll probably get contacted by all sorts of weird fanboys, and tell me about your bed will be downright charming by comparison. Alrik had to go to bed, but he did first manage to give me a thorough description of his bed, just in case I was curious (it’s 1.20 wide, and is only perfectly adequate).

And Sindre simply sent me a link to this, which suddenly made everything about today okay. Even with tell me about your bed, there are still stranger things out there. I love my friends for showing me that.