The kindest Greek penguin

Out there, in the edges of the universe, or the depths of our mind, there is a place where everything is a close as you need it to be. Your home, your favourite places, your family, your dog, your friends, all within reach. A walk away.

When I was younger I kept saying that if I become president (when I thought there was only one for the entire planet, like a benevolent Sauron) I’d cancel borders. As far as I could tell, they were the thing that kept people in other countries apart. Then I decided that it’d be better to become a goddess and make teleportation a thing. Or a boss witch that can disapparate.

Until this is possible, I am glad that I can hold all these people and places and dogs and smells close to my heart. I miss my home and the mountains more than I can say. I haven’t been able to visit for about 2 years now and it is, quite frankly, unacceptable! On top of that, I am instead sat on a desk, writing about that place and its bears and daydreaming of field days. Remembering the smells of the forest and the indescribable excitement that can only be attained (in my case) by the sudden appearance of a bear poop at the end of a path. Ι miss getting chewed on by my dog and I miss the kind hearts of my brother and sister. And I even miss my grandma’s gentle tap on the thigh at the end of the ‘when are you going to find a man and settle down’ conversations, followed by my gentle squeeze of her hand when I remind her I am already doing something great that makes me happy.

I really believe that. That I am happy. In the core of it I am always happy because of who I am and where I came from. But I thought that doing this PhD would be the thing that topped it all. Did I have visions of me, joyfully frolicking in the wild valleys of northern Greece with bears and all their friends, celebrating our union and joining in the common cause to do good things for the world? Maybe a little bit. Mostly I just imagined this life that is fueled by passion for this work and that this would be all I needed to make me happy. This and about 73 plants.

Lately my grandma’s question has been a lot harder to answer. Happiness comes from so many sources in someone’s life and that’s what’s beautiful about it, but also extremely hard to really comprehend. There is not one single thing that makes us a happy person. Not an item, not a good partner and not a degree. Having a happy life to me resembles a healthy ecosystem, where not just one organism is thriving, but the whole assemblage of strange creatures and everything around them is living in balance. Not one single thing providing the food to all, but all of them creating the circumstances for each other to exist. When we were kids we saw happiness in a much more single-source way, where there is a need and when that need is fulfilled there is endless happiness at the other end. One single Lego set that will have you promise you’ll never need another toy again in your life. Until you get it and play with it for a few days and you’ve juiced it out of all the joy it could provide and you now see it as the pile of plastic that it is: an inevitable source of the most unbearable pain in the universe for the unsuspecting barefoot walker.

As you are getting older, you’ve got to be careful that this mindset doesn’t leak into the way you perceive happiness. No matter what we are fed by ads and movies, there is no single remedy for happiness. It’s the very reason why romantic comedies end when they do – to give you a sense of permanence in the state of happiness for the main characters. The found each other – they will make each other happy forever – what else do you want? What a mistake to make people think that one person will give everything to you. What a strange concept to give someone – or something – the responsibility of making you happy. A diet plan, a fitness schedule, a phone with a better camera, a partner – no single thing or person can provide that.

We get older and slowly understand that happiness is more about the balance in all the things that bring you joy. And most of these things aren’t things at all. Or specific, well-planned life goals. Most of happiness comes from the assemblage of all sources of joy in your life, interacting and allowing each other to exist.

Not one, but many.

My grandma, who is so small that if she walks in front of you with a black coat on she’s hard to tell apart from a penguin, is teaching me lessons on happiness the way she learnt them: by giving you the darkest, worst case scenario so you can work backwards from the life you don’t want to have, to a life you are happy in. She keeps reminding me that if I don’t rest I could die and if I don’t have a husband I could, in fact, die alone. Tired and alone. Double trouble.

Now, I have no interest in entertaining concepts where I define states of relating to people that automatically make you a happier person, but I have definitely found it harder to defend my hermetic lifestyle of late. Writing a thesis while also doing a full time job doesn’t just deprive you of the ability of ‘finding a husband’, or hang out with our friends – it takes away your ability to do anything that isn’t essential, like occasionally cooking dinner.

So many of us carry this constant feeling of not being enough, while we are doing more than we can possibly do in a day. We are raised in a society where are meant to feel like we don’t meet our standards. I know that wanting to be better is occasionally a helpful thing, but more often than not it can become very distractive. It leaves you feeling tired and a little hopeless, like you’ve let yourself down in your mission to become a superhero that controls time. Looking after yourself in these situations is a very solitary job. As much as you wish your beloved people were around, you don’t want to be around them feeling guilty that you should be working instead – sort of ruins the mood, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I have done this for so long now that I find it easier to cancel things and be alone than feel the permanence of solitude of this experience in someone else’s company.

Grandma is right. We could die tired and alone. And even if we are happy getting tired doing things we love, I don’t think we always want to do them alone. We love people and we want to feel close to them. We want to share happy things with our friends, partners and family. The truth is, we probably don’t really care yet about how we die. But we want our lives to be a balanced ecosystem enriched by a multitude of things, and not one that constantly searches for outside inputs to survive. We want to be happy in this life. Grandma is right, just not about the thing she thought she was right about. She is right that we need the rest and she is right that we can’t expect work to be the only thing that thrives in our lives (ehmmm.. most days ‘thrive’ is really not the word I’d use to describe my work quality..).

But I was right to be disappointed that she didn’t get why I do the work I do and how much I love it. No matter how much I climb up in the bear world ladders and how much respect I get from students and colleagues, there will always be a penguin woman I want to make proud that will feel like I’m not settled unless I have a husband and then a child. She will be more proud of me being with another human than about me being this human.

I get where it’s coming from, please don’t assume I am not seeing the age gap and her life experiences and all the things that make an 88 year old woman think this way. If anything, I am angry with the society she grew up in that means she now thinks this way. I know people’s hearts and I know it when they get who I am – she does. As I was writing this, she called me (that’s her superpower) to ask me if I can see the moon tonight. She said that she is dreaming of the day I’ll be back and we can sit on the balcony and look at the stars together. I am named after her, but she is the one carrying the angelic essence of the name. Her heart shines brighter than the moon she called me about. If your loved ones ask you difficult questions, it’s always because they care. They care about when you’ll submit your PhD thesis and they -bravely- ask. They care about you being alone all the time and they assume that loneliness would be fixed by a having a partner. It all comes from a good place – they care and love you.

I say this to myself often: aloneness, but not loneliness, can be illuminating. Granted, I said it a lot more often before lockdown – before I worked in this way for two years while being away from my family and, most of the time, my friends. But: aloneness helps you understand what the components of the ecosystem that make you a happy person are. It gives you the time and space necessary to be with yourself and really experience your essence, unfiltered by anyone’s presence. Happiness starts there – in finding your essence and sitting with it fr a bit, letting it truly take over and tear all the masks and walls you’ve put to fit better in society. But once you’ve had that time, I must admit, it can get a bit boring not to share it with others every now and then, and have them influence it in ways you couldn’t do yourself.

In the end, it all comes down to this simple fact: people will love you the way they love you and not necessarily the way you want them to love you. But, in it’s core, it’s love and it’s transformative, so what more can someone ask? Then, even when you are alone, you know that you are a piece of a larger network. You are thought of and you, in turn, think of people you care about. You have a place in people’s hearts and in that way no one is really ever truly alone. The edge of the universe where everything is close and connected.

Not apart, but a part.

Yesterday I Skyped my brother and sister to see my grandma open a parcel of treats I sent her and it felt like I was with them. I love them so much. I think of her sitting there and thinking of watching the moon with me and it makes me want to grow wings and fly over to sit with her for the night. She might never understand my choices, but she will always love and care about me. Even with all the tattoos and no husband.

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