After starting out in the music business, Tiu de Haan has forged her own unique path. From starting a non-profit to connect children and their parents to playing in nature, she now creates rituals to help people connect to themselves and each other (her TEDx talk explains more about this). We met on her beautifully white boat in London to hear about her post-heroic journey.
A post-heroic journey begins with responding to a call. Did you ever hear “the call”?
Several times. I’m on my third or fourth call. The first time was when I was working in the music business in my mid-20s. I was a frustrated singer-songwriter who was on the wrong side of the vocal booth glass. I had this huge longing to be creatively alive, but instead I was professionally bound to making somebody else’s dreams come true.
I left my job, my flat and my boyfriend all in the same week, and I went on a crazy adventure that I’m still sort of on. But it’s gone through very different chapters. That initial call to be a singer is no longer the call. I still sing, but that’s not what drives me.
I’ve had three major lives – the singer songwriter popstar wannabe life, the setting up a not-for-profit that connected families through play in nature life, and now I teach creative thinking and ways into wonder, and design secular rituals. What is common with all of them is the call to be fully alive, fully creative and engaging in a life which has less structure and more freedom. I feel like I have created a life where my first priority it to attune to that call. I don’t have a job, and I haven’t had for twenty years.
Where’s the call taking you now?
I think it’s taking me to teach wonder – it’s what I’ve been doing for quite a long time anyway, particularly in reminding families how to play. I feel like I’ve figured out the mechanical constructs that enable you to welcome this strange nebulous thing called wonder. It doesn’t follow a recipe, but you can create the optimum conditions for it to arise naturally – and the world needs it.
What do you think the world needs?
We need a depth of imaginative ability. We need the ability to re-imagine, and be playful.
The problem is that we’re dislocated and disconnected from each other, even though apparently we are connected. There’s this schism in our psyches.
In Playing Big by Tara Mohr, a book I love, a mentor of hers says that every problem that you can see in the world is simply a failure of the imagination. I love that idea.
We are facing terrifying realities, but our ability to imagine new levels of solutions is entirely down to an expansion of our state of wonder and our ability to imagine outside of the linear, logical, lines in which we habitually think.
I feel like if we are empowered to create new myths – of our own lives – then we can get playful in creating profound solutions to heal this broken reality.
Which myths do you relate to?
My name is that of a Norse god. Tiu is one of Thor’s mates; he was the god of war and justice. Tuesday’s named after him. He’s a weird character to be named after, and I don’t identify with him very much. I’m named Tiu because it’s an Estonian name and my mother’s family fled Estonia when the Russians invaded. So I was given an Estonian name for that reason, but why this particular Estonian name, I don’t know. I like my name very much. But other than looking like a Viking and living on a boat, which I suppose is fairly Viking-y, that’s not my story.
The myths I relate to are not traditional ones – they are either those of my own making, through the imaginative work I have done to heal my own experiences of grief and loss, or the myths of our collective 21st-century psyche, since we are meaning-making creatures at our core.
Do you think of life as a game?
I think of this as a potentially playful experience, so yes, but the danger with that line of thinking is that then human life becomes valueless. You’ve still got to have heart connection. But the ludification of any problem – to turn it into a game – is part of what I teach. It’s a shift of perspective.
Pronoia is a concept I’m very fond of, which also gamifies life. Pronoia is when you believe that the universe is secretly conspiring on your behalf to shower you with blessings. It’s self-centred, but if this were true for every single person, then there is a harmony, there’s magical alignment, there’s a ridiculous synchronicity. Frankly, I have it all the time. I find that seeing through this lens helps to create the conditions for wonder, engineering serendipity.
Have you connected to your ancestors?
My parents were refugees so I don’t have any relationship with any kind of rootedness in terms of tangible, physical placements. I’ve often felt quite rootless in that way. But then I started to actively look into who my ancestors were, and I went on a road trip and found the house that I’d been to as a small child in my father’s ancestry. In this beautiful house in the Black Forest in Germany, there were paintings on the wall of my great-great-great-great-grandparents. And they looked like me!
It was such a powerful experience because it helped transform my feeling of rootlessness, from being the child of refugees and being an orphan in adult life. My mother’s family fled Estonia, ended up in Sweden. She eventually moved here in the 60s. My dad was much older; his family fled the Nazis. He was half-Jewish, German-Dutch, ended up in England. They both had foreign accents. They both had English as their third or fourth language. And neither of them felt very much at home in England.
I do feel at home here. But I don’t have any English blood in me at all. So to go to this place, find these paintings, to see they were recognisable as my relatives, was profound. I have the same eyes as them. These eyes go right the way back through my father’s family. My colouring is entirely my mother’s. My hips are the same shape as my mother’s. There’s a visceral tangibility to the ancestors in that way.
In the morning I have a practice of lighting a candle for my ancestors. I have a photograph of my great-great-grandfather who was a musician. I have a picture of my dad and a picture of my mum and a couple of their possessions. And I talk to them. I light the candle and I literally say, ‘Good morning Willem, good morning Mama, good morning Papa.’ And I wish them well and I honour their memory because I need some of that in my life. And they are all musicians and painters in my family, so it’s pretty good to feel as if I have them onside, even in my imagination.
Do feel that you’ve had allies support you on this path?
So many that it’s hard to narrow it down. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have absolutely extraordinary human beings show up all my life. And because I don’t have a traditional family, I seek out allies and I activate them. I enrol them and say, are you up for being my ally?
I have always actively gathered people who are smarter than me, more experienced than me, who can offer expertise, kindness, love, support and compassion in areas where I lack those things. I’ve asked them if they are up for being on my ‘board’. It just means that I have loving wise people who I can ask for support in navigating uncharted territories. I once had a board meeting where I got everyone to turn up with red pants on the outside of their trousers and I had an Easter Egg hunt in my house for the first half-hour of the meeting.
How do you relate to community?
Because I live on a boat there’s an unusual level of community in terms of the physical reality of my home life, for living in a 21st-century city. That’s the community that keeps me safe, and plenty of practical support comes from that, which is awesome. But if I were to go through a death or a heartbreak, the community that I would go to for support is made up of those friends I consider to be allies. I put a lot of energy and time into those people. I have more energy and creativity and love for and from the people who I count as my community than any other area of my life.
I find that with the work I do is very intimate. Everything that I’m about is about love and death and connection and wonder; that means I have very intense conversations all the time. Most people don’t have that as part of their job. So I’m very blessed to find that I make those connections very naturally and I sustain them.
I think it’s really interesting to be part of a group. And I’ve facilitated a lot of groups, but I seem to find it more fulfilling to have one-on-one connections. I’m not much of a community builder because my community is always ephemeral. I don’t have one group that I keep coming back to. It’s not like I’m a vicar with a particular congregation. I interact with people in a different way.
What’s your concept of home?
My concept of home is very much bound up with the fact that my mum died when I was 18. She was home. When she died I was so shocked and traumatised that I needed to create that sense of home immediately in order to feel mothered. She always lived in a place that had white everywhere, loads of candles and flowers, and was super-comfy. And that’s how I’ve decorated every home I’ve had since.
When she died, I was a teenager; I was not inclined to buy flowers and light candles. I was into rock, cider and bad boys. But because her death left me rootless and homeless I co-opted her way of making home. And from my first bedroom at university, which was right after she died, my room was like my home is now – everything was white, there were candles, there were fairy lights, there were records, I always cooked. I mothered myself and therefore everyone who came near me as a matter of urgent need for home. And I’ve been doing it every since.
So home for me is wherever I go, even if I’m only there for a short amount of time. There are some markers that tell me that I’m home. I have somewhere, even if it’s just one candle, to have a little altar. I have somewhere to write. I have fairy lights which I literally carry with me around the world.
I look forward to the day when I actually have roots. I feel like I will when I’m grown up. It may not happen. I feel like at some point there’s a physical grounding that happens for me. But in the meantime, my physical home is super-important to me. I love it. I love nesting.
How have you found a sense of belonging throughout your life?
On one level I’ve never found a sense of belonging because I’ve never had a recognisable job title, apart from singer I suppose, but that’s been a while. Founding and running my not-for-profit uniting families through play was a powerful time of belonging – not only within my organisation, but within the community it served and the reality it created, for a few years. But I still had to make up my own rules and create my own job title.
I’ve never been able to forge a path that is along anybody else’s trail. I’ve never been able to say I’m in a gang or a group or a club or a political party or a spiritual belief system or a religion. I’ve not been part of any of those groups of recognisable belonging. But, I don’t think I’d be very comfortable in any existing group anyway. I like dabbling.
I think there’s a sense of belonging that I carry which is about connecting to other people and myself from the heart. That has nothing to do with any external structures. It has to do with sharing life and love and death.
One of the things I’m so in love with with the work that I do now, is that it’s all about that which unites us rather than that which divides us. Somebody who voted for Brexit or Trump or who is from a really different political viewpoint to me will still experience love and loss. They will still go through agony when someone they love dies. And that’s where I met people. I meet people at the place beneath the labels, because I’m attuned to that. And that means that – I think, I hope – I can connect to anyone.
How has your journey uncovered your unique gifts?
Ever since I heard that call back in the day when I gave up my music industry job to follow my dream of being a singer-songwriter, I have always navigated intuitively along a sparkly path, knowing not where it ends up, but knowing roughly each step at a time, maybe one step ahead, what feels right. And navigating by gut, inspiration, luck, serendipity, pronoia, magical people and excellent conversations.
I won’t be shown all the gifts at once. I will be shown the next two steps. And it’s my job to make sure that I take the next step. And then there’ll be a twist around the corner up ahead that I can’t imagine.
The work that I’ve had come in in the last six months, I couldn’t have made it up. For example, I recently did a day which was all about families of young people who had gone through a bereavement getting together to create a game about helping young people to connect through death. For me, bereavement, heart-connection, playfulness, imagination and family – how could that be one day’s work?!
I know from experience if I try to be too prescriptive about what my gifts are and exactly where this path is going to take me, I don’t have the full imaginative ability to see the whole thing clearly anyway, so I would probably be underestimating the possibilities up ahead.
So my job I think is to navigate one step at a time. Maybe two steps. And then remain agile, intuitive and connected to inspiration. And if I go horribly awry, course correct sooner rather than later, with compassion and gentleness. And have naps and don’t take it all too seriously, because it’s all about seeing it as a playful adventure anyway.
Find out about Tiu’s latest project, The Possibility of Wonder, here.
Who else should we interview for this series on the post-heroic journey? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.