In 2014, an unexpected tragedy changed Syreeta Challinger and Rob Mackenzie's life when Rob suffered a near fatal brain haemorrhage and stroke. The couple left their design jobs and life in Hong Kong to return to Rob’s hometown of Lincoln, allowing for a period of healing. Syreeta has assumed the role of carer in supporting Rob through a slow and painful recovery.
During one of her lowest moments, Syreeta created MOSS (Moments of Sense & Style) - a creative platform intended to be a sanctuary of stillness, simplicity and ease during times of transition. Featuring a collection of hand-made candles and journals alongside Rob's therapeutic line drawn cityscapes, each MOSS product is infused with a restorative quality. Syreeta and Rob's story is a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and the life affirming effect of creativity.
Wilma: How has sharing your story helped to deal with Rob’s illness?
Syreeta: When we realised that Rob had been affected so badly that we wouldn’t be going back to our home in Hong Kong, it was like: right, where do we go from here? Our home, our jobs, our friendships – everything was taken away in a heartbeat. Landing in a city where you have no network and don’t know anyone meant that I needed an outlet and that’s where MOSS started. It began as a blog, by sharing our story on Tumblr. There’s a quote by Maya Angelou: there’s no greater pain than an untold story inside of you. That’s pretty much how I felt.
It seems you have both found a sense of healing through creativity. How did MOSS begin?
Rob worked in branding and I worked in fashion, and I came up with MOSS when brainstorming another project together. We talked about how nice it would be to create a lifestyle store one day. I didn’t think anything of it, until I came across my doodles in a sketchbook once we received our stuff from Hong Kong. That sowed a seed in me, because I’d struggled to find work in Lincoln. Lots of doors hadn’t opened for me, and when I found this sketchbook I thought maybe this is my door and I’m going to open it for myself.
I called the first collection ‘The Foundation’ purely because it’s the foundations of our new life. I see it as a future creative platform – a space where we can get involved in projects in a way that suits our life now, where we can then support others when we’re ready and able to. It’s also to show people that we can slow down, we can be connected as humans.
Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?
When we first started MOSS, we were living in Rob’s parents house, so the space to do it myself just wasn’t available. So I partnered with family run businesses to bring the products to life. I write the stories for each candle and brief a London team on what I want to do. With the journals I source the paper from a family run business in Hull. I’m trying to support small local businesses, whilst being very hands on with the production of the products.
I taught Rob to draw again after he came out of his coma and it has been one of the most important parts of his recovery. He couldn’t speak or read or write. I helped him to hold a pen again. It started with simple shapes, but his artworks soon started to flow. It’s a powerful thing to observe: art opens Rob’s world and helps him communicate whilst he rediscovers his place and identity. Drawing was initially for therapy but now it’s for pleasure. We sell his works which are simple, beautiful line drawings of the places he’s been. They also represent a determination and a sheer will to live. Rob is blind in his right eye, which makes his work all the more incredible.
As carers, we don’t always consider putting our needs first for fear that we’ll be judged for carving out some me time, but it's so important
You mentioned you had previously lived as urban nomads before relocating to the UK. What does a sense of place mean to you?
Not wanting to sound clichéd but a feeling of home really is wherever the heart is. Lincoln wasn’t our first choice, but we are here and making the best of it. A place to call our own is golden because we’ve been living on other peoples’ terms – whether that’s the hospital or family. That support is invaluable, but when you’re nearly 40 you really want to have your own space. There’s something comforting about surrounding yourself with your favourite things – even if it’s as simple as listening to music.
How do you make time for yourself?
My primary role is as Rob’s carer and it’s very easy to lose yourself because his needs come first. I try to have an hour before he gets up – even if I just have a cup of tea – to have that time to sit and not have to be anything but Syreeta. I started meditating, setting a relaxing scene and lighting one of our candles. When you’re a carer, you don’t really consider putting your needs first for fear of being selfish, or a fear that maybe you’ll be judged for carving out some me time. But actually it’s so necessary.
There can be a lot of guilt instilled in women, especially when it comes to caring for ourselves.
The world is obsessed with being busy or being seen to be busy. It has taken me a long time to shake that off. There’s part of me that’s still uncomfortable with the slow pace in Lincoln, but actually that’s what we need right now and it’s probably a good way of living. It’s a societal pressure to feel you have to exist at 100 miles per hour. Modern living is structured to detach us from our feelings. What is really important is our connection to other people, to be kind.
Where do you look for motivation and inspiration?
I am in awe of Rob, for his spirit and determination. It’s difficult to accurately describe, but he was so angry and so dark when he first came round – and confused. But he’s fought hard to relearn everything we take for granted: to swallow food, to chew, to draw again – even learning the alphabet. Rob proposed to me on the one year anniversary of his brain injury, which was such an incredible sign of his optimism and spirit. He wants to live and to get better and I am so inspired by his attitude. Our relationship is a team effort, and the fact that Rob shows up for me means I continue to show up for him.
In what ways did Rob’s illness change your approach to work?
I’m still finding my way. I was very career focused before Rob’s illness – as was he – whereas now I want to create for creating’s sake. I’m not using creativity to work my way up a ladder or exist in a rat race. There are moments when I think if we can do this and still get up each day, then we can probably do anything. Rob keeps me going because he’s thankful for every new day.
Follow Syreeta and Rob’s story at Moments of Sense and Style