Tinsel and all that

There’s no better time than the holidays to live out your childhood scars.  I don’t mean this in a bad way.  Without the proper emotional regulation and perspective Christmas time tends to be quite the shit-storm filled with highs and slight annoyances.  In my early years and right through to my teens I worshiped at the alter that was a holly jolly Christmas.  This was slowly and surely tempered by a little bit of reality, which made my perception a whole lot healthier.  Rather than expecting the perfect performance of rituals, I came to accept that the days are and should be mainly for celebrating the love you have for your friends and family.  To honor that we are so blessed to be together again.

Because I view the holidays this way I assume that I’m allowed to celebrate it even though I’m a Buddhist.  Right?  If we are celebrating the birth of a teacher, leader and compassionate individual surely he would have wanted everyone to feel that type of joy without judgement.  So now that we have that covered, the next few posts are going to center on the rituals and rites of this wonderful season.  They will take on the themes of decor, gift-giving, dinner and party planning.

For those of you who don’t know, I am a geographer and a feminist political geographer to be exact.  The concepts I study are located in human geography which is a field that theorizes place.  Therefore, when it comes to anything I believe that care and consideration to the feel of the space is very important.  How do you work with such an abstract concept?  You decorate and you decorate well.

I have a weakness for holiday aesthetics and it requires so much will power to not purchase the entire Pottery Barn catalog.  Returning to the principle of minimalism though there are just a couple of key items that you need initially: tree and stockings.  Garlands for the mantle, mercury glass trees, wreath, throw pillows, bed linens and a rug at the front-door can all come later.  So let me tease out the concept of the tree and stocking for you.

Most of my Christmases since arriving to Canada involved celebrating at someone else’s house.  Though I’m so grateful for the invitations, being a guest means that the tree was always decorated.  Now, that began my obsession with oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree.  So can you guess what I did when we moved to Massachusetts?  I got a real tree from a nearby farm and decorated it from top to bottom.  It was all mine.  From many of the lifestyle sites I read there is a method.  Apparently the best trees have repetition.  So essentially you choose a colour palate and theme, buy several of 3 to 4 ornaments and you’re set.  I actually go the sentimental route and all of my ornaments represent certain times, places and people.  Though it may not look uniform, it is special to me.

You don’t even want to know how many Christmas stockings I own.  Being a guest meant that many years I received my stocking gifts in some sort of bag.  Thank you to the lovely individuals who filled them in the first place but apparently things like this mattered to me.  Therefore, now I have monogramed red and white velvet stockings with holders that spell out “Noel.”  Dream achieved.

Have you ever heard the song “In a sentimental mood” by John Coltrane and Duke Ellington?  Every time I hear the slow, sensuous notes I am taken to somewhere hot, lazy and fine.  It’s kind of the same with the holidays.  Get yourself in the mood by making your indoor winter wonderland.  The turkey may overcook and people might be late but it won’t matter when the twinkle lights blink and your red wine goes down nice and easy.

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Moderate

I feel blessed that I’ve never felt true devastation.  The closest I’ve come to it is when I lost my grandparents.  This is not to say that pain like this will never touch my life again.  I know that it’s just a part of living in this world.  And this world is extraordinary, beautiful and productive.  It’s important to remember that in the face of utter destruction.

I draw this philosophy and approach from Buddhist teachings and other less defined forms of spirituality.  That and just generally observing human behavior.  The main principle is to tread lightly.  The image I always see is that of skimming water.  There is still displacement but there’s less impact than a cannonball, right?  It’s also a whole lot less selfish because now people don’t have to change their shoes.

Studying these concepts and actually practicing them are two different stories.  One or my worst traits is my lack of patience.  I can sometimes be reactionary and not fully think through the consequences.  I also have a flair for drama.  I recently noticed that a moth from our old apartment in Toronto had put holes in several of my sweaters, basically leaving them ruined.  I commented that “it’s like we’re living in Victorian England,” to which my husband responded, “it’s like we living a house filled with hyperbolic statements.”  I gave him a “humph” but I can’t disagree.  But recognizing these flaws and trying to improve on them is the first honorable step.  It’s always a work in progress and I’m just trying to live as respectfully as possible.  Plus, these traits can sometimes make me brave.

So how exactly do you become enlightened?  Well, the simplest route is to always seek the middle ground.  Here are some examples: acknowledge the shortcomings in the world but also see the good; don’t place anything on a pedestal, imperfections are what provide richness in life; there are always different approaches and various ways of being, respect that; and you’ll only have a letdown if you build something up too much, simmer down and just enjoy it while it lasts.  The principle: moderation in all things.

Therefore, when hard times approach you won’t completely fall apart.  True grit is often more valuable than privilege, wealth or even talent.  It’s what keeps you going.

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Things things things

If everything goes according to plan I will have another child at some point in time.  With this in consideration I’ve made a mental check-list of things that I would do differently.  Isn’t it great that we often have opportunities to be better the second time around?  As someone who likes her world to be orderly and calm it bothered me that I was all over the place after I gave birth to my son.  Some of that can be attributed to the pressure of experiencing motherhood for the first time but in other ways I was ill-prepared.  So let me take away some of the guesswork and advise you on how to be a pro.

This is not a new concern of mine and you can find my post on baby clothes here.  The main principle that both articles emphasize is that part of being ready means that you don’t skimp on the necessities.  I was too careful and always felt that I could manage without.  You know what the reality of it is?  That person advising you to focus on the basics is not the one nursing at all hours of the night.  So put in the time to do the research with mommy blogs and others who offer valuable insight into not making it harder on yourself.  Please, the next time around I will ask for the epidural shortly after changing into my dressing gown and know that everything will not go smoothly, but it’s my reaction to these situations that matters.  So here’s some baby gear that I could not live without and other products that are the first on my shopping list when the occasion calls for it.  I’ve categorized them as now and then, and though it’s far from comprehensive, it is a start:

NOW

1. Sleep Sheep

Because infants hear your heartbeat and swooshing of blood while in the womb, they are not particularly fond of silence.  This little lamb will provide soothing background noise for the first few months and many years to come.  My son is two and half and still falls asleep to the sound of rain each night.

2. Robeez

Made of genuine leather and a team of talented artists, these little slippers will help keep socks on when they’re young and keep their toes warm once they’re more mobile.  Because they stretch as their feet grow, you will be able to use a pair for even longer than you intended.

3. Baby Bjorn

My son has always liked human touch and is a snuggle monster still.  So he loved to be right next to us when we were out and about.  The reality is that I’ll be caring for our child mostly on my own next time so I will also think of getting a body wrap for when our next child is very young.  Bjorns should be used only when they reach the specified weight.

4. Bogs

These boots are comfortable, waterproof and durable.  Toddlers will love the shorter ones for their first winter and the taller boots are great for the boys.  Their lovely designs are also winners in my book.

5. Pottery Barn furniture

Their pieces are well-constructed and certain items, like bookshelves can be in your child’s room right up till university.  If their tastes change you can also transfer them to the guest room and not be too worried about it.

THEN

1. Aden & Anais

These breathable swaddlers made of 100% cotton will not overheat your newborn.  Though they are on the pricier side they literally are first on my shopping list for when the time comes.  About two sets should do it.  They’re excellent for wrapping your child when they’re transitioning to sleeping on their own.

2. Bouncer

They love to lounge and this gives you a chance to fold some laundry or just chill out.

3. Bassinet 

I would get one both for my stroller and for placing in our room for the first few weeks.  I believe that Health Canada recommends that newborns stay by their parents’  bed for the first six weeks.

4. Stroller organizer

This allows you to not have to carry a purse when you’re out and about.  There are pockets for your cellphone, credit cards and coffee.

5. Pottery Barn bedding

My next nursery is going to have a theme and a Pottery Barn sheet set.  We love our current Peter Rabbit collection sheet and pillow sham and will complete it with the quilt and bumpers.

6. Comfortable seating

You truly need a comfortable seat in the nursery.  Whether you choose to nurse or bottle-feed it’s important to have a chair that you can hold the baby in.  Buy one that you wouldn’t mind using in another room.

7. Dresser/Change table

I would not have a separate change table but instead have a change-table item to place on top of a dresser.  That way you can remove that item when it is no longer necessary.

So there you go.  And remember no matter what, enjoy this time and know that you are so very loved.

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Wait, what?

There are some writers who hit you squarely in the stomach with their prose and you both love and hate them for it.  These individuals are so skilled that they can take you on a meandering, and at times boring journey which is punctuated with moments of absolute bliss.  Ha, much like the theme of life and one’s purpose within this universe that they write about.  But isn’t that the whole point of fiction?  To show us glimpses of our humanity?  To curate beauty and ugliness?

I just finished close to 800 pages of this type of narrative in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.  As much I don’t regret reading it, because it’s absolutely gorgeous, I also feel slightly peeved and cheated.  She strings us along and gets us invested in tragic Theo Decker, whom you hope and pray does not screw up his life any further than it already is.  You feel empathy that he’s lost his mother and you dearly wish that he will find a place to thrive.  But at the end, when Tartt suddenly lays it all out there, to offer up what she’s withheld so easily, I thought, really?  That’s what you decide to do with me as a reader?  After taking a breath though, I understand her method and motivation.  She’s trying to demonstrate that life is full of these complexities.  It’s inconstant, unfair and as long as you keep yelling its faults from the rooftops you’re only going to get in your own way.  Instead, why not try to go with the flow a little and take it as it comes?

A similar message is conveyed in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which to be honest I don’t remember the particulars of.  All I know is that it has something to do with trains, values and overbearing parents.  The take away though is, don’t wait.  All of this waiting for the timing to be perfect or for all of it to be aligned will just sweep away any chance you have of enjoying yourself.  We are never ready.  Above all, just do something, anything, to get on with it.  We so need more of this in our society: reminders to be good.

There is an endpoint, we all have one, so don’t be afraid of the fallout.  Everything gets rebuilt once more.

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Two for tea

One of the more “intense conversation” I’ve had with Andrew took place in the most decadent of places: a lovely tea salon in Paris.  Hey, if you’re going to have a fight you might as well do it with white linen.  We disguised it as a discussion about the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu and on the theme of taste regimes but really we were arguing.  Apparently that’s what nerds do, they use theory to get at each other.  He’d say that he won but I’ll call it a draw because the hot chocolate was really, really good.  In any case, after taking a nap we were buds again.

It all started when he refused to wait an hour to gain entrance.  I don’t really blame him because I don’t see many men lining up that length for tea service.  I normally wouldn’t be so insistent but after reading accounts in a couple of travel books, I was not about to leave the city without having had a taste.  So, I told him to head back to the hotel and that I would eat alone.  Now, some women might say this and then pout about it later.  I’m not one of those women.  When I say that I don’t mind being alone, I don’t mind being alone.  Early in my pregnancy I remember watching The Help on my own in a cinema with tears flowing freely down my face.  The whole thing started to go awry when he attributed his impatience to Angelina being a tourist trap.

I don’t deny that it is, but hey, this certainly was not an issue when we lined up for an hour and half in front of the Musee d’Orsay in the pouring rain earlier in the day.  Apparently, impressionists makes certain popular attractions more palatable.  Truly, I’m the first to run to the museum in any new city precisely because of the way that works of art makes you feel.  I will never forget seeing Klimt’s “The Kiss” in Vienna, in person, after having seen it day and night in my university apartment.  You never have to ask me twice.  But experiencing the beauty of food made with such care and skill is so visceral and important too.  Also, the whole concept of the “tourist trap” bothers me.  That statement reduces something meaningful to something flimsy like mesh.  Of course you would never catch me outside of a wax museum and certain tall structures, but certain “traps” are popular because they are pretty enjoyable too.  A gagillion people can’t all be wrong right?  I’ve never defined myself as someone who is afraid to be part of the crowd.  Being open to taking on any activity that means something to you is never a failing.  So next time you’re out and about don’t be scared to join the queue.  Plus, you just might have some fun.

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The gain

I come from a culture where it’s socially acceptable to comment on people’s weight.  Whether you have gained or lost, members of your family or the Burmese diaspora will have something to say about it.  I don’t believe that there’s ill-intent behind it, just a mix of curiosity and playfulness.  Don’t worry, I’m not taking the easy route and attributing it all to “culture.”  Everything is political.  I’m also sure that it’s not a “Burmese” or “Asian” thing but rather a prominent aspect of our greater society.

As someone who has experienced this first hand, I find that there are very different tones associated with your physical state.  When you’re demonstrating the results of some excellent culinary moments there seems to be humour associated with the failure of your weight management regime.  When your body is svelte there is now the worry that you may have gone too far and there are concerns about your health.

This discussion is not in anyway to disparage the very real phenomenon of eating disorders that women and men are struggling with.  I just want to question how the framing of these practices as one of frivolity or concern both encroach on the individual’s agency.  To put it simply, it is a process of body shaming.

Control is at the centre of these body-image projects and whether it is true or not, the fat girl apparently does not have enough while the thin girl has too much.  Either way, there seems to be something wrong with the both of them.  Now, this is what does not jive with me.  It is simply none of your business if that person is on a diet or should be on one.  Their body is very much their own and they can do what they please.  Maybe instead of the shaming they could use an ounce of acceptance, support and the space to just be.

Peace.

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Charm

For all intents and purposes I am now living in Stars Hollow.  If you don’t catch that reference, shame on you.  I demand that you catch up on the fabulousness that is “Gilmore Girls” on Netflix tonight.  Seriously though, small towns are particularly good at marking holidays and shifts in seasons with rituals and events.  We had a scarecrow festival.  Really.  It’s charming and lovely.

Having been exposed to the concept of small-town America through television shows, I now see the storylines and the characters’ motivations from a whole new perspective.  Obviously these insights are the generalized musings of a newcomer looking in.  Oh!  That’s why love lives were so interwoven in a fairly insular community.  I also understand why so much was at stake for a high school basketball team in “One Tree Hill.”  You’re literally cheering for your town’s history and identity.  If you’ve ever watched that show, I give so much respect to Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) for staying in the tiny town with his estranged biological dad, who was his mother’s high-school sweetheart; the man who never acknowledged him but chooses to love/pressure his half-brother Nathan (James Lafferty) instead.  Whew, that run-on sentence does not even begin to capture the complicated relationships explored in each episode.

My current setting is wholesome, polite and reserved, literally everything I hope for in a place.  I know that some may interject that beneath the veneer of civility there may be ignorance still.  Of course, any smile or sneer can be a cover for prejudice.  I just want to see the good in people and believe that they are interacting with each other with an open heart.

The everyday reality of living in a smaller town also means that the pace is slower and there are fewer choices.  Decisions are made easier when there are five beauty salons instead of forty.  It’s strange that these banal details mean so much to me but I never feel settled till all of that is sorted.  The first thing I wanted to do after being discharged from the hospital post-delivery was to get my eyebrows waxed.  After such a life-altering experience I wanted to ground myself with the mundane.  Plus, caring for these aspects of your physical appearance is so important.  When I was living in Thailand I literally had patches in my eyebrows because I refused to go a year without having them shaped.  These smaller negotiations are all part of finding your place and embedding yourself in the midst of it all.  After all, who wants to be a spectator of their own life?  Participate and be a part of something!  Plus, hair salons have the best gossip.

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I just called

When we first arrived in Canada, calling my family in Burma used to be a huge production.  The long distance charges were expensive, the wires in Yangon were often frayed or broken and we phoned early in the mornings because of the time difference.  This resulted in short conversations where much of it consisted of inquiring about their meals and asking if they could hear us.  I was also often half-asleep.  This was unfortunate because I missed my family terribly and wanted to connect with them.  However, this situation helped to shape my philosophy on relationships.

There are few individuals I love more than my extended family in Burma.  Their love is vast and they love affectionately, openly and well.  It’s very easy to care for them because we are there for each other unconditionally and without judgement.  That’s what being a close-knit family means, not the minutes you clock in each other’s company.  It’s also because the connections are honest and we’re not desperately trying to avoid conflict.  People fight, people forgive, people share a meal.  Leaving them was very difficult and I always feel that it’s better when we’re together.  But we’re not together and that’s the point.

It’s almost comical to expect relationships to remain just as they are when there is an ocean between you.  You don’t even need physical space for partnerships to shift.  The saving grace is that after the initial shock of missing loved ones the flow of life starts to mold your days once more.  With that rhythm, landmarks and people become familiar and gradually you move on.  It’s alright you know.  You just start to have these pockets of networks in different locations.  They are all beautiful even if they’ll never overlap.  Because strangely enough you learn very quickly as a seven year old that pining for a former life doesn’t bring it back.  It’s painful but you just have to let go and fully embrace those times when you are lucky enough to meet each other again.  Be here now.

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Shhh

The first rule you learn in the sandbox is that you don’t engage the haters.  How did we forget such sage advice?  Haters will hate, people will talk, what can you do?  The principle behind it is that you can’t offer them an advantage.  As soon as you give them a reaction, which is the only thing they seek more than attention, they’ve already won.  For example, Renee Zellweger.  Jesus Christ, you are an Academy-Award winning actress.  It is nobody’s business what you do with your face.

Here’s the thing though, activism, open-mindedness, and defining yourself as a liberal generally means that you know when to play ball.  Being a caring individual demands it.  So often we want to stay quiet because it’s inconvenient, we don’t want to get in trouble or become an outsider.  In the face of any form of hatred, when someone else’s human rights are being compromised, it is our duty to speak up and to bear witness.

That is all the heavy stuff but in the more superficial realm of someone not liking you, well who really cares.  The best possible tactic you can take is to pay them no mind.  It’s always so easy to laugh behind a keyboard or with a group of girlfriends right?  Just remember that the person you’re ridiculing is someone’s sister, son, daughter or brother.  With all this in consideration, it takes a great deal of will-power not to involve yourself in these situations, especially when you’ve thought of something particularly witty to say.  Practicing radio silence is not easy.  But seriously, expend that energy somewhere else more productive and on someone more worthy.

Everyone is different.  Some provide a play-by-play of their daily life, others don’t.  But I guarantee that 99.9% of the time, both parties are doing just fine.

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Iconoclast

Remember when you were young and thought “when I grow up I will finally get to do whatever I want?”  We said it again and again, to get through awkward phases and strict curfews.  But you soon learn that being mature often means that you do things that you don’t particularly want to do because it makes other people happy.  But that’s fine, the rest of the time you set the agenda and you stay the course.

For the longest time I had a pixie cut.  When I was a child it was because Burma is a tropical country and it’s hot.  Then I moved to Canada and my mom wanted it to be neat and tidy.  In my adolescence it was because I swam.  During high school I just liked visiting the hairdresser and did not have the patience to grow it out.  Andrew teases me that my short hair kept him from being attracted to me initially.  I don’t doubt that there’s some truth to this because teenagers can be such tools, myself included.  I recall how everything meant something back then because we cared so much.  So in my youth there weren’t many actresses whom I could look up to or try to emulate.  Most of them were blond, hell in my school being blond meant that you were automatically pretty.  That is why I adored Winona Ryder and wanted to be exactly like her, minus the questionable taste in men.  She did date Matt Damon though before she started stealing lipsticks.  Sure she had her issues but she is talented and her bone structure is sublime.

I also liked the movie Reality Bites.  This film contributed to my fascination with love triangles for such a long time.  In real-life though these types of situations rarely produce good results.  People get hurt, aren’t particularly brave and more often than not you either settle or feel guilty.  I also liked the concept of working hard to make your dreams come true after college.  But again, I was suspicious of how it was portrayed.  Sure sure, it’s romantic to have fun with your friends and not sell out but damn, that life looked really hard and they kind of looked dirty.  Granted it was the early 90s, maybe now they’d all be wearing suspenders or something.  I didn’t actually want anything to do with this “cool” version either.

But the very best thing that this movie offers my generation is to heed us to take our time.  When everyone is telling you to just grow up already, remember to also enjoy yourself and keep sight of the prize.  Live and learn because you will get there.  Robert Pattinson once said in an interview that as soon as he started being known for his messy hair, he got a haircut.  Not all of us were meant to take the guided tour.

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