Fortune

When the shit has hittith the fan my philosophy is to take it like a woman and to clean up later.  Because you know that’s where character’s needed right?  The clean up.  But when things are a bit shaky I also draw on two lines written by a Victorian poet and a man with a beautiful voice.  The words are from “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley and Morgan Freeman is the one speaking them.  “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”  In my mind there is nothing more powerful than that.  The belief that you have the power to make things better, and if not, at least the will to trudge right on through to the other side.  After the poem I also tell myself that “this” will not break me.  Perhaps it’s my own little prayer but man, the comfort it provides it indescribable.

All the talk of lyrical words also bring forth thoughts of spirituality.  I’m sure that many faiths frown upon it but as a Burmese Theravada Buddhist, I’ve been raised to also believe in a little bit of magic.  Perhaps it’s because we know that so many things are out of our control, we arm ourselves with a bit of the mystic.  Whether it becomes true or not, the practice of drawing on the gifts of individuals who may have access to another realm is not reduced to nonsense.  I appreciate that, the world is far too serious already.  Plus, it’s become somewhat of a ritual, that when I’m in Yangon I consult with the fortune teller, a woman I met when I was fifteen and last saw when I was twenty-eight.  Her face is pure light, her aura is very beautiful.  It’s all in good fun and I like having brunch with my family afterwards.  If you’re going to have Burmese fish soup (mohinga), it always tastes better at a cafe downtown, on a wooden stool, in the middle of so much life.

I’ve also had a long-term relationship with astrology.  I was that girl who looked up the sign of her high school crush and tried to figure out how to go about speaking to him.  Judging from my list of boyfriends (one, the one who became my husband), I was a bit shy and awkward during that time and didn’t end up speaking to most of them.  The idea that all born within a three week time-frame would have similar characteristics is somewhat silly, but those who take these things seriously know that the rising sign and moon sign make an attempt at drawing out the nuances.  Either way, I occasionally read my monthly horoscope at the back of fashion magazines.  While I chuckle and hope that those new opportunities do come my way, I am aware that working towards it is a necessary part of it all.

There are a million different ways to come to terms with the unknown.  Some people worry and others feel that they have answer before it’s even been delivered.  I always remind myself to ask for what I want and have the flow to change course when necessary.  After all, what are captains if they are not leaders.

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Extraordinary

Over the holidays I saw films about two inspiring men (Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking), and yet I’m much more interested in the extraordinary women, or the co-stars.  Obviously.  First is Alan Turing, whose involvement in intelligence service for the British government during World War II is portrayed in The Imitation Game.  The success of this film lies in offering up something for everyone; for those who came for the strategies of combat, secrets and lies and others who wanted to know more about Turing’s humanity, everyone will go home satisfied.  It stands to say that Turing is incredible.  Hell, I even learned about the Turing system in my beginners Computer Science class in high school.  His brilliance is special but he lived within a society where he never quite fit.  Whether that’s from his sexual orientation and the persecution he suffered from it, or his lack of social know-how that meant that he was never quite accepted.  Either way, it was this perception of his own difference that he battled with his entire life but also what made him more open-minded.  It’s this history of being dismissed that made him consider the talents of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), in spite of her sex.  Yes Clarke was smart and participated in very important work that she will never be credited for, but what’s also compelling is her relationship to Turing.  She was his friend when everyone thought that he was strange and a misfit.  She saw beyond his interest in codes to his ability to think bigger than anyone else.  Imagine how much her friendship was worth when he was treated with such little kindness his entire life.

In The Theory of Everything Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones) is Stephen’s university sweetheart and wife who was there from the beginning of his carefree days as a student to when his body began to give way.  She is the mother to his children, the woman who fed him and clothed him and set him off to work.  She is the light that kept things in perspective even when things probably were very dark.  Jane Hawking also has a Ph.D.  You would never think that would you?  That such a strong, selfless, awe-inspiring woman would also be so accomplished.  They showed it briefly in the film, the struggle, when she’s trying to study amidst the noise of the house, when she found the time to focus on her mind when I’m sure her body and soul were so very tired.  Jane was there as Stephen Hawking was making his mark and she bore it all.  She was steadfast when he initially said that they didn’t need help because they were a “normal” family.

What is it with these extraordinary men and their obsession with being normal?  You would think that they were far too special for something banal like fitting it.  The pull is always there though, that desire for some reprieve since it’s so much easier to be ordinary.  It’s no surprise then that the Hawking marriage wore down.  You can only go through so much together before you seek something a bit lighter, non?  Who wants to live with all of that weight?  With the end of Turing’s life you are sad for him.  Not for his life, but that he won’t see what an impact he’s had.  That it takes so long for the world to catch up.

Both films are beautiful in their own way.  One brings forth larger and relevant issues of security, identity, and social acceptance.  The other gets at the complexities of marriage and the politics of living with someone, the hurt we cause and the outcomes of this history of flaws.  But both provide hope, to continue on our paths because one day, you’ll be somewhere fine, the sun will shine, and all will be right with the world.  Perspective.  Both offer perspective.

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Shiner

I spent all of last week walking around with a black eye and a chipped tooth.  After a perfectly lovely New Year’s eve celebration, I proceeded to slip in my in-laws’ tub the morning we were to depart for Boston.  This meant that I began 2015 at the hospital, rushed home to pack and then proceeded to board a flight for Logan.  My first thought was, damn I better change this “ju-ju” which is basically a nickname for fate/luck/karma.

Now, you would think that the painful part would be in the emergency room.  No, no that was perfectly routine, especially when the resident was our age and I felt like I was being treated by my friend S, or Dr. B.  The pain begins much later when your face starts to swell and takes on fifty shades of purple.  In spite of your condition, you still need to go the grocery store, attend orientation for your new position and face everyone at your child’s preschool.  I even went to a PTA meeting where the director of the centre was gracious enough to say “and no, her husband did not do that to her face.”  She is the classiest person I know, because seeing as my son attends daycare at a private school, this was going to be hardest crowd.

At least in most of these situations you can tell your story.  You can explain the state you’re in and how truly, the year can only get better.  For the strangers you’ll never meet, you don’t get this luxury but just their stares.  After I reached a certain age my first strategy is to not care.  I’ve written many a blog post playing around with this concept and I still believe that it’s the fastest track to freedom.  But there is a difference between trying not to care and actually not caring.  When someone looks at you with such incredible pity and then with disgust at your partner you want to ask them if they kindly have something to share.

The most important lesson I gained from this whole experience, more than the proper way to step into a tub, or not letting the haters get you down, is being reflexive about all the times I look.  Because no matter how politically liberal I strive to be I still look at the woman with the religious garb or the man with the piercings when they board the bus.  In my mind I start wondering about their story.  But here’s the thing.  Till you sit down with them and have a meaningful conversation about their personal history, you don’t know their story and your gaze is empty and useless.  If this has reigned in my judgmental ways even a little, well that is a gift.

It’s been over a week and the bruises are mostly faded and the tooth has been fixed.  When this is all under the rug and I no longer have to explain myself, it will be such a relief.  But here’s the thing, I’m lucky enough to not live with violence.  I am blessed to have a respectful partner but for even those in more complicated situations than mine, I can guarantee you one thing: they are far from weak.  Some things take time to sort through but it’s probably not made easier with pity or those thoughts that you could never say to their face.

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Blame it

You know the term “you need a chaser?”  A chaser is that wedge of lemon after tequila, the lime in your vodka-soda, gross sugary syrup in a mix drink.  Basically it’s something to cut the alcohol, which does not taste so great but has the potential to make you feel different.  For a time alcohol was my chaser to life’s hiccups or whatever else I found reason to be stressed about but I soon learnt that it doesn’t really work.  I saw a really great quote on a Lululemon sign once about how alcohol will only make you forget the question but never give you the answer.  Those yogis are wise non?

My relationship with alcohol was perilous from the start due to the allure it held as a banned substance in my household.  Everything becomes desirable when it’s unattainable.  Growing up in a Buddhist family, alcohol was a big no-no.  Along with the baggage that comes with having strict Asian parents is the concept that Buddhists’ minds are their most sacred parts of themselves.  So losing control of it to a legal-depressant is far from ideal.  So when I could finally get my hands on it and had the freedom to do whatever the hell I wanted, I got hammered.  It took me a long time to learn about drinking responsibly and knowing my limits.  It also took me awhile to not feel the need to be drunk to have fun.

When I was pregnant and not partaking in the wine I learnt the pleasure of having an intellectually stimulating conversation without having it dull my brain.  It was also nice to never worry about a hangover.  I got more stuff done.  Surprisingly I didn’t actually want to drink again right away after my son was born.  It was close to a year in fact before I indulged which is a far cry from the “party girl” I once was.  It is just not feasible to have a late night and care for a toddler the next day.  The pain is far too great and so not worth it.  So, I’ve learnt the advantages that come with moderation.  Don’t get me wrong, I occasionally still have a jolly good time, I just hydrate and realize that my body cannot handle those 3am nights, nor does it really want to.

We’ve all moved on in our own ways, with or without the babies.  No one really wants to be that old sketchy guy at the bar.  Dude, the party’s over.  Plus, a stiff drink will never fix the situations where acceptance, resilience and character are needed.  If only it was that easy.

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Festivities

Celebrations are an integral part of marking the December holidays and they come when we need them the most.  After a few weeks of leaving your office under pitch black skies, it’s precisely when the weather starts to turn that we have a few drinks and eat some canapes.  You might think, it’s January, the party is over, who cares.  While you are right, it’s only now, after the detox from champagne and rich foods that the mind is a bit clearer to look back on how to do it right.

What people often forget about the holidays is that it doesn’t happen by chance.  All of those perfectly decorated cookies and delicious meals do not just appear on cue.  There are usually individuals, be they wives or husband, mothers or fathers, who allow you to sit back and enjoy the outcomes of their hard work.  These rituals also have the danger of making you absolutely crazy.  Really, how many gourmet delights can you pull together till it takes a toll on your body and a part of your soul.  So, how can we make it easier?  Here’s my advice on how to be the best kind of host:  an engaged one.

1. Timing

Before I plan a dinner or party I make a master list of every single thing that I will need.  Now this list has several categories and contains everything from the ingredients to the type of cutlery I will be using.  Then, I make a plan of when I am going to buy or gather all of these materials.  The trick is that you give yourself a lot of lead-up time.  No one wants to work on a project constantly, even if it involves making place cards.  Take the time you need and know your limits.  If you need a break, take one and pick up the slack when you have more energy.

2. Be present

When you invite guests into your home be sure to take the time to speak to them.  Sure, some platters may need a bit of refreshing but that can be done after you’ve made the rounds.  Trust, they will come back to the table if they really want that savory tart.

3. Finer details

A few years ago I was walking in the grocery store and fell in love with the vintage coca cola bottles.  As someone who rarely drinks soda, this was a very strange attachment.  I love the look of those glass bottles engulfed in ice with the red label peeking out.  The aesthetic spoke to me of a casual cool with that extra care for the details.  Since then, they have appeared at every party I have hosted, from my son’s 2nd birthday to a New Year’s eve party for my parents and their friends.  I am also partial to: cans of San Pellegrino, paper straws (though no one seems to ever use them), Kiju organic juice for the young ones, and Perrier.  With regards to the alcohol, go heavy on the wine and lighter on the beer.  Party-goers seem to prefer to mingle with stem wear.  The French label Kronenbourg with their pretty blue bottles will strike a nice chord.

4. Simplicity

Most people will choose to have a smiling gracious host over a big hot, stressed mess.  To walk into a house with that vibe is just not appealing.  So, before your guests arrive have a drink in hand and be prepared to actually enjoy yourself.  To enable you to do that you might need some help.  Do you want to cut up fruits and vegetables?  If the answer is a “no” then order some platters from the grocery store or a caterer.  The same goes for the rest of the menu.  If it will make it easier, pair some of your dishes with pre-ordered ones.  There is no shame in that but it’s always a shame to miss out on a good time.

I feel that some temperaments are better suited to host parties.  My control-freak tendencies mixed with the generally calm demeanor means that I take great pleasure in organizing such fanfares but experience over the years has taught me to keep it real.  It is just a party.  As soon as it stops being enjoyable, find pleasure in something else.  Above all though, as we make our own happiness, we also make our own fun.  So chillax baby, it’s the people that matter.

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Brown paper packages

As this season of giving draws to a close, I write now about the ritual of bestowing gifts.  Though unintended, a week’s reprieve from the blog was actually much needed.  Goodness knows what I would have said in the flurry of friends, food, family and fun.  Things are never clear in a haze, even when that haze is made of very good things.  It has been lovely to say the least but it’s nice to take this moment to reflect on the festivities that have just past.

I believe it’s so fitting that the holidays are followed by a time of reflection.  When a new year approaches even the most laissez-faire individual cannot help but be caught up in making wishes and honing in on dreams for the new year.  I never find this passing to be depressing because I’m not overly nostalgic nor do I see the time ahead to be a clean slate.  We’ve already started to impact the future with the decisions in the past few months, so just go with the flow folks.

What I find more interesting is the process of giving gifts to those you love.  From many a December, I’ve learnt that you really need to be on the same page with your circle of recipients.  Some are not so into it, because of their dislike for materialism and so forth which is cool and others use this time to show off all that they possess.  There is the middle ground where we return to the act of giving to the people in our lives because we care for them and for no reason other than that.  We’ve also reached the age and phase in our lives when we can go out next week and buy whatever it is that we want, so I don’t give to receive, I give to offer a tangible token of my love.

I’ve always been in favor of the wish lists because it’s so much more practical.  Why not give an item that the person actually wants to wear, use or practice?  But I’m also of the mind that once I give a gift, it is out of my hands.  The individual has every right to put it in the back of their closet or re-gift it because frankly, it’s not really my place to ask about the thing at every opportunity.  These types of questions reak of cheapness, as if you’re counting if every penny you spent is getting its full value.  I’m also not a fan of the guilt.  Of course, it’s important to recognize those who are not in the same position to celebrate the holidays with such grand gestures and material goods.  This type of reflexivity should be practiced always, not only when the malls have extended hours and the lights cover the street lamps.  It is also about scale right?  The most elite are giving different types of gifts to each other, probably vehicles or Cartier and not gift certificates to Banana Republic.  It’s also about context.  Not everyone marks the holidays and no, they don’t know if it’s Christmas time at all.

Always gratitude right?  But I truly believe that when you give, give with a full heart.  Balance the pocketbooks but don’t be a humbug either.  You have the rest of the year to be Ebenezer and see if it all adds up.

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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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