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Friday, 30 December 2016

71: Laid bare..

Over dinner some weeks ago, a friend of mind commented “I don’t know how you do it.  How you put yourself out there and leave yourself so exposed.”  She was referring to my outpourings on “a40somethinglife”.  I heard her concern for me in her voice and I get it.  Because there have been many a time where I have felt the discomfort of friends and acquaintances who perhaps feel like they have opened a Pandora’s Box when they read my work.  In text-speak, TMI: ‘too much information’. And then uncomfortable silence follows.

And yet, when I first started writing in earnest, initially the whole idea was to let people laugh at how silly I can be; but somehow over time, my collection of writings have taken a life of its own and laid bare some of my deepest experiences.   And so, with every essay, a lot of soul searching goes on as I ask myself a myriad of questions before I finally write those two words “the end”.  Will this offend or hurt someone’s feelings - if so, have I been fair? Am I being indulgent – or is this an accurate depiction?  Is what I am saying relevant – will it resonate or be helpful?  Am I being clear – or is my poor reader in danger of dying a death of boredom from my mindless rambling?  You get the picture.

Generally, when I sit down to write, the easiest ones to write are the ones where I am poking fun at myself or my reaction to a situation.  Those are super easy to write and I can whip those out in less than a day.  But then, judging by my writings of late, comedy is not my natural suit.  Luckily for me though, Matt thinks I am somewhat funny and I confess I do go out of my way to try to get a laugh out of him.  For the most part however, I fear I do have a habit of leaving my sense of humor behind as I rush around trying to get ‘stuff’ done.  But I digress.

Getting back to my friend’s concern for me about emotionally exposing myself.  I guess by the time the words on my page have traveled via the internet to someone down the road or on the other side of the world, I would have already spent countless months (if not years) working towards healing from the painful memory or have by that time, come to terms with a status quo.  Especially when I write about my childhood.  You see, I do not look upon my childhood with regret or sadness.  I do not write about it to illicit pity or tears - I had previously spent too many occasions see-sawing between being wrathful and grief stricken over my fractured heart.  And then I recall the legions of broken childhoods that have endured far worse than mine - making my youth appear almost idyllic. As such, I refer to my childhood here and there in my musings, more as just a factual actuality of events that are part of my make-up and DNA.  Like you would when developing a story. 

Which still belies the question:  why do I write?  Why do I share?  I write because I like to write.  I share because sharing forms communities.  In a world where selfies, reality television, instant gratification and photo-shopped perfection reign supreme, I write as a way to connect.  To honor so called imperfection. To celebrate efforts, big or small, to overcome challenges and hurdles of any size and description – because everyone has a journey.  To say you are not alone.  To say nothing is impossible or unachievable.  And so I write.  Laid bare. To hopefully resonate or inspire.

- end -

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

70: Lunch for one..

My hands feel clammy. I feel a tightness in my chest and fight an overwhelming urge to run out the door and back to my desk where I had just been surrounded by quiet reflection. I feel several pairs of eyes on me and I try to muster a confident voice. "Table for one please" I manage to squeak out.  "Get a hold of yourself Michelle! You are a confident nearly 50-year old who has lived and dined all over the world!" I muster myself.  I know I am behaving like a total chicken but am unsure why I am feeling so reticent about having lunch on my own. After all, I have dined by myself many a time but this feels different.

I am sitting in a restaurant in Whistler at the height of the holiday season.  Holidays equal family and friends but I am on my own.  Matt and the girls are on the slopes somewhere between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains and I have had to beg off due to a rotator cuff injury that has had me in pain 24/7 for the past two months. I feel like an interloper in amongst a sea of graceful (and glamorous) mountain adventurers!  Excited conversation swirl around me in different languages - chatter about the powder and visibility.  And then I catch sight of my own reflection – flat hair, no make-up, baggy sweater and leggings.  Let’s just say the only thing stopping me from upping and escaping back to our rented two bedroom apartment is I am longing for a meal cooked by someone else and a refreshing drink (i.e. cocktail 😉)!  But I really should have thought a little about my outfit – and remembered to bring my book.

Anyway, I am told it is going to be a five minute wait. I nod in agreeance, fighting every molecule in my body that is screaming at me to turn around and just walk out. Unfortunately all that is left in my holiday pantry is a packet of some pretty disgusting looking noodles - so I stay put. Quite literally, my need for something a little more sophisticated than an unappetizing bed of carbohydrates is the only thing stopping me from running out. 10 minutes later, I am shown to a table - facing a sea of diners who are in their twos, threes and more. Yup! I am pretty much the only person in the room dining with my shadow.

I wait for my waiter, desperately scanning faces to see who will take my drink order at least (aka a double serving of Dutch courage on the rocks por favor!). No luck. I fight another overwhelming urge to just walk out and pick up a sandwich I can just take home and eat at my desk. But once again another urge stops me. The urge to have a freshly made salad and a crispy chicken burger!  Yup. I have just given the menu a once-over.  Finally! A young girl who looks like she just walked out of a magazine comes over and I gratefully order. No turning back now!

I get a message from Matt from wherever he and the girls are. They are just sitting down to lunch too. Feeling a little lonely, I share with him my wave of irrational anxiety and paranoia about being the only non-skier in the room dining with their own shadow. He laughs. In good Matt fashion he says the restaurant I am in actually secretly prefers non-skiers - I think it's because us alpine non-adventurers take up less room and do not leave a trail of wet slush in our wake. He tries to make a date to meet (aka rescue) me outside the restaurant in about an hour. Frankly, I don't think I will last that long - I am a fast eater! That and my now-arrived meal no longer looks as attractive as I always prefer eating with Matt where we get to taste each other's meals. But I forge on.

The restaurant has now started to empty out as skiers head back out to the lifts that will take them to heights where vertically-phobic people like me try to avoid as best we can. The room is quieter and I look out at the beautiful view of white pristine landscape before me and half-wish I could join them all. Lunch done and heart no longer pounding with erratic nonsense musings, I ask for my bill and head home to wait for Matt and the girls - in the quiet of our room. 

- end -

No. 69: The power of the mind..

In a previous piece I wrote “The power of fear”, I mentioned a school of thought which centered around the premise that every battle fought had to be won twice – the first time in one’s mind.  And from my own experience, I believe this to be true and central to the outcome of one’s endeavors, struggles and experiences.  Since becoming a parent, I am ever mindful that my job is to equip the girls with these ‘tools’ needed to navigate their lives. Such as learning how to pick yourself up in the face of adversity, to being resilient when things are difficult, to being reflective when things don’t make sense and importantly, developing solving skills to find a way around a problem – because there is always a solution. 

Some 10 years ago, Rhonda Byrne wrote a book called The Secret.  While I never read it, I did study many similar books when I was in my early 20s. Why then did I bring up that book?  I guess because it keeps popping up on my Facebook feed!  Anyway, from Norman Vincent Peale’s “The power of positive thinking” to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and just about every book by the likes of Wayne W Dyer, Spencer Johnson, Robert Kiyosaki and more.  The message is pretty much universal.  You are in charge of your experiences and the outcome.  But only if you believe because the power of the mind colors your experience.  And yet, how to impart those lessons to three privileged teenagers who live in a generation of instant gratification?  Where social media and advertising companies creates a culture whereby everything appears perfect but is in fact manipulated; and reality is hidden behind apps that correct blemishes or simply expunge anything less than utopian? 

And so I talk to them about my childhood.  Of being tied to a bed whilst my mother took my brothers out to the movies.  Of being banished from the house with a few coins in my pocket and wandering the streets in the sweltering heat until I discovered the sanctity of libraries. Of being ashamed of the scars and scratches on my face and the looks and comments they attracted.  Of being thrown against a brick wall and punched in the stomach so the blows would not be outwardly noticeable. Of finally leaving my father’s house at 17 with nothing but a bag of clothes – and not knowing a single adult I could turn to for help.  I talk about my Cambridge-educated father who was able to project the picture-perfect impression of his blended family to the outside world where in reality my two brothers and I lived in a constant state of fear of violence – physically, emotionally and psychologically.  Why?  To teach them empathy and demonstrate that even when things are projected as picture perfect, quite often, there are struggles that are being wrestled with in the shadows.  To teach them about being grateful and that ‘perfection’ is not real.

Then I share about how through my quests to ‘find a place’ for myself I worked multiple jobs and studied at the same time.  I share the misadventures and wrong decisions that made me cry in earnest but how it also drove me - to learn from my mistakes and pick myself up. And then I talk about how even in my darkest days, I somehow always had an idea, a thought, that I was going to be okay.  Of how I began to think about and, if you like, daydream about the life I wanted, about the things I wanted to accomplish and achieve, and how I used those thoughts and dreams to drive me in my everyday actions and decisions.  In fact, even to this day, I still practice this.  Where whenever I am able find myself in a quiet moment, I reflect on what I hope for and what I want to achieve.  Is this praying?  Or meditating?  Maybe.  But I don’t know.  I have never thought to put a name to it.  But it is how I center myself especially in moments of fear.  Where I calm myself by trusting that everything will fall into place as it should.  A belief.  The power of the mind.  To pass on to my girls.

- end -

Monday, 26 December 2016

No. 68: Into the woods..

“What?!”  I heard my friend exclaim loudly when she heard I was moving to Connecticut.  “But why?” was quickly followed by “I sure hope you can play tennis -- you are going to need it to fit in!”  When I say “heard”, this conversation was actually in text form over the messaging function of Facebook.  My friend, whom I had met during a six year stint in London, had not long relocated to New Canaan was a tad worried for me.  And she was not the only one.  You see, for many, thanks to the movie “The Stepford Wives” aka the land of manicured lawns and ‘artificially engineered’ community, Connecticut equated a town where the women were immaculately glamorous and life revolved around book clubs, bridge, tennis and afternoon cocktails.  All fiction of course!  But in my friends’ mind, I had only lived in bustling cities (Sydney, Kobe, Hong Kong, London and Singapore) and they wondered how I would adjust to life in the ‘burbs.  But I was too busy dealing with everything required for a transatlantic move to dwell on whether or not / how I was going to 'fit in'.  The children were my priority.

Fast forward 18 months and people hearing my accent (apparently a cross between Australian and British) often share how they have always wanted to visit Australia and then ask different variations of “what made you choose to move here?”  If I were to look at my life through their eyes, I guess I would ask the same question.  After all, higher taxes, bigger houses that require more effort and winding roads with no street lights and potential diseases I had never heard of until we landed (ie Lyme).  Meantime, where I once would have not batted an eye if my children approached seemingly placid wildlife (deer, squirrels, chipmunks), now I am like a crazed person warning them of all the potential diseases.  And running through tall grass to watch the fireflies (yes, that was me in the first few months of moving here!), no more.  Call it the fear of Lyme. But I jest.  I am here because I love my husband, our children and our life together.  And so we move where opportunity knocks for my husband. While this is the most ‘country’ I have called home, like everywhere else, the first year is a period of adjustment where you try not to look like a deer in headlights and try to find your ‘village’.  And every year after that, like a good recipe, you tweak and adjust until you feel like you have found your feet – somewhat.

I had written the above nearly a year ago and after hitting a wall, pressed “save” and walked away.  Since then, Matt has left his job in order to start his own financial venture, I took on a role in the clothing business – only to realise it was the wrong fit (no pun intended) and subsequently and organically launched a food business.  Additionally, kismet showed me who my real friends were during these challenging times, forcing me to ‘serve divorce’ papers on those who were not as invested. Meanwhile Faith, my eldest has started driving (another whole new adventure) and is about to graduate from high school and take her first steps into adulthood where she will likely leave home to live in another state to go to university. Cue the tissues for when that happens in a few months time where I will be inconsolable! But it is all good.

Where change, be it a new environment or an adjustment in attitude, can and often is intimidating and painful, once you find your feet – and you always do, it will feel right again.  And you wonder why you were ever afraid to begin with.  Until the next time you have to step out of your comfort zone and into the woods.  By the way, I still have not joined a book club or taken up tennis, bridge or racquet ball.  I do, however, like all good Australians, enjoy a cocktail or two!  Salut!

- end -

67: Made with love..

Nearly a year ago, a gift of home made Australian pies to a friend who was a fan of these fist-size savory bites led to the surprising 'birth' of a little business. Whilst I had always loved cooking for friends we welcomed into our homes all over the world, never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to be in a position where people would pay me to do what was a norm for me!  

However, of late, when some friends have proudly introduced me to third parties as an amazing chef, I have felt the need to correct them. But it is not out of false modesty but rather from the knowledge that I am not a chef - not by the longest stretch of anyone's imagination.  After all, a chef is someone who has undergone intense formal training - be it in a commercial kitchen or a formal institution. And I have done neither.  Perhaps I am more akin to a cook? But then, are we all not cooks?  Picking up a cook book written by a professional (or by some celebrity du jour) and then diligently following the recipe in the hope of replicating the picture perfect dishes that have been professionally photographed and Photo-shopped? No pressure!  But many of my peers are fantastic cooks.  In fact, I would suspect that perhaps that is the reason why some are loathe to place an order of pies from me because they see themselves as better cooks and feel slightly aggrieved that I have made a business (however small) of something I am not a 'professional' at.  And yet, what am I classically 'trained' in?  I guess after completing a double major in Public Relations and Journalism so many years ago, my training lies in the art of writing. And while I continually hone my 'craft' in an unpaid capacity until the day an editor sees my 'worth' so to speak, because of our constant moves around the world, I have had to create work and reinvent my 'profession' around my family.  From being a teacher's assistant and an actor in pantomimes in Hong Kong, to a jewelry and home goods importer in London, to running a small writing business in Singapore, to my current incarnation as a pie maker in the US. But I digress.

Truth be told, if I had to absolutely put a moniker on what I do, I would say I am what one would call a 'feeder'. Long before my current venture of making Australian savory pies for my customers in a little pocket in Connecticut, Matt, my kindest critic, constantly teased me about how I always felt the need to feed anyone who walked through our threshold.  No matter where we are, dinner parties are never small as I always end up inviting the entire 'street' as opposed to just one or two couples. Workmen and tradesmen who come to the house are inundated with offers of whatever I may be cooking at the time and cups of coffee or juice.. pies.. cookies... You get the picture. I like to feed people. 

And so, with every single pie I make, I cook as if I have invited each and every single pie customer into my home and am making them a meal. Every recipe I come up with and tweak. Every ingredient I use.  I am constantly on high alert on how to improve.  I am an expert at NOT following a recipe diligently but am instead led by my instincts and what I see, touch and smell - oh and a compulsion to extract maximum flavor without an excessive reliance on salt, sugar, cheese and oils.  Oh, and I use just about all my senses when I cook: I can hear if the egg whites I am beating for my soufflé pies have reached a stage of readiness.  I rarely (actually never) use a timer to ascertain if my pies are ready to be taken out of the oven - I can smell the aroma of my crust reaching a certain 'crescendo' which then prompts me to peek into the oven to check if my pies have reached that certain golden hue of perfection. That is what I do.  On the Fridays that I bake. Where every pie is made with love from a hankering to fill bellies and make mouths water.

- end -

Friday, 9 December 2016

66. Finding my Ommmm...

So.. here we are.. nearly at the end of 2016 and when I look back at the amount, or rather the lack of writing I managed, it looks pretty dismal.  Why?  I guess I spent much of the year letting go of people and things that I thought were good for me but actually not.  

Let's start with people first.  You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you feel sick whenever you think of spending time with someone?  What about that sense you get (much alike your spidey senses) about someone when you first meet them that makes you keep a distance?  Well, I spent much of this year fighting against it, arguing that its 'all in my mind" or "I'm being too sensitive".  The best one I came up with (which also got thrown back at me at my lowest) was "maybe everything I am feeling is because I am going through menopause"!  Ha!  Sometimes, we are our most unkindest critic.  If I was a better friend to myself, I would have said just one thing: LISTEN TO YOUR INTUITION AND YOUR GUT.  

You know that someone in your life you always have to walk on eggshells around - for fear of offending him/her? Or that person who constantly makes jokes at your expense?  What about the one who is unkind under the guise of being ‘honest’? Or, wait.. I’ve got my two favorites!  Ready? That person who makes loud proclamations about being your biggest cheerleader only to constantly let you down when you need them the most AND that person who makes not so subtle jabs about everything!  Let them go!  Firstly, who has the time to walk around eggshells?  It is exhausting!  After nearly 30 years, I finally said “I AM DONE!” nearly 12 months ago.  And it has been liberating.  And those so-called friends who spent the last 10 years or so being fair-weather buddies?  I recently called time on those too.  You know why?  It gets boring when you are the better friend in the friendship and you get to the point when it gets tiring constantly second guessing your instincts.  Yup.  I am done with those ‘friendships’ and am going to start being a better friend to myself!

So the other half of my letting go.  The need to do absolutely everything for everyone.  The inability to say “no”.  At one point, I thought the magic 'bullet' to my troubles was to get not one but two jobs.  I was tired all the time.  And snappy.  And stressed.  And frustrated when I felt others were not putting in the same 'saintly' but ridiculous hours.  Oh, and I didn’t stand up for myself when people thought it was okay to use verbiage and tone on me that was demeaning.  I think I thought someone else who saw what was happening would stand up for me.  But no.  And so, I realized I was that someone who had to do it.  So I decided to do something about the impasse.  I started by clearing my diary and getting rid of commitments that I had said “yes” to only because I didn’t know how to say “no”.  I quit one of my jobs and tailored the other more to what would allow me to still be creative.  I wrote a strong email stating that I would no longer be ‘receptive’ to disparaging conversations.  And I have started distancing myself from acrimonious company.   And I am forcing myself to be honest with myself and those around me by saying “no” instead of bowing to peer pressure.  And so continues the journey to find my Ommmmmmmm….

- end -

Thursday, 7 July 2016

65. Not taking it personally

A long time ago, Matt said to me I needed to learn to not take things personally.  He said if I expected people to treat me the same way I treated them, I was only setting myself up for disappointment. Seeing this as a life lesson and wanting to learn to be emotionally smarter, over the years, I have somewhat tempered my expectations of others and tried not to take things personally.  And most of the time, it has been manageable.  With strangers and acquaintances, the advice makes sense and is easy enough to follow because there are no emotional ties.

But what about when it involves people who you have opened your heart to and seen you at your weakest?  Especially in circumstances when you are already ‘down on the ground’.  It is very hard not to take it personally when it feels so personal.  The thing is, it always seems to come from people who are competitive.  The ones who like to tell you about how much they earn, or how much they just spent on a shopping spree, or the latest and newest toy they just bought.  Interestingly, they also seem to be the ones making the loudest public proclamations of how they are your biggest supporters but never follow through.  It feels as if they take solace in watching you struggle.  And instead of being respectful, they are offended when you don’t want to talk about what you are going through.  You know what?  I am not much of a talker.  I tend to hide away in order to figure things out.

The adage “actions speak loud than words” is one by which I live by.  An ‘under promiser’ I would much rather ‘over deliver’ than indulge in grandiloquence.  Of course, it could just be a case of my misunderstanding of verbiage.  But then, in my heart, I know I am only making excuses.  And one gets to the point where one (oh, that would be me!) becomes weary of making excuses and pretending not to see when that ‘friend’ is being competitive – even when there is no competition in session.  When times are ‘good’, it is easier to overlook.  But when times are difficult, it is exhausting and disappointing.

Maybe I need to work harder at not taking things personally but it is difficult when the actions of others, hiding under the guise of friendship, feels spiteful and unkind.  As I write this, I reflect back and suddenly realize the similarities with the personality types I am referring to.  I should have realized this lesson sooner.  As I keep saying to my girls.  Everyone has the capacity to be nice and not so nice.  The best way to see through someone’s true nature is to observe how they treat ‘other’ people.  The ones who belittle other people and talk down to servers.  The ones who make fun of or criticize other people’s dress sense or parenting styles.  And the one who makes you feel as if there is some unspoken competition you never signed up to but are inexplicably constantly drawn into.

But no more.  Please do not belittle me under the guise of a joke.  Jokes at other people's expense are not funny - no matter the number of times you tell it. Please let’s not be competitive about our children or make comments that the degree my child is showing an interest in is a rubbish degree and worth nothing.  Please do not make rude comments about other people in front of me because it makes me feel very uncomfortable and wonder what you say about me behind my back.  Please do not talk about how you are going to ‘support’ me but instead keep stringing me along with BS excuses or use it as an opportunity to show me how much better/luckier you are compared to me.  I am not interested.

I am not perfect.  I do not pretend to be anyone but me.  I am not interested in competing with you in any shape or form.  I am trying to live the best life I can and trying to be the most authentic person I know how.  And if you want to show kindness and true friendship, I will welcome it.  But don’t try to tear me down under the guise of friendship to make yourself feel better about whatever it is you are going through – we are ALL going through stuff.  I will take it personally - and stay away from you.

*** end ***