What I Learnt While Away In Not Quite One Sentence

When we came back from Asia, my wonderful tenant (one of those people who make your house actually look BETTER when they’re living in it) asked me if I could say in one sentence what we’d learnt from six months living out of a backpack, what would it be?

I was still a little giddy from travel so I blithely replied I’d learnt that anything is possible. Well, that was quite wrong. I mean, we should listen to each other but don’t forget that perhaps 20% of what comes out of our mouths will be pure garbage at any one time. The challenge is nobody knows which comment is the 20% garbage… because they think you actually believe everything you say.

My reply wasn’t entirely wrong; after all, anything is possible within reason. But really what I’d learnt was how incredibly important community is to the human soul. There were some places where we found no community – simply because it was too large a place or the layout of where we were staying meant we never ran into the same people, things like that. Then other places where instantly a network sprang into place. The contrast between the two experiences was stark – in one you felt the tendrils of community stretching out and holding you, like those strange photos of cells you see with tendrils branching out. Those places brought a sense of peace and relaxation. In the other places with no community, why am I here reverberated quietly in your soul.

To return to Vancouver with that thought in mind was to come back feeling like the people I knew stood for so much more than they were as people. They were also pillars keeping us all together and holding each one of us, however invisibly. They were signposts that we are walking together even if it looks like we walk alone.

Like hamsters endlessly making beds out of cedar chips, we can’t NOT create community. It’s just an instinct. Even if we uproot ourselves so much more in modern life, we begin instantly the process of community. And if we don’t, it’s the path to depression and shrinking of the soul.

The other thing I learnt was to weaken my attachment to stuff. Before we left to travel, I’d hauled heaps of bags to the Salvation Army. At least, what I thought were heaps of bags. But when we returned and I opened the door to our basement storage, I was shocked. There were bags and bags of stuff still remaining. Oodles of coats, shoes, toys, books, towels, sheets… I mean, how many coats does one person need? I’d hardly scratched the surface of getting rid of the Excess. But I could only see this now after living out of a bag for months.

And now when something breaks, I have the thought “Thank God, now I get to get rid of it.” That has definitely been freeing. For years I’d been longing to live in a mud hut, but it was (mostly) a wish to escape from Stuff. Because Too Much Stuff simply doesn’t feel good.

The Compliment and The Label

Why is it that whenever we compliment ourselves on some aspect of parenting that is going well, the very next minute/hour/day it all goes to hell? Is the universe shouting at us that we fell off Humble Hill and time to get back on?

A similar rule seems to apply whenever you try to define yourself. The other day I was chatting to my neighbour who has an awe-inspiring level of fitness AND three kids. I asked her how she managed to have such amazing motivation for biking, running, whatever else it is she does. I was curious to hear what works for her.

“Food” was her answer… “Being able to eat whatever I like.”

Instantly my heart sank. Food? Food is your motivator? You mean you can bike for 8 hours because you’ve got a bunch of scrambled eggs waiting for you back at homebase?

That was not going to cut it for me. I replied that food wasn’t a great motivator for me. I mean, hell, I often have to remind myself to eat lunch, as I told her.

The very next day I found myself glued to the fridge, pawing through it at regular intervals and furiously cooking up not just one lunch but a never-ending procession of them. What had happened to my food oblivion? Ah… then I remembered I’d defined myself as not overly interested in eating.

Whenever we try define or pin down who we are, life invariably tells you “that’s not quite it” by some means or other. If you are listening, you will hear life’s reply. Sometimes it’s very quiet, other times, not so much.

I think from now on I’ll be leaving the labelling to other people. They can talk all they want about who they are. Me, I’ll be working on clawing my way onto humble hill and keeping my mouth shut.

Dinner is Where It’s At

Sometimes I think there is no greater accomplishment than cooking dinner for your family. That that is the pinnacle of achievement. Sure, performing hand surgery or investigating the speed of light, or devising new astounding apps or making presentations to roomfuls of CEOs or what you have is pretty impressive, but really where it’s at is making a meal at dinnertime. And of course not just a meal from a package or can, but something involving actual chopping. For everyone who does that, whoah, you are really doing an amazing job and has anyone actually TOLD you exactly HOW amazing?

I didn’t always think this way. I used to be one of those who proclaimed I wished we could eat pills instead of food, you know, to save time. But life can have a funny way of beating you over the head with a different idea. Thus when Aaron was sick the stove literally became my best friend. I spent hours every day tending to it, stirring, sizzling, frying and of course burning stuff. I suffered from anxiety if I spent too long away from the stove, because then Aaron might have to eat something UNKNOWN …prepared by STRANGERS. It was kind of like having your brain invaded by someone else’s thoughts, but those thoughts became mine pretty quickly. I think the peak of it was when I showed up to meet a friend at Value Village with a container of freshly made liver paté. She herself was pretty amazing at cooking things up, but liver paté by the racks at Value Village was a new one for her. This wasn’t something I purposely set out to do. It was just that when you spend a huge amount of time married to the stove, you are going to have to entertain yourself somehow.

I’m glad to say I can now leave the house without panicking at how long it’s been since I saw my stove. And although my kid can now pretty much eat most things from time to time and come out of it unscathed, I still have a horror of buying anonymous packaged food prepared by Unknown Forces. And I still put Must-Make-Dinner ahead of many things that might be said to be of equal importance, such as Must-Make-A-Living.

It’s Yours

This life may be difficult, puzzling, frustrating and completely confusing. But at the same time there is the sense that at least it’s my difficult, puzzling, frustrating and completely confusing life, wholly 100% mine.

It is puzzling, there is no doubt about that. Yet there is a strong undercurrent of joy at the fact that it’s mine. It sounds so basic and obvious, like you don’t have to be hit over the head with a plank to realize that. And it’s true, it is pretty obvious. I mean whose life is it going to be? Yet I think for many years I either forgot or never knew fully that this life is a gift that I’ve been given. So the good, the bad, the downright frustrating and impenetrable muck, it is happily mine and mine alone.

The Birthday Horrors

My son’s eighth birthday was looming and the kid was running around proclaiming all that his birthday was going to be, and mostly, what he was going to get. It was the latter that was filing me with dread.

When you step out for awhile from Western society and then step back in, children’s birthdays appear as Horrors on the Horizon. The hordes of presents reinforces that it’s not about people, it’s about stuff and getting More Stuff.

I cannot help but think of Krishnamurti’s statement: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” This experience of birthday parties filled with hordes of presents year after year orients children to our material society, that buying stuff and having stuff is what it’s all about. It teaches them that this is how we celebrate – not by being together with friends and family, but that we need to get Stuff. And by now it’s pretty glaringly obvious that this is not the way to happiness, yet we unwittingly teach them that it is.

If we are looking for a transformation of consciousness and to move away from materialism, we need to step away from the parade of presents. Kids could make something for birthdays (no matter how hideous) or perhaps choose a present from among favourite toys they already own. Bringing a couple of dollars for the birthday child to choose one present is also good. Children naturally want to experience the happiness of giving but the boatload of presents in the corner is unsettling.

Of course, none of this is easy. I managed to get myself in quite a tizzy over Aaron’s ‘requests’ for various crate sized Lego boxes. Despite the amount of Lego he already has, I actually contemplated buying more. Which was seriously crazy. In the end, I bought him a pair of new sandals. Since the kid had resorted to wearing either a pair of flip flops or my neighbour’s son’s old black leather dress shoes, he appreciated the present.

The Speed Demons of Modern Life

After we’d been back a month or so from Asia, it didn’t take long before I was firmly entrenched again in the pace of life here. The first couple of weeks back a friend had asked me what my plans were for spring break. I’d answered happily, “Nothing. Just enjoy Vancouver.” And I meant it – just completely enjoy whatever we found ourselves doing. But that sentiment quickly faded and was replaced with Must Make Plans.

There is so much on offer in Western cities – music, concerts, plays, activities from circus acrobatics to ukulele lessons and everything else, a plethora of food to try in restaurants and cafes, talks that can’t be missed, things your kids must see, plus hiking trails, skiing, biking, sports galore, etc etc. Consequently we find ourselves racing all over the place to all sorts of places Because They’re There and Because We Can. There isn’t as much sitting doing very little of anything as there is in less developed places.

Despite having all the modern appliances that were supposed to free up our time, when you return to Western life with all these accoutrements and more, we have even less free time than ever before. Modern life has brought many wonderful things, yet at the same time can our nervous systems truly cope with the pace? And where is the joy in all this speed? In knocking off yet another item on the list? What is a life done quickly?

We humans are funny creatures. We are amazingly adaptive; yet that is both a curse and a blessing. We can seemingly adapt to the speed, yet is that what we should be doing?

It’s been said many times that we have our most creative moments when doing nothing in particular. Yet one truly has to make a concerted effort to do nothing in modern life. When we think we are doing nothing, we are often still doing something – surfing the web, planning the next day’s activities, sunbathing. Telling someone that we’re “doing nothing” is almost an embarrassment in the West. And even if we actually are doing nothing, it might be we start thinking we’re going to do nothing so that we can be more creative. Because we’re just so darn goal-oriented.

And the irony is the more we do, the less we actually deeply enjoy what we are doing. If each day had less in it, the things that are on offer we would then find more satisfying and be filled with more gratitude for them. But can we return to this state of mind? The malaise of modern life is not easy to avoid – and it seems that doing more of something exciting would be the cure for it. But it is the opposite. Only in doing less of everything will we find again our natural joy.

A Different Palette

In late February, with the heat of the hot season in Thailand almost upon us, we took a 16 hour flight through Xiamen in China to arrive back in Vancouver. We stepped out of the airport into winter. The kids were gleeful to be back on their own ground and thought the cold amusing and novel. But by the time they’d taken the Skytrain and then stood at the bus stop at 8 o’clock at night, they were absolutely freezing. I’d sent my shoes home months before so was wearing flip flops with wool socks. Since it was downtown I merely blended in with the other questionable fashion statements that come and go on Georgia Street on a Saturday night.

The next day we awoke to a completely different colour palette. Outside was an expanse of greys, browns and greens, very unlike the eye-popping colours of turquoise water, periwinkle blue skies and lime green palm leaves that we’d left behind. It was like looking at an artist’s palette with three colours to choose from. The sky was grey, the tree trunks and branches were grey and brown, and the grass and evergreens were dark green. All was subdued and taken from a very different end of the colour spectrum.

Although it wasn’t a beauty that beats you over the head screaming look at me, it was beautiful and entrancing and I stared and stared to fill up my eyeballs with the palette. What was most striking was how completely harmonious all the tones of grey, brown and green were together, and just how many different tones there were. It was like looking at a feast for your eyes – a feast that showed the miracle of the design that we live in. As I looked I wished to appreciate this miracle as often as I could.

Stuff Foreigners Do

Foreigners in Thailand often behave strangely. Here are some of the things we do:

  • We walk through streets barefoot even though we can afford shoes.
  • We are fond of large tattoos on our arms and legs.
  • Our hair is sometimes uncombed and for some, matted, even though we are not beggars or crazy.
  • We wear bikinis on the main street while everyone else is clothed.
  • We like to lie on the beach and roast like pieces of toast.
  • Sometimes we take most of our clothes off while roasting.
  • We expect things to go according to plan and get upset when surprisingly they do not.
  • We like images of Buddha as tattoos or on t-shirts.
  • We dress up like gypsies with flowing robes.

These things appear perfectly normal when in our natural habitat in the West, but strangely peculiar when we wander further afield.

Fermented Fish Paste and Other Culinary Treats

I met my nemesis in Myanmar at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was the food. In Indonesia I’d wondered at the Spanish girl who couldn’t stomach Indonesian food and had brought along enough chorizo and crackers from Spain to get her through our 3 day boat trip. Probably too pampered I had thought. Be careful what you judge is all I can say, because instead of 3 days I had 25 days of fermented fish paste looming ahead of me.

My apologies to any Burmese, but quite frankly fermented fish paste is not something I can eat with any great gusto. Once I tasted that, I was done for. Paul to his credit had no problem with the food despite a fish allergy. He stuck to rice and meat and a couple of veggie dishes and was fine. I on the other hand was seeing fermented fish paste coming at me before I even sat down at the table.

I’m sure that fermented fish paste is off the charts on the health-o-meter, seeing as it combines those two chart toppers ‘fermented’ and ‘fish’. But apparently I don’t care quite as much about health as I thought I did. Likewise we discovered that for Paul, quantity and good price are at the pinnacle of his food pyramid and Myanmar certainly hits the ball out of the ballpark on that.

Sabine and Nerys had similar thoughts about fish paste as I did. Sabine summed it up by saying, “There’s better food in prison.”

In a few places we managed to dodge the fish paste bullet by eating Shan noodles and Indian food. In Yangon we were such faithful customers at an Indian thali place that by the end of our four day stay our Indian waiter was spoon feeding Aaron his dahl and rice and feeding him dinner from his daughter’s plate. At least, I think it was his daughter. If not, then this was one boss with major boundary issues. 

I also found the milk tea had a strange flavour. I could only ponder that perhaps the waiters had a habit of stirring it with the same spoon as they served the fish paste. Maybe it was a bit like sand when you have a beach holiday. You find the stuff everywhere – in your suitcase, on your phone, toothbrush, underwear. Fermented fish paste might be like that too. You start cooking and before you know it fish flakes are turning up in all sorts of odd places, from teapots to salt shakers and cookie tins.

One evening early on in our visit we were so perplexed by what to eat that we ended up eating Melba toast for dinner. The kids at first couldn’t believe their good luck. Their Mama with a horror of wheat is freely handing out Costco sized mounds of Melba? Let’s just say that by the time they had eaten enough Melba to constitute a meal, they were not so sure about their good fortune, because afterwards they could barely scrape their tongue off the roof of their mouth, and scrape is the right word for what happened to their tongue in the meantime.

The day we left Myanmar we found ourselves once again stopping at Bangkok food stalls to devour curries, only this time I thought I could smell something a little different wafting in the air. I was horrified to smell fish paste. Mercifully, the flashback faded fairly quickly.

The Lineage of Being Female

Sometimes when you travel your insides are suddenly on the outside. It can happen in a instant and surprise you by how quickly it comes over you.

We were walking up the narrow steps of a temple on a hill in the countryside near Hpa-An when a Burmese woman coming down stopped and took Nerys’ wrist in her hand. She looked at her closely, but kindly. Then she did the same to Sabine. The girls stood while she held their wrists. Then she turned to me and held my wrist too without speaking, just with kindness. I felt the connection of one mother to another and a transfer of the universal feeling of having daughters and everything you do for them, experiencing the world through the lineage of being female.

I felt emotional and did not linger, lest I have to explain why some stranger holding my wrist was bringing tears. I held her wrist briefly in return, then scurried up the stairs.

Connecting with someone from a different culture is like drinking from a well of sweet water. You feel something about what it is to be human in this very big world of ours.