Thursday, January 29, 2015

Inside and outside

Can you be inside and outside at the same time?

I think this is where I live.

I think this is where most women live.

- from “When Women Were Birds”, Terry Tempest Williams

The passage refers to the time when the author landed herself in jail for a night, unable to pay her speeding ticket, and it struck a chord with me. I found myself nodding to the sentences: yes, this is where I live.

No, not in jail. But inside and outside. Not physically, even though the limitations of the inside feels real sometimes. At the start of the year, I was gung ho about my resolutions. Having eschewed them for many years - nah, I’m not the type to make resolutions - I had an earnest desire to pursue something this year.

Perhaps it’s because this is the year I turn the big 4-0. Suddenly there’s an urgency for dreams and convictions. Like someone had set a deadline, and I’m finally attuned to the countdown. Tick tock, tick tock to 40. Isn’t this when we run marathons? Push ourselves to be all we can be? Reflect on the last four decades and try to make something of what we’d learned?

On the outside, I take my girls to school, I tidy the messes that come with living a six- and three-year-old, I freelance part-time in the solitude of my home while everyone’s away, working on their dreams and shaping the rest of their lives, and sometimes it feels like plenty. I look around me and I think, how lucky I am to have this life.

But on the inside, I think, is this it? More importantly, is this enough? And I’m often torn. There are times when I think I should do more, be more. But that requires work, and it requires a certain courage that I’ve convinced myself over the years that I don’t have. That I don’t need because I’m happy. Or so I tell myself.

And so I shirk from the responsibilities of wanting to be more, content to hold the fort at home while I support the dream chasers in my house. A cop out really, because then I don’t need to put the work in and face my own fears of failure. What if I can’t be more? What if this really is it for me?

The resolution dissolves with each passing day. The urgency of the ticking clock becomes a distant sound, like the train that rumbles through the town in the middle of the night. Who am I kidding anyway?

But then I read this passage the other day from “Lit”, a memoir by Mary Karr, who was reacting to her aging mother’s hurtful remarks that rose from her fear of leaving and losing her home of over 40 years:

But I spent all day throwing out all the canvases you never had the balls to paint on. Every shit-sucking day of my whole life, you blamed me and Daddy and Lecia for you not painting. The truth is: you never had the balls to paint, Mother.

Ouch. What if I become that person? Bitter at 80 because I never had the guts to pursue the things I’d long-ago envisioned for myself? But then again, what am I pursing? Not fame. Not fortune, exactly. Success?

Success in what?

I have not yet determined what that is for me, so how do I even start setting my sights for a goal that isn’t even clear to me. And there is a discourse about success that I don’t think I need to get into, but you know the gist - isn’t success relative anyway? If you’re doing what makes you happy, whatever it may be, aren’t you, in a way, succeeding?

That’s what I hope to teach my daughters anyway. Do what you love, so you will love what you do, because I think that’s integral to living simply and therefore, happily. But is this where I am?

When I showed up at Little Miss’ school the other day to pick her up from an after-school activity (running, much to my surprise, when she suggested she’d like to be involved; this girl who hated soccer because of “all that running!”), we ended up at the park with three other moms and their kids. An impromptu playdate on a beautiful 75-degree January day. Our kids were happy, and I was happy.

An impromptu playdate. Such a simple thing, but I’m also aware that it’s such a privilege to be able to afford to do that. It’s not lost on me that many moms would probably love to be where I was then.

Yet, when I read or hear about my friends’ career successes, even though I’m truly happy for them, there is a nagging doubt that emerges from a deep and dark place within me - why can’t I be that too?

If I lean in, according to Sheryl Sandberg, can I also be out in the sun with my girl? What riches could feel better than the warmth of the sun on my skin and the joy in my daughter’s face that January day in the park?

I hope to raise my girls to be strong and independent so they may pursue their own goals, but actions speak louder than words, as they say. What will they learn from me? What can I teach them about achieving their dreams when I never had the balls to paint myself?

Or is this it? Is this life of playdates and soccer leagues my canvas? Does this not teach my girls that they can live this simple life and be happy. Isn’t this enough?

I’ve been drawn to memoirs recently - “Wild”, “Glitter and Glue”, “Lit”, “When Women Were Birds” - and I realized that central to each person’s story in all of these books is the author’s relationship with her mother. I hadn’t planned it that way - all of these books found their way to me quite by accident. Yet here they are, each successful author, examining their lives as daughters, describing their mom and the role they played in their lives, each with their versions of this complex relationship with their mothers.

Not everyone’s mom was successful in the traditional sense. In fact, one of them was downright abusive and crazy. Many were loving and supportive, despite the broken homes. And these moms - no matter who they were, how they were, and what they were - all shared one thing in common: they had a daughter who, regardless of circumstances, pursued her dreams and succeeded in becoming a writer.

I am comforted by this fact - a mother’s career success (whatever that means to each individual) does not shape her daughter’s future (whew!) although it could certainly be an influence. Good for the daughters. Really. I am glad for them. Because what mother doesn’t want her kid to reach great heights, to go beyond her own wildest hopes?

But what of the mothers? What of this mother? What is my great height, my wildest hope? Will I ever get there?

Or am I already there, only I don’t notice because I’m too distracted by watching others chasing theirs?


Monday, January 12, 2015

On boredom and progress


Did you hear that? That was my big sigh of relief. The holiday decorations are down, we survived winter break, and here we are, back to regular programming in our house. On the first week back, I had the house to myself for the first time last Tuesday since December 19 - approximately 19 days and a few hours ago, but who’s counting really? - and I have to say, it was like the first rain after a season’s drought. When you’re home with young children at every minute, every hour of the day, girls who are constantly making needing and needling, giggling and struggling sounds, the quiet is a welcome respite for this introvert.

On my first day alone, I was energized by the new year and felt tempted to make grand plans - so many things to see, do, explore, conquer. But first, I breathed in and out. Let’s enjoy the here and now. I used to think that if we aren’t constantly moving and going somewhere, we’re missing out on so many things. I’d pack our social calendar with play dates and museum outings, and if we’re just sitting around the house without a plan, I’d feign enthusiasm and announce, “let’s go do something!” probably afraid that my family would be drowned by stasis if we didn’t keep moving.

But over the winter break, after weeks of holiday baking and cooking and planning for one social gathering after another, I found myself looking forward to doing absolutely nothing. I had intended to explore more of Austin over the break, taking my girls to different parts of the city to make sure they were exposed to culture, that they were learning something, or at the very least, not bored at home.

Except, thanks to the holidays, I was already drained before the break, and much of my ambition dissolved at the thought of having to deal with all that’s required to get the girls out the door. Because leaving the house in the morning, no matter where we went, often involved this same old tiring script, “eat your breakfast!” “stop dawdling” “brush your teeth” “where’s your sock?” “where’s your other sock?” “do you have a sweater?” “no you can’t wear pajamas to the place” “you need a jacket; it’s cold” “no, not this jacket” “find your sister” “where’s your water bottle?” “pick a snack” “no, you can’t eat that now” “get in the car” “where are your shoes?” “no not those shoes” “help your sister”...  

I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Therefore, despite my best intentions, we mostly ended up lounging around the house, which my girls gleefully exclaimed as “Yay! Pajama day!” If the sun was out, we would attempt biking outside the house or a jaunt to the park, but the ambitious Explore Austin adventures - except for a trip to the children’s museum and another to the Texas History museum -  were tucked between my big girl and me as we sat together under the blanket, reading our respective books. The world to which our books took us was about as exciting as it got.


no prizes for guessing what this place is


And we were okay with that. I read an article recently about allowing ourselves to be bored to stimulate our own creativity, and when I saw what my girls did during their down time, it made perfect sense to me. They’d wake in the morning and often make a beeline for their favorite nook in the house, the craft corner, and there, they would spend many hours (yup, not minutes, hours!) coloring, drawing, cutting, gluing, and shaping something.





Their creations didn’t always make sense, but who needed a masterpiece when I had two little girls who found joy and even harmony in creating something with their hands? They’d sit together and compare their creations, “See this Little Miss?” “Oooh...that’s beautiful. I really like it!” Sometimes, my three-year-old’s piece would warrant a query, “What is it, Pickle?”


And she’d answer, a horse or a flower or a snowman or something that looks nothing like what she’s making, but who cares? She’s proud of it, and we’re thrilled that the girls have their own nook that doesn’t involve elbowing our sides for space. Everyone was (mostly) peacefully engaged in their task at hand, sometimes singing to the radio, sometimes humming to fill the silence. And I could either relax myself (Whoa! I know, right?) or work on my tasks around the house without someone vying for my attention.

It was a wonderful thing.

Apparently, we didn’t need to be running from one scheduled activity to another just to pass the time. Huh. Who knew?

That’s not to say we did nothing at all during the break.

We celebrated My Guy’s birthday with his favorite cake that the girls insisted we make at 7:30 in the morning while their daddy slept in, and because it was a chilly rainy day, a movie, “Big Hero Six”, which we’d watched and loved on opening day last year.

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this didn’t last very long…

We had friends who visited from Chicago one weekend so we did leave our house to do some sightseeing ourselves. (Because who doesn’t love a sunset view?)

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On New Year’s Eve we drove to Houston to satisfy my craving for Malaysian food. Yes, the Chinese in me didn’t think twice about traveling three hours each way just to eat, but luckily we also had friends there with whom we could meet, making the day trip seem a little less crazy. They were college friends from Malaysia I haven’t seen in 20 years, but when our kids met one another for the first time, they got along so well together that you’d think it was their reunion.

IMG_9541 Roadtrip!

Little Miss finished book one of the Harry Potter series.


Thanks to My Guy, she also learned to ride a bike.



Pickle started to be more conscious of pronouncing her “r” sounds; instead of “wunning”, she’s remembering to say “running” except she clenches her teeth and makes so much effort to produce the proper “r” that it sounds like she’s growling the word instead. Now, her attempts to correct herself are met with giggles, but this sweet girl of ours just laughs along with us.

Speaking of running, thanks to the highly engaging Serial podcast, I managed several longer distance sessions around my neighborhood myself (eight, nine, ten miles), which felt like an accomplishment since I’d been struggling with the hills in the area for a long time. I guess when we’re immersed in a different reality in our head, we don’t really think about the incline. That also means we don’t get to psych ourselves out of it either, which, I’m certain, is the ticket. Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.


Like how I’d convinced myself for years that I’d fall out of my headstand and break a bone during yoga (when in fact I could do that simply by walking down the stairs with my two-year-old). Inspired by my hill running, I finally let go of the wall to get into my headstand, and voila, I didn’t fall!

I struggled to let go of my need for safety for years, never really trusting myself to hold myself up. I needed the teacher next to me or the wall before I’d get into the pose. I’m clearly not the risk taker in the family. Maybe it’s the energy of the new year plus the thrill of not feeling like dying as I slowly climb uphill, but I found the courage to let go of my inhibitions and kicked up slowly without any help or safety net at last.

And there I stood, on my head, exhilarated.



Oddly, it makes me excited for 2015. Learning to recognize and honor our need to unwind and consequently making space for our imagination, as well as achieving small goals with incremental progress - sometimes the little things do add up don’t they? At least I hope they do.



Monday, January 5, 2015

The things I learned from a Taylor Swift song (I can’t believe I’m admitting to this!)

Maybe it’s because I’ve been home with my girls all winter break - every minute of every hour of every day. And maybe because it’s also the rainy season here, and we’ve been stuck at home more times than I like. And maybe all that, plus the sugar overload from the holidays, is causing me to lose it a little. Or a lot.

Because these days, at any and every chance, I dance to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off”. I can’t help it; I’m totally, completely, hopelessly hooked. We were in the car when the song came on the Disney radio station one day and Little Miss insisted that we kept it on even though any time Taylor Swift or Katy Perry came on, My Guy or I would switch stations.

We don’t do pop music. In fact, he’s a little bit of a music snob, having cultivated what he thinks is an acceptable taste, and over the years, I’ve learned to fine tune mine, and we both somehow decided that we’re just not going to roll the welcome mat out for pop music.

But then I had to ruin that by giving birth to not one but two girls, who destroyed our peaceful existence with “Let it Go” on repeat 55 times a day. And now we’re finding bits and pieces of Taylor Swift or Katy Perry infiltrating our house through the Pandora music app, even though we had carefully picked the “Kids Radio” station. How’s this kids’ music?! I need to have a word with the Pandora people.

I admit, once I actually really listened to the lyrics of “Shake it Off”, I was surprised at how quickly I warmed up to it. I think it’s because I remember being that girl in the song. Unlike the title, however, “Shake it Off”, is the the last thing I can do with it once it gets in my head. It’s on my mind constantly, and while I’d like to say it’s driving me up the wall, it isn’t. It makes me want to tap my fingers when I drive; it makes me want to shake my booty while I do the dishes; it makes me want to stop what I’m doing and just dance.

And sometimes I do.


And when the girls are around, we get down to it together.




And here I am dedicating an entire blog post to it. What is happening to me?!!!

I think I know. I think there’s a lesson or three to be learned here, now that I’m finally not just opening my ears to the song, but also my mind. So here it is, a short list of what I learned from a Taylor Swift song:

1. Dancing feels wonderful - I bet you didn’t know that the bouncer/bartender at the bar that I used to frequent in college nicknamed me “the dance machine”. That’s because instead of drinking or flirting, I spent most of my time on the dance floor. I didn’t care for partners; I’d just be grooving by myself - not in a “I’m sad and lonely” type of way, but more like “I don’t need a man by my side to have fun.” It was how I decompressed, how I felt alive, and it felt fantastic.

I’ve not hit the dance floor in...I don’t know the last time I actually went dancing, really. And I miss it. As Swift sings, “I'm dancing on my own; I make the moves as I go” and it brought it all back for me. I was that girl! Sometimes it feels amazing to just let yourself go (“Let it Go!” Argh!). Because I wanted my girls to know that part of me, one day, after my yoga class, when I couldn’t shake “Shake it Off” from my head, I decided to videotape (and perhaps preserve?) “the dance machine” that was still in me. I captured the stills of that video for this blog because I’ve not gone entirely off my rocker yet - not quite crazy enough to share my moment of madness here. Perhaps they’ll see it one day and roll their eyes at the spectacle - OHMYGOD MOM! - or perhaps they’ll see themselves in those moves – Hey, now I know where I get that from!

Yes, girls, you definitely didn’t get it from your daddy, I can assure you that.

2. Why not just have some fun?  - My Guy has a nickname in our house. He’s the “mushroom”, the ”fungi” because well, he is the “fun guy”. He gets the girls riled up with tickle fights and upside-downs and whirly-spins and fright fests, and they’re always hanging on to him, begging, “more, more, more daddy!” and I’m usually the “don’t forget to brush your teeth,” “please don’t screech in my ear,” “please chew with your mouth closed,” and “no more screen time for today” parent. I am the more serious, structure-following, plan-making parent and My Guy is the goofy, roll with the punches one. But when Pandora surprises us with “Shake it Off”, I drop whatever I’m doing and lose myself in “getting down to this sick beat” as the song blares. And it’s contagious because the girls immediately do the same, and we all have an impromptu dance party. Suddenly I’m a fun mommy - dancing unexpectedly, much to the girls’ surprise and absolute delight. Why not right? Who doesn’t love a boogie break every now and then? The kids certainly do.

3. Don’t be a snob - I remember crooning to Debbie Gibson and New Kids on the Block when I was growing up. It’s awful, terrible, what-the-hell-was-I-thinking music, but hey, I can now safely admit that it’s also a rite of passage. We’re so hell-bent on making sure our girls develop better taste in music than we did as kids that we forget that they have to figure this shit out on their own. That’s how we did it!

I loved the sappiest, crappiest songs (Tommy Page, hello?) but as I grew and changed, so did my taste in music. it didn’t happen until I started college, when I became more open to alternative rock - Smashing Pumpkins, Live, Weezer - and that too evolved over time. Now I love Vampire Weekend, Arctic Monkeys, Postal Service, Lorde, Banks, and National, and they sound nothing like the boy bands I used to idolize. Besides, even if the girls end up loving pop songs all their life, so what? How can I teach them to be open and accommodating when I’m not, and to not be prejudiced, when I am myself?

Now, instead of a blanket “No Katy Perry” in the house, I listen to it myself and make sure that they’re appropriately exposed to it. It’s a “Know thy enemy” tactic, except I was surprised to learn that they’re not as bad as my own prejudice made them out to be. In fact, there were positive messages that I was happy to hear in their songs, and that snob in me started to hang her head in shame.

I also know firsthand what “No” does to children. It makes that which is forbidden even more attractive to them, and if I’m trying to raise kids who can make up their own minds judiciously, I can’t make up their minds for them. Hence, I “Roar” alongside Katy Perry and my girls to let them know it’s cool. And suddenly, that roar doesn’t have quite that power it used to have when it’s just another song that comes on the radio.

And this is how I arrived at Taylor Swift as my very first blog post for 2015. Interesting how and what you learn about yourself in the most uncanny ways...

In case you have NO FREAKIN’ CLUE what this entire post is about because you’ve never heard this song before, here’s the video of it. I’m warning you, if My Guy, who’s dead against pop songs, was caught humming the tune one day, you’ll most likely catch this “sick beat” too.

Also? You’re welcome.