Moments

There’s a saying: take care of the minutes and the years will take care of themselves. It is the little things we do often and everyday that help us achieve the greater things. What are these moments comprised of? This is a question that is often on my mind. They’re not the stuff of social media, these bricks of our lives. Rather, life is comprised of a series of mundane, often habitual actions. Which is not to say that they aren’t pleasurable or enjoyable – the daily shower, a few pieces of dark chocolate, walking in the sunshine, patting a cute dog.

In the past two days, I consider what I’ve done that’s been of value. Feeling tired from a long day and slightly under the weather and in a premenstrual stupor, I forced myself to go for an evening walk. I find flowers, watch the sun set, and rejuvenate. But it was chilly and I was still tired so I slunk under the warm, fluffy covers in the haven that is my bed and escaped into re-watching an episode of The L Word for the millionth time. Imagining I was in sexy, sunny L.A. felt good, though probably not very healthy. I scoffed chocolate and jalapeno nachos and an orange. There were crumbs in my bed but I didn’t care. Still, I forced myself to brush my teeth before I passed out.

The next morning, I woke up early as usual. I was happy to see the sunshine. I got ready to meet my friend for breakfast right in the center of the city. I felt grateful as I sat on the bus, looking out the window, a blue sky with a veneer of microdust. How lucky to have the time, energy and money to be able to meet a friend for breakfast on a Saturday morning. How lucky that it’s a quick bus ride into the center of this bustling global city of ten million people. How cool that my friend is a smart, beautiful and interesting woman from the other side of the world and although sharing very little in common, we are bonded by our adopted (temporary) home and our shared hobby. How wonderful to have a stimulating, wide-ranging discussion and then walk together to our training session.

We are in a studio for an hour jumping and kicking and dancing with a world-class teacher. There’s seven different nationalities undertaking this journey together on this day. We finish by lunch time and my friend and I head out and go to the swanky department store across the road where we have a choice of cuisine from around the world – Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Indian. We opt for the latter and then pop into the adjacent supermarket to buy some meat for a barbeque I’ll attend later. It’s good quality and I don’t care too much about the price. I’m fortunate not to have to care too much. We hug goodbye – she’ll fly to Moscow to see her family over the public holidays next week and I head home to clean my cozy space and get ready for my neighbor’s gathering.

I have an hour before I have to be literally next door, so I sweep and fold and put away then I get out the cockroach ammunition I bought a few days ago, on the day that I spent at the hospital, getting a criminal background check, grocery shopping, and place the pellets in all the dark, hidden corners. This is one battle I don’t want to lose, despite whether it’s ethical or not.

Next door, the barbeque is cranking on the patio. There’s a lot of meat, even sausages smuggled in from the north of Thailand. There’s cask wine and salad. The gathering is small yet we represent six countries. I learn about how to operate a drone, the clothing manufacturing sector in Vietnam, the New Atheist movement, the decline of the bourgeois in Paris and the Australian and American Green Parties. There’s some sloppy drunkenness and after a few hours, I’m happy to go home, a five second walk away, and collapse into silence. I take my thick book of crossword puzzles and try to solve a few more clues before I fall asleep. I cheat a little by using the Internet. But there’s a sense of accomplishment as my eyes close.

I wake up seven hours later and decide it’s a good day to eat chocolate for breakfast. Why not. And I listen to a podcast, an interview with an Irish singer who has become sober after a sordid past of alcohol, drugs and highly publicised toxic relationships. I decide to eat some real food – an egg on really good bread that I was lucky to find and once again, an orange. I need to work and I force myself to complete an onerous task that’s been hanging over me for a few days. I then decide to paint my toenails with some turquoise nail polish I bought on a careless shopping spree I undertook recently on payday when I needed a dopamine hit. As usual, I made a mess of it. My toes look like a three year old painted them. Soon I’ll throw on my favorite Lululemon sweat pants and walk for an hour to a nearby neighborhood to meet a friend for dinner. I’ll treat her for her recent birthday and try to hold space for my PMS – the low mood, the sore breasts, the cramps. I’ll breathe through each moment and feel grateful.

There’s a crack in everything

With the appointment of Mr. Trump as the POTUS on Wednesday and now the death of the inimitable Leonard Cohen on Friday, it’s turning into a dark, dark week. There’s now a rational justification to pile on the grief bacon. And I have indeed been partaking in binge eating candy and chocolate in an attempt to numb and distract myself from the tragedy and disappointment.

One of my favourite Leonard Cohen lyrics, ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,’ is a reminder to look for hope among the despair, to find the light no matter how dark these days feel. Now that the novelty of stuffing my face with sugar has worn off, I’ve opted for a healthier form of self-care: I’m focusing on beauty, nature, peace, gratitude and connection. Here are a few shots from the past few weeks that have given me pleasure, solace and distraction, in both taking them and in thinking about what they represent. May the light find its way in.

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Chur NZ

14231970_10153633433321853_3983663703483409390_oSome months ago (holy crap, like almost nine months ago) I declared that this would be the year of gratitude. With that in mind, I need to give a shout out to NZ for reigniting my appreciation and love of that magical place.

So, without further ado, I’d  first and foremost like to thank the incredibly stunning scenery – from gardens, to parks, to mountains, forests, beaches, buildings, streets, you name it, everyday my heart overflowed with how beautiful the nature is. Even in my father’s backyard there was much to be admired (and a backyard, what a concept!).

Next, I need to thank all the friends and family who went out of their way to meet with me and show me a good time, even when it was inconvenient for them. One aunt in particular knocked herself out by making an incredible apple pie from scratch just for me. All those home-cooked meals and catching up over coffee, going to movies, galleries and museums were wonderful ways to reconnect. Even while experiencing unsettling life events, I was honored that you made time for me among the chaos of everyday life.

Which brings me to my next point: Is there any way to emphasize just how amazing the food is? Big ups to the amazing supermarkets, restaurants and cafes that took a huge chunk of my bank account but in return nourished me with the most incredible pies, kebabs, risotto, lamb shanks, sushi, curry, soup, mussels, organic bacon and eggs, cheese, yogurt, muffins, cakes, chai lattes, hot chocolates, Kombucha, sandwiches and other culinary masterpieces. I won’t lie – I did feel incredibly overwhelmed loitering in the supermarket, having too many beautiful and delicious things to choose from. And also a combination of feeling deprived and having no willpower led to massive overspending. But #yolo.

And I can’t leave out the amazing cultural facilities. I visited myriad galleries, museums, libraries. New Zealand is a country that values these institutions and I was so impressed with the displays and exhibitions. Also, there was some stellar journalism found in newspapers and magazines. Honorable mention must go to NEXT, The Listener, North and South, The Sunday Start Times, The Otago Daily Times. Also, thumbing through copies of my alumni magazine for the past couple of years, I was blown away by how much interesting and cutting-edge innovation is happening in that small corner at the bottom of the world – so many accomplished and enterprising geniuses toiling away in the arenas of medicine, science, engineering, education, sociology, anthropology, literature, art, design etc. Truly phenomenal. Also: shopping. I had so much fun pillaging thrift stores. They are a great way to shop as well as to raise money for various charities. I wish more of that culture existed in Asia.

Last but not least, I had warm fuzzies for much of my trip because of the people. It was so nice to have people smile at me, make eye contact with me, open doors for me, apologize even when it wasn’t their fault, make small talk with me, let me go ahead of them in line, answer my questions patiently, offer helpful advice when there was nothing in it for them. In one instance I had to get my driver’s licence renewed. I failed the eye test (of course). No worries, the lady said. Pop next door to the optometrist and get him to fill out this form and bring it back. Then you should be alright. So I pop next door, wait five minutes for the optometrist, a lovely grandfatherly-like figure who makes jokes about how anal the driver licence place is, tests my eyes, fills out a form and charges me all of $5. It was just so ridiculously easy, and dare I say, pleasant. Even sales people in snooty high-end stores are kind and welcoming. Also, as I zipped up and down the country trying to catch up with as many people as possible, it became evident that social class is not a barrier to friendship. My friends and family span the whole spectrum from working class to the country’s tiny upper crust. And I can get along with all of them. Although social inequality is increasing, I still think that NZ is one of the few developed nations where social class is not (as much of) a barrier to relationships with others. Semi-related to this point is the lifestyle. People make an effort to spend time with their loved ones and, how weird is this, cook and eat dinner together most nights at home. Whaaa…? Thanks to an emphasis on work-life balance, people actually get to hang with their loved ones for weekday lunches, dinners, and general hang-out sessions. Easy to schedule in when almost nobody works past 5pm.

While NZ does have so many fabulous qualities, it’s not a utopia. So I’m going to take a quick look at some of the things that irk me. First, while print journalism is still decent (though John Pilger wouldn’t be impressed), TV journalism has gone down the dunny. The ‘news’ is dumbed-down gossip and targeted toward the interests and intellect of the average 12 year old. And people are like zombies, lapping it all up, as if it’s ‘truth’ and gives them an accurate picture of what is going on the world. This almost certainly is in part responsible for the provincialism and parochialism that plagues the country. Next, the crazy housing boom is a topic that is hot on everyone’s lips. Kiwis are obsessed with buying and owning a house. And everyone I exchanged more than ten words with, told me I also needed to buy one. My next gripe is public transportation. It is basically crap. Buses are few and far between and too expensive. Where are the subways, trams and affordable taxis? Which brings me to my final point: NZ, while you are gorgeous and amazing, you are also prohibitively expensive. $3.80 for a 500 ml bottle of water? Really? Obviously, I’m not the first person to point out how Kiwis are being ripped off left, right, and center with food, coffee, transportation and clothing costs. I’m all for slow, sustainable living and try not to participate too much in rampant consumerism but I do think some things are excessively expensive, even taking into account economies of scale. Despite the high cost of living, I spent time with two young families who moved back to NZ from Asia, leaving behind high powered jobs and fat salaries to own a house with a backyard and to bring their kids up in God’s own. Both families, just back for a  few months, were incredibly happy they had made that decision. All in all, while not perfect, I give Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, an A.

When Breath Becomes Air

dr paulDr. Paul Kalanithi is a brilliant young neurosurgeon in the midst of his residency when he is faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis. When Breath Becomes Air is his memoir, his exploration and examination of what makes life worth living. And indeed, this harrowing yet exquisite account of his life and musings as he shuffles ever closer to his inevitable death is well worth reading.

Educated Americans love nothing more than a doctor who can write and Dr. Kalanithi is one of those rare souls who excelled both in the operating room and on the page. In the first part of his story, we learn about his upbringing and his genius – he has a master’s degree in English literature and one in philosophy and considered being a writer before opting to take the more difficult path of becoming a surgeon. In his own words, “The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”

It was not a decision taken lightly and he throws himself into his training with eyes wide open. As he writes, “The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.”

What is remarkable is that Dr. Kalanithi continues his residency while undergoing harrowing treatments for his cancer. The grueling training required to succeed in one of America’s most prestigious hospitals (Stanford) would be impossible for most high functioning, healthy individuals. Paul has unfathomable grit and tenacity and keeps inching towards his goal even as his body deteriorates and betrays him.

This book is not for the faint-hearted. Tears rolled down my cheeks at many moments, especially as he enters his final days at the tender age of 37, just months after his baby daughter is born.

Dr. Kalanithi passed away before finishing his manuscript (oh and he was also writing this book in addition to everything else) and the last part is pieced together by his wife, Lucy who is also a doctor. In the epilogue she writes, “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”

Indeed, one of the most heartfelt aspects of the book is how Dr. Kalanithi navigates the uncertainty of his predicament and how he must recontextualize his life and the way he must now improvise given so much uncertainty. As Janet Maslin writes of the book in the New York Times: “There is so much here that lingers, and not just about matters of life and death: One of the most poignant things about Dr. Kalanithi’s story is that he had postponed learning how to live while pursuing his career in neurosurgery. By the time he was ready to enjoy a life outside the operating room, what he needed to learn was how to die.”

The tragedy of this story is of a brilliant man who is unfairly and senselessly taken far too soon (although is there any other way?), leaving behind a grieving wife and eight month old daughter. The beauty of the story lies in Dr. Kalanithi’s ability to express in words his experience, to take charge of his own narrative even as he has so little control and power in the face of his own death. I, along with millions of others, am eternally grateful to have been able to bear witness to his life and death through his writing.

 

2016: The year of gratitude

Champagne_2I found myself whispering on December 31st at midnight, “2015, don’t let the door hit you on the way out and DON’T fall down the fucking stairs.” It was one of those years and although nothing changes after a day when the calendar flips over, I like to think of it as a metaphorical closing of a chapter.

It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness, so my new practice of listing at least five things that I’m grateful for everyday has been and will continue to be a source of comfort. The benefits of having ‘an attitude of gratitude’ have been scientifically researched and documented at leading universities around the world. Like mindfulness, and compassion, it’s not new but is enjoying a renaissance and increasing popularity among those in the affluent West (the ‘worried well’). According to Harvard, “Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”

It could be easy for an anti-materialistic wandering hippy gypsy like myself to bemoan my lack of material objects and things associated with status and prestige (seriously, why would anyone drop $50,000 on a new BMW?! You could travel around the world for years on that!). So, I’ve taken a leaf from my Indonesian and Cambodian friends’ book. Although they don’t have much economically or materially (or because they don’t have much), they understand the importance of social connections and being grateful for what little they do have.

Just thinking about today, I can be grateful that I live in a warm, clean, modern apartment. That I have a comfortable bed and fridge full of healthy food that I chose and bought myself. That I was able to have a hot shower. That I was able to easily purchase a book I wanted. That I have five different kinds of tea to choose from. That I have time to sit down and write this and that I have a computer to write it on and access to the Internet to publish it. Having a fast and reliable Internet connection means that I’ve also been able to connect with friends, and do online study. I can walk outside without ever worrying I’m going to be attacked or hit by gunfire. That I basically have the freedom to do and say what I want. Stretching time, to think about the past and future weeks and months, I am gainfully employed, I have savings, I am healthy, I have health insurance, I have access to decent medical care should I need it, I have friends and family that care about me. I needed (wanted?) some new shoes, so I bought some. I had the means to take myself to a warm, sunny jungle paradise to help heal a broken heart. I have access to professional counsel. I have the privilege of having champagne problems and indulging in white whines. I also have the privilege of being able to legally work in multiple countries around the world. The color of my skin and the nationality of my passport ensure that I’ll always have a degree of security and access to health and education and a social safety net to catch me should I fall.

So here’s to 2016 – the year that no matter what, there is always something to be grateful for. As Epictetus once said, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”