One day

This morning I woke up early, before 7am, and meditated. Just for fifteen minutes. It was gray outside and damp from last night’s downpour. I had some fruit for breakfast and went to yoga. The teacher is impossibly tall and thin. She’s like a fairy godmother beanstalk. I can’t even fathom how she gave birth to three children. She is kind, gentle, funny. She meets us where we are at. This morning, because of the humidity, my body felt tight. I heard creaking. My clumsiness and un-coordination felt more pronounced than usual. I felt weak. I blame the weather and my own laziness. I cycled back to my guesthouse. I was feeling a little cold, even wearing merino wool in twenty five degrees. I lay down on my giant bed that could easily fit four people. What should I do today? Where should I eat? What am I doing with my life? I was about to fall down the self-flagellation rabbit hole when I heard my friend Clea calling my name. She bounded up the stairs and knocked on my door. I opened it and there she was with a large block of opened chocolate.

“Here, this is for you, it’s from Norway. Sorry, but I already opened it and ate some,” she said with a mouth full of chocolate.

I didn’t mind at all, considering how expensive good chocolate is here. I ripped off a few pieces and stuffed them in my mouth. It tasted exactly like Cadbury’s chocolate. It did its job, giving me a sugar and dopamine rush. When then discussed our plans. It was raining. A lot. We were both hungry (as usual). Should we go to the restaurant nearby that we’ve been going to almost daily? We decided we would. We invited Akio, a retired Japanese scientist who is staying at the same guesthouse. Umbrellas in hand, we trudged down the road dodging puddles and potholes.

We talked over pizza and pasta. Noam Chomsky, Donald Trump, restaurants. Three countries, one language. I learnt that our Japanese companion is a Princeton-educated genius. It explains his ongoing interest in everything, his curiosity, his impeccable English. He’s here to study meditation. Like everyone in this town, he’s looking for something.

We return and I get back into a book I had picked up again after tossing it aside some months ago. I had written it off but this time, I became riveted by it. It’s a memoir written by a woman who lost her mother then her father, both to cancer. She was in her teens when her mother passed and just a few years later, her father was diagnosed and passed away while she was in her mid-twenties. This exploration of grief was harrowing. This woman, now a well-known writer, grief therapist, and divorced mother of two young girls living in Santa Monica, went to Hell and back. Her writing sucked me in – I was right there with her when she was holding her dying father’s hand, or drinking herself into oblivion, or having a sobbing fit, or just being alone and falling down the rabbit hole of shame and self-loathing.

I am tired now. I wanted to finish the book and it probably took about an hour, but I feel like I was with her in all those years, so vivid is her writing. I was drained by chaos and self-destruction. But ultimately I’m buoyed by her hard-won happiness. She learnt how to be alone, how to be happy, how to go through the grieving process, how to heal wounds so that they turn into scars. She finds self-love and acceptance through friendship and healthy relationships, work she loves serving others, writing, yoga, meditation, and most intriguingly, by taking long baths each evening. It’s here in the bathtub she realizes the wisdom of no escape. I was in awe of how much living she had done – all the jobs, moving, travel, study, and all the loved ones she had lost. She is only a year older than me. Holy crap! The book was published a few years ago. Cut to today and has had an affair, her marriage unravels. She is in a relationship with a man who lives on the other side of the country, she has published another book, also focusing on grief, and seems to be thriving. Due to her prominent, transparent social media presence, I know so much about her life now. What I love is that she is in a much better place – that depressed, lonely, anxious, grief-stricken mess of a young woman lives on in her but it is just a tiny part of her now. This gives me so much hope for humanity. We are more resilient than we think and things do get better.

It stirs up all kinds of feelings in me. I have never been to a funeral. I imagine her at her father’s funeral. I imagine myself at my father’s. It’s morbid. I think of a phrase I learnt the other day in relation to our thoughts and feelings: ‘Real but not true.’ I say it over and over again like a mantra. It’s not even 8pm yet.

 

 

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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The tragedy of those trapped in Malta

With so much heartbreaking media coverage recently about the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe (and also in the Middle East and Australia), I felt compelled to share an article I wrote in November of 2007 while working as a reporter on board Peace Boat. One port of call on our global voyage was Malta where I spent some time at a detention center. Here,  male African migrants were trapped with no way to go forward to Europe, as intended, and no way to return back to their home countries. Read on for the full story.

Participants presented Father Mintoff, founder of Peace Laboratory, with a banner that states: “We Can Save the World, We Can Change the Situation.”

Participants presented Father Mintoff, founder of Peace Laboratory, with a banner that states: “We Can Save the World, We Can Change the Situation.”

The issue of African migrants in Malta is a relatively new phenomena, occurring in the past five years as a consequence of ongoing war, famine and poverty in many African nations. The migrants arrive in Malta due to unfortunate circumstances, such as their boat breaking while making the incredibly risky journey to mainland Europe. They are placed in detention and their long held dreams of reaching Europe and starting a new life are shattered. This was the side of Malta Peace Boat participants experienced.

 

The Marsa Open Center, which gives basic needs such as food and shelter to the many migrants who risk their lives trying to get from Africa to Europe

The Marsa Open Center, which gives basic needs such as food and shelter to the many migrants who risk their lives trying to get from Africa to Europe

Generally speaking, there are high levels of racism and xenophobia in Malta directed at the migrants. This is exacerbated by the fact that the migrants do not want to be there either, as they are pinning their hopes on joining an established African community in another European country such as the Netherlands. Moreover, the migrants who come from a range of African nations, especially Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Algeria, and Egypt are held as scapegoats and many of the country’s ills are blamed on them. According to Mr Scicluna: ‘They’re not coming to take jobs, or overturn the culture. They are here because of desperate circumstances. The population of Malta is 400,000. We need 500 laborers each year as predicted by economists, so the presence of the immigrants is actually helping the economy.’

Under the guidance of Emanuel Scicluna, a volunteer from Peace Laboratory, a Maltese non-government organization situated in the town of Hal Far, participants visited the NGO which offers material and emotional support to the migrants. In the past, the center has also campaigned on their behalf to raise awareness about their situation and has been instrumental in protecting their human and legal rights, especially considering the difficulty in determining their status as either migrants or refugees.

Migrants hang out in the Internet café at the Marsa Open Center

Migrants hang out in the Internet café at the Marsa Open Center

After a briefing on the current situation of the migrants arriving in Malta and the fate that awaits them, participants went to see for themselves what life is like for them. After spending 18 months in a detention center upon arrival, the migrants are then placed in an open center which gives them more freedom. The Marsa Open Center is home for 750 men aged between 18 and 34 and provides basic needs such as food and shelter. For the past three years, it has been run by Terry Gosden, who hails from England.

The mosque at the Open Center which accommodates the many Muslims staying there

The mosque at the Open Center which accommodates the many Muslims staying there

In a small room that acts as a classroom with a dozen desks and a whiteboard, Mr Gosden explained the situation of the migrants. Only about one quarter of people fleeing Africa for Europe make it and in 2006, there were at least 1000 known deaths in the Mediterranean. His colleagues, who include Somali and Eritrean members, devised a system that gives the migrants a sense of purpose while they are in this ‘limbo’ phase. The center has been constructed into a village of sorts, with restaurants, shops, a mosque, a church, a school, a barber’s, and an Internet café, all run by the migrants themselves. ‘These people have suffered. They have nothing, so we give them something so that they have a stake-hold over their lives,’ Mr Gosden said. ‘What surprises me the most is the amount of dignity and self-respect these people are able to maintain under difficult circumstances,’ he added.

Mr Gosden, along with some of his staff, tells participants about how the center is run and the major problems faced by the men such as mental health issues

Mr Gosden, along with some of his staff, tells participants about how the center is run and the major problems faced by the men such as mental health issues

The most outstanding problem faced in the center is mental health. ‘Where we work hardest is on the mind. Everybody here has suffered. They experience grief, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and loss of culture. They are stuck on an island that doesn’t want them. However, they are grateful to Malta because they are still alive,’ explained Mr Gosden. Because of the huge stigma regarding mental health in many African nations, he is not asked to intervene until it becomes a matter of life and death. While being released from the detention center into the open center means more freedom for the men, they are still trapped. ‘The mythology they grew up with is broken. Their dreams are shattered. There’s no way forward and no way back.’ As our time at the center came to a close, Mr Gosden left participants with a final

Dr Namdi discussed the political context in which Africans are forced to flee their own countries and migrate elsewhere. He also talked about how African migrants are treated in Malta

Dr Namdi discussed the political context in which Africans are forced to flee their own countries and migrate elsewhere. He also talked about how African migrants are treated in Malta

thought: ‘You’re on a journey of discovery. For these people, their journey is one of life and death and is much more poignant. They’re leaving behind their culture and their life. When you return to your country of origin, send a prayer to the people making these journeys. I thank you for that.’

Back at Peace Lab, participants listened to a talk by Dr Namdi, a Nigerian cardiologist who has lived in Malta for twenty five years. As a fellow African, he tries to improve the lives of those migrants arriving in Malta. Dr Namdi discussed how war and infighting has displaced many people both within and outside their own countries. ‘The problems of refugees have been created by the policies of European countries because they still have a colonialist mentality and want to obtain precious resources such as oil, minerals and diamonds,’ he claimed. It is near impossible for the migrants to make a life in Malta, as, believes Dr Namdi, ‘no opportunities are created for such a life to flourish. The Maltese government ignores or hides the problem.’ In the discussion that followed his talk, most participants agreed that the problem should be addressed by developed nations who should take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Many also believed that the fact that Japan only accepts a very small number of refugees each year needs to be readdressed. At the very least, participants promised they would raise awareness of the plight of the African migrants in Malta when they returned home.

 

My new spirit animal

Stolen from: Brant Ward/The San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

Stolen from: Brant Ward/The San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

So it turns out falling down the Internet rabbit hole does have some benefits. I found this extraordinary man whose accomplishments are rather amazing, especially given that he is sans one forearm and two lower legs. Dr. BJ Miller is the executive director the the intriguing Zen Hospice Project, a residential facility for dying patients in San Francisco that aims to offer a human-centered model of care. His credentials are pretty stellar: a BA in art history from Princeton, then an MD which led him to become the chief resident at the hospital he worked in, followed by a fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Not too shabby.

He was in his second year at Princeton when he and some friends were fooling around after a party – he climbed on top of a parked shuttle train. He was severely electrocuted and almost died. He spent several months recovering and miraculously found a new lease on life. He doesn’t regret all that happened as he believes it turned him towards his calling as a palliative care physician and made him grow as a person. As he told one interviewer:“The gift was that it got me out of the habit of thinking about the future and comparing myself to others. It rammed me into the present moment. I’m actually grateful for that. I found a new confidence.”

It’s all about perspective. Miller’s mother suffered from the effects of childhood polio so he grew up surrounded by disability and saw that one could still live a normal life – even thrive. He didn’t let the suicide of his sister throw him into the depths of despair while at medical school. He sued Princeton over his accident and settled for $5 million dollars. Oh and he also owns a farm and part-owns a tea company. Now I’m going to leave my pity party, NOT ruminate on how lazy I am and instead meditate on the unbreakable human spirit.

 

A Capoeira Affair

IMG_2009….was what our festival held over the weekend was called. Why? Because two students from our group also got married during the event and it was a great honor to both attend their wedding and also to receive my first cord as a capoeira student!

One year ago, I walked into the academy and didn’t know anyone but was excited to participate in CDO Seoul’s Batizado event and workshops. For that event, there were a range of high profile masters from all over the world. Students came from Russia, Japan, Australia. It was big and exciting. One of the first people I met from the group and connected with was Maravilha, a very cute and sweet Korean girl with a demanding job which meant she couldn’t train regularly. However, just as I became part of the group one year ago, she started dating another student, a very funny guy who also looks like a turtle, hence his nickname, Tartaruga. Cut to this past weekend, and the annual event was much smaller, but in true Korean hurry-hurry style, this lovely couple who started dating only one year ago are married! Our teacher Zumbi, along with two guests from the United States, Contra Mestre Xango and Professor Berinjela, performed some music and acrobatics at the event. Despite being all tired and sweaty in our dresses (most of the group are girls and we had had some workshops in the morning and then went straight to the wedding), it was a beautiful event to take part in.

Come Sunday evening after our ‘baptism’, we ended our event by drinking margaritas at a nearby Mexican restaurant, a bit of a ritual. Although I was so physically and mentally tired, it was a time for reflection and gratitude. I was basking in a sense of accomplishment as it was the first time in a long time that I had actually achieved one of my goals. Capoeira is so physically demanding and time consuming and is perhaps not the best thing for a self-critical person like me to engage in as there are so many opportunities for self-flagellation. However, there are many gifts too – a window into a new culture, a new way of being in the world, the opportunity to meet interesting people from all over the world, a sense of camaraderie, building mental and physical resilience, and the positive effects of sheer doggedness. As Professor Berinjela told us, “Your body is capable of doing so much more than the mind will let it.” I think this is true, and capoeira is definitely a way to push beyond our physical and mental boundaries, both perceived and real.

IMG_2511We had guests from Hong Kong and Japan, an Italian neurosurgeon and a range of foreign and Korean Seoulites attend. Perhaps the thing I like most about capoeira is that dozens of people from all walks of life, from different social classes and cultures, can come together and be united by their passion of this art form. Without this sense of family and these friendships in my life, I definitely could not live in Korea anymore.

As poet Maya Angelou once said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” Obrigada capoeira for teaching me how to encounter defeats and how to overcome them.