Domestic Goddessery vs. Keepin’ it Real

cupcake-azulOver the past couple of months, I have noticed myself becoming increasingly domesticated (and increasingly uncool) – spending more time, energy and money on cooking and cleaning. I’m also spending more time at home, living like an old woman, minus the cats. For dinner tonight, I made a salad with green leaves, vegetables and seeds I don’t even know the names of followed by a raw, dairy- and gluten-free dessert. But wait, it gets more exciting. Soon I will start reading a book about World War II, and probably by 10pm I will have fallen asleep with the book on my face.

My own foray into domestic goddessery has seen me start to cook more and more in an effort to be healthier and save money. My cleaning and tidying habits are bordering on OCD. I have spent substantial amounts of money ordering exotic hippy food over the Internet. The only thing that is not organic in my fridge is the fridge itself. I even purchased a blender to make green smoothies.

What is fueling this obsession? I think part of it may have to do with reading the Mommy blogs. That’s right, sometimes I indulge in reading blogs written by Type A mothers who are on a mission to portray their lives in the most flattering light possible – in a sense, creating a fantasy that the reader/consumer is drawn into…and it totally works.

These blogs are easy to find. Usually, they are written by attractive white American or Canadian women who are married to a tall white husband who wears coke bottle glasses with one, two or sometimes three young children. Their lives exude a kind of bourgeois hipsterness in which each day is a new opportunity for exploring (and consuming) expensive food, fashion, furniture, art, Apple products and all natural, environmentally-friendly cleaning things. Home renovation projects feature frequently and prominently.

And maybe I sound a little snarky. But truth be told, I love these blogs. They provide me with some escapism. Sometimes when I need a break at work, I will spent five minutes reading a post or two and feel rejuvenated after doing so. I feel like some of these women are my friends, like I know their children. Which sounds creepy. Anyway, I also get lots of ideas about my own life from their vast troves of information – about chemical-free cosmetics, or easy-yet-delicious pasta dishes, about new, interesting books and music. And it’s all frreeeeee.

However.

In their construction and portrayal of their lives as seemingly perfect – one amazing domestic adventure after another – I think they do their audience a disservice. I mean, for sure, there’s always the danger of TMI or over-sharing, and there are some things most people would agree are just too banal or gross to mention. However, a dose of reality would go a long way to helping readers identify with the characters, their trials and tribulations. Holding up such a picture of idyllic domestic bliss, which very few people can live up to, perhaps sends a message that your (the readers’) life sucks and you are a bad parent because your kid vomited after eating too much candy.

One writer, in the FAQ section of her blog responds to the question: Is life really that perfect?

i never said my life was perfect. it’s not. no one has a perfect life.  but i choose to look at what i am blessed with rather than what i do not have. i work hard to find the joy in my day-to-day.  regardless, i have terrible days just like anyone. while i try to be honest about the entire picture, i like to keep this blog on the positive side.  please do not ever look at my blog (or anyone’s blog) and compare your life to it. a saying i love, “comparison is the thief of joy,”  has never rung truer than in the blogging world.  i can’t choose what you’ll take away from my blog, but i hope you’ll take away a message of finding the joy in what is around you, in your family and friends, and in your surroundings over anything else.

I agree with her wise words. Ironically, there is nothing but smiling faces plastered all over her posts. So maybe it’s OK to let the guard down sometimes and write, ‘this is hard,’ or ‘I feel overwhelmed.’ Maybe it won’t “sell” as well, but it will be real.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heroine Worship

Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni

One woman who has been a big inspiration to me, especially in the height of my idealism in my mid-20s is writer and war correspondent Janine di Giovanni. In fact, I was kind of in awe of her in an almost creepy way – reading everything she wrote and following the turbulent journey of her life online and in print as if we were related.

At the time, I thought what she did was the coolest and most important job in the world (well, maybe except for being a doctor who can save lives). She went into wars all over the world for weeks, sometimes months, at a time and reported from the front lines for the world’s most respected newspapers. I was enamored by her courage and bravery. I agreed with her wholeheartedly when in one of her books on the wars she covered, she wrote about a life changing moment, when, as a young, green reporter in Israel, an Israeli lawyer defending Palestinians told her to “go everywhere, write everything, and give me a brief, a blueprint for life; if you have the chance to give a voice to people who do not have a voice…then you have an obligation.”

She inspired me to start writing and one day, I found myself in a very lucky position as a web reporter for an NGO. I was able to travel to twenty countries around the world reporting on a range of different issues focusing on human rights. Although I never saw the dead bodies or had to find shelter from flying bullets and falling bombs like she did, I saw enough to know that the world is one very fucked up place.

The event that has always stuck in my mind is when I visited Malta. We went to a detention center where refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries in north Africa had accidentally landed on route to Europe, usually Italy. I hope to revisit this experience in more depth in another post. For now, I just want to say that I was shocked by what had happened to these men – they were being held against their will with absolutely nothing to do all day and had to find ways to pass the time. I saw the loss of dignity they had endured- these tall, strong, capable men were in limbo and weren’t allowed to work legally, and had very little self-determination. The Maltese government were punishing them and would not send them back to Africa, nor forward to Italy. In the meantime, they descended into depression, slowly wasting away.

Then I wrote a little article about it, raised a little bit of awareness but essentially, nothing changed. And really, I couldn’t expect it to. Still, it was a pivotal moment for me. And of course, reality set in, where I realized I did not have even one-tenth of the balls needed to do this on a regular basis, to bear witness to so much pointless suffering. There was also the princess factor – was I really going to go ten days without brushing my teeth, or live without a flushing toilet and no running water like she did? Or being in freezing temperatures without heat in Eastern Europe sleeping on a floor? How about not showering for a week and risking getting shot at, tortured, imprisoned and gang-raped? No thanks.

And now, years later, I have again delved into di Giovanni’s life as I recently discovered she had written a memoir about the disintegration of her marriage to another war correspondent – a French cameraman.

In this book, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption, she writes very eloquently and poignantly about how all of her and her husband’s harrowing experiences of war catch up with them as they have a baby and start a new life as a married couple in Paris.

One reason this book is so compelling is that she is brutally honest about the messy, unflattering aspects of herself and her marriage. She weaves the narrative back into her personal and professional past (although she never really separates the two) and relives some of her most traumatic experiences and then moves back seamlessly to her domestic life, reflecting on how these experiences shaped and often, harmed her. In one instance, when she first holds her son in her arms after a difficult, high-risk pregnancy and birth, she asks the doctor if her baby is dead.

She attributes being able to write about her experiences as one way that she didn’t descend into madness and suicide like many of her colleagues who covered the same wars as her – in Sarajevo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and countless others. Her husband, however, wasn’t so lucky.

Bruno is portrayed in her memoir as a rugged, dashing and charismatic figure who protects his wife with his seemingly indomitable courage, a warrior who fights until the bitter end – always the last man standing – and thrives on excitement, danger and adrenalin. Slowly, their marriage erodes as it becomes apparent he is falling victim to PTSD and alcoholism. Eventually, he enters rehab and AA, becomes sober and saves his own life. However, di Giovanni finds that they have both changed too much – the wildness, turbulence, chaos and passion has gone from their marriage and they separate, although remain close and share the parenting of their only son.

I recently listened to an interview with the author on the radio talk about her work. She was being interviewed by her long-time friend and former war correspondent, a Canadian woman, who said, at one point during the interview (I am paraphrasing here), “You know, I thought you had it all. You did what I couldn’t – I left that work because I couldn’t handle it. But you thrived with the dangerous, globe-trotting journalism job, the husband, the baby, the beautiful apartment in Paris – it was portrayed as an enviable life. I coveted it.”

To which di Giovanni replied that she kept up appearances and didn’t talk to anyone about her own suffering because of how all the tragedy that her family experienced as she was growing up was swept aside. Nobody talked about her dying or dead siblings, the drug addiction or other sorrows that plagued her upper-middle-class existence in New Jersey. “But there was so much mystery. We never talked about cousins who disappeared and died, about the problems in our own home: the bags of dope stashed in the cellar; the boys’ grades slipping or the fact they stopped playing sports and spent more time with bongs…We never talked about growing up, about what would happen when I left the painted black front gate or our home and went into the real world,” she writes.

di Giovanni is not looking for sympathy or pity as she lays her life bare. As a journalist of the highest calibre, she is committed to truth and portraying reality in the most raw and honest way she knows how.

Partway through her narrative, as she is coming to terms with her husband’s addiction and the unraveling of their ‘perfect’ life together, she asks the reader these pertinent questions: “Why do we deny ourselves reality? When is the right time to suddenly see the truth?” Indeed.

 

 

 

 

A Fine Balance

tightrope walkingI don’t know about you, but I have always found it hard to find balance in my life.

Where is the balance between doing and being? Or between work and life?

No-one has an ideal work/life balance, but sometimes I think my balance may weigh more to the side of life, which would be good, except that I will then berate myself for not being ambitious enough or not earning enough money. Which brings me to my next dilemma (if it is not too bratty to call it that) – what is the best way to live for today, emotionally and financially, while planning for the future? What does carpe diem mean to the average person who has to work forty hours a week and cook dinner and pay bills and deal with annoying relatives?

Some truths about time are that the days are long but the years are short, and if you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves. So, how much should we try to live in the present and how much effort do we give to planning for the future? What goals are worth pursuing and what is worth sacrificing? How do we bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be without going crazy? And how do we ensure that we feel a sense of contentment when our target is always moving, the bar always getting higher as we try to keep up with our peers, or just try to keep our head above water?

I recently read a very sweet coming-of-age memoir called Saltwater Buddha by an American man, Jaimal Yogis, who grew up in an unconventional way by doing everything in his power to ensure that he was always chasing his two passions, as you might’ve guessed from the title, surfing and Buddhism.

surfing_-_black_and_white-3055There were two things I took away from reading his work. First, he talks about how surfing is a good metaphor for life:

“The extremely good stuff – chocolate and great sex and weddings and hilarious jokes – fills a minute portion of an adult lifespan.

The rest of life is the paddling: work, paying bills, flossing, getting sick, dying.”

So, the key to having a full life it seems, is to enjoy the journey – yes, once you reach the top of Everest, it will be amazing, but it will be short-lived, and there will be another Everest to conquer. Better to also make the most of the climb up, even though it will inevitably suck now and then.

The other point he raises is near the end of his book when he is at graduate school studying to become a journalist. He is at Columbia University in New York, which has the best journalism program in the western world. But living like a student with no money, no free time, no surfing and no meditation coupled with copious amounts of stress, feeling overwhelmed and burnt out and dealing with a strained long distance relationship leaves him depressed. He wonders about the value of what he is doing and questions his commitment and doubts that he can finish. Then, for his thesis, he goes out on a boat at night with commercial fishermen in the middle of winter to help them with their work so he can write about it.

It turns out to be one of the worst nights in his life as he is thrown all over the deck and spends most of his time vomiting and dry-heaving, drowning in waves of nausea. I guess it’s hard to describe unless you have actually experienced really bad sea sickness that leaves you feeling like you want to die. During this experience, he comes to an important realization that allows him to get through the rest of his seemingly grueling academic study:

“I realized I needed to stop complaining. I had it very, very easy.

If I come out of this alive, I said to myself, I will have perspective.”

This leads me to wonder where to find the balance between being grateful for what we have and wanting more; between feeling content and striving; between giving and taking in relationships, between wanting and needing…

These are matters for another day. For now, I need to get back to doing the laundry, cooking dinner and washing the dishes. In other words, paddling.