Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why December Makes Me Sad

Musing on why December makes me sad...

I wrote a blog post for Kveller.com this week, and I'd like to link to it here.  Perhaps, despite the melancholy tone of the piece, you'll feel hopeful like I do?

Hello, December. It’s that time of year here in America. A time for good tidings of comfort and joy. A time for happy family memories and meaningful traditions. But for me and my interfaith marriage, December now comes packaged with a new tradition–an annual holiday cry (or if I’m really being honest…cries. Plural.)
Now I know a lot of people cry during the holidays. The pressure of stressful travel plans and forced family gatherings is enough to make many people crack. But for the interfaith family, December is a particularly lonely time.
I go online to order holiday cards. (I am a little behind this year.) I skip over the red and green ones, the ones with Christmas trees or holly or Santa Claus, the ones that say “Merry Christmas,” the ones that say “Happy Hanukkah,” and I’m left to choose from lots of cards with “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” written generically on the front. After much much agonizing, I pick, “Peace, Joy, and Love.” Those are things that people from all faiths want, right?  Continue reading -->

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

One (or Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes)

Musing on one year…  and a letter to my baby girl.

It’s crept up on me - our daughter’s first birthday.  And alongside the anniversary of the day of her birth comes my official realization of exactly how fast one year of life can pass.  It’s nearly daily, as we watch her play, that my husband tells me with a tinge of dread in his voice, she’s going to college soon.  And as seasoned parents tell me, he’s right.

Seeing the world from a new point of view
This year has been filled with beautiful memories: endless amounts of shameless gushing over everything she does, of the secretly held belief in our biased hearts that even as she embarks on the same milestones as every other single baby in the world throughout time, she’s the best baby that ever lived.  But even as I fill with pride and joy, I am also growing ever more familiar with the haunting feeling that we are going to mess it all up.  Gazing into my baby’s happy, soulful eyes, I know that not everyday ahead will be blissful and full of light. 

There’s something I used to do when I was pregnant.  Those haunting feelings were familiar back then.  I’d often lay awake at night worrying about whether the baby growing inside me was getting everything she needed, and hoping she was healthy, strong, comfortable, and well.  And so whenever I encountered that paralyzing worry, I'd get up and out of bed, and would pull out a notebook and write her a letter.  I made the decision not only to “journal,” but to actually write words directly to my baby.  I wanted to get a head start on what I hope will be a lifetime of open and direct communication - of not sacrificing what’s really going on for the sake of appearing like we’ve got everything together, or saving face.

Today is a perfect day for another letter.

Dear Baby Girl,

You are one year old today!  It’s been one year since you and I worked together, along with Dada and Kate, to bring you from inside my uterus out into the world.  You came into the world with your eyes wide open.  From the very first moments, you were already looking around, alert and awake. 

You are strong.  Just minutes after you were born, we placed you on top of me, belly to belly, and you inched and wiggled, all by yourself, up to my chest.  Once you were up there, you picked up your head, threw it over to one side, and began nursing for the very first time, all on your own.  I was there to make sure you didn’t fall, and to offer a bit of support and guidance.  But you knew what to do already.  Every time you come across a new challenge in life, or a big task, look inside yourself first, you might already have an idea as to how to begin.  But also don’t be afraid to look for help; we are here to support you.

You are small.  Yes, you are smaller than most other babies your age.  You have tiny hands and tiny feet.  But we are all small.  In comparison to this big, big world around us, we are just a very small piece.  Always look around you with wonder and remember that you are part of something bigger than yourself. But also know that our physical size doesn’t have anything to do with our capacity to love, give, and make a big difference.  You can do big, big things, no matter how small you are.

The world is both good and bad.  People will try to tell you that it's all one or all the other, but I don’t believe it.  When I look around, I see and experience that both are true.  In this past year of your life, there has been unspeakable badness and sadness.  A month after you were born, there was a horrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, and then a few months later there was a bombing at the Boston Marathon, and just this week a typhoon hit the central Philippines, the country my family is from.  Someday you might ask me why these bad things happen, and I will tell you honestly that I don’t know.  I will tell you that I still ask that same question.  Don’t ever stop asking that question.  Trying to find the answer can lead you toward a deeper understanding of people, give you a greater sense of empathy, and inspire you to fight for what you believe in. 

To find the good in this past year, I don’t have to look too far.  I only have to see you smile, which is something you do freely and frequently.  I only have to feel your Dada squeeze my hand as we watch you play, and discover, and learn.  I only have to watch the way complete strangers light up when they meet you.  You are already, even at your very young age, spreading good cheer everywhere we go.

I love you.  Unconditionally.  There's nothing you need to do or not do to earn my love.  People often warn me that someday you'll do things that will make it difficult for me to love you.  That as a teenager you'll roll your eyes at me and want nothing to do with me.  And I know we may hurt each other, sometimes unintentionally, and other times on purpose.  But I’m holding out hope that even through tough times, we'll keep talking.  I’m hoping that ours will be a home where we talk about how we feel and what we're afraid of, where we say we're sorry and take responsibility for our mistakes.  That ours will be a home where you hear and feel how much we love you, everyday.

Happy Birthday, my darling.  Thank you for this amazing year. 
I am so incredibly honored to be your mama. 

Love always,

Me

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One - is the finale from A Chorus Line.  When I listen to this song, I swear they are singing about my baby.  :)
Seasons of Love - sometimes unofficially called "Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes."  I've listened to this song from Rent since I was in high school, this year it has completely refreshed meaning to me.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Autumn Leaves

Musing on Autumn…

It’s getting colder outside.  And it’s happening much faster than I anticipated.  I knew that this day would come.  But having just moved from Los Angeles, I know that I was incredibly and hopelessly spoiled by mild daily weather.  I’d forgotten what a year with aggressive, churning seasons feels like. 

Hello, Autumn.

It’s been a while.  Seven years to be exact.  Hello again, season of nostalgia, season of change.  Season of warmer clothing, marching band, and high school musical rehearsals.  Season of pumpkin heads, pumpkin beer, and pumpkin lattes.  Season of apple picking, apple cider, and cider donuts.  Season of crunching leaves, seeing your breath, rosy noses and cheeks, of orange, yellow, brown, and red.  Season of growing older, and going to sleep.  Season of letting go.
First Cider Donut Ever

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I used to say the thing I missed most about the Midwest was autumn.  After a few years of living, I would continue to say it, but to be honest, I think I forgot what I was missing.

Most everything about autumn this year is familiar… the way the air smells and feels.  There’s a little bite in the air that comes from the kind of damp cold you find here in the Midwest.  I can immediately recall those days when as kids, my siblings and I would play in piles of fallen leaves.  The bits of leaves would get trapped in our hair, catching in the cracks around our sleeves and collars, and stuck to the bottoms of our shoes.  I’m struggling to find a perfect way to describe the smell of autumn leaves, actually, I can’t even find a mediocre way, but if you have smelled them, they are stamped in your olfactory memory forever.  It was cold outside, but that’s not the kind of thing you make note of as a child.  You only realized it was cold out there when you came inside and the ends of your fingers and toes turned red hot as they start to warm up.

During autumn, the leaves of trees turn into some of the most vibrant colors you can find in nature.  You breathe in this beauty, hear the loud silences between the crunching beneath your feet… forgetting for one moment, or never even realizing to begin with, that what you’re witnessing is death.  Breathtaking, perfect, fragrant, crisp, clear death.  As life drains from the leaves, they show us jewel-bright colors, they reflect the glow of the sun with radiant warmth.

Imagine we could see human life in the same way.  Imagine if we made a special trip to visit the dying, not in the tentative, fearful and sad way we do, but with anticipation, wonder, and awe.  Imagine we embraced our own “leaving” the way we embrace the leaves of autumn.

People have been asking me whether I’m ready for winter this year.  And my answer is “no, not yet.”  I’m actually a little embarrassed to admit how hard I’m taking this autumn chill.  But as I wrote a couple weeks ago, I’m really trying to live here right now, so instead of worrying about the inevitable frozen days ahead, I’m trying to let my favorite season hang around while keeping my eyes wide open.
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Autumn Leaves is a popular oft-recorded standard which was originally a 1945 French song "Les feuilles mortes" (literally "The Dead Leaves"). 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Why My Marriage Isn't Trendy

Musing on why my marriage isn't trendy...

I missed writing a post this week, but in its place I had the opportunity to blog for Kveller.com, a website devoted to "parenting with a Jewish twist."  I have the honor of bringing an interfaith perspective to the conversation. 

So I decided to start at the very beginning (a very good place to start), and blog about my relationship with my husband.  I think some people might feel saddened to read this, while others may relate, and yet others will not understand why it its a difficult story for me to share.  Regardless of which kind of reader you are, I hope that what I have to say creates opportunities for empathetic conversation.

Here is my post...

I'm a Chinese American Married to a Jew, But Our Marriage Isn't Trendy

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Here Right Now

Musing on making each moment count...

I found out this week that a good friend is sick... very sick.  The bewildering, "shaking my fist at God" kind of sick that no one should be, ever.  And especially not when you're in your mid-thirties.  I admit, I feel like I have no business writing about anything this week.  I've been wading through life these past few days feeling like most of my thoughts are petty, and searching for deep meaning in every moment.  I found myself looking at my beautiful 10-month-old little girl in this too short, too fast life, and thinking, How do I make each moment count?

But after a few days of asking myself that cliche question, and becoming frustrated with the cliche answers, I went back to the drawing board.  And I came up with a new question... How do I live right now?

We Americans live in an overwhelmingly performance-based culture.  And the Chinese culture my family comes from might be even more performance-based.  So it's no surprise that I began by focusing on the "make" and the "count" in my original question.  Growing up, we are asked, What are you going to be?  What are you going to do?  Are you working really hard now so that you can be this really great thing later on in life?  Are you going to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer?  Did you practice the piano, so that you'll play well in the recital?  Did you study so you'll achieve good grades?

We do the same thing with our babies.  We ask, What can your baby do now?  Is he rolling over?  Is she pulling up?  Is she crawling yet?  Can he walk?  Can he say Mama?  Can she wave?  Is she sleeping through the night?  I think I have asked and been on the receiving end of every single one of these questions of other parents.  They are the questions we think we're supposed to ask, they have become almost second nature conversation starters when we run into a parent with a baby.  And because these are the questions we absentmindedly ask, we also absentmindedly live to answer them.

When I'm playing with my baby, I keep finding myself working toward making "yes" the answer to all those questions.  I try to teach her how to wave... try to make her crawl toward the toy with which I'd be particularly tickled to see her play... try to capture her standing on camera.  The first time I tried to do this, she was not completely ready to stand on her own yet.  I propped her up next to an ottoman, then stood fumbling with my camera phone, while her big beautiful head hit the ground. 

It's difficult to stop this habit of always aiming for the next thing, of planning for the next moment, of looking for the next milestone.  But yesterday I made an attempt to squelch every instinct I had to "shape" and "teach" my daughter, and instead I followed her cues throughout the day.  Instead of trying to make her sit and read a whole book through with me, I put the book down and followed her when she started to crawl away.  I watched the wide-eyed delight on her face as she laughed at the shadow the cat's tail was making on the wall.  I loved seeing the way her lips jut forward, and listening to how her breath gets heavy as she tries stacking bowls inside one another.  When a siren began howling outside, I watched her head perk up, her eyes bright and searching for the origin of the sound.

Hello, World
I realize that for me, there is no better inspiration of how to live right now, than to watch my baby, closely, avoiding all my impulses to "make meaning" out of her play.  She lets herself cry when she's sad, or scared, or hurt.  She laughs freely when something is new, and delightful.  She's not self conscious about whether she's good enough at something to do it, she just does it.  She looks at the world with a wonderment I've long forgotten.

I suppose we have to keep thinking about the future.  I know that it's responsible to plan ahead, and to work toward goals.  I know that we will continue to be evaluated based on our achievements and performance.  I know that's how our world works.

But as I think about my friend today, I'd like to propose that we make a shift in how we think about living our lives.  Maybe the way to "make each moment count," is to stop doing so much counting, measuring, and evaluating.  Maybe we need to stop deciding what's worthwhile based on how much money we'll make, how much time we'll save, how far ahead we'll get, what rewards we'll receive.  Maybe we need to take a cue from the babies we once were, and try living here right now.  I'm starting right now.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Impossible Dream

Musing on following your dreams...

There's only so long after you've "moved in" that you can keep saying "we just moved here."  Today marks the 3-month anniversary of our Chicago Move-in Day, so I think I may have used up my "just moved here" time.  Three months ago I stood in our empty living room, directing traffic as the talented and persevering Allied Van Lines moving crew dispersed our belongings throughout our new home.  The moving supervisor had invited his local 15-year-old nephew along, offering him a few bucks to help with some heavy lifting. 

I was impressed with young Pedro.  His conversational skills far exceeded those of many adults my age.  He made good eye contact, asked follow up questions.  He skipped past petty small talk to ask questions of substance.  After sharing with him that I had been working as an actor in Los Angeles before having a baby and moving here to Chicago, he asked, nonchalantly, with what I swear was a cocked eyebrow,

"So was that, like, your dream?"  I felt a stutter creep up my throat, and then a little bit of heat behind my cheeks.  Even precocious Pedro wonders what you're doing with your life! the devilish angel on my shoulder whispered in my ear.

D is for Dream
I picture the bright-eyed me of my childhood, dreaming of all the things she wanted to do someday - sing on a Broadway stage, star in a Hollywood film, become a best-selling novelist - and I see her disappointment as she looks up at me, a stay-at-home, wanna-be creative-type, not-currently-contributing-financially-to-the-family mama. 

I went on an audition recently.  I know I did it in part so that I could tell "childhood me" that I was still living the dream.  A local Chicago theatre was holding its season general auditions.  I stapled a headshot to a resume, drove in the rain, and waited (nearly an hour and half) to present my monologue and song. 

It was one of those auditions where there's just a thin curtain separating the space where the auditions are taking place from all the actors waiting to audition.  So you can hear everything, and you know that when it's your turn, everyone will hear you.  The director was asking everyone a question, "so, what are you working on now?"  Historically, that's an anxiety-inducing question for me.  The answer is a well rehearsed (but totally natural sounding, because, you know, I'm an actor!) "elevator pitch" that makes it seem like I'm busy, I've got a lot going on, I've got options, but I'm also "totally available" if this theatre wants to cast me.  If I was working on something, I'd have to find a way to make it sound really cool.  And if I wasn't... well, it's amazing how many ways there are to say I'm "in between projects."

But today, a calm comes over me.  No, I haven't been working on anything in a while... but wait... yes, actually, yes, I have been working on something.  I've been improvising characters, working on my voice, writing alternate lyrics, exercising my storytelling chops.  I am a dancer, a singer, a contortionist, a dramatic reader, a comedian, a chef.  I create the world, present it, to the most wonderful, eager, hopeful, fulfilling audience member of my life.  There is no rehearsal for this performance, I have to make it up as I go.  She is going to see every stumble, every flub.  She'll see when I'm having an off-night, will be able to tell when I'm "phoning it in."  And she'll witness some real moments of vulnerability and truth.  Those moments during a performance when you realize for as much as you're giving to your audience, nothing compares to what you receive in return.  They are moments that will stick with both of us for the rest of our lives.

There's a dream you didn't even know to dream because it was simply impossible for you to imagine how much you wanted it.  There was nothing any parent could have ever told me about parenthood that could have prepared me for how much love I would feel, or how much more I could grow.

Maybe "being a mom" isn't everyone's dream, but I'll tell my little girl someday... Dream big, dream about the thing that is the greatest thing you can imagine, and then do it, make it happen!  But save a little room for dreaming of the thing that is so great, that makes you so full, so rich, that's even better than anything you could have ever pictured.  Be open to that dream too.

So the answer to your question, Pedro, is yes.  It was my dream to be an actor.  And all those childhood dreams, sure, I still want them to come true.  But that was long before I knew there could be something even better.  To live only for that old dream would be settling.  Right now, I'm a mama.  And I'm living the dream. 
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The Impossible Dream - today's blogpost title is a song sung by Don Quixote at the end of the first act in Man of La Mancha.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Food, Glorious Food

Musing on why I didn't find that Whole Foods blog funny...

Last week I read a satirical blog in the Huffington Post Comedy section entitled "Surviving Whole Foods."  I found the link in my facebook feed via numerous friends that day.  I eagerly clicked on the link.  As someone who enjoys a monthly shopping trip to Whole Foods, I got ready to laugh knowingly, maybe even at myself.

But I did not laugh.  So I reread the blog, twice... then again.  I thought I must be missing something.  But I just wasn't laughing.  So I slept on it.  But when I woke up, I felt even less like laughing.  Had I become humorless?  Could I no longer take a joke?

So I'll try to put what's bugging me into words.  I think that good satire is rooted in a healthy dose of truth.  But reading this blog just felt like a blow by blow of one over-the-top misguided observation after another.  I cringe when the author casually states that "poor people" don't have "special diet needs."  I disagree.  Diabetes immediately comes to mind... it actually affects people below the poverty line at a higher rate.  Here is Dr. Mark Hyman's thoughtful blog from a few years back that addresses the link between poverty and diabetes.  I suspect that poor people likely have just as many, if not more, special diet needs when compared to society at large.  These special diet needs were likely caused by the fact that they didn't have access to good, real, whole food in the first place.  Maybe they were deterred by the high costs, or more likely because a place that offers quality food doesn't even exist in the neighborhood.  This does not make me laugh. 

The author continues to ridicule Whole Foods as she makes her way through the beauty and vitamin aisles.  Somehow she is "tricked" into buying things she doesn't need, including hundred dollar face cream.  To use her own phrase, talk about "rich white people problems."  Talk about finding a way to factor personal responsibility out of the equation, and to let Whole Foods take the blame for you spending too much money, you having no self control, you being too preoccupied with the size of your pores to make the choice to not max out your credit card.  Maxing out credit cards is still responsible for having ruined the financial lives of countless Americans and played no small role in the economic downturn we so often like to blame on the government.  This also does not make me laugh.

Unlike the author of "Surviving Whole Foods," I didn't grow up shopping there, as she states in an on camera interview.  In fact, I'm pretty sure my parents never step foot in the place because they've also heard that you'll spend your "whole paycheck" there.  Maybe they are intimidated because they've heard of the snooty, unfriendly, pretentious staff members.  This has not been my experience.

Avocado - Natural Whole Baby Food
The parking lot at the Chicago South Loop store has great big parking spaces (it's a perk to living in the mid-west I suppose!).  I'm wearing my baby as I cross the walk, and a nice lady smiles and waves me through.  I have a lovely conversation with the butcher behind the counter, he helps me decide what the best cut of meat would be for a recipe I'd like to try.  He's knowledgeable, friendly, and talks with me about how to get the most for my money here.  I sample delicious cheese; I learn where it's from.  The whole wheat bread is in the bread aisle along with all the other bread; I am empowered to choose a loaf that's in my budget.  The signs in the produce section help to highlight what's in season, so if I want, I can make the decision to provide my family with food that's growing optimally and nearby.  I learn about a local farm I didn't know about before.  I buy an organic avocado from California, it makes us think fondly of Los Angeles.  I try a sample for a bath scrub, I smell amazing for the rest of the day.  I decide not to buy any, because it's out of my budget right now, but the scent on my wrist makes me smile.  I check out, providing my re-useable bags, which I now store in the car.  I used to forget them all the time, and sometimes I still do.  But I'm glad that this store is trying to help me remember to use them. 

It is not my intention to be a spokesperson for Whole Foods.  I can't deny that prices are high there.  And maybe on occasion you'll run into a grumpy staff member, but who doesn't have grumpy days?  The truth is, good quality food simply costs more than food that's bad for us and bad for our country.  It's a problem that we've made highly processed, sugary, empty calorie-d food so cheap that we expect all food should be cheap.  And the cheaper bad food is, the more it costs to provide healthy options, such as fresh grass-fed meat, a wider variety of whole grains, and support for small local farms.  Whole Foods is not here to solve all our problems, but they are a forerunner among national supermarkets when it comes to providing customers with with good, healthy whole options.  I would like to argue that an occasional, well thought out trip to Whole Foods can be a really enjoyable experience, that does not need to result in breaking the bank.  

If we're ever going to make a dent in our country's food problem, we need to demand better food from better quality sources.  We can ask this of our local farmers' markets, or grocery stores.  I'm lucky to have this opportunity.  Unfortunately, not everyone has the access or the means to do this.   But if people with relative privilege, like the author of "Surviving Whole Foods," spent a little more time making smart choices in the food aisles, and a little less time maxing out her credit card on ridiculously priced beauty products, we might have a chance at changing the status quo. 
I promise, I'm the same fun-loving gal I've always been.  I haven't lost my sense of humor or my appetite.  I just spend my laughs on stuff that's funny, and my money on food that's good for my family.
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Food, Glorious Food - this week's blogpost title is the opening song from Oliver! in which the orphan workhouse boys fantasize of food while collecting their daily gruel.  I hope I see the day when the dream for all Americans to have access to good, whole food, becomes a reality.