Monthly Archives: December 2010

Singular moments and nuanced epics

We’re back in Laos – we arrived yesterday towing a mixture of emotions in our wake. I’m a bit sick of every experience and transition bringing both good and bad with it. What happened to the days when I felt sheer, unadulterated, joy at something? Or even pure happiness?

Who am I kidding, I rarely do unadulterated anything. Possibly the closest I’ve ever come to unadulterated joy was finishing my end of year exams when I was sixteen and realizing that I wouldn’t have to study for eight, heavenly, weeks. And I do taste pure happiness now but it’s in tiny moments, like this morning at 5:30am when Mike heroically got up to deal with our whining puppy (who’d already woken the whole house at midnight and had to be installed in our room to settle him down again). Mike opened the door to his crate and Zulu shot out – a golden blur propelled by a wagging tail – and promptly scooted under our bed. There he settled down to eat a snotty tissue and pretend he couldn’t see Mike on his hands and knees, commanding him to come out. For some reason I found the sight of Mike, kneeling on the wooden floor in his pajamas and trying to look stern, hysterically funny. It was a small, light, bubble of pure happiness that was all the more startling for having formed in pre-dawn darkness.

It’s in tiny moments like these – moments that often last no longer than a couple of seconds – when I feel a singular something. Big, epic, things like moving countries or getting married or returning to Laos never bring singular emotions. They are magnifying glasses, enlarging both the good and the bad. And so it has been with this return.

The good has been great. Stepping off the plane to find Luang Prabang crisp and cool was a wonderful shock. Mike had told me that the weather this time of year would bring relief, but back in June I had no framework for understanding this. I’ve never lived anywhere so overtly tropical where the weather really does change drastically from an unrelenting steamy to a clean and edgy chilly.

Seeing Zulu so excited to see us that he peed himself, and so mystified to have us back that he didn’t try to chew on us with his sharp little teeth for eleven whole minutes after we walked in the door, was gratifying.

And dining last night at one of my favorite restaurants here, Tamarind, was gastronomically celestial. The monks were halfway through their evening chanting as we arrived, snagged the last free table, and waited for our feast, and what a feast it was. Lemongrass stalks stuffed with ground chicken and herbs and then grilled. Blackened pork wrapped in bamboo and served with a tart tamarind dipping sauce. Green beans seasoned with oyster sauce and fresh chili, so crisp they squeaked between my teeth. A glass of lime juice with a lemongrass-stalk straw. A creamy pumpkin and coconut soup. A dipping platter of smoky eggplant, tart salsa, sesame-studded dried riverweed, and something I’ve learned the hard way to stay away from – a paste made of buffalo, chilli, and jam. Oh, I almost forgot the sticky rice served in woven baskets. I love the sensuousness of those warm, fat, grains between my fingers and the tactile communality of eating mostly with our hands.

Yes, the good here is great. But there is always, always, the other hand with epic adventures. And on this other hand are moment like the one last night, when I went to wash my cold face before bed and realized anew that we have no running hot water anywhere but the shower (when the wall mounted hot water heater isn’t playing up). And when our neighbors play their radio yesterday afternoon much more loudly than I think is strictly neighborly, for hours. And when our unsettled puppy wakes up at midnight and refuses to stop crying. And, right now, when I’m busy typing this and an electric saw starts grinding away on metal about twenty feet away.

Oh yes, we are back in Laos and it is a mixed bag. But, then again, that’s pretty much adult life I suppose.

Other parts of adult life are unpacking after a trip, and filing, and completing paperwork, and cleaning up the office, and invoicing clients, and feeding myself instead of just trusting that my Mum will throw lunch together, so I better go. But, first, what about you? When is the last time you felt an uncomplicated emotion?

Surprise!

It’s been a week full of surprises. This morning, for example, I woke up before Mike. Then I suggested we go for a walk, so we covered 4km before 8am with Mike uncharacteristically dragging himself along beside me instead of bouncing like Tiger at being outside on such a gorgeous morning. We came across a wallaby along the way. It was standing in the middle of the road listening to our approaching steps, and then it bounded off into the brush as soon as we rounded the corner. That’s about five surprises before 8am.

Last week in Tasmania we saw plenty of wallabies – on beaches, in parks, all over the place. We also surprised a wombat and it also headed straight for the brush, but as it was built like a big furry cask on tiny legs it didn’t bound, it waddled. There were a bunch of other surprises in Tasmania too. When we got to Coles Bay in Freycinet we found that half the town had burned down the night before (in a town that size the gas station, a convenience store, and a restaurant, is half the town). And after we toured the Cadbury Factory and ate every free sample we were offered, then ordered something that was advertised as “the world’s best hot chocolate” (which turned out to be more than half a glass full of chocolate shavings melted in hot mik), we felt sick. In retrospect, perhaps that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

When we got to Ballina on Saturday, however, we received by far the biggest surprise of the week. My brother, Matt, and his wife, Lou, picked us up from the airport in the Gold Coast and when we got down here and walked into the house who should come down the stairs but my sister, Michelle, and my niece, Tahlia, who were supposed to be spending this Christmas in Washington DC! Michelle had managed to organize last minute tickets and flown home, surprising all of us (including my parents, whose 39th wedding anniversary it was that day). It was a total surprise-coup.

We talked about surprises that night around the dinner table. Did we like to give them? Did we like to be on the receiving end?

Matt, it turns out, likes to get surprises when he doesn’t know they’re coming, but if he knows a surprise is in the air but isn’t sure what might be heading his way he’s not much of a fan. Mum said she liked giving surprises, but not getting them. Mike liked to both give and receive surprises.

“I tend to plant the seeds now that a surprise is in the offing with you,” Mike said to me. “Because when I’ve completely surprised you in the past it hasn’t always gone over so well.”

“Like when you asked me to marry you after we’d spent a grand total of 20 days in the same country,” I said. “That surprise? Yeah. It turned out OK in the end though, didn’t it?”

The opinion was floated that people who like to give others surprises all the time have a high need to control others, and that people who don’t like getting surprises at all have a fairly high need for staying in control of themselves. What do you think? And do you like giving surprises, or getting them?

Weddings, rabbits, and laughter

You’d think there would be more to write about when we’re on holidays, not less, but we’ve been having a thoroughly lovely week and thoroughly lovely weeks do not generally good blog fodder make. As I have now been missing in action for the last ten days due to a remarkable lack of internet access points in Barwon Heads and the entire state of Tasmania, however, I will soldier on in the face of the adversity of an over-abundance of happiness and good fortune to provide some sort of update.

So, the wedding last weekend. It was lovely, as weddings generally are, each in their own special way. Amber was stunningly beautiful. Tristan fought back tears as she walked down the aisle. Mike made a very handsome groomsmen and was in good international company – three of the four groomsmen had flown in from overseas. We came from Laos, Tristan’s brother, Ash, came from Yemen, and another friend, Aaron, flew in from Canada for the weekend. (Total insanity, that last one, the very thought of enduring that trip just for the weekend makes me shudder.)

I was asked to read a reading from the Velveteen Rabbit (by Margery Williams) that Mike and I chose for our wedding so that was a fun deja-vu. I’ve loved the idea of this reading at a wedding since I first heard it at a wedding I attended in Washington while I was still in high school, and it apparently struck a chord with Tristan and Amber when they were researching as well.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but Really loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get all loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

I like the idea that growing in love takes time, but that the end result of the process is an authentic sort of realness more valuable than unmarred physical beauty. On the other hand I don’t agree with Skin Horse that when you are Real you don’t mind being hurt. Perhaps you mind it less, or perhaps you can look past the immediate to see value in the hurt, but I think we generally still mind. On the whole, however, this reading captures some of what I hope for Mike and me in our marriage – that our love will transform us by rubbing off some of the sharp edges of our selfishness and teach us, bit by bit, to better see and value true beauty.

Oh, and I hope we laugh a lot along the way, and don’t leave each other lying neglected by the fender for too long. Talented photographer that he is, Tristan took these photos during our own wedding rehearsal, almost two years ago now. I can’t remember what we were laughing about, but by the looks at it I made fun of Mike for something and then fully expected to be rewarded with a kiss. Long may the laughter, the love, and the kisses continue for us and for the couple of the week, Tristan and Amber.

While we’re on the topic of weddings, what is something you’ve heard read or said at a wedding that’s stuck with you? Why did you like (or dislike) it?

A mishmash of chocolate, cashew, and pineapple

I’ve quit cloudy Ballina for cloudy Melbourne for a little while. I know people all over the country are hating the almost constant grey and frequent rain here at the moment – it’s ruining many a crop and a holiday. But I must say I will take cloudy and rainy over bright and sunny most of the time now, my foot is just so much happier when the temperature stays under eighty degrees. I really don’t think the happiness of my right foot trumps entire wheat crops and thousands of beach vacations, but me being miserable about the rain alongside everyone else isn’t exactly going to help, either. So I am reveling in the unusual rainy coolness of this season in Australia even when it means (as it did yesterday) that I get absolutly soaked walking home from the shops when I go out without an umbrella.

Mike flies in tomorrow leaving our friend Chloe to take care of Zulu (who Mike described in his most recent email as a “manic, chew-monster, bounding, bat-of-out-hell, kea-shark, puppy.”). There is no such things as a kea shark, in case you’re wondering. A kea is a large alpine parrot found in New Zealand. They are very smart, very mischeivous, very curioous, and very determined – the sort of bird that rips all the rubber off the windscreen wipers of cars when they’re bored. They get bored a lot. Zulu can be a bit like a kea, one with very sharp teeth. We are anticipating not only that Chloe will feed and care for our little chewing machine, but will also have somehow transformed him into a perfectly obedient, relatively-docile, dog by the time we get back. One who never chews on us, or yips and moans when we put the hated leash on him and then runs under the ant pantry to sulk and refuses to come out unless bribed with meat. One who sits, stays, lies down, and drops things on command, every single time and without delay.  

Chloe’s cool. I have faith that she can work this miracle.      

So in lieu of a coherent update today I offer two things. One, I just ate a chocolate, cashew nut, and pineapple muffin. You wouldn’t think those three things would work together, but they do. And, two, for those of you who are writers, go on over to Dani Shapiro’s blog and read this week’s piece called On Practice.

“Discipline,” she says. “–if I were to think of a physical manifestation of it–would look like a very tense person.  Gritted teeth.  Furrowed brow.  Squinting eyes.  Focusing hard.  Practice, on the other hand, requires a kid of looseness.  Writing from a softer, more porous, interior place.  A forgiving place.”

It’s a neat, short, piece that shifted (for today, anyway) how I think about writing and has encouraged me to be a bit more gentle with myself. Not that I needed that sort of encouragement this week, perhaps, given that I’m spending more time eating chocolate muffins than writing at the moment. But January will undoubtedly come, and with it my time to focus on draft three of this next book.

Have a great weekend. I’ll be celebrating Tristan and Amber’s wedding (hooray) and then heading to Tamania for a mini getaway with Mike on Tuesday. So see you next week from Tasmania.

Holiday dreaming

Happy Monday! I’ve been in Australia a week today and feeling very much on holidays now, so forgive me this next month if I’m not posting here three times a week as usual. I will try to stay checked in but this next couple of weeks, at least, will be quite busy. Tomorrow I head to Melbourne for a couple of days and I’ll meet Mike there around noon on Friday. We’ll head straight down south for the wedding of good friends, Tristan and Amber (last night I dreamed this wedding took place on a plane, with a pay-as-you-go buffet). After their wedding Mike and I are jaunting off to Tasmania for a few days to take a “just us” holiday, and then we fly back up here for the week before Christmas. We fly back to Laos on the 27th of December and life and blogging will then resume normal rhythm. That’s the theory, anyway.

So while we’re on the topic of dreams, do any of you have recurring dreams that you puzzle over? I’m a very vivid dreamer, often having what Mike calls “crackpipe dreams” – vibrant dreams that make no logical sense – but my recurring dreams are much more prosaic.

I have two types of recurring dreams. One type is set in an airport – I’m running through the airport because I’m late for my plane, or the plane is delayed, or I’m on the wrong flight, or I’m stuck on a plane and we’ve already been in the air for 55 hours, or I’m trapped in a plane at the bottom of the ocean looking desperately for my passport before I try to swim for the surface because I can’t leave my passport behind… that sort of thing.

The other type of recurring dream I have just as frequently, maybe more, and it’s much less self-explanatory. In this dream I’m almost always my own age, with two masters degrees, and a decade of work experience, etc, but I suddenly find myself back in high school. Something had gone wrong way back then and I missed an essential graduation requirement somewhere along the way. So now, in my thirties, I have to go back and do this thing (usually repeat an entire year, with special emphasis on calculus and French classes) so that I can validate my high school graduation. If I don’t go back to high school it’ll invalidate everything I’ve accomplished since then. So weird, and so freaky, because these high school dreams are usually the “this is absolutely completely totally happening to me” and I wake up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding and I am always so relieved to realize that I am really not facing another year of calculus classes and teenage posturing that it almost makes having the dream worth it.

What about you? Any recurring dreams that make you shake your head and wonder where this stuff is coming from?

In which we talk about animals

On Tuesday afternoon Mum and I drove into Ballina to have tea with my grandparents. My grandfather is 86 now and my grandmother 85. Every year that I say goodbye to them after visiting I wonder if it will be for the last time. I know they’re thinking about it too, because my Pa’s always making jokes about how he’s an old workhorse about ready to be put out to pasture to die (mind you, he’s usually making this joke right after he’s been out and about on the property up here mowing the lawn or fixing things or otherwise getting up to active mischief).

I often don’t know quite what to say when Pa makes these comments, but sometimes I remind him he’s been talking like this for about 15 years now. Maybe longer.

“Well then, one of these days soon it’s bound to be true, isn’t it,” Pa says. Then he grins a cheeky grin and his green eyes twinkle. “Would you like another bit of sponge cake with that tea, love?”

My Pa is a sunny soul.

So every time I come home I’m thrilled that they’re still around, not least because if they weren’t I wouldn’t get a front row seat to delightfully random welcome-home conversations like this one:

“Oh,” Nana said, hugging me to herself tightly after I stepped through the door. “Oh. You’re here. You never change. Have you lost weight, dear?”

“Well, well, well,” Pa said, hugging me next. “Look who the cat dragged in.”

“Speaking of cats,” I said, staring past Pa’s shoulder and out the window, entranced, at the giant cotton puff lurking in the bushes below, stalking the birds. “That is the most enormous white cat. You haven’t adopted a cat, have you?”

“Nah,” Pa said. “He gets around here sometimes, climbs up the brick and stares at us through the window. Generally makes a nuisance of himself.”

“Oh,” Nana said. “The cat’s nothing compared to the gigantic crocodile we saw up the tree yesterday. Tell her Alan.”

“That was a goanna,” Pa said. “Not a crocodile.”

Gigantic!” Nana said, not missing a beat. “Six feet long.”

“It was six feet long,” Pa agreed. “All the birds were going crazy, squawking and shrieking. Way worse than with that cat.”

“Did you take a photo?” I asked. “I’ll put it on the blog. I’ve got a snake-like animal sub theme going.”

“No,” Pa said, regretful.

“That reminds me,” my mother said to her parents. “I have to clarify something. Remember when I showed you that photo of the snake from Laos and told you that Lisa took it?”

“Mum,” I said, horrified, “you didn’t, did you? I said quite clearly in the post that I never saw that snake myself, only the photo of it.”

“Yes, well,” Mum waved her hand, “sometimes it doesn’t pay to read things too carefully, that only ruins a good story. And it was such a lovely story I was telling people, too, about how Mike had found this huge snake – practically in your backyard – and fetched you to see it, and you’d taken this amazing photo, and then they cut the snake open and there was a person inside. Until your father told me it wasn’t true and that you’d never actually seen the snake yourself.”

“How many people did you tell this to?” I asked.

“Not many,” Mum said. “Not more than a dozen, I’m sure.”

“What about the man inside?” Pa asked. “Was that part true?”

“That part was true,” I confirmed.

“Anyway,” Nana said, “back to the crocodile up the tree.”

“The goanna,” Pa said.

“The goanna,” Nana said. “I was lying in bed that night and I couldn’t sleep, and all of a sudden I started thinking about how if it could get up the tree like that, quick as anything,” (here Nana demonstrated just how quickly the goanna ascended the tree with a series of frantic scrabbling motions) “then it would probably get in the house next.”

Mum and Pa both dissolved in laughter.

“How, love?” Pa asked between snorts.

“Walk right up the front steps and in the door, I’d say,” Mum said.

“Or maybe up the brick to the second story and eat it’s way straight through the window,” Pa said, gnashing his teeth.

“Impossible to stop, really,” Mum said. “It’s probably lurking around here somewhere right now. Oh, wait, I think I might hear it in the kitchen!”

Nana folded her hands primly and completely ignored them. That couldn’t have been easy, with all the cackling they were still doing.

“You never know,” she said, darkly.