Monthly Archives: May 2011

A baby-shaped hole in my heart

Last night, after I got up to visit the bathroom for the third time, the baby woke up and started squirming. Then he got the hiccups. I lay there in the dark with my hand on my belly – feeling those small, rhythmic twitches just underneath my fingertips – and thought about how it was impossible now to forget, even for a minute, that I am pregnant.

Twenty years ago I remember wondering why miscarriages were quite such a big deal. After all, my teenaged self puzzled, the baby hadn’t even been born yet. How could you grieve over something that never was?

It was, I now know, an epic failure of imagination.

I am not one of these women who has wanted to be a mother from the time that she was twelve years old. At times during this last decade I have said that I wanted children, but this was mostly an intellectual and theoretical desire not an emotional longing. Even now, ten weeks from giving birth, I am ambivalent about being pregnant.

This is one thing that has baffled Mike. After I wrote the blog post announcing my pregnancy Mike asked me whether I really was as ambivalent as I’d made myself out to be, or whether I was just being a drama queen.

“I’m totally ambivalent,” I said, surprised. “You’re not?”

“No,” he said. “You’re pregnant, the switch is flicked, I’m 100% on board. It’s great!”

Yeah, it’s great. It really is. I am happy, I am content, and I am grateful.

And, yet.

I am also anxious about labour and delivery. I am worried about how my life will change, how I’ll juggle the different identities that are important to me – writer, psychologist, wife, friend, and now mother. I am mourning the upcoming loss of long, lazy dinner conversations with Mike and of quiet and time that has, before now, been mostly mine to use to work, create, or connect as I pleased. My horizon feels as if it’s narrowing.


As I’ve grown physically this last seven months so has the baby – this baby who hasn’t even been born yet – been creating space for himself in my heart and mind. I still can’t fully imagine what motherhood will be. What I may be losing still often feels more concrete than the new experiences and joys that may be coming my way. But, slowly, that balance is shifting. As the little boy inside me wriggles, twists, and stretches he’s not just enlarging the boundaries of my belly, he’s also fashioning a baby-shaped hole in my heart.

I now understand what my 15-year-old self could not – that a baby can be a vital, living, tangible presence in hopes and dreams and visions of the future long before it even comes close to being born. For even as I get bigger and more uncomfortable every day I am starting to catch glimpses of a brand new horizon as it’s opening up in front of me. And, sometimes, that new vista even looks as a little like the view from the back deck did last night when the clouds parted and sun poured through, drenching the sugar cane fields nestled between the river and the sea in gold.

The curse of too much choice

Almost everyone who has spent time in the developing world knows the paralysis that can hit you in the cereal aisle of any well-stocked grocery store after returning to a land of plenty. There’s something about trying to pick from 435 types of cereal after you have been confronted with the fact that many people in this world have no choice in what they eat for breakfast – and, indeed, count themselves lucky to have breakfast at all – that is both horrifying and overwhelming.

The particular type of guilty, angry immobility that can ensue when you are smacked in the face by this sort of shocking abundance of choice does not, unfortunately, only strike in the cereal aisle. In the past I’ve found myself overwhelmed in the milk aisle, the cheese section, and when trying to select toilet paper. I also learned long ago not to go near Starbucks during the first three days after returning from Africa.

Yesterday, when I picked up a magazine devoted to comparing various baby-essential products, I was unexpectedly ambushed by a similar dynamic.

I am now almost seven months pregnant, and pretty much the sum total of my material preparation for this baby has consisted of organizing to buy a crib and a set of drawers from friends in Laos and handing out my address to lovely friends across oceans who have posted me a bunch of maternity and baby clothes they no longer need. So in browsing this magazine that someone gave me last Friday, I was trying to do the responsible thing and start to plan ahead.

Maybe I should have left well enough alone.

“What did you do today?” Mike asked me when we talked on skype last night.

“Well, one of the things I did was look through a baby magazine and get totally overwhelmed by adds for 500 different products, each of which had 500 different choices,” I said.

“And each of which cost 500 different dollars?” Mike asked.

“Sometimes more. Strollers and cots and baby carriers and car seats and nappy rash creams and diapers and baby monitors and… There was this one cot – some European design – very cute, round, wooden slats, on wheels. Guess how much?”

“$1200.00,” Mike said.


“Well, if you really have your heart set on a round, European wooden cot on wheels,” Mike said, “then cut out the picture and we can bring it back here and take it to the nice Vietnamese man who made our bookshelves and he can make it for a whole lot cheaper than that.”

“No,” I said, “the cot we’re getting second hand there for fifty bucks will do just fine. But, the point is, I got totally flooded and I’ve decided that I don’t want the baby anymore.”

“Well, to me that statement implies that you have wanted the baby at some point. So, therefore, I think we’re making good progress,” Mike said cheerfully.

“Yeah, well,” I said, “since I left Laos it’s just been me and the baby, no you or Zulu to distract me, and I started to feel quite kindly towards him at times – you know, when he wasn’t kicking me hard from the inside. Overall I’d say I’ve been neutral-positive towards the baby most of the last week. But not today. Now I’ve changed my mind.”

“Neutral-positive is great!” Mike said. “You are making progress.”

“But now I’ve changed my mind,” I said.

“Because of a magazine? You know, plenty of people the world over have babies in places like Laos and manage to somehow do without fancy strollers and round European cots and organic diaper rash cream,” Mike said.

“And $95.00 thermometers that can take your babies temperature without you having to touch them?” I asked.

“Yeah, those too.”

“I think this is the part of the conversation where I’m supposed to admit that you have a point and change my mind back, but I’m not there yet,” I said.

Now, of course, part of my reaction to being assaulted by this magazine was wrapped up in my ongoing ambivalence related to impending motherhood. And maybe part of it was due to just being one week away from the visible poverty of Laos. But most of it, I believe, was simply the burden we feel when we’re “overloaded by options.”

It seems funny, doesn’t it? Most Western societies are founded on the premise that the way to maximize personal freedom and happiness is to maximize choice. Increasingly, however, psychologists are suggesting that past a certain point this equation does not hold true, and that this point is reached long before you have 285 types of cookies and 175 types of salad dressings to choose from.

Barry Schwartz, who delivered a fascinating TED Talk in 2005 called The Paradox of Choice, even argues that what is true of salad dressing is also true of too many available choices related to health care, where and when we work, and perhaps even decisions related to marriage and parenthood. Too much choice, he says, produces paralysis rather than liberation. And even when we manage to overcome this paralysis and make a choice we often end up less satisfied with the result of our choice than we would have been if we’d had fewer options to choose from.

So what’s the answer to this when it comes to baby gear? I don’t know. Clearly I will need to figure out what to do about a stroller and diapers at some point in the near future, but I’m certainly going to limit my exposure to baby magazine issues devoted to comparative advertising. Maybe I’ll just go the old fashioned route and ask those who have trodden this path before me to share their wisdom.

So, (virtual) neighbors. Any recommendations regarding stroller models, cloth diaper brands, baby carrier types, and other essential must-haves, leave a comment!

And, on a broader note, have you ever been overloaded by too many options? What has triggered this for you in the past?

Writing about people from the past

I sent the manuscript of my memoir to my agent on Friday. Big yay!! This is only one step of a long process, but it’s a significant one. It means that, for now, I’ve come to the end of myself with this book. I’ve written it, rewritten it, and rewritten it again. I’ve had Mike and family members read it and offer their thoughts. I’ve asked some friends to do likewise, and others to help me copy-edit. I even hired an external editor to offer her advice on how the draft could be strengthened.

What I hadn’t done until very recently, was think about how or whether I wanted to contact certain key people I’d written about to give them a heads up; certain key people who might be surprised or hurt by what I’d written.

Like Jason, who I dated seriously in 2004. And Ryan, whose writing about his life and work in Afghanistan I found so compelling that I became infatuated with him… while I was dating Jason. I won’t go into the whole saga here. I’ll just say that I am not particularly prone to regret, but when I think about certain things I did and said (and things that I did not say) during this period, I still feel ashamed.

I included the tale of these two, tangled, long distance romances in the book for many reasons that had nothing to do with me needing to exorcise that shame. That said, however, writing this particular chapter was therapeutic. By the time I was done drafting and redrafting this story a dozen times, I understood the person I was seven years ago a great deal better and I had largely forgiven her the weaknesses and willful mistakes of that era.

I had not, however, dealt with any of this openly with either Jason or Ryan.

Ryan I have remained in intermittent and friendly contact with over the years. In a bizarre twist he was also an acquaintance of Mike’s long before Mike and I ever met (Mike met him in Afghanistan). Last July Mike and I met up with Ryan and his lovely wife, Celestina, in Vancouver for drinks and dinner. With Mike’s full knowledge and encouragement, I had intended to bring up the whole subject over the dinner table but the moment never seemed right (although one does wonder when the moment would seem quite right to bring up something like that).

So, two weeks ago, knowing I was very close to submitting this book for possible publication I sat down to write Ryan a letter. Here’s how it started:

Ryan, you know how when you write a memoir you sort of forget during the drafting process that other people may eventually actually read it? And, even worse, that the day will come where you need to send the draft to people who appear in the pages in ways that require you to seek their permission for what you’ve included? And that some of those people have never before heard you admit anything along the lines of, “I once had a crush on you”, much less, “I was once completely infatuated with you – or the you I felt I knew via email – and I booked a plane ticket to cross an international border specifically to suss you out without ever telling you what I was doing?”

Yeah, well. For me that day is today. And for you, well, you get to raise an eyebrow (or two) and marvel at the range and depth of my craziness back in 2004.

I’m so much less crazy now, I promise. Also much, much, happier.

The letter to Ryan was relatively easy.  Jason, however, well that was a different matter. I hadn’t spoken to him in several years and I had written about things in this chapter he knew nothing about. I had been far more frank in the book about my part in the dynamic of our slow and painful breakup than I’d ever had the courage to be with him face to face.

Mike and I talked this over during dinner one night by the Khan.

“So are you going to write to him?” Mike asked me, shooing the cat that had jumped onto our table back to the floor.

“I don’t know…” I waffled. “I sort of want to, but it was a long time ago now, maybe I should just leave it alone.”

“Leave it alone in the sense that maybe one day Jason will pick this book up and read about it then?” Mike asked.

“Maybe it’ll never get published,” I said. “And maybe he’ll never read it.”

Mike stayed quiet while I squirmed, recognizing the temptation to deal with the issue the way I’d dealt with so many of the issues that had arisen while Jason and I were dating – by avoiding and deflecting.

“What do you think is the right thing to do?” Mike finally asked.

“To write to him,” I answered reluctantly.

So I took a deep breath and did. I told Jason I’d written about aspects of our relationship. I offered to send him the chapter to read if he wanted me to. But first, I told him in this initial email, I wanted to apologize for ways I felt I’d wronged him during the time we were dating. Then I told him exactly what those ways were.

It was not an easy letter to write and send, but part of the dysfunction in our relationship had been that I avoided conflict with him and didn’t speak my mind openly. Writing the chapter had helped me understand this. Writing to Jason himself finally helped me break those old patterns and put into practice the new strengths I have gained in the years since then.

I was very happy to receive gracious emails back from Jason both before and after he read the chapter, but regardless of his reply (or lack thereof) I think it would have been a healing exercise of closure. It’s taken years, but it brought full circle the process that was first started when I put pen to paper and tried to figure out where and how we’d gone wrong. It transformed understanding into action.

Have you transformed understanding into action recently? How?

And, writers, last week I touched on a dilemma faced by most essayists and memoirists in a post titled, Writing About Loved Ones: To Do Or Not To Do, That Is The Question. Writing about those you have known and perhaps loved in the past, however, is a slightly different kettle of fish. Have you encountered this? How did you deal with it?

Lessons learned while traveling alone

I’ve been here three days but I’m only now feeling as if my brain is starting to catch up to my body. My first day here I broke one of the nice wine glasses. I also set out to make a ginger lemon slice and didn’t notice until I was packing things away that I’d used cinnamon instead of ground ginger.

Yeah, well, you win some and you lose some. Especially after 24 hour trips that are not entirely free of drama.

On Monday there were some teary moments before leaving the house for the airport at 6:30am. At one point Zulu trotted over to me looking very concerned. I thought he was coming to extend that famous “doggy sympathy when owners are upset” that you hear so much about. Instead, he grabbed the tissue out of my hand and scampered away to eat it. Lose.

At Luang Prabang airport they checked my second bag for free. Win. They could not, however, check my baggage all the way to Australia, so I had to clear customs and pick it up in Bangkok. Lose.

I arrived in Bangkok airport three hours before the Air Asia counter opened for my flight. This meant I spent the first three hours of that six-hour layover loitering in the crowded, noisy, main terminal. Lose.

At the check in counter the woman immediately asked me if I was pregnant. When I said I was she asked how many weeks. When I answered honestly (28) she asked me for my letter of medical clearance. As I didn’t have one, this was potentially a very big lose. But the lady checking me in just wrote down 27 weeks on the waiver I had to sign and cautioned me not to admit that I was over 27 weeks or they wouldn’t let me on the plane without a doctor’s letter. Win.

This form I had to sign six copies of not only released Air Asia from any liability regarding any health issues I suffered during the trip, but also stated that I promised to “reimburse Air Asia upon demand” for any in-transit expenses incurred as the result of my pregnancy. As I reached Australia without having to have the plane diverted to Singapore or anywhere else (and thereby incurring a debt that staggers the mind to contemplate) I guess you could say this one was a win.

It turns out, however, that we had been misinformed as to the price of excess baggage on Air Asia. Sadly misinformed. Instead of costing us the anticipated $50.00, I had to pay $300.00 for the extra 10kg I was carrying with me (and this was reduced from $390 after I begged and pleaded and pointed out that I had bought a premium ticket). Epic lose.

During my second layover of the trip, in Kuala Lumpur, I booted up my ancient laptop to take advantage of the free wireless and it lasted about 3 min 30 seconds before dying. None of the plugs I was carrying fit in Malaysia. Lose.

Not nearly as many people were eager to help me lift and carry as I’d expected. I did ask for help a couple of times, but somewhere in among six on-tarmac loadings and unloadings I pulled a muscle in my back and the pain only got worse as the trip progressed. Lose.

Things got better from there on out. On the long overnight flight from KL to the Gold Coast I travelled in Air Asia’s premium section, and the seat went sort of flat. So my feet were up off the floor most of the night and I had much more space than the poor souls packed in the back. Win.

Mum and Dad were there to pick me up in the Gold Coast. Win.

We had ricotta pancakes in Bangalow on the way home. Win.

And here. Well, the view here thrills my soul. Epic win. I can’t think of a nicer place to come back to as my second home away from home. Now, if only Mike and that tissue-stealing little mongrel were here too…

Over to you. Two critical lessons I learned during this trip were: (1) Check and double check (with the airline themselves) extra baggage charges; and (2) Don’t assume that just because you are visibly pregnant people will help you lift your hand luggage (so to pack only what you can comfortably lift yourself).

What lessons have you learned while travelling solo? 

Writing about loved ones – to do or not to do, that is the question

So I’m in Australia, after a long journey from Laos that had its ups and downs. We’ll get to those later this week, but first let me stop and say how lovely it is to be here at McKay’s Pregnancy Resort and Spa. It’s sunny but cool, the dawn light is gilding the bank of clouds out to sea, and there are no roosters. Oh, and the shower is kick ass.

My parents, despite some teasing, seem quite happy for me to base myself here for the next five months. They have, however, tried to impose one condition upon my stay.

“We’ll raise your rent,” my Dad said over ricotta pancakes and lattes after we stopped at a café on the way home from the airport yesterday morning, “if you don’t agree to one thing.”

As my rent is currently zero this was quite some threat.

“Oh,” I said, spearing a strawberry, “what’s that?”

“That nothing that is said by us in this house goes on your blog without prior permission,” Dad said.

“I know you think I reveal too much of my own life sometimes,” I said, “but have you seen me cross the line with Mike or someone else in ways that makes you particularly blog-shy? Do you really think my filters are that poor?”

Well… no, they admitted reluctantly. They couldn’t think of any particular examples right then, but they remained wary nonetheless.

In the end, as Dad went to pay for breakfast, I said I’d consider it. But between you and me I just don’t know if my artistic integrity can accept such fetters. Nor do I understand exactly what are they so afraid of.

Well, actually, now that I pause to think about it, perhaps they’re worried that I’ll reproduce conversations like this one.

8:30pm last night. Mum, Dad, and I are sitting around sipping Milo and watching television.

“How long is your visa valid for for this trip?” My mum asked while fast-forwarding through commercials.

I took a sip and tried to make some sense of this. I failed.

Then Mum laughed.

“Oh,” she said. “I forgot. You have an Australian passport, don’t you.”

And some people wonder why I set out several years ago to write a memoir with the initial aim of untangling my deep-seated issues around the concept of “home”.

Speaking of the memoir, it should be ready to go to my agent within the next week (wheeee!). Speaking of home, I miss Mike and Zulu terribly already, but I am lucky indeed to have another home on this side of the equator. And speaking of crossing the equator, more on that later this week.

Writers and bloggers, how do you deal with this issue of writing about the living (particularly those you’re living with)? The rest of you, do you think I should agree to Mum and Dad’s request?

Inflection points

Yesterday morning, right after we got up, I did my weekly weigh in. Apart from one ultrasound in Thailand, taking pregnancy vitamins and stepping on the scale every Saturday morning has pretty much been the sum total of my prenatal care. I suspect that my return to Australia tomorrow is likely to mark the inflection point on this issue (though I must say I haven’t minded avoiding some of the tests that sound like they’re a routine part and parcel of the first 28 weeks if you live within, oh, 500km of good medical facilities).

After I stepped off the scale and Mike stepped on, it quickly became apparent that this weekend would mark more than one inflection point. Yup, I am now officially half a pound heavier than someone six inches taller than me.

That was only the start of yesterday’s fun and games, for we spent much of the day packing, with Zulu following us mournfully from room to room. We couldn’t tell whether he recognizes now that suitcases invariably mean departure or whether he was just soaking up the prevailing mood.

After I laid out all my clothes on the bed I asked Mike to look them over with me. We’re going to be tight on weight both going out and, particularly, coming back, and I wanted to make sure I was traveling as light as possible (which, in practice, I will admit translated to: I wanted Mike to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear with regards to the decisions I had made).

He did not.

And when I got surly after he told me that he thought I should cull some of what I’d selected he had the gall to laugh and then come over for a kiss.

“I know you don’t like me very much right now,” he said, “That’s fine. I don’t always like it when you think differently than I do, either.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But that only happens when you’re wrong. I used to get to make all my own packing decisions without any disagreements with anyone.”

“Mmmm,” Mike, now busy putting my shoes in plastic bags, chose not to engage on this topic. He also chose not to point out that I used to have to do all my packing by myself too, instead of sitting on the bed and watching him fit stuff into my suitcase.

Inflection points. There have been a couple of them lately.

Three weeks ago the belly started to swell faster than a desert cactus after once-a-decade rains. Two weeks ago I suddenly got ravenous (mostly for junk food – can anyone say nutella and ice cream?). Last weekend we transitioned from the second to the third trimester. Tomorrow Mike and I go from together to apart, from hugs to skype, as we separate for ten weeks. I will go from summer to winter as I cross the equator.

At Mum and Dad’s place even my dinnertime conversation will change. In Australia we may not spend an entire meal trying to work out itineraries that might get Mike to Australia in time for the birth if I go into labour more than two weeks early. Then again, that might be because Mike and I have researched this equation every which way and figured out that unless I have a hellaciously long labour, there are none.

There are some silver linings to this whole situations – I am quite looking forward to winter weather, and spending the most time in Australia that I have in a decade. I’m also very glad I have a beautiful and happy home well staffed by my parents to go hang out in for months on end (fully a dozen years after my poor Mum and Dad must have thought they were safely past the risk of having one of their daughters turn up on their doorstep alone and pregnant).

Empty dinner table overlooking the Khan

But there’s grey this weekend, too – a great big cloud of it. I don’t like this whole separated for the third trimester thing. I would quite like Mike to be with me for pre-natal classes and for us to be able to discuss things like birth plans across the dinner table instead of the equator. I would quite like to be with him when he’s procuring things like cribs and change tables and figuring out where to put them. I really don’t like the fact that Mike is sitting across the table compiling the results of last night’s exploration of every conceivable flight route out of here into a document called, “Flight info-Mike to Aus in emergency.doc”


Many of my friends tell me that all of these inflection points will pale in comparison to the one that’s about to hit us when the baby arrives. Of course, some of my friends have also suggested that it will make a far better story if I go into labour the night before Mike flies to Australia and he skids, sweaty and disheveled, into the delivery room just in time to catch the sucker as it pops out.

Nope… as much as I love stories, I think I’ll be far happier if Mike arrives well before that particular inflection point.

I’ll keep you posted. Catch you from Australia.

Computer games and holy bananas

Ahrrrgggg…. The internet is down again. This has become a daily occurrence here and it can stay down for six hours at a time. Sometimes when it goes down I can shrug my shoulders and find other things to do without much trouble. Sometimes it’s annoying but I can make a game out of it by pretending I’m a pioneer on the Oregon Trail – I’m pretty sure they didn’t have internet in those wagons very often. Sometimes, however, it’s just damn annoying. The pioneers on the Oregon Trail may not have had the www but they probably didn’t have consulting projects with rapidly approaching deadlines either.

Speaking of the Oregon Trail, how much would it have sucked to be pregnant during that great trek West? Can you imagine having to either walk or jostle around in wagons with no shock absorbers all day, every day?

Speaking of being pregnant…

No, let’s not speak of that. I was up five times last night and I’m grumpy. Let’s go back to the Oregon Trail.

So did anyone else ever used to play the computer game by that same name? It was based on the trips of those early pioneers You began by picking out names for your wagon mates, shopping for provisions, and choosing what time of year to set out (too early or too late in the year and you were inevitably stalled by snow). Then you spent many hours trekking slowly across the computerized plains, hunting buffalo and other animals as you went to supplement your provisions.

I had this game loaded onto my laptop when I was at university. Occasionally, during a very boring statistics lecture, I would look like I was taking notes but instead I’d be hunting deer. I’d also put all my nearby classmates on my wagon, which added excitement to the day for them but sometimes also meant I had the sad task of passing a note that read something like: “Tash, you just fell out of the wagon and broke your leg and three days later you died of a fever. We buried you somewhere in Kansas. Sorry, hey.”

Ah the wacky and wonderful world of computer games. At least the Oregon Trail was pretty sensible as far as games went, unlike another favorite computer game of childhood that was called, I kid you not, Spiritual Warfare.

The aim of this game was for you, a pilgrim, to progress through the six levels of the game collecting the six pieces of the armour of God along the way (As per Ephesians 6 these were: the belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness; the shoes of the gospel of peace; the shield of faith; the helmet of salvation; and the sword of the spirit). As we moved through the levels our pilgrim met all sorts of dangerous challenges.

Sometimes red, horned demons would fly onscreen and attack us. The only way to defeat them was to slay them with the fruit of the spirit. Actual fruit – you could choose from six different types (assuming you’d been a good pilgrim thus far and been working hard to build up your stash in preparation for just such an assault). Grapes didn’t go very far, but they spread out like buckshot. Apples were long-range “spirit” missiles but traveled slowly. Personally my fruit of choice was the banana. It rotated when you threw it, like a holy boomerang.

If you managed to hit the demons with the fruit they were instantly transformed into little kneeling figures, dressed in white and with hands folded in prayer. After hovering for an instant in all their redeemed glory they disappeared off the top of the screen, presumably on their way to heaven. If you didn’t manage to slay them, however, the consequences were severe. Sometimes they took the jar of anointed oil that you could use to heal yourself when you were wounded, or stripped you of a piece of heavenly armor, or stole spirit points that you needed to progress to the next level. This last was particularly annoying, as then you’d have to spend ages in prayer earning them back.

Occasionally a white and haloed angel would flutter down from the top of the screen and ask you a Bible question. If you got it right, you were rewarded with spirit points. If you got it wrong you either lost spirit points or were assigned a penance to perform. Sometimes the angels would appear not to question, but to warn. The first time my little pilgrim trotted past a bar an angel appeared and warned me not to go inside. I hadn’t even noticed the bar, frankly, so intent was I upon my quest of the moment – to find the jawbone of Samson – but after being specifically instructed not to, I just had to go into the bar. If I recall correctly I lost all of my spirit points and half of my fruit of the spirit the instant I sent my pilgrim through the door.

Remembering that I thought this game fine entertainment when I was eleven now causes me to laugh and to cringe, for there was a point in my life when my understanding of God and faith was founded upon just this sort of harsh and legalistic divine calculus. During the last dozen years, however, the way I see God and the way I think God probably sees me has changed. As core issues of living faith have become less neatly edged by dos and don’ts they have inhabited instead the far messier territory of awareness, attitude, action, and intention.

A couple of years ago now, when I was struggling to write about this non-computerized faith journey in one of the early drafts of the memoir, I gave up on prose temporarily and tried my hand at poetry. This is something I hardly ever do – I’ve written fewer than a dozen poems in my entire life. But I was looking for a way to summarize, to distill, and I thought poetry might help me get to the point. So to close today, here’s that poem:

I used to think I understood God
Then I didn’t.
Then I wasn’t sure God was.

The world used to appear binary.
Then it didn’t.
Then I wasn’t sure black and white were.

Now I’m pretty sure God is.
But, still,
I often don’t understand.

And I think black and white rarely are,
But mostly the loving truth of things is grey.
A fertile interplay of sun and shadow you begin to grasp
where your head
and your heart
and your sense that God is,

Over to you: Talk about computer games, post a poem, or simply start with “this reminds me of the time that…” and put up something totally random. Trust me, it’ll fit right in with this rambling  internet-less inspired post.

Three ways to increase your happiness (The pursuit of happiness, Part 2)

Last Thursday I started a short series on the pursuit of happiness.

That night, Mike and I walked down to the Khan River to try a new restaurant. It’s been storming nearly every day here for the past two weeks (something I’m very grateful for on a personal level as it cools everything down, but worried about on a broader level – these rains have started about two months too early). Everything is bursting green and both rivers – brown and increasingly turbulent – are rising every day.

Over purple sticky rice, stir-fried chicken with basil, and river fish sautéed with ginger, we talked about happiness.

“Three good things?” Mike asked me.

I would like to be able to report that I had a deep, meaningful, and lyrical reply to this shorthand query, but I can’t actually remember what I said now. I can, however, almost guarantee one (or more) of my comments centered on food – food hits my “good things” radar quite a lot at the moment. I bet I talked with anticipatory fondness of the ice cream I was determined to obtain during our walk home.

“Three good things” is something we started doing after I wrote the first chapter on positive psychology for this distance-learning course I’m drafting. It comes out of a research article on positive psychology interventions (PPI’s). In non-academic speak, PPIs are “things you can do to make yourself happier” – not just the cheery mood, buoyant, smiling, fun brand of happiness, but the deeper and calmer sort of long lasting happiness that’s more akin to wellbeing or flourishing.

There are, it turns out, a number of exercises you can do that will increase your “wellbeingness”.

In an article published in 2005 (Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions), Seligman and his co-authors tested five happiness related exercises. They found that three of them lastingly increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms. As outlined during the experiment, those three exercises were:

  1. Three good things: Write down three things that went well each day, and their causes, every night for a week. These things do not have to be akin to winning the lottery or saving someone’s life. Ice cream counts.
  2. Using signature strengths in a new way: Take an inventory of character strengths and identify your top five “signature” strengths. Then use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for a week.
  3. The gratitude visit: Write, and then deliver in person, a letter of gratitude to someone who’s been especially kind to you but has never been properly thanked.

Seligman et al reported that doing one of these first two exercises every day for a week increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months (measured during one month, three month, and six month follow ups). The gratitude visit caused a large positive change that lasted one month. Those participants who (of their own accord) had continued the exercises past the initial one-week period were happier than those who hadn’t.

Want to try one of these exercises? The three good things exercise is pretty self-explanatory. Mike and I have adapted three good things so that it frequently pops up in dinnertime or before-bed conversation. The gratitude visit is pretty self-explanatory as well, although somewhat harder to do if most people that have been meaningful in your life live in a different country. The third, using signature strengths may take a little more work to get going on, but it’s worth the effort.

To get started on the Using Signature Strengths exercise go to an interesting website that Seligman and his crew have created called Authentic Happiness. Register (it’s free) so that you can access the Authentic Happiness Testing Center. Then take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. It’s not a short questionnaire, so set aside at least half an hour.

The authentic happiness site will store your results on the survey so that you can review them anytime you return. I’ve taken the VIA Survey twice, five years apart. Interestingly, three of my top five strengths were the same both times but two had changed.

My top five strengths in September last year were:

  • Curiosity and interest in the world
  • Capacity to love and be loved
  • Humour and playfulness
  • Gratitude
  • Judgment, critical thinking, and open mindedness.

Sound like a lovely constellation, doesn’t it? Yeah, well, let’s leave it there and not address the fact that smack at the bottom of the list, in last place at number 24, came “Modesty and humility”.

Want to read more about happiness? Here are some references to get you started (the Wallis article and the Dan Gilbert’s TED talk are good places to start):

  1. Wallis, C. (2005). The New Science of Happiness. Time Magazine.
  2. Seligman, M. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
  3. Seligman, M. et al. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 50(5), 410-421.
  4. Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk: Why are we Happy?
  5. Nic Marks TED Talk: The Happy Planet Index
  6. Chip Conley TED Talk: Measuring what makes life worthwhile 

Still curious about this topic? Let me know your thoughts and questions and I may do a follow up post down the track…

The pursuit of happiness (Part 1)

Yesterday I was dragged away from my work by a positive storm of barking. Zulu might only be two dogs long and one dog high, but when he puts his mind to it he has the bark of a German Shepherd on steroids. Yesterday he was clearly very unhappy about something.

“What’s going on?” I asked, as I reached the front of our house and found my neighbor, Barbara, already there.

“Oh,” she said, laughing. “It’s a big, scary, toad. He’s not the world’s bravest dog, is he?”

She was right about the big part – the toad was enormous; it could barely heave its bulk along the pavement. She was also right about the brave part. Zulu was prancing around it, frantic, trying to decide whether he could take it. The closest he got to it was nudging it with his nose once or twice.

“Leave it!” I told Zulu sternly, herding the toad into the drain with a shovel before he could decide he really did want to kill it (not that I was all that concerned for the toad, I must admit, but I’ve heard that they’re poisonous for dogs).

Once in the culvert the toad made for the covered part of the drain and disappeared underneath cement. Zulu shot me a reproachful look and set to work, apparently determined to dig it out again.

“It’s gone,” I tried to tell my puppy after fifteen minutes of chatting to Barbara and watching him try to extricate the toad. He left few avenues unexplored. He climbed into the culvert, right into the dirty running water, and shoved his nose as far as it would go down that mucky drain. He tried to dig up the sheltering concrete and, failing that, to chew it to pieces. He backed away and set up a quiet ambush at the mouth of the drain, tip of his tail wagging gently, apparently hopeful that if he stayed there quietly for long enough the toad would venture out again of its own accord. Then he tried all of these things again. And again.

“Oh well,” Barbara said, “he’s happy.”

He was, too. Watching him I felt a little wistful. If only I could get so absorbed in the adventure of hunting toads or get so unabashedly excited every time I saw someone who had ever been the least bit nice to me (Sidenote: this last trait is mildly problematic as Mike and I are pretty much convinced that any would-be robbers just need to stick their hands through the gate and pet his head nicely before letting themselves in and he’ll escort them, tail wagging all the way, right to the front door). No, Zulu might not be especially brave or particularly discriminating in his choice of friends, but he sure is a happy little dog. If only the puzzle of happiness was as easy to put together for people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness since I started a consulting project requiring me to write a distance-learning course for masters students on wellbeing and resilience. What is it that makes us happy or sad? What influences how satisfied we feel with our lives?

Some of this seems to come down to genes. A number of researchers have come to the conclusion that happiness is about 50% genetic, 40% intentional, and 10% circumstantial.

If this is accurate, it means that about half of our predisposition toward happiness is coded into our genes and pretty much outside our control. Circumstances (health, marriage, work) can also be tough for us to change (although often not impossible). But what is really surprising here is that circumstances don’t seem to account for as much happiness as we might think, either for good or for bad. On the one hand that means that buying an expensive new car doesn’t seem to boost happiness for long.  On the other hand, it means that when things go awry we often re-orient fairly quickly.

No, the really surprising finding that has so far emerged from the happiness and wellbeing research is that we do have a lot of control over how happy are. We may have been gifted a genetic “set-point” but we can move that set point up or down significantly.

In a previous post, happiness and the mango tree rains, I discussed one psychologist’s take on what makes us happy. Martin Seligman argues that there are three important components to happiness:

  • Pleasure: The “smiley face” piece that makes us feel good.
  • Engagement: The depth of our involvement in our family, work, romance, and hobbies.
  • Meaning: Using personal strengths to serve some larger end.

Pleasure, Seligman argues, is the least important component of happiness. In the quest for a happy and satisfied life he insists that engagement and meaning are far more important. Somewhat to his chagrin (given that he was a life-long academic and a born intellectual) Seligman also admitted that research suggests that, “cerebral virtues – curiosity, love of learning – are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude, and capacity for love.”

With more research being conducted on this topic all the time, it is increasingly clear that there are things we can do (ways of thinking and behaving) that can significantly boost our happiness. We can probably guess some of the things that Seligman would prescribe as “happiness boosters” but what about you? What do you think boosts people’s happiness? What increases yours?

Come back in a couple of days to read more about things we can do to boost our happiness. I’ll also post some links to follow if you’re interesting in learning more about this topic.

In the meantime, have a happy weekend!

Ten things I learned this weekend

1.  Many people hold very strong views on circumcision. More than 30 people commented on my facebook status: “To circumcise or not to circumcise, that is the question. Thoughts?” Several more sent me private emails on the topic.

2.  The white mushrooms we buy from the lady down the street who sells vegetables off a tarp on the pavement are enoki mushrooms – originally Japanese and highly prized (and priced) by Western specialty food stores. We can buy a whole plastic bag for 60 cents.

3.  Don’t cook enoki mushrooms for longer than five minutes or they go tough and chewy.

4.  You can grill Japanese eggplant in a toaster oven.

5.  Commercial tomato-based pasta sauces must have enormous amounts of salt in them because when you make it from scratch it takes more salt than I think is reasonable to make it taste good.

6.  The neighbors are feeding Zulu pork ribs, which might be the reason why he is spending half his time whining at their door, begging them to let him in.

7.  Osama bin Laden is dead. While I do not mourn that fact, the sight of the midnight celebratory cheering and flag waving on the streets in the US also makes me a bit uncomfortable.

8.  The lovely afternoon storms we’ve been having that break the back of the heat of the day are worryingly early. Several years ago when a similarly premature rainy spell hit Laos many farmers planted their rice early, only to watch the seedlings sprout and then die when those early rains stopped.

9.  The Shinta Mani hotel has the best pool in Luang Prabang. It was the setting for today’s perfect swim – the water was just cool enough, we had it all to ourselves, and all you can see in almost every direction from pool level are the green mountains encircling Luang Prabang.

10.  If someone is going to take a photo taken of me when I’m six months pregnant and wearing a bikini it’s really best for everyone concerned when 80% of my body is underwater.

P.S. And discussing the pregnancy photos Mike took outside the front of our house this afternoon:

Lisa: “I look really pregnant in photo 590.”

Mike: “You look really pissed off in 593. Actually, you look really pissed off at me in a lot of these photos.”

Lisa: “I wasn’t pissed off at you. Really. I was more worried about the fact that when you told me to think about how excited I am about the baby it made it harder to smile nicely for the camera.”