Tag Archives: marriage

From love to joy

Last Wednesday I talked about how the arrival of one baby coincided with the death of a dream (at least temporarily) for another.

During the first six weeks of Dominic’s life, doors with traditional publishers continued to close one after another. I received a lot of positive feedback from editors about my writing and the book, but no one was willing to take a risk on it in the current publishing climate.

It was difficult not to let this disappointment dominate my thinking or taint the joys that other areas of my life were handing me. When it comes to compliments and criticism, most people seem to be hardwired to pay attention to the negative – good marriage counselors will often tell you that it takes about five positive comments to counterbalance a single negative comment in a marriage. For me, this dynamic can come into play in other ways as well. A single negative can sometimes seem to overshadow a whole fistful of joys.

I’ve been thinking about this anew this last two weeks. Life in Laos can dish out both intensely good experiences and intensely frustrating ones and some days it’s a struggle not to let the frustrations (circular saws screeching right behind the house all day, ant bites in unmentionable places, sore neck and back, no ingredients or oven to make chocolate chip cookies when the mood strikes, crying baby) overshadow the good things in life.

So as we transition from love to joy in this series, it seems fitting to catalog some of the things that have helped fill my joy cup this past week.

  1. The cool weather appears to have arrived to stay for the next couple of months!!
  2. A husband who took the baby in the 5’s on Saturday and Sunday so that I could sleep.
  3. Two hours of uninterrupted writing time on Saturday.
  4. Walking down by the river in the cool dark of evening with Mike, pushing the pram and chatting.
  5. Celebrating Halloween with friends here with a perfectly behaved baby, the charming movie Stardust, and big bowls of kettle corn (how have I reached this age and never before experienced the deliciousness that is kettle corn??).
  6. Mike arriving home by bicycle for lunch every day this past week.
  7. Friends here announcing their engagement.
  8. Not having to do the many loads of laundry Dominic generates (how is it possible that one small being can triple an entire household’s weekly laundry??)
  9. Cointreau, tonic water, lime, and ice.
  10. Eliciting Dominic’s first real laugh (it took about 200 repetitions of peekaboo, but let’s not dwell on that).
  11. Watching Dollhouse episodes while breastfeeding.
  12. Chocolate ice cream at AB bakery.
  13. Lime green walls and passionfruit sorbet.
  14. Coming to a decision about the future of book baby (come back on Writing Wednesday for the next installment in that tale)…

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is joy.

Over to you: Do you find that the negative in life disproportionately influences your mood and thinking? And what has helped fill your joy cup lately?

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The most important quality in a marriage (2)

This post is a continuation of the discussion we began on Friday about the most important quality in a marriage. Below is an excerpt from the memoir I am working on. It recounts a conversation Mike and I had via skype before we got engaged, when he was  in PNG and I was in LA.

…Even when we were talking, on our carefully scheduled skype dates, it wasn’t guaranteed to be smooth and happy sailing. Occasionally we’d be talking away easily one minute only to find ourselves mired in a messy miscommunication the next. Or we’d be laughing and a moment later one of us would have blundered unexpectedly into a virtual minefield.

This was the situation I found myself in late one night, about a month before Mike was to arrive in LA in May. We’d been talking for an hour already, but before we wrapped up I suggested we dip into the question box.

The question box was a tool we used sometimes to help move us past the whats, whens, and hows of our days. A solid plastic rectangle, it held hundreds of small cards each with a different question printed on them.

What is one special holiday memory from childhood?

If you had to move to a foreign country indefinitely, which one would you choose?

What’s your favorite flavour of ice cream?

This night, however, the card that I randomly selected touched on a topic much weightier than ice cream.

“What’s the question?” Mike asked, after I’d been silent for a couple of seconds, debating whether to throw it back and pick another one.

“OK,” I said, deciding to stick with it, “what’s the most important quality in a marriage?”

“Commitment,” Mike said almost immediately. Then he paused and talked around the concept for a while, trying on words like honesty and forgiveness.

“No,” he finally said decisively. “Commitment.”

Sleepy and relaxed I opened my mouth and started to think out loud.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think it’s affection, or warmth, or… kindness,” I finished with assurance. “Yeah, kindness. I’d rank that above commitment.”

There was silence from the other end of the skype line.

“Hello?” I said.

“Is that because commitment would already be there?” Mike asked.

“I guess so,” I said. “I can’t easily see a relationship that’s full of affection and kindness not being built on some foundation of commitment, but I can envision it the other way around – a committed relationship lacking kindness. And that’s just ugly.”

Again, silence.

“Hello?” I said.

“I’m a bit paralyzed right now,” the distant Mike finally replied. “I think I’m better at commitment than I am at affection. I just don’t think I can discuss this any more at the moment. I have to get back to the office over here anyway.”

“Oh,” I said, completely startled. “Uh, OK. That’s not one of my fears in relation to us by the way, that you’re not good at affection, but alright.”

“We’re OK, it’s not you, I’ve just stumbled over some of my own inner furniture,” Mike managed to reassure me before signing of. “We’ll talk soon.”

We did talk soon, but not before I’d spent an uncomfortable day or two wondering where I’d gone wrong. Perhaps, I ventured to my parents after thinking it through, it was the moment when I opened my mouth after Mike had bared his soul and basically insinuated that I didn’t think commitment was that big a deal and that I’d be in a marriage only as long as I thought the other person was being kind.

“Yeah, that might have done it, I’d say,” Mum said.

“Mum!” I said.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said, negating any reassurance the statement might have delivered by laughing immediately afterwards.

“I do think commitment is hugely important,” I said. “And I know any commitment – to marriage, to a place – is going to have times when it’s tested. I was just saying that I’m not sure commitment is the be-all and the end-all. I mean, would I really want to stay in a marriage indefinitely if sheer single-minded commitment was all it had going for it? Commitment might be an effective glue but surely kindness or something else has to be present much of the time to make it worth holding something together?”

Mum didn’t venture to touch that one.

“What do you think is the most important quality in a marriage then?” I asked her.

“Balance,” she said.

“Balance??” asked my father, who’d been listening in from the other side of the study.

“Balance,” my mother repeated. “What have other people said?”

“Well, two of my colleagues said trust,” I said, “and another one said good-will – the commitment to hold a good image of that person in your mind even when you’re not liking them in the moment.”

“Does anyone want to know what I think?” Dad asked in my favorite tone of voice – that of the patient martyr.

Apparently it’s Mum’s favorite tone of voice, too, because she was quicker off the mark than I was.

“Not really,” she said breezily.

“Yes, Dad,” I said, rolling my eyes at both of them. “We want to know what you think.”

“A commitment to love,” he announced. “It combines commitment and kindness.”

“That is not a single quality,” Mum replied.

“And balance is?” Dad asked.

Over to you… any further thoughts on this topic? I’d love to hear them. Or, uh, what’s your favourite flavour of ice cream? I’d love to hear that too. Hope your week is off to a good start.

What is the most important quality in a marriage?

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is love.

Mike and I are three weeks into this latest separation and it hasn’t felt like a good week for us on the Laos-Australia skype date front.

We are managing to talk most nights, but by the time 8:30 or 9 rolls around I am… let’s go for a an elegant understatement here… a little bit tired. This fatigue, and my daily routine at present, don’t exactly make me the most fascinating conversationalist.

The start of last night’s conversation, for example, went something like this.

Mike: “How was last night?”

Me: “Well, he was down at 10, up from 12-1 and 3-4, and then he started squirreling around and making angry koala bear noises at 4:45 so I took him into bed, where he promptly threw up on me. Do you want to hear last night’s baby spew tally?”

Mike: “Yes please!

Me: “Two pairs of his pyjamas, one pair of mine, my hair, his crib sheets, one set of queen sheets and the mattress protector, a pillowcase, and a pillow protector.”

Mike: “Champion. What else did you do today?”

Me: “Well, let’s see. I fed him six times. I took him to the community health nurse and she says he’s gaining weight like a prize piglet and looks as healthy as can be. In the evening we had a bath. He screamed so hard he stopped breathing and turned purple when I took him out and tried to dress him. Then we lay on the floor together and watched a program about sperm whales. Did you know that sperm whale hunt using sonar and those sonar clicks are the loudest sound produced by a living creature, as loud as thunder? Apparently, when a sperm whale clicks at a diver it’s like getting kicked in the chest by a horse. During the program, there was a baby sperm whale that got lost and came right up to the boat and surfaced under the pontoons – I think he thought they were other whales – and then he started clicking for his mama.”

Mike: “Did you cry?”

Me: “No, but by the time the mama whale came and found him I had milk soaking through my shirt.”

Mike is a good sport but this is not exactly the type of skype conversation we’re used to having. I mean, it had been 24 hours since we talked and pretty much all I had was sperm whales and a vomit tally. Yeah.

When I was up in Noosa last week my friends were asking me how Mike and I manage to stay connected when we spend so much time apart.

“We talk,” I said. “A lot.”

“Don’t you run out of things to talk about?” they wanted to know.

So I told them about how Mike and I keep a running list of conversation topics that we can delve into when we have the time and the energy, and I told them about how when we were dating we would sometimes pick questions randomly out of a question-based game. The questions from that game could be goldmines.

“One time,” I said, “the question I picked out was: What is the most important quality in a marriage?”

“This was before you were married?” they wanted to know.

“It was before we were engaged,” I said. “And it led to one of the more interesting discussions we had long distance.”

Most of my friends looked across the dinner table at their spouses.

“Go on,” I said. “What’s the most important quality in a marriage?”

There was a long pause.

“Everyone’s trying to think of the right thing to say,” someone said with a laugh.

“Everyone’s also wondering what their spouse thinks is the right thing to say,” someone else observed.

“Love,” someone ventured.

“That’s too general,” someone else said. “What do you mean by love?”

On Monday I’ll tell you how Mike and I answered that question the first time we tackled it. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What’s the most important quality in a marriage?

The woven cane ring from Papua New Guinea that Mike gave me when he proposed

Breastfeeding lessons from cows, take two

This post is an addendum to one of my favorite posts from the last year, Life lessons in pregnancy and breastfeeding from cows.

5AM this morning:

Me: “Dominic!!”

Mike: “What’s he doing?”

Me: “He’s latching on repeatedly, sucking nicely once or twice, then tossing his head from side to side before yanking backwards – still holding on, mind you – until my nipple finally pops out of his mouth. Then he opens his eyes wide in panic and lunges forward like a small, desperate, vacuum cleaner until he finds it again.”

Mike: “Do you want me to tell you what the cows on the farm did when the calves did that?”

Me: “Yes!” (After all, you can’t go past a good cow story at 5AM after you’ve had a grand total of 4 hours sleep that night)

Mike: “Well the calves would nudge under their mothers and do exactly that – yank down on their teats really hard. Or their other favorite trick was to throw their heads up hard and headbutt the mama in the stomach.”

Me: “So what did the mama cows do?”

Mike: “They kicked the calves.”

Me: “Really!”

Mike: “Yup, they’d haul off and give the calves a sharp kick and that usually stopped them.”

Me: “So by extension I could give Dominic a smack on his little bottom when he yanks on me?”

Mike: “You’d be well within your mammalian rights.”

P.S. I relayed this conversation to my own mother this morning and she’s of the opinion that Dominic is still too young to connect his nipple-yanking behaviour with any bovinesque chastisement I might dish out. I’m not so sure, though. He’s clearly old enough to understand the concept of playing with his food.

P.P.S. I relayed this conversation to the community health nurse this afternoon and she just laughed. When I followed it up by asking whether he could be doing this because he’s still hungry at the end of his feed she laughed even harder. “That little guy’s gained over 300g for the second week in a row,” she said. “He has no right to still be hungry at the end of a feed. He’s just being demanding.”

Dominic: "What? Me? Play with my food?"

Marital Misunderstandings and Utopia

Successfully navigating that “getting started on Monday morning after a lovely weekend” speed bump is a lot easier when you have an office to go to, I’ve decided. Oh, and when coffee doesn’t taste like rat droppings. I miss my morning caffeine.

I have already pushed past the initial resistance to doing anything remotely resembling hard work once this morning. But now, an hour and a half down the track, I find myself stuck. I’ve finished editing one chapter and I’m just not sure where to take the next. So a break. Or a blog post. Same thing, really.

After a week of unusually chilly weather, the temperature in Laos is back to normal (read: 90 degrees by 10 a.m. and climbing). I loved the cold snap. I left air conditioners off and doors open and even had to wear to wear socks and long sleeves on a couple of days. I smiled at the very odd sight of cold rain falling from the sky in the middle of the dry season. I was as happy as a hippo in a muddy pond.

At least, I was happy until I learned that the freak cold weather combined with the even more freaky rain had killed thousands of cows and buffaloes in the northern villages – dramatically exacerbating the already problematic issue of food insecurity in these areas. It’s been a tragic couple of weeks for those subsisting in villages at higher elevations here.

In light of all of this it feels quite wrong to say that we had a great weekend, but we did. After the busyness of last week it was lovely to relax over dinner at Utopia by the Khan River on Friday night, sleep in on Saturday morning, then enjoy breakfast together.

Well we enjoyed breakfast together after Mike and I weathered the sort of misunderstanding that I would have thought we might be past after being married for more than two years.

During dinner on Friday night I checked out Utopia’s breakfast menu and was quite intrigued by the promise of cinnamon French toast topped with fresh mango and papaya compote with just a hint of chili in it. So I casually suggested that we should have a breakfast date at Utopia sometime.

On Saturday morning Mike woke up at 6 and went for a long bike ride. On his way back, at 9 he rang my mobile phone.

“Hey,” he said. “Do you want me to stop and pick up eggs so we can make breakfast at home, or would you like to walk down to the Khan and do breakfast at Utopia?”

“Um,” I said, still groggy from only just having woken up. “OK, sure, I can get ready and we can go to Utopia.”

Now it was Mike’s turn to hesitate.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “It’s already pretty hot out here.”

“No, no, I can do it,” I said.

“Alright,” Mike said. “I’ll be home in ten minutes and we can go.”

So I jumped in the shower, threw on some clothes, slapped on some sunscreen, grabbed my big hat, and was all ready to walk out the door when Mike arrived.

“Are you sure you want to go?” Mike asked me, again, before we set out. “It’s not too bad in the shade but it’s quite hot in the sun.”

“I think I’ll be fine,” I said bravely. “Let’s go.”

So off down the sunny street we went.

Five minutes into the walk I noticed Mike wasn’t saying much.

“You OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I just rode 50 km though and I need to eat something before I get the hangries.” (In case you don’t know this most useful term, hangry means “hungry angry”).

“Why didn’t you grab something before we left?” I asked.

“Well it was already getting late,” Mike said.

By the time we were another five minutes down the very sunny (and indeed warm) street we had figured out two things. Mike’s preference had been for making breakfast at home. And so had mine.

“What are we doing here then?” I asked.

“Well, you said last night that you wanted to go to breakfast at Utopia,” Mike said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I meant… sometime. Like next weekend, or the weekend after. Sometime when we’ve planned to get up well before nine.”

“Oh,” Mike said.

“And when you present me with two options – one of which is to stay at home and one of which is to go out and have an adventure,” I said. “I’m always going to assume that your preference is to go out and have an adventure unless you tell me otherwise. I was doing the good wife thing and having a weekend adventure with you.”

“I don’t really like eating breakfast out,” Mike said. “When it comes to breakfast my preference is almost always going to be staying in. But I know you love having breakfast out, so I was doing the good husband thing and suggesting something I thought you would like.”

“Oh,” I said.

So we laughed and turned around and came on home and cooked up Spanish scrambled eggs and had a lovely, cool, breakfast at home after all, followed by a long and unusually lazy weekend that included massages at the Lao Red Cross and taking a couple of pregnancy shots while we thought of it. I’m at 22 weeks pregnant now, a fact that is getting harder and harder to forget as the baby has taken to squirming away in there like a small sackful of eels at regular intervals. Below are some shots from this weekend.

I hope you had a great weekend too, and thanks for dropping by.

P.S. If you’re in a long term relationship, what types of miscommunications are you surprised to find yourself still having this far down the track?

Life lessons on pregnancy and breastfeeding from cows

I still remember the moment, about two months after we were married, when the cows made their first appearance in the discourse of our relationship. I can’t remember what we were debating now, but it led to the following exchange.

“You know who you remind me of?” Mike asked in a tone of mingled frustration and admiration. “Ivy, our second smartest cow on the farm when I was growing up.”

What?” I said. “Who was the smartest cow?”

Photo: Martin Cathrae, Flick

“That was Emmy. She was awesome. She was the sweetest cow ever, so bright, and so gentle. She was the queen matriarch of the herd. All the other cows followed her everywhere.” Mike got slightly misty eyed at the memory. “She was my favorite. She was everyone’s favorite.”                   

“What was Ivy like then?” I asked.

“Ivy was smart all right, but boy was she ever obstinate,” Mike said with grudging respect but a total lack of misty-eyed affection. “Ivy was the only cow that ever figured out that if she wriggled right under the electric fence it would only hurt for a little while before she would be through to the other side and she could have a whole, untouched pasture to herself. Emmy was smart and used it for the good of all. Ivy was smart and used it for her benefit alone. She was a determined, stubborn bugger. And she kicked.”

In a rare turn of events I was momentarily speechless.

“Ivy was my second favorite, though,” Mike added quickly after glancing at my face. “You couldn’t help but admire her even if she was a bugger.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “I remind you of your second favorite, second smartest cow.”

“There were 40 cows in the herd, honey,” Mike said. “Second isn’t bad.”

It took a long time after this exchange before I grew to appreciate the cow stories. I certainly wasn’t amused the night I woke up with cramps at 3AM and Mike told me that he thought midnight cramping may be part and parcel of the female mammalian system because he’d noticed over the years that pregnant cows usually went into labour in the early hours of the morning. And I didn’t particularly appreciate the subsequent descriptions of how he had to help hand-deliver the calves (in some cases, using chains to pull them out) when labour didn’t progress.

“Oh, Ivy was a good breeder,” Mike told me when I inquired, with mingled sarcasm and curiosity, about my bovine doppelganger.  “I don’t think she ever had trouble delivering. And whatever else you can say about her, she was a very good mother. If her calf ever started bawling she always came running, usually looking to bite someone.”

Slowly, however, over the two years that we’ve been married, the cow stories have started to make me smile. And just the other night, for the first time, I wondered whether those cows haven’t helped prepare Mike for marriage and parenthood in important ways.

The other night we were out to dinner with friends who have just had their fourth baby. Hannah was telling me about some of the things she wished she had known before she delivered her first baby.

“I wish I’d known how hard breastfeeding could be,” Hannah said. “I had no idea about even basic things – like the fact that some women produce more milk than others, and that flow rate can be different. For some women the milk spurts out so fast the babies practically choke on it. For other women it comes out really slowly.”

“OK,” I said slowly. This was news to me.

“Anyway, having trouble breastfeeding was such a shock,” she continued. “Holton just wouldn’t latch on for ages, and then my milk didn’t come in for a long time, and then I got cracked nipples, and then mastitis, and then – because we were here in Laos and didn’t get to a doctor quickly enough I think – I developed an abscess in my breast.”

“Huh,” I said, feeling horrified in that way you do when you see a car accident and you’re secretly glad that it has nothing to do with you. I am still, on some level, clearly in denial about the fact that I am pregnant and will be giving birth and attempting this feat called breastfeeding in less than five months.

“Breastfeeding is just not as easy as you would think it should be,” Hannah said. “I’m happy to show you some tricks. Western women don’t often get the chance to see breastfeeding up close, so how are we supposed to know how to do it in the best way?”

“That would be good,” I said, thinking that she had a point. How were we supposed to learn in a society where women are fairly shy about whipping out their boobs in public and inviting detailed scrutiny of the whole process?

Well, apparently one other way to learn some of this would have been to grow up on a farm.

“I had such good filters tonight, honey,” Mike said triumphantly after we got home from dinner. “I was going to say all sorts of things during the breastfeeding discussion, but I didn’t.”

“You were going to talk about cows, weren’t you,” I said.

Mike ginned.

“Alright,” I sighed. “Tell me about the cows and breastfeeding.”

“Well,” Mike said. “Everything Hannah said makes sense. Our cows also used to vary dramatically in terms of how much milk they’d produce and how fast it would let down. And some calves, oh my word, some of those calves were so dumb. They just couldn’t figure out how to drink – you’d have to spend hours out there coaching them.”

“Really?” I said. “They didn’t just know? How do you teach them?”

“First you’d prod the calves in that direction and hope they’d figure it out. But if that didn’t work, eventually we’d have to milk the cows and put it in a bottle and hope that the calves would made the connection between what comes out of the nipple on the bottle and what comes out of the nipple on the cow. But some really struggled to make that quantum leap. We had one calf we thought would die it took him so long to figure it out.”

“And I know all about mastitis because the cows used to get it,” Mike continued while I took this in. “Sometimes the calves would develop a preference for only one set of teats – usually the forward ones because they were easier to reach and the calves were lazy. Then the back ones would get full and blocked up and infected.”

“What did you do?”

We’d have to massage and hand milk them on those teats, and sometimes they needed antibiotics.”

As far as I can see so far, Mike’s farm background has substituted quite well for older sisters in preparing him to deal with period cramps and breastfeeding challenges, as well as equipping him with skills in the area of assisting in the delivery of baby mammals (skills that both he and I fervently hope he does not need to employ later this year). And I will admit that I’ve grown quite fond of the cow stories, even if they involve Ivy.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all other animal analogies are fair game.

The other day, when I recalled some random (probably useless) fact, Mike asked me, amazed, how I’d done it.

“I have a good memory,” I said modestly.

“Just like an elephant,” he said. “You’re my elephant.”

“Careful,” I said. “Thin ice.”

“Oh, honey,” Mike said. “Instead of the second smartest cow you can be my smartest elephant.”

“What was that I just heard?” I asked. “Oh, yeah, a big splash.”

What about you? If you’ve had children, what is one thing you wished you’d known before you had your first? If you haven’t had children, what questions or observations do you have?

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Birthday Presents and Love Languages

It’s Mike’s birthday today, which thankfully I remembered one fuzzy minute after I woke up.

“Happy birthday,” I said, as he placed ginger tea and a plate full of mango and dragon fruit by the bed at 7am. (Sidenote: Ginger tea from Laos could be successfully marketed internationally as a morning sickness remedy, I do believe. So if any of you out there are looking to fund a social enterprise project, there’s a thought).

“So,” I said, as Mike got dressed for work. “Do you want your birthday present now, or tonight?”

“Tonight,” he said, his mind already mostly in the office. Then he paused and smiled like a cherub – the sort of smile that lets me know he’s about to say something sickeningly sweet. “Besides, you’re the only birthday present I could ever want.”

“Awww,” I said dryly, only just managing to stop myself from saying, “Well, you’re not the only birthday present I could ever want so you better remember that three weeks from today when it’s my birthday.”

Mike paused again.

“Well,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe a version of you that picks up her clothes off the floor,”

“I think that’s a very expensive software upgrade,” I said. “I’ll check for you, but I doubt we can afford it.”

“Oh I don’t know,” Mike said. “I’m paying fifty dollars a month at the moment and it’s working pretty well, but I know it’s only a temporary systems fix.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And the price is likely to jump precipitously the minute we leave Laos unless we take Oun [our maebaan] with us.”

Mike and I have a long-standing debate, starting last year, about birthday presents. He holds that we should not be expected to give them (and also not expect to receive them). I hold that birthdays are the perfect occasion to expend a bit of love and creativity in celebrating someone, and that the celebrating should include at least one birthday present.

I’m not at all sure that either of us clings to our positions on this nearly as tightly as we pretend to, but we certainly hold firm whenever the topic comes up while we’re walking through the night market. We have even polled perfect strangers unlucky enough to be walking nearby on the subject. So far they have all agreed with me. Perhaps that’s because the wives have always answered first and then looked at the husbands as if to say, “it’s your turn now, and you can say whatever you want about whether people should give their spouse a birthday present… as long as you say what I said.”

The only real problem with holding my position in this great debate is that when Mike’s birthday rolls around I need to have a present on hand, and the real irony of the whole thing is that I’m not naturally a gift giver. Occasionally on my travels I see something that I know someone will love and splash out extravagantly – lugging home stone statues from South Africa or crystal carvings from Norway. But often I’m pretty hopeless. It takes inordinate effort to remember to send birthday cards even to my immediate family, and Mike’s generally much more thoughtful than I am about the small, everyday, gift-giving niceties like taking drinks when we’ve been invited to someone’s house. Or, uh, food to a potluck.

This year, however, I do have a present for him. It cost me all of ten bucks, but I’ve carried it across oceans since I found it eleven months ago and I’ve been hoarding it with anticipatory glee.

But late yesterday afternoon I decided that wasn’t enough birthday fanfare, so I hopped on my bicycle and rode down to the little grocery store that stocks imported cream, fresh milk, and other such goodies.

“What are you doing?” Mike asked when he got home last night.

“I’m making birthday French vanilla ice cream with some of those the vanilla beans you bought back from PNG that we keep saying we should use for something more than flavoring sugar,” I said, trying to judge when the eight egg yolks two and a half cups of cream I was stirring were just about to simmer so that I could yank them off the stove.

“Ah!” I yelped. “It’s boiling! Quick! Get me the milk!! Quick!”

“You know what I really want for my birthday?” Mike teased me a couple of minutes later, kissing the back of my neck as I stood at the kitchen bench. “For you to get me that information I need for our taxes. Forget presents, baby, I want your bank details.”

“What?” I said, a trifle crossly, staring at the creamy, eggy, vanilla-flavoured, clumps left in the strainer and wondering whether I’d ruined two hours work and enough calories to keep half a dozen people alive for a week. “French vanilla ice cream and toaster oven brownies aren’t enough?”

“French vanilla ice cream is you speaking your love language to me,” Mike said. “I can see it and appreciate it for what it is, but bank details and tax information so that we can finish a task… that’s my love language.”

And then we both laughed. Because laughing is perhaps the best way to bridge the gulf that lies between French vanilla ice cream and taxes.

“I can’t find the tax stuff for you tomorrow,” I said. “I have too much work to do. But maybe, if you’re really lucky, I’ll pick my clothes up off the floor.”

Two years ago today

Two years ago today Mike and I put on fancy clothes and stood up in front of many people that we love and made a whole bunch of very serious promises about, essentially, loving one another. It was a wonderful, glorious, happy-filled, day that still makes me smile when I think of it.

To be honest though, it wasn’t all bubbles and champagne that day. I threw my back out the morning of the wedding, forgot to put together a reception run-sheet for our long-suffering MC’s, Emma and Asha, until four hours before the ceremony, and felt more serious and stressed out than giddy and love-struck right before it was time to walk down the aisle.

But there was advil for the back, and thankfully the lace-up style of my wedding dress acted as a very efficient brace that allowed me to forget the pain and move relatively freely once it was on. One of my bridesmaids came and sat down beside me where I was lying at noon, flat on the floor, waiting for pain killers to kick in, and helped me plan out the reception program. And there, at the end of that walk down the aisle, was Mike.

As the ceremony progressed and we got through all the serious stuff I felt myself start to relax, to inhabit the moment, to float, and from the moment we finished out vows and walked back down the aisle together it was bubbles and champagne. There were smiling people we loved everywhere I looked. The day was a sultry sort of gorgeous. The wine plentiful and cold. The Thai food, amazing. The marquee in the lush garden setting of my parent’s backyard, very Arabian nights. The dance floor under the stars, magical.

I’ve been thinking about that day this morning, and about the promises we made to each other, so I thought that I’d share them here. But first, here’s an excerpt from the book I’m working on at the moment where I write about these vows…

… “We wanted to write our own wedding vows, Mike and I, and we also wanted to be in sync with what we would promise each other on the day. So we each put some thought into the vows separately, and then came together with our drafts to blend them into one unified declaration.

I think my favorite section of our vows is what we settled on for the ring exchange: As I give you this ring, I give you my heart as a sanctuary. I give you myself as a faithful companion to celebrate life with. I give you my promise that as I choose you today, so I will choose you tomorrow. This is our covenant.

To get to these four simple sentences we each had to make a compromise that, initially, felt quite painful.

“We can’t say it that way,” Mike said, when he saw my draft. “The second sentence ends with a preposition.”

“What’s a preposition?” I asked.

He looked at me, suspicious. “You,” he said, “are a novelist. How can you possibly not know what a preposition is?”

“Hey,” I said a trifle sharply. “Six countries. Six schools. English grammar got lost somewhere along the way – possibly while I was busy learning Shona in Zimbabwe.”

“You can’t end a sentence with the word with,” Mike said. “It’s just wrong. Another way to say it would be, ‘I give you myself as a faithful companion with whom to celebrate life.’”

“That sounds lame,” I said, displaying a vocabulary every bit as impressive as my grasp of grammar.

“Well at least it’s correct.”

“But it sounds dumb,” I said. “Clumsy. Formal. It doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of our vows. Who cares if it’s correct if it sounds dumb?”

Mike eventually shifted on that issue, and I shifted on this one: when I first drafted this section I put an extra sentence in there, right before: This is our covenant. That sentence was: You will be home to me.

“I don’t like that,” Mike said, when he saw it. “It doesn’t work. I don’t want it in there.”

Although I was initially disappointed there was something in me that sensed he may just be right, so I took it out without making too much of a fuss. But I’ve thought about that a good deal in the last little while, and I do think he was right, after all. For one thing, that phrase is arguably less a promise than it is a statement, or even a demand.

I hadn’t intended that. I had intended for that sentence to evoke all that is most positive in the ideal of home – comfort, continuity, understanding, haven, refuge, rest, encouragement, wholeness – the sum total of all that is most precious and valuable in life. I had intended it as a promise along the lines of, “I will seek these things in you, for you, and with you.”

The problem here lies in the first part of that promise that I was trying to craft – the idea that it’s possible to find all of that in someone else. It’s too much to expect (or even hope for) from any one person. Even your lover. …”

So here are those vows that we worked on together. Two years down the track I would make them to Mike again today without hesitating.

I, Lisa McKay, choose you, Michael Wolfe, as my life partner, the one I commit to love. I pledge to cherish and honor you regardless of circumstances, in the pressures of the present and the uncertainties of the future, loving what I do know of you, trusting what I do not yet know.

I promise to grow in mind and spirit with you, and support you in fulfilling your hopes and dreams. I promise to remain with you, whatever afflictions may befall. I commit to sharing with you life’s joys and sorrows, pleasures and pains from this day forward until death do us part.

As I give you this ring, I give you my heart as a sanctuary. I give you myself as a faithful companion to celebrate life with. I give you my promise that as I choose you today, so I will choose you tomorrow. This is our covenant.



This year I would really like you to work on…

OK, so I know it’s January 4th and most of you are probably thinking that New Years was so last week, but this is the first time I’ve hit the keyboard in 2011 so I’m going to start at the beginning and tell you how we celebrated the turn of the year over here in Laos.

On New Year’s Eve we headed for one of our new favourite haunts, Dyen Sabai. To get there you walk down to the Khan River and then cross it on a rickety bamboo bridge that’s only in place because it’s the dry season and the river is so low – the brown torrent that pushed the boats along on Dragon Boat Racing day has fallen precipitously in the last couple of months and the newly exposed river banks of are crammed with temporary vegetable gardens. After you cross the river you climb up a row of steps hacked between the small veggie plots, and walk underneath a tunnel of vines, then turn left and there you are. Dyen Sabai is a restaurant of wooden platforms tucked into tall stands of bamboo. The tables are low, wooden, and flanked by silk lounging pillows laid on the floor. The ambiance is great and so is their smoky eggplant dip.

Mike and I settled down on the cushions and devoured eggplant dip, and fish steamed in banana leaf, and hosien chicken stir-fried with crispy mint, and big bamboo containers of warm sticky rice. There were cocktails and two sinfully rich deserts made with imported chocolate. There was laughing at the chicken that flapped up to explore then table next to us. There was reminiscing.

Sparked by the blog I wrote about returning to Laos, we talked that night about uncomplicated emotions. Mike asked me what “happy-uncomplicated” moments came to mind from 2010 and took it in turn to offer up these incandescent snippets. Some were exotic – sunrise in Death Valley for Mike, motorcycling along the Thames in London for me. Many were prosaic – tiny stitches in time that fashioned our “normal life” this past year. Grocery shopping together after church in California. Sitting on the deck of our small apartment in Alhambra enjoying brie and dates as the sun set. Reunions in airports.

We talked about these happy moments all night. Then we walked home, full and tired, through the cool darkness and went to bed at the luxuriously geriatric hour of 9pm.

The next night we settled down to the serious business of contemplating 2011. This time we chose an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Mekong and watched kids play soccer out on a sandbar in the middle of the river as we talked.

Mike had a few New Year’s Resolutions to list off but I didn’t set any this year. I already have a pretty clear idea of what I’d like to get done and none of my goals related to writing or diet or exercise seemed worthy of being slapped with the lofty title of resolution. So instead of a resolution this year I named an aspiration that is more of a theme – an attitude and an outlook that I aspire to embrace more fully this year… finding the positive in change.

So much changed for us last year and so much will change again for us this year. I do love change on some level, this I know, but even as changes bring new and wonderful things into my life I also lose old things that were also wonderful. Sometimes I can find myself mourning too much things I used to have and enjoy (wine and cheese on the deck in Alhambra, and hot showers that work) and neglecting to pay enough attention to new and wonderful things (smoky eggplant dip and sticky rice overlooking a river, and chickens that parade around on tables).

After we were done talking resolutions and aspirations we looked at each other and grinned.

“So,” I said to Mike. “What is it this year?”

Last year Mike introduced a concept that initially horrified me – that each year we might also name one thing we’d like each other to work on in the upcoming year. When he first suggested it I stared at him across the dinner table looking, I’m sure, like a wallaby in the headlights. What awful, embarrassing, character flaw was he going to spotlight and ask me to work on?

“I would like you,” he said carefully last year, “to please pay more attention to not dropping your stuff wherever you feel like it the minute you walk in the door of the house.”

This year’s request was pretty much on the same level (read: basic habits that 70% of people seem to acquire in third grade) – that I pay more attention to turning of lights and air conditioners when I leave a room. My request of Mike was similarly non-epic – focused on something small that he sometimes does that can annoy me.

It’s made me think about marriage and the years to come. Will we have years when the things we name are epic, or are these early patterns indicative of the fact that when you’re in good relationship space the things that usually bug you most over time are the little carelessnesses and habits that just happen to grate?

What do you think? And for those of you in a relationship, what would you ask of your partner if you could pick one thing you’d like to see them work on this year? What do you think they’d ask of you?

Friendly Companions from Siberia

Last week our neighbor’s computer was stolen. His front door is less than ten steps from ours – his house is a mirror image of ours – and when he left his door unlocked and went out for a couple of hours in the middle of the day last week someone strolled up, let themselves in, picked up his computer, and took off. I was likely sitting right next door when this happened.

Mike and I were less than thrilled when we learned about this. We really like our house. All the toilets and air conditioners and taps are working now, and it’s beautiful, really. Downstairs is just one large, tiled, space. In the middle of the room are two gothic pillars – I call it the ballroom. From one end of the ballroom a curved wooden staircase sweeps up to the second floor. It’s all very Gone With The Wind.

Even the windows – draped with gold tasseled curtains – are beautiful. But it’s a bit of a shame that we didn’t fully realize until after we’d moved in that one of the reasons they are beautiful is because they are not obscured by burglar bars. Or that the locks on these clear panes of glass are, shall we say… flimsy. Or that there’s no easy way to secure them from the inside because all the windows in the house (all nineteen of them) open from both ends.

So in light of recent events, we’ve decided that we really do need to get a dog, and this weekend we started trying to figure out how to do that.

Most people, it seems, get their nice big dogs from Thailand or China. But on Sunday we got a tip. There is one place in town that sells dogs, a friend told us. If we went right at the petrol station and down past the first roundabout we’d see a small shop selling bonsai trees. That was the place.

So on Sunday we went looking for bonsai trees, hoping they’d lead us to puppies. And sure enough, they did. In the back room of the bonsai store, in a wire cage, was a beautiful ball of white fluff that licked my fingers and batted my wrist with her paws and tried her best to climb out of the cage and into my arms.

“Awwww,” I said. “Awwwww.”

“What is that?” Mike asked.

“It looks like a husky,” I said.

The bonsai-dog seller couldn’t speak any English, but he bought out a book and pointed proudly to a picture of a very large, very furry, white dog. This adorable little bundle was a Samoyed. And she cost three hundred US dollars.

What is a Samoyed doing here?” Mike asked.

“She’s so cute,” I said.

“Yes,” Mike said. “She’s a very cute puppy that’s going to grow into a big hot muddy ball of tangled fur. What is a Samoyed, anyway?”

“I think they’re sled dogs,” I said.

“Obviously,” Mike said, nudging me out of the store. “Because it makes total sense to import a sled dog to Laos.”

I think Mike thought that was the end of that conversation. Silly Mike.

When we got home later that day I looked up Samoyeds.

“The Samoyed comes initially from Siberia,” I said, looking across the kitchen table and Mike at smiling guilelessly. “She’s a long way away from home… just like us.

“Siberia,” Mike said. “What else does it say?”

I foolishly continued reading the Wikipedia entry out loud without editing anything out. “Samoyed’s have a dense double layer coat. The undercoat consists of a dense, soft, and short fur that keeps the dog warm. The undercoat is typically shed heavily once or twice a year. This does not mean the Samoyed will only shed during that time however; fine hairs (versus the dense clumps of top coat shed during seasonal shedding) will be shed all year round, and have a tendency to stick to cloth and float in the air.”

Mike gestured to the ballroom behind us. “Are you seeing it?” he asked. “I want you to picture the whole room full of white hair floating in the air.

“That is what we have a maebaan for,” I said. “We were just saying we didn’t have enough for her to do.”

Mike looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“This is not a good idea,” he said.

“Nomadic reindeer herders bred the fluffy white dogs to help with herding and to pull sleds. She’s a working dog,” I said, starting to build my case. “She can work for us.”

“What we need is a guard dog,” Mike said.

“Well…” I said, scanning down the wikipedia entry, “it doesn’t actually seem that she’d excel in that domain.”

“What does it say?” Mike said.

“Samoyeds’ friendly disposition makes them poor guard dogs; an aggressive Samoyed is rare. But,” I rushed to keep reading as Mike started laughing. “Samoyeds are excellent companions, especially for small children, and they remain playful into old age. When Samoyeds become bored they…”

I stopped reading.

“Go on,” Mike said, still laughing.

“They may begin to dig. And herd things.” I finished lamely.

“But they are excellent, friendly, companions,” I reminded him, trying to regain some ground.

“And you live in such an affection vacuum that you’re in desperate need of friendly companions,” Mike said.

“She and I would understand each other,” I said. “We both thrive in cool climates. She could sit beside me under the air conditioner at the kitchen table. She could lie on my feet and keep me company.”

“Right,” Mike said. “Because that’s exactly what you’d want – a giant furball lying on your already overheated feet.”

“Well,” I amended, “she could lie beside my feet. And occasionally she could reach out and lick my good foot. Gently.”

“Of course she would,” Mike said. “Of course. Only your good foot. And only gently. And I can see it now – this shedding ball of fluff who wants to dig and herd and who hates the heat and that we’ve said we’ll train to stay downstairs. You’ll go upstairs to work in the study and feel sorry for the hot little Samoyed downstairs and you’ll leave the air conditioner on for her.

“No I wouldn’t!” I said, shocked. Then I thought about how hot it can get downstairs and I amended. “Well, maybe, on very hot days. For she would be a friendly companion.”

No,” Mike said.

Late last night, right before we went to sleep, I rolled over to Mike and cuddled up to him lovingly.

“Friendly companion,” I whispered in his ear.

Guard dog,” Mike said. “She’d herd an intruder right to our computers and lick him along the way for good measure. Besides, who buys a three hundred dollar dog in this town?”

Then he laughed. “I know exactly who buys them. Men who are incapable of standing up to their wives, that’s who.”

“Friendly. Companion.” I said in my most alluring voice.

“Go to sleep,” Mike said.

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