Small Moments, Huge Joys

It seems that over the last year or two I’ve become more sensitive to stimuli around me. Or, maybe, I’m finally slowing down enough in life to take in the sights, sounds, smells and touches that I once barely noticed. And though life definitely feels slower than it did in the years I was building my career and taking care of a very young child, the stress and anxiety haven’t necessarily gone down proportionately. Raising a tween, I’m finding, is challenging me on new and more anxious levels. Our parents are getting older, and more frail. College and retirement are no longer so far that they’re out of sight. I’m being pushed into another life stage just when I was starting to get comfortable in my previous one.

I take the moments of tranquility whenever I can, and I’m grateful that I’m paying attention when they come to me. Sometimes I’ll seek these respites, like driving to a café or paying for a yoga class, but I love it when they come to me, out of the blue.

The following are some of the very ordinary sights and sounds in my days that lift me no matter how down I might feel:

1) The sound of our dishwasher

Hearing our dishwasher swish and shush is the first time in many years that I’ve noticed how comforted I can be by a sound. Since we don’t have a big family I do a lot of things by hand, from washing dishes to hanging laundry, but occasionally I’ll go all out and load the dishwasher. Pressing the “on” button is like hitting “launch” on my internal rocket to escape. Machine on, kitchen lights off, Cecilia out. The shooshing tells me that I’ve got the evening off.

2) The sound of Dr. Phil’s voice

I’ve recently begun hearing the muffled sounds of Dr. Phil’s voice from the television downstairs. As some of you know, Max and I own our own business and we work from home. I think to many friends we look like we’re never working, because we volunteer at Fred’s school or do Costco runs in the middle of the day. The truth is that the pressure of sustaining your own business is nerve-wracking, and while I will try to take one day off a week, Max is working whenever he can squeeze it in.

Even when he is watching Dr. Phil.

Max has only been in America for five years, and Dr. Phil is a fascinating piece of americana to him. I roll my eyes every time he tries to update me on the latest story of parent turning against child (or vice versa), but the truth is that I like it. The sound of Dr. Phil’s voice means that we’re in our off-season at work, Max is relaxed, and work is rolling along.

3) A memory of Fred being scolded 

Fred is part of his school’s taekwondo team, and he participates in a number of competitions and performances every year. Most recently he has been training intensively for the team’s second out-of-state competition. As a martial art, taekwondo is an exacting sport, and this is the one area in his life where he does not get a trophy just for showing up. During training his coach does not tolerate any goofing around or any slack in discipline.

Then one day, as all the members had to run to their respective positions, the coach bellowed, “FRED! WHAT IS THIS??!!” and proceeded to imitate Fred’s manner of “running,” a move that was more like a joyful hopping and skipping through a spring meadow. We all laughed in affection, because that’s pretty much Fred in a nutshell.

Onlyou_F

Fred marching in a martial arts parade at age 7

After all, this is the same kid who earlier this week replaced his white board to-do list of homework and chores with this:

Onlyou_bepic

 

How I birthed such a positive and happy child will remain a mystery for my lifetime. But anyway, he’s divided the white board into three sections, one for him, one for me, and one for Max. “Have you been epic today, Mommy? Did you feel epic?” He kneels before the 4 foot white board waiting for my answer. I hem and haw and “pretty good” is the best I can come up with. Epic, though, is now my goal. 😉

What ordinary moments make you feel extraordinary?

Personal Inventory on Patience, Sacrifice, Self Control, and Other Virtues

I often thought that if I took care of myself half as well as I took care of my child that I would be in pretty good shape. For example, I always make sure that he eats at least one serving of fruit for his morning snack at school and I work hard to get him into bed at a reasonable hour, even on weekends. I’m mindful of how much time he spends indoors versus outdoors and I remind him to balance his screen time with more creative activity. As for me, though, I hardly pay the same kind of attention to my own daily habits.

A few weeks ago, Fred officially began training for his black belt testing (in taekwondo). He was given a journal in which he is to track his daily and weekly activities such as running, doing push ups and sit ups, and practicing his forms and self defense techniques. In addition, he is to reflect weekly on how he has exhibited patience, sacrifice, self control, discipline, and punctuality.

While I definitely need to think about how much (or, more accurately, how little) exercise and fruit servings I am getting, this question on behavior piqued my interest. How often do I show those character traits or behaviors? I decided to try out the exercise for fun. This is my own reflection of the past week (√ marks what I did well and X shows otherwise):

Patience
 
√  With my clients…always
X  Showed exasperation when Fred started talking to me while I was working at my computer (repeated multiple times throughout the week).
X Showed exasperation when Fred didn’t move as quickly as I’d wanted him to (repeated multiple times).
 
Sacrifice
 
√  Took an afternoon off of work to make dinner and cake for Max’s birthday
√  Took a morning off of work to help a friend with her business
√  Sang Fred to sleep because he still wanted me to 
√  Stayed up late several nights to respond to last minute client needs
 
Self Control
 
X  Ate too much red meat
X  Ate too much carbs
X  Popped a sleep aid 3x this week (before trying other options, like meditation), a consequence of the fact that I —
X  Stayed up late too many nights on my computer and
X Kept going to sleep past midnight
 
Discipline
 
√  Got all my client work done during the week so I could take the weekend off
√  Went for a run (2x) with Fred and Max 
√  Made a schedule for my March reading and am keeping on track 
√  Cleaned our bathroom before it got gross
√  Returned/submitted all necessary forms, checks, emails, etc. for Fred’s school and activities
X  Fell behind in grocery shopping
 
Punctuality
 
√  Am up on time each morning to get Fred ready for school 
√  Was prompt responding to clients
X  Got meal on the table a little late on most of our taekwondo days, resulting in rushed eating and late arrival to class
X  Failed to respond to some emails from friends
 

I wrote out the “X”s not to be negative but as a way to see my patterns. Clearly I need to do a little better with the self control. It seems that the older I get, the more likely I am to want to please myself. While I am still a healthy eater overall, I’m less fanatical about it and I listen to my body more (I don’t know if that is good or bad). I keep to my 80/20 rule (80% healthy). This past week was a little off though, a sign of fatigue perhaps, or an unconscious attempt to reward myself for having worked hard for my clients.

And I need to work on patience, with my child. I always do a better job when I’ve had enough sleep. So it all goes back to self control.

What are your strong and weak points?

I wish that were my hand holding that fork. Image courtesy: http://www.fwallpapers.com

Cultural Loss Over the Years

Tomorrow is the Lunar New Year or, as we’ve been calling it for many years, Chinese New Year.

My memories of this holiday growing up are vivid. My mother would spend days scouring the house from top to bottom like a mad woman, because a huge part of the tradition is to clean out the old and presumably evil spirits in order to ring in the new year on a literally clean slate. With a traditional (read: didn’t lift a finger) husband who was always at work anyway and two uncooperative children who couldn’t see the point, my mother was at her crankiest on the days leading up to New Year’s. Every year we spent those final days of the year wishing we could have our old mom back.

Then there were the rules. We had to get our hair cut the week before New Year’s, even when we didn’t need a haircut. We weren’t allowed to say anything remotely hinting of ill fate or that included any version of the word death (as in “Ha ha ha, you’re killing me!” or “Wow, I would die for those shoes!”). Worst of all, we were forbidden to shower, bathe, or wash our hair on New Year’s Day lest we cleansed all the good that had by then reached our bodies (which only led to more cursing about how we were going to die of stink).

And there was the food, lots of it. Chinese New Year is celebrated on not just one day but over a period of two weeks. We had an enormous dinner on New Year’s Eve and another large meal on New Year’s Day to “open” the year. Two weeks later, we would close out the celebrations with another final large dinner.

My brother and I met these meals with some groaning. Because Chinese New Year dinner is not spring rolls and sesame chicken and sweet and sour pork (well, not that my mother ever made those dishes (they’re not real Chinese food, you know)). New Year dinner was a big, pimply, ghost-white chicken with its loopy head and neck still on the plate. It was dishes and dishes of healthy blandness that we normally never saw during the year, with ingredient names like “dizzy ear” and unidentifiable foods that looked like tangled hair.

Chinese New Year, to me, was a lot of Chinese-ness that went against my whole plan to be American and “normal.” So I mopped the floor (reluctantly) and skipped the showers (until I was brave enough to dare the evil spirits to take me on) and ate the bloody chicken (there was literally still some blood in the cracks of the bones). Until about fifteen years ago, which is the last time I celebrated Chinese New Year. Because of my time in Japan and then my work schedule, I haven’t been back to spend any of the holidays with my parents in all these years.

During this time, of course, I’ve formed a family of my own. We’re a tri-cultural family now living in America and following American traditions. Lack of access to ingredients, information, and shared celebratory spirits is one major reason. There’s also the lack of confidence. My Singaporean friend suggested getting together for New Year dinner, and I immediately felt overwhelmed at the prospect of cooking for the occasion. I wouldn’t know where to start. What to cook? How to cook it? How to shop for ingredients?

But maybe saddest is my lack of connection. I’d spent so much of my youth rejecting my heritage, seeing and looking for all the parts that threatened my chances of being accepted in America. By the time I became more curious about my Chinese roots, I’d already distanced myself too much. I sometimes view the Chinese culture now the way any foreigner would.

I only realized how far I was when Fred once remarked, in a crowd of Chinese people, that he and I were the only non-Chinese. He knew he was American and he knew he was Japanese, but he did not know that a significant part of him has its roots in China.

But is this something that I need to worry about? Why does it need to be important for me to maintain my heritage, when obviously I had made my choices long ago in terms of how to live and who I wanted to live as? I think the sadness for me is that in loosening my connection to my heritage, I feel I am losing some part of a shared identity with my parents. We all disconnect in some ways and to some degree as we mature into adulthood. Being on the other side of the cultural divide within my own family just seems more severe, an ultimately necessary part of feeling at home in my own country but a division I hadn’t anticipated.

On Burning Out and Getting Away

For years I fell into a state of malaise between January and March. I’d have a sudden need to withdraw socially, turning down invitations from friends to get together, feeling intense dread over having to talk on the phone or sometimes even respond to emails. And, as usual, I’d wonder what was wrong with me. Then one day I found this:

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out your frustrations on others
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early

Source: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/burnout_signs_symptoms.htm

These are the symptoms of burnout.

It all began to make sense. My work is seasonal, meaning I do about 80% of my year’s work in a period of five months. About 20% of that work is then crammed into about two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s. Deadlines are back to back and I have little control over the pace as I am dependent on client behavior. Apparently perfectionistic tendencies and a need for control contribute to burnout as well.

I’ve taken what measures I can to reduce the stress in my work, including reducing my client load. Otherwise, I’ve come to accept its cyclical nature and the temporary impact that it has on me, and to instead learn how to work with and recover from it.

One of the things that helps is getting away, and so last weekend, after my official peak season was over, we took a short holiday to hang out in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Florida it is not (temperature-wise), but we wanted an ocean, even if it was too cold to swim in, and we found a resort with two indoor water parks. The perk of going to a cold beach in the off-season is that you can take advantage of some great rates. We got this room where we were able to see the ocean from our beds.

onlyoublog_oceanview

And then we lucked out on Monday, as the temperature warmed up enough for us to stay on the beach for an entire afternoon.

onlyoublog_F

One of my goals this year, by the way, is to do more literary travel. I had a goal to check out several bookstores in Myrtle Beach, though I only made it to two and liked only one, a small used bookstore called Bookends where I hung out for a good 90 minutes while Max and Fred waited in the car, playing videogames. Bookends is quite generous (in my opinion) and I was able to sell four or five of my old books for $10. I then walked out with another three, like I really need to add anything more to my reading list.

onlyoublog_MBbooks

As much as I love Max and Fred, I also realized at one point that Max and I really should have given each other more alone time this trip. I don’t know why we enter vacations with glorified images of how perfect everything is going to be, because the three of us attached at the hip for days on end isn’t made more pleasant just because we have an ocean view.

Anyway, on our final evening I left the water park early, promising to get into the shower first so I could free up the bathroom for the two boys when they got back. Instead, I noticed the sun setting in the sky, and decided to run out to the beach to capture a few shots before evening settled. Walking toward the ocean alone I had an almost indescribable feeling – (warning and apologies: cliches forthcoming) of being free, of feeling at peace, and of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the beauty around me. I couldn’t help picturing myself in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening minus the ocean suicide. It was that awesome.

onlyoublog_fisherman

onlyoublog_sunsetMB

How do you deal with fatigue, stress, or burnout?

Midlife Crisis?

I recently saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which stars Ben Stiller in the role of 42-year-old Walter Mitty. Walter is a quiet, mild, play-it-safe kind of guy who frequently escapes into vivid daydreams in which he is a superhero doing all the daring and admirable things that he can’t or won’t do in real life. And then one day he changes. It was a sweet, silly, funny, inspiring, predictable Hollywood movie which the three middle-aged people in my party enjoyed, in large part because we could all see a bit of ourselves in it. Or, perhaps, I should speak only for myself.

I was that quiet, play-it-safe kind of gal, for a very long time. Circumstances created her just as they had created Walter Mitty, who was a mohawk-bearing, skateboarding teenager until his father suddenly died. Left with little savings, Walter picked up two part-time jobs that same week, and the seed of the risk-averse and conservative adult was planted. Early on my immigrant parents had drummed into my head that security was #1. Save money and stay close to home. Find a career that offers lifetime stability. Marry a husband from the same ethnic group and same city. Change was bad, as were uncertainty and excitement.

I went along with all of this, until I no longer could.

I still remember a recurring dream that I had for a year, one that awoke me with my heart racing every time. I was in an enormous place – a building, or a house – with no visible exit. The owners of the place were planning to kill me, but they would also kill me if I tried to escape.

At the end of that year, a series of opportunities fell into place and I won a one-year traveling fellowship to Japan. The moment I made that decision to move, my recurring dream stopped. The owners in my dream were my parents, whose expectations of me to stay close to them and to follow their instructed path were beginning to stifle me.

One year in Japan turned into eight, and it was there that I met Max, became a mother, created a professional name and started a business. Because of what I experienced and how much I grew, I will encourage Fred to one day consider living abroad, even if it means having him an ocean apart.

So I have my break-out adventure under my belt, a handful of experiences checked off my bucket list. But now, in my 40s, I feel that I’ve come full circle. For the last ten years, ever since I became a parent and a work-from-home business owner, I’ve retreated…retreated from the larger world I used to be a part of and from the larger person that I used to be. Instead of wanting more, I want the same. I wonder where that hunger has gone, that almost insatiable craving to live out of my comfort zone.

It’s a natural progression, you might say; maybe evolution or biology requires me to crave and create security during my early mothering years. In Japanese the word for wife is okusan, literally, “the one deep within/inside.” Without conforming to anyone’s expectations, I have become her, the one deep inside.

The other reasoning, equally valid, is the fact that my eight years in Tokyo were so intense. 70-hour work weeks. Constant pressure under the gun of being terminated to produce and to add to the company’s bottom line. Elbow-to-elbow everyone and everything and everywhere. Language barriers, cultural adjustments. Every minute of every day was a trip beyond my comfort zone. I think I’ve since swung the other direction because I’ve been seeking equilibrium.

The problem now is that, after nine years of this quiet life – which, to be quite honest, I very much enjoyed the first eight years – I’m starting to feel a bit Walter Mitty-ish. I like my lifestyle but I don’t; I’m comfortable but I’m not. What I do know is that I don’t want to go back to my previous life. I don’t want to work 60 or 70 hours a week; I don’t want the stress of networking and being “out there” and making a name. Maybe my life cycle is eight years in one direction, eight years in another. Maybe it’s also the fact that my son is turning ten. He no longer needs my constant care; he’s growing, and so am I, or so I have to. The question now is, in what direction do I go? How do I want to live? Because that young woman in Japan, the one who reveled in being free and unencumbered and in securing each new professional rung on the ladder, no longer exists.

Image courtesy http://my.opera.com/dhaiphong/albums/showpic.dml?album=389738&picture=5877907

Image courtesy http://my.opera.com

Happy new year!

I prepared Christmas Eve dinner and loved how it felt to give the gift of food to family. My brother was fully expecting me to defrost a pre-made dinner from the market.

I prepared Christmas Eve dinner and loved how it felt to give the gift of food to family. My brother was fully expecting me to defrost a pre-made dinner from the market.

I’m so eager to read all the year-end book and recap posts that I’m seeing in my reader, and I also want to post my own lists of favorite books and other 2013 reflections. Alas, I think I’m going to have to wait a few more days. I didn’t realize just how much solitude reading and writing required until school let out for my son and my brother flew in for a visit. I spend my early mornings working for clients and I’m too tired at night to write. So right now I’m craving creative time while simultaneously savoring the presence of my family, a happy kind of tension, and a privilege to have the possibility of both.

I hope that whatever you are doing this holiday, you are enjoying your own good balance of solitude and time with loved ones. I am so incredibly grateful to all the friends whom I have either met or reconnected with through this blog. My experience reading and writing this year has been a powerful affirmation that words and stories are important – both in reading them and in sharing them (to feel connected and to heal). Thank you so much for reading and for giving me a reason to write each week. I wish you a memorable new year full of all the things that make you happiest!

Cecilia

Personal cleansing: identifying the stuff that gets you down

One of my very “with it” girlfriends recently told me that she thought I was “fierce,” and in a good way. Wow. I was shocked and flattered. As I’ve always thought of myself as fragile, I love it when I appear to be the exact opposite. I was one of those princess-loving girls who fantasized about being Wonder Woman.

Of course, when I look at the big picture, I think I’m pretty strong, given some of the things I’ve gone through. But at the micro level, on the day-to-day level, I’ve often thought of myself as fragile.

I’m sensitive – maybe too sensitive. By that I mean that I feel too much. Things don’t bounce off of me; they soak into me. Back-handed compliments, rude tones, dismissive attitudes…I give people too much power over how I feel about myself sometimes.

I’ve been kind of monitoring my moods of late, because I’m getting tired of the emotional see saw. I’m giving up on “Forget about it!” and “Don’t let it get to you!” because those instructions don’t come with instructions. Really, when someone does or says something that feels mean, how do I not let it get to me – me, who feels everything so keenly? Someone needs to tell me how.

Of course, I do make an effort to try and react from my head rather than my heart. It’s beyond difficult, since I am not wired this way, but I do make efforts. For example, if someone makes an off-handed remark that was meant to sting, I have to remember that it says more about the speaker than it does about me.

In the meantime, though, I do think that we need to arrange (or rearrange, if necessary) our lives in order to maximize healthy living and to minimize toxicity. I didn’t always do this, and out of either cluelessness or politeness chose to stick around situations that were not uplifting.

Years and years ago I was with a man who had no limit on how he could frustrate and torment me. At one particular party he’d spent half the time avoiding me (even though we were in a committed relationship) to talk to other women. I was crying and then trying to explain everything to a concerned girlfriend who turned around and said to me, “I don’t care what the reasons are. All I know is that you shouldn’t be crying.” That pretty much sums it all up. Now, of course, if you cry at everything, then that’s a problem. But assuming you are a normal, warm-blooded human being, you really do have to question situations and people that constantly leave you crying.

And the following are things that make me cry, or at least figuratively speaking (and the things I need to pare down on or do something about):

Facebook

So ridiculous, isn’t it, that something so trivial can actually dictate what mood underlies my days. My FB friends would never believe it given how active I was on it (I am using the past tense, effective 18 hours ago), but I actually don’t feel good on FB a lot of the times. And it’s not because of envy, the most commonly cited issue that people have with FB. Most of my friends (bless them) do not brag or flaunt, and I don’t take very seriously the two that do.

However, I do find it too easy to feel rejected on FB. It reflects my insecurities in general. If I were to psychoanalyze myself I can trace this flicker of fear back to the time I was 14 when my best girlfriend decided to suddenly leave me out of things she was doing with our mutual friends. It is easy to put something out there and feel ignored, whether the gesture is real or imagined, and to wonder if you have just made a fool of yourself or written something that offended someone or are being judged. FB is poison for those who crave interaction but who also think and worry and analyze too much.

People in Friend Disguises

Especially with the advent of Facebook we really need to find a new word for “friend.” I have whittled my real life pack of friends down to the people who really deserve the title. Sometimes it’s not easy, because there are people in friend disguises. They blow their cover when they make off-handed remarks about the fact that you have no children, or have only have one child, or that you work outside of the home, or that you stay at home, or that you formula feed. They tell you you can tell them anything and then freak out or avoid you when you actually do. Or they take up more and more of you and make you feel guilty for taking a step back.

Family

This is so hard, when the people who love you most are also the ones who make you cry. I love my mother and on many levels I am in awe of her, and I know I can never live up to many of the things she has accomplished as a mother and as a woman. But she can be hard on me, still, all these years since I’ve learned impeccable manners and brought home good report cards and earned my university degrees with honors. And as a parent my life is just rife with fodder for criticism right now.

But I can’t just avoid her or cut her out of my life. I do understand that there are daughters and sons out there who have no choice but to. So in my case I am fortunate, fortunate because it is not like that. I know there is more to us than these particular bad feelings, and I know that in a perverse way the criticisms stem from worry which stems from love that is too strong to be rational and objective. I can drift apart from people in friend disguises, but family doesn’t let me off the hook quite as easily. There is a lot at stake here, so I need to speak up.

Clutter

This sounds trite but it’s as big as the piles of books and papers that surround me. Serenity starts with order. I can clear out the toxic people from my life but still drown in my own clutter and disorganization. So 15 minutes a day, even 60 seconds. Today while waiting for my computer to boot up I tidied up a small pile of books on my desk and threw a few things into the waste basket.

Guilt and Self-Criticism

This is the Headquarters where all the toxicity originates. So many self-reprimands (often very quiet and very subtle) when I fail to do something, including accidentally getting on Facebook this morning. There’s no point in trying to rid yourself of mean or unhealthy people when you are your #1 toxic friend in disguise. Why is it so hard to be kind to ourselves? To talk to ourselves the way we would talk to others? Last month when I spoke to a therapist she told me it was my internal voice that was sinking me into that hole I couldn’t seem to get myself out of.

Part two of this de-cleansing would be to surround myself with all the good stuff, but for now this is my list of things to cut down on or moderate or do something about. What’s on your list? What eats into how you feel about yourself?

sky and trees_wal_022713