A Short Literary Trip in Boston

I was back briefly in my hometown of Boston a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to call up any friends except for my 76-year-old second grade teacher. We had a small family reunion and celebrated my mother’s birthday together for the first time in maybe twenty years. Next time I hope to be in town longer to see more friends!

One thing I did manage to squeeze in, between all the “family bonding” that my mother wanted to do, were several trips to bookstores. All those years I had lived in Boston I took for granted a historical literary world that was my backyard.

My first stop was Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston, across the street from Boston Common, the oldest public park in the United States and the camping ground for British soldiers in preparation for the American Revolutionary War. Brattle Bookshop has been around since 1825 and is one of the largest and oldest antiquarian bookshops in the country. My most memorable experience with the store was finding a copy of the biography Gable and Lombard during my Gone with the Wind obsession as a teen. Pre-internet, this was a huge feat, given that the book was out of print and I had to search two years for it.

I like the idea of their outdoor book racks, which you can see in the photo below. There are three floors of books inside the store including a floor of rare and antiquarian books. And outside they sell a diverse mix of bargain books, all priced from $1 to $5. There were a number of old editions (pre-1900 and turn of the century) as well. The only problem was that it was pretty cold that day – in the 30s/40s F – but fortunately I finished browsing as soon as I was coming near the end of my comfort zone standing in the cold for so long.

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Brattle Bookshop Mural

“20 Authors Upon the Wall Mural,” by local artist Jeffrey Hull

My next stop was Harvard Square. Whatever your feelings on Harvard the institution and the elitism it represents, you can’t deny the eclecticism and vibrancy of the town that was birthed by the country’s oldest university. I’d worked in the area a number of years and remember walking past the sets of The Firm (Tom Cruise movie, for those who weren’t around then) and With Honors (a forgettable Joe Pesci film) during lunch breaks. It was pretty neat, too, to see academic greats like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Howard Gardner in and around town.

And so that brings me to this gem of an indy bookstore, Harvard Book Store, which has been around for over 80 years. The store is open until 11 pm every day except Sunday (when it closes at 10), and every time I’m in there the place is bustling. They also have author events virtually every day of the week (and sometimes multiple times a day).

This is me, just window shopping this time.

This is me, just window shopping this time.

The Harvard Coop, founded by Harvard students in 1882,  was also fun and lively with its crowded café and four floors of books connected by a winding staircase.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte's Villette here, that I haven't been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette here that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

When I got tired of book browsing we took a break at Café Algiers on historical Brattle Street (the street where George Washington established his first headquarters during the Revolutionary War). Café Algiers is a tranquil, grand (in my eyes), and bookish Middle Eastern coffee shop and eatery and one of the few businesses in the Square that have remained over the decades.

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CafeAbookcase

The last time I was here was to meet an old classmate. He had kissed me at our reunion, igniting all kinds of dreamy hopes in me. After avoiding me for a couple of weeks, he offered to meet at the café, where he told me painfully and uncomfortably that he was still in a relationship. The tea tasted bitter that day, but this time I was with my husband, son, and brother, and I enjoyed the best (the only) mint chocolate coffee I’ve ever had.

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And then there were these shelves, the ones I spend the most time looking at whenever I am home.

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This was my bookshelf growing up, pretty much unchanged since I left home for college a whole lifetime ago. The stuffed animals are still on the very top shelf, now protected and wrapped in plastic thanks to my mom. My photos are still there, as are my trinkets from different trips, events, and friendships, costume jewelry, extra buttons that came with clothes I’ve long stopped wearing, and, of course, books. The shelves are a bit messy now as I’ve been raiding them over the years, either selling/donating or taking some books back with me. Since I left home I’ve lived in nine apartments/houses in five cities on two continents. The more my life has evolved the more meaning this bookcase holds for me, as an anchor in time, a tether to the self and life that exist now only in memories.

 

Have you been to Boston? What are your favorite literary cities? What are your favorite literary places where you live?

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Finding an oasis in the midst of (December) chaos

December is never an easy month for me, no matter how many preventative measures I try to take. My peak month at work coincides with the holidays, cold and flu viruses, and school vacation (= no childcare). In fact, we’ve already rung in the new month with a bad bout of food poisoning (Fred) and a cold (me).

But in the midst of all this promised craziness are a couple of new discoveries:

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A cozy new cafe (not sure if you can see the photo too well) that serves organic teas and coffee and a lot of soothing ambience. Max and I went there for lunch the other day and I actually found myself breathing. It sounds like an odd thing to do but I realize that when I’m stressed I tend to intermittently hold my breath. Without doing anything except sit in my chair, I felt my body responding to my surroundings and the tightness letting go.

Which takes me to my second “discovery,” though it isn’t really a discovery as much as it is my own doing: my home.

Months ago I had bought a livingsocial deal for an interior decoration consultation. I mean, to me that’s like rehearsing a speech for my Best Actress award at the Oscars. It’s so presumptuous because what our house has always needed was a big garbage pick up. I’d bought the voucher because I thought it would give me incentive to clean up. But looking at the interior designer’s website and photos I thought we were lightyears away.

Well, a lightyear comes a lot faster than you think when there’s an expiration date involved. So on the date my voucher was expiring I made an appointment with Laura, and it took every ounce of will power in me to not reschedule. Despite a cold coming on and deadlines looming over me, I worked up to the final minutes before the doorbell rang to declutter the house. I was expecting a lot of psychological talk about what I am looking for and how I would define serenity, etc., but Laura pretty much got right down to business. We were all sitting but she jumped up and said, “Do you mind if I stand? I want to stand back here so I can get a good view…” And by the end of our one hour we’d rearranged the layout of our living room and dining room in a way my non-designer mind would never have bothered to conceive. Laura completely changed the look and feel of our space even just by shifting some of our picture frames around!

I am so happy in this new space now, even working right now on the couch instead of retreating to my bed, which is what I’d normally do if I’m under the weather. Every loose or stray item feels like fingernails on a chalkboard now and I don’t want anything tainting my space. Even Fred has been so much more focused on his homework since we got the new look. Coincidence? I am guessing not.

Mind you, we didn’t get a makeover like the ones you see on cable t.v. (Laura was only here for an hour) but I feel that we now at least have good, basic “feng shui.” Laura’s gift to us was helping us to break out of the rut of how we view our space and from here we can start thinking about our walls, windows, etc.

My cold has still left me weak and tired, but I’m also happy and not stressed. I think I’ve found my cure.

onlyoublog_oasis

How do you find calm in the middle of craziness? 

In search of the perfect work space…

This is where I work: on an espresso wood computer desk, overlooking a landscape of trees, in a nook in our bedroom right next to our bed.

desk

I arrived here earlier this spring after years of in-house migration. Seriously, next to finding affordable health insurance, figuring out the best place to work is the next biggest challenge for the work-from-home-self-employed (or at least that’s true for us).

We’d bought our house several years ago, already knowing that we would be running a business from home. So we chose the house we’re in now, which has not only an extra bedroom but also a family/bonus room that is sort of sectioned off from the rest of the house. We knew that we could use one of them for our home office, and the other as a guest room. Over the last few years we have tried both.

Extra bedroom: Sunny and bright, with easy access to our then-still-little child. We often worked at night, so we liked the fact that we could hear him easily if he suddenly woke up crying. However, this room is pretty small, especially for an office for two people, and we soon wanted more space for our printer, books, files, etc.

Family room: Roomy – really, more room than we needed. Unfortunately, only after spending our days there did we realize how dark it is during waking hours. The forest of trees right outside the windows formed a fortress against the sun (as well as heat during winters), as if I needed any more reason not to report to work.

So, running out of ideas and rooms (I vetoed Max’s suggestion to create an office in the kitchen), I’m breaking all my rules of securing proper boundaries by moving my office into our bedroom. How many times have magazines warned “The bedroom is for sleep and sex only!”? Yes, in an ideal world that would be the case for all of us, wouldn’t it? But during my quest to find the best work spot I came to the conclusion that securing work/life balance is not as easy as dividing my life up into rooms. All I have to do to even think of work is to see the top of my laptop, or my iPhone. And yet, how much else of my life is in there? My family photos and videos, my Facebook and Goodreads accounts, my favorite blogs, my journal, my personal e-mails, my recipes…During any given work period I’m toggling between client documents and e-mails and Facebook and blogs. So, given our limitations, I decided that more important than finding a place for our business is finding a place for myself.

The place for myself is a spot that is drenched in sunlight and is private. It also has to be neat, which has required a lifestyle change on my part. My major accomplishment this summer had been to simply take (and keep) the clothes off of my chair and to make the surface of my desk visible. I bought a faux antique file organizer from Marshalls and I have a couple of decorative containers from Japan that currently hold my pens and sleeping pills (Nature Made sleep aids; I swear I don’t abuse these). I also have on my desk the two books that I’m currently reading, a bottle of mango scented lotion, a gargantuan bottle of Advil, a little clay dish and a gold origami crane that Fred had made for me, lip balm, my glasses, and my iPhone. None of this is for decorative effect, but I suppose it says something about what I consider essential to have at my fingertips. I don’t know what else I’d do with this space (maybe light scented candles or put up some photos?), but I will settle for clutter-free as my decor for the time being. I don’t care if I’m working with a client, writing a blog post, or shopping for shoes, as long as I feel at peace while doing it. After all, I am all of my jobs and activities – consultant, business owner, mother, friend, writer, reader – and by designating my work life to one room, I realized that I was dividing my life into Enjoyable and Not Enjoyable. I feel I need to find a way to both manage my boundaries while welcoming my work into my life as something that enriches rather drains.

windowMy view, not that I usually even remember to look out the window (I usually have the blinds down), is lovely when I do. I’m surrounded by a landscape of trees, obstructed by nothing. Aside from my four years on a picturesque New England college campus, this view is the most serene I’ve ever had. I’ve otherwise faced my share of garbage pick ups, parking lots, and buildings.

My work days, which take place during the hours Fred is in school and occasionally at night, are quiet, interrupted occasionally by the sound of the telephone (which I virtually never answer) and brief (work-related) visits by Max (who is now working out of our extra bedroom-turned-guest room (until there is a guest)). Over the eight years that we’ve had our business, I’ve gotten happily used to the absence of office politics and overly chatty co-workers. Over the last five years since Fred has started school I’ve gotten accustomed to longer stretches of time to concentrate without needing to juggle feedings, play time and potty supervision. I’ve gotten used to toggling over to Facebook when I feel like chatting or meeting Max in the kitchen when I want a coffee break. Once in a while I schedule a lunch or breakfast with a girlfriend or two. Is this work life isolating? Sometimes. Too quiet? Occasionally. Would I change anything about it? After almost two decades of working in large cities and spending 70% of my waking hours in bustling offices, nah. The privacy and the tranquility suit the introverted person I’ve returned to, and I can finally hear myself think.view

Where do you do your quiet work when you’re at home? And what constitutes an ideal work space for you?

Defining home

When I was in college, a “worldlier” friend used to enjoy making digs at me because I’d never left Boston. Indeed, I went to both college and graduate school right outside of Boston and I started my career 15 minutes from where I grew up.

So when a young attendee at one of the work events I was hosting read my palm (she just happened to be psychic – I wasn’t working with the paranormal ;-)), I soon learned that a foreign country was in my future. I balked at her prediction, because I was every bit as domestic as my college friend accused me of. I’d just gotten promoted at work and moved into a new apartment (10 minutes from where I grew up) and I had no interest in going anywhere.

Then, sure enough, one fluke event led to another, and two years to the month that I’d met the palm reading woman, I was standing at Narita International Airport with the two suitcases from which the next eight years of my life would grow. I would end up changing my career, meeting my husband, and becoming a mother in Japan.

Nearly a decade later, we – Max, Fred and I – relocated to the States, to the south. We wanted warmth and affordability and we wanted out of the city. Our son gets to now grow up with the kind of life I used to only dream about and see on television: a neighborhood filled with the laughter of children, an American-sized house, trees, yards, elementary schools with campuses, neighbors who smile and lend you eggs and butter if you need them. While there are larger, serious problems with our state, I do love the idyllic, international, intellectual, liberal-minded and friendly town we live in.

But I started to have second thoughts this year, when the bombings in Boston pulled me back to a familiarity and security that I’d long resisted. Mourning in the shared pain back in April, I realized that I have roots, however ambivalent I may be about my actual experiences. Boston, with its harsh climate and harsh personalities, was not an easy place to live or grow up in. But it was home – the place that I will always associate my family and childhood with, and the security that family and the past bring.

That I felt rooted is significant, as someone who for a good part of her life didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere; I was too American for my Asian friends yet not quite western enough to be seen as American. Coming back after almost 10 years overseas, I have an affinity for other expatriates and international people.

I found myself wanting to move back to Boston – for my parents, for Fred (there are better educational opportunities in Massachusetts (read: feeder schools)), for myself. I’d even managed to convince Max to seriously consider the possibility, which was no small feat given that he’d left one home behind for me already.

After some gut wrenching ruminating, I told Max I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t make the possibility work without throwing a grenade into our family. Our time line would mean sending Fred to 3 different schools in 3 years. We would need to downgrade our living space to a small apartment. Finances would be tight. And I’d need to pull both my husband and son from the only home in America they know, a home and community that they absolutely adore.

The whole process made me rethink the meaning of home. Is it where I have my roots, my childhood memories, my parents? Is it a place that is defined by history, or is it a starting point for history? Is it the place brimming with opportunity and stimulation, or the place where you feel most serene? Can home be a home if one has chosen out of duty – for filial piety, for a better shot at Harvard for your kid? Can it be a home if one half of your partnership doesn’t feel the same way you do about it? Can you love your home and yet still long for another place? Questions like these made my head spin.

In the end I understood that home is where all three of us are happy, and eventually the place where my parents are better off retiring to. I decided that home for me needs to be about peace and comfort and space and freedom, a place without resentment or constant anxiety…and it is what we already have.  But the decision is also a compromise because we don’t have the luxury of having it all, and no matter what we choose we do end up sacrificing.

When we fight in front of our children

There had been clues along the way.

The prolonged hugging in the morning, before Fred left for school. “I love you too much,” he said, as he rested his cheek against my belly. I responded in kind and wrapped my arms loosely around him. He repeated himself one more time, “I love you too much,” before he finally let go to head for the car. But midway he stopped and ran back to hug me again. “Okay, go, go!” I said.  “Get in the car!”

Yesterday, when he seemed to overreact when his afternoon playmate had to go home for dinner. “WHY does he have to go?” Fred had shouted in tears. “HOW do you know he is eating dinner NOW?” Max and I had already started arguing in the next room by that time. I later realized that Fred was dreading to let go of his friend, afraid to be left alone in the house while his parents were fighting.

Where there is love, there is conflict. Where there is intimacy, there is hurt. We fight because we feel and because we care. As the saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. As long as we engage in conflict, we are showing that we care enough to engage.

I know this. At least, after 10 years of marriage, I know this. I know that lack of sleep or misunderstandings can trigger some of our meltdowns. I know that within 24 hours things will blow over. I know that, despite the hostility we feel at those moments, our love cannot be so easily destroyed.

But at 7, Fred doesn’t know this.

I remember the first time I heard my parents fight. I was in bed, and all I could remember hearing were my father’s shouting and my mother’s muffled crying. At the crack of dawn, I woke up to study my mother’s face and body, making sure she was still breathing and that she would soon wake up. I had believed, then, that you could die from someone’s anger.

I was 7, the same age Fred is now.

The night after our fight, while Fred and I were reading at bedtime, we came across the word “courage” in his story book. I asked Fred if he knew what the word meant. He asked, “Is that like me not crying last night?”

I realized we had not talked about the fight. I told him to feel okay about telling Mommy and Daddy how our arguing makes him feel. I told him that sometimes as adults we forget; we are so emotional and we forget how our anger impacts our children. Fred, who had been stoic this whole time, suddenly started blinking back tears until they overpowered him. I realized, then, how much he has grown, how much of a complete person he has become, and how vigilant we have to be now in his presence.

Long before I became a mother I had a goal to spare my future children the stress of a war zone at home.

A number of things have defined the person I’ve become, but none more than the experience of witnessing and living with my parents’ fighting. The feelings of powerlessness had led to depression, the fears to anxiety, the anger to a sometimes overly strong need for independence from any man. But how easy it has become to prioritize getting all our emotions out over making a serious effort to consider the impact on our children. More than once I found myself saying something to Fred that echoed too painfully what my mother used to say to me, something that used to give me zero comfort: “Your father is not angry at you; he is angry at me. This has nothing to do with you.”

A fight between Mommy and Daddy is the cracking fault line in a child’s world. Our fighting has everything to do with them.

After a day of not speaking, I finally reached out to Max when I saw the notes in Fred’s school folder. Fred had been acting out that day. He did not listen to his teachers. He was angry. They made him write a letter of apology to be signed by us. Without explanation, we both knew the cause of his behavior and what we needed to do to restore normalcy to Fred’s – and our – life. Like a powerful glue, it was our child that put us back together again. Our children have everything to do with us.

How do you handle your marital conflicts when it comes to your children? Are you able to fight behind closed doors? How do your children react to conflict?

The world I want for my son

About this blog carnival: “The world I want for my children” is an effort to support The Joyful Heart Foundation, which was founded by Law & Order: SVU actress Mariska Hargitay to help victims of sexual assault mend their minds, bodies and spirits and reclaim their lives. Today, the foundation is at the forefront of an effort to end a disheartening backlog of tens of thousands of rape kits in labs across the country, a backlog that contributes to a rapist’s 80 percent chance of getting away with his crime. The backlog and its detrimental effects will be the topic of an SVU episode on September 29th.

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In 2004, when Fred was born, Max and I made the decision that we would move to the States to raise Fred here. We were in Japan (of which Max is a native) and up until we became parents, we never had any definitive plans as to where we would settle or when.

But like my immigrant parents and my father’s immigrant parents before him, the future takes on a different urgency once you have children. I imagine that few Americans need to question which country in which to raise their children. Living in Asia with my American perspectives, I encouraged (okay, urged) Max to consider alternatives. Would Japan provide the opportunities that we want for Fred? Would our Japanese lifestyle allow us to have the family life that we want? Do Japanese values fit our values as a family and as individuals? There is so much that is truly wonderful about Japan, and in fact a number of my expat friends have chosen to raise their families there. In the end, the negatives (for us given our particular needs) outweighed the positives (and vice versa; the positives of America outweighed the negatives), and we chose to move to the U.S.

After nearly 10 years abroad I was looking forward to returning to my home country and being able to communicate fluently once again, but I didn’t come without trepidation. I remember those early feelings of not fitting in, of seeing myself as meek and overly deferential, only to realize later in Japan that I was simply being Asian. I had grown up in the 70s and 80s and was caught in the desegregration movement in the Boston Public Schools not that long after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. I remember the occasional racial slurs and taunting and the feeling that I wasn’t American not because I didn’t feel it but because others wouldn’t see it. In the back of my mind, I knew that Fred could be who he is but I worried if he can also feel fully accepted.

My worries, over the next two years, would be gradually appeased as even Max acclimated to our new home with relative ease. There is a popular Japanese school here which Fred now attends in order to keep up the language and remain connected to his heritage. Our neighborhood, despite being in the south, has been called by some as a mini United Nations and the children play together without thinking twice. Fred’s school, one of the top in the southeast, is diverse in nationality, ethnicity, socioeconomic class and ability. A sizeable number of children are international children adopted into American families. At least half of our couple friends are multicultural or biracial. Though these are examples of diversity in culture, the larger point I am trying to make is that there is no one “standard” – my son sees no mold in which he needs to fit, or to fit others. At least not yet.

It was an election year the year we moved, and one of Fred’s favorite first English words was “Obama” (perhaps because of the way it sounds). He began equating the American flag with Mr. Obama since he never saw a scene or photo of the presidential candidate without the flag behind him, and for a long time insisted that the stars and stripes were called “the Obama flag.” I remember one day asking him, at age 4, what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“I want to be president,” he said.

“President of a school, a company?” I asked.

Fred stretched his arms wide to show the scope of what he was talking about.

“No, I want to be president of the United States!”

Max and I were impressed, and this dream continued until he turned the tables on me.

“Why didn’t you become president, Mommy?”

I was floored by his innocence. Yes, why didn’t I become president of the United States, or a doctor, or a chef, or a librarian for that matter? I struggled to come up with the “right” answer. The truth is, as an immigrant Chinese girl in the 70s, it simply never occurred to me to become the president of anything.

“Uh…I guess because it’s too hard for me. It would just be too stressful. But that’s just me.” 

“Okay, never mind. I don’t want to be president anymore.”

“Oh, just because I didn’t want to be president doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be.” How quickly my words impacted him. I really wanted him to go for it if that was what he wanted (even if it was just the flavor of his 4 year-old week). 

“Nah. I don’t want to be president. I want to be a daddy.”

And that’s the world I want for my son. A color blind world where there are no limits, no messages whether overt or covert that tell him he can’t reach his potential or simply be who he is. A world that would provide him the space and the opportunity to grow into someone who will take his turn making the world a better one for the children who follow…as a president or a daddy or…both.

When the past finally feels like the past

For many, many years my stomach would get tight at the thought of visiting “home,” a word that until only recently had meant “childhood home,” the place where I grew up, the place of my parents.

Before I write anything misleading, I have to say first that I grew up in a house with incredible love. My brother and I were (are) our parents’ lives and there was absolutely no doubt how important we were to them. But like any community of human beings we were all flawed, and add to that immigration stress and cultural and language gaps and we had a healthy dose of family dysfunction. I’d spent too many years of my adult life wanting to be free of that and to rebuild my life in peace and healthy communication with my own nuclear family. But unbreakable family ties “obligated” me to visit home once a year.

And inevitably as soon as I stepped foot into my house, the house where I went through puberty and all the hormonal ups and downs of a girl who was pretty moody to begin with, I would slip back into the shoes of the 15 year-old me. I’d feel the same panic whenever I heard my parents begin to raise their voices, and I’d struggle unsuccessfully to stay calm whenever I felt my mother was nagging or controlling too much. If Max needed any flashback to the young me he was lucky to have never known, well, this was it.

So last Sunday, as we were pulling into our old Boston home, those old knots came back. It’s going to happen again, I thought; my parents are going to drive me crazy, I am going to ruin this vacation by screaming at them.

Except I haven’t. It’s been day 5. Things have been so pleasant. My parents have been pleasant, for the most part. Sure, it was annoying the way they were bickering over the menu during my dad’s birthday dinner and yes, it is irritating the way my mom keeps shoving food at me even after I tell her repeatedly I am not hungry. But for some reason this time I don’t really have any of those old feelings anymore. It is as if the adolescent and young adult in me had finally faded, for good, into the past. I entered my parents’ house this time with the peace and confidence of a woman with her own family, own home and new history. I’m so grateful that the day has come.