Lost and Found…in Canada

I have been increasingly finding myself out of place recently, unable to locate a sense of belonging, connectedness, and even a tangible grasp of home. As I luxuriate in the elegantly crafted stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and read Susanna Kaysen’s inviting Cambridge, I experience a nostalgic attachment toward New England where I passed through some formative years. Memories of spinach and cheese pastries and coffees at Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square revive a longing across the separation in years, no less palpable than from an estranged loved one.

After a recent email newsletter from UCLA featuring iconic landmarks preserved in films, my heart skipped a beat for those years spent climbing toward Kerckhoff to drink a coffee and eating vegetarian San Francisco burgers (the kind with mushrooms and soy sauce) in Ackerman Union or studying in Northern Lights.

Then of course my mind never drifts far from McGill’s physics department’s workshops where I’d meet new and old friends in a stimulating research environment. I also remember fondly eating nachos in the graduate house’s pub, Thomson House. My sense of place in Montreal was definitive where I passed between the McGill Ghetto and the Rutherford building and the Schulich School of Music for my music lessons. And yet, people say you are always an outsider to Montreal if you are not born there. I experienced this first hand on a trip to Paris where I felt more at home surrounded by the Parisian French language I had learned as a teenager than by the dialect spoken in Montreal.

And now I live in Winnipeg. There isn’t a large influx of people outside of Winnipeg into this city, it seems, and people don’t often migrate away. And so in many ways I feel myself still to be an outsider. Some of my friends have had social groups since high school and nearby family members, whereas I have none except my husband and cat. I no longer feel as though I belong to a certain community of people with whom I interact frequently, as you would if you worked at a company or institution of sorts. And so I grope for my place here, feeling a bit dislocated. In all other chapters of my life, I’ve bonded with a clear identity as a physics student or post-doc or instructor at a specific institution. Now I free fall, struggling to build a routine into the immense scattered hours of the day and striving to legitimize myself (to myself) perhaps in my new profession as a writer (which I can hardly utter without feeling as though I’m an impostor).

There are many ways to form attachments to people and places. Early in my life I wrote an essay after my first trip to Canada where I professed an eternal loyalty to this country and found in it a place of home, rebirth, and freedom, especially from fear, and I experienced a measure of safety I had never experienced in the US. The multicultural Canadians embraced me, and these friendly people seemed special. My essay from the early nineties serves as one of my first love letters to Canada.

As a child, I spent hours upon hours watching and rewatching Kevin Sullivan’s beloved adaptation of Anne of Green Gables and even wrote letters to an imaginary Anne. During a break today, it occurred to me to crack open the DVD of Anne of Avonlea. With the beginning strains of music evoking an expansive landscape and Anne’s devotion to writing, I grew to realize that home is not located in a coffee shop or in the facade of a familiar building or in a group of people sharing lunch, but in our ethos and values, in the languages we speak, in the memories we carry with us of people and places. Home does not lie in a single institution or a job title but in a broader identity including our dreams and aspirations, the music we listen to and make, our actions, the stories we write, our passing connections to other people and places, and the brief footprints we leave.

I pass through many cities and through many people’s lives as a wanderer and a nomad. I don’t know if I’ll ever really feel at home in Winnipeg. I’ve lived here longer than any other city since I was seventeen, and yet I still feel the pangs of an outsider. Yet with the enormous welcoming embrace I felt from Canada and Canadians and my early attachment to the country’s values, culture, and even cultural institutions, including icon Glenn Gould, whose recordings I’ve owned all my life, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, I see that Canada has served as a compass to me to locate a sense of my dreams, my home, and my core since childhood.

Is a sense of home and to a greater extent, identity, elusive for those whose lives have been peripatetic? Perhaps. The people and places that populate our lives might change as through a revolving door. But even we can find a compass to locate and ground us as a starting point in discovering where we belong and who we are. And for me my sense of home and identity starts with Canada, including the history, values, heritage, land, people, and cultural institutions of this country. My home and native land, as is expressed in the lyrics of O Canada.

Be bold. Be fearless.

I don’t think we ever really need an excuse to reflect or turn our lamp inward to assess and to consider. Yet as the days are spent as much in shadow as in sun, and we mark the completion of the elliptical path of the earth, we can generally find such a reason to ponder our personal journeys as well. A year ago I committed to a new year’s resolution essentially not to make any specific goals for the year, not to try to confine my aspirations to a specific elusive routine, plan, or agenda.

And, indeed, I succeeded.

At times I might have temporarily relapsed and tried to write an algorithm for living my life, but I always surrendered these prescriptions in favour of living more organically, naturally, and less punitively. I finally accept that my spirit and moods don’t thrive caged by routine. It’s not to say I didn’t make general goals for the year which I compiled in a list and dutifully checked off to help steer my course, but they were more stones I placed on which I skipped across the stream, rather than some overarching plan. For example, I intended to write at least one blog and one Wellesley Underground interview a month, to read books on a list I made, to write my second novel and to submit my first, to earn pay for writing, and to do more music, all of which I completed. I also aimed to prioritize with the thought that should I perish in six months time, I would die without embracing regrets. I mentioned this philosophy to a friend recently who reminded me of it at a later meeting. I conveyed to her that my intent is to live such that when I die I’ll die with a true acceptance of my life and without wishing I had lived differently.

Be bold. Be fearless. My voice teacher advised me of these principles to live, or perhaps sing, by in a recent lesson. I think most of her instructions are geared more towards my approach to singing, but I find them even more relevant to moving through life.

Be bold. Be fearless. Should we die sooner rather than later, what would our legacy be? Is it what we would hope for it to be? What would our epitaph be? What truly matters to us? Would it be that we were beloved by a partner, family, and/or friends or would we want to be defined by some specific achievement? What do we value? What are our priorities? Do we try year after year to achieve the same aim (perhaps some number on a scale, either figuratively or literally)? How do we remove ourselves from possible recursive loops in which we might find ourselves? Or worse yet, an infinite (to) do-loop (sorry, I’ve spent most of my life computer programming)?

Maybe figuring out what we don’t want is easier than figuring out what we do want. I don’t want to be static. I don’t want to self-sabotage. A former voice teacher once told me she learned at a workshop that when we choose to spend our time one way, we choose not to pursue some alternate activity. This makes the question of self-sabotage difficult, because we might think we are acting to fulfill one dream, and yet this expenditure of time and energy might deprive us of satisfying another. I also think we make many choices in our life based on psychological blocks and saboteurs who reside in our heads. I know this is the root of my obstacles in music as well as elsewhere.

Be bold. Be fearless. I guess directing my life with these words as my guide is my new year’s resolution this year. Whatever your resolutions are, or if you choose not to make any, I wish you a bold, fearless, lovely journey.

Happy New Year!

I Choose

I choose to part my lips
to open the hollow between my jaws
and let the air fly through my mouth
caressing my vocal folds
– organs of freedom
that allow my voice
to erupt in the primal scream
that is my singular Howl

I choose to sing my stories
both those that weep
and those that ascend the mountain
of my aspirations
harmonizing both
those that cross the bridge of sighs
but also those on paths alit
by the very secret stars I conceived

I choose to sway my body
and dance to the hymns
of my freedoms
of my dreams
of my rights
of my duties to my self
not of the preachings
of those who know me not

I choose to embrace my power —
that in my mind
and in my body
to craft my life
into a work of art
both original, yet flawed
in its humanity
steering to my destined point

I choose to accept my Self
as I am
a unit complete as myself
in all my choices
that colour this journey
paved in hues of every kind
mapping out a life
for my future & for my dreams

I choose to live by my principles
and those that govern me
that give me
my voice
my body
my power
&
my choice

Thanks to the Winnipeg Women’s Health Clinic. I became a professional writer with this piece because of you this year.

La Fleur

Below is a poem I sketched with some ideas in homage to Shakespeare (the idea of two becoming one), Antoine de Saint-Exupery (the idea of the flower), and On the Waterfront (the idea of being a contender).  I hope you enjoy this little poem!

La Fleur

withered outcast
a solitary souvenir
of the bullies’ playground
the Others who had incised
and marked
their twisted signatures of hate
cursing the once vital bark
to a solitary confinement
still seeking a glimmer
to nourish
and redeem the bleakness
pitched inside
the core’s decrepitude
an interior desiccation
hollowed of tears.

tap tap tap
an excruciating issuing
of her sap
the thin sallow remains
that she can proffer
those few to whom she pleas
a beggar she is
for companionship
to forget
for just a moment
her desolation
a drug
to assuage her seared skin

a tree that no longer a tree can be
a bending hunch
under the weight of Boreas
slim drooping branches
pecked by beaks
a home to parasitic thieves
robbing her of all that could have been
a contender in the game
instead of a target for Zeus’s arrows
abandoning her to an electric drought

on the horizon
the rim of the heavens
the tree glimpses beyond her arid ruins,
relics of a youthful neglect,
and spies a forest, a village of trees
lacking the deadened thirst
that fills her malnourished innards
and canvassing the sky with dreams

brave encounters
with amputations and inward probes
Others slicing and burning her branches
fairy embers of beauty
distilled from wounds
that, she wonders, might signal to her sisters
that she still stands
a flame
a gorgeous truth
conceived by her pain

the tree searches her roots
with wonders
at their sprawling tenuous nest
grounding her to her history
and hopes that someday she could produce
a thought, a seed,
to skip along with the Zephyr
a word to commune
and silence the assault of loneliness

but
one day
a Flower dances across the sky
an unforeseen solution
and kisses the tree’s broken bark
before sharing the tree’s soil
their roots intertwine
as they meet each onslaught
of the Others
together
splintering the hurts
and translating bruises
into a symbiosis
where two become one
always facing assailants
but
always
standing
together

Review of Variny Yim’s The Immigrant Princess

The opening pages of Variny Yim’s The Immigrant Princess construct a scene of three generations of royal Cambodian women emigrating from their home, culture, and family amidst the foreboding of a military threat in December, 1974. What unfolds is the narrative of these women’s stories alternating with glimpses of the past and Cambodia’s complex and troubled history. The novel is written in a quick-paced, conversational, journalistic tone, befitting the protagonist’s profession as a member of the press. Posed early in the novel is the idea of the Apsara, the mythological female dancers who endured despite the maelstrom of Cambodian politics. There is magic and might in the depiction of the Apsara, a sisterly motif to which the book often returns. Likened to the Greek gods that color Western mythology, the theme of the Apsara threads the novel’s narrative with rich and dynamic Cambodian images and symbolism.

Predominantly in the first half of the novel, the narrative establishes a contrast between the present, 1999 Washington D.C., and pre-Khmer Rouge Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Through flashbacks and historical notes, Yim paints, the political struggle dominating Cambodia due to World War II, the Vietnam War, and French colonialism in addition to internal conflicts. A critique might be that the exposition seems at times a bit heavy-handed, though this is consistent with the novel’s feel that it is being told by a reporter. Through blending history and a depiction of both the family’s royal and common Cambodian roots with the plot of the daughters, the audience observes the daughters’ full inheritance, including their independent, hard-working natures.

The Immigrant Princess not only honors the Cambodian culture and heritage but also honors our ancestors who immigrated to the US to flee persecution, starvation, war, or death with only their courage and work ethic as their baggage. In their bold escape they enter a new culture, forsaking their native language, family, way of life, and belongings. The book illustrates that immigrants do not enter the US with the expectation of an easy life but carry with them a staunch work ethic and survival instinct, desiring to contribute to the economy and to support their families. Like the Lim family in the novel, some immigrants might desert a royal lifestyle to embrace a modest one in the US where they might have to clean after wealthy Americans and live in a humble home. They might even have to trade their own name for one which is easier for Americans to pronounce. But the immigrants bring something else with them. They bring a beauty of the music of their language, the palette of their food, the magic of their dance, their spirituality, and a mythology that contribute new colors to their adopted country. In this way, The Immigrant Princess makes a powerful political statement regarding immigration policy: by welcoming immigrants, from whom we are all descended, the US strengthens its base of hardworking individuals who have overcome enormous hardships to attain the American dream.

This novel is a profoundly American story, since the immigrant American dream, American work ethic, and professional and personal dreams are so central to all the characters as is the melting pot theme. It is also an interesting reflection on identity, prejudices against cultural differences to which no one is completely immune, perhaps, and an individual propensity to anesthetize and to repress the past and pain rather than to process, accept, and reconcile with it, necessary for a person to grow into her full power. There is also a lesson of letting go of attachment throughout (including misguided romantic relationships), which is in keeping with Buddhist thought, while embracing novel encounters with new connections and discovering new inner strengths buried beneath a polite docility ingrained in so many of us. The Immigrant Princess is for anyone who was raised in an environment where polite, deferential respect to authority is revered. It is for anyone brought up by protective parents with instructions “not to make waves,” perhaps to her professional disadvantage in the wake of more vocal, assertive, and flamboyant peers, who, nonetheless, might be less industrious and less valuable. It is for anyone who might have experienced familial claustrophobia and guilt.

The Immigrant Princess possesses poetry in its messages both in the the women’s cultural inheritance and in the protagonist’s, Sophea’s, fearless journey toward empowerment and the fulfillment of her ambitions without sacrificing her ideals and integrity. Throughout the novel, Sophea reflects on her cultural past. The author alludes to the struggle for women everywhere to overcome subjugation in their roles with men, be it romantic or professional. There is a parallel between the doomed love story of Sophea’s mother, whose husband sacrificed everything to preserve his family, and Sophea’s romance tainted by disrespect. However, the prevailing lesson from Sophea’s heritage is not to succumb to the loss of self for an unworthy partner, who might enter deceptively robed in the trappings of an attractive appearance and successful career. Her father, who was a commoner, did not possess the royal blood of her mother but instead wore the crown of a noble interior, education, and work ethic, which he passed on to his daughter.

Yim broaches an interesting angle on feminine beauty. Although the Lim women religiously follow international beauty pageants (though they do mock them some), which feminists traditionally might judge as archaic and sexist, Yim conveys a sense of a continuity in a woman’s beauty throughout her life, even in the aging generations. The beauty which the women in the novel worship is more individualistic and less conformist to a Hollywood ideal. Beauty is treated as a celebration of femininity rather than a denigrating objectification. The treatment of beauty is more empowering and inclusive than degrading and exclusive, suggesting that true beauty includes working hard, integrity, ambition, and appreciating physical beauty but of a more natural form rather than an anorexic mold. And in one character’s makeover, Yim illustrates that any woman can find her beauty and that it is not just the providence of movie stars and models.

There is so much diversity in the roles in the book, anyone can find pieces of herself amidst the mosaic of characters and food (including Greek, Indian, Mexican, French, Italian, Thai, and Cambodian), which itself is almost a character in the novel with its power both to soothe, nourish, and yet also to numb. I’ve held a lifelong interest in Asian aesthetics, philosophy and religion, and culture, and realize, on one hand how superficial my exposure is, to the point where I worry about being offensive, and, yet, on the other hand how I am not as divorced as I had thought I am because of the commonalities, not just from being raised in an immigrant environment, but by nature that despite differences we all share central experiences by virtue of our humanity. Through the blend of cultural backgrounds in the characters, Yim encourages the sharing of cultural traditions and indicates that we can all learn from each other, commune, and celebrate our commonalities and differences while retaining our own inheritance. The book engages throughout and resonates with truths about human connections. Its conclusion satisfies without being trite.

At the core of the novel is the discovery of identity through one’s family. The Lim family might be unconventional, as it consists at first only of women, and the eldest daughter lives at home well into adulthood. However, as the novel develops, the Lims welcome diverse new members into their coterie, into their family, which parallels the dynamic notions of how we view family in the twenty-first century. The prior family paradigm in the United States has evolved to no longer exclusively mean a father, mother, children, and perhaps ancillary extensions such as grandparents. As with the Lims, the family construct encompasses many variations transcending tradition. And as the book alludes, family and close human connections are crucial, be it a traditional family, a sisterhood (or brotherhood) of those you have adopted into your inner circle, three generations of women, or any permutation of this. And through your connections with the people in your life you espouse as your family, through the history and legacy of your ancestors, you will grow as a person and develop an identity, one both individualistic as well as one more robust from the influences around you, as the Lim family did. As you read the Lim family story, you learn how identity is not static and that unearthing the truth about people and about yourself and embracing your family, whatever that means to you, only strengthens your development into the person you were meant to become. The Lims truly represent any family connected by blood or friendship and illustrate an institution, people who care about each other, which powerfully opposes the aggression and oppression in the world. The novel offers us perspective: the Lim’s family and country were subjected to genocide, and though their tragedy influences their identity, they do not surrender to anyone the permission to rob them of their integrity, love, dreams, memories, or spirit, which, too, powerfully contributes to who they are.

A central message in The Immigrant Princess is the dishonor of silence. What might be present in the public’s mind regarding Cambodia is the country’s history of political turmoil and genocide. Variny Yim introduces the often neglected aspects of the culture, the Apsara, the swirling colors of its dancers, the care in preparation and flavors of the culture’s cuisine, the quiet Buddhist traditions and temples, including the Angkor Wat, a World Heritage Site, and the universality of human desires and needs, especially for love and family, be it one forged by blood, romance, friendship, or a sisterhood of Apsara. The Immigrant Princess not only voices a universal immigrant story, but also dispels the silence and, in doing so, honors Cambodia and makes the culture come alive.

Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast

Maybe you’re like me. I experienced a major life event a few weeks ago followed by a host of increasingly exasperating minor (hopefully) health issues, some of which are not only uncomfortable but affect morale as well (i.e. being extremely limited in my diet, which, though bad for the last five years, worsens).

Maybe you’re like me. Your life has become unstructured, and you become anxious or down about things those close to you feel are unworthy of your concern. You are accustomed to pressuring yourself with deadlines and goals and have removed these in an effort to assuage stress, but this has translated into your routine collapsing into a mayhem and a disorder that dominate your days. You’ve slipped out of your usual routine. Maybe you’ve become distracted by the endless web of links on social media which can devour hours of your time.

Maybe you’re like me. You are connected to people who are experiencing depression, and you feel helpless to raise them from their quagmire. May is mental health awareness month, but mental illness seems to prevail, and the war to restrain its greedy talons feels dauntingly unbeatable.

Maybe you’re like me. You feel the sentence of mortality keenly which impels an internal impetus to achieve and to accomplish by cramming. You feel you have to fulfill your dreams by a certain age or accomplish arbitrary goals by a deadline. The frenetic pace at which your mind dictates you should conduct your life leaves you too depleted and starved for the necessary emotional space to begin. So you dangle, seemingly in an abeyance of activity, though the clock of your heart unfailingly counts the minutes passing anyway. Tempus fugit, the Latin saying goes, has guided your approach to living.

Maybe you’re like me. You need some stimulus to reboot the hard drive. In the last forty-eight hours or so, I’ve encountered a number of experiences that have triggered me to evaluate how I need to reboot. These included attending the Sarasvati staged reading of Breaking Through, the reading and book signing at McNally Robinson of editors Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini of their book on Carol Shields’s writing notes, Startle and Illuminate, writing emails regarding self-care, and posting my Wellesley Writes It interview of the Why.Race.Still.Matters blog founders, Bai Kamara, Portia Allen-Kyle, Yasmine-Imani McMorrin just moments ago.

Andrew and I attended the Sarasvati staged reading yesterday of Breaking Through, aimed to break the silence of mental health issues. In this play, one message was that “silence is the disease.” Other messages included that you are still loveable even if you struggle, that not everyone will be understanding or compassionate, that one in four Canadians will suffer mental health issues, that people, even those close to you, might say insensitive things which you need to accept and perhaps not take personally, that you still have a voice, that you’re not selfish because you’re suffering and might need the help of others. My notes to continue this dialogue include: Would you blame a cancer patient for being self centered or accuse her of crying for help because she requires aid? Would you ever blame someone for developing cancer because she is sick and compare her to other people who didn’t acquire cancer? Would you think less of her because she is sick or accuse her that she is responsible for her illness? And another message in the play was that maybe, just maybe, your distress, be it OCD, hearing voices, or possessing a distorted body image, is due to irrational thoughts, a disease, rather than an actual identifiable danger or accurate perspective of reality.  And perhaps it is safe to disclose your vulnerabilities. That the only way to move towards an acceptance of what many struggle with daily is to discuss it. And to accept that maybe your struggles will shadow you throughout your life, and your coping with them will be lifelong, that there might not be a cure in the end, but rather an acceptance, much as the character John Nash accepted his hallucinations at the end of A Beautiful Mind and recognized their presence but acknowledged that they were delusions and lived in spite of them.

At the McNally Robinson reading, Anne and Nicholas Giardini discussed how Carol Shields did not embrace the principle of Tempus Fugit. It seems as though she lived her life deliberately, moderately, and without rushing. In the end, her life was somewhat short: she lived to be 68. But would she have profited from a higher quality of life had she pressured herself more and felt the grips of time? Of course not. And perhaps her discipline of writing and editing one or two pages a day was more effective than those who aim to cram ten pages a day, feel overwhelmed by the task, and don’t even begin, or whose work suffers in quality. I recall Friar Laurence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who cautions Romeo by stating, “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.”

Then there were the emails I wrote to others regarding self-care. It occurred to me, that without realizing it, my attempt to relieve pressure also removed the self-care structure I need to ward off my internal opponents. I had slipped in the last few weeks into making ambitious schedules regarding my music, novel-writing, and research goals. The plans were as equally ineffective motivators as the idea to remove all pressure by structuring much less into my days. What do we need every day? We need exercise, good food, hydration, healthful comforts such as tea, and some movement toward our goals. We need social interaction (which is different from mindlessly clicking online links but could include online or email connections we’ve made or phone calls). And we need some minimal goals and structure, taking at least baby steps toward productivity and progression. When I think back to doing scientific research, typically on any given day I saw little movement toward the completion of the project. But the daily work accrued, and in time I finished the project. Even just working on a few paragraphs of the writing part of the project a day, a typical paper can be written in a week or two. There is a delicate balance between pressuring ourselves to the point of exhaustion and burn-out and not disciplining ourselves enough, regardless of motivation levels, to engage in a minimal amount of activity in an attempt to thwart gravity’s force on us downward.

The final motivator I had to reboot was posting the Why.Race.Still.Matters interview. I am very shy and a bit hesitant at self-promotion, reluctantly forcing myself when necessary, but I realized as I was posting the article to Wellesley Underground that I had to share the piece with the Wellesley FaceBook Community, something I’m not sure I’ve ever done before with any of my articles. This article, I realized, was significant. I think about race a lot, worrying that in some subtle ways I’m as insensitive as others are to me about my anxiety or gender. Do I behave in subtly insensitive ways? How can I be better educated about race issues? What do people of non-European descent have to deal with on a daily basis? How can I help? These are the questions that motivated my queries in the interview. As I proof-read the article one last time and put it together, I acquired a perspective about the concerns that precipitate my anxiety and realized how irrational they are. As I read Portia Allen-Kyle’s words based on her powerful post, “I am Sandra Bland,” I realized I need to redirect my energies from distorted worried minutiae to the bigger picture, to trying to make some small contribution to the world, be it through words, physics, music, or living a healthier lifestyle, so that I can be my best self to help others. I still need to read Daniel Deronda, but in the film, I remember the title character suggesting to help others and to look outside of yourself as way to find meaning in your life and to counter your inner struggles (and perhaps emptiness). So, as I often conclude in these blogs, Wellesley has it right: Non ministrari sed ministrare. Looking outside yourself and helping others really is the keystone to a good life.

Do you need a reboot? I recommend, though I’m not a professional in the area, to be compassionate with yourself and with others, to recognize what worries or comments from others can be irrational, to slow down, to find a cause larger than yourself to engage in, to make small doable goals every day, and to try your best to live in a healthful, constructive way.