exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london

09.11.2011

by Jen at 12:00 am on 11.09.2011Comments Off
filed under: mutterings and musings

every year at this time, I am strangely grateful to no longer be living in the US. the intensity of media saturation reliving the horror of September 11, 2001 becomes to much to bear, even from afar. and to what purpose? to milk the emotion that lays buried just beneath the surface? to stimulate fresh tears, renew the deep ache of grief?

who does that help? what does that serve?

we said we’d never forget. and I think there’s an immense collective fear that somehow we possibly could. that allowing ourselves to view it as a historical event, rather than an existential keening for our loss, somehow dishonours the dead. or more pointedly, dishonours our sorrow.

in a country of 300 million, you could ask every person where they were, and they’d tell you. but there are not 300 million stories about that day. there is only one story. no matter where you were, the one unifying experience during that morning was not sadness, or even shock – we hadn’t yet had time to process anything. it was fear.

fear of things and people unknown falling out of the sky. fear of unsuspected places blowing up. as plane after plane went down, and we all rushed home to be with family, the fear was omnipresent. not knowing where to turn, or when the next explosion would come – our nerves were frayed wires touched in rivers of adrenaline.

for most people, that kind of untrammelled, all encompassing terror is a once in a lifetime experience. for most people, nothing before or since has caused that kind of invasive abject fear, penetrating their lives and brains. everyone wants to share where they were, what they were doing, because it forms part of the collective national story. it means that even in our stunned and silent horror, we are less alone.

people who’ve experienced a deep trauma often experience flashbacks, as the mind struggles to process the enormity of it. and in many ways, this is what we do every year on this day, now. we grapple, we relive, we share our scars. this is what our nation does now, as we try to cope.

but being caught in an annual feedback loop also keeps us trapped, psychically, there in the moment. our inability to modulate our fear, the rampant panic that flooded our entire country that day, means that it continues to spill over into the rest of our lives. we live in a state of heightened alert that prevents us from ever getting enough distance to process what happened. so we guard against the forgetting, we hold tight to the sorrow.

ten years later, we are not coping well.

the government, the media – they all work to keep us there. that fear is useful for winning elections, for attracting viewers, for manipulating public sentiment. and we allow it because we are afraid of forgetting, we are afraid of getting emotional distance. we are afraid that allowing ourselves the space to be less fearful, less sorrowful, will mean *it didn’t matter enough*.

back when i was in the depths of depression as a teen, i cut at my wrists. it was an internal distress made visible – can’t you see how upset i am? this is how much i hurt inside. this is something i can point to, to show you how much i feel. the memorials and the tributes and the sea of flags every year serve the same purpose. this is how much we hurt inside. it was such a monumental event, that we still need people to see our scars. we need to make our pain, our fear, our grief visible. this is how we quantify what happened to us.

but eventually, with time, i learned to demonstrate my emotions in different, healthier ways. and i know that as a country we can too, if only we begin to trust ourselves to deal with the hurt, to allow ourselves the distance to begin to heal, and set ourselves free to do so.

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revelations part 2: letting go of the fear of missing out, and filling in the missing me

by Jen at 12:01 pm on 25.08.2011Comments Off
filed under: londonlife, mutterings and musings

i read an article the other day that brought me to my knees. it was on something i’ve long suffered from, but never knew was a genuine affliction until i saw it put into four little words: “fear of missing out”.

and here i just thought it was my own particularly poignant malaise. this gut-wrenching sense that whatever choice i make must be the *very best* one, not just the good-enough one. the feeling that i must leave as many possible paths open, because i will otherwise be forever saddled with regret over the path not taken. the ever-present fear that somehow, somewhere, in an alternate universe, the jen-who-could-have-selected-door-#1 is living a more exciting and fulfilling life than i am, because i picked door #2.

i know how insane that is. it is a crippling self-induced paranoia that prevents me from ever fully enjoying being present in the here and now. making decisions out of fear is no way to live. it’s doubly ridiculous, of course, because making no decision (out of fear of making the wrong one) is a decision as well. my life has in many ways been circumscribed by an attempt to keep all avenues available – and that, in itself, has prevented me from achieving a lot of the things i wanted to do in life.

i may have mentioned a million times how much i loved living in new york. at the time that i lived there, it was the experience of a lifetime. i had a circle of amazing and exciting friends, a great job that i was really good at, (and that was talking about sponsoring me to do a graduate degree), a social calendar full of cultural events, a rent-stabilised dream apartment in a vibrant neighbourhood. and yet i willingly, nay eagerly, moved away from nyc at the very height of my love affair with the city precisely because i was terrified that by staying put for so many years, i was missing out. i uprooted myself from the happiest place i’ve ever been, because i was convinced i might be happier somewhere else.

which is how i found myself in the summer of 2002, living a suburban life in boston, stuck in a job that bored me to tears. so i decided that it was finally time to get serious about applying to grad school so i could start having the career in counselling i’d always wanted. for years i’d put it off, because i was always afraid to get tied down to one place, and forever waffling between whether to apply to a doctorate programme or a master’s programme. so i decided i would at least sign up to take the g.r.e. exam – a requirement for entry to almost all post-graduate degree programmes. i still couldn’t decide for sure (what if i picked the wrong one?), but i knew which direction i wanted to head in. so i made the appointment, bought the study guides, boned up on my maths (who the hell remembers how to calculate the volume of a cone??!), and practiced for several weeks. the morning of the exam i was feeling pretty confident – i’d had several good practice exam results, and i’ve always tended to do really well under standardised testing conditions.

i bombed.

so i did what any reasonable person would do: i went to live in london. because the opportunity to live in london presented itself, and i was afraid of missing out. oh sure, i could sit around in staid old boston, finding a better job, retaking the exams, doing several years of study, then working to pay off the loans. or i could ditch all that boring stuff and go and live in london, where surely everything exciting was just waiting to happen to me. having watched far too many movies, i convinced myself that living in another country was the key to making me a happier, more interesting, more complete person.

it doesn’t work that way of course, and eight years later, with a chance to make a change from yet another uninspiring job, i found myself flying to vancouver, ready to ditch it all again. because i am afraid that by staying put all this time in london, i must be missing out on something else. vancouver tops all the polls of “best places to live”, so why am i not living there?! vancouver is where i need to be to be at my happiest!!

and so the cycle goes. it is the constant fear of missing out that wracks me, does my head in, and paralyses me with dread. because being in vancouver for those months, all i could think about was what was going on back in london. i was convinced that the best, most amazing stuff was happening without me. as lovely as vancouver was, it could never live up to the opportunities that i was missing out on in london!

- i have lived my whole adult life in some of the most exciting cities in the world.
- i have travelled around the globe.
- i have become a full citizen of another culture.
- i have experienced music and art and monuments and natural wonders that many people only dream of.

and yet… i fear i’m somehow missing out.

that’s just crazy. but there you have it.

vancouver glistens invitingly. we could move in january. i am terrified that by not taking that opportunity now, it may not present itself again. i am terrified of missing out and afraid of losing my nerve. every fibre of my being is telling me to jump at it. i’ve got itchy feet and that feeling in my stomach that’s telling me to gogogogogogo.

but when i stop to evaluate and honestly weigh up my life, the reality is, the one thing i’m really most missing out on? a fulfilling career, doing something i love.

“live to regret the things you did, not the things you didn’t”. and if i were to die tomorrow, i might have a pang or two about not going to vancouver, but i would bitterly regret never having achieved my dream of being a therapist. staring down the barrel of my 40th birthday, i am realising that that’s become incredibly important to me at this point in my life. so even though it fills me with anxiety to admit it, i have to acknowledge that’s something that is most cheaply, quickly, and sensibly achieved by staying put. here. in london. not vancouver.

it pains me to close that door. for weeks i’ve been in knots over it – thinking of all the lost snowboarding, beaches, road-trips, dogs, fresh air, scenery and pleasantries, the idyllic (and idealised) lifestyle that vancouver represents in my head. but i’m just going to have to get over my fear of missing out. i need to learn to stop, focus, be patient, concentrate on my real life – and stop chasing after the some mirage of something or someplace better that’s always just out of reach, because it’s never where i actually *am*.

for once, i want *where i am* to be the ideal, and that’s not a city – it’s a state of mind.

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revelations, part one: or, how i learned to stop worrying and love london.

by Jen at 5:44 pm on 8.08.2011Comments Off
filed under: londonlife, mutterings and musings

i’ve been quiet these last few weeks since arriving home.

i’ve been busy. my “third sister” has been staying with us for the past month whilst taking an international law course, and having a london adventure. she’s been a family friend for 28 years, and i last saw her in 2002, so it’s been wonderful to have her here, to reconnect. with the timing of her visit coinciding with my return (and unemployed free time), it’s given me my first real opportunity to play tourguide – to show off my city, to point out hidden gems and discuss cultural quirks. i so missed london while i was in vancouver, and i’ve been fortunate to be able to spend a lovely few weeks spending quality time with my dear friend and getting re-acquainted with it my home city. i’ve had the luxury of a whole month for hours wandering aimlessly through parks and gazing up at the historic architecture, hitting the pubs with mates, exploring museums and attending open-air concerts. truly a magical time.

which brings up a thorny problem. because we’ve been planning to leave. we’ve been committed to leaving for years now. and now that the opportunity is in hand… i no longer know if my heart is in it. or rather, i think i now know where my heart *is*.

if you talk to anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you what i’ve been saying for years: that while i really like london, i’ve never loved london. i’ve never loved it in that way that makes your heart race, i’ve never loved it in that way that makes you feel like you’re at one with the living, breathing, evolving urban organism. i’ve said that i’ve never loved london so often that it’s become my rote, unthinking response to anyone asking why we were planning to move. after all, i’ve never planned to settle here long-term: never contributed to any pension plan, put off doing a degree that would require any extended period of study, never put down roots in any significant way.

for eight years i’ve adamantly and fiercely maintained that this dalliance with london was only temporary. because while i really like london, i don’t love london.

oddly enough, this year was also something of a milestone for me. i’ve now lived in london longer than anywhere else i’ve chosen to live as an adult. and i’ve now lived here longer than i lived in new york city – and i loved new york city with my whole soul. twelve long years since leaving, i still regret having moved from new york.

but while i really like london, i’ve never loved london.

and so last week, on a gorgeous summer day when i was walking around goggling at the buildings from the 1600s, and marvelling at the river, it suddenly hit me – i’ve been saying that so long, i never stopped to re-evaluate if it was still true.

like a thunderbolt out of the blue, it became clear to me. i do love london. it’s a sneaky love that crept up on me in between all the moments of urban annoyance and expat frustration. it’s a quiet love borne of familiarity and cranky affection. i’ve talked endlessly about how london wasn’t a great fit for me, given my brash personality and impatience. but amazingly, (or really, not so amazingly at all), i’ve changed over the years. london has too – of course it has.

i’ve grown to love london, but never recognised it for what it was. and it makes so much sense, when i stop to think about it. as much as i have a complete disregard for history itself, a part of me has always been deeply drawn to historical things: architecture, family heirlooms, old-fashioned items of nostalgia. as much as i rail against feeling constrained by formality, another part of me really loves and values tradition. as much as i detest being cramped by space and inconvenience, another part of me loves all things small and quaint. and most importantly, as much as i moan about needing access to nature and fresh air, it is the joyful culture and chaos of big city living that really makes me feel most myself, most vitally alive.

so you see the conundrum i’m faced with now. i’ll fill you in on the rest of it in part two.

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home again, home again, jiggety-jig.

by Jen at 10:38 am on 5.07.2011 | 1 Comment
filed under: londonlife, mutterings and musings, travelology

oh hello there!

some of you may have noticed (or, y’know, not, as the case may be) that jen’s den was offline for a few weeks. 30 gigs worth of spammy traffic to dead links meant i had to flip the switch for a bit. dunno how that happened, but hopefully it was an aberration.

i woke up this morning next to my husband, back in my own bed in london, jetlag hangover from hell piercing my brain. i’m still feeling very disoriented and fuzzy around the edges – a weird foggy miasma of being neither here not there.

vancouver was a mixed bag. frustratingly was unable to land a job of any sort – sponsoring a work visa is a dealbreaker for most employers, it seems, in spite of my 20 years experience in the field. however i was able to (hopefully) pave a pathway for getting a student visa. if all goes well, we may be able to move over in september – not an ideal scenario, but a means to an end.

as expected, vancouver was overwhelmingly *nice*. nice people, nice city. quiet, clean, efficient. even the riots that happened while i was there? watching it on telly, felt a bit like “riot lite”. a few cars set alight, smash-and-grab looting. opportunistic vandalism on a large scale, more than anything else. but nothing like the venomous, violent clashes that happened between the police and student protesters here in london. the vancouver riots were about frustration and mob mischief run amok. the london riots were about a passionate power struggle between stalwart ideological symbolism and the perceived oppression of the powerless underclasses. if you want any further evidence of the clear differentiation between the two riots, you need look no further than the collective community response and volunteerism that swept vancouver in the days immediately following, when residents by the thousands signed “apology walls”, did cleanups, and went to lengths to emphasise the rioters were “not real vancouverites”.

even in the face of mayhem and chaos, vancouver is unfailingly polite.

(aside: it also needs to be said that from what i saw, and from most reports, the vancouver police went to extraordinary lengths to avoid escalating interactions with the crowd – perhaps, ultimately, to the detriment of getting the situation under control. but they made it quite clear that they wanted first and foremost to allow the massive crowd of rubberneckers, or those just caught up in the situation, to disperse and go home, and gave them ample opportunity to do so before cracking down harder. a refreshing change from the heavy-handed kettling tactics london police resort to by default these days.)

and so my 3 months in vancouver was very pleasant. and “pleasant” may not get the heart racing wildly, but there’s a helluva lot to recommend it. i found myself fantasizing about bicycling around, and having a dog that i can take to the park, and having a little car for weekend camping getaways, and growing tomatoes in a garden. there’s never going to be the edgy excitement of discovering a new underground music scene, or avant-garde experimental art exhibit, or pop-up supper club. but really? i’ve had a combined 16 years of access to those sorts of things in nyc and london, and how often did i ever avail myself of them? almost never. instead, what i find myself wistfully wishing for is a sunny summer saturday when my opportunity for communing with nature is not limited to a postage stamp-sized common heaving with people, a sunday when i don’t have to step over piles of vomit on the pavement, or a monday when i don’t have to endure a commute akin to medieval torture. and these, vancouver has in abundance.

i’ve been trying to think objectively about the downsides to vancouver, and the best i can come up with is this:
– too much pot smoking (seriously too much – and i say that as a proponent of legalisation. i really don’t want a contact high every time i’m in an open-air public place.)
– open container laws and no alcohol sales on sunday. pouring white wine into a tupperware sippy cup so i could drink it in the park made me feel like a 16 year old. boooo!
– too many homeless people. my canadian friend tells me they migrate from elsewhere in canada because of the relatively mild vancouver climate, but i never saw this many homeless, even in new york. it’s (in a general humanitarian sense) terribly sad, and (in a selfish urbanite sense) annoying.
– rain. rains more than london(!), but gets 300 extra hours of sun (!) to balance it out. that’s an extra 5 weeks of daytime sun.

and even with all this pleasantness, i found myself missing london something awful. in fact, missing *britishness* with a fierce ache. missing that bit of myself that so quickly started slipping away once transplanted to another environs.

but that’s a topic for another post.

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ringing, stinging, jerking like a nervous bird

by Jen at 9:02 pm on 29.04.2011 | 6 Comments
filed under: mutterings and musings

hi, i’m jen, and i suffer from phone anxiety.

what’s that? you’ve never heard of phone anxiety? some people call it phone phobia (although i think “phobia” is a bit too dramatic for me). i’ve had it all my life, and until about 8 or 9 years ago, i had no idea it affected anyone else. i truly thought i was the only person in the world who got anxious using the telephone.

seriously. because, i mean really – how *dumb* is it to be afraid of the telephone? but i am. with friends and family and people i know well, i’m fine. but for everything else, i get a knot in my stomach and a tightening in my chest every time i have to make or take a phone call. everything from ordering pizza to making calls at work, makes me (to a greater or lesser degree) feel the same way people feel before taking tests or going on stage – it’s just that my stage-fright starts with a dial tone.

i have no idea where it comes from. i’ve never (to my memory) had any kind of horrible telephone trauma. there’s some speculation that it’s a form of social anxiety disorder, which makes some sense, since i used to be painfully shy as a child. but i really don’t know why i dread phone calls so much. also mysteriously, it has, over the past few years, gotten dramatically better for me. again, no idea why.

but still, if i had my druthers, i’d almost never make a phone call. i procrastinate, i avoid, i try to find loopholes via text and email and internet. i order takeaway food online. i let all unknown numbers go straight to voice mail. i call when i know they won’t be available and leave messages instead.

unfamiliar or stressful situations make it even worse. when i first moved to london, it was horrible. firstly, because i got my first mobile phone – and i detest mobile phones, with their expectation that you are constantly available, the horrible sound quality (am i the only one who really actually can’t hear people on those things?), and the extreme awkwardness of having a conversation in full public hearing of crowds of strangers. secondly, because i still had a hard time understanding some people’s accents (and them, mine). have you ever tried carrying on a conversation with someone with a heavy accent when you can’t see their lips? thirdly, because there is very different phone etiquette in the UK than in north america. brits start the conversation with lots of perfunctory social pleasantries, they never just dive right in. brits do not ever interrupt the other party. brits end the conversation with several goodbyes before they actually hang up, usually in increasingly high-pitched, saccharine tones (”okay then, goodbye! bye!! *bye*!!!”). i’ll never forget the first phone call i got on my mobile phone, was a recruiter with a heavy Scottish accent, calling me while i was in the london bridge station concourse, and in between accidentally talking over her, trying to find a pen to write down interview details, and trying to hear/understand her, i was in a panic. by the time i got off, i was drenched in sweat and had to go collect myself before waiting for the next train. hideous.

it got better, of course. but it never really leaves me. so i have coping mechanisms that i use, such as:

  • rehearsal. i try to know in advance what i will say, i practice the wording. this works well for run-of-the-mill situations like ordering pizza, where i can fairly accurately predict how the exchange will occur: what i will say, what they will say in return, what questions they’ll ask, what my answers will be.
  • batching. this is what i do for “errand” type phone calls (correcting the cable bill, making doctor’s appointments) – i set aside time when i know i can sit quietly alone and make several calls all at once. then i just try to get through all of them, like ripping off a plaster, and once they’re done, the anxiety that’s been hanging over me around knowing i have calls to make, lifts instantaneously.
  • using notes and speaking slowly. this is what i do when i have calls that will require me to think on my feet, like speaking to prospective employers, or negotiating contentious issues with the phone company, or answering queries at work. i usually jot down some reference notes to have to hand, and try to slow down what comes out of my mouth, so that i have time to think ahead of what i’m going to say. it sounds more deliberate and measured, which also makes me feel more confident.
  • using voicemail. even if i call back just a few minutes later, it makes me feel more in control, more prepared. answering the phone when i don’t know what to expect catches me off guard and makes me terribly anxious. it may seem rude, but i really am “sorry i can’t take your call at the moment”. i may want to be able to – but i can’t.
  • revisiting phone calls that went well. replaying these in my head reminds me of what worked, that i will feel much better once it’s done, and that i am a capable adult who can handle a telephone conversation without having a meltdown.

however, probably the worst situation for phone phobics, is job hunting.

  • there is a lot of telephoning involved. even in the age of the internet, there’s still a frequent requirement that you pick up the phone and speak to someone.
  • you have to answer the phone even when you don’t want to, because the price of not answering is too great. you can’t afford to lose a job opportunity because of your phone anxiety
  • where you spend most of your time trying to allay your phone anxiety by telling yourself that you’re *not* being judged by the person on the other end of the phone, in a job seeking situation, you are being judged.
  • you’re being required to perform well via a medium which is your achille’s heel. in person, i interview great. over the phone, not so much.
  • knowing all of the above only heightens the phone anxiety, and makes it that much harder.

it’s hell – no matter how much you practice, or how often you do it, job hunting for people with phone anxiety really is hell. imagine having claustrophobia, and having to spend significant time in lifts, or having acrophobia and having to interview in skyscrapers, just to land a job. the only way through it is through it – but it doesn’t make it any easier. so spare a thought for me as i struggle through it here in vancouver – just don’t call me about it.

cake – no phone

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isle of beauty, fare thee well

by Jen at 4:45 pm on 5.04.2011 | 2 Comments
filed under: londonlife, mutterings and musings

why is it that it’s only on leaving something behind that you fully appreciate it?

i finished my job last week – and in the madness leading up to my last day, i found myself working flat out, to the point of exhaustion. everyone around me kept asking if i’d mentally checked out yet, and the truth was that i hadn’t because i couldn’t let go. part of it was an untimely confluence of crises that happened in the last weeks, but a larger part of it was pride – i was too proud to do a half-assed job even when most other people would have simply called it good enough and done. my colleagues kept telling me, “you can only do what you can do”, and they were right, obviously – but i was so afraid of letting people down that i couldn’t see my own limitations.

feeding into that last minute frenzy, there was a whole leaving chorus of “what will we do without you?!” intellectually, i know, of course, that no one is indispensable. in a few months, someone else in that job will have made their own mark, blurred my footprints. but it was nice to hear, nonetheless. because as much as i moaned about it, and stressful as it could often be, there were two things about leaving this job that made it so bittersweet.

first: that i was damned good at it. oh sure, there have been other jobs where i felt competent and capable. but there are very few jobs that really play to your strengths, and this was one of them. and being damned good at something gives you job satisfaction that tides you over even when other things at work aren’t great. i used to come home and complain/brag about how much i’d done – but i always had a secret sense of accomplishment that gave me a little smile. and people appreciated my work.

secondly: that i am leaving before i really want to. leaving a job because you’ve become bored, or resentful, or overworked, etc. is something i’m pretty familiar with. when you have that bitter taste at the back of your throat because you’ve come to hate something you spend so many hours a day doing – there are no mixed feelings when you finally leave. but there has been one other job where i felt i left before i was ready, and i’ve always kind of regretted that. i was essentially forced out of this job – and so i am ambivalent and heavy-hearted to have had to leave. i might not have ended sticking around for very much longer – but it’s hard to walk away knowing there was more you would have wanted to do.

and i suppose that those feelings are also reflected in my leaving london. as much as i may moan about it, and as stressful as it has often been, living in london has given me a sense of satisfaction and achievement. even in my grousing and bitching, there’s a hint of smugness in knowing that i am bitching about london – a city many would love to have the opportunity to live in, and which i have had the luxury of bitching about for eight years now. there’s a secret sense of accomplishment in getting here and living here that turns up the corners of my mouth ever so slightly. i may have had to gut it out at times, but i was damned good at london.

similarly, as much as i’ve wanted to leave for a while now, i do in some ways feel as though i’m leaving before the end. i haven’t wrung all the last drops of joy out of this experience yet. since the beginning of the year when it became clear that this move was in the cards, i’ve been looking at london with fresh new eyes. feeling it with the heart of someone anticipating the empty space it will leave. appreciating it in a way that i couldn’t when the years were just stretched out endlessly before me. the other day was my move-iversary, and i was remembering that initial honeymoon phase when everything about london seemed grand and even the mundane was new and quaint. all the little things that have become just so much background noise that i barely even notice them – except now that i know i will miss them, they jump out at me all the time. maybe even without this catalyst, i would be leaving soon anyway, and maybe it’s better to leave with fond memories and regrets of things not yet done, than with a sour lump of resentment. but i can’t help feeling that, like my job, my stay was incomplete.

“absence makes the heart grow fonder” – i’d never known the origins of that line, but it’s been spinning in my head for days. how apt then, that it’s an englishman who wrote it.

One of England’s more versatile writers, Thomas Haynes Bayly wrote novels, plays, poems, political articles, and songs. In 1844 a poem titled “Isle of Beauty” appeared in Bayly’s two-volume Songs, Ballads, and Other Poems. It is here that the following romantic words are found:

What would not I give to wander

Where my old companions dwell?

Absence makes the heart grow fonder:

Isle of Beauty, fare thee well!

as people keep reminding me, you can only do what you can do. and so, dear london, dear england, dear isle of beauty, goodbye – for now.

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the annual pre-birthday freak out

by Jen at 6:01 pm on 24.12.2010 | 3 Comments
filed under: mutterings and musings

tomorrow i turn 38. and i know, i know – i bitch and moan about my birthday every year, but this year’s been particularly hard.

maybe because for the first time, i have started to see and feel signs of aging. i’ve had a smattering of grey hairs for 10 years now, but they are starting to come in thick and fast. my face is definitely starting to soften, and there are a few telltale wrinkles appearing. i’ve got the tiniest hint of a neck wattle (that only i can see, but i know it wasn’t there before). the metabolism is getting considerably more sluggish and i’ve continued to have bursitis in my hip for most of the year. i find my brain batting about foreign thoughts of creams and potions, and “defending” against further decline. what little vanity i have is screaming in horror every morning when i look in the mirror and see someone who looks older on the outside than i feel on the inside. it’s not that it’s so bad now – it’s that i know it’s only going to get worse.

maybe because in a few months, i’ll be leaving a job i’m not terribly thrilled with, to go to canada and try to find… another job i won’t be particularly thrilled with. i am sick and tired of doing jobs i don’t particularly enjoy, just to pay the rent. i want to do something i love – friends around me this year have made significant career changes, and i’m jealous. unfortunately, i won’t be able to start studying for a master’s degree for nearly two more years, at the earliest, assuming that everything goes exactly to plan. and that’s depressing as hell.

maybe because i’ve really loved my thirties. in spite of my initial terror, my thirties have turned out to be empowering and freeing and fun in a way my twenties never were. the thirties have been the decade where i really feel i’ve come into my own, and the prospect of leaving them behind for official “middle age”, is quite sad indeed. i’m sure there are a million people waiting to tell me how fabulous forty will be. but frankly, i’m not inclined to believe them just get.

i’m determined not to spend the next few years in a panic over the arrival of something i can’t control. time marches on, whether i dig in my heels or not. but i also have to acknowledge that i’m feeling quite fragile about it all this year. and so this is a mini-wallow, rather than a pity party. i’m dipping my toe in the woe, rather than sinking into it. but as has become tradition, i’m going to try my damnedest to celebrate where i’m at right now, even with all my misgivings about the future.

for years now, i’ve carried around a newpaper clipping. it’s from the boston globe – they used to do this thing (perhaps still do) where every day next to the comics, they’d have a quote. on my birthday on year, this was that quote – i cut it out and have saved it ever since. from one of my favourite poets, it is perhaps the truest thing i’ve read, and it never fails to be meaningful to me when i need it most:

“to be nobody but yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

- e.e. cummings

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now i’m ready to start

by Jen at 11:39 am on 8.08.2010 | 2 Comments
filed under: mutterings and musings

things have been coming to a head in my life. the dissatisfaction that i’ve alluded to so often here, has been building, swelling – i can’t ignore it any longer. change is needed.

there are unexpected catalysts for epiphanies that reach out and force us to pay attention – songs that come on the ipod, out of the blue, that you turn up to thunder in your ears and shake up your heart. and suddenly the ground beneath your feet begins to shift, the tide sucks the sand from under your toes, everything which was solid becomes dangerously uncertain as you get caught in the undertow, and find yourself lifted into the middle of a tidal wave of unimaginable magnitude, tumbling, tossing, unable to tell up from down, all sense of direction lost, horizon and landmarks topsy-turvy, until suddenly the music smashes you down upon the sharp rocks of clarity. the lights explode in your head, fireworks blossom in the darkness of closed eyelids, and you are left gasping for breath on the shore, with everything in precise, crystalline focus, as bright as if seeing everything for the first time.

and once you know what must be done, there is no escaping it – revelations can be postponed, but they cannot be ignored forever. you’ve got to suck up your courage and brave the rocks again – risk being bashed about by the unknown, risk losing yourself to the force of an endless ocean of uncertainty.

i’ve been scanning the horizon for it, and now the sea change is here, the current is pulling me, and i can only trust that i am strong enough to hold my head above the water.

ready to start – arcade fire

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(h/t to Chris for endorsing the new arcade fire album)

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i want to trade my jumbo jet in for a paper plane

by Jen at 1:49 pm on 25.07.2010 | 2 Comments
filed under: mutterings and musings

as much as i love technology, certain things freak me out – in particular when i stop to think about the amazing technological world that the current generation is growing up in. i don’t know why i find it so unsettling, but i do – i get a distinct sense of unease, as if the world is turning too fast and is in danger of spinning out of control. it’s ludicrous, i know, but the pace of change even in my lifetime, seems to be increasing exponentially with every new development. i worry that as i struggle to keep up, i’ll have less and less in common with those coming behind me – which is of course true of everyone as they age, but the lightspeed acceleration of that ever-widening gap leaves me with a sense of whiplash. as someone who has always embraced the new advances in technology, this feeling is new to me, and i find myself wanting to slow things down. already, at the advanced age of 37, i am bemoaning the loss of simpler times, even knowing as i do, that it will only get worse.

i grew up with black bakelite rotary phones, yet my nieces and nephews will never know a world where everyone doesn’t have a smartphone that isn’t also a camera, web browser, and gps device. seeing toddlers clamour to play with touchscreens just blows my mind.

the only people that will ever see the pictures of me running around with a pot on my head at the age of 3, are people who come to my house and view them in an actual photo album, and there are, luckily, no surviving photos that document my experimentation with green hair. by the time my nieces and nephews hit their teenage years, however, there will be thousands and thousands of photos of them floating around in existence in a multitude of places on the web – their entire lives, the embarrassing and the mundane, will be digitally documented, and those images will likely continue on in perpetuity.

i had to learn to recite my address in case i got lost – yet today we’re a hairsbreadth away from everyone being microchipped. i went to a library and selected paper books to read – these days many people rarely read anything longer than an email on a computer screen. i had to save my allowance and go to a shop to purchase the latest record, but now, any music or movie you want is only a few minutes’ download away for instant gratification. those friends i made at sleepaway camp, i had to write to, using pen and paper and stamps, yet skype and facebook have obliterated any need for something as quaint as a letter.

all of this makes me sound like a luddite, which i’m absolutely not, as anyone who knows me in person will testify. but i can’t help feeling nostalgic – so many of what were formative experiences for me growing up, have fallen by the wayside as nothing more than archaic relics of an analogue age… and i’m only 37. what else from my childhood will become permanently outmoded?

what it feels like is this: the faster those things which were so important to shaping me become outdated, the faster *i* become outdated.

and yet, i know such change is inevitable, and mostly good. as our technology becomes more sophisticated, so do we – i really believe that to be true, (even when it doesn’t often seem so). my nieces and nephews will experience a world which was well beyond my reach as a kid. i am a product of a time when things were constrained to the tangible, physical realm – this generation will have no such constraints. the possibilities, for them, are nearly infinite.

my generation, generation x, once the vaunted vanguard of the new and experimental, will go the way of the dodo – i am convinced of that. and i believe that where it once took a lifetime to become outpaced by the invention of the telephone, or television, or internet, whatever comes next that demarcates that generational chasm between new and old, will happen much faster than it ever did before. and it’s that knowledge that makes me so uncomfortable – i, who once considered myself something of an early adopter, am now lagging behind. when my parents were this age, everything new was aimed at them – today, everything new is starting to be aimed at the babies from the turn of the millennium.

i am technologically old, or getting there. and in a few years time, i’ll still be clutching my iphone 4 and remembering the days of video downloads, when everyone else has moved onto holographic communication devices and projection media streaming. soon i’ll be nothing more than a creaky dinosaur, a living, breathing fossil. me and my photos of running around with a pot on my head, and blessedly not photos of me running around with green hair. and thank god for that.

trading things in – the voluntary butler scheme

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slow change may pull us apart

by Jen at 4:58 pm on 18.07.2010 | 2 Comments
filed under: mutterings and musings

what i remember about my high school graduation – besides the sea of red nylon gowns, and skewed mortarboard caps, the warm afternoon sun raying out from behind the bleachers of the football field, the band launching into an off key “pomp and circumstance” – is this: being surrounded by a circle of friends i would have trusted with my life, embarking on my first love with a boy i’d fancied from afar for years, and the mixed anxiety and excitement of feeling i was the cusp of something indefinably momentous.

that moment was twenty years ago. the adults in your life tell you during high school that it is both the best time of your life, and that it is insignificant when viewed from the lens of everything that comes after. high school commencement serves as a proxy for a coming-of-age ceremony – a demarcation of leaving the shelter of childhood, and gaining societal recognition as an adult. it’s a launching pad into “real life”.

and so as you step across the stage, awkwardly collecting your diploma and shaking hands and trying to face forward smiling for the camera and searching the audience for your family and friends – in that nanosecond before they call the name of the next student… you have arrived.

and for some people, that moment was their peak. there are lots of members of my graduating class who have stayed preserved in that moment like amber – oh, they have nice families and good jobs, and all the trappings of everyday life that we all have. they hold fast to that moment, by living in the same area, seeing the same people, going to the same places, doing the same things. it’s not that there’s anything wrong with any of that – in fact it describes several members of my own family.

but i can’t relate to it, not even a little. i would die a death if i had to live that life – i want nothing of it. for someone as mawkishly sentimental as i am, it’s remarkable that i’ve rarely dwelt upon the foggy memory of my high school era with anything other than fleeting curiosity. in fact, flipping through the facebook profiles of my old classmates, i barely remember any of it at all. those friends that i’d been so close to at graduation, i haven’t spoken to in twenty years. and who are all these other people? did i even go to the same school as everyone else?

if i strain, i can sort of, kind of remember that one golden post-graduation/pre-college summer of friends and first love…and nothing else. after that summer, there was too much real life to be lived to spend time looking back.

so when my ten year anniversary came long, my old friend nathaly dragged me to it, i remember being bewildered even then, at my lack of attachment. after all, at that time i was living in new york, married, with a rich social life and an important job, and i was perplexed by everyone else’s evident nostalgia for their youth. what was so great about high school? we were all adults now – wasn’t that so much better?

my twenty year reunion will be held in my hometown next week. as the trans-atlantic distance is prohibitive, my absence is not unexpected. but i admit, i can’t imagine going even if it were 3 miles away instead of 3,000. i bear only the faintest resemblance to that girl of then (who thought she was a woman). and from what i can glean of people’s lives via the internet, it seems my classmates fall into either that same category themselves, or alternatively, have not changed at all. either way, i doubt we’d have much in common – throw us together for an evening without the rubric of a “reunion” and there are few of them i’d even want to spend time talking to. harsh, but truthful – these people don’t matter to me anymore.

our theme song for our class of 1990 graduation was “don’t you forget about me”, by simple minds. and i know that there are many who emerged from highschool with lifelong friendships, who are eagerly looking forward to getting together, reconnecting and remembering. that’s was never me or my experience – in many ways, my real life after high school was a complete disconnect from what went before, both intentionally and not. perhaps that’s to my detriment, but i can’t imagine why there’s any expectation that twenty years later we’d enjoy getting together.

and ultimately, i did forget – aside from random snippets of memory, there was apparently nothing compelling enough to stay stuck in my brain. i have never longed to return to high school times or relationships, and so upon becoming an adult, with all the real life joys and sorrows that ensuing adulthood entailed, i put it behind me and never looked back. the adults were wrong on that count: it was never the best time of my life – it was simply a time.

so i’ll hang on to my genuine memories, scattered and few though they are, rather than feign ersatz fondness for people and a time so long ago. we’re adults now, with real families and jobs and real joys and sorrows – that’s what keeps me looking forward and fills up my real life. i was indeed, that day, on the cusp of something indefinably momentous, and in the intervening twenty years since i crossed that stage into adulthood, i’m happy to say that everything i’ve done and experienced since, makes my high school girlhood era pale by comparison.

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it’s complicated

by Jen at 2:03 pm on 4.07.2010 | 2 Comments
filed under: mutterings and musings

it’s the 4th of july here in london, and i’ve been thinking about how complicated my relationship with my birth country has become. “birth country” – even those words are complicated. “home country” doesn’t feel right any more. it’s not home, and hasn’t been for quite some time.

there are things about the u.s. that i revere, things i miss, things that embarrass me, things that are ingrained in me, and things that i loathe. and that is true of most any country – that’s not the complicated bit.

it is only when you live outside a country you grew up in, that you have the chance to evaluate it from afar. the distance is the complication – it tests your bonds. a country, especially one as large and diverse as the u.s., is more than just the sum of its parts. and as an expat so is your relationship with that country -it is part nostalgia, part fantasy, part critique.

as my identity as an american continues to change, as the country itself continues to change, i don’t always know how i feel. praise comes with qualifications, love comes with conditions – everything has strings and disclaimers attached, both because i can see things more objectively at a remove, but also because i am now on the outside speaking to an audience of outsiders. i am simultaneously defender, detractor, cheerleader and critic.

i am american – it’s as much an immutable fact as the colour of my eyes. i didn’t choose to be american, and i wouldn’t choose not to… but i don’t know that i would choose to be either. we are two moving points, american and i, bound together, yet never making the same line.

today is independence day, a day americans are called to celebrate the freedoms of the birth of a new nation. now, the definition of freedom seems to have changed beyond my recognition over the past few years, and that is the source of much of my conflicting feelings towards america. the distance makes it easy to avoid the excessive patriotism and expressions of divine supremacy.

and yet, the one thing which i wholeheartedly, and without reservation, love about the country of my birth, however, is the ideals to which it aspires.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

those words never fail to send a chill down my spine. it simply doesn’t get much better than that. and it is because of those vaunted ideals, that i have such complex emotions about america. when you set the bar that high, you will inevitably be judged on your shortcomings. and at the same time, i can’t help but be lured into believing that it can be achieved.

oh america – you both inspire and frustrate the hell out of me, and i couldn’t quit you even if i wanted to. happy 234th birthday. wishing you the best year ever, and hoping you continue to improve with age

an american paradox – strung out

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in sickness and in health, only for as long as we both want to

by Jen at 6:25 pm on 1.06.2010 | 1 Comment
filed under: mutterings and musings

the other day, i found myself saying to a friend, ” i wish i wasn’t married.”

now, let me quickly point out that not wanting to be married is a) not the same as wanting to be single and b) not the same as wanting a divorce. i’m happy in my relationship with j, and have no intention of changing things.

it’s just that more and more lately, marriage feels like a security blanket that i no longer need.

i liked marriage. i liked it so much, i did it twice. i got married with my whole heart and soul in it – i stood in front of family and friends and a minister and took vows eagerly, joyously. they were carefully considered vows, and i meant every word of them. it felt incredibly right.

and there are a lot of good, solid reasons for marriage – there are a lot of really good reasons for committing to someone, and binding yourself legally (and for many, religiously). i believe it’s a good, valid thing for families and couples that want it, and it’s an institution that should be freely available to all consenting adults.

but it is, just that: an institution.

as an institution, it is something which is not always taken up freely. as an institution, it’s not available to everyone. as an institution, it’s only for couples. as an institution, it shapes our ideas of family and our ideas of what is valid. as an institution, it has become interwoven with religion.

as an institution, it has started to chafe a bit.

and more and more, it feels like gratuitous validation of something that i don’t need validated. there’s a woman i know from my last job, who knew me when i first met jonno and we got married. last year, we met up for drinks and she said to me, “if i didn’t know better, i would never guess that you were married.”

that stuck with me for a while – in fact, it made me smile. i kind of like people not knowing. after all, what business is it of anyone else’s if i’m married or not? i don’t wear a ring, i rarely say “my husband”, i didn’t change my surname, i go by ‘ms.’ as a title. why should it matter to anyone but me what my marital status is?

which, if i don’t believe it should matter to anyone else, logically brings me to the next question: why does it matter to me?

and it turns out that the answer these days is: perhaps it doesn’t. and as i have slowly come to that realisation, i kinda wish that it never mattered to begin with.

i’m not in any way denigrating marriage. but i no longer feel the need for the legal scaffolding around my own relationship. in fact, as i get older, i really like the idea of long-term ‘at will’ relationships.

because really? all relationships are ‘at will’. documents and rings guarantee nothing in this world. jonno and i are together only as long as we both want to be. the strength of our relationship is a private, personal thing which has no bearing on witnessed vows or state-sanctioned papers.

i’ve often said that a marriage has nothing to do with a wedding, and i’ve always believed that to be true. but it’s only just now that that’s beginning to feel real for my own life, and i’m left wondering why i ever needed the wedding in the first place.

like training wheels on a bike that i’ve finally learned to ride steadily, solidly, those little marriage wheels are just vestiges of a stage in my life when i needed to believe that they would help keep me upright if i wobbled. which isn’t true, of course – nothing can prevent you from falling over.

but i have the rings and the papers, i took the vows. if i were to do it all over again, i might choose not to do it at all. but i am married, and happy, and far too lazy to get divorced just for the principle of it. so i guess we’re just stuck, being happily married, for only as long as we both want to be.

there are worse things )

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about a dog

by Jen at 3:36 pm on 14.04.2010 | 3 Comments
filed under: family and friends, mutterings and musings

i love my cat dearly. adore him, really. his personality suits my temperment in every way. there’s only one thing wrong – he’s not a dog.

if you’re not a dog person, you won’t get it.

the other day i was running along listening to a new music podcast. a guy was trying to introduce a song by jason lytle – “the ghost of my old dog”, and explain why he liked it so much. he started out by saying, “i love dogs”, and as he was doing so, he began to get audibly choked up.

and i had to stop in my tracks – suddenly it became too difficult to breathe past the lump in my throat, too difficult to see through the swimming tears that filled my eyes.

but if you’re not a dog person, you won’t get it.

i’ve scarcely known much of life without a dog. when i was just three months my parents adopted a dog who became mine, my girl. i don’t know why she was mine – after all, there were 5 of us in the household. but she was. and when she passed away at a ripe old age, my family felt no shame in mourning her death openly, demonstratively. we took leave of school and work, because nothing else felt right but to honour her absence. at 14, it was the first time i’d ever experienced such an immediate loss.

we had other dogs, of course. lovely, warm family dogs.

but you don’t choose your dog – they choose you.

i would only fully realised this when my then-husband and i went to adopt a dog together. we went to a local no-kill shelter, full of a variety of older dogs and puppies, big and little, loud and quiet. we went around the cages once, made a pretense of playing with and examining other dogs – but i knew from the moment i saw her, that she was mine.

we went back to the assistant to ask if we could take her around the block for a walk. “which one?” she said.

“the black and white one with the long hair.”

“oh her – are you sure? she’s got a problem with her back leg.”

and indeed she did. turned out that she’d been born to a mother with distemper. she was the only pup from the litter to survive, but had nerve damage to her hindquarters – as a result, one back leg had atrophied badly, dangling a few inches above the ground like a dead limb.

but it was too late – she’d already won me over completely. i would later tell people there was something in her eyes that reminded me of my first dog. i don’t believe in reincarnation, but that same spirit came through to me so clearly when she looked at me, a quizzical, eager expression on her face which said, “what are you waiting for?”

suzie

what could we do? she came home with us in a taxi that day.

we were told suzie was a lab mix (apparently mamadog was a labrador) and she had floppy ears and a gloriously swishy tail. but it only took one trip to the local park for someone to say, “oh, what a beautiful border collie!” we went home and looked up border collies on the internet (this was before the “babe” movie) and it was a dead cert.

she was a border collie all right. in looks, in intelligence and in energy. she never let her bad leg get in the way of tearing around after other dogs in the park or herding our two cats around the tiny apartment. eventually, that activity rehabilitated her leg – we were no longer stopped on the street by strangers asking what kind of accident she’d been in, and her limp became barely noticable. i let myself forgot her original disability. i allowed myself to forget that she was born with problems.

i can still imagine her licking my face, and smell her feet that inexplicably smelled like cornchips. i still know exactly what the fur between her eyebrows felt like, the curve of her narrow chest. i can still see her play-bowing to engage the cats in a game of chase, and looking at me with that same quizzical, eager expression whenever i spoke.

suzie was my dog. she goofy – there was no other word for it really. she was goofy and quirky and full of exuberant personality. she always looked like she needed a good haircut with her untameable fur sticking out in all directions, and i loved that she always looked a just a little bit wild and scruffy. she was hilarious in her peculiarities – she would nibble buttons off of any clothing just to roll them around on the floor, she would do almost anything for raw vegetables, and she easily learned tricks that we never intentionally taught her. suzie was endlessly adaptable. she was perfectly behaved in the city – waiting patiently for us outside the neighbourhood shops, sociable with other dogs at the park, quiet in our small apartment. but she was equally happy in the suburbs – chasing and eating bees out of the back garden, riding seatbelted in the back of the car, well-behaved on visits to other’s houses. we took her everywhere with us, and suzie was that perfect mix of affectionate and independent – happy to be cuddled and played with, but never seeking it out excessively, and just as often content to curl up in the corner of the room, where she could see your reassuring presence, but not be underfoot.

relationships with people are complicated, fraught with potential disappointments, irritations, sadness and anger.

relationships with dogs are pure and true. dogs hold no grudges when you lose your temper, don’t sulk if you let them down. the love of a dog is the simplest, most essential form of unconditional love. whether you’ve had a bad day, whether you are sad, whether you are neglectful – they want nothing more from life but to love you. and to get up the next day and do it again. that kind of trust and adoration… rather than providing a meaningless ego boost, it actually causes you, just for that short while, to strip away all your petty human pretenses and facades. a dog’s love is humbling in its perfect, infinite way.

if you’re not a dog person, you won’t get it.

so when my husband and i split up, it went without saying that he got the two cats, and i got the dog. and as heartbreaking as it was to lose my cats, for i did love them tremendously… i simply don’t think i could have gotten through that period of my life without my dog. that goofy, sweet flying furball of boundless love.

shortly after the divorce, two things began to unfold simultaneously: my plans to move to london, and suzie’s declining health. she began to be stiff getting up the stairs, and the vet confirmed that she had some arthritis. getting around on polished wood floors became a little treacherous. a few months later, there was a scary episode where she wouldn’t put any weight on her back legs – a late night visit to the nearby pet hospital couldn’t resolve anything, and so the next day she was heavily sedated for xrays. the xrays came back clear (somehow she’d fallen and badly bruised her hip bone), but i will never forget when they wheeled her out unconscious on the gurney and my immediate thought was “that’s what she’ll look like when she’s dead.” my sister had to console me through floods of tears.

following her xrays, she had a bad reaction coming out of the anaesthesia. for the following 24 hours, she seemed utterly terrified and confused, whimpering and trembling whenever i was not physically touching or stroking her. i brought her up onto the bed with me, stroking her until i would doze off and her whimpering would wake me to pat her again. it was the only night she slept in the bed with me, and i spent it sleeplessly curled around her warm body, trying desperately to soothe her fears. i even called in sick the next day to be with her.

if you’re not a dog person, you won’t get it.

she recovered from that fall, but only got stiffer and less surefooted. meanwhile i was putting things in place for my move. i had a six month visa, but nothing more, and so my intention was to see if i could secure a longer term visa before bringing her all the way over to london. i didn’t want to put her through a transatlantic flight until i was sure i’d be bringing her for the long haul. it seemed like the most sensible thing at the time. i left her in the loving care of my mum and sister, who looked after her as well as i would have myself.

but when i returned, things were dramatically worse. she no longer had any strength in her hind legs and couldn’t walk unassisted – my mum had purchased an actual dog wheelchair and sling, and she did okay getting around in that. but she was a border collie, after all – she wanted to run. she wanted to fly as was in her nature, and those quizzical, eager eyes told me she couldn’t quite understand just why that was no longer possible. and i’d squandered those precious last six months of her life, through my own selfishness. something i’ll never forgive myself for.

suzie2

i did it, of course – the single most painful experience of my life, was taking hers. for eight and a half years, she was my very best friend. i hadn’t realised there was something missing from my life before her, but i can’t put into words how much was missing without her.

she was mine – but i was so much hers. in joy, sorrow, sickness, and health – who knew when i picked her that i was entering into a marriage with a 47 pound, fluffy, black and white border collie? but i was, and i am a far better person for it. it is impossible to describe what that kind of love brings to your life.

i could not have asked for a better suzie. she made me laugh every single day we were together, and i swore she could read my mind sometimes. it was a love story from day one – the fact that she was a dog was simply a fluke of nature.

suzie4

more than six years later, the very thought of her can make me choke up listening to a podcast, halt me in my tracks on the pavement.

but if you’re not a dog person, you won’t get it.

suzie3

the ghost of my old dog – jason lytle

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in other sad news, i am rushing home to be with my failing grandfather. any good wishes you could spare will be appreciated.

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whereupon i alienate 99% of mothers

by Jen at 6:22 pm on 7.04.2010 | 5 Comments
filed under: like a fish needs a bicycle, mutterings and musings

the other day i turned on the television to one of the “women’s” network cable channels that i never visit, only to stumble upon a show called “a baby story”. that’s right, a whole show dedicated to someone having a baby. i was intrigued to see what kind of plot twist there would be: perhaps this was a special messianic baby, or the birth was complicated in some way? but nope – this was just a garden variety birth, thoroughly sanitised, without even any bloody bits or drama. ordinary at best, dull at worst. and yet here was some middle-class lady with her legs in stirrups, eager to share her ordinary birth experience, presumably with some clamouring audience that had an overwhelming desire to watch almost nothing of note happen. but the gushing, glowing accolades about motherhood after the baby was born? well they were just unreal – you would have thought she was the first woman to ever successfully procreate.

it got me to thinking: when did motherhood get to be such a big deal?

now i’m not saying that it’s not individually a big deal for each mother. of course it is, and rightly so. i have a mother, we all came from mothers. mothers are important, we love mothers. i totally get that.

no, what i fail to understand lately, is the elevation of all things mother-related to near-sainthood. it’s become a cult of motherhood – one where all mothers are revered. all mothers are idolised, and mothers-to-be are feted. everything mother-related is viewed as being enveloped in a golden halo. motherhood itself is seen as the highest calling any woman can aspire to. mothers of multiples are practically worshipped (see: “Jon and Kate Plus 8″, the “Octomom” obsession, and anything and everything to do with the Duggars). society is obsessed with mothers. there are faddish “yummy-mummies”, and mommy blogs, and doom-laden warnings about postponing motherhood, and television shows, and acronyms for “SAHM” or “WOTH” mothers, and “soccer moms”, and “mommy wars”, and “helicopter moms”, yadda yadda yadda.

mothers sacrifice, mothers are wellspings of giving and devotion, mothers toil uncomplainingly and unendingly. giving birth is a miracle, nourishing a new human inside and outside one’s body is the ultimate act of creation and caregiving. raising a child is the most rewarding thing you will ever do.

all of which is true… but so what? 99% of all women will become a mother – why all the media hype?

it didn’t used to be this way. when i grew up in the 70s, mothers were just… mothers. (ooops, did i just say that?)

and yet we’ve fetishised it of late. and i would argue, we’ve done so to the detriment of both mothers *and* fathers alike.

(yeah, fathers. remember them?)

these days the cult of motherhood is so all pervasive, so all consuming, so all-idealised that there is overwhelming pressure on women to be something they can never be: the perfect mother. i know several smart, strong, capable women who’ve been reduced to a quivering mess because they fear “doing it wrong”. because attachment parenting doesn’t work for them. because they didn’t breastfeed long enough. because they breastfed too long. because they didn’t breastfeed at all. because they didn’t get their “pre-baby” bodies back as quickly as the next person. because they don’t have the wherewithall to enroll their child in private school. because they (*gasp*) can afford to stay at home, but don’t want to, and feel guilty about it. because they *do* want to stay at home, but can’t afford to, and feel guilty about it. because they let their child watch television. because they let their child eat sugar. because they got their kids vaccinated. because they didn’t. because they only have one child and their kid will be lonely. because they have a few kids and they don’t all get individual attention. because they spend too much time on the internet. because their kid doesn’t hit developmental milestones fast enough. because they don’t eat organic. because they don’t cook enough. because they buy their kid’s halloween costume at a store instead of hand-sewing one. yadda yadda yadda.

because they are under the weight of a society’s gaze that is all-idealising, all-critiquing, all-consuming, all-motherhood-all-the-time. and they are bound to disappoint. society has raised the bar so high, painted the halo with such a wide brush, that no one can possibly wear it.

and remember the fathers? in a society that is all-motherhood-all-the-time, they are relegated to the sidelines as ostracised bit players. we exhort men to be more equal, involved partners in parenting – but only mothers get the recognition.

and with a culture that is so skewed towards mothers, is that a healthy message to pass on to the children in this equation?

it seems to me that we have turned motherhood itself into just another obsessive pursuit of the unobtainable female ideal – just as damaging as any photoshopped model in a magazine. instead of viewing the “normal” and “ordinary” as worthy of quiet respect and appreciation in their own right, we obsess over and venerate a hyper-glossy and warped version of the female form, until women everywhere are killing themselves to conform.

and in doing so, we miss out on recognising the work of everyday mothers, doing everyday mothering. not extraordinary, perfect mothers who only exist in the careful editing of reality television shows. not sainted, virgin mothers who birth the son of god. just everyday mothers – who do it all without the limelight and veneration…

…and sometimes with a little help from a father.

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when your feet are moving easily, you’re exactly where you want to be

by Jen at 1:52 pm on 4.04.2010 | 1 Comment
filed under: londonlife, mutterings and musings

the other day was what i like to call my 7 year “move-iversary”. it’s been seven years since i set foot on this damp and crowded island, intending to make a new life for myself. seven years is a long time, and while i still occassionally marvel at the equal amounts of courage and naivete i had when i first arrived, the fact is that for better or for worse, this city has been “home” now for a while.

i suppose the strangest bit is that i truly never intended to be here this long – because while i like london, i have never loved it. oh, i may have my random days of infatuation (usually coinciding with the rarity of a warm, sunny weekend), when i can hardly believe that i live in a city with so much history, but overall, london is just not that great a fit for me. too bound in tradition, too restrictive, too far from anything resembling nature, too crowded. as much as i’ve gotten used to it, i still can’t believe that in a city of 8 million people, the shops all close at 6pm, the tube closes at 12:30, and you can’t buy a bottle of shampoo over 250 ml (8oz).

but i have gotten used to it. it’s the norm, now, for me to use anglicised spellings, metric measurements, and telephone numbers that can have anywhere from 9-11 digits. i’ve stopped puzzling over these things (which still, to a large extent, baffle me) and simply internalised them. this is home, the not-so-new normal.

and it has become immensely easier over the years to be an american, here in blighty. my first flat had no internet (something which i promptly rectified), no cable, and a fridge the size you’d use to store beer in a frathouse living room. everything was small, different, and confusing. it was alien, and alienating – i found myself clinging to “friends” reruns and hiding in my room a lot.

but it was also the kind of cultural immersion of the kind you’d be hard pressed to experience nowadays. things, as they say, have changed. these days there are actual coffeemakers you can purchase in the shop (instead of making do with a one-cup caffetiere/french press). there are more crappy american television shows than you can shake a stick at. there are actual lactose-free products in the dairy aisle (seven years ago, the phrase “lactose intolerant” was completetly unheard of, and trying to explain that you couldn’t eat dairy in a country which reveres milk and cheese was like trying to explain monogamy to tiger woods.) there is skype and there are free long-distance minutes handed out like candy by the mobile companies. there is (loathe as i am to admit it) facebook – allowing me to reconnect with people i thought i’d lost, and helping us to stay interwoven in each other’s lives. there is (holy of holies!) live-streaming baseball, and international amazon.com shipping. being an expat today is completely different – the boundaries between europe and america are becoming more blurred every day.

don’t get me wrong: there is still lots of stuff i miss. american-sized jeans, flavoured coffees, good antiperspirants, and bras are all things i still stock up on when i am back in the states visiting. (the bra thing? don’t ask. i have never found a good-fitting bra here, ever.)

but more importantly, there are things which cannot be imported. spending time with my failing grandfather. being present for the births of my nephew and niece. hot summers by the ocean, going for hikes in the mountains, the freedom of driving speeding down a wide, empty highway. so many of the loves that make my heart sing are so far away.

and to complicate matters, there are freedoms i enjoy here that i would never want to go back to living without. universal healthcare, ample holiday allowances, ease of travel, good beer, eu privileges and protections. these are the fully british rights that i have incorporated as part of my worldview, that have shaped my priorities and politics, for future and forevermore.

i have lived in this strange place of limbo for seven years now – one foot in each world, fully a part of neither, being at “home” in a place i still don’t understand and don’t love, being away from “home” where my family lives but i no longer fit in.

yes, it has gotten easier, thanks largely to technology and the creep of globalisation. (evil globalisation – the boon to the expat. who knew?) but even after seven years, it’s still not easy. i don’t imagine it ever will be – expatica complicates and changes your life in a way that no one can predict. it remains difficult for my family, (and often myself) to understand why i electively live so far away from some of the things that matter most to me in the world. it’s a compulsion that has taken me down a path that i couldn’t reverse if i tried. or wanted to.

like me, this post is a bit of a mish-mash that doesn’t know where it’s going. all i know is that being an expat has long since gone from being a choice about *where* i live, to a choice about *how* i live. from a piece of nomenclature, to a fundamental piece of my identity. the world will change, and my place of residence will change, but that bit of me that has irrevocably changed, will never change.

as long as seven years may seem when i reflect back, looking forward, i know it is only just the beginning.

stranded – sambassadeur

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a puke-green sofa, a complicated dream of dignity

by Jen at 8:27 pm on 29.01.2010 | 4 Comments
filed under: mutterings and musings

driving past in the rainy night, the neon sign outside the solicitor’s office said, “need a will?”

ha! i said to jonno. you’re welcome to my four year old computer, wedding ring, and my iphone if I die.

i said it with a casual laugh, but i wasn’t joking. i have nothing of substance, nothing of value.

most of the time, i’m perfectly okay with that. most of the time, it pleases me – that rootless, aimless part of me that eschews being tied down to any place or any thing. most of the time, i’m comfortable flying through this world unfettered by objects. i don’t feel lacking, and i don’t want. it’s freeing.

but every once in a while, it strikes me just how different my life is to that of my cohorts – who have houses and cars and children and stock portfolios. things requiring planning, responsibility, insurance, protection. things requiring a will.

have you seen “up in the air”? when he’s talking about casting off that backpack? that scene completely resonated with me. that’s what i identify with. i thoroughly enjoyed that movie – i was envious of his spartan existence… until i suddenly realised that we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. it hit me: i’m supposed to be embarrassed by my dearth of things.

things = grownup. people without things are juvenile. people without things are not to be taken seriously. a crawling flicker of shame began to creep up from the pit of my stomach.

and so most days i continue along happily in my uncluttered lifestyle, oblivious to the pity or scorn of others. most days, i can laugh at the idea of a will. most days i could put all the things i hold dear in this world into a backpack, and be grateful for it.

but every so often, out of the blue, through a fictional movie or a simple sign passed in the dark… every so often, this culture has a way of making me feel like a real freak.

everything must go – the weakerthans

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i would love to be pressure free, from the weight of nothing that bears down on me

by Jen at 7:38 pm on 25.01.2010 | 5 Comments
filed under: mutterings and musings

the thing is, i can honestly say that if i lived in a world without babies, i’d almost never think about them.

but i don’t live in a world without babies – i live in a world which is chockablock with them. both of my sisters gave birth to their second children in the last few months, my old university friend just had one. babies are in the street, the topic of conversation at work, on the television. babies are everywhere – they are the universal denominator.

and so, like it or not, the world is designed to force me to continually confront my decision not to have any. biology makes it difficult to avoid having children. society makes it difficult to avoid thinking about them.

i mention this because even though i’ve long since decided that giving birth isn’t for me… i would be lying if i said i never thought about it. every woman of childbearing age thinks about it, and i am no different. how could i not?

in fact, i might think about it more than many – because every day, i am made to continually evaluate and re-evaluate my “no” decision, in a world where the default is set to “yes”.

every day, people around me are pregnant. every day the media around me categorises women as mothers and mothers-to-be. every day i see or hear or read about children and babies and parents and how special and magical and wonderful it is – for everyone else.

and setting myself deliberately outside that circle, where i have consciously chosen not to share in the commonality of that experience, where i have opted out of one of the most singularly unifying human roles…

… well, sometimes it is a lonely place to be. sometimes it *does* cause me to question, in spite of myself. more to the point: sometimes i wish that i wanted a baby the way everyone else wants babies, because not wanting them feels like missing out. it’s annoying that babies take up my dedicated brainspace, that i so often find myself thinking about something i don’t want. but it’s built into the automated system: whenever i see a baby, my mind involuntarily does a little self-audit: “sure you don’t want one of those? yes, i’m sure. okay then… but are you *really* sure?” biology is an annoying fucker.

society knows this. it plays on this. i have unending sympathy for women who are infertile, because i imagine that, like them, i am hyperattuned to the saturation of messages that insist babies and children are the single most fulfilling life event to ever happen to a person. and i’m sure it is for those who have them – but it is tiresome to have to mentally reassert that my life is not bereft of meaning because i don’t want a baby.

yes, i’m actually saying that not having kids is sometimes lonely and tiresome. that’s hard to understand for most. and no reason to actually have one, of course.

still, it’s impossible to deny – in the face of all my certainty, the world that is full-of-babies constantly tries to throw clouds of doubt. and sometimes i can’t help but think the easier, less solitary path would have been acquiescence. to do what everyone does because everyone does it.

but that’s no reason to have a kid either. i know that, and believe wholeheartedly in my choice – i just wish life wasn’t constantly forcing me to think about it so often.

because it gets tiresome. and it can be lonely.

pressure free – nada surf

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nothing you could put your finger on

by Jen at 8:41 pm on 17.01.2010 | 6 Comments
filed under: classic, mutterings and musings

*thwack*. the sharp point of an elbow slammed into the back of my head and i saw stars float in front of my eyes.

sitting at my desk, i hunched low and kept my eyes down, hoping the teacher hadn’t noticed.

*thwack*. the elbow met my head again as she returned to her seat, ostensibly using the wall-mounted pencil sharpener. i did my best not to flinch visibly, even as the words on my paper swam in front of me.

crystal n_________. probably the smallest girl in the entire school. my tormentor.

hard to believe that back at the start of september, we’d been friends. i started sixth grade in a different middle school from all my old fifth grade classmates. at eleven, i was shy and awkward, with a choppy home-grown haircut, still getting used to my brown owl-like glasses. so when i recognised crystal from the accelerated enrichment class we’d both been in the previous year, it was a huge relief. we were both learning to play the flute, both liked prince and wore purple legwarmers. crystal had an indefinable edge to her, a coolness combined with the defensiveness of living in a grittier area of town – but i didn’t care. we quickly started hanging out together, passing notes, exchanging stickers, and even had a few sleepovers where we played 1999 til we wore out the record.

and one evening, lying in our sleeping bags in the dark, she confided to me that she was abused at home.

i didn’t know what to do – what do you do when you’re little and someone drops that kind of reality in your lap? i only knew that when someone reveals something bad, you’re supposed to tell someone in authority. someone responsible. and so i persuaded her to tell our teacher.

we sat in the teacher’s meeting room, the three of us. i don’t remember what was said, but i remember staring at the wall as if my life depended on it. i’m sure the teacher said all the right things, made the appropriate reassurances.

that wall was seafoam green.

what came after that, was a fury directed at me that blindsided me, spun me round with the force of being clocked. at began with a campaign of silence. crystal no longer spoke to me. when i tried to talk to her, find out what was going on, she looked through me as if looking through a ghost. my notes and calls went unanswered. i couldn’t understand what i’d done to make her reject me so completely. but she never let up, not for one second. from that moment in the teacher’s meeting room, with the seafoam green walls, it was if i had ceased to exist.

until, that is, she switched alliances. crystal and i had been a pair of oddball friends, but somehow less odd for begin together. everyone else in our class had pre-established friends from years of graduating up through the grades together. she and i had become friends out of necessity. but now she began cultivating relationships with the popular girls, currying favour with them through her acid remarks and brazenness. as the leaders at the top of the food chain, they admired someone who could act so tough. they took her into the clique, and she soon became one of them.

i’m not sure what she told them about me, but it must have been pretty awful. previously they’d ignored me – i was completely peripheral to their day-to-day, not even worthy of attention. once crystal joined their group, all that changed. they began going out of their way to trip me, sneer at me, steal my books off my desk when i wasn’t looking and hide them. to them, i was something for their amusement – it made them laugh to knock my flour on the floor in home economics class, or snigger at a private joke until my face burned red. it was crystal, however, who reserved a special kind of hatred for me.

“you’re dead. after school, you’re dead,”
the note flung surreptitiously into my lap read. i managed to leave unseen by the rear exit of the school, and walk home by the back streets that day. but she wouldn’t let up – she hissed epithets in my ear when no one was looking, continually threaten to beat me up, shoved vicious notes through the slats of my locker. and her specialty – the elbow to the back of the head with an innocent look on her face, while i swallowed the pain.

and day after day, i endured it in silence.

i don’t know why i didn’t tell anyone. perhaps i knew without asking that the adults couldn’t do much. after all, she was so sneaky about most of it, it was invisible to the naked eye. perhaps i assumed that without proof, no one would believe me. perhaps i knew any intercession on my behalf might make things worse.

when, towards the end of the long school year, i finally told my mother, i remember only this: she offered me a prayer. a prayer that i clung to, repeated ceaselessly like a balm. a prayer that did little to stop the bullying, but somehow felt soothing nonetheless.

god has not promised
skies always blue
flower strewn pathways
all our lives through

god has not promised us
sun without rain
joy without sorrow
peace without pain

but god has promised us
strength for the day
rest for the weary
light for the way

god has promised us
help from above
unfailing sympathy
undying love.

i don’t know why or how that was supposed to make me feel better, but it did. even as i stumbled home in shame, hot tears running down my cheeks when i couldn’t hold them back until i got home. it makes me angry now, that message – that somehow the torment of that year was part of my cross to bear, and that if i only believed hard enough, i could continue to bear it with god’s help. no child should believe that the cruelty of others is part of god’s will.

and i did bear it. sixth grade finally ended, and by the following autumn, crystal and her friends had moved into different classes. i was once again blessedly ignored, forgotten about.

but i’ve never forgotten about her.

as an adult, i came to understand, of course, why she turned against me so viciously, in an effort to protect herself from someone who knew her secrets. funnily enough, i was a threat *to her*, though even in all that grief, it never once occurred to me to lash out, or use what i knew to discredit her. i understand why she did what she did.

i can understand it, but even now, more than twenty-five years later, i can’t forgive it.

i looked her up recently on facebook, out of curiosity. and there she was. looking almost exactly the same, only an older version of the eleven year old she was. my stomach seized up involuntarily – it seems unbelievable to me that someone who’s lived so long in my memory as this feared image could be right there, looking innocent in her curls as ever. if her facebook profile is anything to go by, she doesn’t seem like she ever softened at all. i guess she might’ve had a difficult life if she was so hardened by eleven. maybe life didn’t get any better for her after that.

and of course, i wonder if she ever thinks of me. if she’s ever sorry for what she did, the hell she made my life for that whole year. writing about it now, the tears i never let her see then, still spring easily to my eyes. it probably doesn’t even register on her memory.

i wish i could say the same.

just like anyone – aimee mann

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vegging out

by Jen at 5:06 pm on 3.01.2010 | 1 Comment
filed under: mutterings and musings

I don’t make new year’s resolutions, as I think i’ve mentioned here before. Resolutions are doomed and there’s no point in making them – if you weren’t motivated enough to try to accomplish them throughout the year, you’re not likely to be any more successful just for starting on the magical 1st January. Instead, I enter into each new year with a sense of those things I want to try to shed and leave behind in the old.

This year, one of those things I want to leave behind is eating habits that are harmful to our planet.

There’s been a lot of mainstream attention given to our interaction with the food chain lately. Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”, along with films such as “Food Inc.” and “Fast Food Nation” all document the way in which the public demand and consumption of food has changed, and the dramatic way in which those changes have impacted how food is produced and delivered.

None of this is news to me -it’s not that I didn’t know any of this before. But with each additional piece of information, I’ve had to do even deeper exploration of why I eat the way I eat. I’ve had to question why I continued to ignore the clear messages. I’ve been taking it all in, but closing my eyes when I bite into that burger.

Because when I take the time to examine it, it doesn’t make sense. I choose not to shop at ASDA or Tesco’s because I disagree with their marketing and labour practices. But day after day, I pretend my eating habits don’t matter. I continue to put meat in my mouth, knowing the environmental toll it takes on the planet.

What it boils down to is this: I, more than many others, have the luxury of making deliberate, considered choices about the food I put in my mouth. Doesn’t that obligate me to do so? And why would I not?

The problem is, once you start thinking about it, it’s hard to stop. There are people in underdeveloped countries who are most vulnerable to the effects of global warming and overfishing, and yet have the least power to affect change. I’ve been to some of those places, I’ve met some of those people, I’ve seen the pollution first hand. How can I ignore it?

Over the past few years, I’ve reduced my meat consumption dramatically due to the meat-churning factories, and patted myself on the back for doing so. But I’ve increased my fish consumption exponentially – and that’s just as harmful. The fishing-industrial complex rivals that of the intensive beef or pork or chicken industries. It is estimated that by 2040 *all* fishing will have collapsed. For millions of people in developing countries, fish is the primary source of protein.

A few years ago now, I stopped eating chicken because of the gross practices of the chicken industry. I’ve bought only free-range, organic meat when I do indulge – and it is an indulgence, sold at a premium. I’ve rationalised that if i’m going to buy meat, I should always buy the most “ethical” meat I can. That’s a good place to start.

But why do my ethics seem to stop there?

I have a choice. I have the knowledge and money and availability to eat in a way that reduces the impact I have on the planet, the suffering of animals, and my personal contribution to the suffering of other people. Many people don’t have that opportunity. It’s hard to justify squandering that opportunity and continuing to eat meat and fish, out of habit or craving. I’ve been wanting to make the change for a while now… so what am I waiting for?

And so from the new decade, I’ve turned over a new (old) leaf. I was vegetarian for 14 years previously, but reverted to eating meat this past decade, because it tasted good. These days it’s harder and harder to get past the taste of the bitter disappointment in myself.

I can do better… and so I will. No grand resolutions, just a quiet saying goodbye. Leaving behind the old lazy rationalisations and excuses, starting to exercise my firmer judgement and choice. Not perfect, not holier-than-thou, just an improved version of who I know I can be.

Happy New Year to all.

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it only happens once a year, an anniversary that’ll end in good cheer

by Jen at 1:42 pm on 24.12.2009 | 7 Comments
filed under: mutterings and musings

tomorrow’s my birthday, and so i present to you 37 things i’ve learned along my 37 years. i started this a few years ago now, and i quite like the ritual of it – it puts me in a positive frame of mind to face the coming year, and allows me enough self-reflection to feel a bit wiser for my age.

so here we go:

1. waxing is *not* better than shaving. no matter what anyone says.

2. trying to get back to the weight of your 20s is futile. nature is conspiring against you on this one.

3. ditto #2 for the face.

4. a real xmas tree or none at all.

5. forgiveness is a gift you give yourself, and the freedom it brings is priceless.

6. giving really is better than receiving. and there is always something you can give.

7. simple meals done well are better than fancy meals that never get made.

8. things worth spending money on: good sheets, good coffee, good shoes.

9. things not worth spending money on: nylons, name brand ibuprofen.

10. the best things in life are still free. snow days, running, moonlight, footrubs.

11. the amazing thing about humans is that we are always capable of change. never give up hope that people will change for the better.

12. then be there for them with open arms when they do.

13. the internet has made expat life immeasurably better. email, video, voice, facebook. even in the past seven years, it’s made a massive difference to my world.

14. but sometimes nothing can substitute for being home.
kate pic

DSCF6129

15. the best friends are also family.

16. and the best families are also friends.

17. never take a working boiler for granted (she types with frozen fingers whilst awaiting the arrival of the plumber).

18. resolve never to take your partner for granted. you inevitably will, but it’s so important to try not to.

19. some people will cling to the illusion of security above all else: truth, justice and freedom. try not to judge them for needing it so badly.

20. health is merely the slowest possible rate at which we can die.

21. but access to healthcare is a basic human right which should never be dependent on how much you earn.

22. if you have the opportunity to go to school, always do it now, rather than later. my one regret is that i didn’t go to grad school when i had the chance earlier. it gets harder later.

23. people’s beliefs are so intimate, so personal – when you criticise their beliefs, you criticise their heart. try to be respectful, even when you vehemently disagree.

24. if you treat people with respect, you’re more likely to be respected.

25. choose your battles carefully – life is too short to spend it being angry all the time.

26. the iphone is even better than the hype.

27. “Serenity is what we get when we quit hoping for a better past.” -Alanon

28. you make your own luck in this life – sitting around waiting for a stroke of luck never worked for anyone, and wishing doesn’t make things so.

29. risotto is worth learning to make from scratch.

30. whimsical socks make me happy – even when i’m having an otherwise shit day, i can look down and see frolicking penguins. it’s hard to be unhappy when your feet are smiling.

31. if you’re talking, you’re not listening.

32. you can tell people you love them, but if they don’t feel heard, they don’t feel valued. so shut up and listen already.

33. you will spend your whole married life renegotiating three things: money, sex, and the thermostat.

34. give love unreservedly and often. lavish people with love. you will never be in short supply of it, and you will never be sorry for having done so. if we have nothing in our cupboards and nothing over our heads, we will always have love to give in abundance.

35. never be afraid of sounding like a sentimental fool.

36. getting older gracefully is not about letting go of little vanities – it’s about letting go of the struggle to be something you’re not.

37. if your 20s didn’t kill you, nothing will.

the birthday wars – oxford collapse

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you gotta give to get back to the love

by Jen at 7:13 pm on 20.12.2009 | 4 Comments
filed under: family and friends, holidaze, mutterings and musings

now that i live an ocean away from my family, we usually don’t exchange gifts at Christmas. but the other day i saw a link to this charity gift card website, and thought it would be a really nice idea. so i sent everyone a small denomination giftcard which they can then donate to the charity of their choice. as part of the message going along with the giftcard i wrote:

This year I thought people would like the opportunity to pass on some good to any cause that is near and dear to their heart. Our family is so lucky, we have more than enough cheer to spread around

and while that it technically true – my family are lucky in that we all, thankfully, have enough to eat, shelter, and clothe ourselves – upon reflection, i think i’ve probably been a bit insensitive. i was really speaking only for myself – because while *i* have enough money to donate to others, others in my immediate family are definitely not as well-off. in fact, there are some in my family who probably could have made good use of that $25 themselves.

talking about this makes me a bit uncomfortable, actually. truth be told, i’m fairly well-off in comparison to many – i live in an expensive city, yet still have enough to do things like travel, go out to concerts, give nice gifts, and generally not worry too much. in fact, i live a fairly cushy lifestyle by some standards. that’s not to say that jonno and i don’t work hard, or watch our spending in other ways. but overall, we are extraordinarily lucky to have not only enough, but more than we need.

others in my family have it a bit harder. there are some who’ve had to rely on public aid. there are some who’ve had difficulty finding steady employment. there are some who worry about keeping the jobs they have. there are some who make ends meet – but only just.

and to be perfectly, excruciatingly honest, this is the only time it has occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, it might bother them that i have certain financial freedoms that they don’t.

don’t get me wrong: there’s no one in my family who would let any one of us go without. but charity is a luxury available only to those that have a surplus. that’s a luxury that some of my family just don’t have.

if i critique my motives, i know that my heart was in the right place. but i have to wonder if perhaps i was so caught up in making the gesture to make myself feel good, that i never considered whether it was something that would make others feel good. if i wasn’t giving what i wanted to give, rather that what others would want to receive.

how’s that for selfish? i never stopped to think about it at all.

they say there is no such thing as a truly altruistic act, and i suppose i proved that to be true. but maybe even if my magnanimous gesture wasn’t such a great present for everyone else, at least it gave *me* something in return – a little self-awareness, a little sensitivity, and a little reminder of something i’d clearly forgotten. that no matter how well-intentioned, Christmas is not about the giving – it’s about family.

and what a gift that is indeed.

god knows (you’ve got to give to get) – el perro del mar

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