Sunday, January 24, 2016

If 2016 were the last year

Contemplating death apparently makes people happier because it makes their actions more in line with the things that matter to them most on this earth. So instead of Facebook, meditation. Instead of paying for a spin class, a dinner date. Here are the things I came up with:

- Travel widely
- Write
- Draw
- Take good care of my loved ones
- Eat apple pie unrepentantly, chocolate without a shadow of remourse
- Give to the causes I vigorously support in my soul
- Journal
- Write letters that express outrage over injustice
- Long, ambling walks, ideally but not necessarily by the sea
- Accessories and jewelry. Shallow, but a huge source of joy.
- Own a pet

The stuff that seemed important at some time, which I now feel trivial and emotionally less meaningful:

- Regular daily exercise in a gym (on my deathbed, will I regret not having done more pushups? No.)
- Connecting with people from my distant-ish past, overseas relatives and friends (we've all moved on and no longer talk. Plus, I'm sick of sending un-returned emails)
- Having "good taste" style
- Own property (whatever)
- Have kids (still on the fence, but my desire to have kids is almost purely based on desire to please others, not because I feel any love for children)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Occupying space while black

I was on the train the other day when I noticed a young, tall black man, dressed in a striking fashion with a large black hat, glittering gold earring, dark leather coat and a suit, talking on his cell pone on the SkyTrain. From his conversation, you could glean that he'd just started a new job, and that it involved being at the court house downtown.

He was a little loud on the phone, and kept moving around with shuffling steps on the train, but what I noticed most was not him, but the way people kept staring at him. Especially this one old woman, who turned back a couple of times to look at him, and overtly rolled her eyes and shook her head after the third time, as though his very existence offended her senses.

What exactly were they trying to say? What was that headshake supposed to mean? If it was just "ugh, damn young people and their annoying phones," I'd think nothing of it. But her annoyance seemed to be amplified by his skin colour, which, due to this little thing called genetics, no one is even able to do anything about anyway. 

What about him offended her? His suit? His gold earring? His hat? The fact that he was working in court? And what kind of clothes would they have him wear, to be a less unsettling presence? 

It struck me how very little leeway there is for African Canadians in terms of how they are perceived. The old woman would have probably disapproved of him if he were in jeans and a hoodie rather than a suit, and would have been annoyed if he were wearing Islamic religious attire instead of Western clothing. She may have been annoyed that he was talking on the phone. The only way for him to escape judgment, it seemed, was to dress in a preppy and neat but not overly formal way, to wear clothing that was neither shabby nor expensive, to be neither overly tall nor short, to not move as he spoke, and to generally attempt to be as invisible as possible in public.

For some people, it seems there is an extremely narrow, acceptable way in which they'd tolerate a black person taking up space on the earth.

That's why you have Sarah Palin blaming Obama for her son. That's why a black (actually, half-black, half-white) football player gets death threats from total strangers  for daring to propose to his obviously delighted girlfriend—for no other obvious reason than occupying public space while black, even though people will vigorously try to make it about something else.

It's subtle, thankfully, in Vancouver. But it's these small things, like the eyeroll and shake of the head, that can distort a person's perception of him or herself and ultimately can influence the course of his or her life.

I might be wrong. But I know what this is like. In Vancouver, the context is very different, and the times having changed very much, I'm privileged not to have to feel fearful of offending people. It made me think of what a maddening balance it must be, to not carry oneself to be judged as poor or idle, but to also not be so wealthy or well-dressed so as to draw suspicion and resentment. 

I think of how stifling it must be to live like this. And of how important it is to be actively anti-racist, not just a non-racist. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

New mother

I have a feeling I'll end up posting some consecutive "Mom" illustrations, even after having professed my desire to never have children. Forgives.

I am still very annoyed at how society treats mothers in general. The patronizing attitude toward them, the stupid Vancity bank ads that seem to depict a career woman's entire financial plan as revolving around babies. But even I'm starting to realize there's something very gripping about a mother's love for her children.

Friday, January 1, 2016


Not a person in Vancouver (coming soon) but I received an adorable felt rat doll for Christmas. Technically a Christmas ornament. He has an acorn for a hat, so my partner (who got me the gift) suggested naming him "nut head" but I've given him the name Alfie for now.

It's been a year of experiencing that everything is precious and dear to me, or so many things. I'm grateful to be able to sleep indoors, grateful to be able to eat, grateful for my health.

Some resolutions for 2016:

1. Meditate regularly. Like, once a week
2. Stop apologizing for who I am, as my over-apologizing makes a loved one "really annoyed" that I can't take more pride in what I do, as it's not like I'm a drug-dealer or otherwise involved in anything shameful.
3.  Stretch daily. 100 jumping jacks, 50 pushups, etc.
4.  Clean my space
5. Clean my computer
6.  Financial 20 yer plan
7.  Get more sleep

Monday, November 2, 2015

A thoery on Vancouver's rain

My partner's interpretation of why it rains in such long, misty half-efforts in Vancouver.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Mumbai, and unbreakable optimism

Nothing to do with any city per se, just a face I was drawing while listening to "Jupiter," the beautiful song that a lot of weird Japanese otakus LOVE to hate. 

The song conjures up a feeling of relentless, un-tameable optimism, of being ready to fight and expect to win regardless of the circumstances. It reminded me of the blinding smile of an Indian woman (who looked like a Rajasthani 'gypsy' -- I could be totally wrong here) who pursued me for 50 rupees outside the Jain temple. There wasn't a shred of shame or desperation about her, and she was so bold it troubled me. After I handed her the note and slinked into the car, she tapped on the window and waved at me, "thank you!" with the most dazzling smile I'd ever seen.

It shocked me because while she was pursuing me for money, I'd avoided making all eye contact. For about three minutes or so, all I saw was her feet and outstretched hands, and box of cheap bangles she implored me to buy when I refused to give her money. Even when I handed her the rupees, I was so deeply ashamed on her behalf I didn't dare look at her. Only when she unexpectedly tapped on my window, was I forced to look up — and I realized what astonishing eyes she had. A beggar woman with the face of a Goddess.

Her smile knocked the wind out of me.

That pure, confident expression, the clear gaze devoid of any negativity or bitterness despite the overwhelming odds she faced. That kind of person, I think, will probably save the world from its current state of disintegration. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Independent clothes, and the reckless blue dress

I don't think I'll ever develop a drug habit. I've already got an addiction that will cost me as much — I am addicted to locally made clothes.

Not even the good kind (established brands like Twig and Hottie, for example). No, I like the clothes made by fresh out of university kids, whose brand mostly exists in the imagination and a dicey/non-existent website. I love the rough design and weird-pattern cloth with string sticking out all over the place. I love the slightly not-straight, wobbly seams where uneasy hands ran fabric through a sewing machine.  I like the sort of "brand" that's like a girl's childhood drawing come to life, rough around the edges, raw, dreamy and beautiful. Completely detached from the cage of pragmatism or cost-benefit analysis.

The last dress I bought this summer was ridiculously sumptuous, and its creator had no internet presence, none, the label is just a gmail address that if you google, will turn up nothing at all. All I know was it was made in Vancouver and it's the only dress of its kind that exists to my knowledge. No Amazon reviews, no Etsy store.

It was a romantic floral gown that should have been well over $500 if the creator was a real "business person" but was sold for much less, because like certain writers and artists, the creator cared less about making a good buck and more that the artwork is used in the world. The dress is a glorious handmade whimsy, with pretty silk threads and hand-painted flowers, brocaded panels woven from pure imagination.

Today, I met the creator of another lovely dress. It was blue tribal fabric piece with satin lining, understated colours with bold and original cut. It was both 1950s-inspired and completely modern, Asian and European at once.

"Where is this made?" I asked the young woman at the counter with brown dyed hair piled up on a bun and the whitest porcelain Asian skin you've ever seen.

Her pale cheeks flushed with pride, and she pointed to herself. "Uhm, here," she said in heavily accented English. "I did. I made it."

I thought about the different clothing options I'd kept a mental note of this month. I wanted to buy one item of clothing that was locally made, and two options made the cut.

 One was a pragmatic, classic locally made grey business shirt I'd tried on earlier this month. The brand had a slick and cool website. I could imagine this company growing, and being an established household name, like Lululemon, in 10 years. You could pair this shirt with anything, wear it anywhere, and never feel overdressed or underdressed. It would be durable for years and never go out of style. It was safe, practical, dignified, tasteful and timeless.

And then there was this reckless little blue dress in front of me. Here was its creator, a young early twenty-something designer/retailer/marketer/distributor whose sole calling card was the clothes on her hangers and an instagram account. As for her brand, let's just say the name didn't exactly roll off the tongue.  I couldn't tell if it would even endure til the end of the season. She might abandon it all, for lack of infrastructure and support. My figure might change, I might gain weight, and the dress might look desperate and eccentric next year, maybe even next month.

My thoughts drifted back to the business shirt. It was exactly what I needed for work.

And I looked again at her designs, bold, youthful, original, outrageous wholly unpragmatic designs of this young woman. I thought what it was like to be that age, in one's early twenties. About all the risks people take both with the clothes they wear and the hearts on their sleeves when they're not thinking about what they can lose. This kind of naive and trusting, idealistic time in life is not timeless at all; it whips by in an instant, like an arrow flying by. Eventually we stop believing in the goodness of the universe.

The dilemma was resolved. I chose the blue dress.

They both looked nice on me, and surely without a doubt the grey shirt was the better investment.

But the dress encapsulated the spirit of a time in life you want to keep in your soul forever, even as the body ages and the heart hardens, and a grey film of deja vu starts to snuff the shine out of everything you see. Even though this body might age, I'd still like to be the adventurer on the inside, the reckless Fool in the Tarot card deck that fears nothing and dreams the most beautiful dreams because she hasn't yet learned her limits.

No, I've never done drugs* (*to be fair, I've tried once, but never got high at all because I'm too anxious and proper to let my senses go), but I don't think I'll ever experience a high like wearing these obscure one of a kind clothes made right here in this city. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Witness: piano duet at Woodwards/W2 building

OK, pardon the drawing's ultra roughness. You know how they say better to move slow than stall.

So a piano mysteriously appeared in the Woodwards building on Hastings street. It is, in my view, the single most lovely object in the entire building, the most brilliant thing to have graced it in years. Every day I see new people approach the piano. Every day, I expect to hear some bullshit atrocious clanging on the keys, but perhaps due to sheer luck and timing, every stranger who approaches the piano is filled the building with the most beautiful music. 

Over the last week or so I've seen African Canadian kids take to the piano, a young woman in yoga clothes, a mother and daughter, an old man. All are trained in piano, all gravitated toward the piano like it was a magnetic force. 

The most lovely scene I've seen so far was an odd duo playing the most haunting duet song. Perhaps they were improvising, but it didn't seem like it: most likely, they both knew the same duet and decided to play it. 

The piano player on the right side was clean-cut, healthy, full of youth and middle-class wholesomeness in a blue jacket. He may have been a university student, maybe something completely different. 

The one on the left was older, scraggly haired, his emaciated, sickly body wrapped in a worn leather jacket. His bony legs hung from the piano chair, encased in baggy jeans.

But my, what music they played together! It was so seamless, so heavenly, I looked around the building and wondered why everyone hadn't gathered to watch.

How do these guys know each other, I wondered. Did they just happen to meet each other through  the piano? Or is the young man actually a resident of the Downtown Eastside? Are they friends? Co-workers?

In the middle of the song, the older man turned around and noticed he had a viewer in me. I was actually supposed to duck into Nesters' to buy groceries, but the minute the man became conscious of my presence, I thought it was better to stay put. Once every few seconds, he turns to me to check if I'm still there, as if I'm a ghost, a figment of his imagination.

I stay put and watch intently. He turns around to check on me again, and as he goes back to the keyboard, there's now a bounce in his fingers, he even starts to sing. With flourish, he drags his fingers across the piano in a brilliant swoop of notes. His feet dance. It's no longer just two guys playing vainly on the piano at Woodwards, now it's a concert, it's a show. All because now there is an audience.  

It may be my vain imagination talking, but I felt as if my staying and watching the music was not only good for me, but also important for the piano player as well. To witness is to acknowledge a human being exists, that their actions have meaning. Witnessing is telling a person: I see you. 

Being seen can be a shattering experience if you're undergoing something you don't want anybody else to see: being bullied, or suffering a drug withdrawal. Being caught in a corruption scandal.

But being witnessed as you do something positive is the most life-affirming experience — it's like being told not only, 'I see you' but 'I see you at your best. Keep going, don't stop now.' 

I wait until the song ends, and the older man stands up from the piano. There is no applause. I still walk up to the man because I feel I must, and tell him: 'That was really good.'

The older man, looking deeply contemplative, looks straight at me and puts two shaky hands together to form a steeple like a prayer. 'Xie xie ni,' he tells me in a soft, tiny voice. 'Duo xie.' 

It doesn't matter that I'm not Chinese. The spirit of trying to connect was there.

Through my simple and wordless act of watching him play the piano, it seems to have sent a vague and intangible message that his music and talent matters, that it's heard. in the world. And his awkward greeting was an acknowledgement that he sees me too. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Mumbai: an unexpected encounter with the Snake God

India was filled with odd and unexpected surprises. One of the great things I miss about the country is how deeply spirituality was intertwined with daily life activities. The cabs, the rickshaws, were covered with unique and individual Gods' names, divine sayings. Rudra. God is Great. Allah. All painted on the windows of cars, temples drawing thousands of worshippers from across the country. Worship is not something you do every Sunday, but intertwined with daily life.

At our hotel, my partner, his friend and I were discussing where to visit on a Sunday afternoon. I'd been googling the major worshipping places like the Mahalaxmi temple, the Ganesh temple, and majestic Haji Ali mosque, and urged them to accompany me there.

But my partner's friend shook her head.

"These places would take over an hour to get to," she pointed out. "Why don't we check out something local, and nearby?"

I gritted my teeth and inwardly shook my head, thinking we'd then be stuck with nothing but roadside shrines and makeshift temples like some I'd seen in the slums.  Visiting a temple that wasn't on my guidebook would be pointless and a waste of time, I thought.

Boy, was I about to eat those words. 

When we went to the concierge for advice, he recommended a "snake temple" just down the road. It was a short rickshaw ride there and when he stopped, my heart sank at how tiny it was.

So small! I grunted to myself. This is just a roadside temple, we'll be in and out in 15 minutes, if that.

We went in, and saw a sea of plastic sandals, shoes and slippers on the ground. 

"Guess we'll just take our shoes off here," I said. 

As we slipped our shoes off, a young man approached us and insisted that we not put our shoes there.
"OK, then we'll put them in our bags and carry them around," I said. 

"No. No shoes in the temple allowed," he said firmly, then pointed to an old man in a white shirt and skullcap.

"Go with him. He says you should bring the shoes to him." 

"Oh God," I muttered, remembering the young lady at the Jain temple who aggressively pursued me for 50 rupees after 10 minutes of 'watching' my shoes. "How much will it cost?"

The old man shook his head firmly and said mumbled something.

"Nothing, he says it costs nothing," his translator said.

"I dunno..."

Meanwhile, my partner obediently took his shoes off and passed them to the old man, who was now standing on a raised surface of dirt beside a building. He took my the shoes and placed them on a spot on the dirt. My eyes bulged. Is this what we were going to be charged for?

"Come on, let's do it," my partner urged, standing barefoot now. His friend was now standing barefoot as well, passing her sandals to the old man.

"Fuck," I grumbled, finally taking off my shoes. "We're going to be charged an arm and leg for this."

The old man took my shoes, put them with the other two, and hid them under a red plastic basin, the kind you'd use to wash the floor.

You're kidding, I grimaced.

I stared at my pale feet, which curled as I gingerly walked on the cool wet ground, hoping I would not crunch anything weird underfoot. I knew walking barefoot was nothing unusual in India, and was perfectly common here, but being so isolated to the normal ways of other countries, I cringed and took hesitating baby steps the whole way.

We began by taking photos of the statues and premises. The space seemed small, if well attended, and we aimlessly took photos like this one of the snake Goddess below. With no historical context or knowledge, we were wandering blindly in a holy place. But thankfully, someone watching the scene took pity on us.

A woman with short hair and a friendly, open and kind face showed up beside us, and started translating each God and Goddess in fluent English.

"This is Kali," she smiled broadly, pointing at a fierce looking dark statue of a Goddess with a necklace of severed human heads, covered in garlands. "You need something? Pray to her. She will get it done for you." This is not a deity to be messed around with, she seemed to imply.

She taught us to walk around the Goddess three times, and pray properly.

Then we got led toward the main worshipping hall, where there appeared to be a lot of music -- energetic, frenetic drumming and flute playing happening.  I have videos of it, but don't think such spiritual worship videos should be made public (recitals of Qu'ran and general choir music is fine),  but see the photos below for an idea.

You walk inside, and there are men on the left side, women on the right. In the middle of the passageway, a group of worshippers, and a young man with a head full of black curls, intense, clear eyes and flower garlands around his neck, in the middle of a silver-plated room within a temple. You realize he is the "Snake God" incarnate, as he moves like someone not quite human.

The shorthaired woman ushers me to the women's side, where we are crammed against other women who clasp their hands together in prayer over the holy ceremony.

I have to note the flute is ear splitingly loud. I was practically choking with disbelief that the young man was actually listening to the snake music so up close without going deaf.

There is a strange vegetable that keeps being offered up to the Snake God incarnate: he splits it, rubs his face all over it, and tosses it into the altar above the silver room, and into the crowd, where worshippers grab the plant as a symbol of blessing. I can smell the sweet scent of the plant beside me, and I remember that India has profound agricultural traditions, that its ceremonies are often filled with rituals relating to harvest.

The music grows wilder and more intense. The young man widens his eyes and moves like a cobra being seduced by the sound of music. He comes out and blesses the plants, then retreats after about 30 minutes into the silver room, where he sits still, closes his eyes and prays. At some point, the Guru comes out -- a bald, thin man with a long beard and white braid down his back.

His worshippers come out and decorate him with a silver belt, gold snake-motif arm bands and other gold ornaments. This Guru is far more demonstrative of snake qualities than the younger man. He lashes his tongue out like a snake, and writhes around on the ground in circles like a breakdancer.

I stare in awe as he throws strands of the wheat-like plant to the audience. By this point, the crowd is wild with rapture, and I can feel women grabbing my shoulders, pushing and prodding at me. He tosses a plant to me, but an over-eager older woman buts in front and grabs it.

"HEY!" the Guru shouted, as the woman shrank back and dropped her gaze in shame. He then looked straight at me and tossed me a blessed plant. Disclaimer: I'm not familiar with this ceremony/religion; this is only based on my journal entry.

The plant is greenish white and cold, and faintly moist, fresh out of its protective casing.

"Bow to him, on your knees," the woman with short hair's voice said into my ear, suddenly right beside me. I awkwardly fall to my knees and touch my head to the ground at his feet, like others have been doing.

He then looks at me and starts murmuring something. The woman translates:

"You've been crying a lot this year, haven't you?" I think back, and realize there were days when I was at any moment ready to burst into tears, that there were moments of intense despair, mostly over my relationship and murky financial future.

"Don't cry anymore. Stop crying. And don't worry. The Gods are always watching over you."

That voice, when she said it, at the time meant nothing in particular. I flushed a bit with embarrassment, back on my feet, and retreated back into the faceless crowd. But now that I think of it, these were the words my anxious soul needed to hear most. God has given up hope for me, I would often think, and there were times I'd look up in the sky and feel a chill of abandonment, like the spirit I always sensed over me as a child and young teen was suddenly absent.

The ritual continued for another two hours. As it continued, I began to wonder what kind of stamina the guru and the musicians (especially the drummer) had. Their brains must be scraped raw by now from the frenzied sound and dancing. But still, by the time I started wondering if things were coming to an end, we were only just at the halfway point.

It got crazier and more intense, with a lot of coconut smashing over heads and throwing offerings into a burning blaze, but three hours later, the music finally gave way to silence. And my ears were vibrating -- even at a distance, it felt like the songs made my ears go partially deaf.

"Come, come," the woman smiled, and led us through the back. Still barefoot, we followed her through to a space in the back, where people were grabbing metal plates and lining up to be served food. Giant scoops of basmati rice. Lentil dal. Sambar. A paper cup of sweet dessert.

"Come on," she said, and led us to a tiny, oasis-like room of pure quiet and peace. A tiny white dog lay relaxing under a chair. It felt like home, or someone's home. It was most likely the woman's.

The food, which we ate with our hands and fingers, was absolutely delicious. For some strange reason, even though I ate $50CDN meals in Mumbai on one or two occasions, the cheapest meals (this one was totally free) were the most exquisite. The spices were flavourful.

I was slightly surprised that my red-haired, blue-eyed companion, had no qualms about eating with her bare hands. She'd even picked up Hindi phrases much faster than me, and was completely moved by the ceremony, which might turn some other people off.

"You know, Baba (the guru) can do anything," she told us. "Thirteen years ago, I was dying of illness. My family was already arranging my funeral. But then somebody called him, and he healed me completely. Ever since, I've been studying at this temple."

I wondered about the life she'd led, completely committed to religion, but it was clear in her face that she was happy to use her skills to serve, to spread her experience to guests from around the world.

We sat and ate peacefully, exchanging thoughts.

Our greetings finished (we said goodbye to the woman and the snake guru one last time), we went back to the dirt hill where the old man retrieved our shoes. I learned later that my partner and friend offered the temple some money, but they emphatically refused. I thought about the hotel man who insisted to us that Indians only care about money, and how wrong that statement was.

Stepping outside into the busy Mumbai street again was like crossing an invisible wall into another universe.

"Only in India, eh?"

"Yeah. Only in India," I wheezed, my feet still floating on air and excitement.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The ugliest beauty?

So it's official. My partner, who is still in India, does not like the place. It probably has at least something to do with the fact that he works in a cockroach infested office, but these are his words about why.

"Don't get me wrong, India is beautiful. There are many beautiful things about India. But you know whereas most places, there's a beautiful place here (gestures with right hand) and uglier places over there (gestures with left hand, held at arm's length from right), in India, they are right beside each other," he said, bringing his hands side-by-side. "In fact, they are intertwined with each other." 

"Imagine seeing the most beautiful woman in the world. Blindingly beautiful woman. You look a bit at her and realize she has this disgusting skin disease that's eating her away. But that skin disease really brings out this beautiful necklace that she has on. India is that kind of place."

He went on that the proximity of intense ugliness has made it impossible to enjoy the beauty of Mumbai.

"I can't even really go downtown and enjoy it anymore," he said grimly. "Cause you might see something, and think, oh, that's really nice, but literally right beside it, there will be amputees and dead dogs and cockroaches and amputees, and there's no way to unsee it."

I first thought his point of view selfish (even though I totally thought it too), but then I read about his experience walking into a shoe store where people had painstakingly, handcrafted beautiful artisan shoes. He felt the sinking feeling in his gut that these things that people worked so hard to make were going to sell too slowly to make the artisans rich monetarily, and he knew there was a line of beggars and destitute people right outside the door who can never dream of accessing such nice things. This to him was traumatizing, and it would be to me as well, even though it is the world in a nutshell.

The other day I heard three wealthy looking young women with makeup-caked faces talking about a 20% off sale at House of Lashes. Meanwhile, kids starving. It's the kind of reality you can't turn off in a place like India.

I don't agree fully with that assessment, but I do accept that there was something devastating about India that I didn't feel in any other country before.