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One of many outdoor teas with our students.

Once upon a time I did my dissertation field work at an educational institution in rural Bhutan. As part of the condition for being there I had to teach classes in a brand new program and worked with a group of young enthusiastic first time teachers, who became important allies and eventually good friends.  Many of them stayed on at the institution even as a I finished my degree and returned to the capital.

We stayed in touch. When they are in the capital ( which is a full two days away by car) we meet up for drinks or a meal and swap news and gossip. When they are not in the capital we still electronically share classroom stories, resources and inside jokes. But this week I had the rare and wonderful pleasure of getting to spend three whole days  with two of these friends. As academics we were officially invited to participate in a three day workshop held at a fancy hotel downtown.

 

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Just like in the old days we found a table in the back that gave us the room to whisper, make jokes and safely roll our eyes at the occasional displays of pompous-ness and sexism ( amazing how often the two of those are correlated). But the workshop also proved to be well organized, interesting and provided plenty of opportunity for rich discussion. I was consistently glad to be able to be having these conversations with my smart and frequently irreverent friends.

So that is what I loved this week the opportunity to be able to catch up with old friends at an engaging workshop. It was sort of  like a holiday for nerdy people.

 

 

 

 

 

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Baked by our housekeeper , Yeshi.

 

It was my birthday on Tuesday.

One of things I most appreciate about my birthday is that I share it with a cousin, in fact I was famously born during her first birthday party. Starting from sixth grade we were at the same Indian  boarding school  and  she and I were even in the same class, so from my 12th to my 18th birthday we always celebrated together.

I am  desperately uncomfortable in the limelight .(In fact I hate being photographs so much  that Sarah and I are only in like 3 photographs together on facebook) so having a shared birthday was always a HUGE relief, specially during those awkward teenage years when you are secretly convinced that no one could possibly actually like you. My cousin and I settled into a celebration routine  that included us ordering a cake each and giving one away to the “class boys.” ( Yes, I went to a school with sex-segregated birthdays, tres sheltered I know but that is a whole other story).

When I went to college in Australia I tried ( with some success) to continue the traditions of joint birthdays by convincing two of my friends with March birthdays to do celebrate together.

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Joint birthday dinner at a Greek restaurant the year I turned 20

Since then birthdays have  been awkward, worse so in Bhutan now that I have moved back . I have few friends I feel comfortable inviting and the local tradition is that the birthday person brings a treat for everyone else . One year I spent a weekend making packages of cookies to give out to people at work but that was exhausting and so I have more or less given up on celebrations beyond the family. I usually make an effort to see my cousin on our joint birthday but we haven’t had a joint birthday party since high school.

Then two years ago another cousin’s son was born on our birthday! Can you imagine that? Three of us with the same birthday  in the same family? This year was the first year that all three of us celebrated together.

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Cake my cousin’s sister-in-law brought to dinner. I loved that it has 3 stars for  the 3 stars of the night!

 

And you know what it was the best birthday I have had in years!

 

Here is my favorite cake of the day, with all three of us on it. Baked by my sister and painted by my brother-in-law.

 

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So a friend of mine owns a bar where he mostly serves friends and relatives.He has good cocktails, a nice relaxed vibe and far too few customers. So on a whim I came up with a promotional event for the bar that I hoped would bring in some new customers. I would give a free tarot reading to anyone who bought a cocktail. (Now I have never charged for a tarot readings so  my tarot readings are always free but lets not get all technical here!)  If you know me, you know that this was not completely a “goodness of my heart” type offer. I love reading tarot and am always looking for opportunities to read for people.  So really it was set up to be something that was good for both my bar-owning friend and me.

My brother made us a lovely image to use. We made a facebook event and watched with delight as people committed to coming.  My friend brought more olives.

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And then it was the 12th and my sister and brother came with me to sit up a table in the corner of the bar, with a fun lamp. I started at 8 pm with my first reading and didn’t take a break until midnight after friends had repeatedly come by the table to ask ” Are you okay? Do you need another drink?” I was so engrossed I hadn’t noticed  how long I had been sitting there. I did notice a small fight when one group of vocal girls started to get pushy about whose turn it “really” was.  By the end of the evening I had done readings for nearly 30 people. I had reassured people about their love lives, their career transitions and their business plans. I got lots of hugs and free cocktails. For the first time I actually didn’t just enjoy doing the readings and talking to people but I actually felt like I might be good at it.

 

I loved being tarot queen for the night and would totally totally totally do it again in a heartbeat.

 

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I bought my first deck of tarot cards nearly 6 years ago after an expensive and unsatisfying reading by Mrs Rita, a Tempe tarot reader with a HUGE sign outside her house  and a song by the Gin Blossoms. I left the reading thinking ,  ” I bet I could do better.”  Six years later  after a lot of practicing on myself, my family  and anyone else who would let me,  I am not sure if that is completely true. Learning to read tarot is challenging and I wonder if I will ever master it well enough to charge someone a cool $50 for a reading. But I have come to enjoy the on-going  reading and researching and practicing that is learning to read tarot.  I have grown to love the complexity of trying to balance between remembering the symbolism and meaning of each of the 78 cards  and trying to tap into and trust my intuition. I get a thrill from the energy of a good reading, few things feel as good as good reading.

I have a standard spiel I give people before I read for them about my belief that I am not predicting the future, I am mostly just reading the tension and opportunities of the present. I tell them that they have the power to shape their own futures.

Recently a friend of my sister decided to stop dithering and take the plunge and take up an arts fellowship type  opportunity because of something I said in a reading. He just came home and brought me this lovely stationary set as a thank-you. It made me so ridiculously happy.  So maybe I will never be paid it cash but perhaps I can start charging in stationary. Either way I look forward to my on-going tarot journey because the rewards are so much in the process and I love that, I really really love that.

 

I have been having such mixed feelings about being back at my teaching job. As we are back on campus planning for the semester, the vivid memories of the how awful it was are coming back to me more fully. But then almost every interaction I have had with a student reminds me of why I should be excited to be back.

Today one of them who made his first trip outside Bhutan over the break came to me with a small gift. I was embarrassed and also unsure if I should take it. He kept insisting so I did and then I went to check if it was okay for me to keep it. Everyone assured me that I should.

Later he sent this text:

Hi madam I couldn’t bring anything valuable for a person like you. It is not a matter of amount and neither a bribe but simply a gift from the core of my heart. Thank you very much for your kind acceptance.

 

My heart melted. Damn petty office politics and even more petty colleagues  I am excited to be back in classroom with these kids.

 

 

 

 

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Stochasticity by Utsav Khatiwara

Flecks of star dust

Recombined

In you and I

And every time you smile

We are drawn closer

Even in an expanding universe.

One of the things that has made me happy in the last couple of months has been the coming together of a poetry anthology ( “folded into a paper boat: a collection of poetry from Bhutan”) that I helped edit for our family publishing house Riyang Books. I loved the opportunity to get to know the two other editors better, I loved reading the poems and getting to know the poets, I loved the poems we finally picked and the beautiful cover my brother designed and than I loved  the cake my sister made for the launch earlier this month. She decorated it with 13 tiny little boats to stand in for the 13 poets ( including Utsav) featured in the book.

This project had nothing to do with my career  nor does the publishing house  expect to turn a profit (we might not even break even on this one) . We did it, I did it because I love poetry and the idea of there being more of it in the world is a very good thing.

 

 

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So I admit it, this week what is making me happy is getting my very first smart phone. Despite really enjoying social media  and occasionally ogling other people’s smart phones, I have managed to hold onto my very old Indian Nokia phone  for the whole three years that I have been home in Bhutan. I used to joke it was “theft-proof” since no one would bother to steal such an unsophisticated phone. But it wasn’t losing-proof and on Monday my first day back at work I managed to misplace it and despite roaming the halls calling myself I couldn’t find it.  In the meantime my thoughtful sister emailed my parents who were in Bangkok this week and suggested they buy me a smart phone and my generous parents did.  So shallow and materialistic as it might sound, getting my first smart phone is what is making me happy this week.

 

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( The view into the Tang valley in Bumthang- site of my four month sabbatical)

 

It is strangely fitting that the only post I put up in 2015 was about my new year resolutions and that my first (of hopefully many) post of 2016 is again about my new year resolutions.

I cannot claim to have succeeded with all the resolutions I wrote in 2015, in part because I offered up no metric. And I want to continue to work on spontaneity, health, beauty and kindness but my last year demands a shift in focus.

2015 was a strange year for me. In terms of anything measurable, it was the year I did the least but it was also the most satisfying and successful year that I can remember in a long time.  The year started with me deciding that I needed to leave my job, which had increasingly made me unhappy and stressed. The year ended with me deciding to go back to my job, not with my tail between my legs but after having negotiated the terms and completely stepping away from the administrative responsibilities that made the last year so miserable.  In between I went “home”  and stayed with my parents in rural Bhutan where they are working on creating a heritage site in my mother’s ancestral home. Every day was busy but in many important ways, my almost 4 months with them let me sllloooooooow down. There was no internet, no TV and no social obligations or appointments.  I got time to read, write, think, pray and just sit and enjoy the (spectacular) view.   I am back in the city now and I start back at work in about 8 days but I feel changed. I am not a different person, instead I feel more like myself than I have in a long time. Of course, I am worried that I will slip back into an unhappy place and I see my resolutions for 2016 as a way to stop that as much as I can. I hope that knowing things can be different is the motivation I need. Fingers crossed!

 

  1. One of the things that I want to hang onto from my time away from the city is slowing down. I read a wonderful book by Christian McEwen  called “ World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down”  and it is full of ideas about how to slow down in the face of all the ways in which contemporary life encourages us to be fast and busy.  One of her suggestions that I am making into a resolution is to make a list of enjoyable slow activities (like writing a letter to someone by hand) and then do at least one slow activity each week.

 

  1. I want to write more and get more of what I write out into the world. Before I left the city, I went to my very very first writing workshop and it was less frightening and more useful than I had imagined. For me this was like publicly acknowledging that I do what to write. While I was away, I read a lot of books about writing and they were largely helpful and thought-provoking. Several of them suggested that you have to write every single day. Natalie Goldberg in “ Writing down the Bone” talks about writing as “practice,” how not everything we write will land up being good enough to be read by others or published . Instead like anything you might be trying to learn to do well, the more you practice it, the better you will get. That’s one of the most liberating things anyone has ever told me because it takes off so much of the pressure to write perfectly every single time. Additionally I listened to a wonderful interview with the graphic novelist, Gene Luen Yang where he talked about how to combat the common fear writers have of getting things wrong “ with humility and with homework.”    I find the acknowledgement of the difficulty and hard work that goes into brave writing that aspires to be “right” so inspiring.
  1. My parents are the most generous and forgiving people I know and spending an extended period with them really reminded me of this. I was often infuriated at how frequently people take advantage of their kindness and I felt fiercely protective of them, of their time, their energy and their resources. But my parents are not stupid, they know when people are attempting to use them or cheat them and their response to this is an amazing blend of pragmatism and compassion.  When I came back to internet access I came across this great quote:  “When you have more than you need, build a longer table not a higher fence.”  That is exactly what my parents are doing, building a longer table, including more people instead of shutting them out.  I want to try and do that more often. I want to work toward being welcoming and inclusive. I worry that in recent years less than pleasant social and professional experiences have made me build barriers and blocks as a form of self-protection. In 2016 I want to try to take down my fences and expand my table.
  1. Last year I said I wanted to look after myself better and I think by quitting my job and leaving the stresses of city life I succeeded at this resolution more than I had imagine possible.  I want to continue to focus on this because well-being is a constantly moving target.  I was so inspired by Sarah’s decision to hike the Grand Canyon and the preparation and thought that she put into making it happen. After the hike she told me how the experience had changed the way she felt about her body, instead of thinking about its size or even shape she thought about what her body could do.  I love that and this year I want to make a stronger, healthier body my focus. Instead of only thinking about how it looks or what I can fit into, I want to focus on what I want my body to be able to do.

2014 not the best year. Not by a long shot. And 2013 and 2012 were not very great either. Not to get all life-style guru on you here but I realized at some point that I keep waiting for things to get better, waiting for my life to get better and maybe that is just not the right approach.  I can’t really change my life but I can change the way I feel about it and the way I react to it. Of course as I work on seeing these resolutions through, easier said then done  but I can’t keep waiting for something to change. I live right here, right now. I need to find ways for it to be better right here, right now not in some idealized better future. So here are 4 ways I want to make me and my life better in 2015.

 

1) Spontaneity. 

This is a joint resolution with Sarah. We realized during one of our marathon phone conversations that the older we got the less spontaneous we had become. And that this is a huge lose. Life is so much less fun.  But I am going to push this further, part of being spontaneous is not over-thinking things too much, just following an impulse and for me I think I need to listen just as much to my instincts and say ” Nope, I wouldn’t be doing that.” There are so many joy-sucking, mind numbing obligations that clog my life and in 2015  I want to be as spontaneous about saying “no” to them and as I am about saying ” yes!” to fun and new things. I start back at work ( a veritable and highly effective factory of joy-sucking, mind numbing obligations) on Monday- lets see how this goes!

 

2) Being kinder, more forgiving and less judgmental about other people.

2014 ended with me getting some hardcore anonymous hate on my teaching evaluations. And after an understandable period of hurt, self-pity and then anger, it actually made me think of how often I have made similarly off-hand and unkind judgments about other people. I had potentially made people feel just as bad as I was feeling because lets face it, I am not very subtle. This thought actually made me feel worse than the evaluations. Shortly after coming to the realization that my mean-ness had the potential to hurt people,  as if the universe just felt it needed to hammer home this point a little harder,  my sister told me about how an acquaintance of ours mentioned to her that she was really surprised that I was so much more friendly and welcoming on-line then I was off-line. Wow.  Just wow.  In the meantime, this has been a really hard resolution and I slip a lot but I find that making myself conscious of how I talk about other or how quick I am to jump to judgment has been instructive.  I think I am getting better. I hope I am getting better

 

3) Taking better care of me, looking after myself.

In my to-do lists looking after myself is really never a priority. So things like getting exercise, going to the dentist and getting my upper lip threaded or making time to meditate are just not important. I am hoping that  shifting the emphasis from my usual resolutions like :lose weight or exercise more and thinking instead of giving more time and effort to self-care will make me take better care of myself. I think I have been trying to do some of this already in 2014 but I need to keep reminding myself.

4) Making more everyday beauty.

This was a last minute and random entry but also the one I find the most hopeful. My parents, who have moved back to my mother’s childhood home are in town for the last two week and I noticed again that my mother has this  habit of compulsively tidying up and making things look nicer where-ever she goes. I found it annoying as a child but as I watched her turn the crocked woven scarfs our cook insists on selling us into a table runner, re-purpose broken pottery into a dry flower vase and generally re-arrange everything in our house I realized she is always attempting to make the spaces we live in more beautiful. And she does it little tiny, very every day ways. Isn’t that just the most  hopeful and optimistic thing to keep doing? I have this tendency to live in mess and see everything as temporary and not worth improving or making nice. I want to teach myself to not do that. I want to teach myself to turn up the beauty. I want to live with beauty and I just have to figure out how I can do a better job of making beauty a more every day thing.

This fall I have felt incredibly trapped and unable to see past all the things that are not possible for me. Finding things to be happy about have been hard. As I struggled with all the obstacles that I felt I was up against  (time, money, logistics, fear  etc) I had been trying ( not so successfully) to talk myself into seeing all this as a opportunity for creativity. I kept thinking of cooking shows like ” Master Chef” where ingredients, time and experience  act as constraints and yet again and again contestants create something beautiful and tasty and unexpected. Couldn’t my life be like that?

And then a facebook friend posted this New York Times piece “ Learning to Measure Time in Love and Loss”  by Chris Huntington where he writes so simply and eloquently about making peace with bad luck, constraints, ageing, basically all the things that hold us back in one way or the other. Most effective for me, the author does not advocate  ignoring loss or talking yourself out of feeling the weight of loss. The line that just slays  me is this one : “I’m constantly aware of lost opportunities. I used to think such lost opportunities were beautiful towns flashing by my train windows, but now I imagine they are lanterns from the past, casting light on what’s ahead.”

I loved the piece so much, I read it and re-read it and re-read again as I posted it here. I haven’t yet convinced myself that I can be creative despite  all that I feel I am missing out on, all that I feel that I have lost but the idea that there is possibility present even as I move further and further away  from things I loved and things I hoped for, I can’t help but find that such a daringly hopeful sentiment.

So I love that I am staring at the start of a new year and contemplating possibilities even while I grieve for all that might not be possible.