The library interaction

I went to the new library branch to pick up a book I had reserved. It was an excuse to check out the new digs. It takes me all of five seconds to meander its circumference.

I easily locate the reserved books section. And I swiftly find my reservation. But I can’t find the self-service counter.

A solitary, silver-haired librarian is sitting at the front desk. She has not looked up from her screen since I walked in. Sensing my approach, she lifts her face and smiles, “Ah, you must be looking for the self-service computer.”

“Yes, I am,” I smile back.

“Well, we don’t have one yet. But there is a plan to get one. In the meantime, you’ll have to speak to me.”

“No problem,” I say, “there are fewer and fewer chances to interact with people these days.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

Then she asks, “Your first time here?”

“Uh-huh. How’s it going?”

Like this, we make small talk. I’m not much for small-talking, but the librarian, I soon learn, is eager to tell me all about the place.

It’s getting busier. It’s small, so we only hold a collection of books, which we’ll rotate. But you can reserve your books, and have them transferred here from other branches. It’s beautiful space to work in, especially in the morning, when the sun shines through the windows. She says “I hope you come again” at least three times throughout our interaction.

I nod, thinking that it’s not really that convenient for me. But I don’t tell her this.

I find myself itching to leave. I could say I have somewhere to be, and I do, but I’m in no rush. My impatience is a personality trait exemplified by the modern era.

But then I think:

May be she is lonely? May be this is the only real interaction she’s had all day? May be it’s the first chance she’s had to feel useful today?

A Kurt Vonnegut piece in A Man without a Country comes to mind. How he needs to buy an envelope and his wife tells him that he can order a packet of a thousand online. He refuses, and ‘wastes’ hours meandering down the street, interacting with a stall vender, and buying a single envelope. He then heads off to the post office to interact with another human being to buy stamps and post off his documents. This interaction includes asking the clerk to weigh the envelope to make sure he buys the correct number of stamps.

Loneliness, Mr Vonnegut would say, is a “terrible disease”.

Dancing towards play

I think of play as a loss of self-consciousness in bed with flow, birthing a child-like joy. Like when my 12-year-old, honey-coloured Beaglier – a King Charles Cavalier x Beagle – chases his tail.

I turn to the Macquarie Dictionary & Thesaurus Online to check my interpretation. I discover that for a four-letter word, play has just as many facets as a classic-cut diamond. Well, almost. The Dictionary offers 97 definitions and uses for the word. (A quick Google search also reveals over 340 idioms.)

The first definition listed is “a dramatic composition or piece or a drama”, and the second is “a dramatic performance, as on stage.”

A stage play doesn’t come to mind, but Neymar Jr does. You know, the Brazilian soccer legend renowned for his ‘diving’ antics during the 2018 soccer world cup? Diving is the theatrical falling down and rolling around on the field acting as if you’re grievously injured.

Even if this behaviour isn’t considered outright cheating, I liken it to dirty play. Maybe I have a narrow viewpoint, though. The world at large has played along with the joke, fervently taking up the ‘Neymar Challenge’. With online news headlines proclaiming “The Neymar Challenge has fans around the world dramatically falling down” and “The ‘Neymar Challenge’ is the latest viral sensation taking the internet by storm.”

I just don’t get it. What a party pooper I am.

The third – “exercise or action by way of amusement or recreation” – and fourth – “fun, jest or trifling, as opposed to earnest” – definitions confirm my lack of playful genes.

It’s 1975. A one-year-old baby, almost a toddler, is carefully lifted out of the car. The mother is about to place her on the fresh green grass of the front lawn. Instead of delighting in the anticipated ticklish prickle of the lush blades against her bare feet, the toddler scrunches her toes and bunches up her legs.

About 10 years later, the same mother willingly writes notes so that her precocious daughter – who at the time equates exercise with an excruciating way to lose weight – can get out physical education classes.

Having lived with the daughter for over 40 years, I am realising, rather disappointingly, the seriousness of my disposition. Reviews govern my restaurant choices. And familiarity my repeated visits to the same cafès, with the staff knowing my name and me theirs. Uncertainty sends me to Google in search for an answer, a way. Behaviours such as these allude to a fear of a life lived wrong.

Over two years ago, my five-foot-two self butted against a former model and basketballer turned author, PhD student and business owner – all rolled into a six-foot blonde. She was my boss. And I worked in her business for nineteen months before she unceremoniously pushed me out. I believed it was my continual refusal to put her on a pedestal and apologise for being human. But it was my lack of play that was to blame.

I realise – always too late – that when two strong-minded personalities clash, one must concave to soften the impact. Behavioural experts recommend this concaving come in the shape of play.

In The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships, John M Gottman (with Joan DeClaire) writes:

“We also discovered the importance of playfulness in people’s bids [for interaction and connection]. For years I have wondered why some couples are able to make jokes and express affection for each other – even in the midst of an argument. It’s an important question because our research shows that such emotional ‘repair tools’ lead to the development of happier, stronger relationships.”

Dr Stuart Brown also concurs, stating in his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul that “The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.”

So, instead of shooting emails at each other about the restructure of my role – my boss from her office and me from my shared space less than two feet away – I needed to get up and walk over to her and say: “Hey, what’s up? Is it my turn to get you coffee or something? Let’s grab one and chat.”  

I still might not have kept my job, but the departure might’ve been less acerbic.

Not long after my demise at work, my life took a serendipitous turn towards play. I got a job with an organisation that has ‘vitality’ in its name, to which it is unabashedly true. As its digital content specialist, I can work from home, but I choose to turn up in the office at least once a week. Why wouldn’t I? I laugh often, hear pet names like ‘precious’ and ‘sweet cheeks’ float through the airwaves, and my mistakes are seen as part of being human – i.e. no big deal!

Both Dr Brown and another behavioural expert, Bowen F White, a medical doctor and author of Why Normal Isn’t Healthy, stress the importance of selecting friends who are playful. I just happened to get lucky with my colleagues.

Work wasn’t the only ingredient to up my play stakes. Roughly a year ago, I took up dance classes. Not ballet. But dance of the street variety – Bollywood and Latin Rhythms – where improvisation and feeling the vibe of the music are keys to loosening up and playful self-expression.

Before each class begins, our Zumba instructor tells us in her thick Venezuelan accent, “I don’t expect you to be a professional dancer. I want you to just forget your problems and have fun.” And my Bollywood teacher instructs the class to “Move your hips so far right, that it’s out the window.” This proclamation is immediately followed by a giggle.

Soon, I discover I’m confident enough to take play off the dance floor and into situations I’m not naturally comfortable.

In a meeting a few months ago, a new client is describing her swanky offices in Docklands, a modern harbour development adjacent to Melbourne’s CBD. Floor-to-ceiling windows. An indoor bridge connecting two buildings. It all sounds glamorous. And I say, “Well, welcome to our humble abode.” We all laugh, the ice broken.

When I google the etymology of play, I find: “Old English pleg(i)an ‘to exercise’, plega ‘brisk movement’, related to Middle Dutch pleien ‘leap for joy, dance’.”

Maybe there’s a hint of Dutch in my bloodline.

Whether I was born with it or not, I know I can dance – not dive – my way onto the field of play. But vital players are necessary.

Dog hair

I often joke with my husband that our dogs travel everywhere. The last time I mention this is just a few days ago – I had found a single, short hair in my bra. I discovered it was because my boob was itchy.

The time before this was two weeks ago, when we were in Chicago and then San Francisco. My husband ran the Chicago marathon and I found stray hairs on my clothes.

When I vacuum, it takes me three times longer than it should. And I must vacuum weekly at the longest stretch, or risk the hair weaving itself permanently into the couch and the rug. Instead of a charcoal sofa, I’ll end up with a tan one.

Thankfully the dogs match the floorboards, and I can retain some sanity –  but not when sun rays stream inside, exposing tumbleweeds all over the joint.

While I doggedly chafe the sofa with the vacuum’s nozzle, sweating my way through the task, our 12-year-old Beaglier stares at me. I’m sure he’s wondering what I’m doing. “Lucky you’re cute”, I say, “otherwise mummy will have to give you away.”

When he continues to stare at me with his big, brown eyes, my heart melts. That’s what they do. When you’re not watching, they creep into every chamber of your pumping organ, leave a bit of hair, and implant themselves into you forever.

I know when they are no longer, I’ll be grateful for every strand I discover in the nooks and crannies of our domain. Saudade will settle into my bones, and, like Lydia Davis, my husband and I will “have a wild hope – if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog[s] back together again.”

Why it’s more than dance

When the yoga teacher kept yammering away about practicing aparigraha (the Sanskrit word for non-attachment) and how to brreeeathe, I knew it was time for a change.

Other than walking the dogs, yoga was my main form of exercise. I needed to mix things up a bit. To balance out the precise movements and life advice served up in yoga with freedom, fun and some badass sass.

This is when I decided to take up Zumba and enrol into the South Indian Street Dance course at Studio J Dance (full disclosure: my vibrant sister Jaya owns and runs this studio).

After six months of dancing, I got the irony. Dancing gave me the space to reveal my true nature – rather than tell me who I should be. It gave my life more meaning without my even trying – except for the commitment to show up to classes each week, of course.

Usually, my chest and throat tighten and my tummy plummets when I suddenly find myself in a limelight or in confrontation with a domineering personality. I don’t know how to deal with it, and stumble through the situation awkwardly.

But with dance, I began to notice a shift in my confidence – I was becoming braver at expressing myself, not only on but also off the dance floor. I was backing and trusting myself more. It just happened naturally.

For example, recently I had to lead a meeting with a new client to implement one of our products, since I am the product specialist. To make this go smoothly, our regional sales manager set up a meeting for me to go through the start-up process. She said that while she was going to be in the meeting, to act is if she wasn’t there. Oh dear!

I noticed my nerves as I was being introduced. The feeling was familiar, but something was different about it now. I was connecting the nerves to an uplifting, exciting sensation. One I got from dance.

You see, at the end of each term at Studio J, the class gets videoed performing the routine they have learned. We doll up, and dance with gusto, as if we were performing to a live audience. Well, close enough to it: the video gets posted on the studio’s social media channels. I feel an adrenaline rush – to get it right, to look boldly, cheekily into the camera as it’s rolling. And, importantly, I have a self-belief that I can do it.

I'm furthest to the left, not in screen view when video starts.

I got the same feeling when I led that meeting. I even have the chutzpah to make a joke. The client is telling us about her new offices in the Docklands. Modern. Floor-to-ceiling windows. An indoor bridge connecting two buildings. It all sounds glamorous. And I say, “Well, welcome to our humble abode.” We all laugh, the ice broken.

Normally, I wouldn’t have the gall to make such a comment. But it’s different now.

At the end of the meeting, after the clients leave, satisfied that they’re in good hands, the sales manager beams at me, “You were brilliant. We are so lucky to have you.” I’m sure I’m glowing, and have grown a few inches taller.

Yes, it’s much more than dance.

This article was originally published on Studio J Dance. You can view it here.

Forbearance is a form of kindness

A couple of weeks ago, I was on my way home from a writers’ retreat on the big island of Hawaii. In the last leg of my flight, from Sydney to Melbourne, I heard a repetitive chant being played in a foreign language. I turned around to see a middle-aged Asian woman sitting directly behind me. She was leaning against the window with her eyes closed and a tiny portable radio wedged in the crook of her neck, between her temple and her shoulder. The volume was audible, but not loud.

“I hope that doesn’t go on for the whole flight,” I thought to myself. In my body, I began to feel hints of annoyance and panic – at the thought of having to bear this for an hour and 20 minutes. To the lady in my row, sitting in the aisle seat, I whispered, “Can you hear that?” “Yes”, she replied with a sparkle in her eyes and her eyebrows raised.

I was fishing for her opinion, so I said, “I hope it stops soon.” Smiling, she responded nonchalantly, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Just ignore it.” A pause as I thought about this, and took in her easy-going nature. “She’s probably scared of flying,” I offered. “Yeah, true. It’s probably a good thing then – her chants might protect us all,” the lady offered back.

The trait this lovely woman was displaying was forbearance – a good-natured tolerance to minor things like delay, incompetence and ignorance. In the Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes that forbearance is a form of generosity. I would like to posit that it’s a form of kindness, too. Generous because you know their behaviour is not about you and so you can easily forgive a fellow human being. And kind because you really don’t know what’s going on in their lives, so you give them (and yourself) the grace of not losing it.

I could take a few leaves out of my plane buddy’s book. I’m sure many of us could. The thing is we humans are great at banding together to fight against great injustices – such as domestic violence, terrorism, treatment of asylum seekers and marriage inequality – but we can become indignant about the small stuff.

Like when someone accidentally bumps into us and doesn’t say sorry. Or when someone abruptly stops in front of us on the footpath to check their phone, or cuts us off while we are driving. We take it personally. We react impulsively. But if you think about it, this is also ‘ignorant’ behaviour. I’d like to insert a pause in between the trigger and my reaction, so I can choose how I respond.

I know that practicing forbearance can be challenging, especially if we’re tired, busy or in a hurry ourselves. Well, at least for me. But if we cultivated it – what kind of world would we live in? Perhaps there would be fewer injustices to fight against because we were kinder to each other? It’d definitely be a happier, more positive place to live in.

While the Asian woman did turn off her portable radio when we took off, I don’t know how I would’ve fared if she played it the entire flight (hopefully simply put my headphones on and listen to music).

Nevertheless, I will always remember my plane buddy – how calming and kind she was, so much so that she was able to instil the same in me at that moment – as a reminder to be more forbearing towards my fellow human beings. Because I know I would be grateful if they afforded me the same.

Guilty for enjoying time alone

Saturday night was a big night. For this 41-year-old introvert anyway.

My husband and I were out celebrating his good friend’s fortieth birthday in a private dining room at a fine dining restaurant with 20 other people. Sounds lovely? Yes, it was. And the food was divine. However, it started at 7.15 pm, and by 11.30 pm, I was itching to go home, to bed and to recharge, as many introverts need to. But it didn’t seem that the others, including my husband, were ready to leave just yet.

So I stayed, because it was in honour of my husband’s dear friend. And it was 1 am, when the restaurant was closing, that most of us finally left (whew!), with a few carrying on elsewhere with the birthday boy.

The thing is, this ‘staying on’ affected me for the rest of my Sunday. I was meant to pop in to see my sister and my nephews on Sunday afternoon, but I couldn’t face any extroversion. I stayed home the whole day, venturing out only to go to yoga (where I don’t really need to interact deeply with others). I cooked, read, napped, coloured in (yes, I have one of those mindfulness colouring books!) and watched TV.

But I felt guilty for choosing solitude over visiting my family. So some of my Sunday was spent googling ‘guilty for enjoying time alone’. I found some great reads that made me feel ‘normal’.

Over time, I’ve realised that my dilemma is accepting my need for plenty of time in solitude. Should I be more self-accepting of this need, I’d be less inclined to feel guilty about hurting other’s feelings or perceive that others will think less of me (or that I’m weird).

I’ve become better as I’ve gotten older, as I’ve become more aware of myself, but the feeling of guilt does get me now an then, as it did on Sunday. It’s a work in progress, which will continue for the rest of my life, no doubt. Hopefully, though, this feeling will soften as I age.

During my Google search, I found on YouTube this video by filmmaker Andrea Dorfman and poet/singer/songwriter Tanya Davis on how to be alone. If you love spending time in solitude, it’s a worthy watch.

Do you feel guilty for needing to spend time alone? What have you done to handle such feelings?

Making someone’s day

Lately, I’ve been trying to cultivate a habit. A habit where my interaction with any human being, including strangers whom I may encounter, does something to uplift their day.

It could be looking the person in the eye and smiling as I walk pass or saying a kind word or two. Or chatting to the person who makes my coffee, enquiring about them and their day – listening to them.

It could be ‘letting someone in’, as I drive in peak hour traffic amongst others with the same agenda – to get to work on time should they face the wrath of their boss if they’re late. Or sending a text or email to a friend to say I’m thinking of them.

To me, these simple acts of kindness are an acknowledgement of someone’s existence; even if these acts take just a spilt second out of your day, they can make a person feel as if they’ve been truly seen or heard. We we all need to consistently feel this to feel – be – human.

But, I must be honest. Making someone’s day is not always top of mind. At times, I’m caught off guard, and react to someone’s rudeness or am in my own busy mind to acknowledge others. If I can just keep the word ‘kindness’ in my brain’s forefront, it might just help me to get there.

What helps is if I have also been kind to myself – that is, taking the time to get enough rest, eat good food, exercise and do the things that give me joy, such as reading a good book and having brunch with a dear friend. If I’m in a good ‘place’, only then I’ll have the brain space to be aware of making someone’s day.

What little acts to you do to make someone’s day? Or what does someone do for you that uplifts your mood?

My holiday traditions

I’ve been doing some work for an online magazine. And of all things, I’m writing about grief and loss.

Writing about a sad topic, especially at this time of year, has, however, offered me some soulful insights. It’s got me thinking about memories – and creating them – for that’s all we have when, sadly, a loved one is no longer with us. It’s the happy memories, and even the silly ones, that keep us going – not the material stuff.

Naturally, I began to think about whether I had any particular traditions for the holiday season to build great memories upon.

My side of the family – as with many families – has a long-standing tradition of Christmas lunch. What I love about it, is the extra specialness of getting together as a clan at this time of year – eating yummy food, which is a mix of Western and Eastern, with goat curry being a staple Christmas dish on our table. It has a certain air about it.

Five years ago, Kris Kringle was introduced for the adults too. And my nephews, aged five and seven, now know they need to hand a gift from under the tree to an adult for each gift they open – to learn the joy of giving too (thank you to a dear friend for this brilliant idea).


IMG_0217-1My husband is into creating his own traditions, the depth of which I’ve just recently realised. I think it bothers him that we don’t have any particular Christmas traditions just for our little nuclear family of two humans and two fur babies. Without children – for children do make it easy to bring Christmas to life – creating traditions, I have found, can easily go by the wayside.

So, as of this year, rather than the conventional Christmas tree, the hubby and I have started a tradition of ‘his and her stockings’. Blue for his, pink for mine. Clichéd, yes, but, at least, they’re not red and green.

Into the stockings we’ll stuff goodies for each other – mostly what we use, want to experience (or eat!), but which are also a little extraordinary. The essence of this tradition is tuning into each other’s needs and desires – that ol’ mindfulness thing again – to gift something meaningful.

Each year, I’ll enjoy creating memories around this ritual – hanging the stockings, being clued into what my husband is saying for gift ideas, and then sneakily wrapping and plopping the wares into his stocking while he’s none the wiser.

We also mark Christmas by hanging a wreath on the front door.

Simplicity is key in our household.

I’m also creating a ritual of catching up with a few friends, who are my closest. It’s our one-on-one time to recap the year over some great food, talk about how far our friendship has come, and to exchange something thoughtful. I also write something special about our relationship in the Chrissie card.

While these customs are not many, and nor are they revolutionary or grand, they’re my little way of celebrating the big day. And, they’re consciously chosen – from the kinships and gifts to the activities and the number of them – making this time of year a deeply pleasurable one, one for creating memories that feed soul.

You can consciously architect your Christmas too.

What traditions do you have? Which ones would you like to let go? Are there any new ones you wish to introduce?

Mother & daughter time

mum-meNext week, I’ll be taking my mum to a vegan cooking and yoga retreat in Hepburn Springs for few days. I’m so looking forward to spending this time away with her, to give her my undivided attention – that’s the intention I have set for those days. Sure, I’ll be doing yoga and learning more about vegan cooking, which I know I’ll enjoy, but they’ll be secondary to ‘simply being’ with my mother.

It may sound like I don’t spend much time with my mum. I probably don’t. Generally because she lives 45 minutes away, and, of course, there’s always something else that ‘needs’ to be done – most of which are not as important as hanging out with her. And when we do get together, the time is punctuated by other diversions – siblings, partners, nephews, cooking, chores – like any other family gatherings, I suppose. So my good intentions of giving her my time, where it’s just the two of us, rarely happens.

This story of my mum and me may resonate with you – cause you to think about what’s important in your life, but that you don’t necessarily make the time for. The adage ‘actions speak louder than words’ rings so true here: what we choose to make time for in our lives speaks volumes about what’s most important to us. (Note to self: social media is not more important than writing, or spending time with my husband.)

When I think of what I care about the most, I keep coming back to this: spending time with my immediate family and close friends, looking after my health (eating real food, walking, yoga, meditation), writing and contributing to the greater community – and to do them with consciousness.

Anything that takes me away from what matters to me deserves very little of my (or no) time. Because try as hard as I might, I can’t do it all – at least, not with full awareness. Besides, it makes life a one big blur, and rather stressful.

So this retreat is a conscious mark of putting what’s important to me first – and cultivating a life of purpose.

What do you want to make conscious time for?