on making lists

listmaking

I like to write lists.

I like to write lists and then re-write them and then separate them and combine them and put some on sticky notes and others in notebooks. It’s not about remembering what I need to do. When I need to remember something, I write it on my hand.

On sticky notes I write the things that I need to carry with me, thoughts that require focus and energy today, things I want to resolve before the sticky side gets fuzzy. Sometimes I have multiple lists : groceries, to do, work tasks, ideas for gifts, books to read. I stick them all to my smart phone (yes, I know there’s an app for that). When I leave the house I decide which ones stay on my desk and which ones get to go with me: which thoughts I am going carry out into the world with me and which ones I need to leave behind.

I buy most of my books for Kindle, so there’s no need to carry my “books to read” list. But it reminds me I should make some time for myself. I enjoy thinking about what might bring someone a smile, and carrying around a list of upcoming birthdays and celebrations brings me a smile.

I procrastinate by making lists. Instead of just tackling an item on the list I might re-write it in a different order – strategizing about the best way to go about my day rather than just going for it. I can’t stand it when one list is written in two different colours of pen. I can’t stand it when lists are written in pencil. Some people would call this OCD, but Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is real for some people so we shouldn’t make light of it.

I write lists in bound notebooks when they require longer term attention, some are ongoing and won’t ever reach “completed” status…they’ll just eventually not make it onto the next revision. I can’t bring myself to cross something off that isn’t done, to simply decide it doesn’t get to be on the list anymore. After all, it was there for a reason. Maybe I write another list called “things I might do someday, if I have time.”

My long list of things I must do is tormenting me right now. It has been for the past couple of months as I try to balance my move to London, changes in my role at work, and constant business travel. Right now I’m in Sweden but my head is in London and my heart is split between Toronto and California.

So today I put “write a blog post” on my list. And I’ll get to cross that one thing off and maybe I’ll get some sleep. Maybe I’ll put that list aside and focus on the lists I like to carry around with me.

Books to Read

  • The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
  • Missoula by Jon Krakauer
  • Fast Girl by Suzy Favor Hamilton
  • Something by Oscar Wilde

Gift Ideas

  • A true story about military history that even my stepfather hasn’t heard of
  • “Welcome to the world” gifts for twins that will make their parents say, “of course that’s from their crazy aunt L”
  • Something my mother doesn’t even know she needs for travelling, but won’t be able to live without
  • Something my sister will love so much that she’ll try to make a DIY version for all of her friends

the girl with the ferret tattoo…a stream of consciousness from Toulouse

Toulouse reminds me of Brussels. It doesn’t feel like the France I know (but I don’t know much about France, really). Sitting by the Garonne as the sun set over the lesser known Pont Neuf, it felt more like Florence, actually.

I literally felt myself slow down today. I’ve been so wired lately, so stressed. My mind is elsewhere, and if I were being honest with myself I’d admit I’d rather be at home in Toronto taking care of the million things I need to do before I move to London.


dougswimmingI miss my dog.

The expense and trouble to take him with me to London are outrageous, but last weekend when he was away at summer camp (the dog-sitter’s cottage, I tell him it’s summer camp so he doesn’t think I’m leaving him behind when I travel) I was reminded that my life is so much better with him in it that it’s worth the trouble.


A man tried to talk to me while I sat on a terrace on the Capitol square, eating Ibérico ham and drinking Rosé. I think he was either offering me a joint or asking for food or both, but I don’t speak French and he wore too much cologne. I said no.

Recently a friend told me I am “stoic” and when I asked her if she meant “cold” she didn’t say no. She said “stoic sounds nicer.” Fair enough. This guy wasn’t someone I’d be the opposite of stoic with, but even if he was I’d probably have reacted the same way.


There’s a girl at the next table with a backpack and a book. She’s probably 24 and she smiles at me when I tell the man to go away. We smile at one another when an American couple gets into a loud argument at a nearby table. Briefly, I consider talking to her. But I don’t know if she speaks English (her book is in French but she seems to understand the conversation going on beside her – the American couple, fighting over something he said yesterday). I feel like she wants to have a conversation.

I don’t talk to her because I don’t have anything to say that will inspire her. I won’t be her Don Bowling. What could I say? Follow my advice and in 6-10 years you’ll have changed completely. You’ll be stoic and cities will start to blend together and you’ll listen to the inner voice telling you that you can wait until next year to have that adventure.

Would my 24 year old self be happy with my almost-31 year old self?

24to31


London is a city of neighbourhoods, like Toronto, like San Francisco. Unlike Amsterdam, Brussels, and Toulouse… they have a centre and build out from it. If my life were a city, it would be a city of neighbourhoods.

I’m moving to London one year to the day after I moved out of the home I owned with Mr. Butterflies and we became officially Separated. He’s taking me to the airport.

I was recently criticized for breaking up wrong. Apparently, it is confusing that we love each other but decided not to be together. This person didn’t think I should expect support in coping with my divorce, if I wasn’t even acting divorced. I don’t care. The compassion we have and continue to show for one another is something I’m proud of.


Who are these women in their high heels and cute dresses? It’s 38*C outside. Why do I feel like the only sweaty tourist sticking to her chair and worrying about whether my t-shirt will show boob sweat?

I tried on some dresses today, but felt out of place. I think my uniform of jeans and a cotton top with comfy shoes will need an upgrade if I’m going to walk on the same sidewalks as Kate Middleton.


saufSauf is not the name of the street I’m on.

This reminds me of the time Mom and I got lost in Brussels because we stayed on Rue street for miles.

How is it possible I have such a poor sense of direction? I wonder if I like wandering around and getting lost because it’s really my only option.


I saw a girl with a ferret tattoo. I think it was a ferret, anyway. I’ve only seen two ferrets, and that’s counting the one on Kindergarten Cop (it’s not a tooo-mah).

I like her maybe-a-ferret tattoo because I’m still thinking about it. It’s intriguing. I like my lace tattoo but it’s not that intriguing.

tyson-dog-tattooWhen I got my tattoo, I felt like so uncool next to the shop full of people who don’t give a fuck what you think about their knuckle tattoos and face tattoos, naked ladies and Koi fish and sugar skulls.My tattoo artist and another artist were chatting over the buzz of the tattoo guns. The other artist said that a guy came in wanting his dog’s face tattooed. She said, “I said okay but I need a photo’ and he said he didn’t have one so I said ‘okay then it will have to be pretty generic for the breed.” And then I asked, “how do you tattoo a dog’s face? Is that even legal?” and I wasn’t trying to be funny and no one laughed. Ooooh, I get it now. So uncool.

it’s what i do

A couple of years ago, I was spending a weekend with my grandparents in a Sacramento suburb. It was a particularly eventful weekend, as a local woman had disappeared from the grocery store parking lot down the street from their retirement village. She had just run out for a few errands then her car was found abandoned and her purse was missing. Her husband of 30+ years was on TV praying for her safe return and explaining there was no way she just took off, she’d never do that, it’s just not in her nature. The community organized search parties, volunteers combed the open fields nearby trying to hold onto hope that she’d be found alive and well. 

During a commercial break I asked my Grandma and aunt a question I already knew the answer to: “if you guys found my car abandoned in a parking lot and my purse missing, what would you think?” Grandma smiled and said she wouldn’t worry, my aunt said she’d probably wonder where the next postcard was coming from. Papa chimed in, “I’d check to see if you took all your shoes with you. If you were going to leave, I think you’d take your shoes.” 

No one would assume the worst. No one would go on TV and say the circumstances were suspicious. Not because they don’t love me or worry about me – they do – but they know me. I’ve never disappeared without telling anyone but can’t say I haven’t thought about it many, many times. Plus, it just seems like something I would do – if you know me. In the decade after leaving my childhood home I lived in 4 cities in 3 countries – averaging 2 years in each until coming to Toronto where I’ve been for about 5.5 years – my record.

I’ve been called adventurous, unreliable, brave, a flight risk. Some people say they’re jealous that I’ve lived in such great cities, but I’ll never forget the person who told me she felt sorry for me because I don’t have roots. In the past 5 months I’ve come to accept that she was probably right – I don’t really have a home. I have people all over the world whom I love and who love me, countless places I know I could go if I needed a place to go. But I’ve also come to accept that I don’t like staying in one place, I like to keep moving, it’s what I do. I take what is important with me and leave the rest behind. I maintain my friendships and preserve my favourite memories and move on to the next blank slate.

Five months ago I wrote about my most recent struggle with what to do next, and my decision to stay in Toronto: 

“I didn’t know if I should stay or go, I just wanted to be somewhere I could feel whole – somewhere I could silence the nagging feeling that my life is missing something. Sometimes traveling drowns out that feeling, other times it is yoga. Often I escape it when I’m laughing with my best friend, other times when I’m taking a bath and listening to Norah Jones…I’ve decided to stay here in Toronto, and to continue on the healing journey I started almost a decade ago…That nagging feeling is silenced for now, I know what I need to do and where I need to be.”

I think that was a nice thing to write on New Year’s Eve – a night notorious for making resolutions you don’t keep (I’m also still not in shape, nor have I finished my knitting project. And by not finished I mean not started). It was certainly true, at that moment and for some moments after that.

I think you see where I’m going with this…

I’m moving to London, England at the end of the summer. It is something to look forward to and something to feel hopeful about. I know what to expect: I know it will be difficult sometimes and lonely often and that I should make the most of it because someday this time in my life will be over and I’ll miss it. I’ve always loved London. I like the gloomy weather and the city’s energy and that I’ll be traveling around Europe again. It’s an amazing opportunity for my career and for our company’s growth. I’ll be back in Toronto often so I’ll have the best of both worlds.

I’m not overcome with excitement, nor am I nervous. I’m happy to be moving there but more than anything I’m feeling calm. This feels right – I don’t know if it is right but I know it will all work out however it is supposed to, and I’ve come to accept that this is just what I do. 

my gramma

I love books. I love reading and l love talking about books. Someday, I want to write a book. I love gifting books I know my loved ones will love… and then calling said loved ones to talk about said books. I like the stories, but I love the words. I underline my favourite passages and pause and think about why the writer chose those words. My heroes are the men and women who use words to paint pictures that don’t leave you any choice but to feel the way they felt when they wrote them.

I record inspirational passages in the journal Mr. Butterflies gave me for my birthday 5 years ago: gifted specifically to let me know that he knows how much I love words. I wonder if the author wrote the passage first and the story around it, or if the prose just came naturally. Did they edit several times to make it seem more poetic or did the sentences form themselves on the fly?

It happens in real life too. In the middle of conversations, I sometimes tune out for a moment and think about why a person chose the words they did. My first memory of this was with my Gramma. Gramma almost never referred to herself in the first person when she talked to me. I noticed, but I never understood why, until I did.

Come sit over here with Gramma.

My Gramma had Her Spot on the couch. There were many couches over the years – the most memorable was her teal and purple sectional with a digital print (it was the 90s, obviously) – it had recliners on the ends and a cupboard in the corner piece. My sister and I stored our prized possessions there: a knock-off “Disney” colouring book, car bingo games, a dollar bill we folded and unfolded into origami elephants and swans and flowers, and most importantly, our Pogs and Slammers.

Her Spot was square in front of the TV: arm’s reach from the phone she used to place orders from QVC. She occasionally looked up from her murder mystery to see if we wanted a hot chocolate or some pasta. Our answer depended on how long it was until dinner – we knew we had to save room for Pillsbury biscuits. We giggled hysterically when the tube popped – it scared us every time. If we could convince her to open a second pack we had to promise to eat them all. She knew a top secret recipe that made her biscuits the best in the whole wide world (it was butter).

When I was a teenager, my life was upside-down. Nothing was okay, everything was fucked up and it seemed like no one understood. She’d invite me to lie down on the couch with my head on her lap. We’d watch the shopping channel and she’d comb my hair back from my face. Absentmindedly and rhythmically, her nails softly scratched a trail from the corner of my eye, along my hairline and behind my ear, down to my shoulder. She’d tell me stories about when I was a little girl, when I lived with her while my parents worked. She’d say “this is how Gramma got you to fall asleep when you was a little girl. You was the sweetest little girl…”

Don’t you dare bring that shit into Gramma’s house on Thanksgiving.

When I was 21 I moved to San Francisco. I loved my new life as a ‘career woman’ – thriving in the big city, being all fancy and stuff. I was jet setting and getting pedicures and all sorts of other extravagant things. I left my fucked up life behind for a fresh start and, for a little while, never looked back. Until I looked back. I found myself lonely and lost, and promptly hopped in the car and drove the 7 hours to Gramma’s house. It was Thanksgiving – my compatriots know but for those who don’t: Thanksgiving is the ultimate American holiday. It’s a bigger deal than all the other holidays combined.

It was Thanksgiving and I was a newly minted grown up and so it seemed time to ‘help’ with the preparations. I couldn’t cook (even if I could have, I wouldn’t have wanted to compete with my uncle’s deep fried turkey). I decided that my contribution to Thanksgiving Dinner would be my mom’s signature: “Orange Stuff”.

Orange Stuff is a Ritz Cracker crust with a Cool Whip/Condensed Milk centre and canned mandarin orange slices. I went grocery shopping, prepared the dessert, washed the dishes, and sat down feeling like an adult. An impeccable dinner was served and I looked around, counting my blessings for being part of such an amazing family. It was time for dessert and I was so proud to pull my dessert out of the fridge and serve it to relatives eagerly awaiting Kathy’s Famous Orange Stuff. The family took turns politely complimenting me, I acknowledged their praise and agreed it was pretty good.

Gramma interrupted my moment, shouting across the table, “what is this?” She clarified “this tastes like diet!” and shot an accusatory look my way. I tried to explain but she interjected: “this ain’t Orange Stuff! What’s this fat free shit?” There was no arguing with her, only apologizing…and of course, laughter. I’ve made Mom’s Orange Stuff twice since and I’ll never again dream of using that fat free shit. I never forget the tenderness in her glance, a softness that she didn’t even try to hide as she “scolded” me.

Gramma loves you so much.

A couple of years ago, I introduced my (then) husband to my Gramma. I was equally proud of each of them, and eager for them to meet one another. They were two of the most important people in my life and they both loved each other immediately (I knew they would). While my Grampa and husband sat inside, I stole a moment with Gramma on the porch. She said, “Gramma loves you so much and is so happy you’re happy.”

 

Since I was too little to remember, my Gramma always referred to herself in the third person. This isn’t the first time I’ve pondered, not even the first time I’ve written about it. It’s the first time I’ve shared because there are many people thinking of her right now, and who she was to them.

My Gramma never talked to me as the woman she was – a woman who had overcome so much, a woman who always put others first, a woman who approached every one of life’s ups and downs with grace and strength. As far as we were concerned, she was just my Gramma. Since long before I came along, she lived her life for everyone else. She was someone’s Gramma, someone’s Momma, someone’s wife and someone’s friend. She talked about herself in the third person – she chose those words – because they reflected how she saw herself and how we all saw her.

a new chapter

I’m happy that in a few hours 2014 will be in the past. It has been one of the more difficult years of my life so far.

My marriage ended in August. It was and continues to be a profoundly sad and heartbreaking backdrop to a lot of other things that, on their own, would be cause for celebration.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what might have been, if things were different, if I was different – but they’re not, I’m not. Slowly, those thoughts are becoming less persistent and are being drowned out by feelings of gratitude. I have experienced real love. I was half of a truly wonderful marriage that just wasn’t meant to be – through no fault of his or mine. The way that Mr. Butterflies and I handled our separation, the way we continue to support one another is something I’m incredibly proud of.

Obviously, a new chapter in my life has begun.

And as usual, that leaves me wondering about my next move. Historically, moving to a new city has been my go-to solution for all of life’s challenges. When I’m not happy with my surroundings, I seek out new ones.

Professionally, it’s been the best year of my life. I co-authored a book, spoke at conferences around the world, and tripled the client base for a software solution we built to automate a methodology I designed. I’m growing my team and am confident about the direction our company is going. Imagine my delight when my boss told me he’d support me if I wanted to leave Toronto – that my job would come with me if I decided to go.

Suddenly my biggest problem was choosing where to go next: back to Amsterdam? San Francisco? Portland? Somewhere entirely new? I was paralyzed by the sheer volume of possibilities.

Life transitions tend to make me introspective, as I’m sure they do for most people. I asked myself why I was leaving, and what I needed to make me happy in a new city.  Mr. Butterflies lovingly suggested I consider whether I was running from something or toward something, and as sound as the advice was, I kind of hated the answer. So what if I was running from something? It’s what I do.

The other thing I do is make lists.

Reasons to stay in Toronto:

  • I have formed very important friendships that I couldn’t possibly live without. I’d be back often though…
  • I’ve been in Toronto for five years – that’s longer than any city since childhood. I’ve been here long enough to develop a routine.  It may sound silly, but if you’re even a little bit of a nomad like me you know how exhausting it can be to find a new hair salon, doctor, yoga studio, etc. With the very memorable exception of being convinced to get bangs (ugh, why did I listen?)- I’m happy with all of the above. I do miss proper cobb salads and unsweetened iced tea though…
  • I own a parka, two pairs of snow boots, and a heaping pile of scarves in every fabric/colour combination you can think of. I can’t think of any other major cities where I could continue to get as much out of the significant investment I’ve made in cold weather gear. Maybe Chicago though…

Reasons to leave Toronto:

  • It would be nice to be closer to friends and family in Oregon, or to go back to my expat life in Amsterdam. But then, I’m lucky enough to have a life that lets me see them more often than some of my friends who live just a few blocks away…
  • I need to get out of my comfort zone. I need to push myself to grow. But staying put seems like the most uncomfortable and challenging thing in the world sometimes…
  • It’s freezing cold here in the winter, and in the summer I get whatever the opposite of Seasonal Affective Disorder is, because it’s so hot and humid I am miserable and just want to stay indoors and whine. There are places with much nicer weather. But when I was in San Francisco I distinctly remember missing the seasons…

My simple list of pros and cons quickly turned into a Rubik’s cube. Or maybe a Venn diagram: every single rationale seemed to fit in the overlapping space as both an argument for staying and one for leaving.

I didn’t know if I should stay or go, I just wanted to be somewhere I could feel whole – somewhere I could silence the nagging feeling that my life is missing something. Sometimes traveling drowns out that feeling, other times it is yoga. Often I escape it when I’m laughing with my best friend, other times when I’m taking a bath and listening to Norah Jones.

Without a clear answer, I decided to give it some time. I say “I decided” like it was a conscious effort to just trust that the right path would reveal itself to me in time. But really, there was no trusting the universe, no patience, no certainty. It was a very uncomfortable few months. But as they tend to do, things worked out. The universe did indeed reveal the right path.

I’ve decided to stay here in Toronto, and to continue on the healing journey I started almost a decade ago. I founded the When You’re Ready Project, a community for survivors of sexual violence (including me) to share our stories and find strength in one another. The Project has a long term vision to create a sexual assault registry so that we can combat the problem using reliable information. I feel like everything before this led me here: my unfortunate experiences as a young woman, my choice of a career in a field focused on innovative uses of data and protecting the privacy of individuals, and making my way to Toronto which is the birthplace of many inspirational and like-minded movements and initiatives.

That nagging feeling is silenced for now, I know what I need to do and where I need to be. I’m about to take a bubble bath, listen to some Norah Jones, then get ready to spend the evening with a dear friend.

In a few hours I will say goodbye to 2014 and gladly ring in the new year feeling thankful for everything that has led me to where I am right now. Years ago, a very special friend shared this poem with me. I’ve carried it with me and read it often, and nothing seems more fitting.

The City by Constantine P. Cavafy

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

on traveling alone as a woman in India

Isn’t it dangerous for a woman to travel alone in India?

Possibly. Likely. Okay…yes. Given the recent highly publicized instances of gang rape and India’s long history of violence against women in general, I think it is fair to say it’s dangerous. But making generalizations about an entire country or its people is an ongoing grievance of mine. Although I’ve been asked the question a number of times, it would be impossible for me to answer, I can only share my perspective…

 Wading in the Arabian Sea

on traveling alone…

Sure, there are some risks to traveling alone…but those are also the most compelling reasons to do so. There is a very real possibility that you could become lost and no one would know where to start looking for you.  I learned many years ago that this specific type of fear/freedom is the adrenaline rush I crave, so I didn’t take any devices with me – no cell phone, computer or tablet (obviously, that’s not for everyone). I love traveling solo and it is a risk worth taking. I worry more about the risk of not ever traveling alone, missing out on the feeling that I can do anything.

That said,  a couple of things to consider when going solo in India:

  • Who is going to look after your bag when you use the bathroom? Western style toilets are a luxury, so if you’re like me you’ll devote many awkward moments to trying to secure your belongings while you hover over a hole in the floor.
  • Prepare to be pitied. When local people learned I was on my own, they always expressed deep concern and sadness for me. In Indian families, three generations live and vacation together; and upon hearing that I have parents, grandparents, siblings, and a husband they were at once confused as to why the whole gang didn’t come and sad for me that I was away from them.

as a woman…

There’s no sense ignoring that fact that women, whether we’re in India or on the couch in our living room, are more vulnerable than men. Throw different cultures into the mix and who knows what to expect.The scariest travel experience I’ve had so far is getting lost in Prague alone, late at night. I turned a corner and was delighted to see the bridge that gave me my bearings, but that quickly faded when I noticed about six men in their early twenties standing around drinking. My only other option was to try and find a detour, but I’d already been lost for about an hour and for all I knew the next street would be even worse.

At first I scolded myself for judging them – maybe they were just a group of friendly young men who would nobly help me find my way. I think that as women we too often let our perceived obligation to be polite override our intuition. That night, I did. I decided to hold my head up high and walk by them with confidence. Luckily I made it only a few steps before deciding to listen to the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I ducked into a doorway, heart pumping, trying to think about what to do next. Run? Haha, nope. I’m neither fast nor coordinated. I’m also lost. Act tough? Let’s see, do tough people wear pink satin dresses? Nope. If I only I could create a distraction at the other end of the street and sneak by while they investigated. I watch too many movies.

I’ll never know where this came from, but I placed my purse against my belly, under my dress. I arched my back and grabbed my side with one hand, holding my purse belly with the other, took a deep breath and walked slowly toward them, slightly pigeon toed and wobbly. They noticed me approaching…one need not know Czech to understand the universal language of catcalling. Two walked toward me and my heartbeat surged, but I stayed in over-exaggerated-fake-pregnant character. And an amazing thing happened when they got close enough to see me on the dimly lit street, they looked at each other disappointed, uttered what I assume was a dismissal, and let me pass. I smiled and nodded and continued to wobble by the other four who paid no more than quick passing glance.

By making myself seem even more vulnerable than a lost foreign girl, alone in a pink dress, I was safer than I know I would have been if I’d tried to assert confidence. There’s enough in that for a whole library of analysis, but I digress. Being a woman can be scary anywhere. We have to be resourceful in ways even we don’t understand, but that’s how it goes.

India was nowhere as scary as that night in Prague. In the rural villages I visited, the people were lovely and the men looked after me in a paternal way. They were very respectful, never invading my space or making me feel threatened. They stare relentlessly, which is a little bit alarming; but I soon realized they were intrigued by my pale skin, or the fact that I was alone, or were trying to figure out if I was from Germany or Australia. I would smile at them and receive the famous Indian head wag and sometimes a friendly conversation.

in India…

I only visited a handful of cities, with most of my time being spent in Rishikesh (Uttarakhand), Padne (Kerala), and Mandrem (Goa); as such, I’m far from qualified to share my experience on what India is like. I was born and raised in the United States and am far from qualified to comment on that country, either. I can tell you what San Francisco was like in the mid 2000’s, or Eastern Oregon in the 1990’s; but only from my own limited perspective. In India, just like any other country in the world, your safety depends on who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, and when.

My first stop was in Rishikesh, nestled in the Himalayan foothills along the Ganges river.  Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world, and was also made famous to the West by The Beatles, who wrote much of the White Album at the Maharishi Mahesh ashram. My first morning there I woke at 6am to catch a class at Yoga Vini at the base of the Lakshman Jhula bridge. At that hour I found the city so peaceful I was inclined to tip toe.  But that particular day was the Holi Festival, so by 10am there was chaos in the streets. Huge crowds gathered in the squares and on the bridge to dance and throw colours and drink Bhang, a cannabis based drink that leaves them feeling rather happy and a little bit fuzzy. I quickly noticed that the only women in the main squares are tourists, most Indian girls are sensible enough to steer clear of the melee.

I’m glad I went and experienced it, but by early afternoon I’d had enough. A few times I was surrounded by groups of boys who would grab me and push themselves against me under the guise of ‘playing Holi’ which normally includes (lingering and sincere, non-sexual) hugs. I had to stay alert and aware of my surroundings, and found that if I pushed them away and they’d set their sights on the next tourist woman.  I was lucky to be there with two male friends and suspect it was the reason the boys weren’t persistent. Experiencing Rishikesh on Holi is like experiencing Amsterdam on King’s Day: one of the best celebrations in the world but a far cry from what the city is like the other 364 days of the year.

With Friends at Holi FestivalHoli was the only time I didn’t feel safe on this trip.  The next leg of my trip was a week in Kasaragod, in the South.  Kerala is known as “God’s Own Country” in part for it’s natural beauty, but also for the religious diversity. Muslims, Hindus, and Christians live side by side peacefully. I stayed in an amazing resort called Oyster Opera, and was looked after by my wonderful host Mr. Gul. Is it safe? Without a doubt.  My entire second week was in Mandrem, Goa, which could have been any other tourist beach town. In Goa I was with a group of about 20 and staying at a nice resort, doing organized activities. Is it safe? Yes – however I think you have to be more wary of people who will take advantage of you. In Kerala I was treated as a guest, whereas in Goa I was, on more than one occasion, a sucker.

I’ve been asked the question many times: is it safe for a woman to travel alone in India? The answer, like most things, depends. For me, it mainly depends on the subtext which is always evident in the person’s tone. Some people ask with curiosity, wondering if they should or could or would. My answer for them is, “maybe not always, but safety should only be one of the factors you consider when choosing an adventure – think about what you have to gain.” Some people ask with a tone of skepticism, they can’t believe anyone would want to, let alone do it.  My answer to them is, “no, probably not. You should really stay home.” An answer I see a lot in travel blogs and articles is that “you just have to be smart about it.” But I disagree. Women do have to be extra alert when we travel in India, but unfortunately being smart doesn’t protect women from men – in India, or anywhere else. My answer, to my loved ones, “totally safe! Don’t worry about me!”

learning to surrender

I’ve determined that the reason India is one of the world’s most spiritual places is that the only way to survive is to completely surrender. You must have blind faith that everything will work out – particularly when it comes to getting around.

I hired a driver to take me from the airport in Mangalore to Padne, Kerala…it was like a 3 hour carnival ride. There is no infrastructure to speak of, just a steady stream of cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles, pedestrians, dogs, and more, all going about their way on what could be called a road if you’re feeling generous. Drivers weave back and forth like a Maypole dance set to a soundtrack of continuous beeping. They honk their horns in Morse code as if to say “watch out, here I come” just before they squeeze between two buses coming head-on, and then they beep “look, we made it” and turn their attention back to the “road” and keep going. Unless there is a cow – everything stops for a cow. The drive was exhausting, and I wasn’t even the one driving; but I made it safely to my destination in time for dinner and decided I was done with that mode of transport.

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When it was time to leave Kerala for Goa, I decided to take the train. Trains can’t weave, right? I had read a lot and talked to others about the rail network in India, and was given the advice to go for it – as long as I could get first or second class AC. I was told to never go lower than 2AC and I should be fine. My driver (not the same driver from Mangalore, a new guy who, instead of an SUV, drove an auto-rickshaw) took me to the train station to buy the ticket. Unfortunately, the train I wanted to take was sold out, so I asked him to take me back to my resort so I could book a flight instead. He pulled out of the train station and turned a different direction than we had come from, but when I asked him why he would only say “is okay, Madam.” Breathe…have faith…surrender…

He took me to a travel agency, where I could get a ticket for a different train: the overnight. My driver explained to the agents when and where I wanted to go, and they told me the price would be just under 500 rupees ($10) for a 9 hour overnight journey. “Really, in 1AC?” “No, Madam, full.” “Okay, 2AC…” “Sleeper Class, Madam.” I was just about to decline, but my driver, ever helpful, interrupted, “Sleeper Class very nice, Madam. My family go as way.” This man had been so kind to me over the last few days, how could I possibly say that this ticket which was good enough for his family was not good enough for me? Have faith…obviously I bought it. Sensing my hesitation he said, “not worry, Madam, I help you ride train.” I had no idea what that meant but somehow it made me feel more at ease.

(Note: this is a photo from user Yann F on Flickr which is pretty much the scene I woke up to in Goa. I don't have any photos of my own, as it was night time and I was trying to avoid drawing extra attention to myself.
This is a photo from Flickr user Yann F which is pretty much the scene I woke up to in Goa. I don’t have any photos of my own, as it was night time and I was trying to avoid drawing even more attention to myself.

Two nights later he picked me up and took me to the “train station” which is more like a platform in the middle of a field. He sat with me until the train arrived, and by “arrived” I mean slowed down long enough that we could jump on, not even coming to a full stop. He helped me find my car and seat, shooed a man out of my berth (a shelf about 2′ wide and 6′ long that folds down from the wall), and ran to jump off the train before it picked up speed, waving at me from the side of the tracks as I left.

I had to climb over people sleeping on the floor and squeeze past people sitting two to a spot to find my cabin. I was on the top berth, and had to put my backpack under another seat – out of my sight. Surrender… I crawled up onto my shelf, offending one young man for failing to remove my shoes, and waking up my neighbour when I accidentally stepped on him. I tried to settle in, but as I looked around the train I realized the other passengers were more confused than I was. Everyone stared, and two people tried to shoo me toward the door. They didn’t speak English, but eventually I realized they thought I was lost, and were trying to help me find the 1st/2nd Class cars. The porter checked my ticket, shrugged, and let me stay.

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Indian people can convey more with a smile than most people can with a song. A woman about my mother’s age was sitting nearby and gave me a smile that said, “don’t worry, I’m here” and the teenage girl across from me said with her eyes “I’m surprised to see you here, but I approve.” There is a very special connection between women that is almost tangible – even silly foreigners like me. I lay awake for a few minutes soaking it all in, but it wasn’t long before the gentle rocking of the train and the rhythmic snoring of my fellow passengers put me into the deepest sleep I’d had in days.  I woke up a few times during the trip to find even more passengers crowded in, and the ones who were still awake had been staring at me as I slept. They didn’t look away when I woke up and saw them, only smiled. I smiled back, as my train adventure in India is my favourite travel memory so far.

going home

I’ve been in five cities in the past two weeks, and each of them was in some way, home. I’ve spent days and nights on planes – and many hours lying in bed awake, fighting jet lag. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on each version of myself, who lived in these places – before and after – and the lessons I learned in between. Each of these places shaped in me in some way and this serendipitous mini-tour, like so many things in my life, would not have worked out as well if I had tried to plan it. The timing is appropriate, as approaching a milestone (in this case, a birthday) always seems to be a time for introspection.

I started today (Mother’s Day) in Boise, Idaho. I flew in yesterday to surprise my sister for her birthday – she was very surprised, and it was a wonderful day. I never lived in Boise, but today it was home because my family was there. It was home because my sister’s laugh pierced the silence when she saw me at her church and exclaimed “I thought you were a homeless person!” It was home because my step father brought his rototiller and tilled her garden while the rest of us shopped. It was home because I brought pants for my mom to sew, and because she wore her favourite apron while she made me lunch.

SistersI was set to fly home this afternoon after less than 24 hours with my family, back to Toronto via Denver. The weather had other plans – a snow storm in Denver grounded flights just long enough to ensure I missed my connection. So Air Canada re-routed me through San Francisco to catch the red-eye home. Four hours in San Francisco was just enough time to catch BART into the city for dinner with my other “Little Sister” and her boyfriend and daughter. My Little Sister and I spent every Saturday together for almost two years. We were matched when she was 14 and I was 21, and to this day I wonder what I was thinking – making a commitment like that at such an upside down time in my own life – volunteering to provide guidance to a girl who knew more about life than I did at the time, and still does. The early days of that relationship were the most difficult, heartbreaking experience I’d ever had. I haven’t figured out what drove me to enrol in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, but I’m thankful for whatever it was. Once my Little Sis and I hit our stride, our relationship grew into one of the best and most important ones in my life. We still keep in touch, and today I got to spent time with my niece who is almost 3 and loves to sing the alphabet song and dance.

Last weekend I’d just returned from a business trip to London, which was almost home at one time, and sort of home for a short time. I spent a great deal of time there in 2009, and in many ways it felt more like home than Amsterdam.  People spoke English and the work culture was similar to the US, relative to the Netherlands anyway. London was the place I’d always dreamed of going, and it did not disappoint. My first time there I ran from one side of the city, trying to see everything in a day. I’m hanging on to a pair of brown Asics that I literally wore out that day. The Tube was the first foreign transit system I mastered, leaving me feeling triumphant and independent and like I could do anything (little known fact about me: I still (internally) fist pump when I get where I want to go in one shot on transit in a new city). Being in London last week, minding the gap and trying to remember to “Look Right” when crossing the street, it was impossible not to think about what my life would look like now if I’d accepted the offer of an 18 month rotation to the Canary Wharf office instead of the permanent role in Toronto.

Kings DayBusiness took me to London for 7 days, so I took advantage of the opportunity to spend the weekend in Amsterdam for the first ever King’s Day (formerly known as Queen’s Day). I celebrated with old friends and reminisced about expat life, but was a little bit sad when I realized I’m the only one reminiscing, they’re still living it. I can’t believe it has been five years since I lived there (I also can’t believe I just used that cliche). I wonder if I could go back…I mean I know I could physically go back, but could I mentally and emotionally? (Here comes another one…) can you ever really go home?

These are the things on my mind as I finally depart for my actual home: Toronto. My life is in Toronto: my husband, my friends, my career, and my little dog too. I’ve now been in Toronto for 5 years – that’s longer than any other city since I left my parents’ home at 17. I own a home there. Somehow the city doesn’t feel like home, but somehow that’s okay. Spending these past few weeks visiting past versions of my life has made me realize that home is not a place (there I go again – last one, promise).

up hill both ways

I write this post from the edge of my seat. The edge of my seat at this time being the terrace of a Bed & Breakfast in Cape Cod (the 1750 Inn at Sandwich Center, which is fantastic, by the way), wine at my side.  I’m here on a mini-honeymoon/ birthday getaway with Mr. Butterflies.  Today we saw a humpback whale fully breach, bought a light house fridge magnet, shared a lobster roll, and called it a night.  We considered going “out” but all the places the guidebook suggested sounded like they’d probably be loud or crowded or expensive. So we came back to the B&B for a glass of port and some lovely conversation with an elderly couple from upstate New York.

In the last six weeks I’ve felt like I’m in one of those rom-com movie montages.  You know what I mean… star-crossed lovers go their separate ways due to a huge someday-we’re-going-to-laugh-about-this misunderstanding but each of them keeps having little moments (accompanied, of course, by sentimental music) that eventually lead them both to realize they’ve made a mistake and go running through an airport, weaving through traffic, or some other dramatic and triumphant situation which is literally NEVER possible in real life. Have you ever tried to  run through an airport? I digress.

Anyway, back to my montage. My montage hasn’t made me feel like I’m missing anything or making any huge mistakes and I won’t be running through an airport any time soon (for several reasons).  Life is wonderful and I wouldn’t switch its course for anything. My montage has made me realize I’m aging. I know, I know – I’m not old. 28 is not old, 30 is not old, 40 is not old, I’m not even sure if 50 is old.  Put that on my list – I now think 40 is young.

FADE IN – TORONTO EATON CENTRE – SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN JULY

Twenty-eight year old woman wearing sensible shoes* and carrying a purse containing band-aids, hand sanitizer, and a wallet full of coupons walks into American Eagle. She winces at the volume of the music and shakes her head at the silliness of the song lyrics…why can’t they play some Norah Jones?

I went to American Eagle in search of the brightly coloured jeans that all the kids seem to be wearing these days, pleased to find a pair of bright red ones right away. I tried them on. The fit was not quite right, so I asked a charming young lady whose shorts covered less skin than my bathing suit if she could get them for me in a higher rise fit. She raised her eyebrows, smacked her gum and said, “We don’t have any, but you could try Sears.” I know, right? Sears? But the worst part: my first thought was “who does this sassy brat think she is, smacking her gum at me? When I was her age I had two waitressing jobs and would NEVER have smacked my gum at anyone, let alone a customer.” I thanked her through clenched teeth and left the store. I didn’t go to Sears.

SEPHORA – SAME AFTERNOON

Empty handed and lost in thought, pondering the likely reasonable price of jeans at Sears, woman wanders into store selling hundreds of varieties of bottles promising eternal youth (priced accordingly).

Not yet ready to head back outside into sticky hot Toronto summer, I decided my trip to the mall wouldn’t be entirely unproductive if I picked up some of the moisturizer I was almost out of. I didn’t find it so I asked a girl who might have been Gum Smacker’s younger sister. She let me know they were out but suggested I try another product. I’ve been using the same lotion for over 10 years (put that on the list – saying things were “over X years ago”) but wasn’t completely opposed to the idea. She squeezed a small amount onto the back of my hand and squeaked, “I think you’ll really love this. It’s the one my Mom uses.” A comic book BAM! appeared in a starburst above my head.  I left and went to Sears.

NONDESCRIPT TORONTO SIDEWALK – SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN AUGUST

Woman, in same sensible shoes, carrying same oversized purse (contents of which now also include sunscreen and some Tums) walks on the arm of a handsome gentleman who patiently explains to her that Gary Busey is not Nick Nolte. She is confused.

These days, opportunities for Mr. and I to ask each other “what should we do today?” are coming fewer and farther between. So when we get one, we relish it.  We started this one with an impromptu brunch with another couple, met up with a few other friends downtown, and as the sun went down were patting ourselves on the back for leaving the laundry unwashed and the mail unopened and getting out to enjoy the day. It was just after 7pm when Mr. asked if I’d like to see a movie…

Mr.: Would you like to see a movie? We’re right next to the Rainbow Theatre. I like that one because its old and teenagers don’t go there to hang out.

Me: Ugh, me too. Tweens are the worst. What should we see?
Mr.: Expendables 2?
Me: That sounds a little violent…plus, I didn’t see Expendables 1.
Mr.: ParaNorman? That’s a kids’ movie…
Me: Is it in 3D? You know I can’t watch 3D.
Mr.: What about Dark Night Rises?
Me: Is that Batman?
Mr: (Sigh) Yes.
Me: Is Batman Christian Bale or Tobey Maguire? I hate Tobey Maguire, he’s the worst.
Mr.: (Sigh) Christian Bale is Batman.
Me: Good, I hated Tobey Maguire in X-Men First Class. Yes, let’s see that one.
Mr.: That wasn’t Tobey Maguire, that was…never mind…Dark Knight starts at 8:15pm.
Me: WHAT?! 8:15? I can’t stay up that late, you know I’ll fall asleep.
Mr.: Sigh.
Me: No, you know what? Not today. Today is Spontaneous Sunday and we are going to go to the movies.
Mr.: You can sleep on my shoulder.

Where are we on our list? Here are the top ten ways I know I’m getting older:

  1. 40 seems young.
  2. Young people think I seem old.
  3. I start thoughts and/or sentences with, “When I was that age…”
  4. Anything after 8pm is late.
  5. I sleep through movies and wake up part way through to “whisper” loudly while other people glare. I order water because I can’t drink caffeine after 3pm.
  6. Music is too loud, crowds are too crowded.
  7. Prices seem absurd. I say so.
  8. People have started using “for your age” in a new way.  What used to be “you’ve accomplished a lot in your career for your age” is now “you’ve got pretty good skin for your age.”
  9. I say things like “I watched a YouTube” and “she Twittered about it.”
  10. I know how fortunate I am.

Aging, so far, has been pretty good to me. I wouldn’t trade my comfortable shoes for low rise jeans and I wouldn’t trade quiet nights in with my husband for anything.

*Minnetonka Moccasins are the BEST SHOES EVER. I don’t care if they’re not fashionable, they’re great. I’m starting a list of of the wonderful things about aging. Put this one on my list: people not only don’t care, they expect you to wear ugly shoes.

Update: Blog post is finished. Husband is snoring sleeping peacefully next to me in the bed. The best thing about growing older is doing so with someone wonderful. And older. Put that on the list.

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Mrs. Butterflies

When I log into the edge of my seat after several months without posting a blog entry I typically read through the last several posts and ask myself “what has happened since?” This time it is hard to answer, there are so many things. I’m not so narcissistic as to think you care about all the details but just enough to think you’ll be interested in the highlights.

A few weeks after we got back from Europe, Mr. Butterflies proposed. Everything about it was perfect and romantic and magical. And it started in motion a series of events that have gone by in a big blur of awesome.

We spent the first few weeks of our engagement getting used to the word “fiancé” (which is fun to say on a few different levels) and talking a thousand miles an hour about wedding plans. It has to be fun, and classy but not uptight. And there has to be good food and we’ll source it locally, and we want people to dance. And we’ll serve awesome beer. A short ceremony, with a little bit of humour – sentimental but not cheesy. The venue will be unique and interesting and somewhere that is special to us. It will be vintage meets rustic, and the perfect balance between masculine and feminine. I bought magazines and subscribed to blogs like Green Wedding Shoes and Style me Pretty and pored over the photos, bookmarking ideas. We made spreadsheets to compare venues and set recurring appointments to block off time to meet vendors. Recent brides are never shocked to hear that the fun of wedding planning began to wear off after a few weeks.

Fast forward through a few jaw-dropping realizations about the cost of a wedding in Toronto and the politics of formulating a guest list…hearing ourselves say aloud “we won’t be buying a house any time soon, we have to pay for the wedding” was the final straw. So we decided to do what made sense for us: split the wedding into two events.

We got married on a Saturday evening in the wine cellar of Splendido, one of Toronto’s nicer restaurants. There were only 13 guests, and I didn’t even buy new shoes. After dinner we met a few friends at a dive bar known for a great beer selection (The Rhino) and stopped for some late night falafel on the way back to our suite at the Gladstone Hotel. Sunday we nursed hangovers with Thai food and trashy TV and we were back to work on Monday.

Saturday we became husband and wife. I’ve already started going by Mrs. Butterflies and hoping the adrenaline rush I currently get from calling him ‘my husband’ never fades. Our ‘real’ wedding is this summer, and we’re inviting our friends and loved ones to share in that special day. We have the same aspirations for our wedding as before: It has to be fun, and classy but not uptight. And there has to be good food and we’ll source it locally, and we want people to dance. And we’ll serve awesome beer. Only maybe not classy. Advice from married friends tells us that seven months into our marriage will be an opportune time to reaffirm those promises we made.

People ask me if I feel any different as a married woman. Not yet. Being engaged felt different, and being married feels like an extension of that. I’ve started feeling like a ‘grown up’ for the first time. I developed a sense of invincibility as a teenager and held tight to it through my twenties. No matter what happens, I’ll figure it out. I’ll be okay. What’s the worst that could happen? But when I promised to spend my life with him I realized that the ‘with him’ is only one part of that promise. Taking care of him and taking care of myself are one in the same now.

Everything has taken on more meaning. Like what? Like how we LOVE Value Village. There is one in our neighbourhood and we often stop by multiple times a week. And now it is not just something to do, it is a thing. Our thing. One of our many things. A thing that someday we’ll look back and say, “Remember when we moved into our first place together and used to go to Value Village three times a week?” We’ll tell our kids about this and they’ll roll their eyes.

We use this logic to make ourselves feel better about the crappy place we’re renting right now. When the neighbours’ dogs are barking incessantly or their arguing keeps us up at night we think, “Someday this will be a memory” and it seems more funny than not. And this, I’m coming to realize, is the amazing thing about marriage. All those moments can be a thing if you let them be – for the best or for the worst. And as long as we stay on the same page we’ll either be happy together, sad together, or somewhere between things together.

how I see it from where I sit