Wednesday, July 13, 2011

everybody wants to be ugly

"Every body is beautiful". It's a feminist mantra, it's Dove's advertising campaign, it's the promise made by mothers and cosmetic companies and new age spiritualists. But I don't want to be beautiful anymore. I want to be ugly.

I want to be ugly because I want to be honest. I want the freedom not to be pretty. Not to be cute, or sweet, or interesting. To be tired, or frightening, or plain. To be blatantly, nakedly, ugly ole me. When I talk to people I want to hear their struggles, their challenges, and I want to tell them the truth: that I don't always want to meditate, that traveling alone is often hard and boring and frightening, that I argue with my husband and that I miss smoking cigarettes.

I can't tell everyone I meet everything. And in the online realm, I can't present it all, either. But I aim to maintain digital honesty - the rough unedited rawness without a braying for recognition. When I create blogs or profiles, I open myself up to interpretation. I have a responsibility to decide how much I share and with whom. But I also have a responsibility to be honest.

I allegedly blog, post, Facebook to convey truth, and yet I often strive to share a polished picture of myself. But I also work against this, to make sure my ego's sense of my beautiful self doesn't get out of hand.

Contemplating my relationship to nakedness and beauty led to an exploration of ugliness.

Publicly posted photos have unwritten rules that dictate a sliding scale of acceptablity. Those of pulled faces and intentional blasé are at the top of the pile...

...followed by those we defiantly upload to prove we don't care how we look in fancy dress or ridiculous head garb:
Then there are those posted by friends who we wish had captured us at a better angle. But to ask to remove the photos would be admitting our vanity. (See below for eg1. Smooshed Smile and eg2. Frantic Face). We experience the internal struggle: to Untag or not to Untag.

Next are the unflattering ones where we're caught with a mouth full of food:

And then there are the old selves. Perhaps we've taken them down, telling ourselves they're out of date. But that doesn't explain why our sixth grade photo stays up without an eyelash bat. Perhaps we can see too clearly how we were with ourselves, how we stood and how we looked at the camera.

These are who I was at that time. I remind myself as I write this how I look shouldn't matter.

So what happened when I originally posted all these unflattering photos? Not much. No one cared. There are too many blogs, too many posts, for people to notice a few bad photos. Internally, though, I react to every one. With loathing, with embarrassment, with affected nonchalance, but rarely with an honest equanimity.

They all make me squirm on some level, but they're not exactly ugly. So then I wondered...what if I purposely posted ugly photos?

And there, hiding behind the very thing I thought I was trying to avoid, I found liberation. I found freedom to not just allow my bad angles to be broadcast, but to actively, honestly, try to make myself ugly.

If people see me at my worst, I can stop trying to look my best.

I started looking through my photo archive to find photos of myself looking ugly, seeking to make a horror face horror show. But I couldn't find many.

I'm blindsided so often by billboards and magazines and even friends' cooing encouragements that my standards creep up to photoshopped airbrushed heights. But when I brought myself back down to the realm of normal, I could only classify a few of my past pictures as bordering on bad.

So I tried to take some. Then came the second revelation. I realised: it's actually quite difficult.

I've been so worried about trying to get the right angle when someone takes out a camera that I forgot that it's an effort to be ugly.

As I found more pictures, took more photos, contemplated what I need to do to make myself ugly...
...something unexpected happened.

The next time I looked in the mirror, I didn't see my imperfect skin or my warbling tummy. I saw a reflection of a body, with all these bits that on their own are fascinating. I have two legs, two arms, a waist, a neck. I'm not eating so I don't have to look. I'm not starving or starving myself.

I had to work pretty hard to get ugly.
Most surprisingly, I found it difficult to be ugly naked. I wonder how to digitally bare my base self? Reading a book naked, even with a paper bag over my head, didn't add up to ugliness.

Now when I get out of the shower, or fold over in yoga and see my tummy rolls stack up, or see my skin in a bad light, I don't sigh so loudly. My body is amazing.

Not beautiful, not cute, not pretty, not skinny, not curvy, not special. It might be all of those things. But taking on being ugly means I've taken it apart. And it isn't a sum of thigh measurements or swimsuit sizes or paper bags or Facebook photos. If I can be everything I've been on this page, then I have the freedom to become anything I want.

Friday, July 1, 2011

where I write

I write in the small soft space between bedcovers and eyelashes, in the place you settle into before you drift off. My favourite place to find words is in the sunshine on my duvet, but second place is between the raindrops on the window I see when my head’s down on the pillow.From my bed, I reach my dictionary and diaries off the shelf. I sit cross-legged with notes and rough drafts spread across the comforter. I sprawl on my stomach to tap on my laptop. I sit up against the headboard; the room becomes my head space; I slip into the dream story world. I glance up through the windowpanes when I need freedom from lower case thoughts, but then burrow back into tender down-filled definitions, before finally slipping book covers and laptops shut to go to sleep.

I write in between places, on the subway and sitting down on bridges. I grab words that whizz by like tube stops and slam them down onto the paper before they zoom away again. 

I write up down staircases. I sit on the side and squish against the wall so when ladies walk by with their dogs they become the next character in my stories about shoes.

I write in secret sunshine places, following the light from park benches onto balconies and the roofs of neighbours' houses.

I write in refracted rain, with the silhouettes of the light inside me reflecting on the windowpane and the shiny screen.

I write on cold park benches beside bamboo, where coloured pencils colour my words. All the adjectives a in pink, the nouns bright green. It takes me longer to get it all down, but colour coding helps me remember what I meant.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Confessions of a Buddhist's Celebrity Crush

So I am a Buddhist, and I'm married, and I have a crush on a celebrity. Like most things that come up for me in my practice, I am surprised. I assume that because I practice the Dharma, I should be immediately released of all worldly emotions, including impatience, doubt, and of course, craving and lust. I also assume I should declare my renunciation of material things, including new clothes, electronic gadgets, and television.

But in reality renunciation comes in degrees, and I must confess. I do buy clothes, but mostly from charity shops and not as often as I did. I own an iPod, but it's a 2G Nano. And I watch 'television', but only DVDs, and only one boxed DVD at that: The Office.

When I started watching The Office back in 2007, it was already long past its debut on NBC. I watched my roommate's DVD collection and made it half way through season four without a break or any cliffhangers. Pam and Jim were my main reason for watching, and I quaked each time he reached out to her and deflated each time she rejected him. When they finally got together I felt Halpert's personal triumph as my own.

I relocated to England in March of 2007, lived without a TV for months, and forgot about Dunder Mifflin for a few years. I was busy discovering the Dharma and getting married. When I told my new husband Tom about my past obsession and showed him Jim's impersonation of Dwight on You Tube, he bought me Season Four and Five to satiate my craving. I watched them in rapid succession and it was during season five, somewhere around his proposal to Pam, when I fell for Jim Halpert.

I awoke this morning in a sweat thinking I'd cheated on my husband with Jim. I had all the guilt, fear, and shame of breaking up TV's favourite couple and my own relationship in one lucid dream. Let me be clear - I'm in love with Jim Halpert, not his equally aesthetically pleasing but not as adorable alter-ego, John Krasinki (although this picture tempted me to change my mind). But no, Jim's not so suave, not so certain. The only thing he knows for sure is how much he loves Pam.

At first I thought it might just be my identification with the character. Watching Jim woo Pam brings back the visceral feelings of unrequited love of high school crushes. I pined from afar, wished and hoped and prayed the one I loved would notice me, I dreamed up elaborate plans and stories to fuel my infatuation. Jim's pursuit of Pam reminded me of the sweet suffering I made for myself, but also convinced myself I couldn't avoid. The dramatic ideals of love at first sight and never giving up played out in their courtship as they did in my adolescence. So while I recognised in Jim my tendencies to inflate my fantasies and pursue the unattainable, I recognised in Pam the girl I desperately wanted to be.

The crush taps into the idealism of youthful virginity, to the times before anyone had broken my heart, when a boyfriend would solve all my problems, and when all I needed was the right guy to smile at me. Forget compassion, companionship, and enduring love; I wanted passion, ardor, and lust. But I wanted them framed with soft pink roses and slipped between clean bed sheets. I wanted music to swell when I turned around to see him leaning on a door frame, I wanted to walk in the rain without having to mop up the puddles when I got home, I wanted to tumble into bed without worrying about the condom or about getting pregnant (yes, I know, I saw the last episode of Season 5 - but I can't get Season 6 or 7 over here yet, so don't tell me if it's actually true or what happens!).

And an imaginary lover in a soundtracked TV series can give you all those things. Because he isn't real, he never fails to live up to expectations. Isn't human, isn't falliable, but rather waits at the gate of your consciousness until you're ready to call him in. But he won't do your laundry, cook you dinner, leave love notes for you on the kitchen table or sweep you off to Paris in the springtime.

One of the Buddha's teachings is to "guard the doors of the senses". As we become more aware of what we react to, what we grab hold of and run with, we can choose what to expose ourselves to and what to indulge in. If I sold my Office DVDs and disconnected the internet, I wouldn't catch glimpses of Jim or watch spliced together montages of his and Pam's flirtations. And so then I wouldn't move on to the indulgent ideas of what it might be like if I were Pam, or if my husband were Jim. So really, for the sake of my heart and maybe my marriage, I should give up the show. Alas, though, I am no forest renunciant, and I can't make the break.

So what is the remedy? How do I remind myself that I love my husband and that no one, not even Jim Halpert, would make me as happy as he does? With small things. Recollecting my three-dimensional journey that brought me here, and how it wouldn't fit in a half-hour sitcom. How I did meet some guys who smiled at me, who I was certain were right - and how our actual relationships played out, ending in heartbreak, emotional blackmail, and bad poetry. Remembering how many things looked so good on paper and played out so inconsistently. How when I met Tom I learned you fall in love over ironing sheets and watching clouds, and how when I married him it wasn't a whim, it wasn't fleeting, it was a promise and a dedication and a commitment.

And how when he shrugs and smirks and puts his hands in his pockets, he looks a little like Jim.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

going back to India

A friend of mine leaves for India on 8 March, 2011. He asks me for travel advice. His request spurs me to slip back through the aperture of my digital camera, sift through my emails home, read back on my diary to reminisce about the culture shock and how I went to the subcontinent looking for a grand adventure, to find only myself.

When I asked people about India before I left, they used same adjective: "Amazing". But they couldn't back up the term with specifics. They flung out images and clichés: cows in the street, camel safaris, warm chapati at road side stalls and families inviting you to lunch in their homes. They talked as if reading from guidebooks or tourist brochures rather than recounting experiences. I visited India in September and October, 2007 with my sister, Tara. She introduced me to her budget travel rules:
1. Always spend time before money.
2. Never take a taxi when you can take a cheaper chauffeured vehicle (insert autorickshaw, becak, bajaj, tuk tuk here). Never take any of these when you can take a bus. Never take a bus when you can walk.
3. Never accep
t the first price.
4. Assume everyone is trying to take advantage of you and work backwards from there.
She shrugged: "There aren't fewer honest, helpful people in India. There are just fifty times the scam artists." We argued about the rules and our experiences over the next month, and came around to each other in some ways, but further distanced in others.

DELHI - The Capital City

A taxi to Paraganj in the middle of the night, collapsing into our hostel room with a mixture of exhaustion and jetlag. Walk around Chaudi Chok marketplace. Visit the Red Fort (and the Kahs Malal within it). National Gandhi Museum.

Delhi alone can be alienating, and the fear of being taken advantage of can keep a wall up. The Indian belief in "baksheer" - money: either tips, bribes, alms, or padding the bill - shows up even in temples.

We walk past a man hunched over on the cement of a curb, his beard in tufts, a raggled shirt collapsed on his shoulders. His left elbow rested on his thigh, his hand hung between his legs as he groped over what the cloth wouldn't cover. We tried not to look at the open gash below the bend in his arm, an open sore almost to the bone. Unsure even if we were walking the right way, we passed in a confused shock. Later, I wondered what Gandhi would have done, or another traveler, or our parents. We questioned the human, the rational, the realistic as we wondered that biting conditional of "should". Self-admonishment for a blind eye gave way to a helpless "but what could we do?" and worries about our own safety, nevermind his. I saw us in the waiting room of a hospital, flies collecting on his arm, on ours. Did he come from one, a hospital waiting room that couldn't afford to keep him? If I helped him, who else was I to stop and help on this, my vacation time? I told myself I can't help them all. The truth was I don't want to help this one.

That guilt pervaded all my experie
nces, the coin cans in the hands of mothers jangled at the sides of my conscience. I never reached a resolution, of who to give to and what to give and what I owed for being there. So in the end I give nothing.

We decide to see only one state, confining ourselves to Rajasthan, a place of sand and kings, where the bolts of fabric made up for the barren landscape, where I learned to do nothing and think less than that. We embarked on a triangle journey to bring us full circle back to Delhi in a month's time.

AGRA - The Taj City

The insanity of Delhi fed into the ov
erbearing tourism of Agra, a city built on the rupees brought in by the draw of the Taj Mahal. Taj Ganj, the area immediately around the world class monument, stifles with artificiality as it caters to every palate and cultural paradigm and thus robs itself of any authenticity.

After taking in the Taj at sunrise, I conceded it lived up to every expectation, picture, quotation. The Taj Mahal dwarfed even my conceptualized ideal. It is just as white, as majestic, as pristine as every postcard and every recollection you've heard. I watched the sunrise over the white marble and marveled at the stones inlaid in the "teardrop on the face of time". The inlays of mother of pearl and semi-precious stones reflect the light off the polished marble, and every one of the 20,000 workers and elephants who chiseled, carved, bricklayed, and otherwise toiled over 22 years leave a bit of themselves behind in this tapestry of talents.

I visit the Taj, the Baby Taj, and Agra Fort, sidestepping cows. They're docile, sacred animals, and wander where they please. I wonder who owns them, who feeds them, what happens when they die. I only know they're not eaten. While "non-veg" restaurants serve up chicken and sometimes lamb, there is no beef here.

I stopped beside a fruit stand to handle a mango. In the shop beside it, two sheets hung and as the breeze parted them, I peered in to find a skinless, headless carcass hanging, separated from me by only an open gutter. Don't eat the meat.

The couple next to us in a restaurant shared Purell: he uncapped it and squirtted it into her hands, held out and cupped expectantly. The disinfectant smell wandered over, familiar to tourists in the same way the wafts of fried pakora and samosa batter slithered up the local streets.

India is, at first, exhausting. And for reasons which surprised me. Traveler propaganda promised an experience unlike any other - a rush of exciting happenings, Incredible India. The reality is less epic. Autorickshaws pursued me for blocks and many minutes, no matter how many times I insisted I would rather walk. At first, a sense of humor armoured me against their eyes, and I laughed through each new approach. But then I became unsure if they were humoured in return. It was unnerving, and I brought my back up instead of relaxing into the culture. Who am I as a tourist with the same colour skin and heritage as past colonizers to suggest how I should be treated? Instead of answering I look away, at the temples and the palaces and the cows walking down the street.

JAIPUR - The Pink City

But later I resolved to stop being a cynic and embrace happiness. Despite all the propoganda on scams and tourist traps, I realized most people genuinely want to help, or at least just honestly do business with you. In Delhi and Agra, inflated prices and bargaining are a way of life, but in Jaipur people charged the going rate - the tourist rate, yes, but straight-up nevertheless.
There's an upside to politeness. It's not false or phony or disingenuous. It opened up opportunities and left a sweeter taste in my mouth. Tara and I both got colds: it's the dust in Rajasthan, that desert state. I had the sniffles and a bit of a head cold, while Tara was virtually incapacitated, and a little feverish. She regained strength after a few days and copious amounts of tea with lemon and honey.

Jaipur bustled with old bazaars and new money, the old walls of the crumbling Pink City hankering down against the 25 million population outside.
I visit the Birla Temple, white marble glowing in the sun. The bazaars full of fabric and bags of spices, the Hawal Mahal, the City Palace. The Jantar Mantar is an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque collection of architectural astronomical instruments. The Raj Mandir, world's most gaudy cinema. The Amber Fort outside the city.

PUSHKAR - The Ghat City

In Pushkar I rejoiced in the tranquility of a lakefront town - or rather, pond centred. Towns like Pushkar are more laid back, and it's easier to enjoy the views of pilgrims bathing on the ghats.

We sat on rooftop restaurants and watch sunsets over the water.

I started to notice my judgment of other travelers. I looked at them and decided who they were, what they were doing in India, without knowing a thing about them. I didn't think to compare them to me - I couldn't possibly be one of them. The ones wearing American Eagle t-shirts are fearful and unadventurous, new here, greenhorns, they order toast and Marmite at breakfast
and sandwiches and spaghetti bolognese at night. I wonder why they came to India if they never wanted to leave home.

And then we found "Honey and Spice", a shop that sold tofu and toasted nuts and espresso instead of heavy gravies and Nescafé, and I ate there every day. I had to cede defeat on the above point and let go, once again, of my tendency to We go also go on a bike ride and climb a mountain.

UDAIPUR - The Lake City

Udaipur threw the net of its tourism close to the famous Lake Pichola where Octopussy was filmed, but when we struck out into the city itself we couldn't find a vibe to define it. The city's stagnation mimicked its lake and my mindspace, so that I could drift quietly among the algae and collect my thoughts to bring them together and sprout a lily.

We arrived the night of a street festival, with lights hanging above the city and kids smashing hand-held sticks together in celebration. We ate overlooking to famous lake. We visit the City Palace.
A havali beside the river housed clothing exhibitions and we returned in the evening for a traditional dance performance. I posted home two packages from the local post office - set aside a day to do this, and I was told to resign myself to possible never seeing anything in them again. Despite my misgivings, the packages actually arrived home before I did.

JODHPUR - The Blue City

Jodhpur leapt out as our favourite, laid back and liberal whilst still catering to our palates and our desire to blend in. Atop our guest house after the sari market and a plateful of Indian sweets, we reflected that the atmosphere here is laid-back, less frenetic. Tara says it's more liberal, less touristy; more acceptance, less hassle; more strolling, less gawking. We visited the sari market where women threw bolts of silk and embroidered chiffon at us for 50 rupees a piece. After five swathes of fabric I pulled back,
scampering away from the insistent women who wanted us to buy their wares. Accustomed to forward pushes by men and rickshaw wallahs, my first experience of overeager women overpowered my stamina for resistance and forced me to withdraw. I worry I should have bought more, should have found a use for another three or four.
The palace sat above the city in a walled-in fortress. When we looked down from above, the blue buildings of the Brahmins glowed up at us. We visited the fort, the market (full of cows and saris), a mausoleum, and the palace. We drank saffron lassis - rather we ate them with spoons, tasting equal parts citrus, cream, saffron, and sugarcane. The thickness of the yogurt rolled like ice cream over our tongues and mingled with the sweet bite of sugar.

JAISALMER - The Golden City

Or the Sandcastle City. When we arrived here wallahs attacked our bus trying to drag us to guest houses - business seems to have been slow. We evaded them and found our own, walking through the dust and sand.

In Jaisalmer I woke up exhausted by India. I'm not sure if it was the heat or the desert or Tara's insatiable desire to explore, but the idea of walking, or doing yoga, or taking a picture, all seemed too much to begin to attempt.

I continued to renegotiate my travel ideals. "Experiencing India" for me must be, very specifically, a white tourist experiencing tourist India. My brief encounters with the locals were only that, and generally operated in the defined roles of buyer and seller. Gandhi would say, attack the system, not the individual. And unless I want to take on the reform of India's tourist trade in any constructive sense, I decided I may as well play along.

While in other cities the fort is only for show, here people still live within its walls, and the sanitation and growing infrastructure wreaks havoc on the foundations. I visited the fort, the castle inside it, as well as a Jain temple. I paid 50 p to get my hair cut and end up with one side an inch shorter than the other. From here we ventured into the desert for our camel safari.

Being out there on the sand, barefoot and hair full of campfire smoke, reminded me of every solitary beach I'd sat on and every camping experience I'd attempted. I wonder if I experience things only to put my past experiences in some kind of context. I travel to bring into relief the changes in me, the truths, that are usually submerged in normality and routine.

BIKANER - The Last City

Sitting on a train to Bikaner from Jaisalmer, we looked outside to the ornate sandstone benches, carved with intertwined flowers and curlicue, and resisted conversation with the solitary local who wanted to practise his English. The train station formed yet another paradox, where its immaculate construction and cleanliness, absent of grime and urine, seems a crater of cleanliness with all the culture and vivacity scooped out.

In Bikaner, crazy drivers careened around motorcycles and shouted at pedestrians. After a month I thought I'd grown accustomed to the pal-mel driving laws, but India continued to surprise and shock.

We go to the palace and the fort, and we ready ourselves to go home.
Our tour of the Rajasthani triangle, the desert cities of Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaislamer, and Bikaner reveals in each a fort and a palace, but also with their own definitive style.

back in DELHI

We visited the Ba'hi temple which
inspired me with its description of inclusion of all faiths, but when I arrived I felt an emptiness and lack of cohesion in the high ceilinged empty hall.

We found the place of Gandhi's assassination. I knelt in front of the shrine and made an offering to atone for my being there without understanding why.

India holds fragments of deconstructed colonialism, with leftover English grandeur and attempts at modernity. All the cities make it harder to imagine another life - I'm still not sure if this is the India everyone falls in love with. Gandhi wrote a commentary on the Western man's difficulty in accepting a culture so different from their (our?) own: "Our different ways of living, our simplicity, our contentment with small gains, our indifference to the laws of hygiene and sanitation, our slowness in keeping our surroundings clean and tidy, and our stinginess in keeping our houses in good repair - all these, combined with the difference in religion, contributes to the antagonism."

For all the garbage strewn about the cities, and aside from plastic bags, an Indian probably produces as much waste in a week as we do in a day. There was a simpleness, a way of living that does not strive to emulate the West. Statues of Ganesh, identifiable by his elephant trunk, sat in shrines adorned with strings of pink and orange flowers. Men prayed to him as others stepped next door into open public toilets, where only a crumbling wall of tile separated them from my sister and I passing on the sidewalk. If a toilet isn't to be found, people squat on the side of the street, or urinate on fences. Urine trickles and pools in dust, the smell swirls in the heat.

As I squatted over a toilet in a stall without a door as shit fermented in a pile beneath me and a woman in a sari squatted across the room, I repeated like a mantra, "Just piss and go." On my way out a boy and his sister sat on their haunches in the hallway, and I stepped over the trickles of their pee. Out on the street, I walk past a water pump, and further on a trough of open taps to rinse and clean men's hands and necks while urine drips down around their feet.

India took my breath away: it is an amazing, vivacious country. Vivacious and exhausting in equal measures. My introduction to the subcontinent was like a torrid one-month affair, pulling me in and pushing me away in equal measure. My subsequent analysis of it was just as complicated. The culture clash, everything from the predominantly sexist gender roles to the ubiquitous vegetarianism to the car honks and cows on the road, at first overwhelmed and then swept me away as I resigned myself to just ride the wave.