“It was the bloody thaw”

Thaw (n) – A very brief positive moment in a troubled romantic relationship often causing individuals involved to get high on the ephemeral goodness and galvanizing them to go all in for higher stakes without directly addressing underlying deep-seated tensions

It was the bloody thaw!” said a woman just coming out of a two-year long divorce process, when asked why she married him in the first place.  “But after the thaw comes a long ice age.

Drinking a warm cup of tea with me at a corner table in Yangon’s Acacia Tea Salon, she did not seem bitter.  She had since landed her dream job, working for a cause that was dear to her.  She was dating someone new and attending swanky parties in town, surrounded by many friends and family.  As if the dissolution of a 20-year marriage were not enough hurt, the nastiness that surrounded the divorce had left her with financial burdens.  How could anyone be so callous to a loved one?  Yet, there she was, sipping her drink strongly, calmly and parting me with wisdom in the cool ambiance of a Yangon winter night.

It was a love marriage for them, each ticking the other’s check boxes at the time.  Issues which finally led to their downfall were always there.  The couple was cognizant of them, and yet they were genuinely in love and didn’t dwell too long on these signs.  Communications and more commitment would straighten out the differences in time, she had thought.  I have heard of women in troubled unions choosing to have more kids, hoping this would soothe the differences.  I have heard of people moving in together to resolve issues, or getting married to fix a particular kind of tension.  We always live in such different realities, yet in this particular case, more commitment was not the answer.

With the benefit of the hindsight, she admitted to having picked the wrong filter: these check boxes thought to lead to the kind of companionship desired.  The fluff changes over time.  You change.  Your parents change.  Twenty years later, she says that the only critical check box is if, behind all the fluff, your partner is still kind to you and can remain empathetic in times of conflict and disagreement.  Your partner maybe a great parent, a wonderful boss, and a kind neighbor.  But the real personality that counts is not how the person presents him/herself to the outer world, but how he/she relates to you intimately and internally.  The personality X is the one that matters.

I really needed to hear this insight from a more experienced Burmese cosmopolitan woman who was modern and professionally-driven.  We tend to be complicated beings.  In her case, at the time of marriage, she had felt she needed her husband to be “Burmese” in certain ways – to be able to taste ngapi, wear a longyi, or exude a certain kind of Burmese charm – to get along well with her parents.  But as she learned 20 years later, your Burmese parents only want you to be happy in the long run.  This is the kind of checkbox to be pondered with more care, depending on the larger context.  Probably “nice to have” but not critical.

Oh, my mentor lady adds.  Your partner also needs to be comfortable with himself.

To summarize,

  • Does your partner remain kind and empathetic to you in times of conflict?  What happens when you say no?  Do you act kind to your partner when you disagree with him/her?
  • Is he/she comfortable in his/her own skin?
  • Personality X is the one that counts.
  • Fluff changes over time, rethink your “filter,” develop your romantic intuition.
  • Be mindful of the “thaw.”  Throwing in more commitment will not fix underlying tensions.

I have felt an immense level of gratitude that she sat down with me to discuss her divorce, something so personal, and took time to warn me against the dangers of picking wrong filters.  Prior to this tea, I had only recently reconnected her at a birthday party, and we met through a work assignment when I was a summer intern.  She did not need to tell me about her divorce, but she did, and it gave me some guidance to questions I was grappling with as a professionally-driven Burmese woman in mid-twenties.

In my twenties, I do not know what I do not know.  I have not seen enough of the world or people.  The best anyone can do in their twenties is to find a fine balance between being intentional about relationships, coming up with meaningful check boxes, and not getting too hung up, too dogmatic about them all at the same time.

Happy Valentine!

Also, I have started a new tradition to donate to a cause of choice in honor of or in tribute to all former lovers during Valentine Week.  Join me.

Hpaan Retreating

I am utterly exhausted.

Journey

Journeying against the encroaching dark rain clouds

Across a field of Buddhas

Across a field of Buddhas

On a motorbike

On a motorbike

But not altogether all alone.

But not altogether all alone.

In times of stress and pressure, people have different coping mechanisms.

The most effective way to reconnect with myself almost always comes down to two venues: (1) retreat into nature and (2) cooking something really hearty like pork chops. These along with support from my good friends and word of advice from mentors get me through the worst moments, helping me re-align myself.

This time, my way of restoring sanity came in the form of a hike up to Mt. Zwekabin in Hpaan, Karen State of Myanmar.

Still considered part of the “brown zone,” Hpaan is only recently open to tourists.  Downtown Hpaan was under grenade attacks just some two years ago.  Today, the city is under the jurisdiction of two administrations.  You will see grand offices of rebel forces and government offices, right next to a UNDP branch office, along the main road.

The caves in Hpaan are amazing.  Kaw-Kon Cave seems the most spectacular, for it still has the largest collection of original murals from the 12th century.  The hike up to Mt. Zwekabin, the view of 1,000 Buddhas planted at the base of the mountain, narrow steep steps that are slippery from rain; Hpaan humbles me and fills me with a sense of curiosity and wonder for larger things in life.  It is good to be reminded to live for something larger, deeper and more meaningful, out there, even if we do not exactly know what different things mean.

Hpaan is a bizarre little town.  And we did lots of bizarre little things.  Here is why Hpaan is so awesome and sad at the same time:

  • The name “Hpaan” literally means “vomited frog” or “frog vomit” based on the myth of an enraged mother dragon chasing after a frog for swallowing one of the baby dragon eggs. What a gangster frog!

 

  • My travel buddy – an American traveling to the newly peaceful region of Myanmar – LEFT HER PASSPORT! Look at us living our lives on edge.

 

  • Drank red wine at a tea shop. Out of those white tea cups they always have.

 

  • Hpaan’s most popular landmark and the most sacred site in the state, Mt. Zwekabin is said to be under the guardianship of a celestial pair of siblings because the mountain surface, texture and shape looks like a man and a woman.  Which makes me think that in Myanmar, people do not consider romantic love sacred at all. If this were in Latin America, a large protruding stone mountain shaped in the form of a man and a woman would be dedicated to romantic love.  The myth will be about a couple whose undying love turned them into stones to stay together forever even at the face of misery on earth, or something cheesy like that.  You know the spiel.  But in Myanmar, it’s platonic love that is treated with more respect.

 

  • In a country with world’s highest snack bite deaths, I cannot comprehend how a lot of people can be casually wading into knee-deep water in dark ancient caves of Hpaan, without any electricity.  I just do not get Hpaan people.

A little bit of light here, a little light there.

Clearly, here I am, Eat-Pray-Loving in Hpaan.  Boy troubles, like any other twentysomethings.  I made a mistake.  But isn’t now the time we are supposed to be making mistakes?  The earlier, the better.

Earlier this year, on a work trip, I got a chance to share a long car ride with Michael Joseph, then CEO of Vodafone and an incredibly wise man.  He commented that you are already doing really well if you are getting only 80% right.  The more important thing is not to keep repeating the same mistake.  All our perceptions of relationship and love will be colored by our parents’ experience.  But you live up to your life and things happen for a reason.  He then went on telling me about how a mistake and a loss in personal life led to a gain in career which then allowed him to be who he is today.  Smart life and love advice from wise business people.

Cheers to that.  And remember the 80-20 rule.

Powering through

Narrow path

 

A universe that includes you can’t be all bad, but does it?

Quiz time. What do you get when you try to summarize Eat, Pray, Love into three passages while you are in a very bad mood? Answer: “Postcards” by Margaret Atwood, who is of course a little darker and better than Elizabeth Gilbert.

That was a sloppy comparison, I admit, but you get what I mean. Both works reflect disintegration, decay, and disappointment while wandering about strange, new lands in solitude. And both make perfect reads after any confusing breakup. It is also clear the postcard-writer in Atwood’s poem is not visiting some charming little gelatoria in Italy. Atwood’s poem is gender-neutral while Gilbert clearly appeals to upper middle class women from the US. In fact, Atwood is not even limiting the relationship of the postcard-writer to be that of a romantic nature. So, please feel free to use your imagination and do not let me color your experience with the poem if it is new to you.

What is it about the impulse to travel alone after a breakup? An attempt to escape? A way to rejuvenate? To pause and think? To prove you could still survive fine on your own? Just to maintain an aura of staying productive while you are feeling so distraught to do your real work?

To break up is to disperse, separate and go in different directions. It makes perfect sense that you feel compelled to go somewhere. Packing up and leaving for a destination seem dramatic enough that you feel you are accomplishing something, but normal enough that you can fit the journey relatively easily into your life. Traveling to new places lets you drown yourself out in bursting stimuli coming at you through all different senses, and distracts you from your troubles. Hey here is a new business idea: “Newly-singles tour packages.” You can have one arrangement for the breakup initiator and market differently to those on the receiving ends. Word.

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Postcards

I’m thinking about you. What else an I say?
The palm trees on the reverse
are a delusion; so is the pink sand.
What we have are the usual
fractured coke bottles and the smell
of backed-up drains, too sweet,
like a mango on the verge
of rot, which we have also.
The air clear sweat, mosquitoes
& their tracks; birds & elusive.

Time comes in waves here, a sickness, one
day after the other rolling on;
I move up, it’s called
awake, then down into the uneasy
nights but never
forward. The roosters crow
for hours before dawn, and a prodded
child howls & howls
on the pocked road to school.
In the hold with the baggage
there are two prisoners,
their heads shaved by bayonets, & ten crates
of queasy chicks. Each spring
there’s race of cripples, from the store
to the church. This is the sort of junk
I carry with me; and a clipping
about democracy from the local paper.

Outside the window
they’re building the damn hotel,
nail by nail, someone’s
crumbling dream. A universe that includes you
can’t be all bad, but
does it? At this distance
you’re a mirage, a glossy image
fixed in the posture
of the last time I saw you.
Turn you over, there’s the place
for the address. Wish you were
here. Love comes
in waves like the ocean, a sickness which goes on
& on, a hollow cave
in the head, filling & pounding, a kicked ear.

– Margaret Atwood

Comfort food: a Zen-inspired dinner

Not knowing what you want and not acknowledging your feelings are the most detrimental things you can ever do to your personal happiness. If you combine this emotional self-dishonesty with distrust, impulsivity and a tendency for control, you get a recipe for failure. Due to a twisted fate, I am somehow convinced that the true marker of getting over someone is to be with another person. Practically speaking, a relationship status is the only tangible, visible indicator. Is it not?

And my status for this Valentine says single. That is despite my rushing in and artificially foisting upon a special kind of connection. After all, what does it mean to get over someone? Is it when you stop feeling attraction for the person? How do you get over someone when there was very little to begin with? Or what if you can never remove that chemistry?

Time and distance continue to be the answer. Meanwhile, some zen should help, and maybe some zen-inspired community dinner, consisting of carrot rice, tofu satay and baked apples. It was a truly warm, comforting meal.

Here’s a very suitable Margaret Atwood quote from one of her most known works, The Handmaid’s Tale:

“Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.

And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.

There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.”

Hard to remove spirituality from love, isn’t it? Thoughts?