In yoga, my instructor often says “embrace the wobbles” when we are working on a challenging pose. In order to reach stability, you have to keep your muscles engaged and be patient with the process. To get comfortable, you first have to be uncomfortable.
I went to my first Juneteenth celebration last month in Appomattox, Virginia. This was also the town’s first celebration, significant given both the local population and historical significance of Appomattox. It was here in 1865 that General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate army surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union army and the Civil War was ended. As part of the celebration, there were several speakers including a doctor whose name sadly now escapes me. But she was powerful and passionate and she also said that we are in an uncomfortable position and that’s where we grow. Embrace the wobbles.
In Harry Potter (because in my brain, all roads lead to Harry Potter), there is a conversation in Order of the Phoenix where Ginny tells Harry he should have confided in her about thinking he was being possessed by Lord Voldemort, that she too knows what it’s like to be under his control and confused, having been possessed by him in Chamber of Secrets. Harry’s response is “Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot [that happened to you]” to which Ginny says “Lucky you”.
So what does all of this have to do with anything?
I’m a history buff. Or rather, my parents are history buffs and therefore, it rubbed off on me. For my dad, history is his jam, with particular emphasis on the Civil War. We would take trips to obscure (and not so obscure) Civil War battlefields and watch documentaries on the big players of both the Union and the Confederacy. So I consider myself to know a few random facts about the Civil War and Reconstruction. However, despite Juneteenth appearing in my Google Calendar in recent years, I had no idea what it was. I honestly thought Google had made up a clever June Nineteenth name just ’cause. And boy do I feel ignorant.
In the wake of the protests spreading across the globe following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I felt compelled to do more. I didn’t want to risk protests during a pandemic (although I completely understand and support those who did). I wondered how these protests were different than the ones following Trayvon Martin’s death. How these calls for change were any different than those following the Sandy Hook shooting. Time and again, I’ve seen how people stand up and say “hey, this is wrong and we demand action” and then no action comes of it.
But this does seem different. My way of taking action may not have been public protest but I talked to friends about their feelings, I am examining my own behaviors and knowledge and have found that saying “that’s such a tragedy” or “the cycle of poverty is hard to break” just wasn’t good enough. So my friends and I started a book club. This might seem small in the scheme of things and having never participated in a book club before, had the potential to be derailed but so far, we have been able to not just educate ourselves on a topic but share other resources we have come across.
I take pride in being independent: financially, personally, physically. Pretty much any way you can be considered independent, I value it. But I’m also not above using other people’s Netflix log-ins to save a buck or two. In this quiet and also binge-worthy time of isolation, I’ve been able to catch up on a lot of shows I don’t normally have access to on platforms like Amazon Prime, Hulu and Disney+. This also means, I’m secretly enjoying messing up everyone’s algorithms for what the actual account owners should watch next.
For example, because you watched Fleabag (unfortunately with my dad…don’t watch Fleabag with any parents of any kind…until season 2, then it’s a lot safer), you might enjoy Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. Why yes, thank you, I would. So here are some of my personal recommendations that your algorithm may not have found because your mom watches only documentaries and reads period dramas:
When I was a kid, I was fairly obsessed with history. Not so much the memorizing dates and battlefields but the day-to-day lives of people in the past. This sparked an interest in collecting old photographs which were quite literally a dime a dozen in antique shops. I love photography but I was fascinated by the older photographs which were often portraits with just a name and age scribbled on the back.
During one of my excursions, I came across some old letters. There were only three or so, all addressed to the same woman in Maine from a man called Leon. For years, I thought the recipient of the letters was a woman called Olive. It wasn’t until much later that I realized her name was actually Alice, not Olive. This cracked the first clue in researching who this woman was and who her penpal was as well. It’s sad to read the letters, just one half of the conversation; Alice’s letters in turn to Leon weren’t in my possession.
My young mind imagined perhaps it was a WWI-era romance taking place even if the letters didn’t feel particularly ‘Notebook’-y but census records corrected me. Alice and Leon were cousins whose families had lived together in Maine before Leon enlisted in the Navy. Stationed on the USS Quincy, he wrote in one letter, obviously in response to Alice expressing concern about the Spanish flu, that he didn’t even want to talk about that “bad stuff”.
I know how he feels! These days, we’re all bombarded with Coronavirus news, checking in on each other, wishes to ‘stay safe’. It’s hard to have anything else to talk about except how we’re doing in social distancing and isolation. But Alice and Leon talked about everything but the epidemic in their time, leaving it as just a small note in one of their exchanges. “I don’t want to talk about that, it’s upsetting”. The end.
Things that feel all-consuming in the moment often end up as just a footnote in our personal histories. That huge test you failed in school, the crush who saw you staring at him, the embarrassing presentation you gave in class. In the moment, they were catastrophic but in the long run; just a blip. I’m not saying this pandemic isn’t catastrophic or upsetting, it’s certainly worth a good chapter in history but it doesn’t have to define our lives or futures. What else are we learning in this time, about ourselves, our friends, our values?
At this point, I barely know what day it is let alone how many days we’ve been in lockdown. Like all coronavirus stats, how you count the days varies on a number of factors: are you starting when there was mandated stay-at-home order? Or just suggested? Are you counting when you personally started? Or when the nation did (oh wait, there’s not actually a national stay-at-home order, my bad)?
However you’re counting the days, it’s been a long time. And we seem to have hit the point of “quarantine fatigue” where it’s gone on long enough that we’re going a little nutty and the end isn’t in sight so we’re getting a little antsy to get back to “normal”. But in desiring that sense of normalcy, we also have to consider what is “normal” (said like the Dowager Countess, speculating on the definition of a “weekend”)? Some are saying we will never see the 2019 world again and we must adjust to a new normal.
Right now, I should be in Nepal, wrapping up hiking in the Himalayas. I should have pictures of Cambodia and Vietnam to share, thoughts on a solo birthday trip and hours on janky busses under my belt. A year ago, I was flying to Japan with friends for a long-planned adventure, my first to Asia.
Instead, I’m pondering past journeys and the what-ifs of my travel plans (and let’s be honest, life decisions). To pull me out of this funk though, I was thinking about something a friend said to me early in this self-isolation thing (it was actually only 3 weeks ago but might as well have been another lifetime). I was reading Under the Tuscan Sun for the first time, having been obsessed with the movie for years and years. The movie is a classic chickflick with pasta and wine about a woman (and Sandra Oh pre-Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve) who gets divorced and goes off to Italy to find her appetite for life, buying a rundown villa and putting herself and the home back together again. Basically, Eat Pray Love before Elizabeth Gilbert went through her life crisis and made it into another book/movie.
I often dispute the millennial stereotypes out there that we’re lazy, entitled, live in our parents basements. To be fair, I am a frequent visitor of my sister’s basement but that doesn’t count, I’ve spent my life crashing in on her to watch her TV and eat her food (she has a much better selection of junk food than our parents). And now drink her wine but what are house guests for if not to entertain you and help you replace your provisions?
This whole stay-at-home/social distancing/self-isolation/pandemic situation has meant that for the first time since I was a teenager, I’m living at home with my parents for an extended period of time. Usually I max out at a week for a holiday or occassion of some kind. But this is indefinite. The Virginia Governor has extended his stay-at-home order until June. That’s a long-ass time.
Remember when you were a kid and you were mystified at what your parents did all day and then you would get to their office and play work? My brother and I would play ‘businessmen’ and have cookies for breakfast, pretending they were donuts (that did not fly with our parents). We would set up a little mini desk and raid the supply closet at my dad’s office and scribble memos, write fake checks and generally pretend to be very important business people.
That’s basically what my life feels like now. I set up my little tablet and bluetooth keyboard at some sort of table (usually a kitchen table but currently a coffee table) and check my emails, make notes of who I need to call to cancel something, check my budget spreadsheet and cry a little on the inside, and sometimes bang out a post such as this. It all feels like the make-believe version of life.
I am stubborn. Not in a ‘my way or the highway’ way but in a ‘anything you can do for me, I can do for myself’ way. I don’t like being made to do something I don’t want to do. Such as cancelling my trip half-way through: partially because I was looking forward to it but partially because it was already planned and cancelling would mean making a new plan without time to consider or waffle on it. So before I could change my mind, I up and bought a one-way ticket from Vietnam back to London, in fear of the UK border closing (I am a non-citizen who had been working and living in London but moving out).
I write this not from Vietnam or Cambodia where I intended to be, or even Nepal where I had planned to go in another two weeks to conclude my long-awaited epic journey in Asia. Alas, I write this from the safety of my friend’s home in Surrey. Having decided to leave Vietnam early and with 4 hours until the last minute flight I booked, it was a bit of a whirlwind coming back to the UK. I no longer have a flat here but it was my final destination for my trip and where I had booked a flight back to the US and left my non-Asia clothing. Yes, I could have gone back to the US without going via London but as you’ve noticed, things are changing day by day and at the time, London seemed to be the place to go to lay low for a month until things quieted down.
First lesson: how to pronounce ‘Laos’. My guide told me that it is the Lao (silent s) people but the country of Laos (hard s). So I’ve been saying it wrong thinking I was all cultured and knew how to properly pronounce the country’s name. If you leave now, I will understand.
Although Laos is sandwiched between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China, it is surprisingly far different from Thailand than I expected. I had read that it is a bit more western feeling because of past French influence but it’s still distinctly not French in many ways.
Walking down the streets of Luang Prabang, it actually feels more like small town America or an old saloon town than France or Asia. Two story buildings line the main street with tour agencies, restaurants, spas and shops repeating themselves with Wats book-ending the main street. The restaurants are a mix of cuisines with some French bakeries as well as expat restaurants lauding (see what I did there?) burgers. Much of the food is similar to Thailand but they do have their own beer, Beer Lao (hard to miss the connection there).
The shops stay open late (okay, I’m an old lady but they’re at least open at like 9pm) but the street turns into a night market after sunset where you can wander amongst textiles, baskets, art, jewellry, coconut pancakes, until you get to THE Night Market (capital letters here) which has food stalls galore.
Some of the lessons from Laos are similar to Thailand: haggle, BYO toilet paper, but they have far more cash machines and smaller fees (20,000KIP which is $2). But they also seem to have more card options (still with the 3% charge) and accept USD which is handy when you’ve mismanaged your cash and don’t want to pay an ATM fee just to pay the cab driver $10 on the way to the airport. Or so my friend told me…
Another big thing in Luang Prabang: happy hour. Some places it’s 3-7pm, others it’s 7:30-9:30, you see the opportunity here, right?