Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places


December 2013

The Christmas Letter

I received 3 Christmas letters this year, and it got me thinking that the Christmas letter is a dying art form that will be missed a decade down the road and will see some kind of a revival through an app, no doubt. But it also reminded me that I haven’t done any sort of Family Summary in recent years. We all gasp and groan about how quickly time flies, and every November hits us rudely that Christmas / New Year / Chinese New Year is “just around the corner”. I don’t know if it’s age or mundanity that prevents me from remembering what I did last week, let alone what I did in January this year. And yet I remember how I used to savour dates and moments as a teen – relived the special ones over and over through dear-diary entries and long phone conversations and letters to friends secretly penned during Math classes. I remembered everything in minutiae, with excruciating detail. I swore to myself that I’d never forget. And indeed some of those moments are still scorched into the lining of my brain, images vivid as when I was thirteen.

I say all this, because I don’t want to forget this year.

I first came across the concept of Brutiful from Momastery, who probably got it from a Death Metal band that apparently first coined the portmanteau. Brutiful – this exquisite, tortured mix of the brutal and the beautiful that makes you want to cry for too many reasons, and so you do.

Well, Life this year has been Brutiful.

The centrepiece, of course, has been my mother’s death – except it wasn’t just the death we survived, but the dying. My cousin Andrea had asked me very recently how I was holding up, and we both agreed that there is a distinction between Okay and Happy. I’m okay. I cannot say I’ve been happy. I am coping. I have been surviving. But I’m not quite sure about thriving.

I’ve certainly been moving as fast as I can to get the practicalities sorted – the house packed, sorted and cleared… the estate lawyered up and managed… the thank-yous written, the friends hugged and comforted. The giant upheaval of jumping into the unknown and foisting a mini-migration on my family, only to move back 3 months later and do the reverse. The logistics of shipping back 10 moving boxes into a house already full, and unpacking all over again.

The idea was to start the healing process by ripping off the bandaid quickly. I come from very pragmatic stock. But I had not been prepared for the internal injuries that come about from actually watching a beloved die.

I don’t know why it hadn’t dawned on me before, but watching any death take over a life is traumatic. I know my mother didn’t get bludgeoned to death by an axe murderer or hit by a bus before my eyes, but the moment of her death touched the very core of me and something in there shrivelled up and died with her in that moment. For months now, I’ve found every memory of my mother very painful – all the good bits, all the neutral bits, all the horrible bits. Just simultaneous excruciation for the mind and the heart that is constantly there. I cannot stop thinking about her. She is in everything I do and see and touch. But I am constantly shaking my thoughts – and sometimes, literally my head – because it hurts like nothing I’ve ever felt before.

I’ve realised that I’m still traumatised. It’s not a dramatic thing, this trauma. But I just can’t separate the moment of her dying from everything else about her. Sometimes, I can’t even breathe.

Wooden folding chair
Right: My wooden folding chair. Split down the middle and not worth the hassle with Australia’s Customs department, this was one of many childhood relics I had to leave behind. At least Arddun got to use it while she lived in Singapore.

In other news…

I managed to injure our brand new car twice in a matter of weeks at the beginning of the year. Once in January, when a random Real Estate sign on a picket flew across the road during 70kmh winds and hit my side door while I was driving, and then a few weeks later when I backed into a sign post because I couldn’t hear the reverse warning beeps over my music collection of Screaming White Females.

I had to have my root canal redone by an endodontist, and then stop treatment halfway to race back to Singapore to be with my mother, and then resume the second half of my treatment when we returned in June. And then get a tooth cap done by a family friend – and Queensland’s smiliest, chattiest dentist – when we visited Tony’s parents shortly after.

We visited Tony’s folks in Brisbane, where Arddun got to meet her cousin for the very first time. And then we went to Fiji for a family holiday, where we stayed at the Sheraton and ended up surrounded by Australians anyway.

I spent, in total, 4 months of the year in Singapore over 3 visits – three months with Tony and Arddun when we mini-migrated there in March to be with my mother before she died, two weeks with just me an Liz to sort out her estate, and a precious week where I travelled alone to be with my mother just a fortnight before she died.

Chevelle and Caroline
Celebrating my 34th birthday with mum. She had said this would be her last chance to celebrate my birthday. In so much pain, even though she was smiling.

We’ve dealt with The Big C twice in our family this year – my mother’s ovarian cancer is the obvious one, but my aunt – her sister – discovered her breast cancer this year as well. And so it’s been an exhausting year for her twice over, and us watching as she goes through her gruelling treatment without her best friend by her side. It’s also meant a lot of visits to GPs and ultrasound clinics for me, as I start the process of attaining genetic counselling. I’ve also seen the inside of my ovaries three times this year. And no, I’m not pregnant.


Number of times people have asked when I’m going to get knocked up again: 54. That’s more than once a week, people.

I had extended my maternity leave, and then told work that I’d like a change of scenery so they created a new job for me, and then I accepted the job… only to quit the week I was supposed to start because we decided to drop everything to be with my mother . And they were absolutely lovely and loving about me inadvertently stuffing them around like that. Just crazy-understanding and well wishes all around.

Tony changed job scope, and then Australia changed government, so all his work eventually had to ground to caretaker mode, and now everything’s different. Because that’s life in the public service – or at least, that’s the way it is when there’s a changing of the guard.

I started selling Tupperware – partly to get out of the house and wear heels, partly to feel like I can earn some extra cash, partly because I’d like to organise my kitchen pantry with free stuff. But in the meantime, I’ve managed to reconnect with people I haven’t properly spoken to in years, and meet new people from very different walks of life. And I’m now running out of space in the guest room – my one remaining bastion of clear floor with no clutter – because it’s filled with Tupperware.

Tupperware in pantry
Organisation can be a beautiful thing, no?

The day before my third trip to Singapore, I realised the carpet in our walk-in robe was damp. About 7 tradesmen later, we learnt that our shower tap in the ensuite had been secretly leaking into our walls so it got all soggy, and then the shower recesses in both bathrooms were probably also leaking water, and then the insurance company won’t cover any of it because they don’t cover shower recess leaks even though the majority of the damage was caused by the shower taps, and… and… 10 weeks on, we have a gigantic hole in our wall, and a fight with the insurance company whose disputes department has the response time and energy of a drugged sloth.

Big hole in wall
Remember this one? Still there. Still big. Still ugly.

Arddun started dance classes for the first time, and loves it so much that we’re doing it again next year.

Arddun at dance class

Thanks to sleeping arrangements in Singapore, she’s learnt how to sleep by herself on her own bed – even if that means rolling off it in the middle of the night, and then groggily climbing back in.

Lepak on Andrea's bed
Life is pretty sweet when you’re on a Big Girl Bed.

She’s drunk orange and apple juice for the first time, and so now she’s demanding that it’s a staple in her diet even though I’m fighting it because water is so much more important. She brushes her own teeth with REAL grown-up toothpaste that requires her to spit after vigorously and randomly rummaging mouth with brush, and that has a picture of The Wiggles on the tube.

She now also loves skirts, partly because it reminds her of dance classes, but mostly because it’s the one article of clothing she can put on herself without getting it too wrong. She likes dressing herself, and is getting better at it all the time.

Arddun wearing mummy's shirt as skirt
February 2013: The Great Mummy’s Shirt-as-Skirt Experiment
Arddun wearing Tony's sock
June 2013: The Daddy’s Sock-as-Leggings fashion shoot

Arddun also got to see her Poppy and Nanna a whopping THREE TIMES this year – once in Singapore for Grandma’s homecoming, once in Brisbane, and once when they came over to stay in Canberra so I could fly to Singapore with Liz to settle the Singapore estate.

Reading with Poppy in pergola
Reading with her beloved Poppy. The red swing was hers and Little Kitty’s very favourite means of passing the time.
Arddun with Nanna
Arddun still yells for “Nina” when she gets in trouble with Mummy and Daddy.

As for our holiday season this year, we took a quiet day trip to Malua Bay, and Arddun got to spend some time “at the sandpit”. We had to teach her that this giant sandpit is better known as A Beach. Her very first time at one!

Arddun holding Daddy's hand at the beach
Beautiful day for sandcastles, Daddy.

We also spent a day at Camp Challenge – Arddun’s very first Australian church camp, and our first time in a decade.

Arddun at Kids worship
Singing “My God is So BIG!” at Kids Worship.

And then we had dinner at Tony’s colleague’s home this evening, where Arddun got introduced to the joys of Atari gaming without needing to shell out a roll of 20-cent coins.

Arddun looking at gaming console
Old school, maaaan.

I’ll be honest: this year SUCKED the BIG TIME. Part of the back of my throat feels perpetually contorted from swallowed tears, like I just snarfed a bag of Super Lemons. It has been exhausting. It has been stressful. Parts of it has even been hateful. I want to say there are lovely bits, because it’s true. I want to say that I’ve been surrounded by some of the best quality people Life has to offer, because that is also definitely true. But I would do this year over in a heartbeat, if it means I can spend more time with my mother.

And yet…

My cousin Shawn, who has grown to become a young man wise beyond his years (and mine), put it most eloquently and maturely when he said,

As i reflect upon the year, i’m thankful for all the pain and uncertainties in 2013, for they remind me that i’m still human and i can still continue to hope and trust in a perfect God who holds my tomorrow.

I couldn’t have said it better. And I probably should. So I’ll leave it as that for now, and bid you a Happy New Year.

Happy Boxing Day

So this morning, Tony got up early and made blueberry pancakes for all of us from scratch. And then he got Arddun changed, loaded the car with the duffel bag full of swimming gear, bundled her in, and took off to Dickson pools.

Leaving me to go #shopping# (you have to trill that word like a bird on prozac) All By Myself.

Just got back, and feeling refreshed and enthused enough to blog – which is saying something, because I haven’t been ready or willing to blog in ages. It wasn’t just the retail therapy that gave me this post-Christmas jollies – it was the crowd. It was the energy. It was the fact that shelves were full and prices were halved. It was the fact that everything was still sparkling and Christmassy. Ray from Far Away asked on Facebook if the Boxing Day Sales were rather pugilistic – and perhaps there is a little bit of jostling and negotiation. There has to be. But that’s the best part.

I know my Singapore friends and family are going to want to smack me over the head with a two-by-four for waxing lyrical about the next part, but I even enjoyed waiting in queues today. Someone was shouting over the crowd to his girlfriend about how nuts it all was, and I grinned at him. I adored it. People. I was surrounded by them. They were happy. They were relaxed. They actually wanted to be there.

Okay, perhaps that was going a little too far. The women chiefly wanted to be there. The children tolerate it because there might be something in it for them, and the men tolerate it because they love their women and just ate their weight in turkey and Christmas sweets. Plus, parking at the Canberra Centre was $2 for the whole day. But you can tell that the men weren’t really into it, by how full the Man Benches were. Just rows and rows strewn about the Canberra Centre of bored men guarding a moat of shopping bags, and scrolling through their smartphones while cussing the lousy reception.

That was the only dampener of my shopping spree.

I’m sure Myer didn’t intend this to happen, but the changing room at the lingerie department has about 3 chairs at the entrance of the changing room – presumably for women to gather their strength after hours of waiting for a cubicle. But those three chairs collectively became a Man Bench.

This meant that each time you queued up to go in, the Man Bench got to mull over your taste in undergarments on 30-50% discount.

What happens, of course, is that you end up squishing everything into a ball in one hand so you can hide it by your right side, while using all your other shopping bags on your left as a modesty shield. This is fine until you reach the front and have to show the sales assistant how many pieces you’re bringing in. “Four,” you mutter while she unfurls this wad of creased padding by Elle Macpherson. And then you try to sidle in with your back against the Man Bench. You do not make eye-contact.

This doesn’t prove to be a problem for some other breed of women who seem oblivious to the gawking of the Man Bench. Spotting a generous girth and blessed by far superior badongadongs, they manage to flap all stringy/animal-printed/hot-pink laced/disproportionately tiny undergarments in the air while shouting “SIX PIECES, PLEASE!” to ANYONE IN ZIMBABWE WHO WOULD LISTEN the sales assistant.

Of course the first time round, they don’t fit – so you’re there debating the merits of making an educated guess on better sizes vs. braving that Man Bench again. In the end, the 30-50% discount sign wins and you queue once again, but this time you get so good at preparing the wad beforehand, things feel a lot less slo-mo.

Apart from that, I managed to get a few birthday gifts for others, and a book and CD for Arddun. And two blue dresses – one frilly, one straight. And an ultraslim iPad mini keyboard folio thingy for my Christmas gift from Tony (w00t!) at $40 discount (double w00t!)

And I sat on a Man Bench the middle of the mall, cloudy apple juice in one hand, and just soaked everything in – the happy noise, the snippets of conversation, the busyness. It was just so good to connect with my inner City girl again. (I know – I only just got back from Singapore in early November!) I love Canberra and how it’s really a glorified country town – which is a fabulous thing in itself. But it can sometimes seem so lifeless, so empty, so cold.

I need to remember to do this every year if I can.

Little bouncers at the Christmas party

Just got back from our mother’s group Christmas party – our third together! Birthdays and Christmases are our two major annual events, and we try to make each one a little special. The fabulous thing about having 9 to 11 families celebrate together each time, is that we get to split the bill 9 to 11 different ways. Which means we can splash out on stuff like this:

Jumping castle rocket thing
Jumping castle rocket thing. More impressive in real life. (Stolen from Jo’s Facebook page.)
6 toddlers in Jumping castle
Seven little toddlers, seven times the fun!

Here’a video of the little tykes in action:

This year, I volunteered to bring mango tea, an Asian salad (a yummy dish I learnt from my MIL), and a fruit salad.

Regarding the fruit salad: after I went a-hunting through Pinterest, I ended up making this:

Fruit salad Christmas tree
30 seconds to take photo of magnum opus before running out the door.

which went down well with the crowd at the Christmas party – both big and little peeps. If you’re wondering how to do this, I bought a 25cm-tall styofoam cone from an art shop, pinned lettuce leaves to it using toothpicks, used star-shaped cookie cutters for the rock melon, and then pinned down red and green grapes, blueberries, cranberries, kiwi slices, strawberries and blackberries using a gazillion toothpicks. Took me an hour. I’m no maestro on food decorating, so if I can accomplish this, it means it’s Beginner-level easy – just time-consuming. And stressful, when you’re trying to do this juuuust before the 3pm party, and it’s 2pm.

Managed to dress the little people up in cute Christmas clothes. Had less success keeping them on the couch at the same time for a photo:

Christmas costumes take 1
Take 1
Christmas outfits on sofa, take 1
Take 3
Christmas costumes take 3
Take 47
Christmas costumes, waiting patiently

Gave up and took a video instead:

But what we should have done was put Peppa Pig on telly, because that TV show has proven hypnotic powers:

Watching Peppa Pig
Peppa Pig = Toddler Crack

Other attempts at memory-capturing:

Eating together at small table
Sharing a meal together
Leila and Arddun squeeze into little red car
Two friends share a ride in the Little Red Car

And then there was a whole heap of rather incriminating photos that might get us all in trouble with Jumping J-Jays. But we had heaps of fun. xx

Black cygnet

I’ve been making a concerted effort not to pink up my daughter. I try to keep it out of her wardrobe, her toys are mostly gender-neutral. I’m not sure what it is – whether it’s a subconscious nature vs nurture experiment I’m conducting, or whether it’s all those perpetuating-their-oppression feminist classes I took in Poly. And perhaps it has something to do with what my male colleague and father of 4 girls once told me sagely – that your house, despite your best intentions, will eventually be overrun by pink and purple tiaras and sparkles. Maybe I’m valiantly trying to delay the inevitable.

But I’ve been making a concerted effort not to pink up my daughter.

Which has therefore induced the weirdest knee-jerk reaction and every mother’s secret default position: guilt. In conscientiously exposing my daughter to colours and concepts that break traditional gender stereotypes (yes, you CAN play with toy diggers! And oh wait, check out your soccer ball and net! CAR! Vroom vroom!), I now wonder if I’m just as guilty of perpetuating my own stereotypes of what a young woman of substance should be – or perhaps limiting its definition.

And yes, I know strength of character and all that goes far beyond whether a girl likes sparkles and make-up. The truth is, I have no real issue with sparkles and pink. I had my own Barbie doll (from age 9), and my favourite colour from ages 4 to 10 was pink. I had a gold tiara (which an aunt sat on and broke, a most devastating event in a 6yo girl’s life and which no amount of stolen sticky tape can truly remedy). My favourite dress-up item was a white tulle tutu which doubled up as a veil, and my heroines always wore long, sweeping skirts fashioned out of my childhood blanket and clothes pegs. But I also had a horse, and a magic scepter like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty because I could conjure kick-ass spells. And I kept a fire-breathing dragon for long-haul travel. And wielded a sword like She-Ra (remember her?!)

My issue, I think, is that girls should ONLY like sparkles and pink. Or that my little girl should grow up to believe that her femininity is defined by the sickly-sweetiepoo aisles in Toys R’Us, where they sell make-up to toddlers and glam up hair styling. Where the domain of house keeping and baby nursing is marketed as the sole responsibility and interest of the growing woman. (Look! A pink broom! And a wall of baby dolls and bottles! But never in the “boy’s” section.) And because the onslaught of “Girls Like Pink and Sparkles” is relentless out there, I’ve veered the other extreme and kept Arddun as far away from all that for as long as I can.

To the point where I now feel conflicted when I watch her put Kitty in a nappy (slathered with diaper cream – do you know how very hard that is to scrub off?) And my skin crawls a little when she rushes towards a big, floofy skirt. We took a walk through Toys R’Us the other day to get Christmas shopping done, and my heart swelled when she sat and examined Marvel comic figurines. (“Look, Mama! BLUE MAN!”) But then I could not pry her away from the Wall of Baby Dolls that Cry when you Yank the Dummy Out.

Nature trumps all? Perhaps. But I thought deep and long about the messages she was getting. It was the first time I wondered if I had compromised her view of the world by only showing her that Mummy stays at home and Daddy goes to work. (Except now, I leave in the evenings for Tupperware parties, so that view is getting corrected fast.) I know she’s only 2, for crying out loud. But when your child is the very first, and you are trying to bring her up to be intelligent and questioning and self-aware… these things can plague you.

The truth is, I am equally remiss if all I teach Arddun is that pink is yuck. True femininity should be so much more. I want Arddun to grow up knowing she has freedom to embrace both “boy” things and “girl” things. That she can pretend to be both Mummy and Blue Hulk. (Because sometimes, I can be one and the same.) That she can love both Kitty and Thomas the Tank Engine. Which she does.

And so lately, I’ve softened my stance on big floofy skirts. Arddun has started dance classes on Thursday mornings, and she absolutely loves it. I had dressed her up like a hip hop street kid the first few weeks, but all the other girls there dress up like fairies, so this is my compromise. The first time she saw that white skirt, she fell in love with me a little bit more.

Arddun in dance skirt

Black and Gold
Black and Gold

Blog at

Up ↑