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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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Christianity

Wearing your faith on your sleeve

In my new job, I now find myself part of a community that is both deeply and wonderfully familiar, and a little foreign around the fringes. My Christian roots are decidedly “post-Evangelical”, although I now balk at using too many labels to define my faith in God, except to say that I’m still learning and I’ve recently had a hermeneutic breakthrough.

All this to say that I come from a tradition with a flat and patriarchal hierarchy (no elders with collars or hats or robes, but still all male), and I’m getting used to being referred to as laity (not directly, but that is the bucket to which I now belong.)

I am loving the differences. I am loving learning about the differences, even as I am enjoying the security and natural ease that comes from being among the like-minded. Until recent years, I hadn’t realised how I’ve been holding my breath in the workplace, or
“reining my Christianity in”. Mainstream sentiment in Australia already seems hostile towards religion, but especially towards Islam and Christianity. It’s been the biggest culture shock for me, coming from a country that celebrates and emphasises distinct cultures and religions. To be “overtly Christian” — especially in the workplace — therefore seems like an open invitation for questions on my fairness, motives, and tolerance; an open season for potential discrimination suits and assumptions about my intellect.

In recent weeks, the topic of a more “overt Christianity” has cropped up several times in various forms at work and at home. At bible class recently for instance, I wondered if my decade-old approach of trying to Live By Example rather than Talking the Salvation Message has actually been a giant cop-out that I’ve justified to myself after living in Australia this long.

Since migrating here, I’ve come to realise (to my huge surprise) that on most policy issues, I am decidedly left-leaning (even if Labor leadership right now seems about as impressive as wet lettuce), but I also care deeply about issues supported by the Right. Just yesterday, I admitted in a public forum to a long-time friend that I am a Pro-life Feminist. To some circles, this sounds as paradoxical as a Thinking Christian. To other circles, the bemusing paradox is the fact that I am a Christian Feminist.

And then a couple days ago, I was asking about the collars that clergy wear and the origin of the collar, and we ended up digressing to how modern clergy go without the collar nowadays. Yet if every ordained priest wore their collar in the street, said Emma, there would be hundreds of them just walking about doing their own thing – and society at large might suddenly realise that there are actually more Christians in their midst than they thought. Than even we might think.

Brilliant idea.

In this age, the war-cry on social issues has been for greater tolerance – and by tolerance, it increasingly seems to mean the suppression of even personal convictions, judgements, and lifestyles. “The intolerance of the intolerant” has been used to suppress differences of opinion by characterising dissent as hate, and to elevate (left-leaning) neutrality – rather than dialogue – as the greatest good.

But it’s a fallacy – no one can please everybody. Even among the tolerant, there is no One True Correct in political correctness. We all believe nuances of different things across the board – which means at any given time, someone is going to get royally pissed off with you if they ever got to hear what you really believe and think.

Which brings me back to collars and overt Christianity.

I don’t have a collar, and I don’t even own a pendant of the Cross. And maybe it’s the mellowing of age, but I no longer feel the imperative to jump into the fray on parenting forums about seatbelt laws, let alone hot button issues like same-sex marriage and that plebiscite. But I want to be authentic about who I am, what I believe, and why. And that takes more courage than I currently feel, all the more so when Christians seem to be lying so low in our community that the national narrative about us is that we’re nothing more than a hypocritical, whiny, fun-killing gay-hating hick minority taking our sermons from fire-brimstone pedophiles, instead of a sizeable population that is just as conflicted about lots of issues,that doesn’t profess to have all the answers, but that is earnest about community and being a champion of the downtrodden – “the widows and orphans in distress”.

If you’re a Christian reading this, please help me by “putting on your collar” – not just in your home and church, but in the streets, in your workplaces, in areas of life where we’re assumed to be intolerant until proven “not that kind of Christian”. It helps me recognise I have a compadre. If we all shine a little beacon to say “I’m here, just doing my thing”, it makes the way clearer and the journey less lonely.

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A Facebook Fast and other new beginnings

I’ve been on a small Facebook fast. It started out as a cold-turkey thing that eventually evolved into a 5:2 diet.

Continue reading “A Facebook Fast and other new beginnings”

Where we’re headed

I’m driving. Atticus has a full tummy, and is gurgling at the view zipping behind him in reverse. Arddun is strapped in the seat directly behind mine, her awareness of her whereabouts, the general geography of Canberra, the routes we take, the slightest departure from routine ever minutely recorded and questioned.

Ever growing, ever impressive, ever exhausting.

It’s 60kmh down Northbourne Avenue, plenty of time to discuss where we’re going.

“Where are we going now, Mummy?”

“We are going to the Singapore High Commission.”

She chews on that for a few seconds. It’s dinner time, and we are not at home. She notes the quick sinking of the sun, grows a little excited that we are deviating from the norm.

“We are going to see Grandma Singapore?” She turns to a toy companion immediately to give her the news. “We are going to see my Grandma!”

“Er… no, darlin’. We are going to the Singapore High Commission. It’s a different place.”

“Where is Grandma Singapore?”

“In heaven.”

“Are we going to her house?”

“No.”

“Why?”

I pause. Do I tackle the bit about venues, or do I tackle the bit about the afterlife. Decisions.

“Because she doesn’t live in the Singapore High Commission. We are going there for dinner. There’s going to be lots of yummy food! Are we going to try new things tonight?”

“Yeah!”

(Liar.)

“And then,” she continues, “We are going to Grandma Singapore’s house.”

So we are back to that.

“Will she have beds ready for us?”

“Er… no…”

“Does she have a house?”

“Probably. A very big one, I think.” (Will you please turn your hymnals with me to “I got a mansion just over the hilltop”.)

“She’ll have beds for us,” Arddun decides confidently.

“We are not going to her house.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s in heaven.”

“Where is heaven?”

“It’s outside this world.”

“OOOOOHHHHH!” she cries, as if that finally makes complete sense. And then,

“Are we in the world, Mummy?”

“Yes.”

“Then where is Grandma’s house?”

“Out of this world.”

“Does she have a dog?”

I give a short bark of laughter. And then think about it in earnest. Dogs don’t have souls, but maybe that isn’t the way to tackle that question for now.

“Probably not,” I reply slowly. “Grandma doesn’t like dogs.”

“Oooohhh…” I imagine her nodding wisely. And then, confidentially,

“Heaven doesn’t have elephants.”

“It doesn’t?”

“No. It has squirrels.”

“Squirrels.”

“Yes,” my sagacious four-year-old replies. “And cats. And some dogs. But not elephants.”

Atticus and Arddun in car

{Monday Me} Sleepy, hollow

Atticus’s latest party trick is to fight bedtime from 7pm to 9pm, and then wake up at 2 or 3 am to fight sleep for another two hours.

And while he gets to catch up with his beauty sleep in the day, I of course do not get that luxury because I have this whole other child to stay functional for.

This is why I look like this lately:

Lying in bed, looking exhausted
The face of a jack-of-all-trades who is seriously jack of it.
Christian women are told a lot that they should aspire to that wonder woman in Proverbs 31 who, among other things,

  • is a savvy property magnate,
  • probably could win the annual Great British Sewing Bee if she was
    • a) British, and
    • b) had wool, flax, linen and something called a distaff at her disposal, and
  • feeds the needy.

She also has a slew of female servants whom she apparently dresses up in fiendishly expensive garments, and she tarts up pretty well herself. She apparently likes purple. Woman after my own heart.

In the past, every other criterion had me going, “Yep, yep, doable, doable…”. All except for the sewing (no talents or inclination there), and that bit where she “gets up while it is still night” to provide for her family. As someone who is more night owl than daybreak do-gooder, that wake-up time used to intimidate me. It used to be the one thing that shamed me about my work ethic – the fact that I’m not a morning person.

Then I had Atticus, and the truth finally dawns on me: Proverbs 31 Wonder Woman isn’t sub-human. She’s just a mother of a baby boy who friggin’ won’t sleep through the night.

I am definitely getting up while it is still night to provide sustenance and comfort to this family member. It’s been 8 months and counting. And while I know you’re not supposed to compare your children, I just want to explain that this has all been a rude shock for me because Arddun had slept from 7 to 7 every day since she was 4 months old.

Never underestimate the soul-sapping realities of chronically broken sleep, people.

Arm-across-eyes
Can’t… sleep… Gotta do school run soon!
Because of the hours we keep, I haven’t been able to blog. Or write. Or pore over my roles in several church-related projects. Ironically, I haven’t been able to do what I’ve been meaning to do for months – get more organised by waking up at 5am every day. Staying ahead of the game by carving out some early morning time when I’m fresh and the batteries are fully charged, so I can write and meditate and think. So I can jump in the shower before the kids awake. So that I’m ready and able when the day officially begins.

But it’s nigh impossible to wake up at 5am every day, when I’m lucky if I get back to sleep at 4:30am after spending 2½ hours settling Atticus. And it’s incredibly frustrating when I wake up to find half the morning over, but my body is still weary and yearning for sleep.

And in case you are wondering, yes we’ve been trying controlled crying, no it doesn’t seem to be working – in fact, it seems to be getting worse. It isn’t for want of steel and effort, folks. I’m not running into the room at every whimper. But this boy has determination, stamina, and a set of lungs that would make a howler monkey think, “Hot dang!” Meanwhile, I feel guilty about possibly frying precious baby neurons in the process, and I feel defensive about the youngest member of our family turning dictator of our nights. Even while I believe that we should give our babies every reassurance of love. Even while I am patently aware that the sleeps of my husband and firstborn are also at stake. Even while I wonder if the concept of “sparing the rod = spoiling the child” should even apply this early. Even while I believe that our children shouldn’t become the all-consuming focal point of our marriage. Even while I suspect that my health is important too. 

I know this is a passing season, and perhaps I’m being unrealistic about the number of outcomes I’d like to knock out of the park while mothering two young children. But right now, I just feel like my whole day revolves around this boy when I need to pack So Many Other Things in my day yet I can’t, because I have no reserves left. 

They say that I have to treasure these days because he won’t stay my baby forever. That these lonely stretches with him, just the two of us alone in the dark, me cold, exhausted, and – dare I say it – bored out of my mind, are actually precious, fleeting times. I know this. But gee, a part of me would really like my body back.

He’s still a very cute kid, though. And innocent. And I love him to bits.

(Want my body back!)

Love him to bits.

Sigh.

{Thursday’s Three Thank-yous} Ye merry gentle men

I grew up without a father for most of my life, but I’ve always had several father figures. There were many to be found within the church I grew up with in Singapore, and God has this wonderful way of providing different ones at each stage of my life.

My children are deeply loved by their daddy, but they are also very blessed to grow up around other men of character. On Sunday, anticipating a mini milestone, I took my camera along so I could introduce you to some of the men in Atticus’s life.

1) Raymond

Arddun, for reasons only her young heart knows, refers to Liz as Aunty Liz but to Raymond as Mr. Ray. Even as a baby, Arddun has never been afraid of his big bushy beard and loud, hearty laugh. I still have fond memories of Arddun reaching out tentatively to pat his bristly chin like it were a curiosity. He may look a very little bit like Gimli from LOTR (or a garden gnome, depending on beard length) and in many ways, he can be just as courageous in fighting for what is right. Always generous, always opinionated, deeply in love with God, Raymond is a teddy bear.

And Atticus adores him.

Atticus and Raymond seeing eye to eye

Raymond tickling Atticus

2) Peter

Before children, I was never one of those at church who would scan the room for cuddly babies. And on looking back, I wish I had been because at the very least, I could have provided something that many mothers of young babies are always thankful for – a bit of reprieve from baby, just so they can sit down for 5 minutes with a hot cup of tea for a change.

Peter is another gentle man in Atticus’s life. He just loves children, and Atticus has been a great and ever-willing beneficiary of his cuddles and walks around the room during our Sunday morning teas. I love watching someone else light up when they see a child of mine.

Peter with Atticus

3) Mark

Mark has three children of his own, two of whom Arddun loves playing with on Sundays. Miles (the youngest), I’m eyeing off as a playmate for Atticus in the years to come.

Being a father of two boys has also called on some resourcefulness when it comes to haircuts. Thanks to YouTube, Mark has learnt to cut his own boys’ hair. And with Atticus’s own wispy baby strands now falling over his eyes, I’d called on Mark to exercise some YouTube hair-cutting wizardry.

Atticus eating arrowroot biscuit in highchair
Arrowroot biscuits, a fabulous distraction for a first-ever haircut!

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Atticus's face getting squished during haircut

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Atticus with Mark
A handsome result. Thank you, Uncle Mark, for taming my unruly baby locks! Can you YouTube how to build a cubby house next?

The kind of parent, the kind parent

I woke up this morning to find an article on Brain Pickings that seemed to crystalise at once my many strands of recent reflections and ah-hahs. There was so much that resonated in that article so I’ll give a taster, but I sincerely hope you read the rest because it places a finger right where it’s most tender and sore in the world we live in.

(A)lthough kindness is the foundation of all spiritual traditions and was even a central credo for the father of modern economics, at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided…

The most paradoxical part of the story is that for most of our civilizational history, we’ve seen ourselves as fundamentally kind and held kindness as a high ideal of personhood. Only in recent times… did the ideal of independence and self-reliance become the benchmark of spiritual success.

Today it is only between parents and children that kindness is expected, sanctioned, and indeed obligatory… Kindness — that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself — has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality)… All compassion is self-pity, D. H. Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are only kind because they haven’t got the guts to be anything else).

Eddie Legg, during his recent visit in Canberra with his lovely family, had mentioned how he had done a dipstick survey one Sunday morning during a sermon. I wasn’t there in Perth, of course, but this is my best understanding of what happened: when asked if they seek help from others, a fraction of the congregation had put up hands. All of those who did had been of foreign extraction – they were neither born nor bred in Australia.

That’s right. None of the Australians had raised their hands.

It’s unfair to generalise of course, but even in my short 12-year experience here, I have found the same. Australians are kind, by and large. Big hearts, big hands that help. But many are very reluctant to accept help rendered in kindness. The Galatians admonition to “bear your own load” is one that Australians take seriously, whether they’re Christian or not. And the concept of rugged individualism (as opposed to collectivism) is something that runs deep and strong in Western ethos and pathos, whether or not they’re Liberal/Republican or Labor/Democrat.

We find our own way, we make our own way. “Can you bear it? Can you take it?” “I got it, I got it, I got it!”

I say “we” because in this regard, I’ve always identified more strongly with “Western” ideals than “Eastern” ones. In fact, most Singaporeans do. Singapore is a society that largely believes that hard work pays off, and if you’re not successful in this world it’s because you couldn’t hack it. (Subsets of our society can also be very eager to dispense advice without taking it. I’m talking about the I-don’t-know-you-but-I-need-to-tell-you-you’re-fat Aunty culture that I simultaneously love and loathe.)

But the Singapore fabric is still largely cut out of close family ties and the reliance on relations and domestic helpers for assistance. The village is still alive and kicking, intrusive and kind. And above all, allowed in.

It is with all this in mind that I’ve come to assess how I parent.

In the last week and a half, I’ve had three friends tell me (in mostly admiring and incredulous tones) that they couldn’t believe I’m mothering two young children on my own. This is to say, no maids, no family, just us. Between Tony and I, we cook, we clean, we parent. We juggle a house sale while building another. In telling you this, it sounds like the humble brag, and maybe it is a little. I am proud of our little family and our resilience. Personally, I’m almost relieved that I’m holding up; my house is mostly clean, the kids are still alive and healthy, the husband is fed, the nitty-gritty of selling, packing for, and building houses dealt with in between school drop-offs and play dates.

I know we can do this by the grace of God because we are allowed to have good health and a stable income (for now). And because He knows what an obstinate cow I can be, my inner rebel has been given the most benign outlet: that of co-managing my own household without maid or kin.

Thing is, what I do isn’t extraordinary by Australian standards, not really. Because of its huge land mass, many nuclear families are separated from their relations. For us, the medium-term plan had always been for my mother to live in Canberra while I go back to work. Tony’s parents are ensconced in Queensland with his other two siblings, although we love their frequent visits. Domestic live-in helpers are not affordable, and contracted house cleaners are a luxury. Childcare fees in Canberra easily surpass $100 a day. In fact, childcare fees are a crazy balancing act; earn too little, and it’s not worth going back to work.

It is against this backdrop that Tony and I are flying solo. That said, we have an excellent community of church and mother’s group. But like other Australian families around us, we feel that we need to “bear our own load” without counting too much on others. Even though I’m pretty sure others would jump at the chance to help us.

There is a cost for this self-reliance, this stoic resilience. There always is. There is the physical toll – Tony and I don’t exercise much, if at all. I haven’t slept for more than 7 hours in consecutive days in years – until recently, I’d been operating on a daily average of 5 hours’ sleep. There are spiritual ramifications; all this self-reliance has made me more insular, introverted, and distant from God.

And then there’s my capacity for compassion.

In the last little while, ever since Atticus’s birth, I’ve been growing uneasy about my relationship with Arddun. And yes, I know she’s turned 4. She’s developed a more independent will as she tests the walls of her boundaries. She dreams more, negotiates more, rebels more. All that.

But I haven’t been kind.

With the birth of Atticus, all the stereotypes seem to be rushing to the fore because suddenly, Arddun is the Big Girl. She is the older, the elder, and suddenly much is expected of her. I find myself less tolerant of her childish foibles. I want, need her to pick up some of the slack. In parenting circles (and especially in Christian ones), we talk about teaching responsibility and other-centredness. And it sounds good on paper, and maybe that’s true of the intention.

But oh, there are days when my reserves are low. When I can feel myself running on empty. And it can be a culmination of things – housework undone, packing undone, decluttering unaccomplished, husband not doing what you think in your mind he ought to be doing in the sequence your OCD brain has determined without actually communicating the same to him. Because, you know, we are one flesh. Why shouldn’t he read my mind and know better? All that.

But the trigger point ends up being something Arddun does. Like picking at her dinner for 90 minutes. And then before I can even reason some perspective within myself, my tongue lashes and she bears the brunt of a day’s frustration.

And oh the regret after.

I seldom see myself as a kind person. Kindness doesn’t come naturally to me, because I am a selfish person. I really have to make an effort, almost plan to be kind to others. I have to sit there are diarise it.

But until I had kids, I had never realised how Unkind I can be.

In flying solo, I wonder if I’ve willfully bitten off more than I should chew. All things are allowable, but not all things are profitable. Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should. I don’t know what I can change, but I know I need to change some things. Carving out time to sit and distill through writing and praying is one way to start.

My dearest girl, today I resolve to do better by you. xx

{Monday Me} In the eyes of the beholder

I can’t remember where I read it, but a blogging mother recently dared to post a picture of herself that her son took. It wasn’t a flattering shot. She was lying in the sun in her bathing costume, one arm thrown over her face at an awkward angle, and a very white bare leg in all its post-pregnancy cellulite splendour stretched out front and centre.

Why did her son take that shot, right at that precise angle, in that unguarded moment? Was it to prank his mum? Embarrass her? Build some counter-ammo for that proverbial threat about silly stories making it to the 21st birthday speech?

No. He had taken it because he thought she looked beautiful. Out there, resting and relaxed in the sun.

I don’t know if Arddun had thought I looked beautiful when she took this one, but this is my unguarded-moment photo that I’m rather embarrassed about:

Velle changing Atticus's nappy in bedroom

EEEEEAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH! Avert your eyes!!! Do you see it? DO YOU SEE IT? My muffin top! My post-pregnancy, too-much-chocolate-too-many-late-nights-too-tired-to-exercise muffin top. The secret body of a woman who doesn’t live in Hollywood (or Asia) and who grew and birthed a 9-pound bubba 7 months ago. My body hasn’t bounced back, and my preschooler outted my disgrace with her new camera.

Except all she saw was her mummy doing a diaper change. All she captured was my joy with the mundane. That look on my face was one of surprise and pleasure — I was thrilled that she was starting to get the hang of her camera, and touched that she wanted to take photos of me. In fact, she took lots of photos of me because she adores me. Just as I take lots of my children because I can’t take my eyes off them.

She sees my body, cellulite and all, every day. They both do. But they don’t see the stretch marks, the bags under the eyes, the freckles. They don’t look at my body and think that I’m fat. They don’t wish I have a sharper nose or a butt that looks great in jeans. They don’t think I’m ugly. I’m Mummy. I have pretty hair. I give good cuddles and tickly kisses. I sing silly songs. I am like no other.

In a sermon two Sundays ago, Paul had suggested that we do massive clean-ups of our house before guests come over, all because of pride. And I had disagreed out loud – mostly because I do massive clean-ups because I’m trying to spare our guests having to wade through our filth (imagined or real). But there is an element of pride – of course there is. We want to be seen as put-together. Civilised. In control of our environment.

And it’s the same with our bodies – we don’t want to seem slothful. Slovenly. Ill-disciplined.

Being Chinese puts me in a slightly more *unique* position than my non-Chinese friends in Australia because my body is always held to a higher standard in some ways. For whenever I meet an Asian woman – even a complete stranger – there’s more than half a chance that she will comment on my body. I’ve been told I looked fat and that I should get a corset a mere fortnight after giving birth, while my body was still swollen from shock and water retention. I’ve been warned that I shouldn’t let myself go (the inference being that I already have). For my birthday this year, I had bought myself a full-length navy blue dress peppered with sweet yellow-white flowers, with an empire waistline. I absolutely love it because it’s pretty and comfortable… but every other time I’ve worn it, some Chinese woman somewhere was bound to pat my tummy (for real) and ask if I was pregnant and if not, that I therefore needed to lose weight. Never mind that I was jiggling an infant in a pram while they were doing and saying so.

It’s almost enough to develop an eating disorder.

I’m almost used to it now. It’s definitely cultural, this kneejerk reaction to tell another woman why she isn’t trying hard enough. And it’s not just looks – it goes into childrearing, housekeeping, you name it. But the looks are where it starts, because it’s the first and most obvious thing when you meet another person. I don’t know why my culture perpetuates this cycle of women crushing other women with the weight of vanity and expectation, even with those we love. I know it’s very seldom done maliciously. I know it’s done unconsciously.

(Or perhaps it happens in all cultures, except Asians lack subtlety. Certainly true, if the nastiness of parenting forums are anything to go by.)

I don’t know. I suspect the Looks thing has a lot to do with vanity and that notion of Saving Face that is endemic to our culture. And my shame in showing others my flabby bits is part and parcel of all that. But I reckon if I see myself through the same lens that my children use, I’d be a lot happier with myself and my body. And in turn, I’d be teaching my son and daughter valuable lessons about looking right past the outsides so they can recognise true love and real beauty.

Here’s to breaking free.

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