Friday, September 18, 2015

The Work of Being Happy.

Back in January, I decided this would be the year of self-care.  The year of not setting ambitious goals or striving outrageously to accomplish things.  The year of being a bit kinder to myself.  I was so so tired.  I was tired of feeling disappointed in myself when I didn't achieve superstardom, unlimited wealth, Olympic-level fitness, true love, a family, and professional accolades.  I was tired of feeling like I was struggling to succeed - when really by most people's standards I was doing just fine.  I figured there had to be an easier way to live.  Or, maybe there wasn't, maybe I was/am a perfectionist for life - but at least I could make peace with that way of living, if I spent a year being "ordinary" and still couldn't be happy.  Maybe the struggle would be sweeter if I knew I was happier struggling than going with the flow.  Weird, but that's what I was thinking. 

I did (and did not do) a number of things during this "Year of Dani."  They were, for the most part, seemingly small "no brainer" things to me, really - basic life skills that I had just forgotten to do in my pursuit of "greatness".  I moved, to a neighbourhood less bustling than Gastown, where I could sleep, and read, and go for walks on tree lined streets.  I started cooking at home and taking my lunch to work.  I didn't audition for shows I didn't want to be in (sounds easy, is actually hard, when you are desperately afraid of being forgotten).  I said no to volunteer opportunities I was presented with if they didn't make my heart sing.  I stayed at home and read books - real books, from the library, with pages, rather then e-books on my Kobo.  

I went for walks, and sometimes I ran. I gardened on my little balcony.  I didn't shop when I was sad or lonely (because shoes make you less lonely!), I wrote it down in my journal, or admitted to someone that I was sad and received a flood of support in return.  I went to yoga, but not obsessively, as I have in the past.  I meditated.  I napped.  And I made one gigantic life decision: I changed jobs, leaving a job I loved and was completely emotionally invested in, to one with a shorter commute and a less frenetic workday pace, where I became responsible for a smaller portfolio of work, that I could leave on my desk at the end of the day rather than carrying home in my heart.  

These lifestyle changes have been accompanied by really hard work in terms of changing my attitude.  In smothering my negative inner voices, in actively choosing a different way to be, every day.  In choosing not to be critical of myself, in taking one day at a time, in choosing love over negativity. In convincing myself I am entitled to be happy, even without the perfect career, the perfect body, the perfect wardrobe, the perfect house, husband, baby.  It's a conversation I have to have with myself every day.  That I am wonderful as I am.  That every day is wonderful exactly as it unfolds.  That I am exactly who I am meant to be, and exactly where I am meant to be.  I write these words to myself on post-its at work, that only I can see.  I set my alarm on my phone for random times of the day, so that when the alarm goes off, I repeat these loving thoughts to myself.  I say them out loud to friends, who respond with resounding celebration when I say "I deserve to be happy."  

Now, as we head into the last months of the year, it feels like all of the very tiny incremental changes that I have been making over the year are crystallizing into one great gigantic big ball of happiness.  It's actually kind of magical.   Work is going well and I am valued for my contributions.  I saved enough money to buy my first home, a quiet place on a street lined with trees that looks out onto the Fraser River, which will be mine in November.  I've lost enough weight (20 lbs, give or take) that I notice, even if no one else does.  I'm singing as much as I want, with the people I want, when I want.  I sleep well.  It's work, absolutely, but the weird thing is, when you put in the work, things feel...effortless.  I can't explain that paradox, but I understand it now.

The other day, my mom said to me, "It's like you've said, 'Oh, sod it.  I am going to try happy.'"  And it's true - in trying to be happy, I've made myself happy.  It is so much work, every single day, but I'm happy.  Imperfect, sometimes frustrated, sometimes lonely - but happy.  I'm choosing happy.  I can't wait to see what miracles unfold as we head into the close of this Year of Dani.

Imperfect, unremarkable, happy me, at this very minute. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

7:26 pm.

It feels like it's been a long time since I cried.  Yet this month seems to have been filled with a lot of tears, both of hurt and happiness, but also when the beauty of something has been too much to bear.  

I feel things.  

Sometimes too many things.

But I am feeling them, without fear.

It feels raw, and I feel like I should flinch to avoid being hurt.  I need to find some resilience.  Or find some peace in that fragility.

It is dusk, and I am sitting alone and content, the last vestiges of sunlight pouring in from all sides.  The doors are wide open, and Currie is perched on the deck outside, staring intently at me as I write.

"What are you doing?" I ask her, when I look up to see her yellow-green eyes fixed on me.  She meows a reply, then yawns, stretches, and steps back inside, and past me.  

We are happy here, in this moment. 

There is still so much hurt.  And sadness.  And loneliness.  But it is accompanied by a visiting peace, and a growing awareness of moments of joy.  And grief in the moments that have passed without it.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

This is Sunday.

I can't tell you how sweet life is in my new home.  I thought myself a hardcore urbanite: I loved the grit and colour of Gastown, the mix of upscale, industrial, hipster and downtrodden that made up my neighbourhood of the last five and a half years.  And then I found my little oasis in the middle of not-so-glamorous Marpole, and suddenly none of the cool coffee shops, bakeries, clothing stores or bars that surrounded me mattered anymore.

So it's true - most of the restaurants and cafes that surround my new home are...not great, or else not designed to be that welcome to Canadians of the whitey-whitebread persuasion such as myself, with all-Mandarin or all-Cantonese menus and staff that don't really speak English (that being said, I have ventured into a few anyway and found a number of gems).  But I have a wonderful dining room that has light that streams in from the east, and with another window that opens up onto views of trees and mountains to the north, so it's not a hardship to eat at home.

Yes, it's a fact that the only speciality food store near my new home is Safeway.  But I have a kitchen that I delight to spend time in, and since I moved in January I have spent many happy hours cooking away on my new stovetop.  True, I haven't visited a "hot" restaurant in...well, months really, but I have re-discovered my cookbook collection and found some new recipe blogs that I adore.  There's no good coffee, true - you can't count the Starbucks at 64th and Granville - but I have a perfectly good machine to brew my own, not to mention a well-loved Bialetti stovetop espresso maker that Edy and I purchased in Rome years ago.  

I worried when I moved out of Gastown that the new neighbourhood and the lifestyle (or lack thereof) that it presented would not be "cool" or "exciting" enough for me.  Instead, I've found that I nest more - I've looked inward rather than outward to develop a home life.  I'm happy to spend a quiet Sunday at home, as I'm not exhausted from waiting for the bar underneath me to close at 4 a.m. in order to get some sleep.   I don't mind waking up to hear lawnmowers and birds singing (OK, I like the birds more than the lawnmowers, it's true).  I love being able to hear the rain on my roof.

Cornmeal-Raspberry Pancakes, homebrewed coffee, the Georgia Straight on the table and Michael Enright on the radio.  The new Sunday.

So, yes.  It's been a good move for me.  A very good one. When I started looking, desperately, in November, I was trying to escape a situation that I think my body and my heart knew were no longer healthy for me - that I needed peace, and refuge, no matter what my trend-loving, hipster-admiring brain told me about living in Gastown.  I felt like I was in flight from terrible anxiety and unrest. So I'm content that today my day will consist of throwing some meals together for the week to come, brushing Curriecat's coat out on one of our two balconies, sitting in my living room and staring at the rooftops, cherry blossoms and mountains that make up my view, perhaps going for a walk in Fraser River Park, and then heading to Granville Island for a rehearsal.

Maybe I'm mellowing, I don't know. Would it be nice to have someone here to mellow with?  Sure.  But if this is what 34-almost-35 looks like, I think I'm OK with that.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Home Is Where the Heart Is.

When I moved to my new place in Marpole, my bedroom was an extremely important consideration.  Gastown had always been loud and bright. Over 5 years there, I learned to ignore the lights in the courtyard outside, and the lights of SFU Woodwards across that courtyard, which remained on all night.   But I never got over the noise, from the Charles Bar, crazy people or drunk people shouting outside, and the hum of air vents on the many buildings close by.  I have never been a great sleeper, but over the past few years it's become even more difficult for me to have a good sleep.  In the past years, 2 -3 sleepless nights a week has become the norm rather than the exception.  It wasn't unusual for me to be up and awake until 4 in the morning on a regular basis.   By the time I moved, I was desperate for quiet, and for somewhere I thought I might be able to sleep.  I chose the north facing suite, which faces into an alley and residential backyards, rather than the south, to avoid even the little bit of street noise you could hear in the south suite from West 70th Avenue.  

In my past few apartments, my "colour" theme has been turquoise and yellow: bright versions in the living areas, more muted shades in my bedroom.  But for whatever reason, when I moved to my Marpole place, I suddenly decided I wanted my room to be red.  My spare room in Gastown had been red, full of bright artwork and a graphic poppy-printed bedspread (when one of my movers saw my bed he said "Wow! It's Remembrance Day up in here!" - maybe not the most sexy thought), and that's what I decided I wanted in my bedroom. I've since picked up another red-themed bedspread (isn't it always nice to have two - one for when the other's in the laundry?), but continued on this "red" path.  

When I was young, my parents let me choose the decor for my room in our house on Winchester Road, where I grew up.  I asked for red and white hearts, and they wallpapered half my walls in crisp white wallpaper with hearts.  My bed had a red and white striped quilt (which my brother and sister-in-law have on their bed now).  When my grandmother, my Dad's mom, passed away, I inherited her four poster bed, which my Dad painted white, with tiny red wooden hearts affixed to the headboard.  My dressers were painted white with red drawers.  Every Valentines' Day, another item with red and white hearts made its way into my room.  And I loved it.  It stayed that way until I was at least 16 and too cool for hearts.

As I began picking up bits and bobs for my new bedroom here in Marpole, I found myself drawn to stuff with red hearts again.  It occurred to me that I really liked the idea of a throwback to my childhood sanctuary.  Not to be a kid again, or to have a wish to go back, but to move forward with some connection to the "me" that was a kid in that bedroom.  To connect to the home I grew up in, which I sorely miss - this somehow made me feel closer to my family, who aren't around on a daily basis.   My dressers were already a throwback - they were also my Dad's mom's, and sat in my own parents' bedroom on Winchester.  My dad repainted them for me when I came home from London with no money and no furniture.  

Then I started to find things I already had, that I wanted out  and visible, because they made me feel even more connected to family, and to that essential sense of myself and where I came from.  I put vintage pillowcases on the bed, which my Mom noted had lived in Marpole before, in the home she grew up in a few blocks away on 62nd.  They had belonged to my grandmother, who lived her whole life in this neighbourhood, but who I never met.  I put out some vintage glass dishes, which I remembered sitting on my grandfather's bathroom counter when I was a kid, one filled with soap and one with cotton balls, but which my mom told me her mom used to store her hairpins in.  

It's all Valentinesy up in here.  Curriecat doesn't care as long as her pink blankie is on the bed.

The heart that started it all.  This was an Opening Night gift from my director, Rick Tae, when I performed in "A…My Name is Alice."  It hangs on my bedroom door.

The "doggie dishes."  The only thing I asked for from my Grandpa's house when he passed away, I remembered fishing out cotton balls and little hotel soaps from these as a kid.  My grandma Annette used them for her hairpins.  That's her on the left.

My dad thinks all the hearts are "too foufou".  That may be so.  I am unapologetically foufou.

That's it, that's all.

When I showed my parents my room on FaceTime, my dad grumbled that it was too girly, that no boy would like red hearts.  "It's too FOUFOU," he said jokingly-but-not.  ("YOU'RE FOUFOU" I shot back.  Great comeback, Dan.)   But the reality is, no boy lives here.  It's me, it's my room, and the connection to home and to family, and the feeling of belonging that it gives me, are worth the risk of a boy not liking it.  Of course it's not to everybody's taste.  It might not always be to mine.  But things can always change, and for right now I need my room to be a place I feel cozy, safe, and connected.   Home is where the heart is.  Literally.

Friday, January 16, 2015

On Mindfulness, Balance and Being Deliberate.

2014 was one of the busiest years on record.  I spent almost three months total outside the country.  I learned tons about my job and the company I work for.  I laid on a few different beaches, and visited the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. I went through a shitty breakup.  I went to Disneyland.  I acted in three productions, one of which was a super top secret non-rehearsed full-length musical.  I put a painful professional chapter behind me once and for all with respect to a bad business arrangement.   I staged Evita in my living room with my friends for my birthday (of course I played Eva, don't be silly).  I sat on three boards, helped organize a shoe-themed fundraiser, and met my first nephew, the darling Charles Alexander, known as Cal.  I saw a dead body (really).  I climbed a giant mountain in Wales.  I dyed my hair green, and then purple.  I sang karaoke in front of my work colleagues.  And then, in the last days of the year, I moved house.  

As crazy/fun/wondrous as my year was, it was also draining, and kind of disorienting.  I was tired all the time, and things that had been fun, suddenly weren't.  Due to structural issues and neighbourhood noise, my home no longer felt like a safe place to be.  I felt like I didn't sleep - all year.  By the time this autumn came around, my workload felt unsurmountable, my free time felt chore-ridden, and I wondered if I would ever not feel exhausted again.  I never read anymore - ME! The English major with walls and walls of books lining her home!  I felt like being busy was keeping me from - something, I didn't know what - but it wasn't making me happy.

There are a couple of things that I have learned over the past year.  The first was that I can't do it all.  I really can't - and (surprisingly) I don't want to.  My approach over the past few years has been to throw myself into everything I'm asked, head first, and it has not served me well. That's what makes me tired.  And tired leads to sick.  And sick leads to sad.  I have learned that I can have a very little bit of everything, but not the whole lot - and maybe that's OK, to only have a little bit.  The second was, it doesn't have to be perfect.  I'm still working on that one.  The "it" is every aspect of my life really - from the roots of my dyed hair to the Curriecat fur that occasionally sweeps across the floor, to my really really really slow running and my sloppily cooked dinners.  It doesn't have to be perfect, but for the things that matter: my work, my art, my health, my friendships - it does have to be the best I can possibly do.   And sometimes it has to be the best I can do right at that moment.   

And so, the things I am focusing on this year reflect these lessons.  The goal is to help me put these ideas into practice every day.  Just because I understand what I just said above - that I can't do it all, that "it" doesn't have to be perfect - doesn't mean that I'm comfortable with those truths, or that, when I am lonely, or tired, or insecure, I don't revert to the manic business and accomplishment-collecting that have characterized many years of my life.  While some people may say, "This year, I'm going to get out of my comfort zone,"  my promise is that this year, I will stay IN it.   I will not take on everything.  I will say no.  I will build in time for nothing.   I will take the time to think through what I'm doing (there's the mindfulness for you), and make deliberate choices about what I can do, what I'd like to do, and what I'd NOT like to do.  I will reflect on the people I surround myself with, and how I'd like to treat them and be treated in return.   

In December I made a scary but so-far-wonderful decision about where "home" is, and am having fun creating an environment for myself that is comfortable, relaxing, somewhere I can bring my friends, somewhere I can be  be still, and quiet, when I need to be.  Somewhere I can sleep.   It's not trendy, it's not hip, but it is filled with sunlight, fresh air, calm, and Curriecat, which is all I need, really.  

It's not going to be easy, this being easy on myself.  It's very very disorienting and uncomfortable at times.  To say, "Today I think I will go to work, come home, make dinner, read a book, and go to bed.  And that will be enough.  That will be OK."  To say, "I think I've done everything I can on this work assignment, time to put it away for now.  And that's OK."  To say, "It's OK to just go for a walk."  It's scary, to think that at the end of this year I might not have a laundry list of things to say on Facebook, or Twitter, or this blog, that I've done and been and seen.  But I keep telling myself that's OK.  I'm OK.  And OK is just fine.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Authentic Dani.

As part of the personal journey I'm on that started with this post, I'm taking Brene Brown's online course that accompanies her book, The Gifts of Imperfection.  Each week a reading assignment is provided along with an art project of some kind.  

This week, the topic is authenticity.  Brene says authenticity is something we can all consciously practice - she calls it "the daily practice of letting go of who we think we're supposed to be and embracing who we really are."  That really resonated with me after the day I had today.   

First, I should say by way of disclaimer, it was a wonderful day, filled with family and the opportunity to practice my art by performing onstage.   My parents were here to see my show, and we went for brunch.  My nephew Cal was born on Tuesday, and as new grandparents, my Mom and Dad are obviously excited.  My aunts and uncles are excited.  Our friends are excited.  Our acquaintances are excited.  It seems that darling Cal (and he really is darling - I'm not allowed to post pictures yet or OH, I WOULD) is the main topic of conversation and enthusiasm in our family circle and in our extended circle of friends.  It's very hard for me to not imply and internalize a message from that: the message that it's good to be settled, it's good to have kids.  It's very hard for me to not feel like "less-than" because I do not have these things.  It's very hard not to think there's something wrong with the way I'm living when it feels so different from that of my brother, my cousins, my parents' friends' kids, the ones I grew up with, who were my contemporaries.

So this idea to be authentic - to be who I really am and let go of who I think I'm supposed to be - felt really powerful to me today.  I think I'm supposed to be somebody's wife.  I think I'm supposed to be somebody's mom.  I think I'm supposed to own a house by now.  Weigh less.  Feel more balanced, calm.  The fact that I'm not, or that I don't,  really does make me feel like I am not a whole person, a lot of the time.  I feel like these are badges of honour that I'm missing - visible signs, that LOOK! SOMEBODY LOVES ME, or I HAVE STUFF - and that the absence of these symbols means something about my worth as a person.

I know it's insane.  It's just how I feel.  And so the idea that I should try to let go of those feelings - the idea that those feelings are WRONG - and that (to link back to Brene's initial lesson) I'm imperfect but still ENOUGH - well, that message was received today, somehow. It might not stick, but it's there today, which is a big deal.  

The art journaling exercise today was to find a photo of myself that reflects who I really am - to wade through old photos to find images that provide emotional resonance for me (rather than photos where I think I look good or cool).  That was a tough exercise, because I self-censor so much - there just aren't photos of me that exist if I don't think I look pretty, or less fat, or cool.  Anything where I think I look weird, goofy, chubby, stupid - those pictures just don't exist.

I won't tell you which of these photos won the contest as revealing my authentic self, but these are the photos that made the shortlist, for what it's worth.  These are photos that remind me of times in my life where I have felt truly myself, felt permission to be exactly who I am, nothing more, nothing less.

(Apologies Dad for the hungover (?) sleepy Pops picture - and RIP Blue Pierre Cardin Bathrobe, 1979 - 1994.)

Again, apologies Cathy - but we were both making silly faces...

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Gastown Classic: Acme Cafe

I kind of can't believe I haven't written a review yet for my local favourite, Acme Cafe. If ever there was a place that was "my" place, it's Acme. It opened in April 2010, just months after I moved to Gastown in the fall of 2009, when things were really starting to take off here, It felt like we were in this together, rebuilding a neighbourhood we wanted to be a part of, and all of the staff at Acme, including its owner, Alan, have become familiar and friendly faces in the over five years that I've lived here. When their Lemon Meringue pie was featured on the cover of Vancouver magazine a few years back, they happily sold the famous pie to me for my 31st birthday party (my last name is Lemon, it seemed appropriate). I've had cookies and pie just out of the oven practically forced on me by chefs saying, "Just taste this and let me know what you think." It's like sitting in your mom or your aunt's kitchen. 

Located in the historic Paris block on Hastings, Acme hearkens back to the cafeterias and diners of old without being kitschy. It features a number of booths and a huge lunch counter for solo diners. As it's become more popular, they've squeezed a few more diner tables in as well, but it's still small enough that there is almost always a wait during peak hours.

The menu is straight-up comfort food. Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, grilled cheeses, mac and cheese - this isn't pretentious West Coast dining and if you're not into carbs, this is likely not the place for you. The meatloaf plate is a favourite of mine, with a generous helping of meatloaf, accompanied by salad and mashed potatoes, if you're up for it. I also like the meatloaf sandwich, which comes on a pretzel bun. The "High Falutin' Grilled Cheese," featuring cranberry sauce as well as a number of cheeses, is also ridiculously decadent. I'm told the Shrimp Melt is to die for, if you like that sort of thing (shrimps = worms of the sea. I won't eat 'em). Sandwiches come with your choice of sides. Acme's coleslaw is worth asking for (which also comes with potato chips), as is the side of Mac n' Cheese if you have room for it - but please remember there's dessert.

Oh yeah, dessert. That's one of the main reasons to hit up Acme, and asking what pies are fresh BEFORE you order your main meal is always a good idea. The Lemon Meringue is ten feet tall, and if you're lucky enough to be there when they have a slice, order it. The chocolate cream pie with an Oreo crust is amazing, as is the Key Lime. There are also always a huge array of cakes, cookies and pastries on display at the espresso bar if pie isn't your thing (but if pie isn't your thing, we can't be friends).

There are always breakfast/lunch/dinner specials, and usually a soup and a quiche of the day.

Without a doubt one of my favourite spots in the city. Unpretentious, quality food and friendly people. In the new year I'm moving out of Gastown, and I'm actually sad that this place won't be right around the corner. However, I know I will definitely be making returns to my old 'hood to visit good old Acme cafe.

*this review originally featured on Yelp, where you can read my reviews on lots of places in Vancouver and elsewhere.  Thanks to Yelp for making me a member of their Elite Squad for 2014.