a bigger picture moment

This week I struggled to find the bigger picture moment. There was turmoil, and I tossed and turned, groping for what I was supposed to learn from it, but all I got was lost.

I have a colleague, whom I know others avoid talking to because, well…he’s extreme. Not just extreme, but also incendiary. He enjoys provocation. He’s self-aggrandizing and tries to use huge post-modernist words to sound smart, but usually ends up just obfuscating his leaps in logic. I know this about him, but I’ve always maintained a degree of tolerance, respect, even bemused affection for him, because, you know, at least he’s earnest. And usually I don’t take the bait when he’s being incendiary and provocative because I know it never ends well. He’s always too busy trying to prove he’s right to ever listen to what truth might lie on the other side, and he doesn’t care who he offends in the meantime.

But this time, when he said that America’s institution of marriage was a sham, I had to put a few words in. Except, it’s never just a few words and pretty soon we were into it. Only later, through the course of the argument it started to become clear that he didn’t think committing lifelong to someone was a sham, only having state involvement in it was. He doesn’t believe in signing a legal document about it and he rails against the state’s incentive structure privileging married couples over nonmarried couples. He wondered why the state should be involved at all.

I was willing to grant that he had a valid point in there, though I still argued there are important reasons to want state protection for marriages. (The argument really isn’t important here though and I’m not seeking validation for my side of it.) But his point did make me start looking into the history of marriage and how states ever got involved in the first place. And I thought, maybe this is my bigger picture moment. Engaging with him might make me learn something here. So I waded through material about patriarchy and the historical economic motivations for marriage and the split between church and state and Europe…and I waded…and then…I just. didn’t. care. I stopped.

And after that point, he lost what semblance of respect he had maintained in the conversation and just became flat out insulting, so I stopped responding. But it stuck with me. And I couldn’t figure out why it stuck with me. I didn’t care about proving myself right. I knew better than to be really hurt by his insults because that’s just how he is. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to learn from this exchange. Tolerance is hard maybe? I just didn’t know.

But then I realized something. He’s just a kid. His arguments may be more eloquent and better considered than those who just say legal marriage is nothing more than the signing of a document. But he has never known what it is to totally subsume himself for something greater. (Or if he has, he must have gotten burned in the process, and that explains why he upholds individual freedom above any other possible value.) There is a profoundly important difference between making promises to your lover in private and getting up in front of everyone you know and love and declaring your commitment. There is a difference when you love someone so much, you’re willing to declare your commitment in a legally binding way. That process transforms you. And no amount of armchair theorizing can tell you how that process changes you until you experience it. A marriage is still prone to weaknesses and no legal stature can totally inoculate it from danger. But the ceremony and tradition links you to all those who have come before you.

And I found I just truly did not care that the state is involved, even if it means we’re pawns in some scheme larger than what we can see. So what if, historically, marriage supported patriarchy? My marriage does not. I don’t have to change the institution of marriage by opting out. I can change it by living it the way we want to, every single day. I’m reminded of a quote by Barbara Kingsolver (bear with me, it’s a little long):

“But his kind will always lose in the end. I know this, and now I know why. Whether it’s wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them….Even a language won’t stand still. A territory is only possessed for a moment in time. They stake everything on that moment, posing for photographs while planting the flag, casting themselves in bronze. Washington crossing the Delaware. The capture of Okinawa. They’re desperate to hang on.

But they can’t. Even before the flagpole begins to peel and splinter, the ground underneath arches and slides forward into its own new destiny. It may bear the marks of boots on its back, but those marks become the possessions of the land. What does Okinawa remember of its fall? Forbidden to make engines of war, Japan made automobiles instead, and won the world. It all moves on.”
– The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver, p. 384.

It all moves on. The state has been involved in marriage for centuries, but the institution of marriage has changed over that time without the state having much say about it. Whereas once marriage might have been a primarily financial consideration to ensure progeny, entered into by a man of at least 30 years of age and a woman under 18, now we marry for love, usually between equals. In the last century alone it has changed. Who knows what it will be a century from now? What matters is the will of the people in it. And we can theorize all we want about the social and political implications, but it all moves on, and people will make of it what they want from it. And that is our power.

I realized that, and I slept soundly. And into my dreams, I did not bring in this argument. I dreamt of different things and lovely things. And when I woke, I kissed my husband good morning.

happy valentine’s day (and chinese new year)!

For two people who didn’t really make plans for Valentine’s Day, we sure did find a way to have a decadent time. We spent the morning lazing about with breakfast in bed, involving smoked salmon and smoked oysters, english muffins and cream cheese, coffee, mimosas, and strawberries and cream. Then we headed the call of a gorgeous Santa Barbara day and went to Alice Keck Park, a small botanical garden where we got married a year and a half ago.
We took photos of each other.
toby1And photos of turtles
turtlesI have a special affinity for turtles.

Here they are storming the beaches of Normandy.
stormingOr something. They’re vicious little beasties too! One would try to scramble up, only to be knocked down with a little plop! back into the water.

Then this guy:

would follow this guy around trying to nip him in the ass.
Animals are entertaining.
Then we wandered some more around downtown. Had crushcake cupcakes. Watched Up In The Air. Played a little wii. And now we’re off to dinner. Let no one say we can’t find love in unexpected places.
heart_tree(This tree reminded me of a heart. Can you see it too?…or is it just me?)


The past year has been a little rough on me. It was the first year of my husband’s and my marriage, which while blissful, is a transition. But add on top of that another shift for me: I had decided to take the year off of teaching to focus on getting my dissertation research done. I was in the data collection phase, which required doing a lot of interviews and observations “in-the-field”, thus requiring a flexible schedule that teaching just did not allow. We’re very fortunate that my husband makes enough for us to afford me not having a salary for a year without too much financial strife.

But I did feel a heavy, heavy emotional burden. In ways I didn’t even articulate to myself, I felt I was a burden. My husband didn’t do anything to cause this per se. This was guilt I put on myself. Since leaving my parents’ home, I’ve always brought in my own salary. Through college, I weaned myself off their financial support and slowly built up my own financial independence. Money isn’t important to me, but somehow the fact that I make money for myself meant a great deal to me. It meant I was independent, strong, capable, responsible. It made me feel good about myself (or at least contributed to my sense of self-worth).

But this year of not only not making money, but also incurring student loan debt on top of that as I finish my degree, made me feel like an incredible financial burden. And in ways I didn’t totally articulate in my head, I tried to “make up for it” by doing more around the house: more than my share of cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, washing dishes…to “earn my keep”. Trouble was, it’s not like I wasn’t working at all. I was still working on my research, writing, and keeping a fairly full schedule…and then doing all the household work on top of it.

My mom and my husband’s stepmom both saw something was afoot and warned me several times that in marriage you can’t think of money as “his money” or “her money”, but as “our money”. But none of this really made an impression on me. I agreed, but that did nothing to assuage my feelings of guilt that I wasn’t putting in my fair share. And because I didn’t feel I was putting in my share, I cut back on as much of my extra expenses as I could: I stopped getting haircuts, I stopped wearing more than a minimum of makeup, I stopped going to yoga, and so on. Meanwhile, my husband freely bought the things he wanted (within reason, of course). If there was something he knew I wanted, he had no problem buying it for me (so generous, I thought in my head). And so he believed his wife wanted for nothing. Except that if I had a desire for something, I had to ask him to help me buy it: in essence, I had to ask his permission. So on top of the guilt feelings, I also had a deep sense of male patriarchy and inequality in our relationship.

Even after I started teaching again, I kept up the patterns that had started to develop. And that’s when the burden really began to add up. I became grumpy, disenchanted, and positively sour. A serious expression was my default face. My husband’s stepmom even tried to offer to help out financially so I wouldn’t have to teach…because she could see I was changing. I wasn’t the same person anymore. My parents started getting concerned. Finally, over Christmas, my mom had me watch a film called “The Human Face” with John Cleese (if you have Netflix, you should really look it up – it’s fascinating, funny, and less than an hour long). This film was all about how our facial expressions have subconscious effects on our relationships. She said I always used to smile, and she wanted me to watch this because I’d lost my smile.

I didn’t think very directly about all this after watching the film, but I know something was happening underneath. I’d finally had enough of my self-imposed burden. Shortly after the new year, I talked to my husband about it. We talked it through and he simply said I cannot and should not feel guilty, that this is what marriage is about, it’s sharing, and it’s helping each other when we need help and not feeling like we owe each other like tallies on a tally sheet. I don’t know if it was what he said, or if I was just finally ready to hear it, but ever since then, I haven’t felt guilty and I haven’t felt unequal. And we’ve reasserted fair shares of the household chores back to the way we used to do it.

And I’m making greater efforts to smile, and discovering my smile comes back easily again.

I think this speaks partly to the new generation of feminism: figuring out the proper roles, since they are no longer defined for us. Before society told us what was fair and what duties belonged to whom. Now we have to negotiate that for ourselves. It gives us greater freedom, on both sides in a way, but with freedom comes the need for communication and negotiation. Part of the negotiation is with our partners in life, and part of it is with ourselves, so that we can let go the burdens we try to carry, even when they’re too much, even when they’re of our own making.

What have I learned from this?

Marriage Lesson #1: Learn to share, and that sharing means knowing how to give and to receive.

Life Lesson #3,486: Sometimes we smile because we feel happy. Sometimes we smile in order to feel happy.

you capture – a story of happy

For nearly a whole week, I wrestled with how I would respond to this challenge. What story could I tell about the things that make me happy? I’m very much a “happiness-is-in-the-small-things” kind of gal. What tale could I weave around such things?

Would I talk about the little tickle of delight I get in the morning when I see these wriggle while I get ready for work?

What could I say about the first good sip of this (and I mean real good coffee – not just the kind that you need to survive the day, but the kind that recalls the little slice of heaven that is sitting in the cafes of Florence and Rome)?
youcapture_happycoffee…especially if you can curl up with a cup AND a good book? Oh, bliss….

Was there anything interesting about that moment of profound peace in namaste after a morning session of yoga?
Or in playing this after a long, hard day?

Could I tell a story about how I feel when I come home to this man?

After days of wrestling with the questions, I started to worry I wouldn’t come up with anything interesting at all. I thought to myself, this week I might not have a decent post at all! And what a sad thing, when my life is filled with so much happiness.

But then, just as I began to despair, my husband leaned over and whispered, “Close your eyes.”

What? What’s going on, I wondered. But I closed my eyes, listened to intriguing rustling noises, then felt him give me this:

This adorable hat I’ve been eyeing for weeks! With this adorable purple flower:

I asked him to what I owed this fabulous surprise and he just said that I had been working so hard, doing things to please other people, and that he thought I should get a little something for myself.

Happiness is in a wonderful marriage. Happiness is in gifts you get and give “just because”.

Thank you, my love.

For more stories and pictures of happiness, check out Beth’s website, I Should Be Folding Laundry and this week’s You Capture challenge. Or better yet, join in the happiness yourself!


this is what it means to heal

us“We know who we are and define what we are by references to the people we love and our reasons for loving them….I’d lost my closest friends and with them I’d lost the mark on the psychic map that says You Are Here.” -Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram

Five years ago, I lost my husband – or rather, I should say, we lost each other. Everything I thought I knew about love and relationships came crashing down around my ears in that moment, and I was left crying and bleeding on the cold tiled bathroom floor. All I could think was “This is the sound of my heart breaking. This is what heartbreak feels like.” It was then that I learned what strength meant, what it required, and what I had in me to endure.

It took nearly a year, a phone call, a few soul-searching letters, and a midnight conversation on a pier overlooking the ink black ocean before we found each other again. Even then, I think our souls recognized each other before our wary minds and jaded hearts did. Because heartbreak changes you. When it happens to you, you are never the same again.

It took two more years before I found a place where I could say I had healed. There are scars still, a few ghost twinges of pain remembered, but I finally felt we had rebuilt something new: something so much stronger, and so much deeper, that I could trust it for a lifetime.

Because forgiveness is not something you easily or automatically have; you flip a switch and suddenly it’s there. It’s a choice you make every day: a choice between grumbling over the hurts of the past, or dealing with what’s in front of you here and now. It’s not always the big traumas that doom a relationship. Often it’s the little things we do every day that either strengthen or undermine the bond between ourselves and others.

Commitment is not just a promise you make on your wedding day. It’s also a choice you make every day. Sometimes the choice is so easy you never even think of it. It can be as simple as picking up the phone, picking up the kids, or picking up the socks from the floor. Or it can be as difficult and profound as the right words at the right time, an embrace when it’s most needed, or sticking through the rough patches to reach the sun on the other side.

When you lose someone you love, it is like losing the magnetic pull on the compass of who you are. But sometimes being lost for a time is necessary. Becoming truly lost means you finally know who you are when everything else is stripped away. That way, when you begin again, you know what is real. It gives you the strength you need to make a leap, to love someone when all you have is hope, and trust when all you have is faith.

The second time around you are stronger. Wiser. More thoughtful. And all that was, was worthwhile, to have what you have now. Finding out that the love you thought was lost has actually been with you all the while, and moreover, that the love is better and deeper than you ever believed love could be is like getting a glimpse of the Eternal. It is something too powerful to be felt completely, all at once.

So I do the only thing I can. I celebrate it in little pieces, every day.

Nuala & Garren Get Hitched!

Yesterday, yesterday
In a land that time forgot
Nuala Mansard and Garren Fisher
Lately did tie the knot.

In a sacramental service
Oh so beautiful, intimate, and sweet
At the Santa Barbara Mission Rose Garden
Two beloved hearts did meet.

Some pretty pictures
Toby that day took
So all that maybe wish to
Can later have a look.
And under threat of Michele’s fury
Hellfire, damnation, and rot
Toby processed them and published them
Where all can be quickly seen and got.

They look so happy!
They glow with such bliss!
Nuala smiles lightly, lovely and often
As she gazes at her man.
And well you can see love shines bright
When Garren gazes at his lamb.

And a muppet in his pocket
Apparently ’tis what I am.

We are so honored to have been a part of this glorious, wonderful and special day.
Congratulations, newlyweds!
(Apologies for the crappy poem. This is why I am not a poet.)

A Year Ago

A year ago today, I was in my kitchen with my mom and my matron of honor preparing food for the wedding rehearsal dinner. I was worried and anxious that the party would go well and that the food would turn out nicely. I was thrilled to have my loved ones all around me. I was trying to think if there was anything I’d forgotten, and mostly surprised by how smoothly things were going. But most of all, I was impatient and excited for one of the most important events of my life: my wedding day.

On July 11, 2008, I married Toby Matthew Keller, and tomorrow we shall celebrate our one-year anniversary. So much has happened in one year, I still cannot believe it has already been a year. Somehow it feels as though the three months right after the wedding just never existed. It’s like our honeymoon was another world to where we time warped, only to boomerang back sometime in October, when reality really sank back in.

I didn’t think it was possible to love him more than I did on our wedding day. But marriage has changed us, and deepened our relationship in ways I could never imagine. There is a sense of security and comfort, where we are each other’s foundations, our rocks on which to lean and find the courage and will to pursue our dreams. Even when we argue or disagree, there is no fear, because we know, underneath the disagreement, we are solid and secure with each other. Yes, marriage is a lot of work. To constantly be aware of another’s needs and desires, to want them to succeed and always be happy, to find ways to get past the problems life hands you, it is work. It takes energy, commitment and will-power. But it is so worth it, because the good times are so very, very good.

Inevitably, there will be times when it is so very, very hard. But I write this so that my future self will always remember the good times, and to help us get through the bad. I don’t wish to sugar-coat marriage, because I think over-sentimentalizing it and over-romanticizing it leaves one in danger of being unprepared for the reality of it.

But I also believe that people who say marriage doesn’t matter, that it’s just a piece of paper, are full of sh*t (no offense), and are probably masking a fear of commitment. There is something indescribably important about standing up, with your loved one, in front of all your family and friends, and pledging your entire life, heart and soul to each other. And to know that all your family and friends have witnessed that moment, support you, honor that commitment, and pledge to help you sustain that commitment. A marriage is not just a pact between two people; it is a pact between two families (to whatever degree those families are present in your lives) – and I come from a large, in-your-business, love-you-until-rocks-bleed Asian family. And once there is a marriage, we don’t believe in distinctions between blood relatives and in-laws. Every one is family. Every one has a place and belongs, where there is no judgment, only love and support. Whether (you think) you want them to be there or not.

So tomorrow, we will celebrate the passing of a year. We will go wine-tasting, we will flirt with each other, we’ll dine on fine foods and wedded bliss. And we’ll celebrate the day when two became one.

*Wedding photos taken by Kelly Segre Photography.

Nesting Pains

I promise I’m not ready to have kids yet. I’m still very much enjoying the Simple Married Life, which is so full at the moment and getting fuller towards the horizon. So the thought of taking on the responsibility that is motherhood is something I’m just not up to tackling just yet. Plus labor pains. Oh labor pains. How I do not look forward to thee.

But I find myself spending increasing amounts of time thinking about what kind of mother I will be. Will I be strict and over-protective? Will I be haphazard and over-indulgent? Will I be the one my kids come to for advice? Will I be the one they ask for an extra special treat? I quietly observe other mothers with their children, mentally taking notes of what I admire and what I hope to avoid. I peruse blogs of families with their stories of pregnancy, childhood and the sweet things kids say. I’m constructing my little mental nest for my future chicklets, in preparation for what might become.

It’s slightly dangerous to do this; dangerous to my emotional well-being because it might be quite a while before we really do have kids. And in my family, the women have a history of miscarriages. I might be prepping myself for a child who will never be. And what if…what if we are one of those couples who cannot conceive? I almost can’t believe I wrote that down; a thought too unfathomable I feel I shouldn’t have put it in words.

I shudder, try to rid myself of the thought.

And I go back to perusing blogs and imagining all the cupcakes I’ll make, the sweet little party ideas. I imagine I’ll be the kind of mother who bakes fresh soft chewy cookies, decorates the kids’ bedrooms in super-cute creative yet classy ways, and throws birthday parties that look like this.

I imagine I’ll be the kind of mother my kids know not to piss off. But I’ll also be the one they come to when they skin their first knee, when they lose their first tooth, when they discover a best friend, and when they have their first heartbreak. My husband will be the one they go to when they want to ride their first bike, blow sh*t up, and explore adventure at break-neck speed. He’ll teach them the value of independence and self-confidence. I’ll teach them the value of family and taking care of one another. Together, we will take our kids to museums and libraries (and probably far-off places) and show them the world.

Table for One, Please

The Husband is going out of town this weekend for some time with his boys. I’m invited, but I’m just not motivated to go. I like his guys, and I’m going to miss him every minute that he is gone. But I also truly love time to myself.

I love quiet time. I love to read a girly book, and I love staying up till 4 am because I just can’t put it down. I love having my own space. I love girl-time; the time of gossip and chit-chat, of lemon-drops and appetizers, and of trying on each others’ clothes. I love painting my toe nails and watching the chick movies we wouldn’t watch together. It’s all the little things I used to do as a Single Woman that no longer fit in the rhythm of Married Life.

And I love the time right when he gets back and we tell each other about all the little nothings that happened in each others’ absence. It reminds me of when we were dating; excited to see each other and any minute apart seems too long.

Some people say I should keep him on a shorter leash; that we should do everything together. But I don’t think so. I think that even when you are a We, you still need time and space to be just You. Time apart helps us not take each other for granted, helps us not feel smothered, helps us grow and change as individuals, and make us a stronger couple. It keeps us interesting and interested. I’ve seen couples who do stay too close and they don’t last, or they make each other miserable. Maybe not at first, but 20-30 years down the line. Wives who keep their husbands too close sometimes create husbands who cling to secret information as their only lifeline for privacy. They keep secrets and hide things they don’t necessarily need to hide, just for the sake of feeling they have some control.

I’m going to miss him every minute and I’ll be sad to see him go. I’ll be excited to see his name on my phone when he rings me to say goodnight. But I’m also going to love my little dose of independence.

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