I felt nervous about going to Russia, the same way I felt about Myanmar and China. I’m a relatively intrepid traveler, but the combined force of a different alphabet, not so much English and a regime that feels repressive makes me quiver a bit. But I had the most magical times in Myanmar and China, and being in a place in the flesh among people just living their lives makes all of the warnings about surveillance, data-hacking, personal danger, vague feelings of unease all recede. Going into a place, the Warnings are loud; when I’m in a place, what I notice is the woman trying to pretend her shoes don’t hurt her, a couple telling each other about their days walking home.
I took the train because it felt romantic in the literary sense, the right thing for Intrepid Spinster Wandering the Globe. (But I also upgraded, because I can, and I like to lie down whenever I can. Unlike all of the Emperors and Queen and writers like the Brontes who slept sitting up. When did people realize that lying down to sleep wasn’t flirting with death?).
I liked that the Conductrice (there is no other word) for our first class wagon was wearing a skirt and comfortable shoes and a little hat with a red hammer and sickle emblem on it. I liked that the food in the fancy car was delivered by a woman with two reusable shopping bags, one with a snack pack of a bad packaged croissant, a yogurt and an apple juice, and the other a plastic box full of still-warm blintzes.
There is something about a train frontier that’s unique, not the stamp stamp stamp of airport immigration or the oddly intimate interrogration of having a border guard peer into your car. Especially when no one speaks English. The officials come to you, one at a time, in your little personal cave, and observe the nest you’ve made in 3 hours, the half empty haribo bag. First the Estonians, handing you back the papers you’ve filled out and flipping to find your entry stamp in Frankfurt and stamp you out, then a looooooooong wait while they cover the entire train. Then a creaking across a long high river bridge, past the red post marking Russian territory, guarded by one soldier on the river bank. Then the Russians. So many of them. The kind woman who takes your passport away to inspect the visa that cost $600 but will give you freedom to move about without a guide, the man with the broken nose scar who peers into the carriage and looks around, the two men with the sniffer dog who licks your hand (blintzes), then the woman who asks you about anything to declare and looks upward, decides to leave you alone.
And that’s it, after more than 90 minutes. You fall asleep, ish, in your little nest, hoping the Conductrice will wake you up when it’s St. Petersburg. You wake to see the 1030 pm sunset over the fields, and wait as you flow through the edge of a city, then get off the train at midnight in a huge station that has withstood wars and rebuilding and time and deprivation. And a loud anthem spreads through the station, greeting you. A song of St. Petersburg.
And in the station, like at the Great Wall of China, the first recognizable brand is Subway.
I posted this this morning on Fit is a feminist issue as I leave for Uganda for the 10th time. Reposting here in full because it fits here too. Pics are embedded in the other post -/can’t reproduce on my phone.
As this posts, I will be in the air, on my 10th trip to Uganda since 2008. A decade ago, I accidentally ended up one of the volunteer directors of a learning and development program called Nikibasika, for kids and youth with no family support. Now, I’m part of a tiny group that raises all the funds and supports this group of kids as they transition through post-secondary school and into adulthood and community leadership. This picture is of me, with Smith, one of my favourite people in the world. He’s studying to be a public health officer and he’s curious, kind, warm, caring and so smart and committed to changing his world. I love him.
Nikibasika is a long and involved story of its own — a book, really — but what I want to focus on here is the identity that’s emerged for me doing this work over the past 10 years — Auntie.
I never really had much of an identity related to the fact that I don’t have kids. I never really yearned to be a mom, but I didn’t deliberately “choose” not to be one either. I’ve noticed the emergence over the past couple of decades of women who actively identify as “childfree,” a “movement” of women redefining femaleness without the expectation of kids. That’s all great and interesting — but I can’t relate to it. I assumed I would have some kids, I happened to be with someone who didn’t want kids during prime kid-having years, that was okay. It didn’t have a big impact on my sense of self.
Then Nikibasika found me, in a culture where women who are mom-age in any nurturing role are called Auntie. Around the same time, my sister had her first daughter. So as I entered my 40s, the role of Auntie found me. At first, it was just an affectionate title. But as I’ve gone through my 40s and into my 50s, it’s actually become a central element of my sense of who I am.
It’s pretty well understood that being an Auntie can be a special role, the one who gets to do fun things with the kids, “hand them back when they’re crying,” be the safe space for the conversations adolescents can’t have with their parents. Community and family advocate Mia Birdsong has said that aunties “expand children’s internal and external boundaries,” and I like to hope that that’s what I do with the people I’m auntie to — at least some of the time.
I took my 12 year niece to London for a few days over Easter, and the time inhabiting each other’s space had a unique intimacy to it. She sent me a handwritten thank you letter that said “London is awesome and I’m so glad I got to share my first time going with you.” I’m grateful for what I got from her in those five days too.
I have an Auntie role with some of my friends’ kids too, especially my friend Jessica’s. I was there at the beginning of her precipitous and early labour, I drove her and her partner back and forth to the NICU while the twins baked into humanness, I drove their tiny selves home from the hospital for the first time. In February, I got to spend a few days with Ivan and Felix (and their parents) in Barbados, introducing them to the sea.
Why am I writing about this in a fitness blog? Like many of the regulars on this blog, I have written a few times about how community and family are an important part of self-care, and important part of balanced health. The extension of that for me, particularly as I’ve gotten older, is a really explicit need to live with a sense of meaning.
A few years ago, I was in a hotel room in Rwanda reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed, and serendipitously came across her musing on the need for aunties: “It’s as though, as a species, we need an abundance of responsible, compassionate, childless women to support the wider community in various ways.” Right that moment, I understood that even though I hadn’t set out to “be Auntie” to the kids of Nikibasika, it isn’t just “a thing I do,” but one of the ways I get to live into the person I most aspire to be.
For me, Auntie is one of the ways that I’m living this stage of my life in a generative way, to use Erik Erikson’s phrasing for the 7th psychosocial stage of development. Erikson’s theory was that mid-life can either be a time of stagnation and self-absorption, or it can be a time of “generativity” — i.e., working to creating a better world. “Auntie” captures that perfectly.
I didn’t set out to make a 15 year commitment to a group of kids and young adults in a country I had no ties in. Running an NGO in another country as volunteer isn’t for the faint of heart, and the fundraising and operations can get extremely wearying. But like everything that makes me more of who I am — whether it’s riding my bike really far, my work that challenges me, or improvising my way through this project, the day to day discomfort, pain and difficult moments fade into the background. What rises up is the purpose — the moments of profound connection, seeing the young adults who had no family support graduate from university, start businesses, get married, start volunteer projects in their own communities.
Me, kagame, Andrew and baby Nana 5 years ago Me and Innocent 6 years ago Me, my sister, my sister-friend Tina, and Tina’s daughter Nana
Over the next 10 days, I’ll be continuing to improv my way through this project. I’ll be hot, and a little sick, and jet-lagged — and I’ll be fully in my grateful Auntie glory.
I woke up early on Saturday because I was teaching in an intensive all day. I flicked through the news as I got dressed. The first hints of the chaos of the Muslim travel ban, signed by Executive Order and implemented at 430 am.
At a light, driving across the empty streets, I googled “call the prime minister.” (Who knew, but you actually get a number you can immediately poke). I poked it and held the phone to my ear while driving — I never do that — and was amazed to have a person answer at 8 am on a Saturday. I said “I would like to leave a message for the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s about what’s happening with the travel ban in the US.” And unexpectedly, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop.
I couldn’t figure out at first exactly what I was so upset about. Why tears, why now? The only other time I’ve actually cried in this whole cycle was watching Hillary’s resignation speech, when the camera panned out to the young girls. I’ve felt upset, and anger, and fear, and worry, and exasperation — but not actual tears.
In that moment, I flipped from cognitive and empathetic concern and anxiety about Everything That’s Happening, to a pure, childhood reptilian fear. I realized that by dialing the PMO, it felt like a last resort, a desire for some authority figure to Do Something, invoke some form of protection. In the face, I realized, of another, bigger authority figure in the world bullying vulnerable people. Asking “my dad” to come out and stop that big kid who’s older than everyone else in his grade from punching younger kids.
It didn’t work, of course. Justin responded with pics of him hugging little Syrian kids, sunny hashtags. #WelcometoCanada. He didn’t denounce the bully, didn’t change anything. I felt like he was distracting us — “come on over to my tree house! I have lemonade!” No mention of bloody noses on the little kids or the fact that the rungs on the ladder are all slippery (I’ll stop tormenting this metaphor any moment now). I read that tweet, and I got mad.
I have direct lines to the childhood fear that all of this evokes. My parents — perhaps unwisely — took us to a museum in a Nazi labour camp when I was about 8, and I then read obsessively about the Holocaust. I became fixated on books about people in hiding, people fleeing, people getting ready to flee by packing rucksacks with everything they might need. Somehow my fear translated into the action of packing a bag and hiding it in my closet. I knew I wasn’t Jewish and that it wasn’t 1941 in the Netherlands, but part of me reasoned “if kids leading perfectly normal lives could suddenly be snatched from their homes, I need to be ready.”
I grew out of keeping a bag packed and ready in my closet, but I developed a whole new layer of fear when I read The Handmaid’s Tale as an undergrad. I read and re-read it, chilled every time. It became a basic “interpretive repertoire” for me when I later studied communication theory and thought about the possible extreme outcomes of the “culture wars” in the US, the hints of nascent theocratic impulses, the systematic dismantling of access to reproductive rights in different states. A niggling anxiety underneath everything as the world unfolded in apparently “progressive” ways. Progress for women, for queer and trans people, is temporary, I always thought. Be vigilant.
This Saturday, I was texting with my friend Joanna in breaks while I was teaching, and she mentioned an art installation that included an adult blankie fort you could pay to enter. I started googling adult blankie forts, self-mocking my own sense of fear. Recognizing it as primal, not a response to an actual immediate threat. Decided I needed a day of hiding, and spent Sunday doing a jigsaw puzzle, drinking tea, eating macaroni and cheese and watching a whole season of the Mary Tyler Moore show. I only went outside to pick up the pizza from my Uber-eats driver. Metaphorical blankie fort, off grid, settled down.
Then the news of Quebec City filtered through my calm via a banner notification from the NY Times. (“You pay to have them upset you?” asked Susan).
Now my fear is toggling with anger, and it’s the kind of anger that I have to find a way to shape, to contain, to make sense of, because it’s squirting out, both on Trump supporters and on the people who “think both sides are overreacting.” I know the danger of outrage fatigue, and it scares me.
I have about 10 posts brewing in me about what I know about bridging conflict in polarized discourses. But I know I can’t even begin to be creative in those terms if I don’t make some peace with my fear, if I don’t give into anger or outrage.
My friend Joanna (the one from the blankie fort) wrote a post the other day about an experience we partially shared 27 years ago when we took our young naive selves to Oka to try to Do Something.
It was kind of a mess and what we did was not helpful. (Though I get all sorts of cred in a certain circle for having been hit by a soldier). The one sensible force in it all was a Quaker woman who brought some light to the mess.
Joanna wrote about how that woman has echoed for her lately. I’m trying to pay attention to that. Patience, witnessing, presence. The drunk uncle has overturned the Thanksgiving table and there’s no dad who’s going to make it all okay. But there are ways we can respond to that that make us more human than others.
It’s my last of three days in Bangkok. My only reason for being here is that it’s here. It’s what I do, go to places. Thailand is country #48. I ran in Lumphini park this morning with all of the other tropical shuffle-joggers, and counted that this is my 15th country I’ve run in. I fully realize how privileged this makes me — time, money, independence, physical ability, a childhood that fostered wanderlust.
I ran two loops this morning around a civilized green park. So easeful, communal with all the Thai exercisers, calm despite having to navigate a puzzling four stage, terrifying intersection to get in. The first day it took me 10 minutes and I finally defied traffic and sprinted across. This morning it took me 2. I adapt, learn routines, quickly.
That’s why I do this traveling, thing, really. There’s something that gets released in me in the practice of learning a new place, feeling it through a soft opaque filter, liking that I don’t understand things, that there is a planet full of stories and meanings completely beyond me. Why did everyone in the park suddenly stop running or walking and stand at attention for a minute? I piece together — 8 am on the dot, music playing, it must be a national anthem thing. Who are the hordes of people at the Royal Palace in shiny black looking excited, clutching large calendars with photos of the just-deceased King? It clearly has something to do with paying homage to him, but there’s an air of festivity, sponsored stands full of people handing out water, dumplings, little boxes of lunch. Why did the boat take off without me when I was standing right there waiting for the other people to get off?
I like finding out the explanations later (or, immediately in the case of the boat –you have to push the people out of the way and hop on, it only stops for 30 seconds). The mourners ARE on a pilgrimage, and the ones I saw were joyful because their hours of standing in line had been rewarded, they’d seen the body of their beloved King, their made-for-the-occasion mourning clothing worth it. The traffic around the palace is temporarily diverted for the showing for a full year, when the King will be cremated in a stupa they are building in the park. Explanations.
But the meaning doesn’t matter. What I am doing when I travel like this is letting go of the mindless, jammed routine of my life and forcing myself to live in a more mindful way, think about what I am doing, be here. I wrote a post last year about why I like to travel alone and this is part of it. My life is overfull, endless colours and tangles and stories and people and projects and needs. Again, privileged. But it carries too much juggling, too much time online, too many little squares in my i-cal, too much distraction. I regroup by pulling myself far out, by lifting myself alone into a new place.
I’ve done all the things in Bangkok, the glorious Wat Pho and the reclining Buddha, a massage at the temple where thai massage originated, got lost in Chinatown, ate a superb 9 course meal that cost $140, ate a glorious lunch that cost $1, figured out the metro, the ferry, the sky train. Did a night time bike tour through tiny alleys and silent lit up temples and the luscious flower market. Realized quickly that in traffic the motorbike taxis are the fastest and clamped on my bike helmet as a boy who tells me his name is Boy zips me across the freeway. Those moments — on the back of a motorbike in a tropical city — are my free-est, lightest self.
But the lifting myself out is harder this time. Long flights used to be a blend of impatience, anticipation and anxious excitement for me. A time out of time where everything was possible. Shrodinger’s time. Eight years ago, the first time I went to Uganda, my seat-mate and I literally clutched each other’s hands as we landed. He was an African American political science prof who had dreamed of going to Africa since he was tiny. So had i, for different reasons. Landing and feeling the heavy air and scent of charcoal that IS east Africa was like finding a new planet. The same way I felt when thousands of fish swarmed around me as I clung with a fingertip to a coral in my first “real” dive. Endless, kaleidescopic, worlds within worlds.
Somehow, now, as the countries have added up and I have accumulated probably 500,000 Aeroplan miles since that first trip to Uganda, flying 16 hours in a straight shot is just a task I am an expert at. My seat mate this time was a young woman on holiday with her family, we bonded against the idiot across the aisle who was miserable, vomiting and whining because he washed too much xanax down with wine. (I woke to think he was just motion sick and drugged him further with dramamine; the flight attendant gave me the side eye when she realized but everyone was happy when it made him pass out for 6 hours. We monitored him to make sure he wasn’t dead. I also had to drug his neighbour who got a huge headache from being kicked in the back of the seat for 4 hours; he politely asked for advil).
I fully realize my privilege in acknowledging that a trip to asia is now a familiar jaunt for me. And I’m not complaining… I’m noting. I’m noting that in the 8 years since the professor from Syracuse and I grabbed each other as we identified the Sahara from the tiny window, the world has become wired. My first trip to Uganda, to get online, I had to go to a rickety machine running Windows 95 that had dialup. I could blog words, and exchange simple emails. My sister told me the news headlines.Now I have a Ugandan sim card I seamlessly slip into my phone, have “roam like home” for $10 a day, even in Asia. China had pesky connectivity, but there was wifi everywhere in Vietnam. The children in our project in Uganda have phones, and on my bike tour of the tiny winding lanes in Bangkok, I had to avoid little kids who were staring at their phones in the road. (Wifi is often crappy; it’s 3G that is ubiquitous).
Staying connected is a thread to community that’s important as a solo traveler — but when connection is as easy as it is at home, the same surge of distractions swells up. I used to read hard, important books with a headlamp under a mosquito net when I was jet lagged. Now I can surf the same websites that obsess me at home when I can’t sleep. I can text my sister and business partner and friends while I brush my teeth. I have to literally pull the plug.
And that’s the second part of the dis-ease I’m feeling. The world is fragile and terrible right now. Being in places that were removed from everything familiar to me made me weigh my own life and recognize it for its unbelievable safety, privilege, luck of DNA and geography. But as the world has wired and flattened itself out, Aleppo is grabbing me by the arm, I can’t tear myself away from the fear that Trump is inciting, and I’m noticing that everyone staring at a phone, everywhere in the world — EVERYWHERE — is connecting and disconnecting. Things are real and are simultaneously a simulacrum and truth folds in on itself.
I had a lovely time in Bangkok. People were marvellous. I am feeling physically good and strong. And I’m grateful I’m leaving tonight for Sri Lanka, for the bike trip that should put me in the space of seeing people at eye level, the essential movement of rolling forward on a bike. Learning a new world through smell and sound and the bumpy ground underneath me. Realizing that it’s times like this that mindfulness exists for.
Hoi An is a town of lanterns. During the full moon festival, tiny old ladies and a few children, some dressed in santa costumes, hold trays of paper lanterns, red and green and blue and yellow, candles lit.
You buy one for 20,000 dong and carry it carefully to the edge of the river, avoiding the boatman offering you a ride, eluding the other ladies trying to get you to buy a lantern, apparently oblivious to the one you have in your hand. You thread around the other walkers.
There is a floating edge to the darkness in Hoi An, streets in the old town lit by colourful lanterns strung along every restaurant, every shop. The streets are narrow and full but the noise is soft, no loud music, no motorbikes or cars. The basso thrum of the motorbikes sifts from the edges of the old town.
You lean down and place the lantern in the river, making a wish. Your lantern is red, and you watch it float out around the man’s little boat, tangled for a moment around the prow. The little fold of red paper, lit with a sturdy candle, holds an invocation, a breath to decide what to leave behind, what to bring into the next future. Every moment is fresh. Pema stays with me. I invoke the qualities I am practicing hard to cultivate. I watch my little boat shift gently, then blink. There are three or four or six, and I don’t know which one is mine. My eyes blur for a moment and all of those invocations are mine.
I weave through the surges of people, find my bicycle where it’s been moved to. I know mine in the shuffle of hotel-loaned bikes because i brought my own little blue cable lock. You lock them just so you know which one is yours, so no one accidentally rides it away. They pile up and fill the streets and the vendors, the restaurant owners, consolidate them and move them. You always find yours. I ride to my homestay and sleep in white sheets.
I changed my FB profile picture yesterday to Beaker from the Muppets. It was a comment on what my nose looks like right now. I had microsurgery yesterday to remove a basal cell carcinoma from the end of my nose.
It’s a significant wound — I have a photo of the wide deep hole but won’t inflict it on the world — and I have about 10 stitches in the rest of my nose from the long line all the way up the side where they took skin to graft the hole in the end of my nose.
Basal cells are the “non-cancer cancer,” and almost never a long term problem. Except that it’s a much bigger deal than just “burning off a little something,” and an indicator that those 20+ years of running and riding without adequate sunscreen catches up with you. There is a correlated risk to higher incidences of non-skin cancers. And to avoid having a really gross scar, I have to keep my nose completely covered up for the next six months. “Wear a bandaid on it any time you’re outside,” said the surgeon. “If you don’t, the scar will be dark and gross forever.” Nice look for someone who jokes about “Everest nose” after most of my outdoor adventures.
I had the surgery as a bit of a surprise, on a cancellation. I was scheduled for the summer but asked if it was possible to move it up. I went to a 7 am spin class yesterday and was back at my desk drinking coffee and eating a muffin when they called and asked if I could come in right away.
Basically they burn off the lump, take it to the lab, and keep removing layers until there are no more cancer cells. Then they do reconstruction where they take skin from another part of your nose (or your ear) to graft the wound. It’s a multi-stage but incredibly efficient procedure called MOHS. They were great and my health will be fine. But I’ll have a scar, and I needed to scrounge up some serious painkillers last night. And it’s a demonstration that my shameless reveling in the sun has an impact.
I *love* running in the sun. I love the feel of heating up from the inside and the outside at the same time, moving my body in the sun, the other-worldly feel of floating and heat and pure elemental presence. Inverse water in the thirst of Canadian winter. Joked about my leathering skin, felt invincible. Noticed my aging chest a couple of years ago — started calling it Aunt Shirley, flippantly saying “this is what women’s chests looked like when I was a kid.” Not invincible after all.
20 years of running means that I entered this decade fit, connected to my body. This was a reminder that my body needs tenderness and care. Run. Ride. Hike. Walk. Swim. Wear sunscreen. Wear a hat. This hurts and it isn’t pretty. #wearsunscreen
There was a mom with a toddler who was walking around, named Alexander, an old fashioned sturdy name, an old fashioned sturdy child. I was waiting for a doctor’s appointment, and I crouched down and talked to him, and when he wandered over to the other side of the room, another woman leaned down and sort of hummed a song at him.
Alexander’s mom said, “I bet you don’t even know it but that song is from one of my favorite shows!”
At the same time, both women said “Treme!”
“I know where it’s from,” the singer said. “I lived in New Orleans for a while. Pre-Katrina. I sing it all the time in my shows.”
“Where do you gig?”
“Different places. A bar on Roncy, on Sunday afternoons.”
They chatted more about music, and Alexander’s mother tried to manoeuvre the stroller out the door, fix the brake that had applied itself for no reason. I held the door, and she left, and I asked the singer the name of the bar on Roncy.
She gave me her card. There was a line drawing on it, a silk screen of a girl with a guitar shot from the back. She’s wearing a dress and little socks and the guitar is jaunty, a coat slung over her shoulder. A grainy pebbled image.
“That’s me, when I was in New Orleans. It was the best time. I lived in the Ninth Ward. That’s where Katrina hit the hardest.”
I looked at her, no trace of that girl in the socks with the guitar. Weary.
“My father is dying.” Her eyes wavered with tears.
“I’m sorry… I think it’s hard whenever you lose your parents. My dad died when I was in my 20s, and I’m 49 now, and sometimes I think it would be even harder to lose a parent at my age, someone you’ve come to take for granted, think is always going to be here.”
“You’re turning 50 this year? Me too.”
“It’s hard isn’t it?”
“I got divorced the year I turned 40. I think I thought 50 would be easier. It isn’t, somehow.”
“I turn 50 in September. I’ve lined up gigs for the whole month. I need to get through that time singing. When I turned 30, I was in New Orleans. I was wearing gold lamé onstage, and had a 25 year old lover and thought I had the whole world.”
“The thing is, you know the other side will be just FINE — but getting through the turning point is a squeeze. It’s like… there just isn’t an endless array of possibilities any more. You have to get serious about saving money, people around you get sick, some paths are closed. It’s not bad, it’s not dire, it just is.”
She nodded, close to tears. We looked at each other, recognizing.
“I’m sorry about your dad.”
I folded her card, the girl with the guitar, into my wallet. “I’m going to come and hear you sing.”