An old spirit, glimpsed

We got a Christmas tree!

Christmas at Byblos Café & Lounge

Christmas at Byblos Café & Lounge

It’s one of those bizarre occasions which I would normally never be excited about, but for some reason, this year I am. As soon as Dani talked about getting a Christmas tree for the restaurant, I offered to shop for it. One reason I volunteered to do this is that it’s been quite possibly a decade since I put up a Christmas tree, and another reason is that if it were up to anyone else, we would end up with one of those hideous multicolored trees from the ’90s.

So last Thursday, we followed Yen Tyng’s advice and ventured to Petaling Street — no matter what anyone thinks of this touristy abomination, it’s still the place to go when you want anything that you know would be grossly overpriced in a mall — which is lined with stores peddling their wares at wholesale prices. We went to Petaling Street with the intention of procuring not only a tree, but also party favors for the restaurant’s New Year’s Eve dinner. Apparently, thinking of ways to lure the hoi polloi is what we do for a living now.

The weird thing about me is that I take to a project the way a hitman does: with single-track concentration and almost tunnel-vision precision. Normally I don’t like shopping with a man in town, especially a man like Dani, whose impatience is so palpable I could cut my teeth on it, but that day, I made him hanker along behind me with a laundry basket full of white and gold Christmas ornaments, all the while resolutely ignoring the increasingly dumbfounded look on his face.

Setting up the tree was strangely therapeutic for me. Walking round and round and round a tree, trying to figure out what would look best where, takes a certain kind of concentration that temporarily drives everything else from your mind, and for almost two hours, I saw little else but the tree, and the ensuing glitter that flew off the gold ribbon and stuck itself to my skin.

The tree was finally completed yesterday, after I proved my point that the gaping holes between the branches needed to be filled, and a tree topper had to be bought. When I stood back and surveyed my work, that familiar little feeling of accomplishment stole over me, followed by something I haven’t felt in a long time: peace.

I will admit that the last thing on earth I expected to bring me any semblance of peace was a Christmas tree. When I was a child, my grandmother used to tell me that Christmas was not about Santa or reindeer or presents — needless to say, I grew up with an acute awareness that Santa Claus most certainly does not exist — but about seeing the good in others, remembering the good things they have done, and appreciating what they may have had to give up in order for ourselves to enjoy what we have.

My own anger and bitterness towards so many things and so many people have long since eradicated every other good feeling in myself, but looking at my Christmas tree yesterday spared me a moment of clarity in which I saw how just how much I’ve lost to that negativity in my life. The circumstances of my life are such that I will never always have everything I want, but what I have at any given moment is what others can only dream about, and as sorry as I am for that, the only thing I can do is appreciate their sacrifice, and appreciate what I’ve been given.

So even though we have a ways to go, Merry Christmas, everyone.

New (familiar) territory

73 years young, this country

73 years young, this country

I’ve spent the last seven years of my life in cross-cultural relationships. It wasn’t a conscious choice; I didn’t stand up and declare that I would never be with a Chinese man again (although the last time I tried to be with a Chinese man was a spectacular disaster). I just somehow gravitated towards men of other cultures, and sometimes I think I’m the better for it. I mean, nobody could come out of a relationship regretting that they learned a new language, at the very least.

The Ritz-Carlton's incredibly overused banquet hall

The Ritz-Carlton’s incredibly overused banquet hall

So when I attended the Lebanese Independence Day celebrations (in Kuala Lumpur, obviously) two nights ago, it was both surreal and familiar all at once. It’s one thing to be there as the other half of someone whose motherland is being celebrated, but also another when you see people of your own nationality and wonder what the hell they’re doing there. Fortunately there were a fair number of people (mostly Lebanese) whom I’ve known for a while and genuinely like, so it wasn’t an entirely uncomfortable experience for me.

The most bizarre, yet endearing, moment was probably when, at the very end, Dani, his Lebanese friends and their wives gathered for a photo, and one of the beckoned me over: “Come Sandra, you too; you’re half-Lebanese now.”

We catered. You're welcome.

We catered. You’re welcome.

Nothing bridges the gap between nations quite like a buffet

Nothing bridges the gap between nations quite like a buffet

It's a Byblos cake, you guys. The 'Byblos' even looks like our logo!

It’s a Byblos cake, you guys. The ‘Byblos’ even looks like our logo!

 

Clearing the air

“Stop. We are done with the question portion of the program. I’m happy. I’m going.” – Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City

baliQuestions. So many questions. So many questioning. So often questioned.

I was raised to believe that everything has an answer for itself, which means, naturally, that everything can be questioned — or rather, should be questioned. I grew up with a need to know everything that crossed my path, especially their reasons for it, because I needed to understand why some things were the way they were, and why I couldn’t make other things the way I thought they should have been. And no matter how unsettling the answers were, when I finally did get them, I really could feel the weight of not knowing being lifted off my shoulders.

The questions were what shaped me into what I am today. They gave me the resourcefulness I needed in order to achieve what I wanted. They were also my downfall, torturing me with the only answer that I could never abide by: no answer.

It has been five months since the day I regained everything I had come so close to losing, five months since I felt as though a dark and limitless cloud had been parted for a tiniest sliver of light to shine through. And yet, five months later, the wounds remain as fresh as ever, scabbing over every now and then, only to be picked open eventually by a recurring memory. And in the five months that I have spent trying to recover from a year of torment, I have questioned and been questioned to the within an inch of my life.

The questions started out genuinely curious, such as “So are you back together now, for real for real?” “Is everything back to normal?” “How is everyone dealing with it?” Then they turned vapid, like “Are you getting married?” “But don’t you want kids?” “Why don’t you want kids?” and the like. Then the questions delve a little deeper, along the vein of “So why are you together?” “Is it because you haven’t found The One?” “Then what will you do with your life?” and so on.

It’s an inescapable and regrettable fact that most people think in order to live a fulfilling life, I have to be like other women: get married, and have as many children as my body is willing to spit out. Nobody ever took into consideration that it doesn’t take a piece of paper stamped by a court for my life to actually mean something. And as soon as I have the balls to say, “I don’t want to get married,” or “I don’t want to have kids,” they automatically chalk it up to the simple fact that I just haven’t found the right person to do that with yet.

So, once and for all, I will set the record straight. I don’t want to get married, and I don’t want to have kids. Even if I did, I have already found the only man I will ever do that with, but our relationship was founded on his regret that he ever got married in the first place — although he has never regretted having kids — so I wouldn’t be dumb enough to put him in a position where he would regret being married again. And, most importantly, after almost three years of coming (several) full circle(s) to find each other again, we know full well that we don’t need a marriage or kids to live the kind of life we want. And we are happy.

I will never stop questioning. I will always wonder why some things took so long to happen the way I needed them to. I will always wonder what my life would be like now if, four months ago, I really did have to watch him walk away from me so that we could both be free. I will always wonder how long it would be before we could be together again, and how far he would go to bring me back. I will never stop questioning, and thanks to that, I will never stop being grateful for what we have now.

And with that, I hope to return to our regularly scheduled programming.

A time for scarring

You can't have a rainbow without a little rain

You can’t have a rainbow without a little rain

“There is a time for everything.”

I had lost count of the number of times this was said to me over the past year. It was the argument to end all arguments, the reason that was supposed to justify everything that had gone wrong: it just wasn’t the ‘time’ for it to be put right yet. On the one hand, I was inclined to believe that statement, but on the other hand, I had been raised to believe that nothing would happen unless we took the initiative to make it so.

And now here we are, a little over two weeks into what sometimes feels so surreal as to seem too good to be true. I had spent little more than the past year so deeply embedded in this hole of despair that I had begun to mold myself to it, and now that it’s time to come out of this hole, I find myself afraid, almost unwilling, to do it.

That’s the thing about cuts: some of them simply run too deep, and while the skin and scar tissue can grow over them, the damage is permanent and they never really heal. We desperately want to be able to forget the pain, but we’ve spent so much time behind that wall we built around ourselves that to come out from behind it seems too daunting, leaving ourselves feeling naked, overexposed.

My anger had become an antidote to my unhappiness, and it had reached a point where I didn’t know how not to be angry or unhappy. And every time I’m told to loosen up, let go of the past and be happy now, because it’s ‘the time’ to be happy, I realize just how difficult it is. I realize that I’m terrified of being happy because the last time I knew happiness was right before everything went to hell.

But maybe there is something to be said about there being a time for everything. There may have been a time for things to right themselves, and now may be the time to be happy again. So maybe, one day, the time will come for me to learn to let go of my anger, stop picking at the wounds and let them grow over on their own.

The flames of forgiveness

'Love' by Alexandr Milov, at Burning Man 2015

‘Love’ by Alexandr Milov, at Burning Man 2015

Alexandr Milov was the first Ukranian to receive a grant from Burning Man to create his art, and his piece was recognized as one of the most powerful from last year’s festival. Of his creation, aptly christened Love, Milov wrote: “It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature. Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives.”

So when I came across it on social media a few days ago, it struck a chord deep within my being, because this is something I live through every single day.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve held the belief that forgiveness, like trust, is something that must be earned. If one is truly sorry for something, one would — or should — apologize, and then go about making right whatever they have done wrong. Then, and only then, can they be forgiven, and trusted again. But if no apology comes, how is forgiveness to follow? If their mistakes were not actually mistakes, but conscious choices, albeit bad ones, made intentionally to produce a desired outcome, why should they be sorry? And if they do apologize, only to repeat their transgressions, what is their apology worth?

Needless to say, I don’t remember ever forgiving anyone for anything.

For the last 13 months, my life has been a series of bad choices made in rapid succession. Every single decision made and subsequent action taken was a conscious one that resulted in more than one heart saved, and more than one heart broken. And every time a choice was made, the list of things I can’t forgive grew longer, to the point where I am now conditioned to prepare myself for the worst and expect history to keep repeating itself. My inability to trust fuels my refusal to forgive because I have never been given a reason to trust that wrongs will be righted and mistakes will be fixed.

Alexandr Milov’s Love tells us to let go of the anger and resentment that solidifies that yawning gap between us caused by our conflicts, and to embrace the forgiving spirit of our inner child when the darkness threatens to consume us. But how do we forgive when we are reminded every day that those bad choices made are the very reason the darkness in our souls exist? How do we let go of the anger and the hatred when they are the only things holding our walls up and protecting our hearts from being broken yet again? How do we put our trust in love when love is what drove us to make these choices in the first place?