On this, your 18 month “birthday,” I can’t help but marvel at the fact that you’ve learned so many things in three months that I can’t even put them all into words. If you glean nothing else from this little letter though, I just want you to know what a fantastic little human being you are to hang out with these days.
We spent our time now walking around, hand in hand, chasing trucks, balancing on garden ledges, picking tomatoes and reading books about trucks and animals over and over and over again.
You are a little observer of all things, at least for now. You like to hang back and watch the world with a furrowed brow as if attempting to gain a perfect understanding of your surroundings before engaging with them. The more kids and people running around you with wild abandon, the more likely you are to hang back and hold onto my leg, trying to find order in the chaos.
People who don’t know you well mistake you for serious and shy but they don’t get to see you at home where you run around giggling and trying to boss us all around by using your sign language for “please” and “thank you” coupled with a winning smile. When you are having the most fun, you laugh with your mouth wide-open so that the sound comes out from the back of your throat, so deep and throaty that it’s as if you’re so filled up with joy you can hardly stop laughing to take a breath. You still love your trucks and birds and stray dogs but now you also love playing ball and being “tossed” by your favorite people onto a pile of pillows on the bed. You like zooming around the house on your little car, with your broom or simply running back and forth across the living room while giggling uncontrollably.
We read at least 15 books a day now and its become so fun to watch you respond when I ask you to find things on the pages. You know “A” “B” and “C” now and some of your colors and numbers as well–and of course all of the barnyard animals we can give you names for. I’ll never understand why kids still learn the names of animals first in this prost-agrarian society, but you aren’t bucking that trend in the slightest and that is ok.
You are a quintessential toddler now, willfully disobeying us at least a dozen times a day simply to see what kind of reaction you’ll get, though you are still sweet and kind to your core. Throwing is once again your new favorite thing although now you actually have the muscles and control to throw things with force. We are still very much working on the concept that balls are for throwing but noodles, blocks, hammers, bowls of pomegranate seeds and water bottles are, sadly, not.
You make us laugh with the little games you play and you communicate so well with signs and gestures and just a few words that its hard to worry much about the fact that you still don’t like talking yet. Your favorite signs right now are “where is it/all gone?” and you love when we ask you questions about your day that you can respond “Yesshhh” to with a very affirmative head nod. My favorite thing is watching you tell us what is going on around you. You point, eyes wide, when someone comes to the door and you babble with a note of dramatic surprise. Other times you stride around the living room explaining in sonorous tones and with the practiced inflection of a professional lecturer the serious business of moving a toy nail from one end of the coffee table to the other. The words aren’t comprehensible yet, but the earnestness behind them makes me laugh to imagine what we’ll be in for when you decide to really start talking.
You interact with your Daddy now in a way we’ve both been patiently waiting for since almost before you were born. In the last month, you’ve finally begun to come around to the idea that maybe Daddy really is the “more fun” one and it makes my day to see you grab his hand to go read a book or go outside to throw a ball around.
Will, it seems crazy to me that I spent so much time writing about your every move back when you barely moved and so much less time now that there is a new thing to write about everyday. You aren’t a baby anymore, but a little boy who we love getting to hang out with.
All our love,
In retrospect, perhaps there would have been more romantic places to take Chris for our first real date night in India than a neighborhood mosque.
We had come to watch the Sufi religious men dance, a must-see for Delhi that supposedly happens every Thursday evening at dusk in Nizamuddin.
I’d been waiting for months for Will’s level comfort with our housekeeper to coincide with the darkest days of winter, hoping that if we rushed over to the mosque right after work we could watch the dances at nightfall and be home before Will’s bedtime. My plan may have worked, had I not accidentally chosen to visit on the same day as Milad Un Nabi, the day celebrated by Indian Muslims especially as the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.
There was a palpable whiff of celebration in the air. After aimlessly wandering the Basti, a neighborhood where tourists come for guided tours of a rather colorful but easy-on-the-eyes version of poverty, we wandered bare-foot through a seemingly endless maze of smooth marble hallways past whole families of beggars and vendors selling religious trinkets by the glow of naked lightbulbs. We found out later that while we were exploring, our driver passed the time warily watching parades of drugged-up teenagers danced around the car and “exercise with large stones”–thus ensuring that the night would be remembered as a very interesting experience for everyone involved.
We entered the central courtyard of the dargah (the term used for Sufi mosques, if I’m not mistaken) to find it packed beyond room for navigation as families and friends greeted one another excitedly, men handed out bags of sweets to anyone whose hand could reach them, and young women snapped photos on their cell phones, wanting to capture the mosque lit up with lights and green flags and the overhead grids of silver tinsel that I’ve begun to associate with celebrations here in Delhi. Standing out amongst the revelers we saw small pockets of white foreigners in make-shift head coverings all looking around as bewildered as we were, as if to say “ummm am I in the right place?”
The atmosphere was nothing short of amazing. Joyful and jubilant and generous. There were smiling people everywhere we looked, sharing their food and their space with whomever happened to be sitting down next to them on the woven mats covering the ground. A group of earnest looking young men pressed English-language booklets into our hands, urging us to convert but darted off happily when we handed them the strings of roses we bought accidentally at the entrance to the dargah.
After a few minutes of hopeless wandering, trying to find the dancing Sufis, we finally sat down and hoped that they might magically appear before we’d have to leave to make our 7:30 curfew.
They didn’t. Who knows, we may have missed them by mere minutes or they may not have danced last night. Maybe next time.
Either way, you can tell its a couple’s first night out sans child in awhile when, given alternatives, they instead spend a large portion of that night out helping a pack of roving children pick the English letters out of a prayer book.
A few more photos from the evening below. The light was low so most of my shots came out blurry and/or grainy, but I hope they give at least a tiny taste of the lovely atmosphere at the dargah. Looking back at the shots I took outside the dargah, it occurs to me that perhaps I was a little bit hungry…
There is something about a bird’s eye view to make a city feel smaller.
The roofs of Old Delhi are covered in day-old roti, roti being the less well-known but far more plentiful cousin to India’s most famous bread: naan. I asked why so much food was wasted in a city so full of hungry children always coming up to car windows begging for 10 rupees to buy a chapati (chapati generally refers to a whole-wheat version roti).
It’s for the birds, of course. In a city where so many believe that they might be reincarnated in animal form and that suffering in this life will grant them a better chance in the next one, I suppose I can dimly grasp at the logic of feeding birds instead of children. But not really. No, not at all.
There is always this moment in a foreign country in which the prevailing customs and beliefs swirl and churn their way into my consciousness, lapping at the sides of my own moral ship and finally rising up over the deck to smack me down in a wave of pure shock and just a touch of fury.
To my way of thinking, this bit of shock and awe is a good thing. The unfamiliar ills of a foreign society are to wandering souls what koans are to Buddhists–paradoxes unsolvable and yet instructional. Pondering the same societal riddles over and over again helps me to see my own faults and America’s faults in a new light. They force me to move past certain caricatures of “India” and consider the unique opinions and viewpoints of everyone I meet.
I was talking with our housekeeper the other day about the role of grandparents in different cultures. I was telling her how many grandparents in China are the ones to raise their grandchildren while their own children go to work to support the entire family. I asked her if families in India were like this.
No, she said. She leaned back on the kitchen counter, looked up at the ceiling and sighed.
In India, the role of the grandparents is to criticize the daughter-in-law, she said.
But it won’t be her role. She’s already told her sons that she will never live with them after they marry, if she can help it. She does not want to make the lives of her daughters-in-law as miserable as custom would dictate, but she knows how easy it would be to fall into this societal pattern were they all to live under one roof.
So instead, she and her husband have a mortgage on a plot of land where they will build a home when they retire and where their grandchildren can come to visit them. She said she would rather break with tradition than live to glimpse her future daughters-in-law making long faces behind her back.
Just one more reason to remember that nothing in this country is ever entirely as it seems, as it is said to be, as it is “supposed” to be.
A few more photos from Old Delhi below.
5 years ago–almost to the day– I walked into my first real post-collegiate job and found myself sharing an office with G–quite possibly the funniest, most patient, most comprehensible, and most encouraging IT person I’ll ever meet–as well as definitely one of the best human beings on the entire planet. G is a Drupal genius–who spends all of his spare time coding websites for non-profits free of charge and who has, for the last ten years, been running his own soup kitchen providing meals to the homeless of Washington D.C.
I loved sharing an office with G and hanging out with him and our other friends on the weekends. When Chris and I got married, he was there. When we left for China he was who I consulted about VPNs. And then we actually left for China and basically lost contact for 3 years.
Until Tuesday night when Greg sent me a Facebook message. He’d come down with a stomach bug and had a minor car accident in Udaipur and had to skip the rest of his ambitious India travel itinerary to fly to Europe from Delhi instead. Did I know of a decent hostel near the airport where he might be able to get a room?
Which was how we ended up getting to bust out the fancy “guest soap,” hanging out until 11pm talking about Japanese stationary, science fiction novels and what our dream iPad apps would be, nearly poisoning tree-nut-allergic G with our homemade walnut banana bread and- oh yea– showing him around our little corner of Delhi.
Chris and I have always dreamed of living in a city that our friends might actually have a layover in. Delhi is a far cry from Paris but it was fun to be able to show G some hospitality while he stayed with us for two nights before his flight out this morning.
I’d been meaning to check out the spice market in Old Delhi for months now but with G in town, I finally felt comfortable leaving Will at home with our housekeeper for a few hours (I’d heard the spices could be a bit overwhelming for little kids) to take G for a rickshaw tour of Old Delhi organized by another friend here.
Cycle rickshaws were one of those seemingly medieval contraptions I just didn’t understand very well until I visited Old Delhi for the first time. The alleyways of Old Delhi are impossibly narrow and winding, too narrow and winding for cars and most motorcycles. Unless you really know the area well and you know exactly where you are trying to get to, the only way to get anywhere is in the cab of a cycle rickshaw who knows exactly which way to go.
I’ve walked through Old Delhi before on my own and with friends, but the tour was really useful for helping me to get my bearings over a larger area.
Next time I’ll skip rickshaw and just walk in order to get some of the amazing shots we saw as we bumped and bumbled our way through streets full of sparkly ribbons and eyeglass, balloon vendors and men carrying stacks of bricks on top of their heads.
On this trip I took a few requisite pictures of my favorite subject: chai wallahs. Oh and puppies playing amidst bags of chilly peppers. Because really, really? Seriously India, sometimes it feels like every breath this country takes is a photo op.
I have a few more Old Delhi shots to share in another post soon hopefully but, until then, thanks G for putting up with our tree-nuts and coming to visit. Hopefully its not another 3 years before we get to hang out again!
Or perhaps, if possible, as a smaller proportion of my total writer-ly output.
This blog is comfortable, it’s my minuscule little corner couch in the Internet neighborhood coffeehouse, filled with the photos and stories of our lives and with kind words from wonderful people whom I’m so happy to have met through blogging. It’s a space I treasure more than most of the physical things I own and, were the Internet to burn down, I’d probably run back into the house to save it.
Writing is a compulsion for me, and blogging just happens to be the easiest, most instant-gratification way to do it.
Which is why, this year, I’d like to try to do it less.
From my non-writer, pop-culture consumer perspective, it seems to me that before the Internet, if you wanted to be a writer you had to either find an entry-level job writing and work your way up or you toiled anonymously for two or three or twelve years, however long it took to write your (potentially horrible) masterpiece. Then you sent out paper copies of your paper baby to editors hoping someone would read and like it enough to validate all of your anonymous, painstaking hours of work. If you were lucky, you might even receive an occasional note in return explaining why your work was or was not so horrible–the informational equivalent of what even a mostly-unknown blogger might expect to receive today from one minimally thoughtful commentator.
And then the Internet happened. The old ways of “making it” as a writer transformed. The number of people writing from the top of their bed (or wherever the internet connection is soundest, the coffe is cheapest and the distractions most minimal) instead of a newsroom tripled– at least.
And then blogs happened and we learned to chase a new American dream for the digital era: going viral. Suddenly ordinary people, blogging on free blogger templates could write about banana bread, bathroom makeovers, 20-something angst, or sh*t their dad said for instant feedback from an online audience of devoted followers and thoughtful peers. Soon the luckiest of bloggers began signing book deals and HBO pilot contracts, quitting their day jobs to live off of their web advertising revenue and giving interviews on Good Morning America.
Of course, it is now harder than ever to distinguish oneself in the very crowded, incredibly creative and talented blogosphere. Whereas solid writing used to make or break a blogger, these days its writing plus brilliant photography, plus a gorgeously minimalist, easy-to-navigate website, plus dozens of hours spent commenting on the blogs of other influential bloggers, plus careful consideration of tags and titles chosen for maximum search engine optimization. Really, for anyone hoping to blog as a “get famous quick” strategy, the odds of making it big just keep getting worse.
And yet, for some reason, that dream of writing the blog that goes viral just won’t die. And even for those of us without such big dreams, it’s hard to be a hungry gold-star seeker and not notice the up-to-the-minute stats on the dashboard, the unique pageviews and the queue of comments waiting to be answered.
It is far more rewarding to craft a 1500 word blog post for instant feedback from my peers than it is to obsess over the same number of words for an article that will likely never see the light of day no matter how many editors I send it to. It is far less lonely to write simple little captions to photos online than it is to alternatively spend that time struggling to write a first chapter to a novel that might end up being a horrible mess in the end anyway.
And yet, no matter how awesome it would be to write that blog that gets “discovered,” the truth is that, no matter who you are, it is impossible to write the next great American novel without, at some point, having to sit down for many lonely hours to bang the damn thing out. While blogging is a fantastic outlet and great for bursting through tough bits of writer’s block, every minute spent blogging is a minute spent not writing something else.
This year, I’d like to spend a little bit more time on that something else, just to see if I can. As the wife of a diplomat, I self-censor the most interesting and personal bits out of every blog post, but it would be fun to try writing something fictional in which I don’t have to be quite so diplomatic about every experience, emotion or character I dream up.
So that’s a goal for this year. To do a little less Hot Pot and a little more other stuff. Not that I won’t be writing here–likely nearly as often as I have been–but I just hope to shift my priorities a little and keep this blog as the treasured scrapbook of our lives that it has always been and less as a platform for me to share carefully edited bits of prose. Those bits, I’m hoping I can learn to write elsewhere, motivated a not by the instant gratification of likes, page-views and lovely comments, but instead simply by all of the fascinating stories and characters flitting around constantly in my head and in need of a few more pages of paper on which to come to life.
This week will be quiet. There will be painting, there will be playing. There will be nap times spent doing exactly that: napping (for one member of the household anyway). Dinner will be served early and I’ll swallow my wanderlust and commit to nothing save for play-dates and a few necessary errands around town. We will finally answer the toddler siren call for the comforting security of routine and familiarity.
Since we left China with Will last April, I realized I’ve begun to keep a tally of sorts in my head, attempting to achieve some level of balance between adventure and upheaval, novelty and familiarity in Will’s life.
Will has entered a new phase recently in which seeing new things around town is no longer quite as appealing to his toddler sensibility as the comfort of home and the rituals of routine. Strangers are scary, no matter how well-meaning; and heaven help the person who tries to keep Will from his post-dinner bath-time.
I’m mindful of the fact that keeping Will sheltered on this quiet compound for two years straight would do as little to help him prepare for a nomadic global childhood as would expecting him to toddle around town with me for hours on end, loving every minute of it.
So we attempt to strive for (and here I go with that word again) balance. We try to pick outings to places where Will will be able to get down and do a little of what he loves best–climbing and getting dirty, or else we keep the outings as short as possible. We don’t go out until he’s had a few hours to run around and get out some of his wiggles and we try to always come home before nap time. We skip the most overstimulating, crowded times of the day in Old Delhi and usually follow up our most chaotic, colorful adventures with quiet afternoons at home.
Of course, there are times when all of this careful planning doesn’t work. Like say, when grandparents come to town for the holidays and routines get understandably and joyfully mangled and trips to the park get traded for trips to the market.
My mother and father in law lived in India for five years and so they’ve seen all of the sites hundreds of times. For them now, the appeal of a trip to India (after seeing their grandson of course) is the shopping. We did quite a bit of shopping over the holidays, with Will always along for the ride.
Delhi is an incredible city for shopping and I wish I could have photographed all of the fabulous little shops and enclaves we found on this trip. I haven’t yet figured out how to wield a camera (or actually shop, for that matter) though while supervising Will in a store full of irresistibly tidy stacks of shawls and towers of glass baubles displayed, tragically, at toddler eye-level. He’s a quick one–too quick for me to ever do anything in a store except survey the layout of potentially expensive accidents and then haul Will back out onto the street again to take our chances among the motorbikes and construction debris rather than the merchandise inside. I can do bicycle rickshaw rides through Old Delhi with Will. I can’t do jewelry shops.
The point of this long rambling post I suppose is that, I’ve talked to a lot of people lately about their holidays and almost everyone has said the same thing: it’s nice to get back to some semblance of routine and we are no exception. Owing to the cold weather in Dehi and our two week shopping (or attempted shopping) extravaganza, I have no exciting Delhi outings to report and no Delhi photos to share, but I do have a few photos at least of Will painting his first masterpiece on New Year’s Eve.
To me, it is an awe-inspiring masterpiece. Not due to it’s artistic merit of course–let’s be clear, Will’s inspiration here was trying to determine exactly how much paint I’d let him smear across the paper at one time–but rather owing to the astonishment I felt watching him create something for the first time, under his own power, guided by his own thought process–whatever exactly that may be these days. I never understood before why parents cover their refrigerators in unintelligible scribbles and mud-colored paintings, but now I get it. I have a painting of my own tacked up on our fridge now too and every time I see it, I’m reminded again of what an independent, autonomous little person Will is growing up to be.
As a friend commented on Facebook, there’s a little boy expression on that baby face in the photo above. Sure, today he’s all about dismantling our living room and smearing paint across a 5 foot long sheet of paper, but I know it won’t be that many years until he’s actually help us dismantle the living room on purpose and no longer tottering around the house in nothing but a diaper and a healthy coating of blue paint. I sound like both a broken record and every other “mama blogger” who has ever come before me when I say this but, when did my little baby get so big on me?
How are you all? How is the post-holiday season treating you?
Ok, I just have to say it once and then hopefully I can put it out of my mind forever: there are a great many Russian babushkas and their male equivalents running around Goan beaches in very, very tiny string bikinis and speedos.
I never thought I’d experience such culture shock over someone else’s beachwear choices but, there you go. I am likely an unsophisticated prude who probably wears too many scarves and turtlenecks.
Goa was lovely. The setting was lovely. The company was fantastic. The sunsets were beautiful. The fish curry was excellent. I could have done without the 9:30pm start to the Christmas Eve dinner and the Goan cover band playing the Beach Boys in an apparent attempt to distract my toddler from his exhaustion and starvation, but whatever. We got through it.
I was more homesick than usual this year for some reason. Perhaps it was the collision of the holidays hitting at the same time as the 5-months-at-Post doldrums or perhaps it was simply that this was the fourth Christmas I’ve spent away from my family and the traditions I used to love so much. I’m hoping next year to insert a little more Christmas magic and festive spirit back into the season for us. I remember gleaning so much joy and security as a young kid from my family’s holiday rituals and would love for Will to be able to have that too, especially now as he insists on growing up into even more of a bonafide “kid” on us everyday and shedding all of his oh-so-two-weeks-ago babyhood ways as fast as he can.
Just please tell me I get to keep those cheeks for at least a little bit longer. Oh and the snuggles. There are now words for how much we love our cuddly, snuggly, chubby-cheeked little man.
We had high hopes for relaxing on the beach and watching Will run around in the surf, but forgot to take into account Will’s recent distaste for all granular dirt particles—like, say sand. In the end, he spent most of the vacation in my arms. Oh well, maybe next year.
It’s interesting comparing how we feel coming home after a vacation to Delhi instead of Chengdu. For the first time in our foreign service career, we’ve realized that we actually enjoy coming home as much or even more than we enjoy going away. Goa was beautiful but after a few days we were more than ready to come home to our house and our coffee and our markets and friends and everything we’ve grown to like about living here. As the events of the last few weeks indicate, this place is a far, far cry from perfect, but it still feels more like home than anywhere we’ve been since we lived in D.C. At least, perhaps, until that bid list comes out again next fall.
Last year I made a huge to-do list in January of things I wanted to do in 2012. I read through that list today and was surprised to find how many items I could actually cross off that list. It felt really good to see that, in between all of the moving and traveling and upheaval, we actually accomplished quite a bit and had a lot of fun.
I don’t think I’ll do a to-do list for 2013, with bidding coming up again this year and without any huge international moves to ground our calendar, the year feels like too much of a blank canvas to attach a to-do list to it. Instead, I might try a letter, like Natasha over at La Vie Overseas did.
How about you? How was your Christmas and are you setting any resolutions?