In Pursuit of Happiness, #9: Long Coffees, Small Worlds, and Snowboarding

I’m late again, but at least this time it’s just a day late instead of half a week.  To make things more exciting this week I’m going to ask you, dear readers, to do something for me:  if you decide to hit “Like” on this one on FB and/or share this post on your social media, pretty-please-with-a-cherry-on-top share three things that have made you happy when you do so.  It’s just another way we can make the world a brighter place!

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Long Coffees: I don’t have a whole lot of free time, and even a rare weekday off both jobs doesn’t necessarily mean I have much more of it. Such was the case yesterday: a somewhat pressing need to catch up on appointments with the various health professionals in my life meant that a day off wasn’t spent lounging around my apartment in comfy pants and no bra.

However, in between those appointments I had a couple of hours to spare, and I spent them at a great café on the downtown campus of my alma mater in the company of a beautiful, creative soul and wonderful new friend. We met at Job2 and the original purpose of this java jive was to hash out the details of a collaborative project we’re embarking upon.

It was the first time we’d hung out together outside of work, and even at work we don’t get many chances to really talk – but coffee time with her wasn’t awkward at all. We sat down, sipped our coffee, and just talked – about our project, our shared love of animals, our experiences as awkward teenagers evolving into young women in the city, and our individual attempts to make meaningful art.

 

In one of the many BBC historical documentaries for which I have previously professed great affection an observation was made about the impact of coffee and the age of exploration on the intellectual state of Western Europe. Basically, once coffee replaced ale and beer as the daily drink of choice, coffeehouses replaced pubs as the gathering places of academics, philosophers, and dreamers. And because entire cities were no longer inebriated by midday, the literal clarity of the collective mind led to unexpected leaps and bounds in the technological advancements of the western world that had been lost with the fall of the Roman Empire.

 

Sitting in that cozy university coffee shop with my friend I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that the modern café still upholds this rich and meaningful heritage. The Swedish language has a great word for long coffees and great conversations with good friends – Fika – and I felt that this is exactly what I shared with my friend yesterday.

I walked out of that café feeling like not only had I finally started making some real progress in re-harnessing my creativity, but also like I had truly gained a new friend for life.

Small Worlds: I discovered that one of the recipients of a letter from my letter writing campaign – a resident of Belgium, nonetheless – knows my Big Sister’s best friend. I happened to meet him randomly on Instagram when he came across the original post where I proclaimed that I would send a letter to anyone in the world who wanted one, regardless of where they were.

 

I’m not going to deny that the world is a pretty big place when you look at it from certain perspectives, but the world can also be a very small place – especially when physical, emotional, spiritual, and ideological divides are bridged by building connections with other people.

Having been an outcast musician-nerd in my adolescence during the early days of internet discussion forums, I’ve made a lot of friends from all over the world in the last decade or so. From Scandinavia to the United Kingdom and Ireland to just a few stops down the line on the Montreal Metro, talking about common interests online have brought some wonderful people into my life and I’m incredibly happy that it continues to do so.

The world can be a big scary place, but that’s just perspective. If you choose to see instead that this big world can be full of adventure and mystery and wonder, you can start making it a smaller place by figuring out where you belong in it and meeting the people with whom you’re meant to see the world. Right now I’m still working on getting myself into a position where it’s financially intelligent and viable for me to travel, but in the meantime I am very happy and very grateful to be blessed with so many friends around the world who will make these future adventures even more precious and priceless.

Snowboarding: A few years ago, one of my best friends helped me fulfil a dream by teaching me how to snowboard. This weekend, we took a road trip two hours up to Val St-Come, where we spent a day and a half on the slopes in the fresh, crisp air of the northern Quebec. I’ve lost count by now of how many times we’ve gone down mountains together (and how many times I’ve gone down mountains with other snow-junkie friends), but every time we hit the slopes together I’m always reminded of how lucky and blessed I am to have a friend who’s patient and caring enough to slow down, keep an eye out for me on the mountainside, and tell me how I can improve my limited skills on my board.

 

I had the best time ever during this weekend trip to Val St-Come. Having booked an entire weekend off Job2 to do this trip, I am beyond utterly happy that it went so well. Swimming during alone-time on Saturday evening after snowboarding at night helped me relax and get into a fresh state of mind for the fresh powder, bright blue sky, and perfect sense of fearlessness and adventure that Sunday brought.

 

This weekend’s trip to Val St-Come really put into perspective all of the changes and transformations that I’ve experienced – physically, mentally, and emotionally – over the last year. Exactly one year ago on my last snowboarding trip of 2015, I came home feeling lonely, abandoned, and forgotten because it was another life experience I had to go through without the boyfriend I had at the time.

A year ago, I didn’t know how to live for myself because I was so wrapped up in living for another person who, in the end, made me feel like I wasn’t worth keeping promises for and made me feel taken for granted every time I talked to him.

Coming home this year from this weekend away and comparing this year to the last, I couldn’t recognize myself.  It wasn’t just the fact that I’ll definitely need new snowboarding pants next year because these ones are too big (as is the belt I’ve used to keep them up), or that for the first time in my adult life I wore a sporty two-piece swimsuit with utter confidence in a public place. It was the fact that I was truly joyful for a whole weekend – joyful at being able to take an entire weekend off work, joyful at being able to spend such wonderful quality time with my best friend, and joyful at finally being good enough at snowboarding to really enjoy the rush it actually is.

 

Ask me to close my eyes and picture freedom, and this is what I see: above me, nothing but a bright blue sky with a few wisps of white cloud and before me, a seemingly endless slope of fresh powder. It’s below zero, there’s a brisk wind working its way between the woolen strands of the scarf I’ve pulled over my face, and for once my body is about to move in exactly the way I want it to despite being swaddled in layers of warm clothes and being strapped to a board. After a lifetime of being told I was too big to move, let alone be good at any sport, and after strapping myself down to relationships that go nowhere, there is nothing else for me that can describe the feeling of being free better than the pure joy I feel when I’m flying down a mountainside on my snowboard.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #6: Appointment Television, Healthy Living, and Writing Letters

Appointment Television: At a certain point in my early adolescence, my parents cut the cable to our family room TV. Given that the overall cable viewing schedule of the household was limited to news, educational programs, and family-friendly TV shows, I didn’t really miss it. My classmates would fill me in on what was currently happening on TV anyway when we should have been conjugating irregular French verbs or solving for X, so I never really felt like I was missing out to the point of being culturally irrelevant.

I really got into British programming during university thanks to my parents finally re-entering the current century by installing a dish as well as online streaming services like Netflix, but as a working full-time double major undergrad I didn’t have much time to really expand my TV schedule beyond the few tried and tested classics of my youth and the new shows I really got into in between semesters.

And even now, as a two-job working stiff of a gymrat, I don’t have a whole lot more free time for TV – which is more problematic now than it used to be because missing out on all the new shows and not having a regular time slot for friends to catch me up means I actually do run the risk of being culturally irrelevant insofar as television is concerned.

Praise the Lord, then, for Appointment Television. It’s a podcast all about the TV you should be making time for, and because it’s produced by a trio of hardcore television watchers (my lovely friend Margaret H. Willison and her co-hosts, Katherine van Arendonk and Andrew Cunningham) it means that it’s a trustworthy source of a variety of recommendations, information about TV I really should know more about, and explanations as to why some shows really are as important for society as their fandoms say they are.

Take the segment “TV vs TV” for example, in which two shows of similar premise, style, and production are put head-to-head on trial to determine which is the better production. In fact, the first episode of Appointment Television included this segment and put Star Trek: The Next Generation against Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Now, I would have kept listening simply because Margaret is on this podcast but the fact that Andrew and Katherine were able to succinctly explain the differences between two separate series of a complex universe with a hot-blooded fandom in a way that I, a staunch non-Trekkie, was able to kind of get why any iteration of Star Trek has cultural relevance is what really got me hooked from the get-go.

The other segment I really love is “TV Book Club,” which has broadened my viewing scope because I just don’t want to be left out of anything these guys think is cool to watch. After experiencing Terriers and Black Mirror because of Appointment TV (in retro-listen, as I jumped on the bandwagon after the podcast was already well on its way) I’m now current with the podcast itself as well as with the current TV Book Club series, Bunheads.

Go check out Appointment Television now. Seriously. You’ll thank me later.

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Healthy Living: After the holidays it’s always tough to get back into the routines of everyday life, but I’m so glad that I’m finally resettled into my usual rhythm of working out, eating clean, and giving it all 100% to continue my transformation.

I’ve written at length about why this new lifestyle is so important to me and if you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that I’m one of “those” people who post workout selfies, food photos, and hashtag the holy crap out of words and phrases like transformation, girlsworkouttoo, legday, cardio, workout, girlswholift, gettingfit, eatclean, homemade…and so on and so forth.

After years of constantly making unhealthy choices (physically and nutritionally as well as emotionally and spiritually), I stand here in 2016 as somebody who is done with toxic living on all those levels. I’m so much happier, stronger, and wiser now than I ever have been before – and especially than I was this time last year.

My daily hour at the gym is one of the few I have on any given day that’s entirely all to myself that doesn’t involve sleeping, so I tend to try and make the most out of it.  I’m actually getting to a point in my journey where I can legitimately start pointing out all my “gains” – namely those “booty gains” (I’m telling you now, women who look good in yoga pants do more lifting than yoga) – and where people I’ve known for a while  are pointing them out to me.

2016 is already shaping up to be full of new fitness challenges and goals, and new milestones to work towards every day.  I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity and the means to take control of my health and wellness when I did because now I can’t imagine having ever made it through the last year with the self-empowerment I’ve gained and all the support my gym family gave me.

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Writing Letters: Those of you who drop by on a regular basis will know that another part of my 2016 Resolutions involved writing letters to anyone and everyone who would ask me for one. The first person to officially take me up on this offer was one of my friends from Job2, Frederique. She and I were hired at Job2 in the same group back in 2011, and she’s never been anything but an awesome friend. I’m so glad that the first piece of mail in my letter campaign was for her; she was my first real friend at the store when we got hired and she is such a joy to know.

I’ve got a few more letters on the way to other people who have given me their addresses and I hope each envelope contains in it as much joy for those recipients as the one I sent to Frederique. Handwritten letters are one of the greatest little pleasures of my life. Whether it’s writing them or receiving them, I love how letters are tangible evidence of the connections between two people and two places. I write these letters in the hope that something I have to say could touch a life, and therefore make two lives all the more better for the sharing of one talent.

My offers to send you handwritten letters still stands and will continue to stand into the foreseeable future, so please don’t be shy to let me know if you’d like one!

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That’s all for this week’s instalment of “In Pursuit of Happiness.”  Keep on finding the happiness in the little things around you, and I’ll be back soon with a proper post – I promise!

The 15-minute book club, #3: The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock:

Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence
Sabine’s Notebook: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Continues
T
he Golden Mean:   In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin and Sabine Concludes

 

Last night I had a rare opportunity to get to bed at a reasonable hour.

And I squandered it on the rediscovery of a book.

Though I’ve always been a scribbler, once upon a time I was also a reasonably talented visual artist who dabbled extensively in creating artwork in mixed media, black-and-white film photography, and digital manipulation. Writing and visual art collaborated frequently in my adolescent life, but one day they collided headlong with curiosity and a need for a psychological thrill when I first discovered Griffin and Sabine.

Written, illustrated, and constructed by Nick Bantock, this trilogy is comprised of the unusual correspondence between the broodingly lonely London artist Griffin Moss and the vivaciously mysterious Sabine Strohem, an artist from a chain of tiny islands in the South Pacific. Letters, postcards, and notecards – all exquisitely illustrated and handwritten, some in made-to-match envelopes that you can actually open and rifle through – document this mind-bending tale.

Part love story and part psychological thriller, Griffin and Sabine takes storytelling to another level by telling a story that requires its reader to do more than just turn to the next page. There’s a certain excitement to looking through the private correspondences of other people, and although I’d outgrown trying to break into my sister’s diary by my late teens the act of reading somebody else’s letters was still appealing. And it’s not just reading these intimate pieces of mail: each is a self-contained work of art that simply demands closer scrutiny from the reader, which in turns brings about a deeper appreciation for the concept and plot as well as a greater emotional investment in its outcome.

One of the reasons why I started “The 15-minute Book Club” section of this blog is to discuss the literature that inspired my own creative processes, changed or enhanced my perception, or otherwise impacted my life in a moving and profound fashion. Since closing the final book of the trilogy late last night I’ve been reflecting on what exactly this book means to me, I realized that Griffin and Sabine trilogy did all of these things for me.

As an artistic adolescent, upon the first reading of Griffin and Sabine I learned that art does not have to be perfect or conventional to be beautiful and meaningful: as long as it makes us think critically and opens our minds to a broader understanding of the world then art, to paraphrase Picasso, will always somehow enable us through is lies to comprehend the greater truths. It’s because of Griffin and Sabine that while I might not like or prefer certain kinds of art, I’m still able to appreciate them. For example, it might be hard to believe but you have to trust me when I say that Bantock’s image of a goldfish shattering a wineglass helped me get past my dislike of Warhol just enough to appreciate what a can of Campbell’s did for modern art.

Nick Bantock’s eccentric and raw approach to storytelling in the Griffin and Sabine books influenced my own writing style as well when I first read it in my late teens. Up until this point, my early attempts at writing always crashed and burned, ground to a screeching halt, or otherwise simply stopped because I was constantly getting bogged down in revealing everything all at once in desperate attempts to give my stories some kind of foundation. What Bantock’s style revealed was that the foundations of characters are just the back story – that the present story is what truly matters, and that a writer’s job is to allow the characters to tell the present story instead of trying to take over the main narrative by establishing off the bat what’s already happened to them. Reading the story of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem in literal bits and pieces taught me, as both a writer and a reader, to be patient with characters and let them reveal what they will, when they will.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that as far as my actual letter writing is concerned, anyone who’s ever received a letter or card from me will tell you that it’s always meticulously handwritten (and, in the case of the latter, usually handmade), includes hand-drawn illustrations and calligraphy-style quotes, and comes from the heart. While other books most certainly did contribute to my writing style regarding personal correspondence (not to mention my father’s insistence that we write often to our paternal grandmother in the Philippines), Griffin and Sabine definitely taught me a considerable amount about how to turn letter-writing into a true art.

Finally, this unconventional love story between these two artistic souls first came into my life at the end of an overseas long-distance relationship. While the letter-based narrative struck a few raw nerves at the time (this was before international texting was a “thing,” let alone me having my own cellphone, so snail mail was actually a big part of this first relationship) this latest reading of Griffin and Sabine reminded me that deep, intimate connections can and will come up in all kinds of sudden and unexpected ways, and that being open to these kinds of surprises leaves you open to experiencing the rest of life to its fullest.

The best love stories are all different, but they all share a common thread of relentlessly pursuing the most abstract concepts and sorting through the most befuddling emotions, and finding out who you really are in the process. Opening yourself up to another person and to the world, and then reflecting upon those experiences when you’re alone, is how you come into the most complete form of self-understanding and self-awareness. While this might not really be what these books are really about, this is how they spoke to me last night and at this point in my life that’s the main reason why I treasure this story.

So maybe in the end I didn’t totally squander a few preciously rare extra hours of sleep by diving back into the strangely beautiful world of Griffin and Sabine, and maybe in the end I wasn’t just curling up alone in bed with a book. I was diving back into the most confusing, lovely, engrossing, and riveting archive of a relationship that I’ve ever encountered in fiction, and enjoying every unsettlingly bizarre and lovely morsel of it as I discovered more about myself through the extraordinary correspondence of Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem.