family

My Russian genetics are MIA

My father and I celebrated Christmas Eve by eating an excessive share of 2 large pizzas (All Dressed and Hawaiian, pineapple totally belongs on a pizzathankyouverymuch) and drinking an entire bottle of port, while watching It’s A Wonderful Life (I bawled my eyes out) and White Christmas, which I maintain is the greatest movie ever made. Growing up, I thought Danny Kaye was my father. My mother always felt Bing Cosby looked like her father. So really, this movie is autobiographical. I mean, just look at this:

#lyricsonpoint The best things do happen when you dance:“Kizomba Will Change Your Life”. Now that I have 15 months of social dancing experience, I watch the above clip and realize just how masterful Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen’s dancing of that choreography is. I mean, I always knew, but now I understand.

Anyhow. 1st important takeaway: not a single drop of vodka was drunk. #failedrussian

I woke up on Christmas to many texts of good wishes from friends and family. #warmfuzzyfeelings As I lay in bed, reconciling myself to the notion that I’d eventually have to get up, my phone pinged. Froman, sending me pics of his most recent trip to Morocco: he is organizing a new festival in Marrakesh and takes an absurd pleasure in triggering my wanderlust #whatarefriendsfor.  So there I was, trying to ignore the mild headache that had nothing to do with the absurd quantities of alcohol consumed the night before, looking at pictures of beautiful mosaics, sunshine, pools and beaches. Up I got, opened the blinds, and sent him the view from my room. Snow. So much of it. To which Froman responds, “oh how pretty!! All that snow!” Really?! Boy, bye.

2nd important takeaway: snow does not fill my heart with happiness. White Christmases are overrated. #failedrussian

Off to Quebec city to spend time with my fam, my darlings. Upon arrival, Quebec Cousin #2 enthusiastically announces, “Vanilla!!! I have this GREAT idea. We are gonna build a fire in a snow pit, and drink mulled wine outdoors! It’s gonna be SO MUCH FUN!”

Fun fact #1: my entire Quebec family own snow-pants. I wouldn’t even know where to purchase snow-pants.

Fun fact #2: There was 3 feet of snow. We shoveled for an hour to make the snow pit. Much discussion was had as to how to build a sturdy snow fort, so that our seats would be solid, with appropriate walls to lean our backs into, and protect us from the wind.

Fun fact #3: IT WAS MINUS 25CELSIUS. MINUS. NEGATIVE. VERY NEGATIVE. AKA COLD. VERY VERY VERY VERY COLD.

Behold the results of all our efforts.

We so cute.

Cozy. Body heat is a very important concept in the outdoors!

3rd important takeaway: mulled wine. Again, no vodka #failedrussian

(Full disclosure: shhhh, don’t tell anyone: I really enjoyed myself. BUT, I’m NEVER voluntarily exposing myself to that kinda of cold ever again. MY ovaries are still thawing.)

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5 years ago my life changed

Anniversaries. I’m not the best at taking the time to celebrate those people and moments that matter. I forget, caught up in the current of every day triviality.


May 2012: I blew out my knee in kickboxing. Diagnosis: crutches and cane for 3 months + 9-months of daily physio to recover, with the possibility I’d never kickbox again. My identity as a cripple: confirmed.

July 2012: my mother died in her sleep. The depression I’d been fighting off since summer 2011 exploded with full force. I was a broken person. Drifting from day to day in a fog of misery.

Fall 2012: Superwoman suggested that I join the boxing gym she’d just discovered. It would allow me to work on my boxing skills, avoid losing too much of my fitness, keep me distracted through the long months of physio and rehab. I agreed to show up for one class. Limping down the staircase, hearing the sounds of the ring bell, the thuds of the punching bags, and the coolest trap music I’d ever heard, I felt like I was coming home – odd, considering that this was an environment in which I, crippled vanilla AF nerdy accountant, did not belong.

For the first year or so, I trained with Coach’s younger brother Slick, a pro-boxer and a coach in his own right. Slick did not have the time to impart much boxing knowledge on me, because he spent all his time trying to get me to work on my mental and emotional state. We didn’t use the word “depression”, but he could see I was not well. He made me do pushups every time I said something negative or mean about myself, even if it was funny. He encouraged me to read James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh:

“Doubt and fear are the great enemies of knowledge, and he who encourages them, who does not slay them, thwarts himself at every step.”

“Men imagine that thought can be kept secret, but it cannot; it rapidly crystallizes into habit, and habit solidifies into circumstance.”

“As the physically weak man can make himself strong by careful and patient training, so the man of weak thoughts, can make them strong by exercising himself in right thinking.”

Slick turned my whole worldview upside down. 2 years later, when I started therapy, I chose an expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: “guided by empirical research, CBT focuses on the development of personal coping strategies that target solving current problems and changing unhelpful patterns in cognitions (e.g. thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes), behaviors, and emotional regulation.”


By late 2013, I joined Coach’s team. In 2014, I fought my first fights.

In August 2014, I slid into the most terrifying depressive episode I’ve ever experienced. Overnight, I transformed from a fighter into a fragile girl who would cry for 3-5 hours a day. Coach didn’t understand, but he could see. Scary Coach became Gentle Coach. The team accepted my quirks, and continued to cheer me on every time I stepped into the ring. They didn’t know the particulars of my struggle, but they could recognize someone fighting the good fight of life.

Boxing is an unforgiving sport. By stepping into the ring, every boxer tacitly accepts to show their true self to their opponent, coach and whoever is watching. You can’t mask cowardice or fake bravery when getting punched in the head. Every hesitation, fear, bluster and cockiness is blatantly obvious to anyone who watches. There IS no socially constructed mask to hide behind. To step into the ring, every boxer, no matter their level of experience and proficiency, has to be willing to be vulnerable, and to be seen. As such, I’ve noticed that most people at the gym don’t cling so tightly to their social personas – there is no point, when we’ve all seen their true colors in the ring. As a result, everyone is more authentic at the gym than they otherwise might be. Vulnerability + authenticity = key ingredients for friendship.

By the end of 2015, I knew. These people were family.


2016. A transition year. I joined Coach’s new project, weight-lifting and conditioning designed for athletes, specifically boxers. The immediate benefits were weight-loss and a changed body shape. For the first time in my life, in my 30s, I wondered: maybe, sometimes, I might be beautiful, possibly sexy. For someone who struggled with eating disorders (binge-eating until I was nauseous and abusing laxatives) during my late teens and my twenties, the gradual silencing of the vicious body-shaming voices in my head was an unexpected liberation.

Even better? Thanks to Coach’s extensive knowledge, patience and careful coaching, I shed, permanently, the lifelong identity of a cripple, of inhabiting a body that betrays me. I am athletic. I used to be embarrassed to admit I boxed, as though somehow associating myself – me – with that sport was arrogant. Not anymore. I was a boxer.

I understood what life lessons this sport was teaching me. It taught me that I can take a hit and still keep moving forward. It taught me that I can fight back. It taught me to own all of who I am: sweet Vanilla and angry Vanilla. It taught me that who and what I am is worth fighting for. It taught me not to wait for any saviors: I alone dictate my destiny, through my actions.

I understood why I needed to move onto dancing. Saying goodbye to this sport was hard, but necessary.

I kept training with Coach (aka Dr. Booté). I kept partying with my boxing peeps, with hilarious results (please refer to exhibit A and exhibit B). The friendships are still strong.


2017. This year was hard. Life, my shadow, got in the way of my joy. I drifted from the gym. But when things got too confusing, too overwhelming, like a homing pigeon, I made my way back. Sure enough, Coach and my crew were waiting for me.


How do you celebrate a place that has shaped my very identity, freed me of decade-long insecurities, given me deep and constant friendships, keeps me sane, gives me the tools to face life as an adult?

How do you celebrate family?

#udnation

#udfamily

 

 

Introducing Harold

Canadian Thanksgiving. It’s the one weekend annually where my mom’s family gathers to spend time together. As we are scattered here and there (NYC, Boston, Mtl, Quebec city), most of us are working – the youngest cousin is 22, I am 33, and only 2 of our parents are retired – the logistics are tricky. Christmas? Impossible. Easter? Too short. Vacations don’t coincide, life is busy.

This year, my cousins and I decided to recreate a famous family portrait taken 21 years ago at my Baba’s:

My cousins took this project seriously. Boston cousin #1 purchased a jumper. Qc cousin #2 reached out on Fbk to all her network asking to borrow 3-5 barbies. NONE of her friends answered her plea, so she went shopping. Not to be outdone, I got myself a wig. His name is Harold, and he will be my +1 at all future family gatherings.

My father, upon meeting Harold, “You’re crazy. I mean, you’re all crazy, you Baba-offspring. I don’t mean to single YOU out as being particularly deranged. But that guy there, what’s his name.. Joe, Josef, wtv (Boston cousin #1’s fiancé)… poor guy. He has no idea what he’s getting into.” I suggested that Josef probably had scoped out the situation prior to proposing, “Nah. He has no idea what’s coming at him. I certainly didn’t.”

I think Josef is lucky to be integrating himself into this much awesome:

My family was supposed to show up anytime after noon, with the goal of sitting down to eat at 2pm. At 12:05pm, my father uttered a sad sigh.

Pa: “That’s it, nobody’s coming.”

Me: “You’re absolutely right. Nobody loves us.”

Pa: “I don’t care if they love us or not, I want to start drinking, and I can’t drink alone.”

Me: “…”

Pa: “Oh, you count as a person?! Hurrah! Go get the booze.”

He loves me, he says.

The solution to my father’s drinking problem: he will never be alone ever again. Party!

Mini-Boom

That moment when your bestie becomes a father.

That’s right. Mrs. Dynamite gave birth yesterday to Mini-Boom. A healthy baby, miniature and perfect. Mommy, Daddy and baby were all happy and exhausted when I left them yesterday.

As I gently touched my Muslim godson (yes, I am Auntie Vanilla, his non-Muslim godmother), I whispered my prayers for him,

Mini-boom, you are gonna grow up to be as smart as your daddy and as funny as your mommy. You will perpetuate their legacy of kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity. You will appreciate the satisfaction of a hard day’s work, and not be afraid to stand by your moral convictions. You will be open-minded. And you will be brave. I don’t want you have an easy life. I want you to have a full life, which means you will be faced with difficult moments and you will navigate them with honor and integrity. You will have dreams, and you will follow them.

I love you. You are my Bingi, my darling. We are family. You don’t know this yet, but you have a huge family, blood related and not, who will take a bullet for you, face down the monsters under your bed and in the real world. You are loved, you will always be loved, and you, in turn, will love wisely and truly.

And then Dynamo showed me the video of Mini-Boom’s birth, the moment Mrs. Dynamite first heard her son’s cries, and I cried. To be accurate, I should describe my crying as sniveling and hiccuped sobbing, an overwhelming rush of emotion I’ve never felt before, wonderment, joy and awe. For once, for once, Dynamo did not make fun of me – he deemed that to be an appropriate reaction to something that far transcends the limits of words and language.

Mabrook!

My Moonstruck

Few movies influenced me as much as Moonstruck growing up.

I must have been 12years old when I first watched it with my parents. My mother had to explain so much. The different kinds of love, the different reasons for marriage, the different ways adults get stuck and stop fully living, the messiness that comes from passion, forgiveness and the struggle to be honest, and the power of art (opera). Set in Little Italy in NYC, I could relate to a lot of the idiosyncrasies that come from being a 2nd generation immigrant. I thought Cher was beautiful, both before and after her makeover in the movie – possibly my first female role model that wasn’t a Disney princess. It is also the first time I truly appreciated comedy. It’s a funny movie.

Some of the key scenes from that movie happen at the Metropolitan Opera. I longed to see the famous Chagall painting that hangs therein, and to feel for myself the power of music in that concert hall. Which I did, in 2011. A broke student, I splurged on $250 tickets to go see Rigotello with one of my girlfriends. In 2014, I returned to the Met, this time alone, to fulfill a bucket list item of seeing Polina Semionova dance the lead in Manon. Both times, I hoped to run into Cher and Nicolas Cage, because obvi they must go to all the performances there, always, right?

This past weekend, I treated myself to a weekend getaway to NYC to visit my cousin & her fiancé. Her sister joined us. They’d been wanting to try out the ABT, and waited till I was available to join them, as I’m the balletomane of the family. I was SO excited to share my passion for ballet with them, specifically at this dream location of my childhood.

I cried as Giselle fell in love with her player-prince, was betrayed, went crazy from the shock of her beloved’s unfaithfulness, and died from the heartache. That was followed by intermission: I sipped a glass of bubbly out on the Met balcony with my cousins under the beautiful NYC night sky. I thought my heart would burst from the beauty of the night.

It occurred to me that I’ve undergone a similar character arc to Cher’s in Moonstruck. I was stuck in a place of depression, trying to live a safe life. I rejected vulnerability for the longest time. I tried to build a life that would avoid hurt and grief. Then the Universe threw Beaut at me, like it threw Nicolas Cage at Cher, and suddenly I was alive.

Ronny: Come upstairs. I don’t care why you come. No, that’s not what I mean. Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. And I didn’t know this either. But love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people… and die. I mean, the storybooks are bullshit! Now, I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!

Beaut might no longer be in the picture, but he left me with dance. And through dance, my life is changing beyond recognition. The people I’m meeting; the lessons I’m learning; the trips I am taking; performing. Life is messy, thrilling and exhilarating, both on and off the dancefloor. That’s not the same happy ending that Cher’s character experiences in Moonstruck – but I’ll live happily ever after just the same. And what better moment to acknowledge how far I’ve come than at the Met, where Cher learned to feel as deeply as I have?

(Incidentally, that quote from Moonstruck is a very apt description of the story line of Giselle, the ballet we went to see. I love it when the Universe echoes the same message over and over, in different manners. #subtlenotsubtle)


It was a wonderful weekend with my cousins.

We walked through Central Park and the High Line. Little oasis of greens in the bustling city.

We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die.

This weekend was perfect.

Too late

I never understood Mother’s Day growing up. I understood Father’s Day even less. Like, why bother? Y’all are my parents every day, so why are we gonna pretend one day is more important than all the others?

I was a brat, can you tell?

I did a half-assed job celebrating Mother’s day, growing up. My mother was always slightly upset by my lack of effort. As I grew older, after I moved out and started appreciating my mother a whole lot more once I realized what a pain adulting could be, I tried to make a bigger effort.

Our last mother’s day. 2012.

2012. Mother’s day. I was swamped with work – putting in regularly 60-65-70 hour weeks, the rest of my life on standstill. Groceries? Don’t know what that is. Laundry? No time, I’ll just keep buying new clothes. I’d cancelled a few of our weekly family dinners, never having time to call and chat, bc I would leave my home at 8am and come back at midnight, 7 days a week. On Mother’s Day weekend, all I had time for was a quick brunch. I felt so guilty, such a shit daughter. My mother’s health was bad – I hated making her come downtown to meet me, instead of me taking the time to go see her.

Look how happy she was to see me – just to spend time with me. My father insisted on taking pictures of us, something he never did because my mother HATED being photographed. But this time, for some reason, she let him. It was a lovely meal – she told me not to feel guilty about my disastrous schedule and poor time management skills: she knew, without a doubt, that I was doing my best, that I loved her, and I would learn eventually to do better. I had enough going on, I should focus on the tasks at hand, instead of taking on unnecessary guilt.

What a mama.

Easter 1988 or 1989. I was almost-4 or almost-5.

I get the importance of Mother’s Day now.


My Ma:

My Arab & Muslim family

When I told BossMan and IronSweetie (Dynamo‘s brother & sis-in-law) I was coming to Dubai, they insisted I stay with them.

“Vanilla, of COURSE you will stay with us, you are family. Don’t insult us by staying anywhere else.”

You are family. Strong words. I wondered if perhaps the phrasing was slightly hyperbolic and dramatic, as is sometimes the case when dealing with Arabs, and especially with BossMan (#dramaqueen).


Dynamo’s wedding last year.

IronSweetie took me under her wing: teaching me how to dance & introducing me to her family. Showering me with love, despite us only having met twice, briefly. I was Dynamo’s friend, I had been a friend of BossMan prior to his move to Dubai; that was all she needed to know, to befriend me.

Dynamo insisted I participate in the wedding pictures, adjusting his bowtie. After the first dance, when the dance floor opened up to family and close friends, I hung back, until BossMan yelled at me to join them, because I belonged.


I cannot dissociate my mother’s sudden death with Dynamo’s incredible care of me. Which is perfect, really: my mother was Love. It is fitting that her death triggered one of the most perfect demonstrations of Love I’ve experienced.

Dynamo had to leave for a month-long business trip; he almost missed his flight, taking care of me in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s death. He was distraught that he’d miss her funeral. I tried to explain that he had misunderstood: his presence at her funeral, while lovely, was irrelevant. In the Russian Orthodox faith, a person’s soul stays on Earth for 3 days after their death – on the third day, it departs to (hopefully) heaven. Therefore, my mother had seen his kindness and help towards me and my father. She knew we were loved, and that would free her soul to continue on its journey. He had done more good than he could know – he had helped my mother.

2 days later, at the wake at the funeral parlour, I was surprised to see Dynamo’s sister arrive, alone. I’d met her a handful of times, over the years, but we were not particularly close. She bore a beautiful bouquet of flowers, with a card. She met my family, paid her respects, and stayed 30-45 minutes making perfect small talk and giving her support.

“Our thoughts & prayers are with your family. May God help you within hard and good times. God bless her.”

I assumed Dynamo had sent his sister to represent his family, since he was out-of-town and BossMan had moved to Dubai. I was wrong. She volunteered. Those beautiful – perfect – words were her own. I carry that card with me always, to this day.  (Yes, it is water-stained from my tears.)

Dynamo’s family is devoutly Muslim. My family, especially my parents, is devoutly Russian Orthodox. Dynamo’s sister found the perfect words to bridge the (irrelevant?) gap in our faiths. In the Russian Orthodox faith, we believe that praying for the forgiveness of sins of the departed matters, and contributes to their salvation – our human understanding of time is inevitably too narrow when compared to the Eternal. Similarly, I believe that the prayers of my Muslim darlings for my mother’s soul have contributed to her salvation. That they would care about her salvation, and pray for her, fills me with endless gratitude and love.


BossMan and IronSweetie hosted me in Dubai, treating me always, showering me with generosity and time, despite it being a busy work week for them. We traded stories, shared moments of vulnerability. They showed me their world. I spent time with each one individually and together and met some of their friends. They were the best possible ambassadors for Dubai – answering all my questions and explaining cultural differences.

Their love was so strong. I resisted at first: I felt unworthy of such generosity and kindness. But Love, when untainted by other human failings, is too strong to resist. With every day I spent with them, I grew to understand and accept that I am family. They are family.

This may have always been the case. But this trip finally made me understand.

I love them so.

May God bless the Dynamite family.


Recap of this trip so far: