friends

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.

What do you do after a day at a boxing tournament? Watch the pros! #bronzegloves #teamspirit #teamunderdog

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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.

#selfietime #selfie #selfienation #udfamily #underdognation #thisisreallyaselfie #jd40ko #boxingwayoflife

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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

 

 

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Who knew M&Ms could wrap?

While in Toulouse, FroMan invited me to join him and his friends for supper. I had a great time. Somehow, while discussing Ramadan, multiculturalism and the pros/cons of accommodating vs assimilating vs integrating minorities into society, CAD vs Southern French weather, Trump, kizomba, sleep patterns, work, hair styling, annoying neighbors, I found myself on a rant about how Eminem is the greatest rapper of all time. Yes, Kendrick Lamar is an artiste, but Eminem! Eminem is just in a different class. True, he does not speak to the struggle and plight of a specific demographic; rather, he owns the individuality of his emotions, which can broaden his audience because emotions are universal and do not depend on specific circumstances. His lyrics are a form of vulnerability, and while he can be ugly, shocking, so angry and violent, his honesty is refreshing and is what allows his auditors to relate so strongly to him. His musicality is not lesser than Kendrick’s and… and somewhere after the 5th minute of my monologue, I noticed a blank look around the table.

Tentatively, I asked… y’all DO know Eminem, right? Oui, bien sûr. M&Ms. No. Eminem, bro, the rapper. You guys know who he is, in France, right?! Oui, we call him M&Ms here. M&Ms… as in the candy? Oui.

FroMan continued, “He’s the dude that sang, I’m Slim Shady yes I’m the real Shady all you other Slim Shadies are just imitating…” No. NON. Arrête. STOP IT. THAT is what you associate with Eminem? Not Rap God, where he raps 1560 words within 6:04 minutes, averaging 4.28 words per second? Not “mom’s spaghetti”, the lyric that spawned some of the most ludicrous memes ever, and is the reason why he won an Oscar? Not Love the Way You Lie, a song so powerful that even though radios overplayed it more than Despacito, it never got ruined and was a catalyst in lessening the taboo around domestic abuse, bringing that important topic out into the open?  Not any of his early underground freestyle rapping? Not that he is the only person in the world that can rhyme “orange” with “porridge”? Like seriously, watch this:

Y’all. Eminem is a wordsmith. A modern day poet. A genius.

FroMan listened to my outraged exclamations in silence for several seconds. Possibly a full minute.

Tu réalises qu’il rap en anglais, oui? On ne comprend pas ce qu’il dit.

You do realize he raps in English, yes? We don’t understand what he’s saying.

So, I asked, how do you distinguish good music from bad? You guys are French! The epitome of good taste! If you don’t understand the lyrics, what do you do? Just listen to the beat, the groove and the melody? WAIT, YOU GUYS DON’T THINK JUSTIN BIEBER IS GOOD MUSIC, DO YOU?! “En fait, il n’est vraiment pas si pire, le petit Bieber. Son album est très propre./ Actually, he really isn’t that bad, that little Bieberito. His album is quite on point.”

OMG.

OH MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM GEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

I cannot live in a world where Eminem is less appreciated than Bieber.

It occurred to me to suggest FroMan use Google Translate, much like I did to understand how ridiculously over-the-top kizomba lyrics can be (for a prime example,  check out this music video of one of my favourite songs, Vai by Calema. Stirring music, heartbreak, but whyyyyyyyy must he flop about like a goldfish in a puddle of mud? That won’t make her come back to you, bro, and significantly decreases your odds of landing yourself a rebound chick.) But Google’s habit of mildly inaccurate translations (“Pinch me now, yes/ Good afternoon, no/ You are very crazy/ Kiss me in the mouth“) can’t do justice to Eminem’s wordplay. The site Genius is the way to go… but even so, Eminem’s greatness is rather dependent on one’s fluency in English.

How sad. How very sad. FroMan’s life, and that of most of the world’s population, is incomplete.

#noiamnotbeingadramaqueenATM

#Eminemisbae

#andthisiswhytravelisimportant #myhorizonsjustgotexpandedAF

 

“You’ve got nothing to lose”

“You’ve got nothing to lose.” My father’s excellent pun, in reaction to my announcement that I was going to Toulouse this past June.

Every time work sends me to Paris, I tack on 1-2 weekends in Europe, to explore new cities on my bucket list. So of course, when I found out back in April that work would be sending me to Paris in June, I scouted cities to turn this into a proper bday workation. Top destination: Toulouse.

Now comes the tricky part. Why Toulouse? Well, it is a popular tourist destination and it is in Southern France, a geographical region I’ve oft heard of but never visited. But also? FroMan lives in Toulouse, so why not take this opportunity to check off a new city off my list and visit my new friend from Dubai?

For months, my brain had a field day.

Creeper! Stalker! He’s gonna find you weeeeird. He’ll probably avoid seeing you. Dubai was MONTHS ago. Yes yes, he improved your dancing, you felt safe enough for a major breakthrough in vulnerability. You are entitled to be grateful for that – though he likely was acting out of kindness to a lonely, stranded, socially awkward girl – but wtv. Why are you pushing this? Some stories are only meant to last 4 days. You’re just setting yourself up for humiliating disappointment. Remember that time a guy drove up from NYC just to see you? How freaked out you were, and how much of a trainwreck that whole episode was? HE LIVED ON THE SAME CONTINENT AS YOU. Extrapolate that across the Atlantic Ocean, if you want an idea of how pathetic FroMan will find you. Don’t do this.

Fuck you, brain.

I asked myself what I would do, if it were not for my fear of judgment. The answer was easy: go to Toulouse. I wanted to see that city, and I wanted the opportunity to see the person who unwittingly played a huge role in my newfound capacity for happiness on and off the dance floor.

2 weeks before getting on the plane, I messaged FroMan to advise him of my plans to visit his city and hoped he’d be free for a coffee/drinks/supper during the 3.5 days I’d be there. He was happy to hear from me, and suggested I consider attending a dance festival in Nîmes the following weekend. Just like that, my 2nd annual bday workation in France was all set. Easy-peasy.

Was it awkward? Yeah, definitely. He said a few comments that implied that my paranoid brain wasn’t so off. I had trouble talking to him; not from an absence of things to say, but from a paralyzing fear of being judged. To infrequent blog readers and real-life acquaintances I frequently come across as a high-strung overly-emotional drama queen with an excess of sensibility that talks about her feelings too much. Which isn’t wrong, precisely. But that easily gets interpreted as vulgar and self-indulgent.

But.

I had a great time. I spent my days exploring Toulouse alone, as that was always my stated purpose of this trip: its my favorite way to discover a new city. In the evenings FroMan took me dancing (#kizombalife) and invited me to supper with his friends, with whom I had so much fun they invited me to join them for supper the next day without FroMan. By the end of my 4 days, I was sure of one thing: he is a real friend. That certainty I felt in Dubai that he is a solid person & I ought to include him in my life, for good things are sure to follow? Still true. This trip merely allowed us to play catchup: Dubai gave us the connection, but the foundations of a real friendship were laid during this trip. By the time I saw him the following weekend in Nîmes, easy familiar banter had replaced the awkward silences of Toulouse.

You’ve got nothing to lose. Had I listened to my brain, and worried too much about perception, I would have never gone on this trip. And I would never have successfully turned a brief connection & handful of happy memories into a real friendship. Good people are hard to come by. It’s worth taking a risk or two, living through some momentary discomfort, to keep them in one’s life.

Especially when they live in as beautiful places as Toulouse. #chooseyourfriendswisely

 

P.S. 2 other instructors I’d met & adored in Dubai realized their visit to Paris would overlap mine for 1.5 days. They reached out to me, hoping we could meet up. Did I think it was weird, or suspect that their kindness towards me in Dubai had been only born of pity? No. I was delighted to hear from them, and it was with mutual regret that our schedules didn’t match up. Lesson learned: embrace and foster the healthy true connections I’m lucky enough to stumble upon. Those are the best gifts from the Universe.

 

 

My facial expressions are not correlated to my happiness levels

Finally! The official photographer from the Dubai festival uploaded his pics onto Fbk yesterday! It turns out that I look like a prissy know-it-all when I dance. Yippee. This pic however, I enjoy. You can see traces of the prissiness, but really that’s just my look of intense concentration/mild panic, mixed with enjoyment and satisfaction.

photo cred: Farantini, the amazing photographer of all kizomba events @http://www.farantini.com/

When I first danced with that guy on Day 1 of the festival – hands down, one of my favorite leads ever! He can make me DO things!! – he surprised me by pulling that move. I didn’t expect it, the sudden falling forward, so maybe definitely I screeched. Loudly – I don’t have an indoor voice even when I try. Classic dance styling option: startle your partner into almost dropping you. Imma trademark that, stat.

Notice how my mouth is closed this time? That’s what 4 days of non-stop dancing will produce: no more hearing-loss for my dance partners.


Cue many minutes of total non-productivity, as I perused through all those pics, bringing back small moments I’d already forgotten.

It’s the “bringing back” part that I struggle with. When I first got back to Montreal, I didn’t want to let go of the intense happiness I’d felt in Dubai. I made the mistake of assuming everything I associated with this trip – including the friendships and all emotions – must be in the past, distinct from my present. And that is true, kinda.

This Dubai trip proved to me that I have the capacity to feel happiness, and the capacity to dream. I created deep bonds with friends, both new and old; these friendships changed me, as all love and shared experiences must. Therefore, who I am today, post-trip, is different than who I was pre-trip, because of the people that I met in Dubai. My anxiety lied to me last week: it is false to assume that all these lovely people are continuing to live their lives, without me, and I without them. We all bear the marks of each others’ influence, stemming from those moments of intersection. That eternal connectivity is just as true as the physical truth that we all apart now, sprinkled across the world.

If I can feel that grateful and connected to the people I spent 4-8 days with, perhaps, maybe, I should refocus my gratitude on those that I share my daily life with? There are so many opportunities for happiness in my Montreal life, that I frequently don’t notice, distracted by the noise that is adulting. Like my Baba taught me: “give us this day our daily bread”. That means my happiness is not stuck in the past, nor is it tied to the outcome of goals set in the future. Happiness is felt in the now, if I will but let myself be open to it. It can be found in my #dreamteam that smiles when they see me, and care and worry about me as much as I try mentor them. In the zany disorganization of Teacher’s dance classes. In the grey weather that is starting to show green tinges of summer. In a good workout with Coach and my gym crew. In my favorite ice cream parlor opening on Sunday for the spring-summer season. In a Friday-night supper with my friend & her fam that I haven’t seen in a few months. In the satisfaction of knowing that I did a good day’s work, boring accountant-style.

Dubai taught me I can be happier than I ever thought possible.

Montreal will teach me to enjoy every day that I build a life of happiness for myself.

Them happiness goals tho!

#beherenow

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:

2017: coping with the terror of joy 

I’m sitting in my Qc uncle’s family room, slightly tipsy, sipping some port, listening to Leonard Cohen.

I feel like weeping.

This was a good holiday season. Unlike last year, I didn’t have a blow out fight with my father. True to the past 7 years, I did all my Xmas shopping on the 24th, in a state of panic, guilt and elation. 25th at my godmother’s, as I’ve done for as long as I can possibly remember: a day of food babies, mundane chit chat, terrible jokes and SO MUCH love. My father and I left Montreal early on the 26th, and made it to Quebec city by lunch time, and have been spending our time with my darlings ever since.

I want one. #socute #corgipuppy #justlikethequeen #auntiejune #xmas #familytime #selfienation

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WE MATCH!! #socute #familytime #matchingpajamas #jellybeans #cousins #cousinlove #xmas #bestpresentever

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Domestic bliss. La belle cousine, les beaux chiens. #xmas #familytime #dogstagram #cuties

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It makes me SO happy to see my darlings grow into mature adults. They might be younger than me, but they impress me with their wisdom and courage in their quests to become the truest and best versions of their selves that they can be. Nothing is better for my soul than time with my cousins.

I spent the day remotely working from Qc city; tomorrow I will do the same. Friday is shaping up to be a full day at the office as I lead the year-end close like a big girl. Back at it, Jan 2nd – I’ll hit the ground running. Not gonna lie, work is stressing me out. But even as I feel pukey when I look at my impossible to-do list, I feel joy at having found my dream-job, dream-team and dream-company. Joy at being healthy enough to struggle with this challenge, and the opportunity at manifesting an important side to my personality (smart, assertive, ambitious, possibly bitchy, mentoring leader).

I have a long list of people I am supposed to try squeeze in my few hours of free time after work tomorrow and the 30th. My NYE plans are yet undetermined, but my friend Superwoman has determined that wtv happens, we will see each other. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: I’m blessed with the best friends ever.

So why, if everything seems to be falling into place, do I feel like weeping?

True to my cerebral self, I tried various theories: shame at the insane amount of weight I’ve piled on these holidays, and fatigue at always having body-hatred issues. Stress from work, knowing I am likely to miss some deadlines on important projects. Adolescent insecurity at not having firm NYE plans: nobody loves me, I must be lame. Dismay at not having a particular boy to flirt with at the moment. But those are all superficial discomforts, and do not justify this deep malaise. Part of it is finding myself with the headspace to hear my own thoughts; the let-down after a particularly intense December, and the anxiety/fear of a big January. My paranoid brain, resentful at having been given the backseat for so many months, is trying to get itself heard.

And there we have it. I feel like weeping, because I am too happy. Too bone-deep happy. This is the closest I’ve ever been to being fully myself, unshackled by fears and insecurities. When I wrote the post Aiming for Happiness, back in August, who would have thought I was so close to finding this level of joy? Having found it, I’m petrified. Petrified that it is too good to be true, that I don’t deserve it, that the Universe will deem that I am a fraud, and true to its habit of bringing people to their knees for the fun of it, the Universe will strip me of my joy and send me back down the dark path of depression. Its been 2.5 years since my last depression, 18-20 months since my symptoms lapsed and 7 months since I stopped therapy. I’m due. Fundamentally, I do not believe I deserve this level of well-being/contentment/peace. Or so my paranoid brain whispers to me. Like Judd Apatow explains so well:

 

I feel like weeping, because I am tired of constantly battling my paranoid brain. On the eve of 2017, I wish myself the freedom to feel joy without the terror.

#mentalhealthstruggles

P.s. Interesting article in the newyorker on happiness.

The art of photobombing

Exhibit A

This pic was taken a month ago. That would be me and Nene, at the bar, trying to take a pic celebrating our graceful handling of the hilarious 5 types of cereal moment, earlier that evening. Photobombed by alleged Chair Thrower dude. #brilliant

Exhibit B

This pic was taken last night. That would be me and Nene and KizBoxer, trying to take a pic to show off our sexy swagalicious good looks. Oh and hey! Chair Thrower photobombing like a pro.

Chair Thrower had forewarned me that he’d wear a black shirt for the sole purpose of improving his odds of photobombing me.

#geniustakesallforms #soulofanartist #dammit #ilaughedandsworeoutloudalot