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More Beauty

As one of my dear Camp friends said to me today, I’m in the right place this week. Today, there was so much beauty – so easy to feel close to my Sebastian.

An hour-long silent Meeting on the hill (silent but for cicadas, wind in trees, and riotous birds), looking at this.

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Circles holding hands.

Hair flying behind children on swings.

The sound of lake-splash.

A world so blue and green and white.

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And such good hugs.

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Five Years to Miss You

Dear Sebastian,

It’s now five years since your birth day; five years and about thirty-seven hours since your heart beat last.

There is something about this year that has made my baby memories extra-vivid. I have thought of you so much this spring. I feel your days coming the first time the weather gets hot. Despite seemingly constant over-busy-ness in the last two months, you’ve been right at the top of my heart most of the time. It has felt strange, being in our new house where you never lived… but I feel you anyway.

I thought about you especially on your big brother’s seventh birthday. I could viscerally remember bringing E home as a newborn: the sunshine, the tiny onesies, the smell of welcome-home fruit crumble, the swaddling blankets, the days of rapt, awestruck bliss.

I remember how I felt that week when Emi told me that a friend of hers had borne a son on the same day I had, but that hers had been stillborn. My heart dropped like a rock as I tried to fathom how any parent could withstand that pain, when I could barely let my own newborn out of my arms.

Then, two years and one month later, you were born still, and I became friends with that same bereaved mama, who offered beautiful, generous words of empathy that I’ve never forgotten. By that time, she had a second daughter, who is now five – like you. What a strange, sad, lovely, mysterious entwining of lives and deaths.

Normally, school ends and there is that sudden space in my life at the beginning of July – and I let myself ponder you as much as I want. This year, I haven’t had time to spend with you, but my systems knew what they were doing and went all weepy anyway. I didn’t know what to do with that, because five is a heavy milestone, and it was getting lost in the preparation for Family Camp.

Then yesterday, I arrived here at NeeKauNis, and I suddenly felt lighter, righter, like you were all around me. It was quiet and fragrant and humid and leafy. I saw you, in this bright face.

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And I saw you again in this expansive sky-smile, after a much-needed, stormy downpour.

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Today, the other families arrived, and our Camp is full. It is busy and noisy and full of life.

This week, I’m going to watch for you. Beauty has always been where I see you, and interacting with beauty is how I feel close to you.

I really wish there were some way I could cuddle you again. Part of me feels entitled to, after missing you for so long. But I’m glad you’re here with us.

I love you always.

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Why I Love Belly Dancing

Dancing has always been part of me. Long before I took my first ballet class at age six, I liked to fling myself around the living room to music, preferably with filmy garments draped over me.

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This is not me (it’s Petite Jamila) but I wish it were.

Since then, I’ve tried almost every kind of dance you can think of, except for tap. (Not that I have anything against tap – the opportunity has just never come up.) I’ve done ballet, jazz, contemporary, hip-hop, jive, several kinds of swing, Irish, Latin, African, interpretive, square, circle, line, bits of flamenco, fox trot, waltz… You get the idea. For me, moving to music and rhythm is instinctual, almost involuntary.

My relationship with Raqs Sharqi, or belly dancing, began in 2002. I took my very first class at the University of Toronto on a whim, because the hip-hop class was full. I have a distinct memory of my teacher – a woman who had to be at least in her fifties but was as lithe and slim as a young girl – putting on a piece of low, slow, fluttery flute music and doing a movement she called a “maya“… and me being completely entranced. I really wanted to know how to make my body do that.

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This IS me – before kids, obviously – doing a maya.

When I moved cities, I realized I was in dance withdrawal and quickly signed up for a class. I took up belly dance because I’d enjoyed the classes in Toronto, and that was when I found the teacher who truly hooked me on Middle Eastern Dance. She was young, short, voluptuous, with a plus-size body type, and even more gorgeously hypnotic than my first teacher. She did drills to music that was only drums, making the rhythms visible through the movements of her body. I couldn’t wait to learn those moves.

Under this teacher, I became part of a belly dance troupe for the first time.

By then, there was no going back. Learning the skills of Raqs Sharqi, I knew I’d found my dancer-home.

Here are some reasons Why I Love Belly Dancing.

  • You wear pretty, sparkly costumes. (Yes, I’m a Quaker who not-so-secretly likes beads and sequins. I think Sean and I may be the first people ever to have had a Quaker wedding with belly dancers performing at the reception.) Once you’re a grown-up, there aren’t that many good excuses to wear glitter, but this is one. I know it’s a bit weird that I put this reason first – it’s NOT the main reason I love belly dancing, but in my childhood ballet classes, a lot of my motivation came from wanting to wear flowy chiffon skirts or sparkly tutus… so you could say my entrance into the world of dance was, in a large part, materialistic.
  • It’s compelling. As I said above, once I saw what the movements looked like on experienced dancers, I HAD to learn them.
  • It’s lovely to watch. In my first year of teaching, some of my co-workers came to the student recital to see me dance, and came out saying, “That was beautiful.” I think people expect it to be raunchy or somehow explicit, but done properly, it is neither. It’s a celebration of femininity. Sensual, yes. But in a classy way.
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Like this.
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NOT this.
  • Rich history. There is an amazing amount of lore surrounding belly dancing, theories about fertility rituals, harems, the dance of the seven veils, etc., and it seems no-one is sure which things are true. But they make for very cool back story, not to mention inspiration.
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Back in the day.
  • Variety. There are different styles of belly dance originating from Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon; there are classic styles and then folkloric ones, each with their own reasons for being; more recently, tribal style was born in the United States, and now we fuse Raqs Sharqi with all different types of dance. The movements are so organic, they lend themselves to being incorporated into basically any other style.
  • Music that gets into your blood. It took me a while to warm up to Middle Eastern music, since I’d never really been exposed to it before – but now it’s really grown on me. Especially the drums – they are spellbinding. If you ever get to see live tabla and dumbek drumming by an expert, well… it’s hot.

  • That being said, you can belly dance to anything. I remember laughing with one of the other dancers, the first Christmas season I was performing, as we realized we both had found ourselves doing bellydance moves to Christmas carols.
  • It’s good exercise. Depending on the style, it can be quite aerobic, and it can seriously work your large muscle groups. And it’s always a great core strengthener.
  • At the same time, it’s kind to the body. Most other kinds of dance are hard to do really well without a significant likelihood of injury/strain. As long as you’re paying attention to proper posture, belly dance is gentle on joints, and even sometimes helps with pain. (After participating in a workshop I taught one summer, one middle-aged woman told me her lower back, which was normally problematic, hadn’t felt this good in decades.)
  • It’s challenging. Technique can always grow and improve, and learning to layer different movements on top of each other is some serious brain gym.
  • I get to be my own physical self. Anyone who’s done ballet for a while knows that body type plays a large role. I was very good at ballet until puberty, and then I was suddenly too tall, too long-waisted and too short-legged, not to mention having too wide a ribcage and arches that really weren’t high enough – and weirdly-shaped feet that hated pointe shoes. Belly dance is the first dance form I’ve encountered that truly suits my body type.
  • It’s accepting. Everyone can be her own physical self (or his – there are male belly dancers too, and some damn good ones). I have seen incredible belly dancers of all different sizes, shapes, and ages – and it seems to keep people magically youthful.
  • All of this makes for an amazing community. I was lucky, as a kid, to be in a ballet class full of nice girls who became my friends; but whenever I forayed into the competitive dance world, I found stereotypes of cattiness and snobbery coming alive at every turn. The belly dance community, by contrast, is uncompetitive – full of real people who just want to dance for the joy of it. That means that gatherings of belly dancers, including performances, at least in this corner of the world, are full of laughter and mutual appreciation and support.

The show last night was a perfect example, performed with my current teacher and troupe, a fantastic group of women who embody all the best things about the dance. We were joined by a whole bunch of awesome guest performers. So many different groups of dancers, so many fascinating costumes, so many influences and styles, so many different bodies, all revealed as beautiful in the dance.

{And, I brought my baby girl backstage and she was passed around and lavished with affection by all sorts of lovely women, and I knew she was in good hands. (Thank God for Auntie Em, though. She was the primary caretaker, and without her help, I could not have been in the show at all.)}

Here are two bellydance clips I love (even though they don’t demonstrate the body-type diversity I told you about – sorry). The first is a traditional-style drum solo by Jillina, the second is a tribal-fusion-style duet by Rachel Brice and Illan. I have been fortunate enough to see all these dancers perform live, and they are frickin’ amazing. Enjoy.


Hey, bellydancers out there – if you have a favourite clip, please feel free to leave a link in the comments! I love adding to my collection… 🙂

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A Post About Beauty

I started worrying about my children back when they were zygotes. With a daughter, I have worries that are completely different from those I have for my son.

Self-esteem and body image issues are some of my biggest concerns for her. She’s only seven weeks old, but already I find myself wondering how best to foster a positive self-image that will get her through the tough times… like puberty.

As I see it, we can talk as much as we want about how physical appearance doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but the fact remains: beauty – or at least our perception of it – IS important.

I want my daughter to feel and know she’s beautiful. Unfortunately, I think that’s one of the toughest achievements out there.

It might seem silly to care about physical appearance. After all, we’re all just a bunch of cells. We’re made up of un-pretty things like skeletons, eyeballs, and intestines. We see only the very surface. Furthermore, if we have naturally nice skin or lustrous hair or straight teeth, it’s accidental – not the result of any hard work or particular worthiness on our part. Still, somehow, appearances are a source of judgement.

I’ve known it since childhood. There’s that line in the Free to Be song, “When We Grow Up“, where the girl says, “I don’t care if I’m pretty at all.” I knew, even back then, that I should feel the same way, but I didn’t. I wanted to be pretty. And even before age 10, I worried that I wasn’t. I fretted about my crooked teeth and my stubby fingernails and my freckles and my flat chest. Then, by the time the braces were off and the breasts showed up and I quit biting my nails, I was already worrying about being too fat. (Looking back, I know I was in no way too fat.)

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Dilovely at age 20 or so…? A LONG time ago, anyway.

I thought a lot about looks when my university boyfriend entered medical school in my fourth year. I was taken aback when I visited him at school, because I quickly realized that basically 100% of his classmates were somewhere on a continuum between Quite Good-Looking and Downright Gorgeous. I remembered the process my boyfriend had gone through to get into med school – a rigorous series of essays, interviews, and references, not to mention the MCAT – and figured there had to be a correlation. Not that beautiful people are smarter, or more cosmically deserving of success, but that beauty facilitates confidence. Confidence is an undeniably large factor in success.

Doesn’t seem fair, but it’s true. Naturally, I want my daughter to have that confidence. I wish I could just install it in her psyche like software… but alas, instilling it is a much trickier process.

This video is a nice attempt to break through the self-esteem angst.

I like all the different, lovely faces, and I appreciate the positivity. Some of the advice is great (2, 7, and 10 are my favourites), but two of them really annoy me: “Control your perspective” and “Another word for sexy? Confident.” As if it’s that easy. If your perspective is getting you down, just fix it! And if you’re not sure you’re sexy enough – simply BE CONFIDENT. What have you been waiting for?

Sadly, it doesn’t work that way.

Why don’t more of us grow out of this dissatisfaction? Don’t we adults know better? Not always. I recently read a memorable blog post by a thirtysomething mom who had included a photo of herself that she hated.

The photo was neither pretty nor horrendous. There are other photos on the blog of this woman looking very appealing – but that’s not how she sees herself. I was impressed by the raw way she wrote about her appearance, how she considers herself ugly, and how often she feels inadequate because of it – in spite of a happy marriage, good family, friends, and readers.

I was touched by her post, because most of us can relate to feeling ugly sometimes – I definitely can… but it depends on the moment. I have times when I feel pretty, too, which makes it easier to get through the ugly times. How hard would it be to feel ugly every day? Because no matter how other people perceive us, it’s how we feel about ourselves that makes the difference.

A wise friend, in response to my post about my pesky wrinkles and grey hairs, sent a link to this wonderful piece by Amanda King, “I’ve started telling my daughters I’m beautiful.” It is full of love, pain, protectiveness, and amazing words. This lovely mom has nailed it: she’s beautiful to her daughters, and she doesn’t want to tell them they’re wrong. So she says it aloud – she is beautiful. She writes, “I see it behind their shining brown eyes, how glad they are that I believe I am beautiful.”

Oh. So true. I think of my sweet daughter and my heart squeezes.

I tried to imagine saying to her, “Aren’t I beautiful?” My mind balked at the idea, because, well – isn’t that conceited, somehow?

Wait – NO. It hit me. Society gives women a preposterous goal: work endlessly to attain beauty, but don’t acknowledge that you have it. We’re not supposed to be satisfied with ourselves. How perverse – and dumb. After all, I admire tremendously the people I know who seem most comfortable and happy in their own skin.

I also realized… my children are worth the effort of tossing that stupid goal in the toilet. If anything can convince me to own my beauty, it’s knowing that my children might need me to.

The clichés are true: beauty comes from within, and it’s also in the eye of the beholder. If my child sees me as beautiful, I am. My friends get more beautiful to me the more I know and love them. It’s not that I stop seeing “flaws”; it’s that inner and outer beauty are all wrapped up together.

We ARE beautiful.

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Greyphobia: Why can’t I just love my wrinkles?

I’m thirty-four years old.

I have certain products I put on my face daily. One is an antioxidant serum I use around my eyes to prevent wrinkles.

I also have many grey hairs, which I first noticed when I was pregnant with E (age 30). Each pregnancy has accelerated the process. I’ve never dyed my grey, but that’s probably because it’s still mostly hidden under the top layer of brown hair. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of colouring someday. (Especially since I have a three-year-old who once said to me, “Mama, I hope I’m not getting old… like you.”)

Back in our twenties, when my Hubbibi was wooing me with written correspondence, I remember one of his letters – which always contained social/political commentary (yes, that was part of what wooed me) – talking about how crazy it was that companies could charge so much for something like anti-wrinkle cream and people would still feel the need to buy it. At the time, part of me agreed with him… and yet, I already knew that such vanity existed in me, although I had no eye wrinkles at the time.

Now, here I am. I do spend money on skin products, including ones to “keep me young”.

I know it’s kinda dumb. It’s not like I’m losing my eyesight or developing arthritis, both of which would actually hinder my ability to enjoy life. It’s not like I’m a famous personality who gets lots of public attention and scrutiny. I’m not hoping for some kind of big break based on my youthful face. But I can’t deny that when I see my wrinkles getting more pronounced, I sigh sadly. When I see an obvious grey hair, I pull it out.

Why do I do this? My “signs of aging” are the results of life being lived – the laughter and tears and sunshine and pregnancies and interrupted nights with my babies – and I wouldn’t trade these things for youth… not even the tears. I am glad to be healthy and alive, knowing lots of people have had their lives cut shorter than this. To age is a privilege.

It’s not that I think my life has already passed its peak and it’s all downhill from here. On the contrary, I look forward to the next thirty-four years – and beyond, if I’m lucky – as more opportunities to do and be and witness great things.

So why can’t I just own this aging thing? Be proud of my grey hairs? Love my wrinkles?

Frustratingly, this seems to be mostly a women’s problem. Men apparently don’t give a dirty diaper-full about going grey or getting wrinkles. Why do women get these neuroses?

Conveniently, I blame society. (Because society can be blamed for everything.) Especially advertising media.

It dawned on me when I saw the commercial for “Touch of Gray” (Just For Men).

For men, grey hair is an asset. It’s distinguished, handsome, mature. It says “experience”, for crap’s sake.

You’ll notice the woman doing the interview has NO “touch of gray” WHATSOEVER. No visible wrinkles either. Sheesh. Please excuse me while I gag on the double-standard.

Women get crow’s feet. Men get “crinkly eyes”.

Women are bombarded by anti-aging advertising, featuring models either airbrushed or well under forty (or both). These ads are designed to create anxiety about looking your actual age – aging skin can’t possibly be “great skin”. Have you EVER seen such an ad featuring a man?

Male actors – some of the biggest celebrities – can walk around with crinkles and grey on display, and still be considered hot… think George Clooney, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe, John Slattery, Alec Baldwin, Richard Gere. Female actors don’t get to show their grey unless the part actually calls for it; Helen Mirren, Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, and Meryl Streep almost never let their true colours show. (And don’t get me started on plastic surgery.) How is that fair?

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Julia Roberts and Richard Gere (age 41) in Pretty Woman

I asked my husband if he ever worries or even thinks about grey hair and wrinkles. He practically scoffed. “Are you kidding? I can’t wait! I’ve always wanted to be an old man!” Of course, Sean is not a good person to ask about this; he has a perpetually young-looking face, and also an odd penchant for deliberately choosing accessories that are, shall we say, “elderly” (sweater-vests, flat caps, even the occasional walking stick or pocket watch).

But how and why does he get to want to be an old man? I think we’re dealing not just with ads, but with a deeply ingrained societal idea.

Say the words “old man” to yourself. (Or Google it, if that’s easier.) What images come to mind? Maybe it’s just me, but I think of someone old and wise, gentlemanly, even venerable… like Winston Churchill, or Gandhi, or Obi-Wan Kenobi. After all, the iconic “Old Man and the Sea” was about an old Cuban fisherman with extraordinary strength, determination, and resourcefulness.

The words “old lady” just aren’t the same; inexplicably, I picture someone hunched, shuffling, blue-haired, going a little bit dotty. Even “old woman” doesn’t sound good – “old women” do things like invite hapless children into their gingerbread homes and roast them. They might live in a shoe, or swallow a fly for no good reason.

Why do I think this? It’s ridiculous! All the old women I know are amazing, intelligent, lovely people, not at all how I describe. Why does societal perception trump my actual life experience?

It would be easier to reveal the evidence of our journeys toward old-womanhood if women, as a group, were allowed to age properly, naturally, graciously. How will we get permission to be free of a myth in which we participate?

I guess I should start by wearing my wrinkles and grey hairs proudly, like the badges of my personal history that they are… and then show young girls it’s okay – by being super-awesome.

I’ll work on that.

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