By the age of four, my mother taught me everything I know about being a woman.
As a little girl, my first memory was of her in red lipstick, stepping into a garden abloom with yellow miniature roses, purple orchids and dainty West Indian jasmines – the perfect picture of grace.
She passed away when I was four.
Later, I learnt from my father that she’d been struggling with respiratory problems all her life. But nobody seems to remember how weak she’d become. Staring into her coffin, what I saw was a poised and beautiful woman. And throughout my confused teenage years, I struggled to emulate her beauty and grace.
Thus I grew up in a confused and complex world, and like so many other, floundered through many moments of fear, self-doubt and heartache, seeking wisdom in books and forgetfulness in films.
But whenever I felt like I’d truly hit a dead end, I’d hit the road again and meet many amazing people through my travels – poverty-stricken India women with the most vivid dresses I’ve ever seen, a 70-year-old Japanese woman with the brightest purple hair, a breast cancer survivor finding love and intimacy after mastectomy…
Only through their eyes did I finally begin to see my mother’s true legacy – her parting advice to me was not merely how to be beautiful, but one of enduring strength and hope in the face of pain, uncertainly and death.
She was the first person who helped me understand that a woman without breasts is no less beautiful, bright purple hair on an old woman can still turn heads, making the effort to wear lipstick when you’re very ill is a final act of defiance, and planting flowers that you may never see is the greatest leap of faith.
Beyond all the designer dresses and makeup, that is what it means to be a beautiful woman.
Beauty writing is really an exercise in synonyms. Read three consecutive issues of any women’s magazine, and you’ll see what I mean – you can almost picture a beauty writer straining beneath a pile of potions and salves, trying to squeeze out a new word to describe season after season of hydrating moisturisers, red lipsticks and blushers – in various hues of pink and orgasms (think: NARS’s famous Orgasm Blusher – http://www.narscosmetics.com/iconic-nars/cult-classics/~/orgasm-blush?d=true).
Sadly for me, 50 shades of seduction later, I still can’t tell the essential difference between chilli red and temptress red. And I’m not sure the equally bewildered man in my life can distinguish between a post-exercise and a post-coital blush either – God save his undiscerning soul.
Well, despite all this beauty blasphemy, I do, however, have an enduring love affair with perfumes – not the bubblegum juice of prepubescent celebrities or the saccharine launches of bargain brands, but those with real Florentine iris, sundrenched bergamot, Grasse jasmine and exotic woods.
Here’s why I strongly believe everyone should choose their juice with as much care as they choose their books…
It’s like choosing a theme song for the day
I love mornings when I have enough time to run through my fragrance wardrobe the same way I’d scroll through my iPod playlist. It always prompts me to do a mental forecast of my day ahead, set my intentions, and then visualise the perfect notes for it.
Like good music, the right perfume sets the tone for the day right.
Just as I firmly believe nothing great will ever happen when Justin Bieber is playing on the radio, nothing inspired can ever occur when you are wearing Justin Bieber’s Girlfriend – yes, that’s what he calls one of his perfumes…
It’s an inner journey
As skin-deep as makeup is, perfume is profound. Unlike makeup, it will not announce to every other passerby, “I am an indie-chick” or “Nicki Minaj is my latest not-so-secret guilty indulgence”. On the contrary, it is a more subtle language that you have to first discover for yourself, and then divulge to those select few that step into your aura. The goal is not to transform (like makeup) but transfigure – I always find that the best fragrances lend a certain vitality and depth to a woman’s intrinsic beauty.
Every bottle of perfume contains a world
A nose once told me that a perfume has to be worn by a woman, otherwise, it’s just like a dress hanging on an empty rack.
A good fragrance evolves with the woman who wears it – every book she reads, every city she visits, every time she fall in love or gets her heart broken, it gains new depth.
It conjures up subconscious images and forgotten memories, and teleports its wearer to undiscovered worlds only as rich as one’s memory and imagination – cotton fields, beach shacks, a perfect sunlit childhood vacation?
As I grew older, I began to lean towards such timeless scents that were complex and simple enough to age well with me – not those that represented a superficial marketing vision of sensually, as depicted by purring models in their ad campaigns.
…And, every once in a while, I would wear a ‘jasmine garden’ to bed and pray for a magnificent dream.
Do you cringe when you read your old diary entry? I usually do – time helps me to look at the old me through detached eyes, and I often see the absurdity of the situation.
But when I dug up this old poem I wrote many years ago, the feeling is still so strangely familiar… Do you ever feel this way?
In the mornings
When the air is damp
With so many ambivalent tears
Which you blot out
With a shrug
And automatically adjust
A face of pleasant indifference
Do you remember me?
In the afternoons
The air thin
As if sucked out
Of a bright yellow vacuum
And you breathe hard
Through lips thick with
The sticky taste of decay
Do you miss me?
And in the evenings
All the world
Under the weight
Of time and memory
And necessary shopping bags
Which graze your legs
And you smile patiently
Have you forgiven me?
First used to describe the medical treatment of disease, today, you can literally tag the word to any of your favourite obsessive, compulsive indulgence and elevate it to a form of pseudo-psychological healing. Retail therapy, massage therapy, apartment therapy, chocolate therapy, you name it.
The thing is, despite all the pseudo-science, I love the hedonistic and imaginative misuse of the word.
I also adore all the little spas that have taken our self-gratifying, self-justifying rhetoric to heart and created spectacular visual wonderlands. Why? Because I truly believe in the healing benefits of a little imagination. And on that note, here are my ‘bucket list’ therapies and spas – worth more than a visit to the doctor’s.
#1 Tea Therapy
Fast-forwarding through the anti-ageing, antioxidant spew of skincare brochures, what I really love about tea therapy is that this ritualised art instantly evokes a sense of clarity and tranquillity. Chanoyu 茶の湯(inJapanese culture) and cha dao茶道 (in Chinese culture) reflect the profound appreciation of nature, self-awareness and hosting etiquette. They also symbolise the act of leaving the mundane world behind and immersing in something truly pure and beautiful.
Bucket List Spa: GREEN T. HOUSE Bath House Residence, CHINA
This stunning spa is born of artist, musician and tea connoisseur’s JinR’s quest for the quintessential neoclassic Chinese experience. Sitting on the outskirts of Beijing, it is inspired by a Tang dynasty emperor’s bathhouse and voted by the Best Spa Design by Wallpaper magazine. Everything about it (even the website – http://green-t-house.com/greenteahouse1/bathhouse.html and its musical accompaniment) seems like something out of a Zhang Yimou film. Soak in the rooftop onsen, luxuriate in purifying green tea treatments, sample artistically plated tea-inspired cuisine, and declare time out from the heave of humanity.
Imagine the weightlessness and warmth of being submerged and suspended in lukewarm water. Proponents claim that this weightlessness relieves the body of the pull of gravity, gently massages, and stimulates the touch receptors of the skin. Adjustments to water temperature and pressure are used to improve blood circulation, encourage relaxation, enhance the immune system and hydrate the skin.
Bucket List Spa: Blue Lagoon, ICELAND
Four reasons I’m sold on this spa: geothermal seawater, in-water massages, the midnight sun and the otherworldly dreamscape of Iceland. Of course, the midnight package is only available from July to August when Iceland enjoys almost 24 hours of sunlight. (www.bluelagoon.com)
#3 Beer Therapy
Step aside, red wine. If you’ve heard enough of polyphenols and resveratrol, you’ll welcome this newer alcohol-skincare fad. This form of booze therapy is gaining popularity in Germany, Austria and Czech Republic, where the folks simply love their beer. Soak in a barrel and instead of a nasty hangover, expect better circulation, detoxification and relaxation from beer’s natural healing cocktail of vitamins, proteins and folic acid.
Bucket List Spa: První Pivní Lázně Karlovy Var, CZECH REPUBLIC
This beer bath takes place in 1000-litre whirlpool tubs infused with brewing yeast, selected varieties of hop, and malt grist – natural extracts from which Krušovice beer is brewed. Heated to 37°C, it purges toxins, rejuvenates the skin and melts away stress. This is followed by 20 minutes of resting on a bed made of wheat straw, and endless pints of beer in case you still have any residual tension. (http://pivnilazne-kv.cz)
#4 Multi-sensorial Therapy
Combining colour, shape, light, sound, vibration and warmth to induce deep relaxation, this newfangled type of therapy feels like something out of a futuristic sci-fi world. AlphaSphere, for example (the brainchild of artist Sha) is a monochromatic blue rocking relaxation couch offered at Berlin’s Mandala Hotel ONO Spa and Bulgaria’s Kempinski Hotel’s Zalez.
Bucket List Spa: Wellness at Backstage Hotel, SWITZERLAND
Inspired by the seven days of Genesis, this spa invites you to experience the miracle of creation in seven splendid rooms. Begin in a steam room flickering with an art projection of light and shadow, lay down in a field of infrared heated glass pearls as clouds drift by, travel through a cosmic world seen through a Hubble telescope, and drift away in a floating basin to the sound of whale song… Through sound, aromatherapy, art, video installations, temperature and state-of-the-art technology, this spa recreates a rich world of magic and imagination. (www.backstagehotel.ch/wellness_80.html)
One: Two weeks in an Indian ashram was my ‘cheap shot’ at accelerated self-discovery.
Two: I was your textbook epiphany-seeker (no thanks to Eat, Pray, Love, which I never read).
Three: I now have firsthand experience of living out an old cliché, indulging a quarter-life crisis, trying a headstand with close to zero yoga experience, and dangerous chocolate-deprivation for two weeks.
Well, I’m still not sure why I went.
I guess, in a world measured out by Foursquare check-ins and cardboard cheeseburgers, the threat of unreliable wifi and a strict vegetarian diet might have just stricken me as refreshing at the time… Or it might have seemed like one of those trips that would give me granny-cred when I’m old and toothless.
In any case, I packed three of my oldest T-shirts, an insect repellent, iPhone and concealer into a 10 litre Deuter backpack and left for Sivananda Kerala, India.
15 days of curry vegetables, eight unsuccessful headstands, and a close encounter with a hairy palm-sized tarantula later, here’s are three random things I’ve gleaned:
#1 Everybody’s in some kind of crisis
The interesting thing about a clichéd vacation is… well, everyone else was thinking exactly the same thing – everyone in a short-term or chronic crisis seemed to converge at the ashram. I’ve never met so many people with quarter-life, mid-life, three-quarter life crises. There were people who couldn’t get jobs, people who hated what they were doing, tired people, confused people, people who were unhappy for no particular reason…
And perhaps it just seemed like the place for it, but well, people just shared their stories more freely.
The thing was, it wasn’t ‘solidarity of the miserable’ at all. On the contrary, what I realised was that everyone’s got some kind of half-formed plan too. I met a girl who wants to start a sustainable community in Costa Rica, a woman who lost a job she’s had for 19 years and suddenly decided to be life coach, and an ex-banker reinvented as a stopgap-hippie prepped to take on India.
Through their eyes, I saw a vast world of infinite possibilities, only limited by my imagination and courage. And somehow, I started to believe that all we need is a half-formed plan, and then we’ll make the rest up along the way.
#2 Epiphanies are over-rated
I may be saying this because I didn’t have one spectacular ‘moment’… like in the movies. No lightning spark went off, no ‘highlights-of-my-life’ flashbacks occurred – sorry to disappoint.
On my first day, our yoga teacher took us down to the river to mediate. Because every tree, every rock, every weed, he said, has vibrations and ‘memories’ that can heal the mind and soul, and so we’ve got a secret stash of positive vibrations right in our backyard.
This may sound a little new-agey, but I did feel just a tad calmer for that, and it made the crucial difference. I’m starting to think that perhaps, sometimes, instead of waiting for life-changing epiphanies, all we need is to calm our mind and think quietly.
#3 The monsters are really just in our head
No surprises – Monday is the day I hate most – it’s the day the world drags you out of your warm bed and across the street in your sleeping clothes, your hair bedraggled and your knees scrapping against the pavement, and makes you do a stupid tap dance.
The ironic thing was, Monday morning chased me right up to the ashram in India. I had no forgotten deadlines, no early morning meetings, no embarrassingly stupid powerpoint slides, and yet I felt the same sense of anxiety, the sense that I was somehow late for something, had forgotten something, had missed my shot – don’t ask me at what.
Maybe because, as they say, we can run halfway across the world, but we can’t run away from our own demons, fears and anxieties.
And of course, the other ironic thing was that I had to run halfway across the world to truly appreciate that.
After visiting 23 countries over the 31 years of my life, I must say that there are only three things I absolutely hate about travel – touts, toilets and packaged tours. Why? Because touts are always make me feel like a money tree, exploring new toilets feels like an incalculable risk, and package tours are really just like watching 18 poorly edited trailers back-to-back when you really just want to see one good movie.
Having said that, these are the five reasons I brave such ‘untold dangers’ to hit the road time and again.
#1 Mental Detox
Packing for a trip helps to un-clutter my life – because unless you are Paris Hilton or her chihuahua, you usually only have one or two bags of luggage space. And deciding what to bring helps you pare the thousands of creature comforts and cool toys you have down to the essentials.
I never realise how many things I’ve amassed and how much time I spend sorting them out until I pack for a trip. And somehow, deciding that I really don’t need to bring another perfume, pair of shoes or gadget helps me clear up mental space, sift the essential from the fluff, and ultimately put things in perspective.
#2 For An Adventure
It’s either the white noise or the plastic chicken, but taking a plane always makes me feel like I’m in some kind of fake temporary limbo, and when I emerge on the other side, I’ll be entering a different world, a new Narnia where I can be someone else for a while, and even vanquish a Minotaur or two. Regardless, I always up for an adventure again on the other side.
#3 For New Perspectives
Remember Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams gets his students to stand on their desks to see the world from a different perspective? I’m starting to think that maybe as we grow older, we start to take ourselves too seriously to ever flippantly climb a table again, or see anything special when we do. That’s why we need to climb mountains, castles, 100 storey observatory towers in search of that same sense of wonder again.
#4 To Find My Pace
Don’t get me wrong: I love travelling with friends. But it also somehow feels like travelling in one big cloud of familiarity. Solo travel is a refreshing change because it helps me discover a new place, discover myself and find my own pace again. In a world where we are always scrambling to keep pace with others, I think everyone should try solo travel at least once.
#5 Because The World Is So Beautiful And We Are So Small
Many years ago, I was assigned to write a story on a hospice for a small Singapore-based health magazine.
The PR person for the hospice scheduled me to interview two patients, both of whom seemed happy enough to spend one precious day in the last days of their lives sharing their life story with me.
On the day of the interview, I came down with a bad cold. I didn’t want to infect terminally ill patients so I rescheduled the interview. When I called back a few days, I was told that one of my interviewees had passed away from complications.
So I did my interview with just one patient who was down with 4th stage lung cancer that had spread to the bones. I only remember that throughout the interview, she kept telling me, with a brittle smile, a hoarse voice and a twinkle in her eye, that she knew she’d be well and home with her family by Christmas.
She passed away a couple of weeks after.
At that time, I was very affected by this. I was not quite sure if I was inspired or simply depressed.
Because of a common cold, I lost the opportunity to meet a dying man with a story to tell. The woman who I did speak to was frail as a leaf, but so tenaciously optimistic – a poster girl for infinite human capacity to hope. And if that wasn’t enough irony and pathos, why would two people on the brink of death chose to spend their most treasured time speaking to an utter stranger when two years ago, they might not have spared me the time of day if I passed them on the streets.
Having said that, I really don’t want to milk this experience for moral summaries or trite truisms.
It was, as I told it.
It moved me and shifted the course of my life forever (if only by a micro-inch) – just like all the people we’ve met, books we’ve read, movies we’ve watched, places we’ve been to… everything that left a lump in our throat.
I’m starting this blog because I believe that extraordinary and ordinary inspirations happen every single day. And I don’t want to miss them.