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Watching this video reminded me of something I have been working on all holidays; taking small steps.
In the end, it’s not how much time you have, or how great your project framework or idea. It’s not how foolproof your planning, or how fast you can work.
It’s how determined you are to finish the project. How much you are willing to sit there and work dedicatedly at something that may not feel enlivening, fun, or inspiring all the time, knowing and trusting that there is a rhyme and reason to your work. Knowing that all your little actions and thoughts add up, that you are making progress. Steady, incremental progress. No flashiness, no great neon billboards. Moving a mountain one grain of sand at a time.
Quite frankly, it feels like uninspiring, boring work. But that’s where the patience and determination really kick in. In our world of instant gratification, this is real old-school values and work ethic.
I am working on a large-scale choral commission right now and I have inevitably ended up in the “shit” bellcurve of the whole creative process. I’m trying to resurrect a 16-bar coda that is DOA and couldn’t be resuscitated for all the electrical impulses in the world. But I am stubborn and creatively pig-headed, and I keep slogging away at it, with no result that I am happy with. I’m talking hours of wasted afternoons, hacking away with a blunt knife.
I hate these 16 bars with an unholy passion. And they sit there on my desktop, along with the rest of the epic ruins of my composition, festering.
So I decide to be smarter and kinder to myself, and it. Step back, sharpen my knife, and engage. I take 10 minutes each night to see if I can gently coerce some life back into the final section. I actually sit beside the ruins of my composition and problem-solve. From trying to hammer out a solution, to gently clearing the rubble, brick by brick, note by note, I have clarity. Each afternoon or evening, just 10 minutes. Inevitably what happens is I start getting interested, because it’s a more connective process. I start liking what I am creating and hearing.
After a solid week of 10-minute interventions, I have something which has a framework that resonates of me. That I am happy with. All that stress and worry, when all I needed to do was START and KEEP GOING.
It’s the same with my Chinese New Year cleaning. Each year, we clean our houses from top to bottom to herald in the new year. It’s the clearing of the “old spirits” to allow new luck to flow in, new momentum and life. Anything that hasn’t been cleaned and cleared out allows the previous year’s qi to stagnate, and that part of your life doesn’t grow. So then you get super-superstitious and overly ambitious and want to clear out EVERYTHING immediately. It’s very Marie Kondo, but without the sparking, and definitely without the joy, just the overwhelming enormity of Spray N’ Wipe + paper towels.
I couldn’t face doing even a whole room some days. But I JUST STARTED. One shelf in the pantry, that was 5 minutes. The dust on the skirting of the living room. The wine rack. My clothes. Sort, fold, bundle up the giveaways. All the blankets + pillows. My bookshelves. The bathrooms. The study, the photographs, my choral and piano music. And somehow, quietly, peacefully and miraculously, my whole house is done. I am ready. I am ready to open up my arms and welcome the new year.
It was a curious mixture of flow and determination. There were several days where for both tasks, I really didn’t feel like starting anything, but I did. And when I did, I became involved, engrossed, and quietly interested. There’s a metronomic safety to to what 10 minutes of “just starting” can bring, and you surprise yourself by how much you achieve in those snippets.
It wasn’t muscle work, and it was never full days of intense mental or physical labour.
It was just starting. And continuing. And persisting with quiet determination at a task.
I feel like I’ve caught honesty by the toe and I do not dare let go. I’ve never had such a period of time where my voice, my words, and my written prose have all matched so much. So completely and authentically. This is what I’ve longed for, this level of clarity of thought. I feel like rather than stuffing potato chips by the tri-layer in my mouth, I am savouring a perfect bite. An amuse bouche of life.
I read sentences that make sense, I can hold a thread. I start work, and while inspiration does NOT always follow me, I am sure of my concentration, being able to work well, and that an idea will emerge from the rubble. I am problem-solving with curiosity, rather than hurried alacrity. I am interested. I play the piano and it’s not because I have hurdles to jump, it’s because I am so utterly curious about how this idea sounds with notes, how this phrase forms when under my fingers. I have things to say, clearly and simply. There is a continuous thread of though, borne out of passing through incredible moments of internal noise and doubt. Words have light and shade, conversations feel crystal clear rather than darting, breathless fragments. I can feel traction, pacing, learning, progress.
Thank you for this clarity.
The 2nd to the “We Need To Talk” video she did in 2017.
Emily Fox, I love your work. LOVE. YOUR. WORK.
This was the video that made me want to subscribe to your YouTube channel. For you to know how monumental that is, I don’t subscribe, comment, or hit like/dislike on anything. You made me cross over.
Keep doing your “weirdness”, your intelligent articulateness, and your absolute passion for such a diverse range of topics. Your intelligence + integrity are unmistakable.
To engage with life and the world around you, you need to be up for discomfort and struggle. And after a period of intense rest and time away from interaction, that can be the last thing you want. Add to that the very introvertness of my introvert nature, and that’s recipe enough for me to lie on the rug in the middle of my floor and pretend I’m not a teacher.
Every single year, no matter what sort of holidays I have, I always have the irrational thought before going back to school: “I CANNOT DEAL WITH STUDENTS.” Right now, it’s even more basic: “I CANNOT DEAL WITH PEOPLE.”
Why am I so antsy and afraid?!
Am I afraid of the intensity of work? Because I may get hurt? That I don’t think I will survive the roller-coaster that is teaching? Interacting with the staff who give me the shits and drain the life out of me? My own unrelenting standards and expectations? Having less time?
The thing is, these all make sense. And I will survive, one thought and step at a time.
The intensity of work? Yes, it will be intense. I will be in the coalface getting blackened again. But I have done this before, and I have the fitness and ability to do it now. I have the tenacity and determination, and I have been working on my concentration. What I need to remember is how to step out of the intensity of work. To see the little moments and don’t discount them. To hug them tight, because they will sustain me.
That I may get hurt? Of course. I think there are flying shards of glass every day. You wouldn’t be living life if you didn’t step into a shit-storm every once in a while. But I have firm ground under my feet and a quiet confidence. I need to remember that I’ve survived so much, and far worse more capably than I believe. Every day is not supposed to be filled with just all things wonderful and breezy brightness, there is supposed to be some gritty consideration and thinking in there. That’s called living. And I am not perfect. I need to remember that. In living and loving well, I will skin my knees. But my goodness, my survival skills are developing nicely and so is my connection circle of people who love me.
That I won’t survive? Just one foot in front of the other. Look all around you at the people who are surviving, on far less, with more gumption. Take a leaf out of their books and look, learn, and admire. Talk yourself through the stressful moments. You’re allowed to worry and fuss. But don’t stop. Don’t hurry, but don’t stop. And hold a very big flashlight as to what you think is correct for you. Stay in your own lane. When things get crowded, get back in that lane like your life depends upon it.
And oh, the shitty shitty people? Again, we are all one big happy family, and some of those “family members” will give you the shits. Big shits. What sort of person do I want to be? I survived most of 2017 by cocooning myself from the shittiest of shitty people. I’m going to test something new out this year, to see what sort of result it will give me; I’m going to apply grace and lean into the things that scare me, or piss me off. I am going to speak truth and honesty, but with grace and compassion. And I will do it FOR ME, because that’s the sort of person I want to be. When there is a problem, I am going to quietly and courageously stand my ground. I am going to fortify myself with love from everyone around me who really love me for all that I am, strengths, achievements, and weaknesses. In other words, I am going to ruffle some feathers and see if I come out looking and smelling even more authentic.
My own relenting standards? Oooooooh, yes. Somehow, the perfectionist streak in me rears its ugly head when I am on holidays. When I am supposed to be relaxing and getting myself prepared for a new year, this horrible gremlin asserts itself, I think partly because there are no “normal happenings” around me to beat me back into humanness, and I am allowed to be perfectionistic. Relaxed, but perfectionistic. So to this, I tenderly remember that I am an imperfect and worthy human. I’ll have to yell it at myself, but I know that to be true. And telling myself I’m not perfect, putting myself into context, and putting everyone else into context, their words + failings, faults + successes, helps soothe and encourage me immeasurably. I am suddenly able to touch on forgiveness, even if I don’t yet, or can’t go there, and life moves on again. So again, engaging with life is incredibly humbling and normalising. Having time away to reflect is essential, but getting back into it, also just as essential.
Having less time? I think that’s less disposable, aimless time. I need to get very clear about what is important and how I would like to spend my time. One of my biggest time-sucks and numbing of behaviours is scrolling Facebook. When I am stressed out or feeling small, I need to get the hell off Facebook, get the hell back into my lane and engage with something that really sustains me…creatively, musically, personally, humanly. And all of that takes courage. Because Facebook is like the massive scoop of salted caramel ice-cream. It goes down easy. What I’m asking for is something like hot chicken soup, which takes some time to see the healing benefits and is going to take some discipline, but I have to believe + know that it will nourish me more.
I cannot live life being afraid. The more afraid I am, the MORE I need to practise engaging with the world, listening, being mindful, being present. This whole “warrior + happiness training” thing that I have inadvertently engaged in these holidays because I opened up the Pandora’s Box Of Unprocessed Thoughts and Emotions is not to make me feel good right now. It’s to build up a bank so that I have happiness and courage in credit for when the shit hits the fan. For when I am struggling. That is when I look back and realise the catalogue of events I have survived with grace, the endurance and problem-solving skills that I have, and that I can lean HARD on them. The immeasurable joy in my life, and the joy that emanates from me.
And of course it would be Atticus that said it! 🙂
I think my desiderata for 2018 is going to be this:
That I will walk into each day challenging EVERY shame and scarcity gremlin that comes my way.
That I will lean IN, rather than close up, when adversity bubbles up, and when joy prevails.
That I will care deeply and tenderly, joyfully and playfully, for myself. And from this deep nourishment and love, I hope that all the other types of love and connection will flourish.
This holidays has been an oasis of time. I thought it would be a walk in the park, and such a relaxing and wonderful time of reflection. OH. MY. GOD, did I have that wrong. While some days were, other days I did what can only be described as TOTAL AND ABSOLUTE battle with all my gremlins, demons, and scarcity-mongers of 2017. The thing is, I’m pretty vigilant with all of this. I’m facing the North Star. I take care of my emotional well-being and I am lifted up by so much honest and genuine love.
But I also knew that with the stretch of time uninterrupted by choral camps, school preparation, and assessments, I had an extraordinary opportunity to sink into some of the processing and reflection that needed to happen to fully experience and understand the events of the past year. The interactions, the intensity of work, and every single time that I’ve asked for more from myself. Time may have soothed them, or life has simply gotten interesting and active, and taken my mind off them, and I think I am okay. Letting each story rise up and present itself…excruciating and exquisite. Effing-hell. I felt like I was on a roller-coaster ride some days.
The intensity of some of the questions I had to look at made me reverberate all over, and there were some days where all I could do was breathe through the anger and pain. Waves of anxiety and questioning coursed through me in a way that I’d never experienced all year, and for many years, in fact. Opening up that deep well and looking in is not kiddie-work. It’s hard-won badassery. It’s exhausting.
And when you crossover and navigate through, which you somehow always do, there is sort of a simple, deep peace. You feel like you have run a marathon over 3 hours without lifting a finger, and then the next thing that you do, the next conversation you have, is imbued with such laughingly deep joy that it seems ridiculous. I guess that is the extremes of joy and grief.
I can also see that it is impossible to do this sort of reflection during a school term; there is no way that you can process so many thoughts and events without it burning a hole in your energy levels, not to mention the concentration and love required, to keep up with the daily demands of teaching.
But this time, this blessed time. I’ve HATED some days of it, not gonna lie! But this oasis of time I have received, where I’ve read + soothed, talked and reflected, loved and embedded myself in, cleaned and cooked, and then read some more…thank you.
When you going into “warrior-training” and actually open the floodgates into all the things that you haven’t given time, something really curious happens. You start waking up buffeted, tossed, and turned by thoughts, ideas, errant emotions, extreme highs and lows, and scraps of memories.
Everything is so utterly present that it’s disorientating. I am so glad for time to fully experience and feel all these emotions, because I am all-too-good at hopping onto the “routine bandwagon”, being industrious and not having a good look, because it’s all too messy. I like tidy. Like, bento-box + OfficeWorks tidy.
But seeing as my “thing” has been leaning into whatever scares me, or makes me nervous, or I think will take up more time than I am willing to part with, then I’ve been seeing a hell of a lot of stuff up close that I have smoothed over all year. It was a good year, but a very safe year last year. I’d like a different point of view, just to see if it will give me a different result.
Refreshing, but slightly crazy-making.
So here’s my thought for today while navigating all this chaos:
I have a heart. I have a mind. Both of which I am allowed to use fully.
This is extraordinary.
I am alive, and I get to affect the course of my day, the next minute, the next hour, the air around me.
The capacity and agency to think my own thoughts, wonder what I will do today, how I will affect the space, people, and world around me.
What worth, magic, mo-jo, spark, new viewpoints, positivity, serenity, insights will I dare to bring to the table?
Isn’t that extraordinary enough?
What do I know to be true? Morning scribblings and conversations, in the middle of the holidays, on a still morning with a plunger of coffee. Total, unexpected oasis.
That you cannot shame anyone into changing their behaviour or actions. For there to be lasting change, people have to want it deeply. I read it from Brené Brown, and fought it all through my university years. What I would say to that 17-year-old hopeful, heartful, impressionable, intensely dedicated girl if I could have my time over, I now say to all my students with a great deal of warmth and humour: “You all have excellent crap detectors on your head. Use them. Trust you teachers and mentors, but above all, trust yourself. When the intent is right, you will know that you are entirely safe, in well-being, mind, and heart. And that is the only way to learn.”
You cannot protect and cocoon yourself up forever. Sometimes, you don’t even know that you are doing it. You’ll be happy enough, but is that really what you want? Life is always going to have ebbs and flows, moments of grace and moments of intensity. You have everything you need to ride those waves. For God’s sake, do something and have something to say. Thoughtful, considered, and entirely yours. You need to lean into life in order to really engage and live.
You will absolutely NOT be happier when things are “done”. Sometimes in the haste to wrap up and finish, and get to the happy pontoon at the end, you miss the amazing moments of industry. The really interesting bits that frustrate and challenge you. Again, it’s not going to be comfortable. It’s going to be downright annoying sometimes. But you are absolutely alive. You’re not when you’re safely passed out on a couch, in relative terms.
Push yourself to be industrious, but also to be human. Believe it or not, you will be most happiest when you are filled with purpose, when there are things to do. Complain or joyfully proclaim to the world how busy you are, it’s never going to be a perfect balance. But you will feel the muscles of agency building, and the inevitable and wonderful hum that comes from creating and being.
You’re here to live, not to be static or just appear. Ask questions, be all-in, find things out, push up against boundaries, reset them, carve out time, then swim into each minute. Be unique, be controversial, be gracious, be generous. But above all, BE.
Find your moral compass. My God, you’ll need this. Being deeply committed and indebted to yourself is a daily, and sometimes hourly, struggle. Hold yourself accountable, even if the rest of the world gives you a free pass. Don’t for yourself, if it doesn’t line up with your values.
Stand your own sacred ground. Whatever you are doing, whether you are in battle, in struggle, in glory, in joy, in grace, in pain, in love, in play, in life. You matter, my darling, so much. For me, most days are joyful, industrious, or rewarding. I like the ordinary, it makes the little special moments explode with the spark of “extraordinary”. But on the days that I’m unsettled, I’m going to lean in. That’s some serious arse-kicking courage right there for an introvert who would love nothing better than just to cocoon up. Take down one puzzle piece, and begin, and you take down fear breath by breath.
I feel like I am on some sort of holiday course for “emotional warrior” training right now. Every question that I have not asked, have put on hold, or not faced properly because there wasn’t the time or space is coming up right now. In WAVES. Which is good, because I have the time to think about all of the yammering, noisy questions jostling for my attention because I’m not consumed by teaching, but it’s also bloody exhausting!
So here’s my thought for today:
Whatever is scary, new, interesting, or different, walk TOWARDS it. Take a step in the direction which scares you, and is counterintuitive. Have the conversation with yourself, step-by-step, and talk yourself through the steps. You are NOT too big and mighty for that, in fact, in your clarity and gentleness is real courage. Speak your fears and frame the words into new understandings. All the times you were too tired, too busy, too distracted, too important? Maybe there was a whiff of truth in all of that but in the end, were you being really truthful? Or was it fear that is showing its face again, and dictating how you reacted to life around you? Break through the waves of scarcity. Things will get busy, manic even, but you too will survive. You will figure it out, if not now, then soon, because I have faith in your abilities. Walking purposely and thoughtfully, having a rhyme and reason, is a unique sort of peace. Having clarity is one of the greatest untold joys of life.