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I always do a blessing on my house each morning. Being a first generation Chinese-Vietnamese Australian, there are things you do partly out of love, partly out of tradition, and partly out of warding off the first-generation karma.
Lately, I have asked for courage. Sometimes, it’s a conscious request with a specific scenario in mind. Like, “Please grant me the courage to have that god-awful and awkward conversation I’ve got to have with one of my students who’s failing. Help me speak with compassion and directness, help me hit the right mark, help me go there and hold space for the discomfort.”
Other days, it’s just what pops up into my heard + heart, unbidden, “One order of courage today, please!”
In asking for courage, here is what I have received in my last term of teaching:
I asked for courage, in order that I might have the self-compassion and patience to be out of action for 7 days to soothe my spirit and recover from the sickness of intensive travel with the ANZAC Music Tour. The tenderness with which I have to speak to myself, that I might understand and fully embrace the fact that I am not super-human, that I must rest, and that the exhaustive pull of this sickness will pass, and I will recover, and my spirit will rise up again.
I asked for courage, that I might catch the newly-awakened love of leadership that came from leading the tour. You always get what you absolutely don’t want, and I cannot tell you how MUCH I DID NOT WANT to lead this tour. I didn’t know the crevices of it, I hadn’t planned it, my heart wasn’t embedded in it. And yet, I found myself holding the reins, in charge of the emotional, musical, and physical safety and joy of the students under my direction. I got on that plane, leaned in, and led like a MF. All the while, knowing that I would have been just as happy with a holidays curled up reading, or cooking, or fresh-faced from a morning run along Henley Beach, and I was on the other side of the world, discovering, experiencing, leading, learning, feeling; wholehearted, courageous, and completely present. I gave my heart to that tour, those kids, and my supporting staff. The fire in the belly has been awakened, and I find that I like being in the driver’s seat. That I like considering the dynamics and well-being of a team, and that I like pin-pointing potential and helping others to grow.
I asked for courage, that I might take a bigger, more audacious bite of life. I am always on the conservative side of the average. But lately, by design or by default, I have found myself pushing limits. Reaching in, asking for more clarification, talking, engaging in discussion, and leaning hard into discomfort. So much so that I come home completely wrecked and exhausted, sometimes wondering if I’ve done right by everyone – and knowing, instinctively, that I have.
I asked for courage, that I might let go more easily, learn how to forgive more completely and honestly, learn the process of forgiveness more intimately, that I might take bigger, more audacious bites of life. The more that I protect myself and tell myself and the world that everything is okay, the more that I don’t embrace the gritty reality of forgiveness. Forgiveness is what allows each of us to fully embrace life, and allow us that “lean-hard” into joy. Because unfortunately, there cannot be a filter for embracing life completely; if you want the joys, you need to run headlong into the shitty moments. Forgiveness is the navigation tool of the bold and brave-hearted.
I asked for courage, that I might love more fully. Loving is such a unfurling, tender, human act.
I asked for courage, that I might not embrace fears before they actually become fears. I see the audaciousness of those much older, much less educated, much more courageous that I am, and I see that they are living life with balls-out, audacious, vibrant wholeheartedness. And I cry, because I realise how many times I have played small from fear. I have the complete Derwent set of pencils in language, emotion, connection, life, stability, family, love, friendship, finance; the ONLY thing stopping me is fear. And perhaps a well-made flat white. I have everything I need to live life audaciously + fiercely.
I asked for courage, that I might learn how to navigate the unforgivable. When fear or circumstance make people act in ways that are less-than, when there is no rhyme or reason to a decision, an act, or a situation. I am afraid of becoming closed-off and bitter when I have to navigate these situations. Conversely, I don’t want to treat them superficially. So therefore, I ask for courage that I might engage with every part of life, even the situations which challenge me deeply and I do not easily understand, those which are seemingly unforgivable, incomprehensible, and driven by fear. I ask that I do not respond in fear, but I respond with courage and compassion, that I might retain and even build my understanding of myself, the world around me, and my understanding of humanity, and continue to live fully. One of my greatest fears is becoming bitter and not knowing myself.
I asked for courage, that I might be perceptive. That just because someone is embedded in a place of leadership or power, that does not make them a person of integrity and worth, and those qualities need to be demonstrated and trust earned over time. I ask that I learn to see things authentically, that I process things thoroughly, and that I anger + react slowly.
I asked for courage, that I might have the courage to be different. Lately, assimilating has been strangely seductive for me. Perhaps it’s been a long term, perhaps I feel like I am up against it, but I ask for courage that I continue to think differently to others, see my different points of view, and bring fresh new insights to the table, even if they seem – different. I am put here to be creative and compassionate, playful and insightful, and no one else will see from my point of view. And just because a decision is not made in my favour, doesn’t mean my viewpoint isn’t valid. The validity is not the question. It’s whether I have the courage to embrace seeing things from my point of view, and whether or not they make sense and are done from a place of generosity and egoless-ness.
I asked for courage, that I might live. When it gets too tiring or overwhelming, I want to fucking dance.
In asking for courage, I got a shitload of challenge, problem-solving, closed doors, fear and unfairness.
I’d say The Universe delivered very nicely, don’t you think?
I got comprehensively “couraged”, and I walk with battle scars, head-up, and a whole new sass.
It happened before I even knew it. I was in the middle of it all before I realised I had slipped into the cocoon of “safe and ordinary”. There’s nothing wrong with taking time out, or being in second-gear for a little while. But when I held up the way I was interacting with my beautiful students this week, the way I let small things get under my skin, and the way I was taking my choral rehearsals against my 25-year-old self, I realised I had allowed myself to cross the boundary of “commanding and mature” to “safe and ordinary”.
Call it what you will, I was not pushing boundaries because inch by inch, I had gone into energy conservation mode. This has worked for a while, so let’s keep doing it. The kids won’t respond to that. There will be discomfort, noise, and chaos, so let’s stick with the familiar. And worse still, That formula works, they can’t possibly do more than that right now.
I used to be unashamed in my haphazard ways of pushing up against boundaries. I did it just by existing. When I was making my way as a new teacher and choral director, I would throw ideas around like beads, with the wayward and infinitely optimistic view that some of them would land on the bullseye. It wasn’t that I was fearless, it was that I was so utterly unaware of what conventions were that I had to build them every day. There was no “way that it was done”. There was only “here and now, let’s find a solution!”
And yes, it cost me energy, pride, ego, time, and caused regular discomfort to my choirs, my classes, my colleagues and my students. But I just took it as the norm. I didn’t set out to be a hell-raiser, I was just in a glorious journey of joyful, addictive discovery and creativity.
And I look back and marvel at how brave I was.
Let me look back and take a moment to imbue my current, confident, joyful self with some of that haphazard fearlessness. Rock the boat. Walk the unseen path. Let’s get curious and daringly uncomfortable because there is so much to discover. Don’t choose “safe” just because it’s easy; choose with clarity and consciousness as to what the situation needs.
I am in Sydney for Gondwana Voices National Choral School and with a few days of joyous wanderings to myself, I am in total heaven.
The nostalgia hits hard, making my heart somersault at the most unexpected moments; the dirt and heat of the trains, the impossible hustle of Town Hall Station, the buzz of tourists and sunny ease of Circular Quay, when all you want to do is get from Point A to B, the cocoon which comes from a coffee in a quiet alcove in Glebe, the eclectic assault of Newtown, and the hipster, “single-origin-coffee-smashed-avo” vibe spilling out unapologetically from tiny nooks and crevices of mis-matched, town-housey cafes onto the pavements of Surry Hills.
I am pulled and pushed right back to 2014, to all the struggle, new connections and learning in a year of leaping into the unknown in a manner unprecedented for me, someone who finds pure joy in the ordinary.
Every smell and sound is a reminder and overwhelmingly, I am most reminded of how lucky I am to have taken this opportunity, and how slight a change in mindset can change the momentum around you forever. The thing is this; 5 years ago, despite all, my spirt was unfathomably naive, strong, and buoyant.
Here I am, wandering Sydney as a tourist, and I realise how easy it is to just exist in this exciting yet unforgiving city, where just the commute home can exhaust you, and daily interactions ask more of you than you expect because of the emotional cost of living.
Your brain goes into overdrive for day to day work + survival, and I wonder how young students with not a lot of money figure out how they will make their way when there are hundreds of others, equally as hungry to find their path, doing exactly the same, and doing all the right things.
And yet, some determinedly optimistic part of me thinks that it is still as simplistic as how hard you want to work, how you see things, and how you choose to interact with the world. Sitting on a train going to and from work, you could easily pass 10 years just existing. Just making enough of a living to survive with some semblance of happiness and comfort. But then, sitting with a coffee, dreaming possibilities, or looking out over the harbour on a humid summer morning, and you can wonder what you might do differently. What can you choose for yourself that is a step above just living from one day to the next?
I have everything I need to make whatever leaps of faith I want right now; time, energy, support, love, good health, a wonderful network of friends + family, a beautiful home, food, financial security, and a rewarding place of work. I can literally choose whatever door I’d like; I can take whichever version of sliding doors I dare to reach out for and walk through or pass.
Part of me thinks I was so much braver and grittier in my year in Sydney than I am now, despite being much more sure and confident professionally and personally here and now, five years later. I marvel at how intrinsically the same, yet different, that I am now and how I will awaken the parts of me that have been lying dormant due to a secure way of living.
I was always the girl standing on the edge of the bridge, throwing metaphorical streamers into the wind when I had nothing else to give, and coming into work each day on four or five hours of sleep, and being joyous and playful when that was all I had to offer. To be sure, I worked my arse off. I learned and studied the curriculum I was responsible to teach, I prepped my lessons over and over, I worked at my composition like some sort of obsessive creative habit.
My creative work was as determined as it was impossible, and I never questioned it. I wrote five choral commissions and fulfilled a Composer-in-Residence position that year with limited access to a piano, limited energy and time, and with 3 months of travel and very little money to spare. My God, I was a daring and audacious little biatch! I make myself laugh even now as I reflect, how the hell did I think I had what it would take in time and personal resources to make that year happen when I was so stretched and depleted?
But I did it. Snippets of writing and composing in tiny moments of the day, by the window in the corner of the Conservatorium High School staffroom while everyone else was at lunch, snatches of time in every coffee shop in Surry Hills and Paddington, and sometimes even with a delicious and savoured brunch on the weekends when I could afford it. Something I can afford without thinking now, and that very fact makes me so tender for the me from five years ago. Stolen weekends in practise rooms at the Sydney Conservatorium, where I asked for time on Saturday and Sunday mornings when no other university students were practising, and I would finally be able to hear what I was creating.
Damn, I was courageous.
And in these few delicious days of wanderings, mostly down memory lane with renewed wonder, I am reminded of how to be courageous now that I have everything I need to do so.
I have the most amazing kiddie in one of my Year 7 Music classes. Unruly hair, arms flying, brain the same, he is the epitome of a teenage boy. But he absolutely loves to learn and is totally, blissfully unaware of his hunger for knowledge, asks questions like he breathes, and is universally loved by all, even the grudging admirers. He is the kid that achieves a merit or top of the class without even realising that it’s a thing.
“Oh, I did THAT?!” Pause. “Oh, that’s kind of cool, isn’t it?” Pause. “I’m so hungry! Can we go now?!”
That’s his brain trajectory. He is defined by nothing, except that exact moment in time.
The thing about this kid is that he is so absolutely HIMSELF and AUTHENTIC that there is simply no room to BE anything else. He loves learning, so he does it. He has an idea, so he shares it. He is utterly, completely imperfect and downright annoying sometimes. His current project with me is realising he’s one of MANY in my class, and realising that he’s got limited one-on-one time with me. But his awareness is simply astounding as well; this is how one of our recent conversations went:
Me: “Sir Year 7! S E R I OU S L Y! You are one of MANY! Are you this noisy at home?! What happens when you need to share the air time?”
Sir Year 7: “I’m so sorry Ms Kwok. I honestly forget. See, there’s only one of me at home, so I suppose being in a class is something I need to learn. I’ll let Mum + Dad know that I need to practise it. I just get so excited by what we’re doing.”
OH MY GOODNESS, WHAT YEAR 7 SAYS THAT?!
So in our final week of school, we had International Languages + Cultures Day, where we had a casual day on the last day of school where we were encouraged to wear our national cultural dress. This kid is Greek, and his full cultural dress is ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL. The white flowing robes, the tasselled shoes, the hat, all FAB-U-LOUS. He proudly showed me a picture of what he was planning on wearing on the final day, and I told him how MUCH I was looking forward to seeing him in his national dress.
And then he said: “Ms Kwok, I’m a little nervous about it. I mean, I’m so proud of my heritage, but our national dress is over-the-top. We Greeks don’t do anything by halves. My parents are totally up for me wearing my gear on Friday, but even though I’m proud, I’m nervous about what the rest of my class + the rest of the school might think. I might get laughed at. I’m prepared for that, but I’m also sort of not looking forward to it as well.”
Me, internally: Kid, you are amazing. No one would DARE laugh at you because you would just totally OWN IT. You could wear a potato sack and people would think that you were just rocking your heritage. You have this authenticity and realness, this humanness, imperfectness, and silliness, that makes you undeniably YOU. You NEED to do this to help give permission to other kids to be them as well.
But my favourite bit? That he was poignantly, sensitively nervous about it. He was SENSIBLE to the world around him, and AWARE of the challenges, even though he was so committed to being totally himself.
Me, in words: “You will totally rock it. It might feel weird and nerve-wracking to do it, but you should be proud of our heritage. You’re going to give many other kids permission to be themselves as well, through you being a little bit courageous.”
Sir Year 7: “A bit like you do each day, hey Ms Kwok? We always look forward to you rocking the colours.”
OH. MY. GOODNESS.
And I realised something amazing: We each of us are looking for the “similar” around us, even if we think we’re not. We can’t help it if we have any measure of humanity and vulnerability. We are looking for other people who look exactly like us in the frontline. Those who are being the forerunners, so that we have permission to be the forerunners behind them. Isn’t it amazing that we are constantly look for the like, even though we think we are committed to being brave?
And I realised also how much my students notice about the playful example I am setting with my colourful outfits each day. It gives them permission to also rock their individuality.
The most poignant realisation? Sir Year 7 had just put into words what I instinctively think on a daily basis. Sure, I can step into the arena and be different. I THINK I’m good with that. But REALLY truly, I am looking out of my peripheral vision for another “like”, someone who is just like me.
Yet if I flipped that, what if who I was and the example I was setting became one BIG-GIANT-FLASHING-NEON-LIVE-WALKING-PERMISSION-SLIP for others to do the same? How much JOY do I get from those like Sir Year 7 who are so honestly themselves, yet so humbly nervous about sharing themselves, that I just WANT them to ROCK their personalities?
You can’t be in the frontline looking sideways.
You need to be in the frontline looking forward. Front and centre. Because you might be someone else’s permission slip on life while you are walking around being a little bit nervous, but a whole lot more courageous.
I was an effing badass nomad.
I’m impressed and in awe of my intrepid self!