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When I was 21, I thought I could make anyone smile. Anyone who was withdrawn, quiet, tired, stressed, angry, annoyed, having an off day, I would make it my personal mission to connect with them and see if I could break their mood, or get a smile from them. I thought it was my business to talk to anyone.
How UTTERLY AUDACIOUS and SIMPLISTIC of me.
And yet, I have been thinking about it a lot this week, and longing for that simplistic, authentic audacity.
Because I realised that I have become safe.
Imperceptibly, and ever-so-surreptitiously, I have become more reasonable, more mature, bounded by rules and frameworks, cautious, and, let’s face it, less happy to give up my energy and time for a possible metaphorical slap in the face if an interaction goes badly. While outwardly I am energised and positive, I have very gradually become safe. I’m on the conveyor belt, and I didn’t even realise it.
Why am I thinking about this?
It’s been an exhausting and challenging few weeks at school, where students are starting to get tired and edgy. Behaviour problems are starting to fully show themselves, assessments are due, encouragement and full support are required where my reservoirs are running low, and I am trying to fit more and more in. And while I get everything competently done, I thought about what total a whack-job I was in my early 20s as a teacher, where a behaviour management or teaching issues were just situations requiring a creative solution. I all but rubbed my hands in glee, ready to embark on a round of solution-mongering.
I was so damn creative, audacious, and fearless.
Why? Because I had no track record. I had absolutely nothing to lose, no history of success or failure, no existing street-cred, and I had classes to teach. And my God, I found ways to connect with those students + staff out of sheer desperation + innovation, keeping up by the day, and sometimes by the minute. And because I had zero behaviour management skills, I behaviour managed like Martina Hingis played tennis: SMART.
I am a featherweight, literally. I am just under 5-foot and about 45-50 kgs, depending upon how may Tim Tams I eat. My voice back then did not carry a metre, let alone a rehearsal room with 70 over-excited students. In my formative teaching days, I had no “older-male-student” presence whatsoever when I behaviour managed; some of those 6-foot-plus boys could have sneezed and I would’ve been annihilated. I had zero ability + knowledge in navigating bitchiness, drugs, alcohol, underhand remarks, social media bullying, in short, no street-cred whatsoever.
And I had classes to teach, and curriculum to get through, and boundaries to set.
So I built connection. I had the audacity to think that if I could make every interaction with each student + staff member as real, authentic, joyful, and positive as possible, I would at least have money in the bank.
It became a game to me; I wonder how I can make that staff member smile? How could I POSSIBLY start a conversation with a kid who has zero interests which overlap with mine? How can I deliver soul-sucking information to students about their grades, their actions, or their poor behaviour in a way that values them?
I spent hours driving home thinking through words and conversations, learning the power of changing one word, or how I chose to deliver something, what order I would say things, where I would say a kid’s name to show value + care, and how I chose to build hope and worthiness where there was such decimation in their self-esteems without taking away from poor work + behaviour.
That was then, when I was “young and scrappy”, and full of energy and front.
Now, I have things in place. I am mid-career, and I have frameworks down, confidence in my abilities, and structures and staff who will support me.
And I realised this week, whilst trudging through a challenging, emotionally draining week, that I have recently forgotten to be audacious. I have been taking the slightly safer option, the path of least resistance. I haven’t started the random conversations, I haven’t given the extra compliment to the kid who is trouble, I have allowed systems to work their systematic magic, and in truth, I have been sapped of energy. I haven’t got what it takes to be full of audacity, engaging with conversations that half the time might elicit a weird or slightly off-centre reaction. I have no time for the quirky, no energy for the playful just to be playful.
And that what I LIVED for in my beginning years.
But, my God, I should. I should, because that is the connection that is missing.
Because some of that unreasonable audacity is what will shake me out of my routine, and back into the fresh and unpredictable present that is teaching, and life.
What if I said hello the the person who perpetually was withdrawn in the morning and made it a challenge to see if I could learn something new about them? Do I need to be mesmerised + completely interested? Well, highly likely I won’t be to that extent. But I can still make a connection. I am not learning anything or connecting with anyone if I have walked past this person for half a year and know nothing about them and continue talking to the same people. How both big-headed and fearful am I that I think someone else is not worth my time, or that my time is THAT limited. There are people in much more demanding jobs and lives who find time. So can I.
What if I did those things for my students + classes which elicit the raised eyebrows, embarrassed yet half-game laughs, and shook them up a little? I’ve been comfortable, with my ensembles, with my thinking, with my support, with my teaching. I wonder what it would be like to do something which is just slightly outside of my current comfort zone, knowing that it will cost me a more courage, time, and energy?
What if I sat still enough that I could find the words to speak to the kid who is being a little shit, and continues to be a little shit in my classes because they are so broken by life? Rather than just letting the behaviour system do its thing, how could I change the script so that the consequences happen, but my WORD resonate with value and worthiness? My instinct right now? I want to kick a few of the kids I teach. That’s how much they are pissing me off. But I wonder, audaciously, how willing I am to think about this creatively. I’m not pinning myself as the next teaching Messiah, God no. I will still want to slap several kids for being completely remorseless, unaffected, Teflon-coated turds, even if my conversations and words are well-received. But let’s play this creativity game a little.
How can I do things differently when I am uncomfortable?
How can I connect with kids who don’t want to be connected with, who refuse everything, and who are going through the motions of a behaviour management plan already? What can I say or do that will actually carry momentum and resonate?
Why the hell would I want to do this?
Because my greatest joys in life have come from the accidental, audacious interactions. When I was 21, I thought I could talk to anyone and affect change. I thought that all my words carried some life and momentum, and I naively and audaciously believed that my setting out to make peoples days a little brighter served a higher purpose.
And the reflection back was threefold; when a risk paid off, I was catapulted out of my comfort zone into new connections, understandings, unexpected moments of joy, learning, and hope. I learned so much from being so naively confident and interested. I was absolutely engrossed in life.
And I would hate to look back and realise that I had become reasonable and normal, colouring within the lines like a good little girl, when I had the imagination, capacity, and ability to be creative, human, and audaciously unreasonable.
There is no perfect time; to create, to live, to love, to apologise, to connect, to forgive. You make the time.
Get disciplined + determined, and catch those moments of productivity, or find a way to make them happen. The difference between creating something, or nothing, is as tiny as a breath of forward momentum, five words of connection, half a page of writing, eleven minutes of day-dreaming, or one look that creates a thread of connection which allows love to spark, forgiveness to flow, or ideas to blossom.
Embrace the stomach-flip, the discomfort, and the rigour. Take measured leaps of faith the way you would cold showers; grit your teeth and just do it. Take joy in the clarity and rigour of walking a path which leads somewhere. If you are weary, afraid, fragile, or alone, don’t hurry, be tender with yourself, and ask for support.
But don’t stop.
From moving forward, persistently, dedicatedly, and with hope + courage, you will create something worthy and valuable.
There is no perfect time, only your perfect will to engage with life and leap.
Grandmamma turns 98 today!
Blowing out the candle + clapping herself.
A month ago, we couldn’t have even imagined this day, as she was being operated on for a broken femur. There has been no pom-pom waving, no positive talk, no rah-rah, but somehow her body is healing almost as fast as her spirit is determined to have one day more, and one day more after that.
She is extraordinary. I have learned more from her just being than anyone teaching me about courage could put into words.
Against my will, I am utterly deflated by the email response of a parent to a kid who desperately needs to find solid ground + clear, loving boundaries.
It is extraordinary the scope of responses from one extreme to the other to the same issue, and therefore what a kid gets modelled to them as appropriate, which in turn influences how they respond to the world around them.
Oh, the TRYING that has gone into this kid! I wish this family knew how much we wanted to love and support their kids. For all their kids to actually CRACK A SMILE. Wow, that would be healthy.
Anyways, this is not about the family or the kid.
I wrote that I am deflated “against my will”. I thought I was ready. I thought I’d considered the responses. Was not ready to be utterly disappointed + flattened. And it was a SLOW creep of disappointment after the initial impact.
And while I’m certain I’ve got it right for the well-being of the kid and this will fade + heal, I’m totally fine with being deflated right now.
This guy. WHAT A CHAMP.
Apart from being a total HERO and making me laugh out loud into my coffee, he made me wonder if I’d have the courage to stand up (or not!) and fully embrace myself if I could not talk or stand. Would I have the grace, and the shit-load of humour and wit, to do what he is doing?
What a serious example of courage.
But he’s also just DAMN FUNNY.
It’s funny how life reminds you, in no uncertain terms, how very human you are.
There are so many days I can happily work in solitude, “introverting” to my heart’s content, creating ideas, composing, writing, reading.
And then there are other days where I am crawling out of my skin with anxious, dissatisfied angst, and multi-tasking seems like the simple option, because that’s how many tabs are open in my mind. And I desperately need human connection.
I actually don’t remember a day where I’ve absolutely slept the day away, EVER. Except today. Today felt like the longest day ever. I went in for my annual check-up today and fainted after my blood test and felt so absolutely stupid and alone. What it made me think about in no uncertain terms was the love and support around me that I don’t lean on enough. I have so much support and love around me and do I use it? NO. Nowhere NEAR what I realise I could be, after a day like today.
I can’t be EVERYTHING. Even after a day like today, where I am decimated by my own body, I come home in the afternoon and start making lists of all the things I need to do, the groceries I need to buy, the emergency meals I need to make, and the planning I need to do.
And yet, when I got over the fact that I certainly wouldn’t be doing any of that, one of the most soul-nourishing things I did today was sleep, on and off, for the remaining 6 hours of the day. My body renewed its strength, and I felt better and stronger.
I do not think I am Super Girl, and nor am I vain enough to think I can do it all on my own. But really, honestly, except for moments like today, I don’t really believe it or practice the humility of that understanding.
But I am vulnerable, and it’s moments like today which are needed to absolutely drive the point home. I am made simple, small and humbled by my body and the end point of my capacity. Apparently, I do need help, and when I least expect it. I need to remember to be tender and reach out, DESPITE all the imperfect answers and responses of the world and the people around me, including the ones I love so dearly who disappoint me, as I must them. To connect, despite the let downs and imperfections.
I need to get COMFORTABLE with DISCOMFORT.
Today also reminded me of how strong the human mind is. It reminded me to ask, “so what CAN I do?”
Rather than what’s NOT possible, what can I do right now, with the energy that I have? What can I create or produce? Where is my limit? What can I write in half and hour? How can I connect?
This is not the “create-the-list-of-an-impossible-day” martyrdom, this is “realistic courage”.
And I am reminded, as a person, teacher, musician, and creative, that life NEVER EVER gives you vast stretches of time in which to complete or create ANYTHING. Become a parent? You’re parenting in the gaps and pining for the longer stretches and glad when you get them. Composing? Sure, you might get the coveted Sunday afternoon, but sure as hell Inspiration will be playing hooky and giving you the shits. You have to catch the tiny pockets of time with a little bit of determination. You have to fight a little harder and decide you’d like to focus and grab that little gift of time and ask:
What can I do in this moment?
I had to remind myself to struggle, and struggle hard today.
Isn’t it amazing that when adversity hits you, it hits you and winds you. It’s often sudden, complete, and catches you breathless. Your self-talk becomes focused, petty, and acidic. You get tunnel-vision. There is heat all around you, and blood pounding in your ears.
I read an errant Facebook post today which cut me to the core, and I was caught off-balance. NOTHING about the rest of my day had changed except for that one sentence, accompanied by that one photo. But it shook me, and I realised it was my values and my sense of self-worth being shaken.
And I had to remind myself to struggle. Struggle, and struggle hard. You’re underwater now, but you’ll fight your way to the surface, break through, and breathe. You don’t quite know how you’ll get there, but air will fill your lungs again. And it will feel empowering and awesome. Your wings will work, and you will fly. Your day was fine before your read those words, and saw that picture. You will find your equilibrium again.
More importantly, YOU ARE NOT PERFECT.
That seems so utterly counter-intuitive to write, but reminding myself that I am NOT perfect gives me permission to have emotional “wiggle-room”. I need reminding that I am indeed human, and I cannot be everything to everyone, or myself. I will NOT have it perfect, and I will NOT be perfect.
And after I flail heatedly and argue with myself internally, and the red-hot spark of anger has died away, I find myself on steadier ground. I realise and remember all the things that make me real and complete. I remember how much I add to the world, and how WORHTY I am.
I remember that I am a living, breathing, blessed, creative, thinking, real, loving, and present.
I am here, and I stand my own ground, worthy and beautiful. Not because of what I have, but just because I BREATHE, I LIVE, and I am a HUMAN-BEING.
Struggle is RIGHT. Without struggle, emotional or otherwise, my wings become weak, I forget how to scramble and fight, my heart would forget how to work. And I would never know gratitude. The love and joy of life that sets me alight.
Oh, let me cry hot tears of frustration! That my heart beats and works!
For it is in struggle that I remember all the things that are real and true to me, and how very lucky I am to have all that I have.
Imperfect set of experiences and tools that they are, they are mine, and they are perfectly beautiful. So shining with worth and merit, they are blinding.
And so am I.
Oh, this KID! That’s some FIERCE determination right there.
“I’d rather eat this damn onion than admit that I am wrong!”
Don’t we all get like that sometimes?!
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.