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When you are depleted, I think you need to work even harder, harder than you ever have, to keep the pulse of your heart alive. It’s so contradictory, but so truthful and essential. I cannot believe how many times I fight this and then arrive at the same realisation. There’s the recipe for a good life, ladies and gentlemen; to do this over and over against rhyme and reason, just for the sake of you.
Hang tight, my darling girl, because awful, unfair, unrealistic things will happen and you need to figure out a way to get out from underneath them. Look around! There are examples of grace and courage happening every day, from every person who ever lived authentically. Nobody lives a charmed life if they are living fully.
To really LIVE; it means making peace and creating reason from the tumultuous and unreasonable. When you have nothing, give. I know it sounds incredible, but that is what will awaken humanity and connection. Give a smile, a word, a cry, an explanation, a hug, something. Please, my darling girl, don’t close yourself off because it’s a little safer, the cost is too great. By all means, go in there and say your piece. Fly your freak flag. Show your passion and emotion. Fight hard and argue even harder. Rock that boat and make waves. But come back in, connect, love more, MORE than you thought possible. Not in sacrifice, but holding yourself sacred and coming back with tender vulnerability, open to hearing what the world has to say.
And my girl, please, pry open every door or window you close yourself or that gets closed on you. Move every stone in your pathway. Like a swimmer breaking through the surface of the water, gasping with pure will to live, you must fight to keep your heart open as if it were breathing.
Why? For YOU, my darling girl.
For you and those that matter to you. If it happens to line up with those who hurt you, or those you disagree with, then…WHATEVER.
You’re tracking this scene. You’re writing this script. The only goal is to keep that pulse of life, love, hope and connection flowing through your heart, and that cannot be done when you’re wondering where your ego is.
You breathe in that good shit for YOU and ONLY YOU.
It’s easy to live safely. The recipe is simple: Put your heart someplace safe. Protect it from harm. Hold it, swaddle it, put it gently into a cocoon with multiple layers of padding + intensive wrapping.
But if you want anything from life, you must be stretched.
And if you want any part of connection, you must set your heart free.
If you want to connect, you must figure out a way to forgive.
Imperfectly, messily. With a hunger for life and reaching out again for the next, “What’s next?”
It’s a funny, tender tightrope, this whole “being human” thing. A heart is also a curious entity, designed to be so utterly tender, yet courageous and able to stretch with the happenings of life. Strong, yet surprisingly supple. Sensitive. Yet limitless in its ability to accommodate the stretching of life, of grief, of ache, of disarray.
Let it, oh! Let it, please.
Otherwise, the edges will curl and go brittle.
You won’t know what it’s like to take too many breaths before going underwater, or. be wondering if the pulse in your ears is from fear, or being so alive you feel electric.
Stretch with all the joy and grief that life offers, and every colour in between.
You are supposed to be a little un-nerved, a little too alive, a little off-centre, and a little buzzing from the business of living.
Forgive. You need this to connect, to love, and to live.
One of the greatest moments of humility and grace is realising when you are not the perfect fit for a student.
As I continue grow into myself and my teaching, I see more examples of this within the classes I teach. The students that are angular and pokey around me, that value and respect my teaching, and me as a person, but I will never be their best champion, or their perfect mentor.
The younger version of me would have worked with pig-headed determination to flex and contort myself into the perfect fit. What did I need to be? Harder, warmer, softer? More dictatorial? Colder? I tried to bend in ways that I never should have. And in doing so, was being dishonest to myself and doing my students a disservice.
Now, in simple grace and confidence, I can identify students for whom I’m not a perfect fit, and I can joyfully and wholeheartedly direct them to other staff members and mentors who might inspire them more fully than I am able. I encourage them to listen and look closely around them for kindred spirits, people who are older and wiser than them who have the unique combination of experiences and talents which resonate with them.
I ask them to be open and engaged with me, and that I will always love and teach them with my greatest self, and to the best of my ability. But in my heart of hearts, I say silently to them:
I am not so vain as to think I can be everything to everyone. I am not the perfect fit for you. I will teach you, care for you, encourage you, guide you, and support you, but you need to find that adult or mentor who IS someone you completely aspire to be like, even in part, and connect with them. You need to have a champion, and a North Star, and it’s not me.
So, look hard, and look well. Find someone who resonates with you, who makes your spirit catch alight, and learn.
This is such a gift of courage, humility, grace, and love.
To know that I have the courage and grace to set certain students free, so that I can love them more.
I have recently returned from our Year 12 Retreat; two days of connective activities, reflection, team-building, and most importantly, time away from the intensity of study for our Year 12s. And for some, believe me, even two days felt like an eternity away from their books!
On our first night on retreat, we had a candle-lighting ceremony. The purpose of the ceremony was to offer a candle to anyone in the Year 12 cohort, staff and students included, as a message of hope, love, apology, forgiveness, or any other unspoken message that needed to be given silent voice. And that was exactly the challenge of the ceremony; that there be no words spoken. That whoever you were giving your candle to, or receiving your candle from, could trust that you knew what the message was. It was safe, poignant, and incredibly powerful.
I remember sitting in the beautiful, wide glass-walled chapel at Nunyara in Belair and taking in the beauty of all the lit candles flickering against the evening darkness. I could see the Adelaide lights in the background, and the sounds of magpies singing their final songs. The chapel lights were off, and the candles cast illuminating glows over the faces of our Year 12s.
There was a pause of uncertainty and fear at the very start of the ceremony; nobody wanted to be the first, to be the one watched as they traversed across the room, all just a little unsure and afraid. I also remember knowing exactly who my candle would go to, and that I would absolutely be one of the few staff members who would stand up and walk over to the student I was delivering my candle to, rather than waiting only to receive them.
My candle was always meant for a student by the name of Anthony. A giant, strapping young man who struggled with family life as much as he did school, whose every interaction with me involved either shaving, uniform, smoking, being late, dodging teachers, backtalk, and assessment dates. I love this young man, but I also knew, deep down, out of all my 23 tutor group students, he was the one that I wasn’t a perfect fit for. And no matter how I framed my words, he needed someone different to me to care for him.
But he got me, and in the 3 years we have been together as a tutor group, we have inched towards a grudging understanding, an uneasy and slightly volatile truce. My young man Anthony, I wish that you could have had the tutor teacher you needed, someone you could talk soccer with, and who would have that easy authority and humour that would inspire you into action. I want you to know how much you are loved and valued, despite the clashes we have had.
I stood and began walking, and felt the eyes of a whole Year 12 cohort of students and staff following me, across the falling dusk, tracking toward Anthony. I could see him react: Sure she’s not coming over to ME with her candle? I stood deliberately, humbly, and gently in front of him for a moment, looking him squarely in the eye, before I held out my candle. He looked at it curiously, and for a moment, I wondered if he was going to accept it, or swat it out of my hand in retaliation.
Slowly, gently, he wrapped his fingers around it and took it from me. And then he offered me his own. We shook hands. And then I walked back to where I had originally come from, my solo flight done, tears beginning to rise up spontaneously.
The incredible thing was this; I was thinking only of myself at that moment in time: This is something I need to do, this is something that’s between myself and Anthony. I had no idea the ripples it would cause, and the effect it would have on the rest of my tutor group, and the rest of the Year 12 cohort.
A number of my Year 12s said that the moment Anthony took my candle was the moment they began crying, and didn’t stop for the rest of the ceremony. Others said that the fact that I, a staff member, was the second person walking across the chapel in full view gave them courage to do the same. Many more in my tutor group said that they weren’t going to do the “risky handover”, looking for safer options, but my example gave them hope and a sense of responsibility to take the risk.
One of my Year 12, when giving me her candle, said to me: “This one’s for you, Ms Kwok. For the courage it took to give your own candle away, not just to Anthony, but for to all of us on a daily basis.”
I didn’t anticipate crying, but I did, steadily, through that ceremony. And through the silent tears, I remember looking at all these beautiful young men and women, the Year 12 Class of 2019, traversing that chapel like fireflies, carrying messages of hope, courage, forgiveness and light to their rightful destinations.
It stands to reason I’ve left this one to the end.
Even while I was brainstorming my five points of reflection for 2019; this one was the hardest of all to acknowledge, to commit to, and to want to invest in.
Forgiveness, in all its forms, has been something which has both fascinated and frustrated me for a while, eluding and embracing me with equal unpredictability. I’ve been drawn to books which take it apart, or have it as its central theme. I’ve listened to TED talks and read reflections of courageous people who have survived far more in a week than I have my whole life, and been silenced and humbled by their words. And the reason why is this: I want to learn what it means to forgive as an act of love, when the issue at stake is bigger than the usual ups and downs of life. I want to learn how to forgive, others and myself, when there needs to be a process to the forgiveness.
In my natural, un-worked-on state, I am a perfectionistic score keeper. If there is an issue, my instinct is to apologise for the 27.5% of my part in the proceedings (because I’m alway more right), and readily expect 72.5% pure, unfiltered apology from whoever has wronged me. And I would remember it if didn’t happen, or happen to my satisfaction. It didn’t mean that I couldn’t keep loving or working with the person who had caused me hurt, I just could never fully forget the hurt in a way which allowed me freedom and full access to myself, and my interactions with them when it really counted. When I read that forgiveness is an act for yourself, not for the other person, it was revolutionary. So then, I spent some time grappling with that concept, not wanting and eye for an eye, but to forgive and acknowledge for my own well-being and sense of hope.
Now, in my work-in-progress state, I am a recovering perfectionist and advocate of the compassion which is required to live life well. And it comes back to one thing: We are not perfect. We get up each day, we do our best. Some of us do better than others. But we all require compassion and forgiveness at some point in our lives, and I’d rather be an active participant in the process than have to ask someone to forgive me with no return if I am able.
The inability to forgive easily is simple to explain; we are tender-hearted and we don’t want to get hurt. Holding that inability to forgive in place means that we’re in a deadlock, and even if that means hurting yourself a little, it means that you’re relatively safe from any further hurt from the person who caused it.
But it also holds all of you – your joy, your ability to love and move forward, your vulnerability and tenderness – in an absolute deadlock as well. You might argue that you can function perfectly fine without forgiving certain people and events in your life. But those pockets of darkness that remain unexamined continue to hum and buzz in the background, taking away from your love and joy. And loving yourself means truly examining things, even if there is no answer.
Forgiving doesn’t EVER mean letting the other person off the hook, it means that you’re no longer allowing them to take a part of your joyfulness and will to live life without your permission. What’s to say that you, put under a unique set of circumstances and pushed to breaking point, wouldn’t cause a situation where you required love and forgiveness?
As we walk through life together stretched and pulled in different directions by opposing ideas and different people, we walk with a common humanity. It would be ridiculous to expect us all to like each other. But we can certainly start by looking for understanding and the middle ground, holding fast to our compassion for each other, humanising each other, and getting better at sitting in the uncomfortable place which allows us to recognise that very rarely is anyone 100% right or wrong.
So, in holding forgiveness in my heart, I remember the following:
Forgiveness is for me. When I need to look hard at something, let my first thought be for my own well-being and those that I love. Put pride back on the shelf, take ego off the table, and just look at the humanity of the situation. Then look at what I need to do to match my values; is it speak my truth? Walk away? Call a mediation? Offer an apology? Forgiveness will often be open-ended and messy, and I need to be sure of two things; that I have done the best I can according to my values, and that my well-being comes first. These two things push and pull in opposite directions, but that is what I ask of myself.
Anger is okay. Knowing when to express anger in the appropriate manner, to the right person, at the right time, is a unique challenge. But for those of us hell-bent on being perfect score-keepers, it’s so much easier to talk about all the things a person has done wrongly behind their back, than hold them accountable. And sometimes, anger is the right form of communication. Anger can show the strength of a boundary, the depth of a connection + love, or the value of something. Anger, without being derogatory, cheap, or hurtful, is a powerful and important form of communication.
Forgiveness is not an exact science. Forgiveness requires the most creative thought process and tracking than any other brand of problem-solving I’ve encountered. Because you cannot predict how people will respond, you can only deal with your side of things. If you go in with an apology, don’t go in expecting one back. You offer an apology because it’s what you hold yourself accountable to do, and it’s what you think is the right action for you. Forgiveness can be quiet or haphazard, unspoken or spoken, serious or playful; don’t be fooled by its presentation. Forgiveness may also never come, and you may need to figure out a way to find closure, and to make your own peace. If you really want to seek forgiveness, you must be prepared for any outcome, not just the one you want.
Forgive myself. Something I have learned in this past year is to recognise when I need to forgive myself. Often, these times will masquerade as extreme tiredness, or my being unpredictable, distracted, being totally over-the-top, going into myself, not being able to make a decision, and most tellingly, not being able to be fully engrossed in whatever is in front of me. When I get down to the heart of it, it is often a time when I need to tell myself that I forgive myself. I forgive myself that I couldn’t respond to a student in the perfect manner today; I will try and reconnect tomorrow. I forgive myself that I have no energy for my family, I will try and rest so that I am better value over the weekend. I forgive myself the frustration I feel with a colleague because I am on track and they are out of kilter, and it has knocked me off my strong, steady path. I forgive myself that I did not speak up when I had the opportunity, let me make a time to have that conversation, and let me prepare for it. I am not perfect. But I can always try again.
Forgiveness is a skill. Forgiveness is a skill that I would like to continue practising. The more I look gently and tenderly at things which upset, frustrate, or anger me, the more I exercise the muscle which connects me to love and forgiveness. Forgiveness, for all its intangibles, requires the ability to think about a situation from every angle, applying compassion where it would be easier to dismiss. One thing I’d like to do differently to strengthen this conversation with myself is to reach out to friends and family to help me tease out the different viewpoints. What I cannot see, they might be able to lovingly and safely bring to my attention so that I’m not attempting to do the impossible on my own.
Forgiveness takes time. You can’t just figure out forgiveness like you can a maths problem, as satisfying as that would be. Forgiveness is like picking up the threads of the impossible fabric from where you left off, and continuing to weave understanding. As you travel through life and get older, wiser, and collect new experiences, this helps in building your repertoire of skills and understandings to forgive. Allow time. Press pause. Go run around and be human. Then come back to the hard work.
Quiet, considered words are powerful. Forgiveness is rarely overt or loud, and requires some degree of stretching to reach a new understanding. If you cannot forgive at an exact moment in time, that is okay. Aim for being authentic and accurate. Quiet, considered words spoken with truth and accuracy are far more powerful than throwing down a careless and flippant apology or acceptance of something when you really don’t feel it. Because the mind and heart keep score, and it’s your job to know yourself well enough that you can understand what is true and accurate for you.
Forgiveness is love. Forgiveness is love in its purest form. It cannot be measured or extracted, it is given. So, let me remember to consider this first for myself, then those most important to me, then everyone I have contact with in my life. Let me strive to be accurate, authentic, compassionate and honest, straddling the line between compassion and integrity. Let me make decisions on how I will act based on my own morals. And let me understand when to hold fast, and when to let go. Let me do so in the highest integrity, compassion and love.
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 was thinking about the concept of self-worth today, not in terms of how effectively we set boundaries, but what we actually do to follow through with them. I see myself as a comfortable and developing boundary-setter; I need time to consider a situation, consider what I need versus the greater good, and then decide what I am comfortable with and what my boundaries are. I also line up my decision-making with my values, which, I have found to my equal joy and frustration, are continually evolving. Values are elusive things that are continually shifting ever-so-slightly, constantly becoming more defined as you gain life experience. For example, one of my values is to be kind. This then grew into, “Be kind where possible, and if that is not possible, be accurate and honest.” The addendum to that was, “And if all of that is impossible, then don’t say anything at all.”
I like my values. They have formed me into a compassionate, imaginative, articulate, courageous, and determined woman with a blood-linked desire to grow.
My errant thought today was to do with kindness. I have always made it cost “more” to me when an apology is being made. That is, when I can see there has been genuine suffering and remorse, and someone I value is making an apology, I accept it quickly and readily, almost to take the pain and suffering away. Why? Because, I figure, if they’re sorry enough to make an apology, they must really be sorry about the action that caused it. I also see it as a good mark against my own character, “Oh, there’s Annie, so easy-going, and ready to let things go!”
But the thing is, generally I’m not that girl. I’m not that easy-going girl. Forgiving, playful, and joyful, yes, but forgetful and easy-going? No. I like checking things out. I like understanding the inner workings + motivations of people. It’s what makes me the teacher I am today. It’s my super-power.
But then there’s the shadow-side; it’s also my kryptonite. I think that I can predict good behaviour, and I have an unfailing ability to see the best in people. Sometimes, I have to protect my ready compassion + optimism my fencing people out until I can observe them a little longer. And why should I apologise for my own values? If I forgive, and I DO forgive well, I want it to be because some new understanding has been reached, some border crossed to a new level of connection…or moving on.
And the “AH-HA!” moment I had today?
If I continue to let people easily off the hook just because I feel sorry for them without proper conversation + examination of the issue, then who gets cheapened? Whose boundaries get worn down?
I am taking away value from myself by allowing people off the hook the moment they start anything that seems like a compassionate apology. Small everyday moments, no worries. But disagreements or hurts that go against my values? I shouldn’t let those go so easily.
And what will that mean?
I need to be more courageous.
I need to step into the place of discomfort and examine the situation and have the conversation with the person apologising. I need to redefine and realign the relationship and the value.
And I need to treat myself with the grace and value that I deserve. I need to hold people accountable. Which means engaging in conversation with them about the issue.
The apology need not be a blood-bath. It can be real, informative, and calm. It can be the most connective conversation, transforming two people.
But I need to hold myself with higher integrity in how I accept apologies and how they look alongside my value of compassion + kindness.
I did it. Ladies and gentlemen, I did what I set out to make a habit of in 2018, today. In the flesh. In real-time.
I. DID. IT.
I was trying to explain to a colleague how disappointed I was with the resources I had been given. I was not complaining or whinging, there was an end in sight, I wasn’t burdening or ranting, and I just needed 30-seconds to be disappointed before moving on and finding a solution. I asked for her time, she said, “Yep, no worries!”
At the end of my debrief, she said, “Well, it’s all about how you look at it! You’ve just got to be more positive about it!”
She wasn’t being unfair at all. But have you seen the trail of dust I leave behind? It’s flavoured with that much eff-ing positivity, you could grow unicorns and fairies out of it.
I was asking for empathy, not a rah-rah cheer-squad pom-pom dance.
And what disappointed me even more was that she was someone who has asked me for the same sort of compassion and empathy, which I have gladly given, or tried to do my best to give. Her words felt like a sympathetic slap in the face. A backwards glance, when I was actually trying to calmly articulate disappointment.
Here’s where it gets magical.
Rather than brightly thanking her for her time, walking away, and stewing for a while afterward, I stood my ground.
I very calmly re-articulated why I was concerned, why this wasn’t just a flippant “just be positive” situation, that I am both persistent and innovative for finding solutions and that what I needed was care and concern, because I am hard enough on myself as it is. I retold my concerns with courage; I told my situation exactly as it stood, while standing my ground.
Her face changed from flippant to listening, she went quiet and took it onboard. And while I know she might have been mildly annoyed that I asked for more time, I am so pleased and proud of how I handled it. I am so glad that I didn’t run away from this small opportunity to create greater understanding.
At the end of the day, it was a small, non life-threatening disappointment that I am now happily trying to brainstorm solutions to. I am in a different mind-frame now.
But I am so proud of myself that I tried again to make myself heard, without apology or sacrifice, within wanting to hurt anyone, just for the need to build a better understanding.
I have been operating from a place of “can’t” for a year. My goodness, what a realisation!
2017 was a wonderful year. It’s was warm-hearted and successful, I got plenty of rest, all my Year 12s did as well as they should, all my ensembles made significant musical and social growth, and I was happy.
But I look back with a sort of wonder at how many times I unwittingly said “can’t”, even though I didn’t know it.
When I said that “no” to a project or an idea, did I really mean that I couldn’t do it, or was I saying, “I CAN’T do it…I don’t think I have the energy or talent to do it.”
“No, I cannot do it,” is absolutely fine and a complete sentence. And I like the sound and quiet resonance to it. But if I am living from a place of “CAN’T”, an unknown wall built around my heart to protect me from adversity, struggle, and hurt, then I had better re-examine things.
So this year, when I am presented with a new opportunity, a potentially challenging situation, a conversation I do not like, or a decision I have to make that will cost me time and energy, I want to stand in that moment and have a good hard look. Am I really responding to the situation, or am I operating from a place of “CAN’T”?
“I don’t have time to catch up for coffee.” I am being a scarcity-monger with my time and energy. How much time do I really need – or WANT – to spend prepping my schoolwork? I do not need that much to get things done.
“I don’t want to have a conversation.” That conversation is not worth my time, therefore, my energy + consideration. What would I miss out on if I waited for only the right conversations to be had? And on a greater level, I cannot distill the moments I want from life, I can only live life and choose how I will respond.
“I want to watch the perfect movie on Sunday afternoon.” I don’t have time for rubbish. I don’t want to leave my comfort zone. I can’t deal with anything that won’t intellectually stimulate me or make me laugh in exactly the right way. I’m not wasting a moment of my energy and time. Sure, but again, I can’t distill the grief from the joy. I can make considered choices, but if I have a vice-like clamp on everything, what sort of living will I do?
“I’m too tired.” Actually, if I’m too tired, I need to get my 8 hours sleep. My tired is that I CAN’T deal with problem-solving, or I think I don’t have the capacity to navigate problem-solving, and moving around the puzzle pieces. Yes, it takes time and energy, but I have tremendous ability to engage and solve anything I want. I can’t cocoon myself comfortably away from everything, I need to be right there.
“I can’t compose/read/write during the school term.” Okay, this one has legs. The emotional exhaustion of teaching is great. But what about all those times I’ve happily numbed out the rest of the world by mindlessly scrolling through Facebook? I have achieved nothing in half and hour, when it would have taken some persistence and determination to go to my piano and find a tune, or go to my laptop and write. Nothing, except my energy levels, has been affected. Am I saying “CAN’T” to creativity, the most basic of ways for me to debrief a day and get my thoughts on the page, score, or through music?
So I’m staying open. I’m not going to like it, but I’m breaking the “CAN’T” in favour of “CAN + BOUNDARIES”, which is far more tiring and time-consuming, but also more authentic.
My wish for all of you.