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Play is so important. This is beautiful!
Whenever I’m emailing another staff member about a student fro whom I can’t spell their name, I always pull up their email address up on the “CC space and then delete it after I’ve gotten the spelling down.
(Yes, I realise this is stupidity at its finest…!)
This backfired spectacularly today when I was emailing on behalf of a New-As-Of-Term-3-Sir-Year-10, and pressed enter on a message raving about his attitude to learning, aural skills, and determination to succeed to another staff member.
This student cannot read printed music. Yet he can play by ear like a boss. He’s intelligent, imaginative, streetwise, and centred. He cracks me up with his sassy humour. I cannot wait to see who he’ll grow into for the remainder of Year 10, let alone Year 12!
But it was a rough start to the term coming into a class of ridiculously talented Year 10 Music kiddies. You know how you get waves of talent? We’re riding the crest this year with this amazing vintage.
He hit reply on my accidental “CC” and wrote:
Dear Ms Kwok,
I have to admit that I was pretty freaked out starting this term at Pulteney, and finding myself in a class of freakishly talented people. It was overwhelming. But in 3 weeks, you have made me feel connected and included through your teaching and finding ways to acknowledge my skills within the class. Case in point? This email, which I suspect you didn’t mean for me to see. But I’m glad I did. It’s all these little things that you + the class are trying to do for me without me knowing which make me feel valued and good about being here.
Thanks for finding a spot for me, while trying not to make it obvious. That somehow makes it even better, and I appreciate it even more.
Cheers and see you next lesson!
Sir Year 10.
I am trying something new.
In addition to waking up at 5:00am each day as a way of giving myself time to nurture myself physically, creatively, and emotionally, I am setting myself a creative challenge:
I have to create SOMETHING every single week.
I am a full-time secondary school music teacher, so this is an audacious ask. But more and more I am drawn to the truth that creativity is so essential to my wellbeing that I need to explore the constructs of it in more detail.
Composing and writing for me are double-edged saws. I love to express myself and get to the heart of what I am trying to say, yet I struggle and circle endlessly in a painful creative agony getting started when I try to be creative during the term.
I know exactly what it is; it’s the fact that my “creative craft” during the week is teaching; this is where I am being my most imaginative, where I am have the playful and creative conversations, and where I am problem-solving like a MF. All my energies are poured into the classroom.
But I am giving outwards, this is not a creativity that necessary nurtures me fully.
I’ve also discovered that when I am confronted with a choral commission, or a creative piece of work, or even just knowing myself during the term, I am like a stoppered bottle. I feel as if I have to scrape the layer off the outside of myself to find the good stuff, or even just stuff!, and then I wander around with handfuls of words like a sleep-walker trying to figure out what I am trying to say.
I am beginning to see that to care for myself as a creative being, I need to be creative on a weekly and daily basis. Not just for others, but for myself.
So here’s the challenge:
In taking the creative reins I am reaching for a bigger point of healing; while I consider myself playful, imaginative and courageous in the realm of creativity, I haven’t practised the scope of my language, and the repertoire of sounds and words I can use to express myself.
And secondly, I wonder if I have ever written solely for myself. It’s a stark realisation, and one that I am heading straight into with a sense of wild freedom and adventure!
Increasingly, I am realising that it’s the tiny little moments of work which add up to create a whole in anything, and it definitely applies to creative projects.
I used to block out large gaps of time to be creative. And I’d love this time and be productive; I’d play with ideas without pressure, I would get down snippets of melodies, and freely write and edit lyrics, I would improve my piano technique and find new sounds.
But lately, I have found a new magic, ease and productivity in the tiny, incremental steps. Each day, I have been waking up at 5:00am and writing. And from the writing has come a new playfulness and clarity. Having uninterrupted time to myself energises me, and allows me to articulate my ideas, in words and verbally. My interactions with my students are stronger, more perceptive, and more nuanced. I come from a strong place of being anchored.
And most unexpectedly, my creativity has come out to play in force. Through honing and polishing that pathway out of myself, I have unexpectedly created a conduit for my creativity and a sharpness and clarity in my ideas. I realise that the “bluntness” of my creative self that I felt when I left my words + music for too long was from lack of practise. Essentially, everyday, I am practising being more myself, seeing more of myself, having the creative conversation, and creating.
I am right on the edge of how I want to say things more often now than when I blocked out hours of creative time. My skills in catching ideas are wily and cunning. I’m right there with the idea, with the technique, with the ability to snatch the right word out of the cacophony because I have been using them daily.
I feel like a have a palette of creative tones in front of me, and I am allowed to paint nuanced, sophisticated pictures with my sounds and words.
And the most heart-flipping?
What if I applied this to connection in the classroom?
What if I applied this to my own relationships?
What if I applied this to my own courage and healing?
What if I unfurled parts of myself in the same way and I am playing with creativity?
There are so many places we can become more articulate and fluent in the language if we were to engage in the practise of the skills more, in tiny little steps of learning, discovery and play.
My most powerful conversation this week was with one of our Year 12 Prefects who has managed a stutter all his life. He is absolutely beloved, and someone I will track beyond 2019, but I know he feels it acutely.
I asked him, “Will you ever put your hand up to do a speech as part of the Prefect Forum?”
He replied, “It’s unlikely, and anyway, I like leading from behind and doing the behind-the-scenes stuff.”
Me, “I would SO MUCH love to see you do one. Not because it’s going to be easy, but because you’d have everyone backing you. And you’d absolutely kill me, I know that.”
He brushed it off, but I could see him ticking over the unexpected comment.
And then he gave me an unexpected response just as he was leaving the office:
“Ms Kwok, you know that you’ve had a massive impact on how I feel about my speaking, right? I know you’ve got the whole “English-as-a-second-language” thing going on, even though you can HARDLY TELL, but I know you get frustrated at yourself when you can’t get your words out perfectly. But you still get excited and talk the way you do, and you go ALL IN. It makes me feel like I can speak without my stutter stopping me, even though it is so frustrating.”
Kid, you do the same. Every single time you get up and speak, you remind me to do what I do MORE.
Your most powerful changes come from your daily habits. If you want to make significant changes to your lifestyle, your mental capacity, your skills, your connections, then start by looking at the tiny daily changes you can make. Too often, we are caught up trying to make big “all-or-nothing” changes, and then get discouraged when we can’t keep jumping the hoops we’ve set for ourselves.
We need to have this conversation with ourselves in long-form, and know that we’re in it for the long game.
Here are 3 daily habits that I am working on, which have made me happier and have begun the process of change this month:
Waking up at 5:00am: Now, I’m not about to harp on about the benefits of how life-changing this is in the way that many lifestyle gurus do. This was definitely, unequivocally, a personal choice for me. I wanted time to myself, to energise and centre myself before getting into the day. The decision to get up at 5:00am was to nourish me.
It’s been an interesting process, but it has definitely made a difference in how I feel going into the day. Waking up and 5:00am and getting up immediately to go for a walk or run, despite how groggy I am feeling, is absolutely brutal, and I consider myself a morning person. But about 5 minutes into the activity, I am more awake than if I had woken up at 6:15am and done my usual morning routine. The energy, space, and time I gain is absolutely worth the challenge of getting myself up. With the time remaining in the morning, I am able to journal, get clarity on difficult decisions and conversations, and get to the tender spot of reflection which doesn’t happen easily on a day-to-day basis.
In waking up early and giving myself time, I give myself clarity. My rehearsals and lessons have been more focused, I have been more authentic, my conversations have greater direction and purpose, and I feel centred and happy for more of the time. Yesterday morning, my one day a week without an early morning choir rehearsal, I had from 5:00am to 6:45am to myself. I did 10000 steps, made a pot of coffee, journalled, reflected upon the week, came up with 3 creative ideas, and had space to get into my day. I don’t pretend I’m going to nail it every time, I am SURE that I will trip up. But my day had more clarity, joy, direction, and purpose than I can remember prior to this routine.
Getting out of the “Can’t”: This relates directly to the above habit of waking up at 5:00am. The very realistic and cynical side of me says, “Yes, but it’s the first week of Term 3, of course you’re feeling positive and well-rested, of course you’re working with greater clarity!”, and that ultimately I am going to trip up and not be able to carry this through as a habit. This mindset is what has stopped me from really going after the scary things. I have experienced great success on everything small-to-mid-range. But I’d like to go for something where I have no guarantee, and I know that this is what is stopping me. Will I trip up on this habit? ABSOLUTELY.
There’s no way I’m going to nail it every time. But I’m going to sit in the middle ground. If I keep a solid routine, if I’m sure about my “why” for doing this, and if I problem-solve like a MF and go up against the “can’t talk” that buzzes loud in my head, I am going to nail this most of the time and be able to get back on track faster. Already, I can see the difference in my teaching + interactions with others.
Things that would normally derail me have become “just things that I need to solve.” I have leaned into interactions with challenging people and those who annoy me as a practise ground for how much I can turn a conversation around. I’ve tried to keep the mindset of, “Nobody ain’t gonna rain on MY parade!” And it’s not because I’m well-rested, it’s because I’m making the choice, and seeing how much room I have to move in a situation. It’s creativity and play at it’s finest, really!
Connection: I close up the most around the people I love the most, or are the most important to me. My Mum and Dad, my closest friends, and my most important relationships. I have been consciously practising interacting with these people in tiny steps, rather than just doing the introvert thing that I do of shutting down and going back into myself where it is safe and waiting until I am presentable to come out. I am trying to put into words exactly where I am at, share a small joke or light-hearted moment, or connect through something a little more vulnerable, especially if it’s a “sliding door” moment, and I have the choice to go there or not. I think of myself as a joyful, compassionate and authentic person, but this daily and sometimes hourly practise has made a significant change to how I feel walking into a classroom, a conversation, and my energy levels at the end of the day. I feel happier walking into situations where I am more vulnerable and tender, or less comfortable, than I have for a while. And while the change is imperceptible to most people, I can feel the release and lightness within myself. It costs me less energy to connect, because I am practising it every day.
This week has been a wonderful first week of school.
Thank you for these holidays. I’ve really needed them, as I led the ANZAC Music Tour in the previous holidays, so these are my first in 23 weeks straight. I think every cell in my body was lying facedown in the cavity that was my body by Week 9 of Term 2!
I feel like I have realigned my compass and learned so much these holidays. Unexpectedly, but so organically, in a natural progression of thoughts, conversations, and connections.
I have rested; my mind, my body, my spirit. I was moving so fast but going nowhere at the end of last term. I was doggy-paddling furiously, only to stay in one place, exhausted, just gulping enough air and love to keep me alive. I will do everything I can to make sure I have greater clarity and space going into this new term, and while things will get busy, I would much rather move slowly and steadily, rather than stay in over-tired limbo. I now that this will take greater concentration than I had the capacity for at the end of last term, and it’s something I need to practise.
I have exercised; I have walked and walked for miles, tens of thousands of steps a day, feeling the strengthening of my breathing, my heart, and my body following my sickness. What a joy to feel the strength in a full breath, and the energy coursing through me from movement, air, time, and space.
I have connected; I feel aligned and back to equilibrium, lifted up from the love and laughter with all my friends and family. The colour is back in my cheeks, and all over, imbuing my spirit with vibrant joy and hope. I feel centred; emotionally healthy from being with people whose words make my spirit echo with safety and happiness, stretch me in new and interesting ways, and who love me with a safety net so wide that it feels like I am floating in a warm summer ocean.
I feel whole and real again. I promise myself that I will remember this equilibrium and at my most busy and stressful, remember that this is what normal is, and not try and make the Pollyanna version of normal from stressful situations, or from people who do not care about my wellbeing.
I have loved; joyfully, playfully, awkwardly, beautifully! It’s so poignantly undoing to realise that I have been Teflon-coated for part of the term, and never realised that it wasn’t normal. Like the frog put into cold water and slowly boiled, it doesn’t realise its environment is not normal until it is scalding the life out of it. Let me love in little snippets every day, or as much as I damn well want. My heart flows, and I will not be scalded into submission.
I have journalled; hundreds and hundreds of words, free-flowing from my pen onto the page, dozens of rain-checked thoughts needing re-examination, reflection, and the sort of self-conversation that comes only from time, space, and safety. That’s not in the middle of the school term, whilst I’m trying to be professional.
That’s when stressful situations get dealt with on the surface level and then get put in a holding pattern. And then, when there is a stretch of time, I open up the skies and let them pour down, like rain. And my tears of healing flowed the same way. I am so grateful for the wonderful ebb and flow in my heart now, that comes from having looked at everything that needed looking at, and sitting next to my heart like and old girlfriend with a bottle of wine, just chattin’. I breathe freely now, and so does my heart.
I have created; my words and music which have lain dormant are awakened, and I am overwhelmed with the beauty and colour of all that I have created. Insights which I could not put into words during the term come out as song, melody, lyrics, or some other nymph-like form of creative expression. I write like I breathe. It is glorious.
I have played; my darling piano, to feel your keys under my increasing deft and strong fingers, knowing that joy of incremental growth again is a mathematical sort of satisfaction, and a clarity of my own self and thinking. I can tell the health of my own emotional self from the fluency of my piano playing, and the colours available to me.
I have cleaned, washed and created room for new energy and thoughts.
I never knew how far I would travel in three weeks.
I feel an overwhelming gratitude and joy in knowing that no matter how great the discomfort, stress, challenge, and pain, that with enough time, I have an internal compass that lines up due north, and I will always be able to find my equilibrium.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for these holidays.
Lyrics for a new choral commission, Impossible Compass.
The concept behind this work is the paradox of finding your internal compass, the one that holds the values that you live by, your ideals, your best heart and self.
To find your compass
You must travel the world with your heart in your pocket
Catch due north, and it’s gone, like a whisper in the wind
Walk into the north wind, and you will realise
It was there all the time in your heart
In the place where you came into being
But stay in one place, safe and secure
You won’t find it
That anchor of belonging
You won’t know what it’s like to really know
How to stand alone and ache with longing
When you are more yourself in solitude
Then you will belong
But, my darling girl, keep running and moving
And turning and twisting
And pulling and driving
Forward, always away, never still
And your compass will never align
And while you’ll be free
You’ll never find
The crossroads of joy and ache
That give weight and meaning to life.
No-one asks to be a nomad when they are born into this world
But that’s who we are
We’re the map-makers and dream-sketchers
Tracking pathways to the sun
But that deep sense of longing
That comes from being anchored deep
While still moving and turning
And living and flying
In the wilderness of your life
In the silence of your thoughts
In the love that springs from living
Sits beside you, and nestles in your heart
Whispers into your ear:
My darling child, I’m here.