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I don’t want to admit it, but generally, I like things to look nice. Ordered. Pretty.
But actually, there are many times in my life where this sense of order + “perfectness” impacts on the pure messy joy that I can experience.
It doesn’t affect me negatively, I still have the same outcome, but I lose just a tiny bit of joy and sparkle, curiosity and unexpected learning.
Interestingly, I am very good at supporting “good learning chaos” in the classroom. I have faith in my ability to drive that. But for me? Somehow the idea of routine equals maximum production. When did I become such a machine?!
For example, last year I had a favourite mug. Nothing wrong with that, except that I have 18 other gorgeous, brightly patterned, colourful, all-shapes-and-sizes mugs waiting to be used. The problem was I was all for not creating any additional work and securing a predictable outcome. And you could trace it back to my plunger-coffee brewing skills!
On the surface, I was a creature of habit. Flip that, and I was playing it safe. In my cup usage. Which no doubt meant in some other aspects of my world.
So this year, after cleaning for Chinese New Year, I started using every single other mug I owned, no matter how awkward to use, how it put my milk + coffee proportions out of whack, no matter how hard to balance, no matter how quickly my coffee cooled down. I put up with the inconvenience and lack of predictability for the sake of a new experience.
This all seems totally ridiculous when you think, “It’s ONLY A FRICKIN’ MUG!”
But it becomes a very big deal when you apply that sense of daring and risk and change to what I do in the classroom, what I read, who I talk to, the conversations I’m willing to engage in, what movies I watch, and how I approach life.
Am I willing to be a teacher different to what I’ve done in the past? I’m an effective teacher…but I wonder what else I can do? I win the day through connection + building a strong rapport with my students. What about pushing harder on grit + excellence?
When I am tired or overwhelmed by school, I go back to old familiar books, movies, and tv show because they don’t cost me anything emotionally. I don’t have to pay close attention. What if I traded one hour of mindless “re-whatever-ing” for 15 minutes of pushing out of my comfort zone?
I have cooked the same dozen or so healthy meals and lunches for school for the past year. Not because I don’t love cooking with a passion, but because – and GET THIS – I don’t want the extra wash-up and unpredictability of time use when I try new recipes! Oh my goodness. Cracking open the recipe books now. What is a kitchen for but to create joyful mess and experience new tastes + cuisines?
I solve problems by being perceptive, articulating my side, and then peace-making. One project I know myself to be engaging in this year is “warrior training”; staying with a problem and leaning into a difficult conversation more readily than walking the other way. It will be more uncomfortable and unpredictable, but I just wonder what it would be like to stay present and create authentic ripples, rather than not. I want to get better at close-range combat, well, here’s my chance.
So that “regular mug”?
For the sake of pushing up against bento-boxed perfect for all-over-the-table imperfect + present.
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.
I have no idea the scope of my joy. It comes forth when I think there is nothing left, it fills the crevices of darkness with light, like water finding tiny gaps in mountain faces.
I will do everything possible to give voice and life to this persistent joy.
I will create each day, with the wild abandon of the free in my heart, knowing the creativity spurns forth the most unknown and untapped of understandings and reflections. I will see what is truly bothering me and giving me joy within my creation…teaching, composing, writing, loving, caring, living. It is all creation.
I will cry, oh I will cry! Cleansing my strong heart of all the anguish and pain that an unknowing world might put upon me.
I will sing with a voice so utterly mine, the air around me will change.
I will love with a heart gritty and real, wild and honest. I will love with a playfulness and an honesty that will unravel both myself and the ones being loved.
I will fill the world with more colour than I can handle.
Because joy is an entity and spirit that needs keeping alive, and I will do everything with a vital truth and realness that will be astonishing even to me.
Because we must take care of the joyful ones, the silent warriors that choose to live with the grace of joy, even in a world which does not always welcome it.
We must celebrate those who look as if everything is pure and easy, because it takes great courage to be exquisitely joyful.
I will do everything I can to bring forth this joy!
I had a thought today. I am someone who really likes to get things completely finished before I relax. I’m a list-maker and ticker offer-er. I make lists from lists, with priority highlights and checkboxes. Even on the days that I am tired, they are Sharpied off with amazing industrialism.
I could argue until I’m blue in the face that I know what balance is. Even to me, it all looks pretty good from the surface, my life. My values are grounded, my life is good, I love my work, connected inner-circle, healthy + rested.
But somehow, this peaceful existence and safe methodicalness started to pull tighter around me. I would wonder and worry if I hadn’t done what I deemed “enough” preparation over the weekend, if I had earned my down time. I lost the edge and the ability to see effort and situations for exactly what they were.
And I realised this:
Every time I wait until “everything is done” and checked off my list, I am saying NO to ME.
That’s terrifying, I think to myself. Surely it’s not that bad. I’m over-dramatising.
But actually, look deeper. If I wait until everything is tidied, everything is completed, everything is clean and straightened, packed away, Glad-wrapped, boxed-up, including my joy, then I will undoubtedly miss The Moments. The moments of joy and laughter and silliness and grace that makes life so livably sweet and real. Why? Because I won’t be looking for them. I’ll be on my mission, with my Sharpie + list. And even if I have 3 hours at the end of the day because I’ve been so damn efficient, what then? A cookie-cutter conversation, cup of tea, and Tim-Tam? That’s nice, but it shouldn’t be all there is.
I will always be a stickler for routine and organisation. Not just because I’m a teacher, but because I think there is a certain humility and grace to working methodically. I like the steady hum, the strong foundations from which to build energy, life, and fun. My lessons are playful, creative, and far-reachingly imaginative. I crave balance in the foundation and routine in order to make it all work, just as I need oases [plural of “oasis”, did you know that?!] of introverting time to off-set the incredible energy required in my teaching job. And especially so in performing arts + secondary music.
But I’d like to keep that sense of freedom and possibility open, like a gap in the curtains for the dazzling light to sneak through. I’d like to sneak in MORE unexpected moments into the routine that fill me up in the soul. Oh no, let’s be very clear that I do NOT mean the extra concert or rehearsal. I mean the unexpected round of drinks after school. The pizza on the carpet in the middle of report-writing week with friends, laughter, and cider. The 30-minute facial when I should have been marking. Not when everything is done, not when I’m super-relaxed and free on holidays, but because it might be a cool thing to do.
And because it’s a resounding YES to me.
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.
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?
I am on a bit of a Brené Brown bender and re-reading her first book, I Thought It Was Just Me. You can really hear her voice develop over the course of her four books, and I am astounded at how her writing, her research, and she herself, have grown so amazingly and astonishingly in clarity and authenticity of voice. There’s an “authentic sass” about her, with total and ballsy humour, which I LOOOOOVE!
For me, this first book is a personal favourite. I’ll read anything Brené Brown writes, including shopping lists on napkins, because it’s all so good. This book is the most “researchy”, but I also find it the most nerve-wrackingly, exquisitely confronting and reassuring to read.
The stories resonate with me as a teacher; personally and for my students. Each time I feel myself “crusting over” from the events of life, reading or listening to her work opens the doors again, and makes me think. Also, when I re-read such powerful work, even after a few months of living + doing me, the words hit me so differently. Sometimes I read paragraphs that I’ve read three or four times before, and they didn’t have weight until now. And other times, there are things that are circled and underlined that I read again and wonder how they cut so deeply and resonated so much. I take comfort that I must have learned some sort of important lesson from these words.
Today, I re-read the opening credits, and they left me breathless. The moment in class which has chartered the course of Brené’s life work:
One day during a staff meeting, the clinical director, who oversees the therapeutic work done with the children, spoke to us about helping the kids make better choices. He said, “I know you want to help these kids, but you must understand this: You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviours.”
He went on to explain that, regardless of our intentions, we can’t force people to make positive changes by putting them down, threatening them with rejection, humiliating them in front of others or belittling them. From the moment the words were spoken, I was absolutely overwhelmed by this idea.”
So am I.
“When are you happiest? When are you the MOST alive?”
I am happiest when I’m in the middle of one of those intensive moments of back-and-forth, when I’m about three quarters of the way through the year with my Year 12s, or my Grammarphones Choir, or any other class or ensemble, and I’m right up to my armpits in rapid-fire teaching. Eyes are open, ears are alert, and it is all a continuous thread of learning, communication, ideas, spark…repeating, repeating, repeating…all rapid-fire, built on intense trust and love. Super-focused. The playful, and the fun, and the foundation-building are all there in the background, but it’s solid, honest, satisfying work of the soul and mind, all at once. Those vibrant and intense moments of discussion and discourse, seeing understanding and skills multiply exponentially, seeing things thread themselves together in magical succession…this is when I’m most alive.
In my family…
Around the circular dinner table when we are all yelling at each other over a meal, and we are yelling because that’s how we talk to each other when we’re happy. The crazy mass gatherings of so many faces, all on their individual timeline of life, cross-culture, cross-generation, crossing ideas and dreams. And I am at the magical and weighty crossroad between old and new, at the First Generation pitstop. It is HARD, so hard, to cross this bridge sometimes and to continually reach back and forth. But it is MAGICAL, and an honour to be here…this, here, is where I am most alive.
In the quiet moments…
The very end of Henley Jetty, swaying slightly in the breeze. The very ordinary 6:30am coffees with my Dad in Sydney when the whole family was over to celebrate my brother + sister-in-law getting married. Re-reading familiar books so that I could almost repeat entire sentences and they smell + feel like familiar sweaters, ragged, warm and wonderful. The stillness after a performance, coupled with the the electric buzz all through me. The sweet moments of conversation between myself and my closest friends, when there are moments where we are suffocated by flying words, punctuated by moments of silence. Random, silly silence. And it’s just comfortable. Looking up in a darkened living room after composing or writing, and realising the sun has left me to my cacophony of creative thoughts. That there is time. This, is where I am most alive.
When I am caught with a sudden awareness, learning, or moment of understanding, and I STRUGGLE against it for a while; a moment, a few hours, a few days, weeks, months…and then I decide to face it. Armed with tea, friends, words, journal, beach, stillness, and time, I make the journey. I cry and laugh, often at the same time. But when I arrive, it is unmistakable. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not some ya-ya sisterhood reborn experience, it is crazy-arse, hard struggle. And I cling to the safety barriers like a terrified cat, claws in, yowling. I often don’t like where I’ve arrived. But then, some sort of grace happens, and I realise I’ve hit truth. Everything relaxes. The rubble rebuilds. I’m on solid ground again, and it’s new ground. Truth that’s humbling and amazing. The aliveness that I feel after one of these periods of struggle is extraordinary.
More often than I would like, I doubt if the way that I teach is the right way. I know, oh, I KNOW, that I am one of those “kind” teachers. Said like the word “nerd”, I rock it 99% of the time, and fully believe in it…but sometimes, when I am exhausted, I am left wondering about the validity of the final 1%. But I know that this is me to the core; this is how I teach. My values are strong and my commitment to excellence, unwavering and unmistakable. Sure, there will moments where great citizens of the world are crafted from being bulldozed and shamed into submission. And good on the martyrs who beat the life and joy out of these fine upstanding citizens of the world to create them. But let me ask you this; these amazing people, when they thank their “teachers” for making them who they are, will they thank them for how they made them feel in the process? How much they loved them? How much they respected them? Or how much it cost them? This will never be me. I don’t have it in my DNA, it’s never worked for me, or my students while I’m in the driving seat. It just HAS to be possible to reach excellence through loving kindness. When I have revealed some part of a student or person to themselves that they did not know existed, but I see it, I cannot begin to describe the slow burn of life and joy that glows within me.
This is when I am happiest.