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I find that even at my worst, I am wholly interested in life. Even when it is a totally shitty day, the shittiest of shit-fests, I still gather around that festering hole, keenly curious to understand the logistics. Even when I cannot, or should not, do anything for want of my own boundaries, it means a great deal to me that I understand.
Which stands to reason that I am someone who is genetically piloted to go the extra mile, keep channelling through, and take no prisoners, because there is curiosity and a keen desire to make sense of things embedded in my cells. The more work, the harder I work. This is fabulous for my work ethic and getting things done, but terrible for my sense of balance and self-care. I am deeply introverted, which means that I oscillate wildly from liking human-kind and being invested + interested, to hating all forms of human life. There are days when I am so peopled-out that making a cup of tea is too hard. I mean, I have to actually flip a switch to boil the kettle? Na-ah!
So I’d like a third way, the middle road.
I’m calling in the heavies on self-care, as a practice that I would like to fully practise for 2019. In doing this, and learning how to call boundaries when I need to, not just when it feels good, I am going to find that middle road more easily. And it’s going to be a much nicer ride for everyone else.
In taking care of myself, nurturing myself, and loving myself as a parent would love a child, I would like to remember the following things:
I am NOT perfect. I know this already, and I am forcibly reminded of this when the shit hits the fan, but in some unconscious way I hold myself to different ideals to others. Does anyone else do this? Think that they are so amazing that “normal human things” shouldn’t happen to them?! It’s actually ridiculous. For example, why do I think myself so special and unique that I am not able to hurt + grieve after something devastating happens? Why do I need to be the joyful + gracious one? I’d like to trade in “impossibly perfect” for “human + authentic”. This doesn’t mean it’s a “let it all hang loose” kind of situation; it means I will have to work harder to articulate my boundaries. Which means getting clear about them in the first place. Not just some generally good application to being an upstanding citizen, but actual, clear boundaries. Thinking about what values I hold, and following them through in detail. This sort of accountability is far more energy-consuming and scary that just generally “being perfect”, but oh so much more realistic + sustainable.
Don’t start with an apology. Actually, I think I do okay here. I believe myself to be confident + healthy in how I hold myself on a daily basis. But there are situations where I walk in and before I’ve announced my case, I’ve announced myself as an apology. Not introducing myself warmly + clearly, not explaining myself and taking the floor when I have the opportunity, being too nice and affable, adapting and adapting all the time, all those needless “sorry, I kept you waitings” and anything of the like in emails, communications, and conversations, not asking for what I need and being blindly grateful, or scathingly indignant when someone can’t read my mind. Again, check the values, step in, and speak. Stand my sacred ground. [Copyright Brené Brown, Queen of Authenticity.]
Sleep. When I am mindlessly putting off sleep by scrolling through Youtube or Facebook, I am not caring for myself. I am working from a place of avoidance and fear. Sleep, because I deserve to light up a room. Sleep, because I have things I want to do and things that are such an honour to be responsible for. Sleep, because all that time wasted, I am not engaging, living, or creating.
Call the boundaries. On time, space, my worth and value, my needs, and my thoughts. I need to practise getting very comfortable with discomfort that I may step in and at best, negotiate my terms, and at worst, rock the boat and disagree. Nobody every got hurt setting boundaries. I’m good at “baby-boundary” setting; the kind where it’s a win-win sort of situation and everyone keeps their hair on and a regular pulse. But what about when it really counts? When there are stressful undercurrents and I’m not guaranteed a happy response? It’s just that I am so good at adapting, that I don’t even notice that someone else has created a fence that I’m happy to work alongside. If there were an Olympic sport in adaptability, I would excel. What I realise now, going into battle, having been in conscious practise of this skill for a year, is that if I have worked in my values and with integrity, I have done all that I can, even if I ruffle people up. People are supposed to disagree with each other. That’s healthy. Nobody, even the people I love and respect the most, ever gets it right all the time. So why on earth would I think I’m so special that I can? See dot point one, and live + learn.
I have to say, I’m enjoying stretching and walking into myself. It’s good fun being authentic.
I am reflecting upon 2018 and drawing out the themes I would like to follow in 2019. The amazing thing is this; while I set out to do some investigative work on what threads I would like to develop, the themes themselves chose me. I never gave that statement much weight and thought it so clichéd when people referred to their main body of work, or significant moment of enlightenment, as something which “sought them out.” But here I am, being sought about by 5 main themes for 2019, themes which I grappled with or eluded me, fascinated me or challenged me, and I gravitated to these instinctively. How do I know this? I made a starting-point list a few weeks ago, put it away, made another today, and found the original one. They were freakishly word for word, right down to some of the starter dot-points.
There are 5 themes, and today, I am going to explore CONNECTION.
I would like myself to know that I can be tired AND connected. That tiredness is no excuse not to connect deeply, to reach out, to soften, to communicate. As in introvert and as a performing arts teacher, where music teaching is like a high-contact Olympic sport played on a daily basis, my tiredness + need to be away from all the noise can be overwhelming. But I’d like to ask myself to articulate. Put things into words, particularly the tiredness and stress that I am feeling. I can be tired AND connected.
Keep in conversation, don’t avoid. I didn’t realise it, but there are days where I am so on a mission, or so peopled-out, that I do not invite conversation. I can keep a conversation short by setting my boundaries compassionately and warmly, but clearly. I don’t have to avoid. I am being small and petty by avoiding others. When we teach, we’re in a world which brings us in contact with such an extraordinary variety of personalities and people. Learn to take the responsibility for drawing clear boundaries, and don’t take the easy route of looking down and walking fast. Engage, because we are all walking in the same direction.
Look up. Look people in the eye when you have a conversation, that is such a powerful way to say, “I care, and you matter.” Again, I didn’t realise this, but the worthiness and connection which flows from one person to another begins with a conversation that is unhurried, even if it’s brief, and with proper eye contact. When I am in a hurry, I rush things and I don’t look up. In that sense, I’m not really seeing the other person. Even more sadly, I am not allowing myself to be truly seen. Get better with my words, go gently, but firmly. But look up.
I am not perfect, and I need to remember that. I am not perfect, God knows I’m not. But how many times do I haul myself over the coals for decisions I’ve made wishing that I was. I am not perfect, and I need to know this and own it. And from this, I need to allow myself to be clumsy, goofy, awkward, but ultimately, marvellously human + connected. In the times and situations where I find it the MOST challenging to tap into that side of myself, the more I need it. Remember that.
Invite people in for them. Just because you’d like to hear how they are going. By all means, invite people in and build networks because of their skills and ideas. But also just because. No one is too busy to do that. Not all the time, but at least a little, as a regular practice each day.
Keep in conversation with myself. I get so good at getting on the work treadmill, that I forget I am supposed to be a living, breathing human with feelings and vulnerabilities, not a machine. I have a tendency to be a machine, and then I am a procrastinating goddess of laziness masked in busy-work. I would like to get better at articulating exactly what is bothering me, or which direction I need to go.
Habit. When I work, or complete a task, it is not through just fear, or because my job demands it. Unless there are absolutely no redeeming factors and it’s a case of “get her done!”, then I’d like to put value on what I do. This makes things a whole lot scarier, but that what creates real connection with myself, my work, and the people I am working with. I do this automatically with my students and my teaching, but it surprises me how long it takes me to connect with things like choral commissions + personal ventures. Partly because I am afraid that I don’t have what it takes and the ideas won’t come, but mostly because I haven’t figured out how to connect with the work, or the course of action. For example, once I look deeply at the commission, the choir or the students I am writing for, and once I get used to polishing and creating in that little pocket of imaginings + creativity, there is value…and true connection.
Finally, I need to reach in and connect with myself. I remember times when I have been playful and silly, serious and affecting, electric and commanding, joyful and authentic, and I realise that life is a whole heap more meaningful if I am connected to myself. Challenge + adversity present more clearly if I have a pathway back into my heart, and there is no avoiding looking deeply at myself no matter what I am up against.
Reach in, take my heart by the hand, and walk side by side with it. It’s the very least and most important thing I can do myself, to love myself as I would a dear friend.
When I think about the teacher I am, where I’ve come from, and who I will continue to become, I cannot help but marvel at how different I am. I am not the same person or teacher that I was even a year ago; I am more. There is greater depth and understanding, gradients of colour, shades of understanding, more weight, more presence, more joy, more freedom.
Yet how often do I look at my own mentors and teachers and think of them as being exactly the same, somehow frozen in time in their ideas and thoughts? Ridiculously shocked that they look older, and are less energetic than they used to be?
Let us be gentle and joyful with each other, and allow ourselves the grace to change. Let us put into words the gentle shift of time, so that those around us can see that we are becoming, constantly.
I love who I am, and who I am becoming. I am grateful I get a new class of students each year to share this with, and wonder with slight disconcertment at my first set of students 16 years ago, and how I would have taught them now.
Let us realise how incredibly beautiful and powerful we are as agents of change, as we are moving and changing entities ourselves. Isn’t it extraordinary that every year, I will teach with a slightly different viewpoint, depth of passion, and colour?
And let me have the grace to allow myself to change, that I do not have to replicate the expectation over and over. That all I need to do is be. Essentially and authentically.
I have been thinking a lot about nuances in language as a starting point for connection, as I’ve been reflecting on my role in caring for and mentoring my Year 11 Tutor Group.
Listening to a conversation between the incredible Brené Brown + Marie Forleo, and Brené said something to effect of:
Don’t ask someone who is in suffering to ‘call if they need anything’. They won’t call. It’s an empty sentiment designed to make us, the helper + supporter, feel better. Ask them instead: ‘What does support for you look like right now?’
And my heart did a backflip.
I realised that I had been asking my students to “call if they needed anything”. I had missed the opportunity for connection every time I said that. I needed to change my words, and therefore my intent, as the beginning point for connection.
The sheer power of language is unmistakeable.
Comfortable with Discomfort
How do people get comfortable with discomfort?
How do people engage mindfully with challenging discourse, differences of opinions, aggressive interactions, and high emotions whilst maintaining a joyful, resilient and open heart, but a strong backbone?
It’s something I have been consciously practising this year, partly to develop my ability to stay in discomfort with a level head, but partly because I have had no choice. It’s been spirit-ruffling, enlightening, uncomfortable, and stretching. I always think I am doing crap and very often FEEL crap, when I also instinctively know that I am doing the best job possible.
The need to work with integrity drives this desire to engage with the challenging, but it doesn’t come easy. I am often caught at a crossroads when I find myself the only one standing with one side of the opinion, and the rest of the people around me swept up by the momentum of the argument, or a personality which bulldozes. I am not a bulldozer. Words have meaning and merit to me. What simply is “shooting the breeze” or “meaningless rubbish” and falls by the wayside for others affects me until I make peace with it and decide I am done. I am not a needless “hanger-on” person; words and feelings simply have purpose, merit and meaning to me. In fact, I am working hard to let go when conversations are done and expired. And the relief is immense. It’s healthy and wholehearted. But again, never done carelessly without necessary attention and thought.
How do I then learn to walk in integrity, connect with the challenge knowing that it will affect me deeply, and repair myself that I may walk into difference + disagreement with a calm and clear head?
Many of my friends, colleagues and family members think I can do this instinctively. But it doesn’t come naturally for me. If anything, it comes particularly unnaturally, with me having to sit in excruciating discomfort as I work through the framework of each problem and decide what action I need to take. Not what I WANT to take, not what would feel nice and comfortable for me. But what I NEED to do.
It’s times like this I HATE having a moral compass, because when you have stuck with this north-facing pin of integrity, you do not feel RIGHT until you’ve arrived at the course of action which you know is right. And often, the right decision affords personal peace, but it comes with an emotional mountain to climb first; a conversation which requires rehearsing, losing 3 hours sleep, spending the day before dipping in and out of worry, going back over ideas and ground until you are satisfied. There is no easy way to coexist with a moral compass and be a vulnerable, joyful person of integrity.
It WRINGS THE FUCKING LIFE out of you.
But there is no other way.
You need to do it.
So here’s the question: How does everyone else get comfortable with discomfort?
I’m not talking about deodorising a workplace or situation where everything is hunky-dory and annoyingly, superficially “fine”. I don’t buy in for that. I welcome safe discussion and discourse. I WANT accuracy for where I stand and what I do. But too often, pride and ego get in the way, and safe discussion without incidental power-over is impossible. And it breaks my heart, because I am no weakling. I just don’t want to be unnecessarily hurt by thoughtless, pride-driven conversation.
What I am talking about is when integrity does NOT win the day, and you watch as mud-slinging, bulldozer personalities and power-over get top spot? HOW do other people practise being resilient and courageous in this environment? How do you make peace with having to walk into battle, when you didn’t ask to walk into battle? How do you become more capable warriors in navigating shit-storms, without losing yourself? How do you keep your energy levels up? How do you learn to let things go after they are done? When do you know that they are done?
I don’t want total agreement. I want a safe place to put ideas on the table, the be deeply seen and valued, to not have my intrinsic work questioned when I am discussing difficult topics. It’s how we all want to feel.
Seen, valued, and heard, with worthiness which affords us the courage and audacity to have different opinions and creative ideas.
I know that I have instinctively walked this more challenging path all my life, because that’s how I was raised, that is what I am made of to the very core. I am so LUCKY to be lifted in heart and spirit by family and friends, who know me, and know what I do. They know my humility, they know my faults. They know where a should be fighting harder, and they also know where I am gentle in my strength.
For me, I know the cost of this walk of integrity. And I am tired from the heaviness of responsibility. As you know, this comes as UNNATURALLY to me as possible, yet I must do it. How do the great leaders of the world do it? How did Barack + Michelle Obama walk through their presidential term and maintain warmth and humanity, whilst making the hard decisions to guide and shape a nation? How did Nelson Mandela make wisdom and peace from hardship, over and over? Not just for a mere day; but when he least felt like it?
I am asking for some momentum and wind beneath my wings, some advice + wisdom, on how to continue to sustainably walk into challenging situations and understand how to chart a course of action without apology, but without sacrifice.
Day 23: San Francisco
“I hold my heart by the hand, together we’ll wander, endlessly.”
I love you, Mum + Dad.
My Dad gave me the sea. The salt and sting of Henley Square, the freshness, the soothing, the unrelenting storms all flecked with sand, the heavy dullness of dawn in summer. My Dad gave me this. He gave me the very edge of the sea that I may travel. He has a nomadic daughter with strong wings, but with a heart that overflows, overwhelmingly so, for home.
My Mum gave me the earth. The place that is my home. All that is wok-smelling, incense-filled, real, small details, family life at its most poignant and rushingly beautiful. All the tiny moments matter to my Mum, magnified over in joy, ache, sadness, worry, anxiety, and happiness. The small moments are her world. The big picture is wondrous to her, but she cannot live there. Her spirit is most happy with an anchor point; her family.
My beautiful parents, who are so fragile and strong, I love you so much.
Here, on the other side of the world, I think of you, and I love you with all my heart.
I am so sorry that I couldn’t give you a grandchild, or grandchildren. I have cried so much over this and every day, my heart cries. I wanted to give you grandchildren more than I wanted to have children of my own, and I dearly, dearly want children. A family. A husband. An anchor point.
But it is not written in the stars for me.
And I cry, raw tears.
But I cannot live a life in apology.
So I travel. I take flight. Glorious, uninhibited flight.
Not because I am running away, but because I am embracing. I will LIVE my life, all of it, and show you the all that I see. I will show you Montreal and San Francisco, Toronto where your son + daughter-in-law are, and the beauty of Prince Edward Island. I will show you Vancouver and Washington, and the uncut gritty beauty of New York. I will show you everything that I see, and share with you my world.
Hear me please, I will LIVE my life.
I love you both so much.
Day 10: Montreal
And I continue to digress from my little journalling formula, but I was inspired to write this post today.
The Gratitude In Travel
We are so lucky in life, the travellers. To be able to travel purely to reconnect, discover, or learn is such a privilege, the thought of which has overwhelmed me in unexpected moments over the last few days. We get on a plane, somehow we fly thousands of miles and we appear on the other side of the world because we have the means, the technology, and the inclination. Me, as a first generation Chinese-Vietnamese Australian living in “country Adelaide”; I have access to the whole world. I am allowed to see all of this. And I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I feel like a tiny star in a constellation, moving around in this extraordinary expanse of universe.
What is it about us humans that makes us long to discover? Where does this need to find out, to follow, to figure out, and to be free come from? It’s so much easier to be safe and small. But left to our own devices, we rarely choose it. We keep wanting more. And once we find out “more”, we keep longing for a “new type of more”.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my health, because to travel you need to be healthy. To be able to be tired and sore at the end of the day, smelly and sweaty with blisters and aching body is a sign that you have embraced all that a city or place has to offer. That your body and health have afforded you the strength and mobility to see all that you wanted is a blessing. That you had a chance to choose where you went during a day, and how much time you wanted to spend there. And for no other reason other than to experience it. No escape, no pain, no hunger, no war. This gives me pangs of both overwhelming gratitude and compassion for those who do not have what I am allowed to have.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for my work, which gives me a daily mirror and moral compass to be the best person that I am able. When you’re a teacher of teenagers, you have a mirror held up to you EVERY DAY. Good or bad, it’s all right in your face. You will KNOW if you’re working with integrity, because teenagers live for the smell of it, even if they don’t know how to “do integrity” fluently themselves yet. Teenagers don’t take shit, and they have crap detectors that are the world’s most finely tuned, non-electronic sensory devices. And then, to be able to take this moral compass out into the world and test it out for real, with people of other nationalities, countries, ideas, cultures + experience and figure out a different city? Truly amazing, soul-changing, shaking, affirming, and life-giving. The learning and shaping of yourself and your values doesn’t get better than that. How rich you become when you have the means to travel.
My work also allows me the monetary means to travel. I have enough money to pay for food, the flights, insurance, postcards, shopping, souvenirs, presents, experiences, entry fees, and emergencies. I have access to a world outside my own, that my own life may be stretched and enriched by what I experience. In other words, I have money to spare beyond the essentials that I can travel for the sake of travelling.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the love of my friends and family, who hold me like a strong secure net in my adventures. Without their trust, love and support, I would not be able to venture out so joyfully and freely. Without my Dad’s encouragement as a teenager, and quite against the usual Asian-stereotypes + thinking, I would not have begun to test my wings. Now, my wings and sense of adventure are strong and supple. And I cry tears of gratitude for the worry that both my parents must have endured in my earlier years of travel, when I made some stupid-arse choices for lack of experience and money, and that they still let me take flight.
I cry for joy at my freedom.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the chance to learn. Travel, as they say, changes you. And it does. How it changes you depends on what inside you needs changing, and what is vulnerable and malleable to the world at that point in time.
So, here, many thousands of kilometres away from home I say…
T H A N K Y O U.
Leunig so poignantly captures the spaces in-between, the humanity, the unspoken beauty, the essence of awkward, joyful, and lovely “being”.
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?
This is exactly how I feel about teaching! I’m always surprised, amazed + humbled when people comment on how much I love my teaching, and how innately and naturally it comes to me.
YES to how much I love teaching, I wouldn’t put up with it otherwise!
But everything else? I practise, and I practise my arse off. I drive home rewriting lesson plans in my head, I test out weird and wonderful choral warm-ups when I’m walking around the block, I rehearse the difficult conversations I need to have with students with long-suffering family members, kindred-spirit colleagues and friends. It may look unconventional, but I PRACTISE.
The most humbling of all? Everyday, our students hold up a glaring mirror to all our weaknesses + faults. I practise being the best person I can with the tools I have.