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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.
Listening to a conversation between Oprah + Liz Gilbert this morning, and laughed out loud and was so affected by what she said about heading into a new year; the changing of the years from old to know, and how different people celebrate them. And I’d never thought of a new year in the way that she has described it in the interview, but I LOVED it. So many of us see in a new year with too much expectation tinged with regret of the previous one, and put a little too much anxiety and pressure into the first few days, only to relax into something way too ordinary later on.
How inimitably quotable is Liz Gilbert?! And Oprah, I hate to confess it, was a hard-sell to me, but I’ve loved her ever since partaking in Brené Brown’s CourageWorks courses online with her. Wisdom beyond what you see, and I’m so glad to know it.
New Year’s Day is my favourite day of the year, because I feel like it’s such a miracle that you get a brand new one. No matter how MUCH you screwed up, and they give you a BRAND NEW ONE every year!
Every year, they’re like, “Here! We’re just gonna give you this brand NEW one! It’s got no dings in it, no miles on it, it doesn’t smell like cigarette smoke, nothing’s spilled on it – BRAND NEW!”
And I’m always like, “I can’t believe you guys are giving me another one of these! Didn’t you SEE what I did with the last one?!”
I tend to go through each day and love all the tiny little moments in each day and all my special days just happen, regardless of the date or occasion. So New Year’s Day might just end up being “The Really Great Day At The Beach” that started later than usual with a lot of loud cheering, rather than the momentous and overloaded start of a new year. And the start of something might end up on a totally nondescript day, which I’ll end up treasuring forever. It’s the most resolute of anti-resolutions, and works just beautifully for me!
But Liz Gilbert’s summary?! So much better!
And here’s the interview:
At a time of year where we are both joyful and tired in spirit and soul, let us love gently, passionately, and love well.
There is only love. Even when there is divide, there is love in the way we communicate and relate to each other.
Are you happy with how this year has gone? I both love and am turned upside-down emotionally by this time of year as it’s a time of deep reflection. Have I done all I can, been the best I can be, loved where I am able?
And as I journal, and the words thread themselves into heartfelt sentences on the page, I remember that I am utterly human, that I will fail, but that there is always a second change.
Take those chances, love, reach out, be courageous…life is only tiny little steps of daring, captured in fleeting moments of joy.
Oh, LEAN into those. With every ounce of courage and vulnerability that you can.
After some deliberation, I’ve decided to leave this original post on my timeline as a celebration of an extraordinary and very much loved person, my wonderful piano teacher, Clemens Leske Snr.
When two well-loved friends and colleagues rang me out of the blue to tell me that he had passed because they knew how much he meant to me, I was honestly just overwhelmed with memories and thoughts, and much love.
We’ve since found out that it was ANOTHER Clemens Leske who sadly passed this week, who was ALSO living in Sydney having hailed from Adelaide. “Our” Clemens Leske Snr is very much still with us, as his students are fondly saying at present!
So what I wrote today, and what I mean with full heart, and that I was so glad to be able to reflect upon today:
“A teacher of such gentle compassion and musical excellence who had a profound effect upon me, and the teacher and person I would become. A mentor I loved with all my heart, trusted, and respected, because I knew that my skills and self were safe under his care, and that he would ask the absolute best from me without damaging my love of music + learning. When I saw him at the Gala Concert at Elder Hall in 2015, I was overwhelmed but unsurprised at the sheer number of friends, past students, and colleagues who came to celebrate himself and his wife, Beryl Kimber. So utterly different! She was bursting with exuberance, colour, and WORDS!, and he the very quiet and reserved one. But such a special love between them.
I had him as a Single Studies scholarship student during high school between the ages of 15 to 17; the ages where you are the MOST annoyingly smart-arse, impressionable, fragile, and skeptical. He quietly and simply loved + taught me, exactly as I needed, and I flourished musically and as a person. I fell in love with sounds, performance, rigour, and excellence. I practised as easily and as naturally as if I were just breathing. I loved playing completely and won the Don Maynard Music Prize for Year 12 Music under his tutelage.
To sit in the same room as him was to share space with someone who taught without pride or ego, just pure gentleness, fierce and unrelenting excellence, and overwhelming love. It is a light that I carry with me daily when I teach. My heart overflows today.”
…and still does, with joy.
I was thinking today about where I’d like to head in the future. Right now, I’m up to my armpits in secondary school classroom music teaching, and I love it. It’s exactly where I want to be, and I’m happiest in the classroom, no matter how demanding the day, and love connecting + being in conversation with other teachers.
But if I were to ever raise a family, I would never inflict this intensity of full-time teaching upon my children, or my husband or partner. I would rather the be poor and living on a creative shoestring than stretched to the limit with no emotional energy to spend. I wouldn’t want to miss a moment.
So I thought about lecturing, composing full time, working at tertiary level, writing, doing workshops, and at the end of it all, I realised one thing to be true.
It’s not the intensity of work per se; it’s how much connection there is. No matter where I go, there will be demands, even if I step down from full-time. There will always be things competing for my attention, and if it’s not work, then it will be family, friends, my own expectations, creative ideas, community…all of it. All MESSY lot of it! And I realise, now in this little oasis of holidays, that I can only be grateful for this peace when I’ve had intensity of work. I don’t wish maximum loading on anyone; no-one should do that for a period of time.
But life goes in ebbs and flows; there will be mad scrambles and moments of calm, times where you won’t think you’ll make it through another step, and other days where you fly through with energy to spare. The thing is, it ONLY makes sense when there IS that variety and contrast. Joy only happens in the light of grief. Rest and repose only after a period of regular work.
So wherever I go in the future, let there be laughter. Let there be joyful connection that lifts me up and inspires my very authenticity and humanness. Let there be examples of courage and love ALL AROUND ME, EVERY DAY, asking me to be better. Because I can err on the side of caution, joyful as I find myself normally. Let me be moved and shaken by people who are heartfully alive all around me, that I may be alive always, no matter where my place or intensity of work.
Through connection and love, everything has purpose, becomes interesting, has agency, and has resonance. I don’t want to live any other way.