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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 25: Vancouver, with San Francisco reflections.
And it feels like I have E X H A L E D.
I have loved every moment of this trip, and been inspired and had my senses heightened by all that I’ve felt, seen, experienced, smelled, lived.
But I have to confess, coming from the grittiness + contrast of San Francisco, from the wide expanse of sea along The Embarcadero, the buzz and rush of the city, and the stark reminders of human suffering and homelessness, I found myself on edge a little more. Just a little more alert.
My compassion rises up and I know that I must do the best I can to meet in the middle. Sometimes, I go quietly about my explorations, I do not stare or judge; other days I found the courage to buy a small contribution of food for someone in need. The most courageous? Looking these people of hardship in the eye and truly SEEING them. If I had fallen upon hard times, would someone have the courage to do this for me?
I am lucky beyond belief. Again, the tears well up fast and unbidden.
When I landed in Vancouver yesterday, it was like coming home. Half-way home, literally, and figuratively. I felt the weight lift off my shoulders, and the edge come away from me. I realised how much of a forward-motion, street-wise stare I had accumulated whilst exploring some parts of San Francisco and Washington.
With no disrespect to any of the places I have explored, I feel more at ease.
And I’m ready to go home.
Day 24: San Francisco to Vancouver
I’ve had 2 moments of “sassing” recently that I’m low-key proud of.
1. The Monks at Golden Gate Bridge.
While crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, there were a whole heap of monks milling about the foot of the walkway. One serenely approached me, offered me a blessing and then gently tied a string of prayer beads around my wrist. With a beatific smile on his face, he told me his brothers were building a temple, would I please make a donation? Then I NOTICED; the sneakers, the overly-crumpled yellow monk’s cloak, the glimpse of jeans under the cloak.
Old me would have paid the $5.00 donation and then been pissed off for the rest of the day.
Current me smiled a matching beatific smile right back, took the prayer beads off my wrist, said “Thank you SO much, I wish you all the best for the temple, but I’m really sorry, I’m not into prayer beads!”, and strolled off with a grin.
While on my success strut, I noticed another couple getting a similar treatment. I walked up, said hello to everyone and told them, “Hey guys, you’re getting fleeced. There’s a whole heap of them!”
“Oh, wow! Thanks so much!”
And to the “monk”, “Sorry dude, nice try. We’re done here!”
2. The Drama Queen at Bloomingdales
An AMAZING colourful striped dress caught my eye in Bloomingdales, and I went to go have a look. From behind me, in the most overly-dramatic, drama-queenly exasperated exclamation rang out, “WHY do people ALWAYS have to go for the things on the RACK?!”
I think he thought I had no English and wouldn’t understand, but it put the fire in my belly!
I used that teacher voice which is the deadly combination of “overly-sweet-but-don’t-you-DARE-eff-with-me” and just kept taking AT this rude man: “Well, it’s SUCH a totally GORGEOUS DRESS, and I LOVE colours. I’m travelling from Australia, and this is my last week abroad, and I was really looking to splurge on something beautiful to take home. I’m SO SORRY that I inconvenienced you by looking at something on the rack, but it just absolutely caught my eye, and it’s even the right size as well! But I’d better not inconvenience you by asking to try it on, so thank you SO MUCH for making me feel so WELCOME!”
Dazed, he pulled himself together and stammered, “Are you sure you don’t want to try it on?”
Me: “OH. NO. THANK. YOU!”
Strutting that strut OUT!
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 14: Charlottetown
“A moment to nestle with the heart”.
Today marks exactly halfway in my travels; I have 28 days on the road. And while I am so incredibly excited to be travelling, today’s post is a tender one. Travel is hard. Travel is not just tiring, it is exhausting in a way that you feel in your bones. While you can rest physically, the soul is always thinking, wondering, and on the go, and you are always trying to stay awake and alert to the places and people around you, because you want to take it all in, and because you want to be safe.
In addition to all of this, I have only been sleeping 5-6 hours a night since I have started travelling. I have been very gentle on myself and tried to rest in the middle of each day, but today, I am feeling the sort of in-the-bones tired that warrants a day of just “nestling with the heart”.
To be able to find that quiet still place inside you, despite the tiredness, despite the noise, despite the excitement, despite the joy; this has been my greatest challenge while I’ve been travelling. I want to enjoy and be present for every moment, but I don’t want to come home exhausted. I wanted to come home expanded, changed, and affected. To do this, you have to have access to that wonderful still place inside of you. Especially when your heart and mind are racing over what you should be doing in your free half an hour, and all the while your heart is yelling, “YOU NEED TO EFFING BE HERE TO ENJOY EVERY MOMENT OF THIS!”
I have also been keeping alert to all my Year 12s, returning emails and answering questions; and I KNOW that a holiday is not supposed to be about this, but it actually soothes me a little to commit to half an hour a day, just to make sense and order out of things. It’s what gives me peace and joy, so I do it. But actually getting into the zone for that half an hour has been the most challenging and gruelling request I have made of myself, and resulted in my feeling worn-out, down, anxious, unsettled, resentful, and a whole mixture of other things I do no normally feel at home when I tackle work. Solving problems whilst on the road is so much harder than when you don’t have “your people” around you. Problems and doubt are magnified, and solutions are harder to reach.
And in the haze of being semi-exhausted, I find that concentrating for any period of time can put me close to tears of stress. It’s such an unusual feeling for me.
I have had to practise working and being gentle upon myself in these last 2 weeks. I have taken one step at a time; reading a brief or an email, jotting down notes in my journal over coffee for a lesson plan, writing down dots points as to which 3 drafts I will edit and whose work I will put notes on in Sibelius, and even where I will go for lunch, to help look after myself. This sort of work + holiday combination takes the utmost of care and determination, but I know that after being on the road for a month, I will figure it out. This is just the very exhausting and emotionally demanding part of it, and I have to be gentle on myself and have faith. I have to also find new ways to energise myself, like taking a walk, or figuring out which places I’d like to explore while I am trying to get this balance right, and what I will eat whilst trying to enjoy all the local specialties.
I was in tears of joy and relief last night when I sent off my first draft-return to one of my students. It seemed in surmountable, but I just took one step at a time. And I guess the human spirit is far stronger than you realise; even when there is doubt and exhaustion, if you keep walking, one foot in front of the other, and gently, quietly, and simply get very clear over what you need to do, you can do it. Even if it drives you to tears.
So here I stand, very tired + tender, walking one step in front of the other. So utterly exhausted today, but so mindful of how very lucky I am to be here, travelling, being a teacher, and figuring out this working balance.
Let me be determined. Let me be gentle, but quietly determined.
Day 13: Charlottetown to Cavendish, Prince Edward Island
IT’S ANNE OF GREEN GABLES TIME!
Steps taken: 22,489, mostly around the glorious Prince Edward Island National Park, which is on the doorstep of Green Gables. Did you hear that?! On the doorstep of Green Gables.
One memorable meal or food item: I finally got my Cows ice cream, an absolute Canadian staple, and somewhat of a feature in Prince Edward Island. The names are all cute, corny, and cow-related; gems such as “Cookie MOOnster”, “Wowie Cowie”, “Cowconut”, and “Caramel MOOcacchino”. I chose the very aptly named “Cownadian Maple”, which was a maple syrup, maple butter swirl, and maple cookie concoction that was as overly sweet as it was UTTERLY AWESOME. Even the chocolate-dipped cone was fat and rich with over-done chocolate, slightly too thick to bite through daintily, and completely, wonderfully, honest in its welcome. You cannot get ice cream like this in a big city. This is real country love.
One special photograph: Green Gables, in all it’s glory, the place where a feisty little red-headed girl taught so many other girls to love wholeheartedly, imagine possibilities with wild abandon, unrelenting resilience in times of struggle, and to be bold and stand your own ground, and to never apologise for your background because YOU own the story from here onwards. Anne Shirley, you were an inspiration who crept into our hearts before we even knew how to analyse just how extraordinary, and totally “Brené-Brown-perfectly-imperfect” but damn exceptional that you are.
One decent coffee: Receiver Coffee is totally getting my vote! Australian standard coffee in small-town Charlotte. Five stars.
One amazing moment: Seeing Anne’s room. To read the books and to be inspired is one thing, to stand in the hallway and look into a room that has captured the imagination of so many through the words of Lucy M. Montgomery was so very special. And the fact that she is not even a real girl, but made so UTTERLY REAL in the hearts of people all around the world; that makes it even more special.
One unplanned detour/adventure: A chance meeting with Jay + Sujing from Korea who are planning to move to Australia following their teaching degrees. A day of connection + wonderful conversation followed. I am sad, surprised and joyful at how I don’t connect so easily and freely when I am safe at home, and to see how easily and joyfully new connections can be made when travelling. Let me open my heart up, that I may remember this way of connecting, with child-like joy and wonder, when I am at my most busy at home.
20 minutes reading: Anne of Green Gables, on the bus to Cavendish.
30 minutes composing: I’ve finally rolled up my sleeves and hit a commission that I’m editing! What I’m most happy about is not what’s on the page just yet, but the feeling of working, reworking, and getting deeply into a piece, with steadiness and methodical focus. I always have that flip of the stomach where I wonder if I can immerse myself so deeply, or if my mind is too flighty during a trip. Can I do this? What if nothing works? And then I start. And that wonderful reliability and weight falls on my shoulders, and I find I am at peace because I have finally started the process.
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.
Day 7: Toronto
My last day full in Toronto, and it’s a family day! I am catching up with my other sister-in-law, the energetic + gregarious Steph and finally meeting her partner Sam. Who is like an instant sunshade for me when I finally meet him!
Steps taken: 15,982, which is surprising since I feeling like I spent more time outdoors today than yesterday.
One memorable meal or food item: The Nanaimo bar, a Canadian speciality. The bottom layer is a biscuit + coconut crumb base, the second is custard-flavoured butter icing, and the top layer is chocolate ganache.
One special photograph: The group photo of my extended family, all miraculously in one place. It felt like we were the Weasley family from Harry Potter, all safely marked as “AT HOME”.
One decent coffee: The delicious and refreshing cold-brew at Boxcar Social along the glorious Toronto waterfront.
Off the beaten track: Today began with a struggle. I had to get my head back into school-mode and draw on my courage and integrity to deal with some decision-making I didn’t agree with. While I’m diligent, it’s so hard to make these decisions where you are away on holiday and wanting to be present here, and you find yourself drawn back into work-mode against your will, despite having put a firm boundary down before leaving. I feel like I am being pulled into a decision I absolutely don’t agree with, and I am missing family, friends, and colleagues back home to talk it through. Luckily, I had my brother and sister-in-law, Robs + Em, to help get me back into equilibrium. I had to work through the issue, step-by-step, all the while anxious and frustrated I wasn’t there in person to be able to give voice to my opinions. I HAVE to trust that my judgment is right and that my decisions, always based in integrity, will have merit.
An unsettling start to the day, which made me so very grateful for the joy of being able to spend it with family, new and old.
And thank you also, wider universe and everyone who loves me, that I work from a place of love, courage, and integrity. It’s such a hard path to walk sometimes, but it’s the only way I know how to be. And this is the case because I have learnt this example from all the people who have played a part in shaping me.
Please let me be at peace with all that I have done, and let me know that my true worth will shine through. Let me trust in this and continue to take joy and delight in my travels.
Because I absolutely must!
My daily goals in my travel journal. Created this page today whilst procrastinating doing my school reports.
Life really IS what you ask of it.
How you look at a minute, and what you decide to do with that minute, those 60 seconds, dictates what you get out of life.
It’s not advantage, or opportunity; and it’s rarely just luck. It’s what you choose to ask of that pocket of time. What you choose, with perfect clarity, to use that moment for.
There is such a fine line between existing and living, and as I get older and walk more steps, the more completely I realise this. Comfortable and engaged is so easily accessible. It’s SO comfortable, that you don’t realise sometimes that you are not really living. Not really asking all you can of a moment. However, squeezing a moment for all it can give is not living, either. Chasing down a goal, a dream, and aspiration, and beating it into submission MAY get you want you want, but there is no truth, no light, no life-blood. It’s an inert and lifeless achievement, empty as a shell when you get there.
The difference between a life of existing, a life of living, and a life of demanding is quite simply a breath. Smallest width of an eyelash. The flutter of a butterfly’s wings. In order to SEE it and KNOW it, you need to be alert and alive in the soul, every day.
There are no easy answers. You simply have to WALK. Deliberately, joyfully, honestly, completely, fully.
I look at those who are happy and hardworking, and I realise that they have not received a better deal in life. They live a unique combination letting go but holding on and valuing. They do not labour a point, but they BRING UP points that need to be brought up. They love with a fierce intensity, and yet they can open their fingers and let go with grace the moment that it is needed. They do not have a guarantee for anything, and yet they seem to make value from the small moments. They have no materialistic backlog of memories, they simply HAVE memories, fully-formed, lasting, and real, to celebrate their humanity.
I love so many things, and I’m afraid of so many other things. I find it easy to be joyful each day. Yet I wonder if this attitude to life will change when I get older, when I have to rely more on others, when I am not as capable; will I become irrelevant, or will I be misunderstood? More importantly, will I have the grace and the courage to know when I need to move on from one mindset and embrace another? Those who live a full life know when one chapter has ended, and they need to go forward into the next. They do not grieve change, but rather they learn about it, embrace it, study it, live it, laugh and struggle with it, BECOME it. They do not look back at what was, or mourn what they “should have, could have, might have” been, they simply ARE.
Again, you won’t know until you hit that path.
There are no easy answers.
There is no guarantee.
All you can do is WALK FORWARD, ready to embrace each day.