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I always do a blessing on my house each morning. Being a first generation Chinese-Vietnamese Australian, there are things you do partly out of love, partly out of tradition, and partly out of warding off the first-generation karma.
Lately, I have asked for courage. Sometimes, it’s a conscious request with a specific scenario in mind. Like, “Please grant me the courage to have that god-awful and awkward conversation I’ve got to have with one of my students who’s failing. Help me speak with compassion and directness, help me hit the right mark, help me go there and hold space for the discomfort.”
Other days, it’s just what pops up into my heard + heart, unbidden, “One order of courage today, please!”
In asking for courage, here is what I have received in my last term of teaching:
I asked for courage, in order that I might have the self-compassion and patience to be out of action for 7 days to soothe my spirit and recover from the sickness of intensive travel with the ANZAC Music Tour. The tenderness with which I have to speak to myself, that I might understand and fully embrace the fact that I am not super-human, that I must rest, and that the exhaustive pull of this sickness will pass, and I will recover, and my spirit will rise up again.
I asked for courage, that I might catch the newly-awakened love of leadership that came from leading the tour. You always get what you absolutely don’t want, and I cannot tell you how MUCH I DID NOT WANT to lead this tour. I didn’t know the crevices of it, I hadn’t planned it, my heart wasn’t embedded in it. And yet, I found myself holding the reins, in charge of the emotional, musical, and physical safety and joy of the students under my direction. I got on that plane, leaned in, and led like a MF. All the while, knowing that I would have been just as happy with a holidays curled up reading, or cooking, or fresh-faced from a morning run along Henley Beach, and I was on the other side of the world, discovering, experiencing, leading, learning, feeling; wholehearted, courageous, and completely present. I gave my heart to that tour, those kids, and my supporting staff. The fire in the belly has been awakened, and I find that I like being in the driver’s seat. That I like considering the dynamics and well-being of a team, and that I like pin-pointing potential and helping others to grow.
I asked for courage, that I might take a bigger, more audacious bite of life. I am always on the conservative side of the average. But lately, by design or by default, I have found myself pushing limits. Reaching in, asking for more clarification, talking, engaging in discussion, and leaning hard into discomfort. So much so that I come home completely wrecked and exhausted, sometimes wondering if I’ve done right by everyone – and knowing, instinctively, that I have.
I asked for courage, that I might let go more easily, learn how to forgive more completely and honestly, learn the process of forgiveness more intimately, that I might take bigger, more audacious bites of life. The more that I protect myself and tell myself and the world that everything is okay, the more that I don’t embrace the gritty reality of forgiveness. Forgiveness is what allows each of us to fully embrace life, and allow us that “lean-hard” into joy. Because unfortunately, there cannot be a filter for embracing life completely; if you want the joys, you need to run headlong into the shitty moments. Forgiveness is the navigation tool of the bold and brave-hearted.
I asked for courage, that I might love more fully. Loving is such a unfurling, tender, human act.
I asked for courage, that I might not embrace fears before they actually become fears. I see the audaciousness of those much older, much less educated, much more courageous that I am, and I see that they are living life with balls-out, audacious, vibrant wholeheartedness. And I cry, because I realise how many times I have played small from fear. I have the complete Derwent set of pencils in language, emotion, connection, life, stability, family, love, friendship, finance; the ONLY thing stopping me is fear. And perhaps a well-made flat white. I have everything I need to live life audaciously + fiercely.
I asked for courage, that I might learn how to navigate the unforgivable. When fear or circumstance make people act in ways that are less-than, when there is no rhyme or reason to a decision, an act, or a situation. I am afraid of becoming closed-off and bitter when I have to navigate these situations. Conversely, I don’t want to treat them superficially. So therefore, I ask for courage that I might engage with every part of life, even the situations which challenge me deeply and I do not easily understand, those which are seemingly unforgivable, incomprehensible, and driven by fear. I ask that I do not respond in fear, but I respond with courage and compassion, that I might retain and even build my understanding of myself, the world around me, and my understanding of humanity, and continue to live fully. One of my greatest fears is becoming bitter and not knowing myself.
I asked for courage, that I might be perceptive. That just because someone is embedded in a place of leadership or power, that does not make them a person of integrity and worth, and those qualities need to be demonstrated and trust earned over time. I ask that I learn to see things authentically, that I process things thoroughly, and that I anger + react slowly.
I asked for courage, that I might have the courage to be different. Lately, assimilating has been strangely seductive for me. Perhaps it’s been a long term, perhaps I feel like I am up against it, but I ask for courage that I continue to think differently to others, see my different points of view, and bring fresh new insights to the table, even if they seem – different. I am put here to be creative and compassionate, playful and insightful, and no one else will see from my point of view. And just because a decision is not made in my favour, doesn’t mean my viewpoint isn’t valid. The validity is not the question. It’s whether I have the courage to embrace seeing things from my point of view, and whether or not they make sense and are done from a place of generosity and egoless-ness.
I asked for courage, that I might live. When it gets too tiring or overwhelming, I want to fucking dance.
In asking for courage, I got a shitload of challenge, problem-solving, closed doors, fear and unfairness.
I’d say The Universe delivered very nicely, don’t you think?
I got comprehensively “couraged”, and I walk with battle scars, head-up, and a whole new sass.
This caught me by surprise and made my heart flip.
The Year 7s have been writing “gratitude notes” and I received one that nearly broke me today with how utterly beautiful + perceptive it was:
“Dear Ms Kwok,
Coming to Pulteney was one of the scariest but best decisions of my life. I have to be honest and say that I really like all my teachers, but I like them all differently. Some teachers are nice and I walk in and out of their classes feeling good. But that’s it. I feel nice, which isn’t bad but it isn’t life-changing.
And then there are some teachers where I walk into class and I feel like I’m really seen and that I need to put up work which is my best. I feel like I am cared for, but not always in a comfortable way, like I’m valued but I can’t cruise.
You are one of those sorts of teachers.
Exciting things feel more exciting, and I feel like I want to try harder because there’s more chance that you will see when I’m not doing my best, and probably call me out on it. That’s okay, it’s your job. (😂)
Thank you for not only teaching me, but making me feel like I want more out of each day.”
Holy crap. Can this kid please go for president?!
It’s easy to live safely. The recipe is simple: Put your heart someplace safe. Protect it from harm. Hold it, swaddle it, put it gently into a cocoon with multiple layers of padding + intensive wrapping.
But if you want anything from life, you must be stretched.
And if you want any part of connection, you must set your heart free.
If you want to connect, you must figure out a way to forgive.
Imperfectly, messily. With a hunger for life and reaching out again for the next, “What’s next?”
It’s a funny, tender tightrope, this whole “being human” thing. A heart is also a curious entity, designed to be so utterly tender, yet courageous and able to stretch with the happenings of life. Strong, yet surprisingly supple. Sensitive. Yet limitless in its ability to accommodate the stretching of life, of grief, of ache, of disarray.
Let it, oh! Let it, please.
Otherwise, the edges will curl and go brittle.
You won’t know what it’s like to take too many breaths before going underwater, or. be wondering if the pulse in your ears is from fear, or being so alive you feel electric.
Stretch with all the joy and grief that life offers, and every colour in between.
You are supposed to be a little un-nerved, a little too alive, a little off-centre, and a little buzzing from the business of living.
Forgive. You need this to connect, to love, and to live.
It stands to reason I’ve left this one to the end.
Even while I was brainstorming my five points of reflection for 2019; this one was the hardest of all to acknowledge, to commit to, and to want to invest in.
Forgiveness, in all its forms, has been something which has both fascinated and frustrated me for a while, eluding and embracing me with equal unpredictability. I’ve been drawn to books which take it apart, or have it as its central theme. I’ve listened to TED talks and read reflections of courageous people who have survived far more in a week than I have my whole life, and been silenced and humbled by their words. And the reason why is this: I want to learn what it means to forgive as an act of love, when the issue at stake is bigger than the usual ups and downs of life. I want to learn how to forgive, others and myself, when there needs to be a process to the forgiveness.
In my natural, un-worked-on state, I am a perfectionistic score keeper. If there is an issue, my instinct is to apologise for the 27.5% of my part in the proceedings (because I’m alway more right), and readily expect 72.5% pure, unfiltered apology from whoever has wronged me. And I would remember it if didn’t happen, or happen to my satisfaction. It didn’t mean that I couldn’t keep loving or working with the person who had caused me hurt, I just could never fully forget the hurt in a way which allowed me freedom and full access to myself, and my interactions with them when it really counted. When I read that forgiveness is an act for yourself, not for the other person, it was revolutionary. So then, I spent some time grappling with that concept, not wanting and eye for an eye, but to forgive and acknowledge for my own well-being and sense of hope.
Now, in my work-in-progress state, I am a recovering perfectionist and advocate of the compassion which is required to live life well. And it comes back to one thing: We are not perfect. We get up each day, we do our best. Some of us do better than others. But we all require compassion and forgiveness at some point in our lives, and I’d rather be an active participant in the process than have to ask someone to forgive me with no return if I am able.
The inability to forgive easily is simple to explain; we are tender-hearted and we don’t want to get hurt. Holding that inability to forgive in place means that we’re in a deadlock, and even if that means hurting yourself a little, it means that you’re relatively safe from any further hurt from the person who caused it.
But it also holds all of you – your joy, your ability to love and move forward, your vulnerability and tenderness – in an absolute deadlock as well. You might argue that you can function perfectly fine without forgiving certain people and events in your life. But those pockets of darkness that remain unexamined continue to hum and buzz in the background, taking away from your love and joy. And loving yourself means truly examining things, even if there is no answer.
Forgiving doesn’t EVER mean letting the other person off the hook, it means that you’re no longer allowing them to take a part of your joyfulness and will to live life without your permission. What’s to say that you, put under a unique set of circumstances and pushed to breaking point, wouldn’t cause a situation where you required love and forgiveness?
As we walk through life together stretched and pulled in different directions by opposing ideas and different people, we walk with a common humanity. It would be ridiculous to expect us all to like each other. But we can certainly start by looking for understanding and the middle ground, holding fast to our compassion for each other, humanising each other, and getting better at sitting in the uncomfortable place which allows us to recognise that very rarely is anyone 100% right or wrong.
So, in holding forgiveness in my heart, I remember the following:
Forgiveness is for me. When I need to look hard at something, let my first thought be for my own well-being and those that I love. Put pride back on the shelf, take ego off the table, and just look at the humanity of the situation. Then look at what I need to do to match my values; is it speak my truth? Walk away? Call a mediation? Offer an apology? Forgiveness will often be open-ended and messy, and I need to be sure of two things; that I have done the best I can according to my values, and that my well-being comes first. These two things push and pull in opposite directions, but that is what I ask of myself.
Anger is okay. Knowing when to express anger in the appropriate manner, to the right person, at the right time, is a unique challenge. But for those of us hell-bent on being perfect score-keepers, it’s so much easier to talk about all the things a person has done wrongly behind their back, than hold them accountable. And sometimes, anger is the right form of communication. Anger can show the strength of a boundary, the depth of a connection + love, or the value of something. Anger, without being derogatory, cheap, or hurtful, is a powerful and important form of communication.
Forgiveness is not an exact science. Forgiveness requires the most creative thought process and tracking than any other brand of problem-solving I’ve encountered. Because you cannot predict how people will respond, you can only deal with your side of things. If you go in with an apology, don’t go in expecting one back. You offer an apology because it’s what you hold yourself accountable to do, and it’s what you think is the right action for you. Forgiveness can be quiet or haphazard, unspoken or spoken, serious or playful; don’t be fooled by its presentation. Forgiveness may also never come, and you may need to figure out a way to find closure, and to make your own peace. If you really want to seek forgiveness, you must be prepared for any outcome, not just the one you want.
Forgive myself. Something I have learned in this past year is to recognise when I need to forgive myself. Often, these times will masquerade as extreme tiredness, or my being unpredictable, distracted, being totally over-the-top, going into myself, not being able to make a decision, and most tellingly, not being able to be fully engrossed in whatever is in front of me. When I get down to the heart of it, it is often a time when I need to tell myself that I forgive myself. I forgive myself that I couldn’t respond to a student in the perfect manner today; I will try and reconnect tomorrow. I forgive myself that I have no energy for my family, I will try and rest so that I am better value over the weekend. I forgive myself the frustration I feel with a colleague because I am on track and they are out of kilter, and it has knocked me off my strong, steady path. I forgive myself that I did not speak up when I had the opportunity, let me make a time to have that conversation, and let me prepare for it. I am not perfect. But I can always try again.
Forgiveness is a skill. Forgiveness is a skill that I would like to continue practising. The more I look gently and tenderly at things which upset, frustrate, or anger me, the more I exercise the muscle which connects me to love and forgiveness. Forgiveness, for all its intangibles, requires the ability to think about a situation from every angle, applying compassion where it would be easier to dismiss. One thing I’d like to do differently to strengthen this conversation with myself is to reach out to friends and family to help me tease out the different viewpoints. What I cannot see, they might be able to lovingly and safely bring to my attention so that I’m not attempting to do the impossible on my own.
Forgiveness takes time. You can’t just figure out forgiveness like you can a maths problem, as satisfying as that would be. Forgiveness is like picking up the threads of the impossible fabric from where you left off, and continuing to weave understanding. As you travel through life and get older, wiser, and collect new experiences, this helps in building your repertoire of skills and understandings to forgive. Allow time. Press pause. Go run around and be human. Then come back to the hard work.
Quiet, considered words are powerful. Forgiveness is rarely overt or loud, and requires some degree of stretching to reach a new understanding. If you cannot forgive at an exact moment in time, that is okay. Aim for being authentic and accurate. Quiet, considered words spoken with truth and accuracy are far more powerful than throwing down a careless and flippant apology or acceptance of something when you really don’t feel it. Because the mind and heart keep score, and it’s your job to know yourself well enough that you can understand what is true and accurate for you.
Forgiveness is love. Forgiveness is love in its purest form. It cannot be measured or extracted, it is given. So, let me remember to consider this first for myself, then those most important to me, then everyone I have contact with in my life. Let me strive to be accurate, authentic, compassionate and honest, straddling the line between compassion and integrity. Let me make decisions on how I will act based on my own morals. And let me understand when to hold fast, and when to let go. Let me do so in the highest integrity, compassion and love.
Exhausted + buoyant all at once. Thank you so much to the exceptionally excellent Pulteney staff I work with, whose words + laughter lifted me up and filled me to the brim today. I am so inspired by the joy, compassion + love you share with each other and myself. I am 4 (or more accurately, 3.88-ish! 😂) years old at Pulteney, and I love the feeling of realising I have become a little over-loved, dog-eared, and worn-in, in the best way possible.
Thank you. 😊
Flying joyfully free into holidays + feeling light, but anchored. 🌟
Darling Girl, who aches with hope, here is what I say to you:
Fill the room with all of you. Not pretentiously, but with fullness, authenticity, and the very resonance of you. Stand still and sacred, without aggression, but without apology. Just simply being.
Speak with every ounce of who you are. All of your words in your own simple breath, not just the ones that are curated, consciously or unconsciously.
Be haphazardly joyful, silly, and playful, because your soul needs to breathe.
Fill every space of every moment.
Live, without excess, but fully.
Don’t make space for something that is not there; your heart and soul will stretch when it becomes part of your life, when you need it, or indeed, when there is loss. You will stretch for both joy and pain. You will be okay.
Travel. My God, travel if you can and fill your mind and heart with new understandings which stretch you and embed you with life’s breath and fresh wisdom.
Travel, that you may experience a new angle of gratitude.
Travel, because this learning is embedded in the human spirit. The rushing need to be free, to live, to feel, to embrace.
With every ounce of your heart, your flesh, your body. Do not hold back because you don’t feel you have earned the right, you beautiful, beautiful dear girl. Life will keep moving and you need to be a part of that. You can laugh and cry, shriek and run, without any fear that you will need to be a little more refined and quiet because you haven’t earned the right. You have.
Being human IS your birthright. Not selfish. Human.
Don’t let that gloriously beating heart harden.
Work hard to undo, unfurl, simplify, let go, de-clutter, and set free.
The emotional knots may be many and tightly done-up, but have faith and patience. With time and love, care and unfailing gentleness, deep compassion and courage, you will undo them all.
And your beautiful heart will keep beating freely.
Cry your tears. Feel you grief. Feed your soul. Walk, and keep walking, each step, knowing every crevice of your heart with authenticity and ownership. The shadows of your grief will never leave you. But nor will the absolute, unquenchable desire to live.
Make new meaning every day.
Change as a part of life is like pennies to the dollar, and possible every minute you breathe.
There is no other way.
There is only love.
And my Darling Girl, I love you more than you know.
Thank you for these holidays. 😊
While I always work through these ones, they have been absolutely FILLED with playfulness, connection, energy, reflection, love and joy. They’ve been silly, raucous and poignant, with unexpected moments to reconnect, speak, cook, create, explore, and replenish the stores that make me WANT to walk into school each day and do what I do.
Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am so glad + grateful, with a new appreciation for the tiny, silly, special moments. 🌟
Everything becomes more present and interesting, rather than just a conveyor belt of “nexts”.
It’s in these very ordinary daily moments of pure joy or stillness that I get glimpses of the untapped courage, clarity and drive I didn’t realise I possessed. I have been loved into realness + life again, which makes me more daring to make that first connection, stand in the wilderness, and speak my truth in whatever way I need. 🦋
To those of you who have been in struggle, I hope that you will be picked up and carried by friends and colleagues as you lay down whatever has been challenging. I’m thinking of you. 😘
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.