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As I continue to step into myself, I realise increasingly how adaptable I am. And while I carry my own vibrancy and momentum, when I am confronted with a force or personality greater than mine, more selfish and unpredictable, less sensitive and thoughtful, I either fold into myself or adapt to that person. I move toward and I please. That is my MO.
It’s so subtle that I don’t even realise I am doing it sometimes; I am so able to mold myself to a situation that I convince myself this was the correct option, even if it means working harder or differently. And I also tell myself that it is good to learn, think of the greater good, I shouldn’t be so set in my ways, and that I need to stretch myself.
And it’s certainly not because I am not comfortable and confident in myself. I feel that I am confident in standing my ground authentically and simply, without fanfare. I am playful, joyful, energised, vibrant, interested, and I continually evolve in courage, perception, and strength.
And yet, there it is. Only when I draw back far enough do I realise that I am adapting imperceptibly, even to myself, to a situation “for the greater good”. Or, if I am being brutally honest, because I am afraid of confrontation and am used to being “the one who thinks differently”. Being the one on the outer with some sense of optimism and personal momentum, when you are surrounded by strong, bull-dozer of a character with a whole cast of minion sicko-fans is a real litmus test to feeling your DIFFERENT-NESS.
So I’ve noticed something unique about this week: So far, every day back at school has been a gift. I have loved being back in the frontline, and some of the stresses I had last year have been removed just by having time away. The gift has come from the deep recalibration that a holiday offers. All the things that you assumed were okay are realigned to have merit and worth, and you find your equilibrium, not that of the workplace. And until things are pulled away from this centreline, I intend to listen hard to this equilibrium and honour it in my favour, for my own well-being.
During the holidays, I have spent time with people who see me completely, and love me playfully, honestly, and warmly. And now, at this unique time of getting back on the treadmill and running fast, I want to catch all the times that I am feeling discomfort as a warning sign, an indication that I need to pay attention and be alert and NOT automatically adapt.
I’d like to stand at that crossroad fully, and decide if I will choose to adapt and ask more of myself, or if I will stand in my own truth and rock the boat a little. Or a lot.
I am doing things differently this year.
I will no longer allow myself to do the following:
Dim my light to make others around me feel more comfortable. I come back from my lessons excited, or wrecked, and everything in between. I am unfailingly honest and excited by my work, and I know that I do connection with my students exceptionally well. I will not make myself small just in case people around me feel small from my success, or have the pettiness to feel triumphant from my failures. I will step into my own, because it suits and celebrates me. I will walk into a room and my cup will overflow, and that sass will ooze from my being. And that is all there is to it, my friends. No debate.
But what I will also do is make sure I choose “my people” well. I will give the bare facts of what happens in my classes to connect with my department to be an effective colleague. But I will make sure my most special + unique successes are shared with the people who matter to me, and very likely outside of my department. These are people who are in my inner circle, who will cheer me on because I succeeded.
Allow others to make off-hand comments that are designed to cut me down. You know the ones; the comments which take the shine off something wonderful, or something I am excited by, or something that is unique to me, like my love of colour. Let me remind myself that:
The conversation with myself will be different, though. Rather than huddling into myself and seething, I am going to remind myself of these two points, work through the anger + frustration, and when I am ready, lay it down. Because I have so much more that I want to be filling my life with. It is also worth mentioning that no matter what the stress level or situation, someone who has my back will NEVER make me feel less than my full worth. I might have to press pause on a conversation, but I will NEVER be made to feel small for trying. Let me remember those wonderful, strong leaders I have worked with who treated me with that sort of boldness + integrity combined. Hell, let me become a leader! There’s another conversation for later…!
I don’t want to be ANYONE’S “Girl Friday”, unless it’s someone I love. This is an uncomfortable conversation, but I’m laying it down. Those females who absolutely thrive off a quasi-flirtatious relationship with their seniors, who gobble up slightly demoralising banter like its manna from the sky. Those females who love that they can have that intensive one-on-one banter and forget that that there are other people around them, because they are relishing the adoration of being the first wife, the alpha female. I just want to throw up, my goodness. That intelligent, beautiful women simper and crumble at this sort of attention and destroy not only their sense of self-worth, but any self-worth their female colleagues had for them. For me, let me always remember to try and expand the circle. I will not buy into that intensity of friendship in the workplace, because I’d like to care for the well-being of the team. And if I catch myself doing that, as a colleague, or as a teacher looking after my own classes and supporting the class dynamics, I hope that I will have the grace to pull back and readjust.
Plus it’s just so damn 1960s and pre-feminist in values! How utterly demoralising that you can be won over by a flirtatious compliment and strung along? While I want to enjoy all of my woman-ness and femininity, I am not going to swoon over a compliment over my looks, my new white blouse, how I’ve done my make-up, my legs, or anything else of that nature. That beautiful and delicious part of me? Absolutely reserved for the very special people in my life who have permission to find me sexy, gorgeous, alluring, and breathtaking.
That shit in a place of work, even the bare whiff of it, is deeply uncomfortable-making for those of us who want to shine our own authentic, truly beautiful light and work hard.
Please, girls + women, do not take the easy compliment and alienate all those around you in the strong sisterhood. Please have more self-respect than that.
p.s. For me? I’ll take the compliments on my work, the joy in my appearance (non-flirtatious, just in the colours, thank you!), the quality of my teaching, the integrity with which I work, and the connections I have with my students.
My compass + quality of work. I forget that just because someone is in a position of leadership, that they may not have my best interests at heart. I am an incredibly effective employee, but that does not mean that every bit of feedback a person in leadership gives me is necessarily with good intentions towards me. And while you would hope that people in leadership work with integrity, and most do, unfailingly so, I am going to take a moment in between to judge for myself. I am not going to allow the seniority of a position dictate the merit of a comment or piece of feedback. I will put it in light of my own performance and the judgement of the personal providing the feedback, and then decide if it is something I would like to act upon.
Emotional strength + health. The conversations I have with myself are extraordinary sometimes, and not in a good way. I looked back at some of my reflections from last year, and the words that I began an overwhelming number of them with were, “I’m so tired.” I was emotionally tired from hold back, adapting, and not acknowledging my true worth. And the thing is this; if I allow this to happen, there is no way that I will fully step into my worth further, or continue to have weight and merit. Let me hold myself in high esteem that I may resonate authenticity and merit, and let those people I have allowed to take way too much + mental energy play catch up with me. The conversations I am having with myself this year are going to put ME at the heart of them, and continue to build my courage and emotional resiliency. They will not all be optimistic or easy. But they will be focused on me, not the situation, not the unfair slight, not the interaction that made my blood boil, but what I can do about it.
Numbing + time. I am embarrassed at how much time I have wasted numbing on Youtube + Facebook, again, almost imperceptibly. Just another 10 or 15 minutes, and I have lost 1 to 2 hours of glorious creative time. And do you know what it was which made me do this? FEAR. Always FEAR. I was afraid that if I truly looked inside myself, I would find that I had no idea what to do, no solution, and that it would all cost too much to sort through my thoughts and emotions. But we have to start. And anything of value takes time, including the hard solutions. So rather than unhealthy, extended scrolling and numbing, I am going to embark on those hard sit-down-and-dissect sessions with myself. Because the time I am saving right now is significant, the connections I am fostering with people I love are amazing, and the clarity I am gaining, just mind-blowing. I feel like I am walking a straight path, head high, even if the weather is inclement, where as last year I was climbing over branches and dodging potholes in a changing climate.
Life is interesting, girl! Life is really interesting! Spare time wasted without agency or choice is a block of time that you’ll never get back. When you are creating + engaging, in a relationship, friendship, creative project, or practising a skills, personal or professional, life is truly engaging. And as I realise how much I love being creative as a means to unwind, rather than just lying on the couch scrolling Facebook, I think sadly and wistfully back to 12-year-old me who just raced through her piano practise at breakneck speed so it was “done” enough to allow me to be inert. What is the point of done, when all the interest lies in the journey?
Nothing is permanent. In Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart, she explores the concept of impermanence and how disappointing and frustrating people find this, when it is a fact of life. For example, I get so hung up about a flowerbed that I have freshly weeded sprouting brand new weeds that it almost outdoes the satisfaction of the week of weed-free garden that I have enjoyed. The same applies to the house getting dusty when only two weeks ago, it was pristine. Why do we get so frustrated? Why do we expect things to just be perfect and in a state of unmoving, clinical “safety” all the time? Life isn’t written like that, and to clean or weed is to have a beautiful place to live. Let me rethink my unreasonable petty frustrations, and my aversion to cleaning, knowing that life is an every changing beast, continuous and surprising.
So yes…I am doing things differently this year…! 😉
Earlier this year, I wrote post about “being in the frontline”. What I mean here is when you all of a sudden find yourself being The Original and On The Forefront, without even meaning to be.
I’m thinking about it now as I’m reading Michelle Obama’s extraordinary biography, “Becoming”. Apart from being absolutely inspired and deeply affected by her grace and courage in meeting challenges and situations she ultimately never asked for, I am so incredibly moved by her simultaneous fear + courage in showing up in the frontline with her husband Barack, when there was no other example around them.
Yes, there have been other Presidents of the United States and First Ladies, but none who have been so committed to practising their values in such a present, authentic, and genuine manner. There has been no example before them of a black American family in such a high position of leadership, nor young daughters who were going through their formative teenage years so well-protected, yet so warmly loved + free.
They had no example or blueprint to follow; they simply had their values + moral compass to hold fast to. They had good educations, hard-won, and a work ethic that would put most of us to shame. They were intelligent, loyal, optimistic, yet courageously gritty. And they had the power of not taking anything for granted, including family. And when you are the first of anything, there is always going to be fear, opposition, and prejudice against whatever decisions you make, and whatever path you are laying down. Because it feels new and different. You are riding that storm along with every other person around you who is looking in on your work, and there is no means to check against the societal measuring stick if you’re doing okay, because there IS no previous example.
The more I read of Michelle’s words, the more I fall down the rabbit hole of wanting to discover more. And the more I read and watch of both herself and her family, Barack, Sasha, and Malia, the greater and deeper my admiration and respect for her, and Barack, and what they have achieved. That they remain good people is the most amazing to me. I cannot imagine what it would have cost them emotionally, and what they have navigated together, unified.
She took on that role like a BOSS. With no example, she MADE every example…from the authenticity and warmth of her words, to the veggie garden on the grounds of the White House. From her dress, the way she connected with others, her parenting, and her initiatives, she pioneered a pathway for others to follow which seemed so innate and natural, but was anything but while she was in the driving seat. She made choices knowing that in some way, they mattered. And that weight is what truly GAVE them weight to the world.
I am reminded by this extraordinary woman and her family that when I find myself on the edge of something new, be it personally, creatively, or otherwise, that looking sideways for the measuring stick or a predecessor is not always an option. And that being on the frontline, being the first, you need to be prepared to face the wind sheer of challenge and opposition, and it is not easy. But if you keep walking, clear on your moral compass, with courage, persistence, grace, and clarity above all else, you will gather momentum. You will create waves.
Because the human race can’t help but respond to something of integrity, value, and excellence.
Have courage when you find yourself in that frontline. Because it might be an honour bestowed upon you to lead it.
p.s. Can we just talk about those PHENOMENAL Balenciaga thigh-high gold sparkly boots for just a god-damn second?! DAYUM!
Grandmamma turns 98 today!
Blowing out the candle + clapping herself.
A month ago, we couldn’t have even imagined this day, as she was being operated on for a broken femur. There has been no pom-pom waving, no positive talk, no rah-rah, but somehow her body is healing almost as fast as her spirit is determined to have one day more, and one day more after that.
She is extraordinary. I have learned more from her just being than anyone teaching me about courage could put into words.
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.
I had seriously the GREATEST moment today.
Was heading over to the parklands with my Year 11s for Rungie Cup House Soccer, and another private school (who shall remain nameless) were packing up after their PE lesson.
One of their senior-ish girls walked by and, thinking I was out of earshot, said cattily:
“Oh, GREAT OUTFIT.”
Oh, the immediate fire in the belly! I was just about to turn around and throw back an overtly saccharine and totally cutting, “Yes DARLING, it’s FABULOUS, isn’t it?! So NICE of you to say so, since you have NO IDEA WHO I AM, and you’ve never MET me!”
But I didn’t have to.
One of my Year 11 Kennion-Miller kiddies took up the slack:
“Yeah, it’s GREAT, isn’t it? She’s OUR tutor group teacher, and she’s AWESOME. And she’s not even TRYING today; you should see her when she rocks the full-on stripes and spots.”
I dunno where the hell it came from, this kid is not normally sassy.
Having said that, I was B A S K I N G I N T H E S A S S, man!
Roar of the beautiful girl. My beautiful one, you count. You, the awkward, hilarious, amazing, extraordinary one. You hear me?
You count. You matter. So deeply. So very acutely and absolutely.
You count, and your thoughts and values matter. You matter. You can get as eff-ing excited or emotional as you want. You do not have to make anyone else happy and you do not have to conform. You do not have to colour in the lines for anyone, or twist yourself into any shape that is not truly you. Everything you are, my darling one, matters so damn much it hurts.
So sing out, my lovely.
Oh, the world will HEAR and EMBRACE the mighty, earthy, ROAR of you, my beautiful, wholesome, overflowing, belligerent, fiery woman. You will not be stamped out or held down. You will not be backed into a corner.
And above all, you will not be sidelined by small minds and even smaller hearts.
You are, indeed, AWE-SOME AND AWE-INSPIRING when you are in full joy and full flight.
And you know what? That scares the SHIT out of them. That scares the LIVING, BREATHING SHIT out of them.
What a laughable concept! That all you need to do is be yourself to make the ground shake under the feet or your adversaries.
I have the most amazing kiddie in one of my Year 7 Music classes. Unruly hair, arms flying, brain the same, he is the epitome of a teenage boy. But he absolutely loves to learn and is totally, blissfully unaware of his hunger for knowledge, asks questions like he breathes, and is universally loved by all, even the grudging admirers. He is the kid that achieves a merit or top of the class without even realising that it’s a thing.
“Oh, I did THAT?!” Pause. “Oh, that’s kind of cool, isn’t it?” Pause. “I’m so hungry! Can we go now?!”
That’s his brain trajectory. He is defined by nothing, except that exact moment in time.
The thing about this kid is that he is so absolutely HIMSELF and AUTHENTIC that there is simply no room to BE anything else. He loves learning, so he does it. He has an idea, so he shares it. He is utterly, completely imperfect and downright annoying sometimes. His current project with me is realising he’s one of MANY in my class, and realising that he’s got limited one-on-one time with me. But his awareness is simply astounding as well; this is how one of our recent conversations went:
Me: “Sir Year 7! S E R I OU S L Y! You are one of MANY! Are you this noisy at home?! What happens when you need to share the air time?”
Sir Year 7: “I’m so sorry Ms Kwok. I honestly forget. See, there’s only one of me at home, so I suppose being in a class is something I need to learn. I’ll let Mum + Dad know that I need to practise it. I just get so excited by what we’re doing.”
OH MY GOODNESS, WHAT YEAR 7 SAYS THAT?!
So in our final week of school, we had International Languages + Cultures Day, where we had a casual day on the last day of school where we were encouraged to wear our national cultural dress. This kid is Greek, and his full cultural dress is ABSOLUTELY SENSATIONAL. The white flowing robes, the tasselled shoes, the hat, all FAB-U-LOUS. He proudly showed me a picture of what he was planning on wearing on the final day, and I told him how MUCH I was looking forward to seeing him in his national dress.
And then he said: “Ms Kwok, I’m a little nervous about it. I mean, I’m so proud of my heritage, but our national dress is over-the-top. We Greeks don’t do anything by halves. My parents are totally up for me wearing my gear on Friday, but even though I’m proud, I’m nervous about what the rest of my class + the rest of the school might think. I might get laughed at. I’m prepared for that, but I’m also sort of not looking forward to it as well.”
Me, internally: Kid, you are amazing. No one would DARE laugh at you because you would just totally OWN IT. You could wear a potato sack and people would think that you were just rocking your heritage. You have this authenticity and realness, this humanness, imperfectness, and silliness, that makes you undeniably YOU. You NEED to do this to help give permission to other kids to be them as well.
But my favourite bit? That he was poignantly, sensitively nervous about it. He was SENSIBLE to the world around him, and AWARE of the challenges, even though he was so committed to being totally himself.
Me, in words: “You will totally rock it. It might feel weird and nerve-wracking to do it, but you should be proud of our heritage. You’re going to give many other kids permission to be themselves as well, through you being a little bit courageous.”
Sir Year 7: “A bit like you do each day, hey Ms Kwok? We always look forward to you rocking the colours.”
OH. MY. GOODNESS.
And I realised something amazing: We each of us are looking for the “similar” around us, even if we think we’re not. We can’t help it if we have any measure of humanity and vulnerability. We are looking for other people who look exactly like us in the frontline. Those who are being the forerunners, so that we have permission to be the forerunners behind them. Isn’t it amazing that we are constantly look for the like, even though we think we are committed to being brave?
And I realised also how much my students notice about the playful example I am setting with my colourful outfits each day. It gives them permission to also rock their individuality.
The most poignant realisation? Sir Year 7 had just put into words what I instinctively think on a daily basis. Sure, I can step into the arena and be different. I THINK I’m good with that. But REALLY truly, I am looking out of my peripheral vision for another “like”, someone who is just like me.
Yet if I flipped that, what if who I was and the example I was setting became one BIG-GIANT-FLASHING-NEON-LIVE-WALKING-PERMISSION-SLIP for others to do the same? How much JOY do I get from those like Sir Year 7 who are so honestly themselves, yet so humbly nervous about sharing themselves, that I just WANT them to ROCK their personalities?
You can’t be in the frontline looking sideways.
You need to be in the frontline looking forward. Front and centre. Because you might be someone else’s permission slip on life while you are walking around being a little bit nervous, but a whole lot more courageous.