Don’t Ever Travel

Don’t ever travel. Don’t venture further than you have to in this world. If you can, remain in one place for as long as possible – in fact, don’t even leave your hometown. Settle down, dig your roots in deep, and be comfortable.

Don’t ever travel. Don’t get lost in cobblestone streets and don’t spend hours reflecting in little stone chapels, their walls peeling paint while their Saints watch over you. Don’t hold your breath in the Sistine Chapel. Don’t munch on chocolate crepes as you meander to the Eiffel Tower. Don’t explore castle ruins and under no circumstances should you ever go pub crawling at Temple Bar. Do not explore the world around you.

Don’t learn new languages. Don’t attempt to twist your tongue around the rolling sounds of ‘Castello Sforzesco’. Don’t bother with ‘hellos’ and ‘thank yous’ in Hindi. Don’t ever be in a position that requires you know how to barter in Spanish for a taxi to the bus station in Lima. Do not expand your ability to communicate beyond words.

Don’t seek experiences that challenge your beliefs. Don’t discover how your “nothing” can be someone else’s “everything”. Don’t compare a concrete room housing three generations with your two storey house for one. Don’t question the flashy possessions by which you define your identity. Do not experience gratitude.

Don’t try to do something different. Don’t try to break away from your comfort zone. Don’t go paragliding in Kas, don’t eat that weird thing you can neither pronounce nor identify in Beijing, and don’t think for a minute that riding on a tuk tuk through the streets of Siem Reap will be anything other than dangerous. Do not challenge your expectations of yourself.

Don’t ever travel. Don’t seek answers to life in other places. Don’t seek change. Don’t stray too far from your home. Don’t ever travel.

Travel has terrible side effects. You will return home and nothing will have changed, but nothing will ever be the same again. You will never enjoy the morning commute after you have had breakfast in France and lunch in Switzerland. You will never be the same person you were before you heard Buddhist monks chanting in Taktsang Monastery. You will forget the person who left home in search of adventure because that person will become the adventure. 42 will no longer be enough.

To travel is to risk everything – it is to risk your beliefs, it is to risk the world you know, it is to risk the person you thought you were.

Don’t ever travel.

But if you must: tread lightly, look deeply, listen carefully.

And trust me on the pub crawl.

100 Happy Days

2013 was a glum year for me – I did some amazing things, but those amazing things only kept me up for a little while before I came tumbling down – again and again and again. I found it hard to focus on anything, to feel motivated, to do anything other than feel sorry for myself. And let me tell you, it sucks. Like, really, really, really sucks. People around you tell you to cheer up, to look on the bright side, to just get over it … but no matter how many sparkly quotes you stick on the fridge – no matter how positive you try to be – some days you just feel like curling up in a tight little ball and wishing the world away.

And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. This has been going on for years – sometimes it’s a day within a month, sometimes it’s most days within many months all lined up one after the other, and sometimes it just hits me – a big fat sucker punch right when I think I’m doing OK. Do I let this define me? No. But, when I can, I curl up in a tight little ball … to think.

Really think. Sometimes I think horrible negative things – things with which a mind should not pollute itself. Most of the time, though, I try to think about fixing it. It takes more than a positive quote to mend the soul, so I think about what it is that has pushed me to this point, what it is that has led to this weeping, curled up mess.

There are recurring themes in my life and they pop up whenever my mood is down.

Homelessness

I am grateful for the generosity of my family and friends because I have always been provided with somewhere to live in between my adventures abroad (with an extra big shout-out to my mother who has stored my boxes during these adventures and right now is storing me in the spare room and my research in a corner of the office), yet this nomad yearns for a home – a real home with her own books on the shelves, travel moments framed on the walls, and a cat curled up on the reading chair. It would be nice if I could rely on my plans to obtain this through winning lotto or inheriting millions from a Nigerian prince, but the reality is that I need money – and lots of it. I have to pull together a deposit, convince a bank to give me money, and then meet mortgage repayments for the next thirty years. Ouch. So I’m exploring the options – and right now, they make me feel physically sick because my little home (with its book-lined walls and little herb garden) is really far away.

Employment Blegh-ness

Currently my issue is unemployment and the resulting lack of income, but typically this theme is played out in the key of “I hate my job, waaaaaaa, waaa, waaaaaa”. It is usual that I approach new jobs with open enthusiasm shared with others as “Oh, it should be good because of A, B, and C” and then the quiet inner-voice of “Stef, you are going to struggle with X, Y, and Z, so be prepared”. Within a month, X, Y, and Z – despite my self-warning – become too much to tolerate. Most recently, I managed to “tolerate” my job for 23 months after the initial month passed. Bound by a contract, I had no choice – and it was the gloomiest shadow of 2013.

Lack of Purpose

I am still figuring it all out. And by “it all” I pretty much mean “life”. I have the appearance of someone well-put-together in terms of a balance of pretty awesome life experiences, good qualifications, and a potentially solid career as a teacher (given my qualifications, work experience, and … well, I’m really good at it). Unfortunately – and I’ve said this before – I’m good at a lot of things, but I don’t want to do them every single day for the rest of my working life. So. I’m still figuring it out. I love, love my research. I love, love, love writing (I’m still trying to get good at it!).

Being aware of what weighs me down helps me pull myself back up. It’s not about accepting it, but trying to change it. My lack of purpose is a big deal. A really big deal. I have to figure it out because I’m the only one who can. And I know that once I do the other issues will sort themselves out.

That’s going to be the big part of my journey this year – figuring out my life and my life’s purpose. A friend suggested I do the 100 Happy Days challenge and I think this is a great start. Basically, I have to find one thing every day that makes me happy – and post a photograph online. I will be sharing the photos on the Dodging Commas page – you are welcome to share your moments, too!

Today is a grey, rainy day. To some it could be called colourless, the kind of day when the rain is washing out the colour and leaving the world drenched. To me, it is a green day. No matter which window I look from, all I see is green – all I see is life, soaking up the rain and feeling it clean every leaf, every blade of grass. Right now – homeless, unemployed, and purposeless – I am in a place surrounded by green, listening to the rain and watching the leaves dance as they catch every drop.

Day One, and I am very content with this moment of happiness.

100 Happy Days Day One

100 Happy Days
Day One

What has made you happy today?

And then my suitcase began to sing

On the last night in my apartment in Singapore I finally squeezed the last book into my suitcase and burst into tears.

Of all the cliches, there are two that I cannot deny:

  1. it’s a small world
  2. time flies

Where have the two years gone? Between chasing children around a tiny classroom, organising the next travel adventure, and staring at a pile of books to read and scribbled story ideas to develop, I think it’s fair to say that two years passed in a suitable whirl. I travelled to places I never knew existed, met people who reminded me of the incredible power of the human spirit, and filled my soul with stories.

All of this culminated with one over-sized bubblegum-pink suitcase (purchased especially for The Return), a carry-on suitcase that I would avoid weighing, and one teary individual perched precariously on the brink of – yet another – breakdown.

And then my suitcase began to sing, lilting notes so faint and delicate that I thought I had imagined it. Startled, I opened my suitcase (too upset to be cautious – the books spilled forth) and discovered a little music box that had been bumped into song.

I dried my tears with laughter and set about readjusting the contents. It all seemed to fit much better after that, so I dragged my bags to the door and fell into bed. The next day I flew to Cambodia (with a backpack I eventually gave away and clothes I discarded to donation bins), then returned after a week to collect my bags and fly back to Australia.

And that is where I am now, sitting with a view of trees in a suburban bushland and feeling far more positive today than I have felt in some time. The Return has been emotional – the happiness of being with my family and seeing my friends has been marred with the anxiety that comes with being unemployed (I’m still looking) and suddenly aware that a quick trip to Vietnam is not possible from this location.

I fell into a slump long before I came back to Australia. Things are still working themselves out, but such is life. It feels like I spend a lot of time waiting for the perfect conditions, waiting for one thing to fall into place so everything else becomes worthy of my time and attention. I realise, now, that it will always be like that – there will always be something imperfect, something not quite right. There will always be a suitcase overflowing with stuff and a feeling of not being in full control.

Today, I am taking stock of everything that gives me joy, and working out how to keep the joy in my life. This blog has made it to the list, and while it will change because I have changed, it is something to which I Return after more than a year of intermittent posts and updates.

Joy also comes from my research. I spent yesterday at a conference and came home feeling a faint buzz beneath the exhaustion. Today, that buzz is a warm vibration as I consider where I am going with my research and how excited I am to have the time to spend focusing on my books and ideas.

Late last night on the long drive home, I belted out a song (out-of-tune, of course) and could not help but feel incredibly excited about getting back to it – the blog, the research, the writing, the reading, the coming to terms with things not always going “my way” but ending up being “a way that I can make work”.

No matter how out of control things become, how overstuffed and falling out and not quite working, there will be something singing from the depths – if you listen carefully – and maybe, just maybe, that song will help things fall into place.

***

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zeevveez

What I Learnt on a Bike Ride to the Bank

Until a month ago, I had not been on a bicycle since I was seven or eight years old. Then I was whisked off to a little island where bikes are in abundance and, despite telling people I don’t know how to ride a bike, I managed to stay on and pedal. Sure, I dismounted to go down hills (“But I’m not wearing a helmet!” I cried when my caution was laughed at), but I survived.

So, for some strange reason, I decided to get a bike. And I did. It’s a second (or third or fourth) hand bicycle that has been named Jean Baptiste (JB for short).

Jean Baptiste

Jean Baptiste

Today, for the first time since JB arrived and for the first time since I went to the bike-dominated island, I went for a ride. I had to go to the bank (despite my desire to stay in bed) and figured I should ride instead of walk. I was nervous. I tried to imagine the easiest route to the bank but my mind drew a blank. I usually walked or took a bus, and I couldn’t remember what the paths were like and couldn’t imagine how I would manage with JB.

Before I made it to the end of the driveway the handlebars had wiggled and moved, my knuckles were white with tension, and my body was soaked with sweat. By the time I had wobbled my way to the end of the street I discovered the brakes didn’t work very well (and did so with a very loud squeak) and my toes – the only part of my feet that reach the path – were not working fast enough (sorry, tree).

I walked the last ten minutes of the ride because the path got so narrow I didn’t trust myself not to teeter and tip into oncoming traffic. I briefly contemplated not locking the bike chain in hope the bike would disappear by the time I got back, but I decided that having my bike stolen on the first outing would be a little too embarrassing.

I felt more confident on the way home, despite having to dodge trees and flailing my legs about whenever I needed to stop, and somehow made my way back to my apartment (I even used the bell!) with only three injuries: I scratched my shin on the pedal, whacked my ankle (right where it hurts) against the pedal, and banged my knee on the bicycle stand while locking the chain.

And what did I learn?

The feeling of gliding along with a cool breeze circling around you is incredible.

Fear and Loathing in My Writing (but don’t worry, it’s gone now)

I’m not sure when it happened. I think it was in December, my NaNoWriMo novel complete, my backpack on my shoulders, and my ticket to India in hand. I arrived in Delhi and introduced myself to the man transferring me to my hotel.

Yes, I’m Stephanie.

Yeah, that’s my booking.

Australia. Here’s my passport.

Oh, I’m a teacher. English.

Yes, that was it. That was when I introduced myself as a teacher.

Remember when I ranted about labels and definitions? Remember the countless times I’ve raved about my need to write? I knew this was a risk and begged my Muse to keep visiting me right from the start, right from the moment I stripped my hair of vibrant colour and gave my purple knee-high boots away. Right when I acknowledged writing until the early hours of the morning and staying in bed all day might not be the most viable option for a “grown up”.

And my Muse, my Genius, has been here the whole time.

And yet, it’s been six months since I’ve written anything.

Sure, I’ve posted the odd book-review in the past few months. I’ve travelled. I went to China for a week in March and I’ll be going to Turkey for two weeks in June.

Did I mention I started my PhD research a month ago?

Yeah. I’ve been busy.

And I’ve been scared. It’s easy for a day to become a week to become a month to become six months. And then I started hating myself. I started hating that I wasn’t writing, and hating that I was letting myself do this, letting myself ignore the words, ignore the ideas, ignore the Genius in the corner staring challengingly at me. I couldn’t meet his eyes.

I’ve been busy reading and travelling and teaching.

Teaching.

And I’ve been introducing myself as a teacher. And I hate being a teacher. I’ve tried really hard to be optimistic about teaching, and to embrace it as something I’m good at, something I was born to do (my mother’s words).

I think good teachers are amazing. Good teachers. The kind of teachers you wish you had, the teachers who believe – truly believe – in their students’ potential. They’re incredible. I know some of those teachers. I work with some. I see some of my friends becoming those teachers.

I’m not that teacher. I’d like to be. But it’s a means to an end for me. I’m a good teacher. I’m nice to the kids, even the ones I want to drop into a pool of laser-wielding sharks. The fact that I don’t do that is indicative of my kindness.

I’m not that teacher because I’m not a teacher. There are a lot of things I do well. I can make incredible mustard chicken in white wine sauce, but I’m not a chef. I can name a woman’s bra size before I notice the colour of her shirt, but I’m not a bra fitter. I can teach children the difference between an adjective and an adverb, but I’m not a teacher.

Yet for the past six months I haven’t been a writer, either.

Which is why I’ve been avoiding my blog. I’ve felt like a fraud. A big fat liar, liar, pants on fire. How can I write about writing when I haven’t been writing? I’ve been thinking about writing. I’ve been thinking about my WIPs and their need for attention. But thinking isn’t doing. Thinking doesn’t put the words on the page.

I’ve isolated myself from my writing friends. I’ve isolated myself from the writing communities I spent the last year building. It’s my fault, and I own that mistake. I take full responsibility for the fact that my fear and loathing drove me to make stupid decisions. I take full responsibility for the dejected expression my Genius has been hurling in my direction for the past six months.

So this morning, while cooking breakfast, a sentence came into my mind. This happens a lot.

And then, while eating breakfast, another sentence came into my mind. This also happens a lot.

Then I had a paragraph. No surprises. I also had runny egg dribbling over my hands from the hole in the bottom of my breakfast wrap.

Then I washed the dishes. And my hands.

Then I thought.

Then I grabbed a notebook and pen and wrote nonstop for half an hour.

This meant I half-ran for my dentist appointment (I had my wisdom teeth removed last week – see? I’ve been busy!) after a rushed shower, words churning through my mind the whole time.

I came home, typed up what I’d written, and then kept going. My Genius is happy again. It’s a tentative happiness, because I think he’s scared I’ll resume ignoring him. But I won’t. I can’t.

Hi, I’m Stef.

I’m a writer.

Thank goodness we got that over with.

Back to it!