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.

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.

Measuring Success

I’ve been busy. And a little bit lazy. But mostly busy. Since May, I’ve traversed numerous streets in Turkey, read a ridiculous amount of books, and prepared an outline of my thesis chapters that has been sent off to my supervisor. I’ve been thinking. I’ve been wondering. I’ve been laughing and smiling. I haven’t been writing.

And that’s OK.

Because sometimes part of writing is living. So this week, when I spend more hours wondering how to generate income next year, I’ll be living. In three weeks, when I go to Bhutan and Nepal, I’ll be living. In a few months, when I am crunching numbers and organising boxes, I’ll be living. Right now, I am living. And that means I am writing, too, when I have the chance.

And I’m OK with that.

I’ve felt guilty for not writing every day, but I’m sick of feeling guilty. Instead, I’m proud that right now I’m writing. On days I’ve been lazy and spent hours in bed with a book, I’m OK with that, because I need to read to keep my brain filled with words and ideas.

I’m trying to dwell less on my failures and more on my successes.

I don’t write every day like I used to; I write when I can.

I don’t have grand plans of writing the next bestseller; I want to write a novel (or several) of which I am proud.

I am successful. I have my mind, I have my notebooks. I am successful because I know what makes me happy. That doesn’t mean I am always walking head-up towards my own happiness – some days I need to sit down and feel miserable. I am OK with that, too. What I keep reminding myself is that I am where I wanted to be ten years ago, and that makes me pretty damn successful.

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!

There’s a lion dancing in my driveway.

I can see the way he moves, rippling and moving in a blaze of colour, the drums loud and pounding and almost too much for a lazy morning doing laundry and packing a suitcase for a stay-cation twenty minutes away.

It’s another year.

When in Rome, you visit the Colosseum; when in Asia, you celebrate the lunar new year.

I find myself, like last year, eager to use this as my new year, my time to make resolutions and consider all that I have and haven’t done in the past year. The “usual” new year was hectic and afforded me little opportunity to really sit down and reflect. I was busy seeing people, getting on planes, looking for a new home, getting back into routine … Now, I feel much more at ease with the simple act of sitting and thinking and deciding.

This is a compatible year for me, an Ox. Actually, it’s the year. I try to make every year my year, but I’m especially optimistic about this one. I am comfortable in my space, now. I know where I am and I know what I’m doing – there is still a lot of ambiguity in my life, but this year I am comfortable with the ambiguity because the paths are clearer, more easily discerned. Like every year, I have choices to make, but this year … those choices have clear consequences.

This year …

This year I am travelling.

I already plan on visiting China and Turkey, and a return to India. I also want to visit Cambodia and Vietnam – ambitious, I know, but I have so much to see and experience.

This year I am writing.

Last year I wanted to write three novels and I see now that was a little too ambitious for me. This year, I want to finish two novels I’ve started before. They both mean a lot to me and I want to see them become whole and ready for the world.

This year I am reading.

I’ll record the books I’ve read as I did last year – I am aiming, again, for 52 books in a year.

This year I am working.

And I am making a conscious decision not to let it get to me, to breathe in and out and not let various aspects of my job bother me in such a way that I end up crying in the middle of the night wishing I was anywhere else. Yeah, 2012 did get that bad. And I don’t want it to happen again this year, so I won’t let it. That’s my choice.

This year …

It’s going to be busy; I’m excited.

And I’m beginning it with a stay-cation at a resort. I am going to read, think, and make some more decisions. And maybe dance with the lion in my driveway.