Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Finding softness in a hard place


It's been over a week since I've landed in Darwin and there's a lifetime that has passed between then and now. I've sang songs, laughed till I cried, danced till my feet hurt, developed a high level of excellence in charades and incorporated dramatic charades, gestures and facial expressions into everyday life. More than that, I've had the pleasure of meeting people who have expanded my view of the world ten-fold and broken my heart and previous ideas of how life could and should be.

As the year draws to a close, as Christmas peeps through around the corner I can't help but feel change. The last couple of years of my life have passed without too much fuss, no earth-shattering news or feeling the ground change beneath me. It has been good to be grounded, good to be stable but now I can feel the world breaking in and a new one taking it's place

From my experience here in Darwin I have learned to leave my pride at the door, to reject the instinct that people will not smile back (because they do!). It's amazing what my experience has done for cementing a (hopefully) unbreakable faith in the innate goodness of humanity. Here I am waving at everyone, smiling and calling everyone by name. I am asking strangers how their day was and singing loudly, dancing stupidly to make them laugh and acting like a child - without the barriers that often keep us from approaching adults. There is an openness here and such a positive atmosphere of joy, happiness and enthusiasm for life which in a place like this is so refreshing, so inspiring and surprising. I say surprising because I have been taught that when things go wrong you tell everybody about it, you write about it on your facebook status, you repeat the horrors and pains to your friends in whinging voices. I have found so much softness in a place I expected to be so hard.

There's a lot to process so I apologise for the posts being general and not too specific but I want to do justice to my experiences. I will get there! I hope you are all able to enjoy this Christmas season and the excitement of 2010 drawing to a close. For me a huge year of preparation is finally over and the big, leaping jumping off has only just begun. I may not post until the new year but I will let you all know what is happening and what has happened.. I'm still free-falling so expect a full post when I finally land on my feet and am able to be more specific than just saying that what I am doing at the moment is amazing. Until then, Happy Christmas & Merry New Year :) [ see what I did there?]

Saturday, December 18, 2010

More secrets to living & the inevitability of bad things happening

Bad things happen all the time. People get sick, celebrities are paid too much attention, the founder of WikiLeaks gets arrested, miners get stuck underground and oil spills into the sea. Why is it then, that we are always shocked, dismayed and in despair when things such as these come about? Once again, it is the idea that things should go as planned, that life made a promise to us that it would stop with the shenanigans and deliver on the goods. 

As it turns out, life made no such promise. Like it or not, we have no more control over life than we do over the next reality TV show, what will come out of Sarah Palin's mouth next or what city FIFA will pick for the 2026 World Cup (Fiji, maybe?). Life is a hard-headed, stubborn and unpredictable woman with whom the lucky dip, the spinning wheel is a gamble. More often than not, you may come up with the short end of the deal. Inevitably, bad things happen.

So how do we deal? With all these terrible, nasty, horrible things happening surely somebody should sort life out. Set her straight and let her know that we will just NOT stand for this! We've had enough. Shotgun not telling her. The secret, which isn't really a secret as all good secrets are, is accepting that things will go wrong. Murphy's law. What can go wrong, will. The upside is that it doesn't end there. 

What can go wrong, will and in the mean time what you can do to prepare, to accept it and get over it you should. Knowing ahead of time automatically takes a bit of the sting out. 

On Saturday I was scheduled to leave Sydney for Darwin to undertake almost a month of volunteer work. I was preoccupied with saying goodbye, with being almost done with the application of my student visa to go to Spain and with making sure I had everything packed that once again, filo time crept on in.  My flight was scheduled to fly at 9:50am, long story short - I missed the check in and my flight was rebooked for that same night at 7:50pm. That meant I had 10 hours to kill at the airport, 4 of them outside the actual terminal because I wasn't allowed to check in until 6 hours before my flight. 

After the initial shock and the self-deprecation at missing my own flight wore off, I begun to think about what I was to do at the airport for 10 hours. Waiting at airports is nothing new and I don't flatter myself to think I'm the first person to be in this predicament. I had a lot of time to go over the reality that I was leaving, that I was coming back and that I was leaving again. I had plenty of time and plenty to think about. 

I've written before about having to let go of the idea that everything should go as planned. As with most things you can name and talk about, it's easier said than done and remains a work in progress. While I can say that I've improved, I don't break down (as easily or as often) as I used to, I still have the occasional Mariah Carey melt-down moments. Over and over I've had to get over the idea that life is neat, organised and will go to plan. I've had to get cosy with the reality that plans fall through, flights are missed, relationships get messy and the future can grow increasingly foggy. 

In a way missing my plane taught me that everything IS ok. The worst that can happen is only the worst that can happen and at the end of the day as long as I'm still here, living, I've still got so much to be thankful for. There have been a lot of events the last couple of months that have been lessons in thanks, humility and grace for me. Too many people I know have passed away. I've learned to appreciate my own health when the health of those around me has been threatened by illness. I've realised the true privilege of being free to enjoy all the joys and qualms of youth, idealism and future-plans in comparison to many I have met who don't enjoy such opportunities, and many more I may never meet. Situations are what they are, they only grow to epic proportions when they climb into my head, distorted by my own emotion and need to dramatise everything. 

Waiting at the airport I watched people stroll in and out with their luggage, planes speed down the run way and take off, somehow like magic and see the weary, eager and jaded faces of travelers in transit. People leaving and people coming back. Arrivals and Departures. People saying goodbye and those saying welcome home. I realised how I shouldn't fight off these situations, where things go wrong. Expecting them and being prepared is a better course of action than denial. It's always the stories of missed flights, thunderstorms striking, fuel running out and the still-can't-believe-it-happened stories that are shared eagerly years after. They give us a chance to veer off the known path and give thanks for the spontaneity and unpredictability of life. Being able to give thanks in situations that you may initially despair at or angst against is a true test. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Secrets to life & happiness

There's really nothing else to add, is there?

I'm in Darwin at the moment completely loving the volunteer work I'm doing. To say it is amazing is an understatement. To say it is eye-opening does not do it justice and although it has only been two days I am having the experience of a life time and words cannot come near to describing it. It's almost always thirty degrees and muggy all day with our 11 hour days but what happens in those 11 hours is life at its best and glorious. More on this in a future posts I'm sure when I have more time. For now I can so clearly affirm that volunteering and traveling has been one of the decisions I've made so far and definitely a step toward what I want to be doing - to freedom & happiness! (2011, I can see you just around the corner...)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Decisions, my future self & the value of being disturbed

Tomorrow I'm leaving Sydney for a month in Darwin without my family and friends. When I come back from Darwin I will have 2 and a half weeks before I leave for Spain for a year. It's the last month of the year, the delivery end of a long line of preparation. I've signed up for a skype account, I've packed my bags, I've cleared out my room and begun saying goodbyes.

It's surreal to be at a crossroads in my life when I know everything is about to change. I can look out and see this future self of mine. In my mind, she's a lot more fearless and quite different from who I am now. She's got dreadlocks and wears harem pants all the time, speaks spanish fluently and has stories upon stories of travel. She's meeting people from all over the world and doing things she never thought were possible, laughs at herself more and even drinks beer (this is the most shocking of all, I assure you). She still wants to change the world, but the difference between her and me is that she's a little closer to doing it.

A lot of people speak about growing up. Growing up and growing older. They respond to the zeal and idealism of young people and their wild, larger-than-life aspirations with a sigh often followed by 'You'll understand one day' or 'When will you grow up?'. Growing up for me hasn't been about shelving the dreams I used to have but rather making conscious and deliberate decisions in order to realise them fully. When we were young our parents picked our clothes, our food, every detail of our lives. As we got older we gladly decide where we go out to, what we wear, who our friends are. Beyond that is a world of decisions that smacks you right in the face.

Suddenly, you are faced with a universe of choices that looks less like a platter of delightful possibilities and more and more like a headache of impending doom, failure and the great unknown. 'Who are you going to be?' 'What are you going to do with your life?' 'What job are you going to end up with?' The onslaught of questions begin and they don't stop. The entire course of the rest of your life seems to weigh on what you are doing right this second. No pressure, but this isn't something you want to get wrong.

With all these decisions it weighs simply on the way you look at it. Having the freedom to choose how your life will turn out is scary to say the least but the pay off is taking steps to your future life full of all the chocolate you can eat, the beaches you can swim in and every sun-bathed dream you ever had. That future self is one of your own making, and one that is waiting on you to take those decisions now. 

Deep breaths, deep breaths and more deep breaths. Below is one of my favourite passages that drives the dreams I have, the decisions I make and the crazy image I have of my future self. Hopefully you all get to meet her next year and she doesn't disappoint. For now, here's something my now-self would like to leave you with.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fear & 5 things I've learned while writing a novel

Back at the beginning of November I undertook the Nano Wrimo challenge of writing a novel in a month. After multiple stress attacks, pulling out my hair, late nights in front of a glaring laptop, countless how-to self-help books and too many cups of peppermint tea these are 5 things I've learned along the way.

1. Nothing beats a chair and a desk.
2. Tea and acoustic music are my friend.
3. The secret to doing anything is to start and then just keep going.
4. There will always be excuses, there will not always be opportunities.
5. Sentences may not make sense, grammar may be shocking, but anything is better than a blank page.

I've always liked writing, short stories and essays were my calling. 50,000 words however was not something I had ever attempted before and I was doubtful, I was nervous, I was shaking in my boots. The easiest thing was for me to not do it. In fact, I went days without writing anything while other days the words flew out of my fingers. The days of no writing and lots of procrastinating (going through every single movie available on my hard drive, cleaning my room and deciding yes, I had to begin reading a 500 page russian novel right this second) were the hardest, and were the days I learned the most.

The main thing I've learned about is Fear. I've had to get over my fear of creating something I didn't like. I've had to get over my apprehension at poorly formed storylines and badly crafted paragraphs. I've had to get over myself. This 'thing' I was writing wasn't going to be a masterpiece and the sooner I accepted that, the sooner I could get working on it. I needed to let go of the idea in my head of the novel I wanted to write, and make room for the novel that it could be. I had to trust that whatever I produced could be edited, as long as I produced something.

It goes back to the basic fear that stops people from doing anything. Fear of failure, fear of looking like an idiot, fear of putting yourself out there. Fear and I are old friends, we go way back. She's been there when I sign up for things, when I join new groups, when I decide to do anything that will change my life
Fear has always been the friend that I run away from, that hangs around and just doesn't get the hint that I want her to go away. Despite this, she's the kind of friend I don't need to get rid of, but the one I need to work with. So writing this month I've learned whenever I realise what I'm scared of, it automatically disables the fear. When you can recognise your fear and call it by name, it's easier to sit down with it and turn it into action. I've written over 50,000 words - I haven't written a 'novel' by a long shot, but a draft is a huge step towards it. Admittedly, I haven't looked at it since I crossed that 50,000 word mark but fear isn't going to stop me from going back and (shock, horror and laughter) reading what I actually wrote, editing it, and writing some more.

If you're interested in taking up this challenge next year you can sign up here. Everybody has something to say, and if you've ever wanted to write a novel this is the best place to start - surrounded by other scared, nervous nano-wrimo noobs and novelists - it's 30 days of literary abandon that (as a first time nano-wrimo participant) I can say were definitely worth it!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How NOT to pack up your life in 3 easy steps

3 steps to effectively keeping everything you ever owned when you're trying to pack up your life into a 20 kilogram suitcase. 

1. Keep everything with any shred of sentimental value
Whether it's a note you wrote from high school, a calendar from five years ago, a Christmas card from last year you thought was funny or a well-worn pair of joggers that have long past their used-by date, keep everything. Do not throw anything out. Form attachments to notebooks, trinkets, empty bottles and all the paraphernalia you have ever collected. Ignore the thick layer of dust it may collect, in fact, the more dust the better! The dust makes things older, which makes you nostalgic, which adds sentiment.

2. Constantly accumulate new things
Yes, you do need those new pillow cases from Ikea, that photo frame shaped like a camera, that large leopard-print bathrobe. They are all great investments. Give in to your inner impulse buyer, you deserve it - anything that tickles your fancy! Then, proceed to add said new items onto the large pile of unopened plastic bags and shoe boxes at the back of your closet.

3. Equate clutter with personal achievement
The more you have surely, the more you have achieved. The bigger, the better. The more, the merrier. Your brick of a mobile phone you had ten years ago is a relic, the dilapidated essays from university that one time you got a distinction - they are all markers (trophies, really) of your ascent into life's VIP club.

These three steps are how NOT to pack up your life. I've learned this from extensive spring cleaning and my attempt at clearing out my room to move to another country for a year. The number of trips I've had to make from my room to the garbage bin outside are too many to count - and that's just from things underneath my bed! I'm in the 'clearing out' stages of packing and haven't even begun ACTUAL packing (will be sure to update you guys as I go!) It always comes back to sayings, truisms and cliches - LESS IS MORE, PEOPLE.

Friday, December 3, 2010

"You don't have to live your life the way people expect you to"

J. K. Rowling - Harvard Commencement Speech 2008
The benefits of Failure & Imagination

Whether it's traveling to a foreign country, quitting your stable, cubicle job to pursue an uncertain future, deciding you're going to get that houseboat you always wanted or even deciding to deviate slightly from the path of Highschool, University, job, marriage - you're living a life people don't expect you to. This idea, that you don't have to live the way people expect you to, has been reiterated by many people - Chris from The Art of Non-Conformity and in J. K. Rowling's insightful speech above. It also, as of late, has become my little self-affirmation. Mostly because I've been beginning to do things that other people don't understand, and that I wouldn't have considering doing had I been in their position as well.

In October, I did over 500 push ups in 24 hours for Cancer Council Relay for Life, this November past I wrote my first nano-wrimo novel of 50,000 words in a month (more on that in an upcoming post). This month's challenge is far scarier and more difficult than both of these combined. Along with a friend I will be spending a month in Darwin getting to know the inside of a detention center, the refugees and asylum seekers that are detained within and the everyday runnings of a place of mandatory detention. It's not a place that typically springs to mind or an ideal place to spend my last Christmas and New Years before I go to Spain, but it's something I want to do. I've found in J. K. Rowling's speech some common threads of deviating from expectations and charging ahead, into the great unknown. And of course, I've had trouble explaining to people my reasoning and I guess a blog is a good a place as any to say what I need to say.

The plight of refugees and asylum seekers is one that is close my heart, it hits home. Having worked with refugee children from Sudanese and Burmese backgrounds through a program with St Vincent De Paul, I've seen first hand how lovely these children are and also learned of how heart-breaking their stories can be. Still, they don't complain. They laugh and play, as children do, and are so resilient and happy you would never have guessed many of them had spent years in a refugee camp without proper schooling and social structures. You would never have guessed how fearfully their parents packed up their lives and did all they could to make sure their children were safe. Before I go to live in Spain for a year, before I get to travel all over Europe and experience other cultures, other people, other languages - in short before I see more of the world that's out there; I want to see what's going on in my own backyard, in my world, here in Australia.

As somebody that is traveling to another country by choice, I want to learn firsthand about people who risked their lives fleeing from their home country because they had no choice. It's not going to be easy and I'm scared. I'm scared of what I am going to see and how I'm going to feel, I'm scared of the things I'll experience and the way it will change me. I don't have any expectations of what is going to happen, but all I know for sure is that it will change the way I think. I find it difficult, to say the least, the way Refugees and Asylum seekers are portrayed by the media in Australia as 'Boat People' 'Queue Jumpers' and 'Illegal Immigrants'. I'm not going there for a holiday, I'm not going on some trivial missionary notion that I can save them. I just want to experience first hand, what they  have experienced for months, if not years. As Rowling said, ' Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.'

These days I take it as a good sign when people's eyes widen, their mouths drop open as if to say, heads tilted at a weird angle in an attempt to understand, 'What are you doing?' or 'Why would you do that?'  I've come to realise that when people question what I'm doing, it's a sign that my life is going in a direction I wanted it to go; away from what I already know is expected, tried and tested - and towards something unknown, scary and life-changing. Everybody that's ever achieved anything has had to face criticism, which is by no means bad. The criticism is needed, it's more of a precursor to showing people why you don't have to live your life the way people expect you to. My month in Darwin isn't something I'm telling everybody to do, everybody has something different they are interested in and passionate about. Be it starting your own business, changing degrees, joining a group or starting something completely new that you've always thought about but never done. 'You don't have to live your life the way people expect you to' is something that applies to all fields and areas of life. You will face questioning, criticism and quizzical looks but in the end you don't live life to please others. Your life is your life, you are the one that will have to live with the decisions you make and the person you decide to be. I find that marching to the beat of your own drum is a cliche I can live with, and something I'm more than happy to strive towards.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On being yourself (because everyone else is taken)

Garden State - Natalie Portman & Zach Braff

"This is your one opportunity to do something that no one has ever done before and that no one will copy throughout human existence. And if nothing else, you will be remembered as the one guy who ever did this. This one thing."

If there's one thing I know for sure it's that there's nothing better somebody can offer the world than what they already have and who they actually are. No two people are the same and I honestly believe everybody has something to bring to the table, something to contribute in their own unique way. The good thing about differences is that they help bridge the gaps in our own vision, the blind spots we can't see ourselves. 

I've spent the better part of high school and even some of university figuring this truth out. That you shouldn't ever think you have to be somebody else to be as awesome as they are. Everybody is talented and unique in their own right and being a cheap imitation of somebody else never got anybody very far. Like Natalie Portman says, there's this 'one thing' that you can give that nobody else out there can. Figure out what it is, and run with it. The easy way out is copying somebody that's already admired by other people, instead of forging forward with somebody you are.

Sometimes, what gets me through the day when self-doubt creeps in, is realising that I could have a normal life if I wanted to, I could do things that other people do and take the path that I've been told I should. But why would I want to succeed in this idea other people have of who I should be - when there's a much better, alternative choose-your-own-ending that has a lot more action, fireworks and unexpected adventures than the pre-fabricated storyline that I already know the ending to? The answer is there's no reason. Life is more like a goosebumps novel, with a choose your own adventure section - make it what you will, just make sure its yours!