Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Saying "Yes", and then saying "No"

Not even two months ago I met a girl who we will call A. She was 19 years old, alone in Australia by herself far from her home town on the islands of Hawaii. We hit it off, and only a few days later A had invited me to the Art Gallery of NSW's "After Hours" where we listened to a Jazz band and a talk on the work of psychologists influencing Modern Art. She asked, "Wanna come?" and without thinking I said, "Yes."

Everyday since I've met her she has had stories to tell about her adventures that start without fail with a chance-meeting of strangers at bus stops and ended always in a grand finale that make me laugh and cringe and sigh in succession. For someone who came to Australia knowing nobody, she has seen more of Sydney than I had known existed and had spoken to more interesting people than I had in my entire university degree. It's that kind of confidence you see on people and wonder if you hang around long enough, it'll catch on. It kind of does. I've come to call her The Yes Woman, on account of her never turning down an adventure, however strange or questionable. 

She reminds me of my long-haired, rather reckless but uninhibited self as I traipsed around Europe "throwing caution to the wind" (Defined by English Idioms website as: to engage in a risky or uncharacteristic behavior when the outcome may not be known). If that wasn't a definition of my behaviour circa 2011 I don't know what is. Tequila shots and a 4am night the same morning I had a train to catch and a connecting flight? Why not?

In Europe the answer was always, por que no? Why not? It rolled off the tongue so easily and went so well with a shrug of the shoulders and that C'est la vie attitude. If you can't live a little when you're overseas, alone and have malleable standards and judgment-calls not yet set in stone - when can you? 

Apparently, the 'Yes' honey-moon ends when you get home. Because home is different. You know people here and you're not leaving the country. Things happen here and they stay here and it's no longer 'What happens in Spain stays in Spain'. It's 'What happens in Sydney ends up on your facebook and then follows you around for a while until you make another error in judgement'. That's not catchy or fun.

When do we stop saying 'Yes' and why do we start saying 'No'? 

There are plenty of good reasons to say 'No' in certain situations. Like that time in Lisbon when I decided to take a midnight stroll to explore the city (I blame Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris). It was then a fifty-something swiss man, under the guise of asking me for directions, began offering to buy me dinner and wanting to 'just talk' because he was lonely, roaming the streets by himself past 12am.. who does that? *ahem* Needless to say, that was a resounding HELL No - followed rapidly by the quickest I'd ever run back to a hostel where I wrapped myself in a thick layer of self-loathing, after trying to shower off the disgust at my own idiocy.

Apart from safety concerns and street smarts, what's stopping us from doing things that we know we'll probably enjoy, or where we'll probably do awesome things or probably meet great people? Well apparently The Shire is on and people would rather go home and watch that great documentary expose on the noble and complex human condition instead.

Take a lesson from A. Don't sit and watch reality TV. Say 'Yes' a little more when you'd rather go to sleep than go out dancing at this cool Cuban bar your friend is telling you about. Say 'Yes' to volunteering when you're hippie sister tells you the kids are great and what else are you doing with your time anyway? Say 'Yes' to French classes you've always secretly wanted to take even though you're not good at languages and your accent is horrific.

Say 'Yes' to Tiger Airways flights for $10 to Melbourne and couch-surfing for the first time with people you don't know and have never met and are hoping are not creepy and weird. Because that's what I did and I'm hoping this 'Yes' business works out. Or again, I will be deceived by hollywood movies and their carefully constructed plots and catchy titles. Go on, say yes.

(But by all means, then say No to the creepy men at bus stops or the inebriated friend that bets you you can't jump down all of town hall steps blind folded, neither of these will end well)

Friday, July 20, 2012

Kissing Strangers, Shame & Self-validation

"You could of had an Italian, tonight," a friend said suggestively with raised eyebrows and an off-handed grin. She wasn't referring to the ravioli siciliana I ordered on Norton street but to a short, dark-haired miniature of the type of Italian men in women's fantasies and TV advertisements for classic roasted coffee beans. I don't remember his name anymore, can't remember if he even told me. Marco, I think it was. Go figure.

I've always fought a hard battle with shame, regret and kissing strangers. There was the revolutionary moment in my life when kissing strangers seemed like the best thing in the world, quickly followed - like all revolutions - by a period of sober re-assessment and the absence of all former enthusiasm. It was that time in my life when I'd just turned 18 and I was invincible in ways only explainable by having one hand punching the air and the other holding a glass pink with grenadine and smelling of vodka.

When you're drunk, young and untouchable, shame isn't something you think about. When you're sober, the impulsive decisions you made the night before that seemed daring and courageous, are in the light of day blindingly stupid, embarrassing, they smell not of vodka but of shame (though sometimes those are one in the same, sometimes the vodka is the lesser of two evils).

Everybody's limits are different, everybody's shame takes a different form. Unlike fear, so famous and well-known, shame slips in somewhere between falling asleep and the on-set of morning breath. But it's a necessary rite of passage, like walking with your heels in your hands at 5am in the middle of Sydney centre - shame teaches you the boundaries of your own supposed invincibility. It sets the limits and draws lines around dark corners that need no further exploration. 

There's no shame in kissing strangers, there's no shame in kissing an Italian man whose name is Marco at some bar on a Saturday night; the shame is of doing things you don't want to, that you never wanted to, of letting somebody else make decisions of which you're not comfortable with nor took time to consider. Shame isn't making the decision to have as many free champagnes as possible before the bar-tab ran out, but it is what happens after. Shame was having my youngest sister see me carried up the stairs at some unholy hour of the morning, barely conscious, with my short dress riding up and my head lolling around like some pathetic discarded rag-doll. There was shame in her eyes and there would have been shame in mine, had I been conscious enough to open them. 

These things catch up with you, they shape you, and you move on from the shame. For me, the shame I felt for doing the things I did was wrapped up in issues of validation and some misguided idea of who I wanted to be or more realistically, how I wanted to feel. The crazy thing is sometimes you have to overstep the line to be taught which side of it you should stand on. You don't learn instantaneously, but you get there - to the other side of the line with all the self-validation and wisdom behind you.

And then you find yourself on the dance floor, years after your first forays into clubbing and kissing strangers, politely indulging the conversation of some Italian man, smiling as you reject his advances and realising how smug you are in the knowledge you've decided something, rather than letting the night sweep you away into places you realise you don't want to be too late. You can still feel invincible, without the vodka in hand. You realise certain things as you move from the awkward teens to the early twenties, or as you mature. The insecurities that rested so squarely on chance encounters and run-ins with strangers, blurry stares across bars and glimpses in-between fluorescent lights on the dance floor, they've officially left the building.

Because it was never about what happened that night or the other, it was about whether you could step up and make a call about what was happening, instead of having something just 'happen' to you. Shame is doing things you didn't want to, because you thought it was cool or because this that or the other. You pick up those lessons somewhere along that strange, windy alley-way of growing up, learning and overcoming binge-drinking. Ain't no shame in that. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Labours of love and fear: What I'm Doing Now

To put it eloquently, lately shit has been getting real.

The last couple of weeks have been full on and I have been inundated with new challenges, ideas, people, events, responsibilities and opportunities. If life had given me lemons, I would have been too preoccupied micro-managing myself to have come up with a funny, new end to that line.

Busy is my middle name. My week-to-week life consists of interning, work, networking (a new, different kind of work) and working on my baby project Will Travel For Life. These could all be separate, neatly organised blog posts about each colour-coded post-it noted segment of my activities... but seeing as life is more organised chaos than structured story-line, so too will be this post.

Interning at a not-for-profit youth organisation run on volunteer interns has its perks. You run the show, are the voice, the backbone, the guts of the place you work. You aren't sitting in on meetings taking notes on the corner, you're organising them and attending them as the main contact and putting in your two cents, and then some. You're pushed, pulled and dragged upward into spreadsheets, cc'd emails,  sponsorships, partnerships and press releases to write - things that make you feel important and confused (do all adults feel this way?).

Then there is the little-written about project I've been working on the last couple of months, Will Travel For Life, the child of my confusion and travel experiences. It has grown into an online documentary series of which I am now, suddenly, awkwardly thrust into - more unknown territory. I have never made an online documentary series, I have only a basic grasp of iMovie, I've never been a producer, an interviewer, or had any knowledge of what those both entail. Yet, here I am.

Both of these areas of my life right now are both intolerably frustrating and endlessly gratifying in equal measure. Maddening children I want to strangle and embrace at once. I am doing these both voluntarily (though not without the occasional whinge) yet free at anytime to renounce them, clear my bank account and go on a year-long, life-escaping "Find-Yourself" sabbatical again.

But I don't, because I'm bound to what I'm doing. Like the best relationships you'll ever have, they push you to be better than you are, pull the rug out from under you and take you so far out of your comfort zones it'll make you question what you were doing all your life prior to this point. I wouldn't choose to be anywhere else, doing anything else - as much as I might be tempted to flee and despite how much easier my life would be otherwise.

Life isn't about easy (although sometimes it is about sipping mojitos, re: spain 2011). It's feeding off that whole 'Constant Terror of Being Alive' business; the fear is there but so is the excitement, there's the failures and the challenges, the successes and the glorious moments of satisfaction. In between flailing over projects I am little qualified, yet overly passionate about, I eat a lot of brownies and drink a lot of tea, which helps immensely. And I take time to be a little self-congratulatory. The small victories need to be celebrated. 

I am embracing that nerve-racking, heart-racing, sweat-inducing fear that near paralyses me everyday. Feeding off it, giving into it and getting past it. Fear and I, we're old friends. Fear is one of those friends that keeps you in check. My general rule of thumb is that if I'm scared, I'm doing something right. 

At interning I'm scared of doing things wrong, of forgetting important details, of not doing enough. For Will Travel For Life I'm scared I won't finish it, even before it's really started; I'm scared people won't get it, I'm scared I won't like the final product, I'm scared, I'm scared, I'm scared. 

I'm scared of posting this, and having somebody comment. I'm scared of posting this, and having nobody comment. I'm scared endlessly by the possibility of failure. I'm scared when I am not busy and the ugly beast of self-doubt creeps in. I'm scared when I'm not busy, that I should be doing more. I'm scared of the scariness of responsibility, decision and adulthood.

Going by my rule of thumb on fear, all this being scared must mean I'm doing a whole lot right with my life, or I have some sort of pathological addiction to anxiety and fear. Let's go with the former!

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Constant Terror of Being Alive

Life doesn’t stop, it’s the fast speed train that knocks you over, the endless carriages that whiz by as you try and count them down – waiting for it all to pass. And you hope desperately that it will all go faster, so you can board the final carriage and sit blissfully at the end, able to just enjoy the ride. At least, I've been waiting on that platform for a while, checking the time and waiting for all the heavy work carriages to pass me by so that I can sit in comfortable first-class seats.

The problem with this is, life is relentless. It doesn't stop until it's over. There are always tests, tax to do, bills to pay, emails to be written, calls to make, deadlines to meet, things you don’t want to do, days you want to retire from the everyday and take a vacation to an only slightly-deserted island where the other inhabitants exist solely to bring you mojitos and play soothing Jack Johnson tunes.

When I was in highschool the world was more or less the same for six years, we were all craving change so desperately we created it within the melo-dramas of our lives. For the most part, highschool was the collective moan of wanting to be somewhere else. It was always counting down the days of term, wanting it to finally be the school holidays. It was kicking down the door to Growing Up, getting our licenses, being able to drink, being able to Make Our Own (often embarrassing-now, great idea at the time) decisions. We, or at least I, was more often that not playing the waiting game. Waiting for my graduation ceremony, so that my Life could begin.

And highschool ended, and the life I was so looking forward to began. It didn’t disappoint but what followed me was the anxiety of more and greater responsibility and expectation. I was often terrorized by the ambiguity of my own direction in life, while I met friends during university breaks and wasn’t suffocated by the routine of highschool – the familiar faces of self-doubt and fear still found me, dressed up in new party clothes.

So I went to Spain, and finally – finally – I would have my peace. A rest from the #firstworldproblems of having to choose a career path as my degree drew to a close and my peers became increasingly more serious, successful and damaging to by self-esteem. For a year I would escape the terrors of everyday life and live only for adventure, fiestas and mid-afternoon naps. The summer months would be dedicated wholly to the expansion of my horizons (whatever that meant at the time).

Lo and behold, life doesn’t respect the artistically painted Van Gogh idea you have in your head. That time in my life would excite me and show me dizzingly the endless wonders of this world but it wouldn’t let me cut ties with reality. It was about as close to the sky I could get without leaving the ground.

It’s like Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Life is this dichotomy between floating away and sinking down. You can’t have one without the other. And even amongst all the brimming glory of travel, anonymity and wonder, I was still frequently paralysed by fear, terrorised by the anxiety of making decisions, doing things I didn’t want to do and the expectations and responsibility placed upon me (or that I placed so masochist-like around on myself).

It is this Constant Terror of Being Alive - that we are at once given the hard-won task of being in control of our own lives. As soon as you race to end of some marathon-week, the next one appears unexpectedly at your door step demanding more. You work so hard to close a door and the window flings open – I’m aware that’s not how the axiom goes but sometimes you just want to be in a room by yourself where you can shut everything out just for a minute to let yourself breathe. But as I said, life is relentless.

So in lieu of giving up, just give in to the fact that life is ball-breaking. Lean into the current rather than against the tide and make sure you are well aware of the fact that life will likely terrorise you well into the future. It’s just like taking a tequila shot, you never expect it to taste good – you just take it and know that at first it will make you want to gag, and then it will make you stronger, and then you will dance on tables without respect for social norms believing in your own invincibility (vodka also does the trick).

It’s this coping mechanism that’s got me through the disasters that life throws mercilessly upon us (and no, I’m not still talking about tequila…because that would be my other blog ‘Grace What Are You Drinking’). Somewhere between highschool and now I got to remembering that every single time I would swear to myself there was no conceivable end to the situation I was in, it would end, and it would turn out OK.

You can’t live life with your fingers crossed, hoping that one day all the annoying, terrifying or gut-wrenching realities of life will pick up and change residence. There is always something, there will always be something. So be all Ghandi like and give it up. You have two options:

  1. Accept the things you can’t change.
  2. Change the things you can’t accept.

It will get you everywhere, give it up – take that nasty, surprisingly sobering, tequila shot, swallow that sour-tasting fact that life is relentless – you’ll be better for it. Promise.