Over the last four years, a number of people have reached out to me to talk about their idea for a book, about their vague thoughts of starting a blog or vlog or about the creative/ writing process in general. I’m no expert, but I love talking about all these things! It’s not that they’re asking for help or even support anyway. It’s more about putting “it” out there with someone who they think might get it.
Often people just want to share what’s in their heart or imagination. They’re not looking to another person to make it happen for them, but I suppose all they really want is a little bit of encouragement that their quirky little inclination has substance and deserves a chance to live.
I love hearing about the longing to create, which so many people have. Whether it’s to facilitate a big dream or just for the opportunity to challenge and express themselves. Most people are not looking for the “10 step plan for producing beautiful work” (though, if you have that plan, please forward it to me immediately). Nor do they need the “37 tips for creative geniuses”. They just want a little encouragement, a little hope that if they give this thing a shot they won’t die, break something, humiliate themselves, offend the rest of the human race. Of course, I can’t guarantee any of those things won’t happen when you start your creative project, but generally speaking there are more positive than negative outcomes likely to ensue when you take a step into the creative wild.
What I’ve noticed most of all is that people are looking for reassurance that their ideas and opinions are valid. For some reason so many of you intelligent, talented and interesting people hold back from starting something new or putting yourself “out there” because you feel like you’re are not allowed to.
Not allowed to write your memoirs because your life hasn’t been interesting enough.
Not allowed to blog because your thoughts seem trifling.
Not allowed to write because you don’t make words real good.
Not allowed to start a business because you aren’t trained or experienced enough.
Not allowed to start a vlog because you don’t know how to edit videos.
Not allowed to have an opinion because you aren’t as intelligent as other people. (Who are these “other” people by the way? Everybody talks about them, but who are they exactly?! We obviously don’t like them, so how about we just forget them.)
Not allowed to paint because you never took a class.
Not allowed to sell your stuff because it’s not good enough.
All that stuff may very well be true. But if you want to do it… just bloody do it!
Who cares if no one reads, likes, comments, buys, subscribes, worships you? We get so hung up on these details that we forget that we live in an era where we are free and equipped do ANYTHING we want to. We can do what we love and we don’t need permission or approval. We can study whatever, train in whatever, practise whatever. It’s ours for the taking. And if you practise and you work hard and invest into yourself and allow your work to evolve maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have a measure of success and acclaim.
And if you do all this and nothing comes of it ask yourself this, did you have a blast? If the answer is yes, then it’s WORTH IT! If the answer’s, no you didn’t have fun doing it, then I’m sorry, but you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes it’s hard working on personal, creative stuff, because our expectations of ourselves can be unachievable at present. But my experience has been that my life is infinitely enriched by creativity and expression. Enriched by the wonder of ideas and thoughts coming together in surprising ways, but also enriched by you. By people who read and reach out to me to let me know that something resonated with them, or that they experienced what I’ve experienced, or that they feel a little more courage to START or to finish or that they want to talk about their little thoughts or their big thing.
If you have a blog of project or something cool you want to share, please do in the comments below or on Insta or Facey or by snail mail or homing pigeon or whatever you like, I’m down with it.
I’ve seen a lot of Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest posts saying “Stay humble”. Makes me wonder why for me it’s more often a case of BE HUMBLED. Maybe that’s cause I didn’t start off humble?
I had parents who thought I was amazing and gifted and beautiful from the second I popped out and said goo goo gah gah. I was pretty cute back then, so I got used to everyone thinking I was some kind of miracle from before I’d done anything more impressive than drool on myself. For me humility was something life had to school me in, and guys, I am one slow learner.
Over the years and many cringe-worthy opportunities to grow, I’ve learned that it’s not so difficult to be humbled when you look around and realise:
1. You are a very small person in a really REALLY big world.
Look at the ocean, look at the sky, look at the shades of green and brown and grey around you! How wonderful, how sublime, how lucky we are to have access to wide open living – whether it be natural landscapes or concrete jungles. You are lovely to behold, but try taking your eyes off yourself for a moment and you’ll notice that the world is glorious and eagerly waiting for you to come outside and see and learn and explore and play.
2. You are damn fool.
You know it, your real friends know it. Embrace it. Don’t waste your time trying to hide it. Understanding that you are a fool is actually pretty freeing once you learn to stop cringing at the things you say and do.
3. You will make mistakes.
You will hurt others. You will break things. You will break yourself. Learn to say sorry. And learn to accept apologies too while you’re at it. It’s easy to let the shame of a mistake drive you into hiding, but it’s far more interesting and helpful to acknowledge a mistake and move forward. Mistakes are actually quite wonderful when you have the right perspective. They give you an opportunity to be real, to check yourself and to empathise with others who you may have previously written off. Mistakes can also make space if your life for genuine relationships where previously you only had frenemies. A big mistakes can be an opportunity to reassess and take step closer to the right move.
4. You’re kind of not that big a deal.
Yeah, nobody really cares about how amazing you are. Be cool, be kind. Introduce yourself with a handshake and a smile. Ask people questions about themselves once in a while. Practise good manners. Make your mum proud.
5. You could always laugh about it.
Have you ever had a moment where you’re walking around the city in your sophisticated new work dress, when the charming young man standing behind you on the escalator taps you on the shoulder and says, “Um, your skirt’s tucked in at the back.” And when you put your hand on your butt you realise that indeed half your skirt is tucked INTO your knickers. And then the lady behind the charming young man chimes in with, “yeah it’s really in there!” (Hypothetically speaking of course…) In situations like these you wish you could be cool, you wish you could have some witty comeback, but the best, yes the very best you can do is laugh. (Especially as you wonder how long it’s been like that for…)
Sometimes it seems like everything is out to get us, but what if all these awful things, the awkward moments, the huge mistakes, the humiliation are just wonderful opportunities to be humbled and recapture the wonder of things that are not you or me!
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A while ago I read the Paris Review interview with Ernest Hemingway and came across his response to the question of what his writing process looked like:
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.
The Paris Review, Issue 18, 1958
That’s the life we long for! Having the freedom to dedicate every morning to a passion, which for me is writing but for you may be another creative or fulfilling endeavour. Sadly grown-up life requires gainful employment, family time, socialising, eating, sleeping, personal hygiene, house cleaning and a million other time consuming activities.
I’m very fortunate to have one whole day that I get to dedicate to writing, for which I’m deliriously grateful. Even with that full day, I often felt like I was trudging uphill when in came to my word count on WIPs. I quickly learned that the amount of time you have does not seamlessly correlate the amount of work you produce. More time did not necessarily mean more output or productivity.
Then in August 2013, I returned from a short stint of volunteering in a slum in Manila with a wild idea for a novel. While in the slum, I’d met and fallen in love with four small siblings: Angelo, Jonjon, Daidai and Dodong. The idea was a huge fictional story based on their character traits and the nature of their world. It consumed me, I mean burned in me, like no other story I’ve written. The excitement, and fear of losing this rapidly unfolding story, meant that I churned out the writing faster than anything I’d ever written. After three weeks, I had about 20, 000 words – which is not normal for me. I was still working and doing all the other things, but what had changed was:
1) I was (am) obsessed.
2) I was writing every single day.
I used every minute of “dead time” I had. I was taking my laptop EVERYWHERE. I would write on the forty minute train commute to work, on my lunch breaks or for an hour when I got home after work. On my writing day and on Saturdays I could pump out a couple of thousand words. But most of the daily “sessions” were 300, 500, 700 word hits.
Inspired by seeing what a manic daily writing can achieve with just a little bit of time every day, I feel totally convinced that daily writing is a core habit that I need build into my life in order to feel satisfied with my creative productivity.
I finished my first draft earlier this month (hitting 70,000 words in six months!) so March has been a month of editing and reworking. My word count is steadily increasing as I fill in the gaps and play around with scenes and language, but the focus has not been purely dumping words on the page as in previous months. I’ve been writing almost every day since August, so really this month has been about creating an intentional habit which I can sustain when the hysteria of this novel subsides.
So, here are some of the lessons I’ve taken away from trying to establish the habit of Daily Writing (or daily creative productivity):
1. Get it out of your head. If you have a WIP or an established idea – put your back into it and pump out the words. Dump your thoughts and inklings down. If you can’t get the flow, just write the things, scenes, action, chapters that is most vivid to you. You can always go back to fill in the gaps, write what’s hot.
2. Don’t edit. Everyone’s process is different. For me writing and editing are two completely different processes. Writing is about get it out in semi coherent form. Editing is about organising, clarifying and adding the finer details. Having some structure to begin with is immensely helpful, but you don’t have to be married to your structure when you’re creating. As long as you’re fiddling with and “perfecting” chapter one you will never get to chapter thirty, where you realise the your character’s side-kick has to die, which changes everything you thought you’d “perfected” in the previous chapters. Think about that the next time you find yourself obsessing over the perfect word to describe the exact shade of green of a character’s eyes.
3. Create helpful associations. One trick I use is going to the same cafe every writing day or Saturday for an hour (or four) to churn out some writing. The familiar smell, sounds, sites, staff and the perfect coffee kick my brain into gear for writing and I can honestly lose myself in my manuscript for hours! It’s bizarre, but it works! Mind you, this is after years of doing this. Other associations could be doing the work at the same time everyday or after doing some other automatic task.
4. Use “dead” time. Write during your commute. Get yourself out of bed earlier and write for 30 minutes while you sip a cup of tea. Switch off your TV or throw a trident through it or drop it out the window or whatever. Give up some other “luxury” like painting your nails every week or online “window” shopping or social media.
5. Kill creative guilt. This can be really destructive and will kill whatever shred of confidence and joy you have in your writing. If you’ve missed a few days, weeks (or months), here’s one fail-proof way to get on your feet again. Write 300 words. Right now. I have moments of hyperventilating about not having written anything for too long. I can articulate the precise depth of despair and torment that unproductive weeks wreak on my fragile soul…but when I finally shut up about it, sit down and write 300 words I immediately feel better, worthy, able.
Do neck exercises. Spend all your money into chiro, osteo, physio, remedial massage, tiger balm, heat packs, pilates… Neck and back pain is a curse, take care of your body.
Lessons learned: See all of the above. Also get a backpack for your laptop. Sure you look like Dora the Explorer, but when you look longingly at all those lovely girls with their cute handbags and perfectly combed hair ask yourself this question, when’s the last time any of them wrote 70,000 glorious words? I’ll tell you when. NEVER!
April habit: Wake Early. (deep breaths, deep breaths)
We’re all waiting for an opportunity, for our one shot. I just have a question.
Are you ready?
What if tomorrow THAT company called and said, “We think you have potential and we want to invest in your startup.”
What if this afternoon you got an email from a literary agent saying, “Hey we read one of your published short stories and we liked it. Do you have a novel we could take a look at?”
What if your band was approached to play at a major gig next week, potentially showcasing your fresh sounds to a huge new audience?
What if it happened right now? Are you ready for that?
If this doesn’t make you pee your pants a little bit in terror, then, my friend, you just don’t care enough about your dream. Or your dream is boring.
Side note about dreams. When people hashtag #livingthedream on things like having a great day off or swimming at the beach or lunch, I kinda want to punch them in the face coz, what the heck dude is that seriously your dream?! I dream about being the president of the world (the whole world) so I can boss everyone around and have a personal masseur. I dream about having a keyboard player following me around playing the live soundtrack to my daily life. I dream about writing a million books, reading a million books, spreading love and joy around the planet, world peace, a world without crocs, a world without poverty, hate and self-loathing. I too enjoy coffees and holding hands and swimming in the ocean, but that is not The Dream, that’s just a nice intermission. The Dream is bloody hard work. *rant over*
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Particularly in the context of creative practice and production. A while ago I was reading articles about young fashion designers Bec and Bridge who started straight out of uni (UTS represent). A friend of theirs walked into a shop wearing their customised jeans and the owner called them and ordered 120 pairs, forcing them to quickly learn about production and ship ship ship! Every fashion student probably has that dream of having their own label launched into the stratosphere by winning a start up prize and serendipitous opportunities like these women have had. But I wonder if anyone stops to think about how much hard work goes into grabbing opportunity with both hands and taking off. In interviews with Bec and Bridge they talk about spending all their time at uni working on assessments and on their fledgling label (which at that point NO-ONE cared about). About using every opportunity they had to work on the business: designing, creating, developing a website, marketing etc. The opportunities were amazing, but their success came because they did something with it.
Sometimes I think that opportunity is a luck of the draw thing. I don’t know if some people get more opportunities than others or maybe some people just see opportunities more than others? Whatever the case your opportunity is coming, it’s on it’s way. But to be truly great, to make the kind of impact that you and I long for we need to be good enough to warrant success and we need to be willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
I don’t have a definition for “good enough”, but you must understand that just because you like it, doesn’t mean that it will go to market. If what you’re creating is purely for yourself, that is SO ok! Not everyone wants to make a big deal of what they are doing. Creating for the joy of the experience is totally valid and completely wonderful! There are a plethora of incredible visionaries and artists who were not widely celebrated by their contemporaries.
If you do want to make a big deal of it, you’ve got to work it:
1. Create. Put the time aside in your day or week to pump out your 500 or 5000 words. Go to the painting cave and don’t you dare come out until it’s done. Write 20 awful songs until you get one that you like. Produce some worthy of attention. No excuses.
2. Care. You are the only person who cares about this part of you right now. Others may love and care for you, but no-one knows what it will cost you to give this thing life. You have care more about this than anyone else, you have to care about it EVEN IF no one else ever does. You have to practice while no-one is watching, you have to sweat over it quietly for as long as it takes.
3. Ship. Put it on your website. Share it with/ sell it to your friends and family. Book gigs or market stalls or art galleries. Submit your poems to publishers. Audition. Do it for free, do it for a feed, do it in exchange for something, just do it!
4. Refine. Look you’re probably pretty good, but don’t ever be so arrogant (or insecure) that you can’t accept quality feedback. If a good editor makes some suggestions, thank them for their time and do something with those suggestions. If no-one is coming to your gigs or they don’t buy your EP afterwards, work on new stuff – try a new direction or just be more disciplined about practising! If you’re having a little success, but not breaking through to your sales goals, do a short course on small business marketing, contact a business owner you admire and arrange a skype chat or coffee. Don’t settle for average, you could be a few tweaks away from glorious.
*Another note: Please don’t ask for feedback or advice if you’re not going to do anything with it, because that would make you an askhole. Don’t be an askhole. Also, don’t keep flogging the same old stuff to the same people, there’s probably a reason they haven’t bought, watched or engaged yet. If you’re feeling brave ask a friend why they aren’t interested then change your product or change who you’re marketing to. Rethink. Refine. Keep going.
5. Make friends. This is actually really underrated, but make friends with like minded people. Make friends with creative people from different fields. At times they’ll inspire you, at times they’ll challenge you (or make you froth with jealousy so much that it forces you to step your game up). Other times they’ll be the ones to talk you off the ledge when you want to throw it all in. There are more opportunities than ever to connect online and offline. No-one likes self-absorbed and wormy networking, but everyone loves an authentic and encouraging connection with someone who gets it. If you’re reading this, you probably are my friend (or my mother) and I love you for coming back every week and reading all the way to the end even when I get all ranty and use too many words that all mean the same thing. If you’re reading this and you’re not my friend yet, what are you waiting for? You can subscribe, or find me on Instagram, or write to me and tell me where to find your stuff. Creatives unite!
“I will study and prepare, and someday my opportunity will come.”
– Abraham Lincoln
A couple of weeks ago, Mat and I had the opportunity to visit our local youth group to be on a guest panel answering questions about relationships. Being in an auditorium where the average age was about 14 years younger than me was a bit stressful, but the experience got me thinking about the former, much younger and embarrassing Aziza.
As I looked out into the crowd of young impressionable faces, I saw that crazy girl I used to be and thought – Go for it guys, pick some fights, slay some dragons, do some adventurous stuff! It got me thinking about what advice I’d give my 15 year old self if I could (by some wonderful or cruel twist of fate) do it all again.
1. Trust yourself. You are smarter and more tuned in that you realise, don’t let insecurity and uncertainty stop you from making brave & right decisions.
2. Be kind. You don’t have to stoop to the average standards of the crowd, you can stand out by being kind and treating every person with dignity.
3. Be quiet. Even a fool seems wise if she holds her tongue.
4. Boys are wonderful, strange creatures, but calm yourself girl – the right one will come after you when the time is right. Do some breathing exercises and channel those raging hormones into something productive like writing angsty teenage verse or learning an instrument.
5. You were really smart to say no to all the pot that was offered to you during high school. Your fear of killing precious brain cells & turning into a loser stoner was spot on. Snaps for you.
6. Your parents are indeed crazy, but they would do anything for you. TRY to be nice to them & for heaven’s sake do more to help out around the house – do you have any idea how exhausting it is to work full time and raise a family?!
7. Take more risks. Do the degree you really want to do not the safe one. Start more small businesses, take unpaid internships, make stuff and sell it.
8. Read the classics, read from different subject areas, find other readers to learn from & share with. Look into psychology and historiography – you’ll love it!
9. Learn about money right now. Start saving for something big.
10. Travel if you want to, but don’t confuse travel with achievement. If you want stories and experience go for it, if you want a sense of true achievement work hard and, you know, achieve something!
11. Take more Art classes. You’re no Picasso, but paint for the hell of it.
12. Who you’re friends with matters, but don’t freak out if those circles change from time to time. Give others permission to grow and change in directions that are different from you. Maybe your friendship can withstand the change, maybe it can’t – either way is okay. You do you, girl.
13. Practise patience. It’s not easy, but you will get better at it with time.
14. Be generous with your time, your money and your words. It’s freeing, enriching and it’s the best fun you’ll have!
15. Enjoy this time of your life. Time is fleeting, so don’t wish it away.
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February’s Habit: Prayer and Fasting
Ok, February’s habit was another holy one. I chose it for February because, incidentally, this is when my church and many churches around the country do an annual corporate fast. People can participate (or not participate) in what ever way they’d like to for 21 days of prayer and fasting. Some fast social media, TV, some shopping or other things that they “consume”. Many of us choose to do some kind of food fast – either a full fast (only consuming water and some juices) or some other partial fast – one meal a day, cutting out luxury or junk food or a Daniel fast (only consuming fruit and veggies.)
If the goal is to create more space for spiritual pursuit, I think any kind of fast is a good practice. Over the years, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that doing a food fast of some kind has wonderful spiritual benefits that you can’t attain any other way. There are loads of spiritual and health benefits to be had from food fasts and there are loads of precautions and smart ways to do it, all of which I’m sure you can find with a simple Google search, visit to your local library or chat to your doctor. I’m not here to write an essay on the pros and cons or the ins and outs of fasting – cause it’s all been written before by people much more intelligent than I. But I do want to report back on how I went in February as promised in my Twelve Habits post.
I chose to do a Daniel fast for February. Historically the first week is the pits for me – it’s emotional, anxiety inducing and there’s a lot of rage that bubbles up. However, for the first time in my life I was actually organised before the fast and I’d cleared the fridge and freezer of meat and tempting foods. I also went shopping for fresh fruit and veggies ahead of time so that I was well stocked and mentally ready to take on a month of eating very basic food. I even has a few meals planned to get me going, a tomato based Kale soup, Zucchini “pasta” and bean patties. Getting organised helped me to avoid the usual week one meltdown. Apart from headaches from caffeine withdrawal and manageable irritability, I was flying.
But then, by about day seven I was starting to get bored of my suite of clever vegetarian meals and the cravings for obscure things began to consume my mind. Suddenly I NEEDED frozen yoghurt with m&ms and steak and chocolate brownies (in that order). It was intense, so I was really thankful to having a bunch of other people, who were also suffering, to share the burden with! Accountability and shared mourning for comfort food saved me from numerous opportunities to stray. I also ate A LOT of pistachios for a couple of days, which helped too!
Week two was amazing! I experienced an wonderful clarity and focus that I forgot was possible. I think the combination of caffeine detox, fresh clean foods and extra rest to compensate for lower consumption left me feeling refreshed and clear. My productivity and efficiency at work increased and I felt really joyful. I also enjoyed really beautiful time in prayer and solitude.
Then week three came around and I hit a wall! An unplanned visit by my step-dad, who’s currently living in country NSW threw me off. I did a quick shop and bought too much non-fasting friendly food (bread, meat etc) to overcompensate for my bare fridge. My step-dad also took us out for dinner at a burger joint and cooked bacon and eggs in the morning. I felt bad about saying no when he wasn’t fasting and also I really really wanted to eat all the wonderful greasy carb-a-licious food! It was hard to recover from that, so week three had it’s ups and downs.
Altogether I think it was one of my most pleasant fasting experiences. I think the main reason was because I’d resolved with myself that prayer and fasting (together) is a normal and beneficial holy practice that can and should be a part of my normal life. I’ve been reading about it and thinking about it since I was 17 years old, back when no-one really talked about it in my circles, but it’s only recently that I’ve finally overcome the fear and dread of it.
I also think my mindset about it has changed, in that it’s no longer a works based practice for me. Meaning that I’m not doing this to please or appease or twist God’s arm. I’m doing it to draw closer to God, to create space for devotion and prayer and to facilitate clarity. I’d like to better understand the science of it, but fasting seems to put us in a place of openness and receptivity that we don’t experience in the day to day. I think this shift in my perception of fasting was why I wasn’t racked with guilt or stress about having some hiccups in week three.
Lessons learned: I’ve had a desire to fast more regularly as standard practice for some time, but now I finally feel confident and equipped to do this well. Despite the hiccups, I feel like February’s habit was a success in that it’s given me a sense of expectation and excitement to practise fasting as a habit rather than an annual event.
March’s habit: Daily writing
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There comes a time in every person’s life (yes even the boys) when you realise that you will never EVER be Beyoncé. It’s a difficult realisation, but you know, you just pick yourself up and keep on keeping on. But then, she releases ANOTHER album and you remember how clever and in control she is and it makes you sick.
I don’t love everything that she puts out, but I respect it. You know? Rhianna does it and it’s dirty and gross. Miley does it and it’s lame and try hard. Beyoncé does it and it somehow makes sense. Maybe because she’s older and wiser and she’s earned it? How does she do that? How does she have so much control over the way we consume her image?
Tell me your secrets woman!
We’re all so cynical about the celebrity machine, and so we should be, but I don’t know anyone who is cynical about Beyoncé. I’d venture to say she’d beat Oprah in a popularity contest. And Oprah gave people houses and cars and schools in Africa and stuff.
Is it talent? Is it be honesty? Is it privacy that allows for a bit of mystery? Is it self-respect?
Maybe maybe maybe. But a couple of weeks ago, as I watched her five part Youtube clips about the new visual album I was struck by the comment that she’d recorded 80 songs from which she chose 14 to put on the album.
EIGHTY songs. Respect girl. That’s someone who works her backside off for her craft. That’s someone who creates for the joy of it and who is willing to do it in secret until it’s ready. Someone who won’t stop until they have it right.
Beyonce is schooling us in creativity and the lesson is, your gift is very nice, but girl you gotta werk it. The more I learn about creativity through books and articles and practice, the more I am convinced it is far more about hard work than it is about talent. But when you’re passionate about what you do it doesn’t feel like effort. You want to educate yourself in your field, you want to explore the limits of your genre and those of other genres, you want to immerse yourself in the work, you could live in a dark cave for a while with no need for validation because you know that what you’re doing is right. It’s crazy, risky, consuming, but it’s right.
Pop music is one of those cultural expressions that is often sold as a cheap commodity. It takes work to use that medium to tell stories that matter, stories that we want to go back to, and Beyonce, I think you nailed it.
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I’ve been thinking about grief lately. Great little icebreaker there. Ok, you can choose to opt out of reading this one if it’s not something you feel like reading – I wouldn’t blame you. The only people who read blog posts that start with, “I’ve been thinking about grief“ are those who have actually experienced it.
Not everyone has experienced grief. I don’t just mean that you have or haven’t experienced losing someone or something that you love. Lots of people have lost loved ones and have moved right on to the next thing. Then I had a friend in high school who cried for a whole day when her dog, Bear, died. I personally have never mourned the loss of a pet the way she did, & I loved all my pets growing up. Some people experience deep grief every day of their lives. They don’t really know why, but they feel it. It’s as real to them as loss is to a widow.
I was thirteen when my father died. My mother woke me up in the middle of the night crying. She had just received the phone call from our family in South Africa to say he’d passed away in the hospital. I had only found out what had happened the day before. My mother, stepfather, brother and I had been living in New Zealand for a year and my father and extended family were all still living in South Africa. It must have been around the time of my thirteenth birthday because my mother held off telling me that my father had been in a bad accident in South African earlier that week. She said she didn’t want to upset me on the day of my birthday party. She must have thought he would have been ok and she didn’t want to worry me. We were too far away to know the details.
The details were that it was not an accident. A man had walked into the panel beating garage my father worked in, threw gasoline onto him and set him on fire. My father suffered and died in hospital a few days later.
I cried from shock of it that night my mother woke me up sobbing. Then I didn’t really cry about it for a long time. As I grew older, I grew angry and hard. People at school would cry about friends backstabbing or fights with their boyfriends and I’d roll my eyes because that sort of stuff didn’t register as a blip on my radar. Truth is, I probably didn’t let people close enough to have much emotional impact on me. I didn’t cry about normal stuff like that, but I did cry a lot on my own in my room. That was kind of embarrassing and weird at the time, so I didn’t really talk to anyone about it.
I think I was eighteen when I finally realised how angry I had become. I wasn’t angry at the man who killed my father, or at the fact that he was able to bribe his way out of being charged with murder in a modern, western society. I was angry about the little things. At not being held, at the time I didn’t get to have him, at the alcoholism, at the times he’d let me down, at family feuds, at promises that he’d broken and promises that were stolen. My grief was hard and prickly. My grief was a dark knot that would not allow others to comfort me. My grief was selfish and ugly and it left me feeling ashamed.
I was in pain and it was complicated but when it came time to heal, for me things became very simple. Time didn’t make a difference, but a choice to forgive, to heal and move forward did. I’m not a professional counsellor and I’ve not studied the complexity of grief. What I’ve experienced is that pain subsides in the healing process, but grief marks you forever.
I’m a different person because of my experiences, I’m shaped by them. If I could change things I would want to have my father, but that’s not possible. So I choose to celebrate my life and my experience, all of it. There are so many things that are inconvenient about being me. I’m irreverent (read rude) about things that matter deeply to others, I’m still quite hard at times but now I also cry about EVERYTHING. Not in a boohoo way, but in a glistening tear on the cheek kind of way. You really believe that?! No, it’s often messy and inappropriate!
I’m no longer wounded, but I’m scarred. But I think that I like myself this way, with the scars and complexities and the leaking eyes and the open heart. I’m fully alive. I feel and I care and I experience the full range of human emotions. I know how to love because I’ve hated. I know how to forgive because I’ve known black rage. I enjoy the freedom of laughter and joy because I’ve been trapped in grief. I appreciate peace because I’ve been troubled. I can celebrate because I’ve been defeated before.
And at times I still hate, rage, grieve and feel overcome. At times I still think about my father and feel a sting of sadness. Loss doesn’t stop being loss, no matter how much time passes. But those moments of sadness for me wake me up to how good it is to be alive and to FEEL things. It’s a reminder that life is for living.
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I like to think of myself as one of those “creative types”. I also like to think of myself as living outside the box, a little unstructured, a little wild. I’m led by intuition & at times (read: all the time) I’m governed by emotions. But at the same time, there’s a innate desire for the security and predictability of structure that I think most people crave.
I’m sick of reading personality test result descriptions and feeling like I have to be either creative or structured. Why can’t a person be both wildly creative AND structured. I think successful creative people need to have boundaries and routines in some areas and none in others. Must as some of us resist it, we need both.
As I get older, life gets more complex & while I want to keep the freedom of unpredictable creativity, without routine & structure I fear that I will:
– eat spaghetti bolognese (lovingly made by my husband) EVERY SINGLE NIGHT for the rest of my natural life,
– start projects but never finish them,
– exercise once a quarter (probably after eating a whole cake on my own so it wouldn’t even count),
– wear clothes that carry the provocative scent of last week’s BO,
– never see the carpet on my bedroom floor again,
- have to settle for being a tolerable flat-mate with my husband rather than having a romantic relationship with him.
No, it’s too awful – especially the spag bog thing – there’s only so much one woman can take! Also, one day I might like to add small humans to this equation, I shudder to think what would happen to these defenceless, dependent little people without some kind of structure.
So structure and routine are not all bad. But it takes work initially to implement them, particularly when you have an unruly nature and more so if you’ve let your feeling & desires run the show unchecked for some time.
For example, for me the regular exercise thing was extremely difficult to get into after a few YEARS of doing nothing because I was never in the mood. It wasn’t until I got into a regular class with accountability and challenge that I developed a habit of going to the gym three times a week – no matter how I felt. There were times when I’d get home at 6.55pm, get changed and drive straight to the gym for the 7.15pm class before I even realised what I was doing. I had locked it into my brain that I HAD to be there three times a week, so I got there. One memorable moment was driving to the class in the foulest mood & sitting in the car for 5 minutes thinking – I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here, repeat, repeat. Then getting out, going in and bashing out an angry hour anyway. It felt good!
That’s the beauty of routine. It locks something in that can override the erratic, undisciplined, unruly part of us that would rather not. That part that is too busy, tired, miserable, too deep in this bag of cookies, too whatever to do the things that we should do. The things we know can make a positive difference if we could just commit & stay the course for more a three month fad.
Routine gives autopilot a chance to kick it. There must be a science to it, but all I know is autopilot is a gift from God. When you have a million complex things you’re trying to keep on top on, autopilot is a Godsend for those boring but important, low skill but time consuming things that we all have to do to survive, eat, not smell, have smooth skin, enjoy habitable homes and avoid obesity. Routines make life a little more simple and we could all do with a little more of that.
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January’s Habit: Practise the Presence of God
I decided that my first habit to focus on for 2014 would be a Holy one. Also, I was on holiday for the first half of January and I thought that the Presence one wouldn’t be too strenuous… Well, let me tell you about a million things about that.
I’ll start at the beginning.
I’m the kind of person who gets super focused on the discipline & performance of Christian faith:
- go to church (tick)
- read a portion of scripture from the bible every day (tick),
- pray for approx. 20-40mins every day (sort of tick),
- don’t sin (um, tick?),
- be a good/holy person that is pleasing to Jesus (…),
- jump through hoops & work really really hard in other areas of religious activity to perhaps earn your righteousness (TICKTICKFRIGGINTCKICIK!!!!!)
Well, somewhere between July and December 2013 I inadvertently read three books which all referenced Practising the Presence of God. Well, two books referenced it and the third was THE book, The Practice of the Presence of God, by 17th Century lay brother, Brother Lawrence. It began with A.W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God in July. Tozer quoted from Brother Lawrence’s, The Practice of the Presence of God, then few days later as I trawled through our bookcase at home, I come across the Brother Lawrence book!
Aside about our bookcase: When Mat and I married we brought into our first home boxes and boxes of books that neither of us really knew the origins of – including the six Salman Rushdie novels, a Koran (which was a gift), & two Norton Anthologies of 20th Century canonical fiction & poetry (thanks Sydney University). Over the years the collection has continued to grow in weird and wonderful ways & every so often I feel sorry for the books that have been sitting on the shelf unread so I pick out a pile of titles, organise them in the order they are to be read & move them to prominent places around house like a cat that brings in a mouse to show off to her family.
Fast forward to December and I’m reading, Your God is too Safe by Mark Buchanan, and of course Buchanan references Brother Lawrence and practising be presence of God. I think anything that comes at you in threes deserves some attention (read: I freak out and rave at friends: “What does it mean, what does it MEAN?!”). When I calmed down I realised that over the previous six months my Christian devotion had changed in a beautiful way.
I’d stopped presenting God with a to do list, which I think is the modern version of ritualised prayer as I’ve known it. (You know, “Dear Jesus, I love you, here is my list of things I would like you to do for me, here is a list of friends and family that need your help too, what’s for dinner tonight, oh bugger I left my diary at work, hmmm, I feel like ice-cream oh whoops sorry Jesus, what was I saying? Okay cool – Amen.”) Instead I was just talking to God all the time, rattling on really. Feelings, gratitude, musing. Not eloquent, not even always coherent. And it felt like a two-way thing, not necessarily like a conversation, but like communing. You know the way you can just be with your best friend and not have to say anything but knowing you are accepted & loved. It was completely nuts & it filled me with the most wonderful sense of the love and peace. Turned out that I’d been practising the presence of God without even trying.
So I figured, in my great humility, I had the whole practise the presence of God thing pretty much nailed, which is really why I picked it as my first habit to master for 2014. (I basically wanted a “no brainer” to start the year with a winning streak of one habit for one month! Go ahead and judge me if you must, I’m well acquainted with my foibles.)
Turns out Holy habits are not to be trifled with. I thought I’d nail practicing God’s Presence this month, but actually I sucked at it. I got caught up in planning the year and living in the future and the Presence thing got totally & effortlessly sidelined. I was not in the present & I was not in the Presence. I had difficultly trying to get back to that place I found myself in late 2013. The main reason being that I was “trying” too hard & also, I was trying to “win” in a game where I was the only contestant! Unfortunately (or fortunately) practising the presence of God is not a competition, nor is it measurable. You can’t check in for five minutes a day (or a two hour block once a month) and consider that a practise, a practise is a lifestyle. Quietness of the soul, sincere gratitude and a simple sense of wonder. There are no shortcuts to these things, you can’t put them on a to do list - they must be cultivated with patience and an open heart.
Despite the epic fail of losing a one-woman contest, I feel grateful for the lessons I’m learning about practising the presence of God & about myself this month.
Lessons learned: Do not trifle with the Presence of God. Mastery is not the goal, because the minute you think you know, you find that you really don’t. If you choose, you can spend your entire life searching for and stumbling through hidden passages & trap doors into the exquisite Presence of God. Mysterious, yet intimate, unfathomable to the human mind, yet always beckoning, seemingly distant, but closer than a hair’s breadth away.
Next month’s habit: Prayer and Fasting
If you’re new to my blog, my twelve new habits journey began here.