Let it Grow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo reflective lady blog would be complete without the obligatory 2014 round-up. So, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

One year ago I found myself on Copacabana Beach in a white dress watching spectacular fireworks with vomit in my hair. Things got better and the rest of the Brazil trip turned out to be one of the most incredible and happiest experiences of my life.

Until…the last day when it turns out that some fucker has wiped out my bank account. It then takes another four months of phone calls, paperwork and threats to get 70% of the money back. On the upside, I survived it. Yes, it was tragic and a big financial setback, but life went on. I didn’t die.

I went from glorious summer to hideous winter. I took a short jaunt to visit my amazing friend Carolyn who was working in Manila at the time. It was warm and so good to be around a like-minded friend. I haven’t seen her since then and I miss her greatly. This is the downside of the transient, expatriate life.

I then got my busy on and extended myself professionally. In my free-time (which was few and far between) I tried to study Italian and train Capoeira. I learned about trade-offs – if you work more, you get more money. But you also have less free-time to pursue things that are important. And I’m the kind of person who needs downtime and eight hours sleep, otherwise I turn into a raging bitch.

Due to lack of sleep, I sometimes turned into a raging bitch. I then made preparations for my upcoming trip to Italy over the summer vacation. I researched opportunities for jobs, wrote countless resumes, paid a professional to write one for me, completed a 40 page application form to be a nanny, had a couple of Skype interviews. Faced multiple disappointments as it became clear I would need an EU passport, at which point I jumped down the bureaucratic rabbit hole where, it seems, I still am. Amongst all this was an awesome Capoeira event in which I met amazing souls from all over the world. I admired these people and was grateful for the energy they shared with me.

After months of anticipation, I finally arrived in Italy. A glorious summer awaited me. There was splashing around in the sea and giant lakes. Trips to ancient castles on the back of a Vespa. There was pizza and gelato and cheek kissing and vino. More days were lost to writing resumes and having fruitless Skype interviews. I had an Italian tutor who lived in in a big, old renovated farmhouse with her horses. I couldn’t, and still can’t speak the language and felt isolated and fell into a mild form of culture shock. I cried. A lot. An unfathomable tragedy struck a dear friend which brought home the unpredictability and randomness of life.

I returned to Seoul and deeply missed the person that I had gone there for in the first place. I had a hard time adjusting back to my life there. So when I found out I had some more vacation, I did what I thought would make me feel better. I jumped on a plane again and went to the most interesting cheap destination I could afford, which turned out to be Bangkok. For the first time in my life, the travel cure did not work. I spent some days there walking around miserably, anxiously, all the while berating myself for wasting money on something so frivolous. I learned an important lesson: sometimes we do things in an effort to make ourselves feel better, but the means to that end is not always a good idea and often, unsuccessful.

Within a few weeks, I felt better and resumed by busy life, albeit with an empty feeling inside. A few days of a Capoeira event made me temporarily distracted and happy but I needed more support and friendship than I was getting, so my coworker, (who is also in a similar transnational situation) and I started to take walks through a beautiful nearby park and talk on random weekdays. But weekends were long and lonely. This incredibly dark and cold Seoul winter threatened to kick my ass and unravel my mental health. So I started an Iyengar yoga class. Although it was a big commute to get there on Friday night, when all I usually feel like doing is passing out, it was worth it. I met a fantastic teacher and started to feel more relaxed and less anxious. My passion for yoga was reignited.

Then, I had some friends from New Zealand come and visit. It doesn’t happen very often, so it was really great to have them here, to take in their energy and optimism. To share wonderful experiences with them, even in the arctic temperatures. Finally, the last weeks of work and life were a blur of Excel spreadsheets and responding to emails. But somehow, I managed to pack my backpack and get myself on a plane to Italy. Again. And here I am. Writing this from an apartment overlooking the seaside in a poor Tuscan city as the blazing orange sun sets.

It has been a roller-coastery, a bulldozery kind of year. Forging forward without necessarily knowing where forward is leading to. Vulnerability and uncertainty have decided to permanently colonize my mind, body and soul. I’ll acknowledge their presence but won’t let them run the show. While there have been magical moments this year, moments I never thought I would have in this lifetime, like eating fresh lobster in Barcelona opposite a handsome Italian, about 70% of the year has been a hard, anxiety-fueled slog. But I’m grateful – I have grown as a person. I’ve come to see and respect the limitations of my life. To have faith and gratitude.

Leaps of Faith in Venice

10703716_10152232332981853_2837997001685255358_nDuring the Summer of Love, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the most magical and enchanting cities in the world – Venice. Don’t hate me, but it was actually the second time in my whole life. While I spent three days there, two of them alone, I of course became reflective. It had been sixteen years since I had trotted through the labyrinthine streets and over the little ponti. Back then, I had taken a leap of faith and began working for a family near Amsterdam as as au pair. Not long after my arrival, they announced they were going on vacation and I would also have my vacation time. I didn’t have much money so I booked an extremely cheap all-inclusive trip to the coast of Italy, near Venice. It took 24 hours in a bus to get to the ritzy seaside town. It was the kind of trip I could probably only do in my youth. I slept alone in a tent, although it was too hot to sleep. I made friends with three Dutch girls who were also on the trip. They were nurses from a town near the south of Holland. During our time together, we ate a lot of pizza and I felt very European as we strode among the waves at the beach in only our bikini bottoms. Once I got so attacked by mosquitoes that my ankle swelled up to the size of a baseball and I had to be injected with something. At night, we hit the discos, along with hoards of multinational young people – we looked like a giant, drunk United Colours of Benetton ad.

At first I was unnerved by the young, ripped North African men (boys?) dancing in wrought iron cages suspended above the dance floor, and the dancing that looked like it was influenced by National Geographic mating videos. But soon I understood that this  too was grist for the maturing mill. Wait until I tell my friends back home at the end of the world about this! We got to spend only one fleeting day in Venice, but it was like a dream for me – in the sense of being in one and of achieving one. Just a few weeks earlier I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to realize this dream – a childhood fantasy. I have a photo somewhere of me standing in front of the iconic Rialto Bridge, wearing my favorite blue tank top and grey trousers that I bought for $10 dollars in Australia some months earlier when I attended my uncle’s wedding. I have an impish smile on my face and the same long, two toned blond-brown hair that I have now. I was infinitely cooler back then.

And back to the future: I chose the busiest time of year to go. I caught a train directly there and of course got motion sickness on the canal taxi ride to the hotel. Yes, there was no ghetto tent for me this time. I was living the high life and stayed in a very beautiful hotel. I figured it would probably be the last time in my whole life I would visit there and so I splurged. I walked around in a daze, camera in hand, dodging the hoards of other privileged people from all over the world. I got my bearings and walked around and around the narrow streets, just walking, looking, thinking. The food is overpriced here, I thought. The waiters are rude. It’s so commercial, with an H&M and Disney Store tarnishing the elegant buildings that have watched over the canals for hundreds of years.

I went into a quaint little paper store and bought an exquisite little blue notebook from a very well dressed man with silver hair who looked like he’d been working there for about 300 years. I went back to my airy, plush hotel and I wrote in it. I wrote down all my fears and insecurities. I wanted to see myself, to see how I was back in this context after so many years. To see my progress. As the writing spilled onto the paper, I could still see that I had the same issues as that naive eighteen year old girl standing on the bridge. We are two different people but we are the same. I was again taking a leap of faith.

I trudged around. I explored. I escaped the heat in shops and restaurants. I healed an old wound from the first time I was in Venice when I had very little money and couldn’t afford to purchase anything more than some little glass ornaments. I went to a mask store of some renown and it took me about ten minutes to buy four exquisite Venetian masks. Every time I check my bank account I’m reminded that I still have to pay for them. But the highlight, the climax, the crescendo was walking alongside the largest canal one night in the dark, waiting for a boat to arrive. On that boat would be my sweetheart who had worked all day then driven some hours to be with me. At his arrival, we embraced and I shut my eyes tight, never wanting the moment to end. It was perhaps the most fairytale moment of my entire life, and in that one moment, I could say that love, with all its messiness, is worth it.

As I write this, I have just re-read for the third time a favorite memoir of mine by Vanessa Woods that entwines three stories – her personal love story with her husband, their work together in the Congo with Bonobos, and the heartbreaking history of the region. One passage struck me, and I should write it down in that little blue notebook full of my anxieties: ‘If there are those you love, whoever or wherever they are, hold them. Find them and hold them as tightly as you can. Resist their squirming and impatience and uncomfortable laughter and just feel their hearts throbbing against yours and give thanks that for this moment, for this one precious moment, they are here. They are with you. And they know they are utterly, completely, entirely…Loved.’

A Fine Balance

tightrope walkingI don’t know about you, but I have always found it hard to find balance in my life.

Where is the balance between doing and being? Or between work and life?

No-one has an ideal work/life balance, but sometimes I think my balance may weigh more to the side of life, which would be good, except that I will then berate myself for not being ambitious enough or not earning enough money. Which brings me to my next dilemma (if it is not too bratty to call it that) – what is the best way to live for today, emotionally and financially, while planning for the future? What does carpe diem mean to the average person who has to work forty hours a week and cook dinner and pay bills and deal with annoying relatives?

Some truths about time are that the days are long but the years are short, and if you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves. So, how much should we try to live in the present and how much effort do we give to planning for the future? What goals are worth pursuing and what is worth sacrificing? How do we bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be without going crazy? And how do we ensure that we feel a sense of contentment when our target is always moving, the bar always getting higher as we try to keep up with our peers, or just try to keep our head above water?

I recently read a very sweet coming-of-age memoir called Saltwater Buddha by an American man, Jaimal Yogis, who grew up in an unconventional way by doing everything in his power to ensure that he was always chasing his two passions, as you might’ve guessed from the title, surfing and Buddhism.

surfing_-_black_and_white-3055There were two things I took away from reading his work. First, he talks about how surfing is a good metaphor for life:

“The extremely good stuff – chocolate and great sex and weddings and hilarious jokes – fills a minute portion of an adult lifespan.

The rest of life is the paddling: work, paying bills, flossing, getting sick, dying.”

So, the key to having a full life it seems, is to enjoy the journey – yes, once you reach the top of Everest, it will be amazing, but it will be short-lived, and there will be another Everest to conquer. Better to also make the most of the climb up, even though it will inevitably suck now and then.

The other point he raises is near the end of his book when he is at graduate school studying to become a journalist. He is at Columbia University in New York, which has the best journalism program in the western world. But living like a student with no money, no free time, no surfing and no meditation coupled with copious amounts of stress, feeling overwhelmed and burnt out and dealing with a strained long distance relationship leaves him depressed. He wonders about the value of what he is doing and questions his commitment and doubts that he can finish. Then, for his thesis, he goes out on a boat at night with commercial fishermen in the middle of winter to help them with their work so he can write about it.

It turns out to be one of the worst nights in his life as he is thrown all over the deck and spends most of his time vomiting and dry-heaving, drowning in waves of nausea. I guess it’s hard to describe unless you have actually experienced really bad sea sickness that leaves you feeling like you want to die. During this experience, he comes to an important realization that allows him to get through the rest of his seemingly grueling academic study:

“I realized I needed to stop complaining. I had it very, very easy.

If I come out of this alive, I said to myself, I will have perspective.”

This leads me to wonder where to find the balance between being grateful for what we have and wanting more; between feeling content and striving; between giving and taking in relationships, between wanting and needing…

These are matters for another day. For now, I need to get back to doing the laundry, cooking dinner and washing the dishes. In other words, paddling.


Reflections on 2012: Life, love, loss, luck, learning…

KoiReflecting on this year, I have come to think of it as a Japanese Koi pond – the infinite gallons of water representing all the crappy things that have happened while the few fish that elusively dance around are the good things – those rare flashes of beauty, connection, support, accomplishment, growth, hope and love that propel us forward.

It would be easy to focus on all that water – and while I didn’t endure major trauma (there was no murder, rape or death) – there have been many debilitating bumps in the road: the hideous study experience (including but not limited to the constant stress and pressure to perform and the overwhelming, relentless workload), the reverse culture shock, the loneliness and isolation, the devastating romance and subsequent heartbreak, the pernicious self-doubt, the hemorrhaging bank account and all the packing and moving and goodbyes. However, because (according to psychologist Rick Hanson) our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones, I want to instead focus on all the positive things and honor those exquisite fish.

Oh, where to begin…I found an unusual place to live while I was in New Zealand – a Buddhist center that was nice, cheap and quiet. I crossed paths with some really interesting (read, eccentric) people from all corners of the globe and got to be a bit of a participant-observor-fly-on-wall-anthropologist. I witnessed people on their spiritual paths and saw the ways in which we create reality and meaning. The best things about that place: a bath, a backyard, and a beautiful garden.

I had a visit from an old friend from university who was in the country briefly from overseas. For a weekend, he entertained and distracted me with his positive energy, wit and charm, allowing me to briefly forget all about the hell of transgendered, knife-wielding, glue-sniffing teenagers that awaited me on Monday morning.

bayI was able to spend Christmas with all my family for the first time in many years and to stay at my deceased grandfather’s cottage by the ocean where I spent so much of my childhood – one of the most special places to me in the world. However, after two days of walking on the beach and listening to the waves crash against the shore, I got bored and broke into the empty neighbour’s house to use the Internet.

I had a typical Kiwi summer – walking around barefoot and eating fish’n’chips on the beach. My good friend from Korea came to stay with me for a week and I got to spend time with another close friend who I had sailed around the world with years before. In an act of serendipity, I bumped into our mutual friend who also sailed with us in the middle of the street and the three of us were able to reconnect.

MillbrookI went to visit my uncle twice at his tranquil house near Queenstown, amongst some of the most stunning scenery in the world and was able to spend quality time with him and his new family. As the most successful (as dictated by society’s ideals) member of my extended family, he imparted his wisdom to me and was instrumental in helping me halt the self-doubt, lack of confidence and fear of the future that had been plaguing me for months.

I found a new hobby that has evolved into a passion – Capoeira. Physically and mentally challenging, the weekly training sessions often ended with me in my bathtub sore but completely blissed out. Some of the outside-the-box people I met (and continue to meet) through this pursuit have become like family and it has opened up for me a whole new way of perceiving the world and experiencing myself.

There was a brief but intense romance that was gratifying (nothing can beat the feeling that the person you most covet in the world also covets you). Although still raw from the aftermath, I remain hopeful that one day I will wake up and think that it was better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.

I finished my hellish program and was able to graduate on time. I learnt some new skills and felt a sense of accomplishment at completing this notoriously tough program. It was better to find out sooner than later that I had climbed up a ladder only to find that it was against the wrong wall. Letting go of sunk time, money, and energy costs is still something I’m coming to terms with.

My friend gave me her job in Auckland for six weeks while she went on holiday. While the work was hard, my living situation dire (it’s too soon to revisit) and the social situation downright lonely, it was a good experience for me to reinforce that I can be self-sufficient, handle transition and uncertainty. It also gave me some much-needed income and reinforced the fact that I don’t want to live in New Zealand.

I was able to take back my old position in Korea which gave me another option and an opportunity to regroup financially, emotionally, mentally, physically.

red heartOther great things that have happened this year: two of my good friends started dating and fell in love and are soon going to be traveling the world together! Another couple I know who have had a long, tumultuous, on-again, off-again, trans-continental relationship finally got married!!! One of my closest girlfriends found incredible inner strength to let go of everything that is familiar to her and is embarking on a two-year volunteer assignment on the other side of the world on an island in the middle of nowhere. So many of my friends found themselves pregnant or gave birth – their babies healthy and thriving.

So, picking through all the debris of this year, I have collected some nuggets of wisdom:

  • Friendships are really important, and it is especially important to reach out to people in times of stress and loneliness.
  • It sounds un-pc, but stereotypes exist for a reason. It is true that Argentines make really intense, unnerving eye contact and that Jamaicans like to wear bright colours. I found out that other, more nefarious stereotypes are also true but I won’t go into that here.
  • Sometimes, your friends give you really good advice and you should take it.
  • Sometimes, advice you read on the Internet is true and you should also take it.
  • People omit important information in order to control how you perceive them and deliberately deny you access to reality for their own gain. Yes, people really are that fucked up and self-interested.
  • Don’t underestimate the role of intuition and instincts – your gut is a good sensor and you should listen to it more.
  • Live in the present moment more so that opportunities don’t pass you by. It’s a cliché, but it’s true – carpe diem!
  • Actions speak louder than words. People can say all they want, but if they don’t step up, it’s a good indication of their cowardice, flakiness, and fickleness.
  • Giving too much importance of the ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’ at the cost of following your own bliss can get you into a very dark place.
  • Call people on their bullshit – it might be uncomfortable and awkward but they have no qualms humiliating or deceiving you, so while the truth can hurt and be inconvenient, it’s better than letting someone pull the wool over your eyes and co-operating with their deceit.
  • It can be really easy to lose perspective and forget to be grateful for what we do have.

On a final note, I want to share some of my favorite quotes from this past year from people close to me that have been a great source of support, comfort and inspiration.

From one of my close girlfriends who was an awesome source of strength and encouragement from the other side of the world:

As long as you are alive and healthy, things will turn out all right. Believe me, it’s going to be okay. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s okay to cry and feel like giving up. It’s completely normal. Taking time off to think whether this is the right thing for you may be a good idea. It’s not you, so don’t blame yourself. If you talk to others, you’ll find that they are experiencing similar problems, too. Don’t worry about next year or next month, just focus on how you feel right now and today. One step at a time.

From my favorite uncle:

Don’t be afraid to push your own boundaries and allow yourself to follow your dreams so you can pursue a lifestyle that will be fulfilling whilst rewarding for your efforts; nothing ventured, nothing gained and I can assure you when taking on new challenges you need the energy of youth coupled with experience, this is your 30’s ….. enjoy the challenge.

From writer Leigh Newman:

They, in fact, will waltz on to new adventures, made uncomfortable by your expectant gazes. But this is an agony you must experience, because while you can’t keep your heart from getting broken, you can stop breaking your own heart—over and over into little black bits—once you realize the difference between what you can control and what you can’t, and that it’s far, far more fun to lavish all that attention on your own self-worth.

From the most influential person in my life:

There’s nothing for it but to wear it and move on. Seems that at least it maybe gets a little easier at least as you get older – the tendency is to become a bit more resilient, or find, surprisingly, there are more people in the wings curious to step into the breach than you expected when you were young and heartbroken. At least, I hope that’s the case – doesn’t always feel that way.