When I was fifteen and for several years thereafter, one of my summer jobs was working in my dad’s office. It was mind-numbing, repetitive, thoughtless, meaningless work and I made my opinion of it known at home. My parents looked at me and smiled. “Stay in school,” they said. Lesson learned.
Desperately browsing my dad’s bookshelves one lunchtime for anything that was not a medical journal, I came across a volume bound in green leather with gold lettering. The Chosen by Chaim Potok, a signed copy. I asked my dad about it and he told me it was a novel. “Read it,” he said. I’ve always been a reader of everything, a lover of words and stories and the truth to be found in the pages of books, and so I did.
It never returned to my dad’s bookshelf.
Over the years, I read The Chosen many, many times. Devoured it each time like it was the first time. Drank in the story of two boys who became friends in adverse circumstances, two boys who grew into men, who didn’t fit into their worlds, who asked questions, who made immense choices. I read this book over and over and over.
By the time I was a senior in high school, this was listed as my favourite book on a poster announcing students of the month. (My favourite song listed on that poster, “Hallelujah”, is still my favourite and I remain partial to the Rufus Wainwright version even though it doesn’t cut to the soul in the of way Jeff Buckley’s recording, or just about anything else about Jeff Buckley.)
Most of my best-loved books are stored in my parents’ basement. There’s only so much room in shipping containers when you’re bound by cubic metres. But The Chosen has always come along even though I haven’t read it in many, many years. Recently, that changed. And again, I devoured it. It spoke, as it always had, in my bones.
Over the years I’ve been told I’m amoral, but that I care too much; that I stand strongly, but for the wrong values; that I’m misguided and confused, steady and responsible; I’m callous and too sensitive, selfish and too giving.
As with horoscopes, if you are vague enough yet inclusive with adjectives, something’s going to fit.
But I came back to this book just recently and whatever it was that spoke to me at age fifteen spoke again, fifteen years later. I’m really not so different. Older and wiser having lived, but not so different. What I understood at fifteen still reverberates: I’ve known for a long time that something in me, the deepest part of me, is searching.
This search is not one of loss or sorrow, but one of conviction and purpose. The defining difference now is that I know what I’m looking for and I know that the right thing to do is continue voyaging.
And so when I responded to this novel in the same way that I did at fifteen, I recognised with wonder that my feet are firmly planted, even as I wander in a world that spins.
Growing up, I was highly motivated by sticker charts. Need to do something I didn’t like doing? Make a sticker chart. Counting down to something? Sticker chart. I liked the sense of accomplishment and I loved the stickers, especially the really intricate, detailed ones that you had to carefully peel off the backing paper and painstakingly adjust before sticking down because there was no peeling them back up again.
In my adult life, I’ve maintained slightly more advanced versions of sticker charts. There’s a minutes meditated counter in an app on my phone, a 1000km running challenge in a different app, and I can set my annual reading goal on yet another app. (And there are my blog statistics, but I’m going to leave that out of this discussion.)
Recently, I’ve started giving up those external motivators because it felt like the right thing to do. I spent the weekend out of town, mostly without wifi, doing yoga and eating spicy food and it gave me time to reflect. The post below explores what I have learned.
Annual Reading Goal
It’s no secret that I read a lot. I find it interesting to keep track of what I’ve read because I can look back on patterns and try to fit what I was reading into my memories of life at a certain time. Additionally, it’s helpful to look back on my book list to figure out when certain ideas changed and consider why that might have been.
For a couple years, I used Goodreads to set a reading goal and I noticed a change in my reading when I wasn’t sure whether or not I would reach it. Does this book “count” or is it really an extended essay or article? Do I start this shorter book that I’m sure to finish or do I invest myself in a long one? Do I take the longer train ride to get in a few more minutes of reading?
When I started riding my bike instead of taking the MRT and realised I was fretting a little bit, I decided a reading goal was no longer a good idea. The point is that I read what interests me, I learn and I talk to people, and I learn some more. The point is not to read a certain number of books.
Last year, I didn’t set a reading goal and found that I was much more impulsive choosing books and reading several books at once. They took however much time they took, and I found myself doing a variety of different things with my leisure time. Rather than read on the treadmill to make sure I was keeping up, I stopped on my outdoor runs to meditate by a nearby pond. Rather than sit in cafés over the weekend to read, I rode my bike, cooked dinner with a friend, and settled myself down to people-watch.
I still read something every single day, but I no longer feel guilty if that something isn’t a book that can count on my app. Rather than collect trophies, I’m trying to balance the time I spend in the book world and the time I spend in the real world. It’s a lot easier to hide in a book but I’m glad to experience the world where I am, too. There’s a lot to learn out there!
1000km Running Goal
I started running when I was in university as a way to deal with stress. Many of my friends ran and although it was a real chore for quite some time, I felt better when I exercised than when I didn’t. I’ve gone through occasionally obsessive periods in which I have to run and get really antsy when I don’t. These moments still occur (it has recently come to my attention that the itchy, visceral need to move my body right now is not normal) but I’ve calmed down a lot when it comes to running.
This shift has been gradual and likely has something to do with living in a climate where running is usually really unpleasant. Maybe all of this will change when I’m no longer living on the equator. But for several years, I participated in a 1000km challenge through an app and I steadily met the goal. I used to get a little anxious when I realised I was falling behind or when I started to count how many times I’d have to run over a particularly busy period in order to stay on track. Getting anxious over running, however, was completely counter to why I started running in the first place.
I got into rock climbing about a year and a half ago and immediately recognised that I enjoyed climbing and what it did to my body far more than I enjoyed running. Running got me outside, which is high on the list of reasons why I continue doing it, but the climbing gym (and real rocks when we can arrange it) worked my body and mind very differently than running ever had.
2019 was the first year I didn’t complete the 1000km challenge and I opted not to enter for 2020. For a long time, running was the way to feel strong physically and the way I judged my fitness and compared myself to others. Climbing, however, showed me that there’s a very different type of strength, fitness, and agility that actually suits me much better. I still dance and practice yoga regularly and that’s what my body does well.
This is not to say I’ve stopped running; I haven’t and I likely won’t. But it’s one of several active pursuits now and not the one that dictates the pace of a weekend morning or the flow of an evening. And surprisingly enough, I actually like it a whole lot more.
There’s nothing wrong with stickers. But there’s a lot wrong when the pursuit of a sticker detracts from the original purpose of an action. I’ve grown a lot more adept at figuring out what I need and I’ve grown more confident choosing X over Y. Just because I usually do things one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way, and just because something used to be my primary driver doesn’t mean it will always be.
Over the last little while, I’ve learned to balance. I’ve learned to maintain routines that fit and adapt those that do not. I’ve learned to be more spontaneous and less concerned with maintaining something that, for all intents and purposes, I was maintaining mostly out of habit.
And I’ve also learned that there’s comfort in pattern and sometimes, when I’m feeling out of sorts, the best thing to do is to return to those patterns and reset.
Before dawn on New Year’s Day after a week in Switzerland, my parents and I took the train from Zurich to Salzburg. The trip itself was beautiful and everything I had hoped train travel through Europe would be. We journeyed through mountains, hills, trees and through increasing amounts of snow, but there was sunshine and blue skies the whole way.
I really, really enjoyed our afternoon in Salzburg and would have loved more time there to walk up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress, or drive to Schloss Hellbrunn in the countryside. But now I have a reason to go back!
Salzburg was surrounded by water and, surprisingly to me, great stone cliffs that seemed to come up out of nowhere when we were walking through the old town.
As before, the walk through the old town took us past beautifully painted buildings and intricate architecture that just don’t exist anymore. I know that real people don’t live in these old towns, but they certainly are pretty. The narrow streets leading to large open squares in Salzburg are hilly, which means that church towers and other buildings just sort of peek out at you around corners.
But there are other parts of Salzburg that remind you that this is a real place where people live and I was glad to see that, too.
Mozart made his home in Salzburg and we visited Mozart Geburtshaus, Mozart’s birthplace, which is considered the more informative of the two Mozart houses. We learned a great deal about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his family (including a very talented sister!), and Austrian musical tradition and I was really impressed with the collection of artifacts and family papers. Music is a really important part of heritage here and classical music was playing through speakers throughout the old town in Salzburg, prompting a surprising amount of waltzing in the streets and in the squares. I kept expecting to see a live orchestra around each corner!
Like we’d seen across Switzerland, there were little Christmas markets and stands set up across the city.
We also stopped by the university church . . .
. . . and the Dom zu Salzburg, where we stopped to visit the church and to drink glühwein.
The next morning was equally bright and sunny and we left fairly early for Vienna. We could have easily stayed another day in Salzburg and left for Vienna that night but something told me I’d want the time in Vienna. This turned out to be accurate and again, I really need to go back!
Vienna is beautiful. It’s beautiful and grand and opulent with wide streets and specially painted bike lanes. As soon as we saw the bike lanes next to the opera house, I knew that I would like Vienna very, very much. It was pretty at night, too.
The first thing we did, however, was walk a little ways out of the old town to the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s largest food market. It’s part restaurants . . .
. . . and part food stalls . . .
. . . and part other goods.
My family loves markets and food, and we ate and drank and tasted and smelled for a good couple hours. I can only imagine how much busier it would have been on the weekend when the flea market is open, but I was really glad to have the chance to see some of the art painted on the closed stall fronts.
From there, we basically followed the streets brightly lit by Christmas lights. We wandered into a couple of Christmas markets and did some window shopping before stopping at the Austrian National Library. To warm up, we joined the long queue waiting to get inside. We were greeted by everything that creates the idea of a library – wooden bookshelves with the upper levels accessible by ladders, old books, vaulted painted ceilings. It was still cold inside, likely to keep the books in good condition, but so pretty that it didn’t matter.
We were also lucky to see an exhibit of Beethoven’s personal papers, including the program and score of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, which I have actually seen!
The next morning we followed a guided walk around Old Vienna and it took us down narrow, quiet streets to tiny squares with old, quiet churches.
There were also busy shopping streets and grand squares with opulent buildings and statues.
My dad and I climbed one of the towers of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and although it was cloudy, I was glad to see the view of Vienna from above. My spatial skills are mediocre so I appreciate actually being able to see the expanse of a city.
Fun fact: Vienna used to be a walled city! Our walking tour took us past the remnants of the old city walls.
This was the coldest day we’d had (it had actually snowed!) and we decided to spend the afternoon indoors. Along with many other visitors, we took shelter in the Leopold Museum to learn about Viennese art of the 1900s. The exhibition included painting, sculpture, furniture, and jewellery and I enjoyed learning about artists who were completely new to me. I also didn’t know anything about the impact World War I had had on Vienna; I think it’s important to understand the place where you are and I was glad for the opportunity to learn more about it. The importance of art was clear outside of the museum, as well.
That evening we went to a concert in St. Charles Church in which we were treated to a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and what I can only assume were other works by Vivaldi because nothing was actually explained. An opera singer featured for certain parts of the performance, too. The church was beautiful but one thing that didn’t occur to me when I bought tickets is that churches are not heated. I learned an important lesson when the ushers passed out blankets at the door!
Mum and Dad flew back to Toronto the next day and I left Vienna to pick up the car I’d be driving for the next week. This was the point at which I had no plans. I knew where I’d be staying for the first two nights but the rest of the week was wide open and I was really excited for the adventure.
For example, I thought it might be fun to try cross-country skiing for the first time and planned to stay near a national park. The lack of snow meant I would hike instead, after getting over the initial delightful surprise of finding myself at a bed-and-breakfast up a goat track run by an elderly couple in what I think is their farmhouse. My German was almost as good as their English but everything went just fine.
Going from grand Vienna to the country was a drastic change but I was so glad to experience a small Austrian town.
I’ve been in a number of odd towns over time and Leoben certainly fit. It appeared that part of the old town had been torn down and a multiplex had been built instead to comprise the town’s entertainment. It contains a kebab shop, pizzeria that doubles as a bar, sushi restaurant, and movie theatre. Other than that, the town has five different grocery chains, a euro shop, three discount clothing stores, a couple furniture stores, a café/bar that did not sell food, and a sex shop. Gösser beer operations are located in Leoben, too. An adventure indeed!
The drizzle let up by the next morning, perfect weather for a drive to Slovenia!
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place