Tag Archives: Personal

Hints

I have just done a rare thing, which is why it bears mention: I have just made a second cup of coffee.

This is strange for me. My coffee drinking habits are pretty simple – a cup in the morning. Maybe a cup in the afternoon on the weekends if I’m reading or writing in a café, or if I’m meeting a friend. There were some mornings at my previous school where a coffee connoisseur department mate would offer me a cup and, depending on the status of my first cup, I might accept. He really did make delicious coffee. I’ve been on enough school trips to know that I’m just fine without it, but I so enjoy the ritual of a cup of coffee in the morning. And I just made a second.

I’m thinking.

I’m thinking about loss, about learning, and about where I might be getting things wrong even while I’m trying hard (maybe this is the problem) to do everything right.

I’m thinking about a colleague-turned-friend, and I’m wondering if that’s where I got it wrong. Maybe we remained colleagues. Maybe that’s where it ended. Maybe “keep in touch and don’t be a stranger” fell short of genuine. Or maybe not. Maybe life has gotten in the way, maybe there’s a long to-do list full of weightier priorities, maybe no one is counting weeks except me because it’s my world that has changed.

Or maybe I just can’t take a damn hint. There’s that possibility, too. Maybe I went wrong somewhere and unresponsiveness is a tap on the shoulder. I haven’t ruled that out.

This leads me to once upon a time, over four years ago now, when I was (according to me, at least) abundantly explicit about a specific set of choices. And I know someone who was clearly shocked when I proceeded to do exactly as I had said. Maybe I hadn’t been as clear as I thought, or maybe actions and words were misaligned, or maybe I was that clear. Maybe I did do the right things, and maybe the message just wasn’t received by someone who didn’t want to receive it.

The mind and heart must remain open if we’re going to understand what others have to say, even if we don’t like it.

The brain is protective. It hides us from things we don’t like, especially those that threaten our self-esteem. It makes extensive use of quick, intuitive thinking (System 1, for fans of Tversky and Kahneman) to get us through most situations. We get into trouble when a specific set of circumstances actually requires slower, more rational thought than our brains, wired for efficiency and avoidant of hard work, are willing to give it.

So I made another cup of coffee. I am trying to slow down and think. (We could address the irony of this substance – a stimulant – as a means of slowing down to think, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

The danger of thinking, in this case, is overthinking. Am I thinking too much when the best way to be is to just be and let life unfold? Am I thinking too much because I don’t want to get this wrong, because I don’t want to feel sad, because I don’t want to be in the position of wondering how, with the information I had, I could have understood differently? Maybe. I haven’t ruled it out.

In some ways, impulsivity has been beaten out of me. This could be an effect of age or experience, and is likely a combination of age and experience (they are, after all, positively correlated). But my sister has long cautioned me against my tendency towards over-caution and in this sense, I think she’s right. Numerous inspirational quotes spring to mind here but a simple question suffices: “What do you have to lose?”.

If being who I am raises eyebrows, I’m not going to gain anything by being someone else. If trying, with the best of intentions, to be honest about that is objectionable, at least I’ve given it a chance. It’s hard to be someone else; I’ve tried.

With the coffee almost done, I can report that I’ve concluded nothing. But I can also rest assured (at least, according to my brain that is designed to protect me) that I have acted in the best ways that I could. And if that’s not good enough, or if that’s not preferable in the given context, there is nothing else I would have honestly done. To act differently would have been a lie. It is possible I made a mistake, or two or twenty, but that happens. That is bound to happen. Mistakes come from trying and while I might not like the result, at least I have tried.

Weimar, Germany – August 2021

A Little Shy

I recently told a friend, in the context of a wider conversation, that on a scale of “none” to “I’m the most awesome person ever”, my self-esteem is probably around a 6. I don’t know if that’s actually true. I don’t know what a self-esteem of 6 means. I teach DP Psychology and Theory of Knowledge and I can tell you all about the many problems with rating scales. Hopefully, so can my students.

The point I was trying to make is that self-confidence is not my strong suit. I am, as I have written before, shy. It takes effort to introduce myself to new people and I am so nervous before doing it. More than once, when unsure of whether or not I should say hello to someone I vaguely know, I have intentionally walked more slowly than normal when getting off the bus behind them. True story.

That I am shy sometimes surprises people. Get me in a space where I’m comfortable and you’d never know. I hardly know because that’s when I stop being shy. Meet me in a time or place where I know one other person in a huge room and I’m no longer shy, even if that one other person is nowhere to be seen.

At a PD course on social-emotional learning a number of years ago, I realized that I am best described as an extroverted introvert. I like time alone. I like the quiet. I am content out in the world by myself. When anxious, scared, upset, or stressed, I find equanimity when I have the space to pull myself together without anyone else interfering. But I also love people. I love my friends and my family. I love parties and groups and conversations. My happiest memories, with very few exceptions, are with others. But sometimes, others are a bit too much and then I need a break to reset. An extroverted introvert.

Sometimes I play a game that I call, “If I were Mary”. Mary is a real person, the second friend I made in high school, and a friend to this day. The most outgoing person I know. She always has a million people to see, things to do, places to go, and an astonishing ability to say “yes” to everything. Just the thought of being Mary makes me want to curl up into a hole and wait until it’s over, but sometimes she inspires a game. “If I were Mary” I’d say hello to this person. “If I were Mary” I’d go to this party. “If I were Mary” I would have stopped thinking about it and done it already.

I’m not Mary, but sometimes it’s easier to pretend and do the things I think Mary would do. (Obviously I have grossly oversimplified this very real, complex person for the sake of example. Just go with it.) I think this is something I first practiced doing theatre in high school. It is not me, it is the character. How would the character respond, reply, react? I have embodied characters for the stage and played them in the real world. Sometimes it’s easier to pretend.

The times when I worry are the times when I realize I am spending too much time alone, whether out in the world or not. Too much time with just what is going on in my head – my own thoughts, my own ideas, my own musings. There’s a reason I seek out people who I can talk with.

This is why I think I often do better with a buddy, a partner, a person. I haven’t yet sat with my neighbours outside in the courtyard. I haven’t yet gone to the weekly meet-up at the climbing gym. I haven’t yet ridden my bike to the next town (though in fairness, I only got it two days ago). I am braver when I am pulled outside of my own head, and then I can be comfortably left to my own devices.

And yet, this is true to what I know of the experience of adjustment. This is not new. What is new is the place, which means a new adjustment. A new adventure. It is this adventure to be embraced, not an adventure that only exists in my mind. It is this adventure that I will come to know, and this story that I will be able to tell.

All of this is part of the story.

Traveler, there is no path, the path must be forged as you walk. – Antonio Machado

Weimar, Germany – July 2021

Shifting Ground

My mind is in a weird place, somewhere between finishing my time in Singapore and moving again, though with little knowledge of what will come in the month between jobs. I’m looking forward to what’s coming next, but the thought of what may or may not happen first keeps me up at night.

There’s so much I wanted to do and whether any of that is possible remains to be seen under the Covid regulations of four different countries. And it doesn’t help that every time I try to talk about it, I end up fighting back tears. There is no good solution to a problem that shifts every time I look at it.

It’s interesting to hear my students, who have been in school, clubs, and recently also the cafeteria since school resumed in August, say, “There was Covid last year so we couldn’t do X.” This was further highlighted as I read National Honor Society applications earlier today. “Because of Covid, X was cancelled. Because of Covid, we did X virtually instead.”

Life has stopped and yet goes on. Life is ruined and yet this is living.

Spending this pandemic in Singapore is fascinating and I am going to carry the lessons I have learned from here for a long time. We are very, very lucky to be able to live relatively normally but with masks. That being said, being a foreigner in Singapore has meant that we could not leave because we would not be allowed to reenter.* This has been an enormous hurdle and one that has led many of my colleagues to resign when they otherwise would not. Additionally, we have all learned that something we loved and miss about living here, the privilege of travelling frequently, was indeed a privilege. The way we used to live was not normal and it’s good to relearn this.

And so I find myself in an interesting place. I am preparing to move countries at a time when the status of international borders is tenuous. And this reminds me that my pretty blue passport is what allowed the borders to be so porous in the first place. I am again between worlds and there’s life everywhere I look.

A friend from yet a different country asked recently, “Is it normal for people from your country to be so far from home?”

No, it’s not normal.

No, it doesn’t get easier.

And what’s home? People, not places. I’ve written about this before, but mostly I’ve constructed it. Home has to be fluid for my heart to make any sense at all.

So we arrive at now. Now I’m questioning the life I’m pursuing because the premise on which it is based has changed. And this means that it will change again. And likely again. There are many more “what ifs” now, at least in my awareness though they were probably always there, and I’m grateful to have a moment to reflect on the axioms we grow up with – “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” – and that sort of thing.

But life hasn’t handed me lemons. Life is this day and the next day and the day after that. And life, as we remember every time we forget, is ours to be part of every day and never ours to control.

To live is to learn and to learn is to make choices, choices that we never thought we’d have to make. And the thing is, we never thought. This is an opportunity to do just that.

The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden


*This was the case over the summer holidays and has now changed. Instead of being denied reentry, there’s a mandatory $2,000 per person 14-day hotel stay upon return, which renders travelling impossible for me and my colleagues.

Kranji Marshes, Singapore – December 2020