I wonder how much of what’s on paper is real. I wonder how much of poetry comes from life lived.
A few months ago, I started reading a book of poetry* aloud. I’ve carried it around town and read under the tree, in the park, by the fountain. I carry a blue pen with me, slight weight, fine black ink, the kind of pen that was made to tell stories rather than sign papers, I like to think. The kind of pen that’s meant to be enjoyed rather than kept in a box on a desk for special occasions, but also the kind of pen I’d be sad to lose, so I left it at home once, and those pages are easy to find in my journal because they don’t look like the other pages. I haven’t left it at home since.
I carry a blue pen with me and I annotate, underline, fold down page corners, record dates. I read aloud and sometimes I reread, sometimes I stop because the words have become the sound of my voice and I need to go back to the words. I read aloud and sometimes there are people around and sometimes I stop just to take it all in.
There’s something about the words that makes me braver than I am, that reminds me that I am all I have, that assures me that when everything falls apart again, there’s a way to rebuild.
I can still see the look in your eyes I can’t read, hear the chorus that told me what I already knew and didn’t want to know.
Sometimes I wonder if you’re as scared as I am.
And I laugh at myself for wondering because you’re not. You never were. I wonder if that’s how I seem, too, and I wonder if that’s why I can’t read that look in your eyes.
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.
It’s nice to take a moment to breathe, isn’t it?
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place