I Have a Plan!

I am almost at the end of my first year as a PhD student, and yet I feel like my main gain over the last 12 months is a reoccurring revelation of just how little I know, how much I want to know, and how unlikely I am ever to get the upper hand in it all. And every time I get to my conclusion it feels a little surprising, and in all honesty, disappointing. But there we go.

I already know that one highlight of 2015 will be commencing supervision by Francis Spufford, the author of Unapologetic and The Child That Books Built. The first title is the reason I decided to take the offer of acceptance by Goldsmiths University, the second is the reason I’m feeling the need to read as much as I can this year. I fear I am The Adult That Needs Some Bookish Renovation Work.

Ever the optimist, I have made a list of resolutions for 2015, and on that list is the challenge of embarking on a TEN YEAR reading list. I will never understand everything I want to understand, but that is no reason not to try.

One of my tentative goals for this year was going to be, “get published as much as possible”. As a writer who would love to teach at university level again one day a PhD is helpful, but a decent publishing record is non-negotiable. So far my record consists mostly of journalism and children’s books – nothing to turn my nose up at, but I’ve yet to crack the Creative Writing world as such. I will get to that one day, maybe in 2016, but the point is I’ve decided not to pursue publishing this year. This year I just want to read and write. That will be more than enough. Well, that and kids and job.

On with the Challenge:

I have never considered myself well read. When people drop quotes or references from books, even the classics, I rarely know what they are talking about. This became very clear to me when I did my Masters – a room full of writers is inevitably a room full of readers. Avid readers. The kind who devour books in single sittings. The kind who turn to books rather than alcohol, drugs, exercise, food or any of the other usual vices. The kind to which my supervisor belongs.

I myself have never claimed to be a book worm. In school when we would embark on Read-a-thons for charity I always set myself modest goals that I never managed to reach. I am a slow reader. A test I took via Facebook, the ever-reliable source of truth, tells me I read at the pace of a third-grader. As a brit I don’t actually know how old that is, but I assume it is a primary school-aged child rather than a close-to-completing-post-graduated-education adult. There’s a reason for this – I’m dyslexic. I was tested by a university professor friend of my university professor Dad when I was a child and found to be legitimately dyslexic. My Dad chose not to tell me until after I graduated with my Undergrad. His reasoning was that I seemed to be doing fine without the extra time-allotment in exams, and he believed I was likely to use my dyslexia to excuse myself from trying my best in certain areas. He was right and I thank him for his wisdom.

The upside of my slow reading pace is that I read deeply. I remember a lot of what I read. As I continue to pursue life with a make-lemonade attitude I have decided that it is probably more helpful to read fewer books and retain some of the ideas than to read large quantities and forget it all. All power to the readers who read lots and retain lots. I aspire to be you.

I write because it helps me get closer to understanding things. I also write because I want to take part in the Great Conversation that is Literature – art of words. I know that Literature is known as “The Great Conversation”, an exchange between history’s authors, but man oh man did I struggle to find a decent reference for this term of phrase when it was time to write about it in my Masters thesis. I wrote on regardless, and was happy with the end product, but it wasn’t until mid-2014, when I moved into my family’s house in Oxford that I came across the treasure trove I didn’t even realise I was looking for.

My Dad past away six years ago. He had a colossal collection of books. Most of these were given to Hong Kong University – there is an Anthony Sweeting Collection in one of their libraries. But some of his books, the ones he had moved to/bought in Oxford are still here. They were safely tucked away until recently. They are mostly non-academic reads – stunningly beautiful Folio Society hardback collectors items, and…drum roll… a set called Great Books. This is a 60-volume collection of what a group of highly-qualified experts has deemed the most important books in history, western history that is. The set comes with an introductory book entitled The Great Conversation. It took me about two months to read this.

So, right here in the home of my childhood summers, left by my seemingly all-knowing, all-loving and providing father is a copy of every important book in western history. All I need to do is crack them open.

So that’s what I’m doing. I have completed my first read in Jacinta record time – Plato’s Apology in two sittings. My new year’s resolutions are off to a strong start (I’ve also gone to bed at 10pm and exercised two days in a row – give it up people).

I intend to write reflections on each completed piece, but I’m still deciding whether or not to inflict them on my blog readers. I will say of Apology though, the wisdom of Socrates is all about knowing he doesn’t know, and having no desire to join the ranks of those who kid themselves into thinking they do know something about lots of things when really, they may, at best, only know something about one or two things.

So, there we are. I’m humbled and encouraged and ready to roll!

Advertisements

Reflections on the Creative Process

This was written near the end of 2011. The Reflective Essay was one of the assignments given toward the end of my MFA. 

Pic borrowed from a google search result.

Nom.

Reflections on the Creative Process

 

I am the girl who eats elephants.

Or tries to at least.

 

When creative challenges strut past me, flexing their muscles, swishing their tales, flashing smiles and suggestions of personal fulfillment, nine times out of ten I will cave in. I just love a project. It doesn’t matter what sort of project as long as it requires that I stretch myself far beyond what I am capable of in reality. Need a percussionist? I’ve never played, but I’ll have a go. A loaf of homemade sourdough bread? Couldn’t be too hard to learn. A Masters degree in the midst of starting a family? Sure thing.

 

The idea of applying for, then being accepted into this MFA was too much for me to resist. I had a story I knew needed writing, and enough hard-earned wisdom to know I should invest in learning the craft. That was about it. I put together the application in less than two days, and before I really understood what I was doing I was at my first residency, a day after I discovered I was pregnant with my second baby. Some might say it wasn’t a well-planned decision. I think it was meant to be.

 

Toward the end of that first residency Xu Xi made a point about how one does not actually need to be in front of a computer or piece of paper in order to write, that much of her writing happens on the treadmill or as she goes about her day. This turned out to be the nugget of wisdom that would see me through one of the biggest elephants I ever sank my teeth into.

 

Writing pregnant was easy. Writing sleep-deprived whilst trying to figure out how to handle a colicky baby certainly was not. The last twelve months have been difficult, overloaded plates. Life is life, but this year was exaggerated: two young children, a husband realizing his own creative dreams, a building project, four part time jobs and a Masters degree.

 

It felt as though my propensity to nibble on the ear of a challenge escaped all reason as I now found myself frantically gorging on multiple elephants as if trying to defend a title in an eating competition. People ask me how I do it. I wonder the same. There hasn’t been enough time to reflect. The baby is 7 months old and we are still sleep deprived.

 

As I attempt to ponder this question in the free seconds between preparing meals, disciplining a toddler, washing dishes and using a pipette to suck the snot out of my sick baby’s nostrils, I find myself drawn more to the question of why do I do this?

 

For years I wrestled with the guilt that I had chosen to pursue a creative life instead of getting a real job. Hong Kong is not a city built for artists. Smart people keep serious day jobs and then spend some of their wages on creative hobbies. I have had to adjust my definition of Smart People. The creative life is not really a choice. I have tried to abort and bury many projects along the way, but that usually just leaves me standing uneasily amidst a bunch of rumbling graves.

 

I have adjusted my perspective on the creative process. I am taking a more philosophical approach now and asking what is the point of life/work/the things we all busy ourselves with? Hong Kong is a city full of extremely busy people. I am one of them. I resent busyness when it is caused by obligation to things I do not love, but when it is a symptom of a life full of meaningful fun, then busyness itself becomes something I love.

 

I have been putting much thought into the idea of playing to one’s strengths. I find the notion troublesome. I have heard it preached on international platforms, read it in books on leadership, been challenged with it by my ex-bosses in HK, and recently, saddened to discover Plato’s stance on it via @ Twitter: “One cannot practice many arts with success.”

 

I understand the concept- why invest in taking one gift from a level 2 to a level 4 when you could put the effort towards taking a more promising gift from a level 7 to a level 9? But I wholeheartedly reject the notion of playing to ones strength. Failure and discomfort is the birthing place of great art – the sort that people can relate to. Playing to strength is a strategy that minimizes the possibility for failure.

 

 

I endeavor to read Plato, in order to be able to fully converse with him on this matter. I want to know his definition of success. I don’t think it is the same as mine. I am also told that Julie Cameron has something relevant to say on this matter, but she is going to have to wait until I have finished chewing on what I already have in my mouth.

 

I have spent years of my life envying people who are really really good at one or two things. I am not one of those people. I am a little bit okay at a lot of different things. I have come to accept this now, mostly as the result of no longer having the emotional resource to fight it.

 

I found that the times I have tried to shelf all but a couple of my inclinations in the name of playing to a strength or two, I have wound up miserable. I don’t dabble on a whim. I do it because I feel that I have been entrusted with an idea, and it is up to me to make something of it. It is almost a duty. If I turn a blind eye to those duties, I end up feeling depressed and unfulfilled.

 

There are some people in the world who hold such regard for the idea of excellence that they simply refuse to attempt something unless they are more-or-less certain that they will be happy with their outcome. I understand this and cannot argue against it because I have seen these people excel numerous times. What I will acknowledge though, is that I do not possess their same level of self-control. If I catch the thought of auditioning for a Masters Degree in Jazz Dance into my head, there is little that can stop me from trying, even though my chances of success are limited, so that at least I can know that I tried. We won’t go into that specific example right now though. I think there are just two different types of people – two different ways a human brain can be wired.

 

The disadvantage of my wiring is that I am very familiar with failure. Again, that’s not meant to sound heroic in any way. Anyone who has actually failed at something important will know that it is not an enjoyable experience, nor one from which it is easy to recover. The advantage is that I have enjoyed the process of trying new things, and have also developed some wisdom from experience, but most importantly, I feel, some tenacity.

 

I wonder if everyone only focused on their strengths, we would miss out on the awesome experience of uncomfortable stretching, and that thing that happens thanks to 2 Cor 12:9 where God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness? I’m no theologian, but my lay interpretation of this verse is that if I’m too strong then I don’t leave much room for partnership with the divine – for me, the source of all creativity. I honestly don’t know if I’ve got that muddled or out of context in some way, but I am most open to discussion.

 

I am not suggesting that mediocrity should be given the right to some limelight – that would not be fair on the work produced with excellence. I am saying that if someone feels that they want to try to develop their skills in areas of level 2-6 abilities, then why not just let them? I can say for sure that with or without the chance to get on stage, or publish, or sell art or whatever, I would still be doing what I do simply because I get uneasy when I don’t. If I do get given the those opportunities then how nice, but I think that life is more fun if we just get on with doing what we believe we were made to do, as long as we aren’t hurting anybody, regardless of audience size or response.

 

These are my reflections on my own creative process. If my circumstances were different perhaps I could lock myself away in a tower like Montaigne, for the rest of my life to contemplate it all. It sounds very nice but I am not Montaigne and our three-bedroom family flat in Discovery Bay does not have a tower.

 

The conflicting advice I have received since ‘coming out’ as a writer (and entering into the great conversation that is literature) is much like the conflicting (and usually unsolicited) advice I often receive as a new parent. Cloth nappies? Naked potty training? Bottle? Breast? Reject conventional form? Strip it all down? Elaborate? Bring more humour in? Take myself more seriously?

 

I have to consider the options but ultimately find my own way.

 

If I were to write a manifesto I would say that I will not fear the influence of other artists, but trust the authenticity of my own voice. I consider myself a genuine artist. As I plug away at my writing and all my other projects I believe that I contribute to changing my city into a place where creative souls can exist for the long haul. I will courageously accept the fact that my context does not allow for creative monogamy, but charge forth regardless, knife and fork in hand. Yes, that is all I can do for now, and enjoy it I will.

 

Parenting: Simple, Idle and Free Range!

 

GUILTforMumstobe

This was the actual checklist I was given when I went to my first pregnancy appointment! Perfection in the form of an innocent typo.

 

I’m not very postmodern in the sense that I love to solicit advice about all sorts of things. None of this don’t tell me what to do from me. I lean more on the side of oh crap, I have no idea what I’m doing, someone please give me the answer! Now, I am not in any way advocating that trait. I will put my thoughts on that in a separate post, but as an intro for today I’m just saying that my self-perceived deficit of common sense has led me to the self-help aisle of plenty of bookstores. The downside is that as a result I tend to ping-pong between all sorts of philosophies, often in an extreme way. When it came to food it was healthy to organic to vegetarian to detox to gluten free to paleo and now a big muddle of all, which essentially means we just eat whatever I can muster at the time, that usually means fish fingers.

I’m about to embark on my PhD and I can foresee a more intentional and probably academic reading plan over the next few years, and possibly because of this I have been indulging in some new parenting books lately. Or maybe the reading has been part of my attempt to find balance, as recovery after major life burn out that happened in Hong Kong, the city that really never sleeps. Or was that just my life at the time with Dylan’s sleep apnea, the son who never slept. Whatever the case, I’ve read some fantastic books recently and wanted to share them with you, especially if you are in HK and trying to fight off the tendency to freak about about schooling/activities/schedules/budgets/allergies/all things related to raising children.

 

Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne

51XIjDAdMaL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX342_SY445_CR,0,0,342,445_SH20_OU02_

This is a gentle entry point into some parenting ideas that I would honestly say would feel alien to a lot of us young parents these days. The basic premise is Less is More and the author writes with professional and personal experience and real authority about scaling back in order to fully engage and enjoy a simpler life. Ahhhhh, a breath of fresh air :)

There’s a blog too, but I won’t comment on that as I haven’t checked in out properly yet.

 

 

The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson

This one is probably going to offend a lot of parents who pride themselves in trying really really hard every single day. I bookswas one of those a few months ago, and it got really really tiring, and quite honesty ushered me into a season of deprssion. That sense that no matter how much I did, there was always more I could/should be doing…

This book made me laugh and blush at the very silly way I had been parenting not too long ago. I can’t get enough of this one. I was actually quite sad when I got to the end of it. It had me at “children love a tipsy parent” (I’m not sure if those were the exact words, but I will go with the laziness that stops me from referring back to the original text, confident that this would not offend the author). I allowed myself to chill out, sit around with other grown ups drinking grownup drinks while our kids ran feral in the garden for a couple weekends, and low and behold, life started to feel manageable again. Click here for a taster in the form of The Idle Parent Manifesto. Genius.

 

Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy

I’m in the middle of this one now. It’s funny and again, makes me laugh at myself in almost every chapter – the ability to laugh at myself is one trait, and survival technique I have come to depend on.  Skenazy was in the press years ago for 51y6rCrGsVL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_letting her son ride the NY subway alone. She then went on to become the leader of the Free Range movement, encouraging parents to fight back against the culture of fear mongering that has taken up residency in the land of childrearing. Her message is basically CHILL OUT! And she has done her research into the statistics and facts that would be demanded of anyone with such an audacious message aimed at parents. The book is directed at an American audience, but those of us Internationals will be able to draw great value from it. Chinese culture is funny when it comes to kids, they must be bundled up under multiple layers of clothes all year round, and have to wear face masks to protect others from snot at the age of 2yrs, but they are allowed to be out and about town until 11pm. I’d be interested to know which culture has produced the most neurotic parents…

Here’s the Free Range Kids blog.

 

And finally, here’s a fun article from the New Yorker on the same theme that my sis-in-law Meg sent me the other day.

 

Famous Last Words

I’m really great at making declarations about my blog’s area of focus and then doing absolutely nothing to follow up on said area of focus.

 

The last post was my lament on Dylan’s ongoing sleep problems. After 2.5yrs of seriously interrupted sleep, I resided myself to the idea that I would be without good sleep for the foreseeable future, and might as well blog it out. I did embark on a mission to find help and to get to route of the problem. I did pursue a couple of very promising avenues of help. And guess what? I’ve just had FIFTEEN NIGHTS IN A ROW of very acceptable sleeps!

 

In the past we would experience anywhere between 30-mins and 3 hours of hysterical screaming that could only be soothed (and not always) by a bottle (or three) of rice milk.

 

My current definition of “Good Sleep” is ZERO bottles of milk between 7pm and 6am. We still have a bit of crying, but in the last 15 nights, no crying has lasted longer than TEN MINUTES!

 

I will control myself and resist the temptation to go into just how big a deal this actually is to me. First let me explain what happened.

 

We moved to England and here as soon as you get into the health system they send you a letter telling you they’d like to send someone to visit your house and see how you’re all getting on. That in itself blows my mind. So, I met with a lovely lady named Sian three times. During the first visit she listened to my terrible story and then made a time to see me again. During the second visit she gave me a very thorough photocopied wad of information about sleep training. She told me now that Layla was settled into school it was time to deal with Dylan’s sleep training. She said we had two main options: controlled crying, or inching myself out of the room.

 

The latter is a much gentler and slower process of getting to the point where Dylan could fall asleep without me being near him. I would just sit on his bed with a book as he fell asleep, and then night after night work my way onto a chair, then inch the chair out of his room. This sounded nice because Dylan definitely had some major anxiety issues. I attributed these to the fear that someone with sleep apnea must experience. They are said to have horrible nightmares about suffocating etc. He needed to know I was there with him.

 

I also had a big guilt complex from last year, back when I was working at the university three days a week. It just so happened that the schedule meant that I would put him down for his lunchtime nap and always be gone when he woke up. After a couple weeks he cottoned on to this pattern and started protesting his nap and then picking up a life-threatening lung infection. This was the start of his need to know I was there any time he stirred in the night.

 

The thing is I am not a patient person. I was groggy and wanted sleep NOW, not to inch my way out of the box room over a matter of weeks. Anyway, that would have been hard to do since I’m often alone with two kids at bedtime and Layla would have none of it.  She knows her rights.

 

So I told Sian I thought we needed to explore Controlled Crying. She explained that this is not the same as letting them “cry it out”. It just so happens that all things being equal, I am actually a big believer in letting them cry it out. It was the sleep apnea that rather rudely interrupted my attempts to co-author the next Gina Ford plan.

 

Controlled Crying means letting him cry for 2 minutes (a minute for each year of their life) and then popping back in and matter-of-factly reassuring them, and then leaving again. This can happen dozens, if not hundreds of times a night until they realize that they might as well just quit and sleep through. Sounded like a long shot but at this point I was a beggar too impatient to choose option one.

 

I was gearing up the strength to embark on this plan, and told Sian I thought my husband would be emotionally strong enough to hold out for the 5-7 nights it would probably take. Then something unexpected happened. I asked Sian if she thought Dylan looked well enough to endure it, if in her non-medical opinion he looked like a normal healthy kid who just needed sleep training. The reason I asked this was that a year ago Dylan was quite visibly an unwell child. This is what each member of his medical entourage told me anyway – I couldn’t see it because I looked at him all day long and in that situation it is hard to see the little changes that happen. According to his doctors he was clearly unwell – he had dark blue circles under his eyes, pasty white clammy skin and bright red lips indicating too much yeast in the gut. I thought he was looking pretty normal now, but wanted to double check.

 

She looked at him, then looked at me and went quiet for a moment.

 

Then she said to me “I think you should take him to the GP and just explain the situation so that he can assure you that he is no longer in danger. You might need that. He looks absolutely fine to me, but I think you need to hear it from a doctor.”

 

I must have looked a little confused because then she went on to say something along the lines of how big a scare I have had and how incredibly natural it is that I am terrified of leaving him in the night. He was at risk and I had to be on high alert, but just because that season has passed doesn’t mean I know how to come down off high alert.

 

Then I cried a lot.

 

Then I thought about blogging this development but procrastinated because it was quite painful.

 

Then I decided to do a bit of evidence gathering. Sian had told me to start a sleep diary but I’m not so good with the follow through, so that never really happened. Instead I just observed, and instead of observing Dylan I started to observe myself.

 

I had a flashback of one of the many visits to the GP in Discovery Bay I was on with Dylan earlier in the year. The DB Medical Centre were getting ready to launch a Frequent Visitors scheme just for my family. Not only was I running down there every time Dylan got a sniffle, I would do the same any time anyone in our household so much as cleared their throat – the basis for this was that I could not afford for anyone to infect Dylan. I sat in the waiting room as Dylan played with the toys in the corner, and imagined the receptionists rolling their eyes at me here she is again, doesn’t she have anything better to do with her time… I’m partial to letting the odd conversation play itself out in my head, and in my head I replied I know, I know, it totally LOOKS as if I’m a neurotic mother who has nothing better to do with my time, but believe me, I am a very busy lady. There are a hundred other things I need to be doing instead of shuttling my son to and from waiting rooms all week. I looks like I’m the problem, I can totally see how it would look like that from where you are sitting, but I assure you, it’s not me…

 

I was satisfied with how that mental exchange concluded. In my mind the receptionist nodded and agreed, yes, you’re right. It does look like you are the weirdo, but after hearing your explanation I am convinced that you are the helpless victim in this situation. Of course no mother wants her kid to be sick. No, you’re doing everything right…

 

Back in Oxford, in reality, I was beginning to allow myself to explore the possibility that I could be the problem. It seemed ridiculous but stranger things have happened.

 

I noticed that Dylan was much calmer when Tom put him to bed. I noticed that Dylan insisted on my spoon-feeding him, even though he is well past the age of independence in this area. I started him in daycare and he only cried for me for 5 minutes on the first day and after that couldn’t wait to be dropped off. I asked his minder if he ate anything at school and she said yes, as if of course, why wouldn’t he? He’s just a normal kid.

 

Then one night it happened. It was after Tom had been away on a tour for a few nights. I was exhausted from being the sole adult in the house and Dylan was kicking off in the middle of the night. I lost my temper. I took him out of my bed, turned a light on in another room and gave him a telling off. I put him in timeout so I could go to the loo and take a breather because in all honestly I was worried I might chuck him out the window if I didn’t give myself the timeout.

 

I breathed a quick prayer and then went back to him. He was hysterical to the point of hyperventilating. I went through the process of getting him out of timeout – explaining why he was there, asking him to say sorry, and then cuddling him and telling him he could not come back to bed until he stopped crying. He controlled himself beautifully. I knew it was hard for him, but he did it. As soon as we got back to bed he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. We slept until 8:30am. Layla was late for school the next day and none of us was sorry.

 

I knew I was on to something. I bought Boundaries with Kids, a book I knew I needed to read for other reasons, and it confirmed things to me – I needed to be firm and clear with Dylan about my expectations for the nighttime and if he chose to scream all night, then I could not reward him with milk, or even with my presence, but instead that I needed to make it not an enjoyable experience for him. Thankfully he’s only needed two midnight timeouts since that night. They always happen quickly now.

 

I’ve just noticed how long this is and Downton Abbey is on so I will conclude part one here.

 

xox