Monday, January 15, 2018

Discipline in 2018

In my last post, I shared about how I choose a word each year as a sort of theme, rather than picking a New Year's resolution. Today I'll share this year's word, plus some stories to go along with it. Ready?

In the last two years, we've been living in what you might call "Survival Mode." We opened Disney's twelfth theme park and moved from one Shanghai flat to another (in the same week as the Grand Opening! With house guests!). Michael's contract was up for renewal which meant we had the opportunity to make a change in location (country) if we wanted to, and we hit our fifth year in China so we had to leave the country for 32 days for tax purposes (#expatlife, yo). Michael had a very frightening health scare, a creative group I'd facilitated for 2.5 years was drawing to a natural close, and more friends than usual were unexpectedly repatriating or moving on. Then we moved to Hong Kong and lived in a hotel for a month while our dog went to live in a third country for 45 days to be able to enter Hong Kong from China. Our boys, who attended a local Chinese boarding school in Shanghai, had to adjust to a British day school. And we had to adjust to having them home every night. Through all this, we were much like the balls in a pinball machine... getting flung here and there, bouncing off obstacles, reacting to whatever came our way with lots of noise and flashing lights rather than deciding where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do.
Tilt!

And let's be real: that isn't a bad thing, really. The ability to be flexible and roll with the punches and still get stuff accomplished each day, week, month, and year despite massive chaos is no small thing. But it does take a toll on a person's body and mind. One of the biggest unintended consequences of living life in "Survival Mode" is knowing life doesn't have predictable patterns and you absolutely have to take respite whenever you can get it. You learn guilt-free self care.

Have a brutally hard morning? Just take the rest of the afternoon off to relax and recover with a good book. Have the week from hell of appointments at immigration with no time for lunch a single day out of the seven? Indulge enthusiastically in a calorie-laden dinner of your favorite food, followed with late night snacks because wow was that hard and you deserve it. Can't sleep because your mind won't shut off after the late night call from your parents? Get up and watch Netflix until you're drowsy and then sleep all day the next day. And then do it again the next night because now your body thinks this is when you're supposed to be awake after just one bad night.

Sometimes that is what you absolutely have to do to get through. There is zero shame in that. But there may come a point where you haven't even had a hard morning at all, you're just taking the afternoon off to read because you want to. And the late night snacking is now just a habit and you're eating more because you feel bad because your pants don't fit. And there's really no point in even going to bed anymore because you know you won't sleep anyway so coffee and sleeping pills become your BFF's (not at the same time) just to get through the day. Where does it end? At some point you have to pluck the quarter from the hand of the pimply teenager wanting to play more pinball and say no more.

For quite some time I've been working on writing two different books. One is a fiction novel and the other is filled with real life stories from our experiences around the world. I haven't made much progress on either because better things (or more important/pressing/urgent/emergency things) keep popping up.

My best writing process is to fully immerse myself in the story and let it flow out of me in long stretches of uninterrupted time (I think this is every writer's preferred process). This is a great process if you do not have kids or a husband but do have a giant pile of money and someone else to do the cooking and cleaning for you. I, however, am a proud mom and wife, who has to feed my family at regular intervals (teenage boys and their ever-empty stomachs, amirite?). And living in Asia with tiny refrigerators and no pantry means near-daily grocery shopping. At some point, even though writing a book is a real, actual job which can bring in an actual paycheck, I stopped treating it as such and let everything else take priority above it. There's a season for everything, and I figured I just wasn't in the right season. My time would come and this just wasn't it.

And then a few months ago I was presented with an interesting opportunity. I was commissioned to write a play for a director who already had a cast and a string of dates booked in a theater in California and just needed a compelling script. The timeline was absolutely bonkers, it needed to be completely done with all edits and rewrites by January 1st, giving me just two months to give birth to a work I'm not even going to see in rehearsals or during its initial run. At first, I thought nope, this isn't for me. Let it go. But there was something that kept pulling me back... I started out in theater and have written ten plays or books for musicals which have actually been produced. I've sold a handful of scripts for sketches which have gone into anthologies or publications. My business cards say Storyteller instead of Writer because of my background in the theater... the ultimate vehicle for telling stories. But it is very difficult to make a living as a playwright, especially if you move around the world every couple of years. It is far easier to make money as a copywriter, which is telling stories of a different kind (buy this product! click this link!). So I decided long ago I wouldn't pursue writing plays full time, but just enjoy it whenever I got the chance to. And this was a big chance. So I said yes, even though it was more than a little inconvenient, and even though I wasn't set up or ready to devote the time and energy to it. What's a little more survival mode when you're already used to it?

And I wrote, even though my kids and the dog wouldn't leave me alone (funny how when you're not as accessible everyone wants your undivided attention).
(Actual photo of the boys + dog just "hanging out" in my office
after school while I'm trying to write. If I was trying to ask
them about their day, they'd be no where to be found.) 
And I kept writing, even though it meant turning down Christmas parties with new acquaintances here in Hong Kong with real potential to become actual friends (making new friends in a new country is not for the faint of heart).

(Actual photo of my screen taken the night I was writing
instead of making merry during my favorite time of year.)
And then I edited on the sixteen hour flight to America for our two week holiday instead of watching all the new movies which came out while we lived in Shanghai that I never got the chance to see. And I edited some more at my parents' house instead of snacking and lazily reading a book or going to see Star Wars a second time (with a stop at Target!) with my sons and husband.

And I got the script completed, edited, and submitted before the January 1st deadline, and there was never a feeling so great as knowing you did something big and saw it all the way through to the end and really like what you completed. Ask my husband if he's ever seen me happier than the night I finally said "It is finished and submitted! Now let's celebrate!" I was walking on air, and only partially because of the celebration...

As the remaining days of 2017 and our trip to America counted down, I kept thinking about that great feeling. It wasn't just about crossing the finish line, it was about making the choice to put my butt in a chair and my hands on a keyboard and spill words out onto the screen, even though there were so many other things I could have been doing, maybe even should have been doing (if you asked my hungry sons who wondered if their uniforms had been laundered). It was about choosing one thing over another instead of just going with the flow and hoping for the best.

Yes, I want to finish writing the books I've started. Or start a new one altogether. Yes, I want to tell more stories, here on my blog instead of just over at Instagram. Yes, I want to improve my writing and grow my audience. I want that awesome feeling of having completed a big project to the very best of my ability with a celebration afterward.

But here's what I want most of all: I want to already be ready the next time a big exciting project falls into my lap. I want to have deep habits of writing daily so ingrained that taking on something like a commission to write a play doesn't mean giving up time with the kids or having to turn down Christmas parties. I want to have that "best writing process" I mentioned up above whether I have a glorious, quiet, uninterrupted full eight hours to write, or whether stepping straight into that full immersion when it's literally just a single hour between loads of laundry while I have a headache and the housekeeper is vacuuming the floor under the desk I'm trying to write at. And let's get real, the second scenario is most often the one I'm dealing with, so how in the world can I make that work? With discipline.


It's not sexy or glamorous at all. It lacks awe and wonder and magic. But just wanting that "finished product feeling" isn't enough to get me to the finish line. I have to develop the habits which will get me there. 

When we got back to America on January 2nd, my jet lag was fierce. I usually only sleep when I'm jet lagged (or sick), so I crave the feeling (of jet lag, not sickness). I was falling asleep by 11:00 p.m and waking up naturally by 6:00-7:00 a.m. I decided to just go ahead and set my alarm for 7:00 a.m. (even on the weekend) to try and turn this jet lag into a pattern, and the pattern into a habit. And to use those extra hours in the morning for writing. I'm not a morning person, so it's not the most ideal situation. But using a couple of hours every morning to write is training me to be able to write under less than ideal situations. Putting my butt in my chair and my fingers on the keyboard is definitely an activity, exercise, or regimen that will develop or improve a skill. It's training me to write when I don't have a major deadline flying at my face. Every day I get up to write, I get to have a mini rush of good feeling. Even when whatever I write is lame and awful and I hate it. It doesn't even matter, because a year from now I'll be able to know more about what I love and won't have to waste as much time writing the lame stuff to get to the good. 

When I decided Discipline was my word for 2018, I thought I'd make mini goals in many categories, like health, housekeeping, etc. Discipline across the board, yeah let's do it 2018! (I'm either 100% in or not in at all, a blessing and a curse.) But as I spent time this week thinking about that, I realized that as with the unintended consequences of words I've chosen in the past, choosing to be disciplined in the area most important to me will naturally carry over into the other areas of my life that could stand to have a little more order. I know it's a struggle to get up at 7:00 a.m. if I stay up until 3:00 a.m. reading. So I gotta turn off the light by 11:00 p.m. I know it's a struggle to get back into writing a story if I only devote time to writing it over the weekend or the occasional Wednesday. So I gotta keep it close enough it's like walking through a doorway into the story instead of swimming upstream in an icy river and then climbing a wall to get in.


It's not going to be easy. But easy gets me reading too many books on too many afternoons and pants that don't fit. And what I really want to do is to write the sexy and glamorous blog post filled with awe and wonder and magic telling you where you can go buy my book. And then go out to celebrate. But that's only going to happen if I discipline myself to put my butt in my chair and my hands on my keyboard every single day, spilling words out onto the screen like it's my job.

Because it is.

And I'm ready.

Discipline in 2018.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Influence in 2017

Each year over the past decade, my husband and I have chosen a word (or short phrase) at the beginning of the year to help focus and guide us. Sometimes the word itself comes from a bigger quote or proverb. Sometimes it's where we're lacking or maybe something we're actually doing pretty good with but we need to hone our skills in that area. It's always an adventure.

My word for 2017 was Influence. 


Initially I chose it because friends and associates were seeking my advice or opinion about weighty matters, and I realized I had the opportunity to be wise and share something positive in what might be someone else's darkest moment. That's a big responsibly if you think about it, and one that I really wanted to be a good steward of. Not to mention other spaces I occupied, such as social media, where I had the chance to hold someones attention for just a moment. I could use that moment to leave someone feeling better than they were before, or to draw attention to beauty or love. I determined to do that with every post, which meant that nearly a third (or possibly even a half) of the things I set out to post or sat down to write ended up getting deleted or never saw the light of day.

I set some private goals for how I could measure if I was having any success, and by the end of the year I'd achieved or surpassed each of them. Which is great, especially since we had an international move right in the middle of the year. But as is the case with each time we've done this, there were surprises, unintended consequences if you will, which also popped up. For instance, I noticed that in looking back over the year, I have cut out several things which were a negative influence on me. I never sat down and thought about doing it, I guess just spending my energy trying to bring a positive tone and being a force for love meant I had less space for the things coming in that were negative, so I let them go (or forcibly cut them out). I usually live so far in the future that I don't regularly take time to look back, but it's only in looking back that I can see this as the truth.

Having this word to focus on gave me a greater purpose other than just bobbing along and reacting with whatever emotion hit me. And wow, wasn't this year emotional! From a month-long trip to America in February during the inauguration of an extremely divisive president, to a move from our home in Shanghai of five years and the loss of a circle of supportive friends, having to start all over again, I will say that my emotions were all over the place. What helped with how I reacted to everything was thinking that someone else was likely watching me. And if I had even that small opportunity to show love (or BE love), or remain calm and full of grace instead of lashing out in the anger and fear washing over me, I should take it. Or like the saying about not saying anything unless it's something nice, at the very least I could remain silent until I could actually show love or grace or remain calm. I feel pretty good about how I did, and really that's the best marker as far as I'm concerned.

I'll be sharing shortly what my word for 2018 is. And like most of the best things in life, it excites me and scares me half to death, all at the same time.

What about you? Did you have a word for 2017? How do you feel you did with it?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Jet Lag is my Friend

Whenever people talk about struggling with their jet lag, I feel a pang of envy. I'm a lifelong insomniac, and the ability to put my head on the pillow and fall immediately asleep is something beyond my reach, with one exception: I can fall instantly asleep only after having flown half way around the world.

It feels like an absolute miracle to feel tired in both body and mind, and to put on my jammies and climb into bed while still feeling tired. And then to place my head on my pillow and think, "I am falling asleep right now." And then to wake up some hours later, having actually slept with no interim period involving hours of tossing and turning while my brain churns through everything I said or did during the day. It doesn't last too long, generally three nights, max.

Very early the morning of January 1st, 3:30 a.m. to be exact, we drove out of my parents' driveway and made the journey to the nearest regional airport, which happens to be in the adjoining state of Alabama. Our first flight was at 6:30 a.m., taking us to Chicago where we had a 4.5 hour layover (made short by the leisurely but expensive breakfast we had at a Chili's right next to our arrival gate). Then we boarded our 16+ hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong, which is brutal. It somehow makes the 12 hour flight to Los Angeles just seem like a jaunt around the block at dusk to work off your dinner.

Once we arrived in Hong Kong, our bags were delayed for nearly an hour, meaning we missed not one, but two buses that take us from Hong Kong International Airport into the little beach community on Lantau Island we call home. Once on the bus, we had a 30 minute journey, followed by grabbing a second bus straight up the hill to our apartment building, and into our cozy, still Christmas-decorated home. All told, it was 28 hours of travel from door to door. Which is actually two hours shorter than our journey from Hong Kong to my parents, yet coming home always seems somehow longer... the thrill of a holiday is worn off and home means heaps of laundry and finding a spot for all the new treasures you've brought back.

Regardless, we arrived at our door at 10:00 p.m local time, and by 11:00 p.m. I was completely passed out. Or almost... my husband says that when he came in from making sure the boys were in bed, I leaned up and asked him if he was ready. Perplexed, he asked for an explanation, which I gave: the parade was about to kick off and all the motorcycles were lined up ready to go, just waiting for him. Side note: I don't remember this at all, but it's an accurate description of what goes on in my brain on the regular so I believe him completely.

I slept long and deep and woke at 7:00 a.m. to the dim light of dawn, alone in bed. I was very confused. On the wall was a large piece of art depicting the original concept drawing for Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle, making me think we were in a Disney hotel somewhere. On the bed was a quilt I didn't recognize at all. And I was dripping in sweat, unable to find any heater in the room to turn off. It took me nearly ten minutes of pondering where in the world I could be before I stood up and walked to one of the two doors in the room. I heard water running. "Michael," I said, loudly, "are you in here somewhere?" Yes, it was Michael. And when I turned on the light, I realized it was my own bedroom of five months, and there was no heater to turn off, in fact the problem was that the air conditioner wasn't turned on and the heat of the morning sun in subtropical Hong Kong made the room toasty warm. The quilt was one we've only ever used for the guest room, but our house guests over the holiday had used it in the master bedroom, which added to my confusion.

Yesterday afternoon at the time I was used to falling asleep late at night while in America, I crashed hard. I napped for an hour in a square of sunlight streaming through the window. I dreamt that Michael came home from work while I was napping, and woke me up to say that we needed to get packing as the movers were coming at 6:30 a.m. to take our stuff to Hong Kong. I was so confused. "We already live in Hong Kong," I tried to tell him. He told me to look out the window. Sure enough, our Hong Kong flat was somehow in Shanghai. "No," I started screaming, getting into a huge fight with my dream-version of my husband, "We never would have planned a vacation if we were moving the next day! This is not real!" I woke myself up and breathlessly looked out the window, grateful for the picture-perfect view of Hong Kong, exactly where it was supposed to be.

Last night I fell asleep once again before Michael even came into the bedroom. And once again I woke at 7:00 a.m., feeling lost and unable to figure out where I was. Lucy Rocket, our tiny poodle, was snoring, pressed into my side, and that did indeed remind me that I am home right away. I suspect I have one more good night of sleep ready for me tonight. At least I hope I do. Then it'll be me, tossing and turning while my husband (whose superpower is the ability to fall instantly asleep regardless of being jet lagged or not) sleeps peacefully beside me. Maybe I'll use those hours of non-sleep productively, planning our next big trip to a different timezone in the hopes of achieving that (mostly) blissful state of jet lag!

What about you? Is jet lag your friend or foe?