Escaping a Rut

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Just the other day as I was cleaning up the photos on my iPhone, I noticed a disturbing trend. All my pictures looked like crap. I used to be such an avid “photographer.” I used to take decent pictures of interesting subjects. I used to have “an eye,” as people would tell me, yet recently, I seemed to have lost the gift of the photographer’s “natural viewfinder.” Of course, the first thing I did was blame my iPhone.

Aw, it’s not a real camera. It makes photographers lazy. Anyone can take pictures with a smart phone these days.

Then I started to blame my environment.

There’s nothing photogenic about where I live. This city is boring from an aesthetic point of view. There’s nothing here that makes an interesting picture. This town is a photographic cliche. 

And perhaps in a final act of denial, I blamed my lifestyle.

All I do is work, and it’s killed all creativity within me. I have no energy to be creative. I have no time.

Perhaps, in a sense, all of the above were true, but what it really took to get my creative juices flowing again was a trip out of town. Nothing opens one’s eyes as much as exposure to new places and scenes and this happened to be just what I needed.

So, starting mid-morning today a girlfriend picked me up in her little blue Mazda and drove us out to Manassas Battlefield Park in Virginia where we hiked and walked the various trails, cameras in hand, soaking in all the views around us—both man-made and God-made. And it was as if a switch then turned on inside of me. Suddenly, everywhere I looked I saw a potential postcard picture. It was as if by instinct that I knew what angle to take my pictures at and how to maximize the landscape before me. Whatever creativity I lacked when I woke up this morning at home suddenly came alive out there on the battlefield.

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It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, and once you’re in a rut, it can be hard to escape. Exhaustion, negativity, hopelessness—it can all weigh down on you and suddenly you can lose the ability to see the good and beauty in what’s around you. You seem to lose that self-confidence you once had. It’s suddenly harder to think outside the box, to find that spirit of creativity that is buried deep inside you.

They always say you should take a step back and examine your surroundings whenever encountering such roadblocks. I would take that a step further. For a more radical change, temporarily leave your familiar environment altogether and explore a new place. You’ll find it rekindles a sense of curiosity within you and once that happens, you’ll notice other positive changes; a renewed feeling of adventure, excitement and even joy as suddenly the little ordinary things such as a house, a tree or even the sky, take on a whole new appearance in your eyes.

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The trees may seem more interesting, the sky bigger, the air fresher, the landscape wider. Your entire perspective shifts. This is a good thing. And it’s important.

So the next time you feel stuck in life, get out of the house, get out of town, and go find yourself again in a new surrounding. I’m pretty sure you’ll be glad you did.

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Try Everything

When I was preparing to leave the United States for two years to teach English in Central Asia as a Peace Corps volunteer, one thing my recruiter suggested I do to prepare myself for the technical skills involved with teaching was to become a certified Minnesota Literacy Council tutor and then volunteer at one of the many local English schools within the Twin Cities area. So I did, splitting my time between adult language learners at the Lao Family English School in St. Paul and the L.E.A.P. English Academy in Frog Town (now known as LEAP High School). Both were extremely rewarding experiences, but it was teaching adults at the Lao Family English School (which was open to all English learners but just happened to be named after the large number of Lao students that came through its doors) that I met a shining example of what it means to start over as an adult.

One of my students was a middle-aged man from an African nation I cannot recall. Looking back on it all, one can’t help but admire him for enrolling in these classes as the only African male in a class dominated by Lao and Hmong immigrants, mostly female. But oh my Lord, he was a voracious learner for not only was he learning to speak and comprehend English as an older adult, he was also learning how to read and write in a language that was not his own.

One day my fellow teachers and I took the students to the Minnesota Science Museum. It’s a great museum for students of all ages and levels because it is extremely interactive, yet combines many opportunities to read. While all the students seemed to enjoy the experience, this man in particular said one thing that I have never forgotten as even to this day, it makes me a little misty-eyed. I overhead him say to one of the teachers, “As soon as I improve my reading skills, I’m going to come back here on my own and take my time to read everything in this museum, and try everything that is here!”

I was a 22-year old college senior at the time. What did I know about having to learn how to speak, read and write in a new language, muchness learn how to live in a new country,  especially as an adult? What did I know about the vulnerable feeling that comes with such an experience? (Although I soon found out during my Peace Corps service!) Here was this man, older than his classmates, of another ethnicity and culture different from everyone else, including his teachers, and yet embracing the learning experience with his whole heart, mind and spirit—no visible inhibitions! He made it seem so easy and fun, although I can only imagine it was not like this for him everyday.

Anyway, I’ve thought of this student recently as I have realized that over the years that I too, have begun to “try everything,” ticking off experiences from my bucket list starting from my early 20s (backpacking through South Africa, joining the Peace Corps and living overseas) and continuing to this day (visiting the Grand Canyon and volunteering as a poll worker during this year’s presidential election). Although those are the fun things I have chosen to do. There have been situations where I have had no choice but to “try everything” in order to survive, much like my former student.

For example, during the 2008 recession, I spent more than a year unemployed, desperately looking for work. This forced me to “try everything,” including things I was afraid of doing, such as networking with strangers and starting an entry-level job at the age of 33. I learned some valuable lessons from that humbling experience. Perhaps it was sort of like that for my former student.

I have noticed though, that I continue to voluntarily and involuntarily experience new things. And now that I am older and more experienced, I appreciate much more the situation my student was going through, as well as the opportunities that are before me. Sometimes I have a choice: I can try everything—even the difficult things—or I can refrain but stop growing. Even though it sounds like an easy choice, it isn’t always. And sometimes I have made the wrong decision.

But with perhaps one or two exceptions to that philosophy (which I will save for another blog post), I feel I have best lived my life according to Cameron Diaz who once said, “Your regrets aren’t what you did but what you didn’t do, so I take every opportunity.” I only pray that like my student almost twenty years ago, I will never let age drain this spirit from me for that will be the day I truly die.

 

Origins

This weekend I hosted my parents in Northern Virginia/Washington, DC. They’ve been here before, but it’s been a few years and a lot has changed since their last visit. For one thing, there are new buildings, new restaurants, and new stores throughout Northern Virginia. The Mall has a new Smithsonian museum—The National Museum of African American History and Culture. I live in a new condo, in a new neighborhood and a new zip code, and as part of that process I have purchased new furniture and decor, completely transforming all they have previously known to be associated with me and where I live.

I have a newish job. My social circle has changed as friends of mine they have met have moved away to other states and new ones have entered my life, albeit at a cautiously slow pace. I am older, my cat is fatter and things are overall…different. I may not have moved far, but so much about this area has changed since they were last here. It was like a new vacation despite the fact that they have visited before.

And they have changed too, I noticed. They aren’t elderly, and they are both healthy, but they are also both slower than I remember (although this city is pretty fast). They tire faster. They don’t hear as well as they used to (granted, NoVa and DC have become pretty loud places when you venture from home; restaurants like to blare their music, traffic is in surround sound, and you can hear everyone’s conversations). For the first time since living here and hosting them, they seemed more Midwestern than ever in this fast-paced East Coast environment.

And in many, many ways, it was comforting, endearing. These are the people who raised me. They brought with them to NoVa/DC the values and comforts I grew up with and have since lost in this crazy part of the country: the appreciation for a good, wholesome breakfast at a local diner (thank you Bob and Ediths!); a sense of patience in this impatient world (politeness in the face of appalling customer service); delight in nature and animals (the National Zoo continues to bring them joy); and awe and amazement at the fast-paced, cut-throat world I live in.

Sometimes we need reminders of where we come from, whether our origins are good or bad, we still need to remember where we started out and who helped us get to where we are today.