Between the Panels

Little India

(Just over a month ago.)
“Hey, man. Why don’t you go up to Wembley Central today. See if you can get to know the area more, connect with the people, get some stories.”

I looked up at Cris from my computer. He and his wife and I had been in the thick of developing a cinematographic, social justice project to raise awareness for different issues and combat isolation in the area.

I’d been stuck answering emails all morning.
Hm. Let me think abou– yes.  

The best part about going out that day was the creative freedom. There was no stifling agenda. No time limit. Nobody was expecting me to produce a certain amount of money or reach a quota. My job was literally just finding interesting people to talk to.

After wandering into one of those ancient, cathedral-style churches (complete with the mossy dilapidated graveyard and everything,) a nice little old Nigerian lady invited me to have some coffee at an event they were hosting.

While I was standing around trying not to look uncomfortable, another chronologically advanced woman came up to me and proceeded to tell me her life story. I heard all about how she grew up in Barbados until her mother sent her away to England for a better life. She hated it at first but then decided she might as well make the best of it. She became a nurse, then a manager, then got married, had kids, her kids had kids. Now, retired and widowed, she ran her own little flower shop business.

After that, I passed by the abandoned hotel where an Indian pastor friend held his church services. (The only metaphorically and literally underground Christian church in London that I know of.) I arrived during the tail end of his service as he was praying for people. As soon as he saw me sitting there doing nothing, he waved me over and said, “Here. Pray for this lady. She’s got pain in her stomach.”

I prayed a little bit and BOOM. The lady got healed on the spot. No joke. Full-on miracle.

The pastor was like, “Sweet. Pray for this other person.”

Same thing. Boom. Pain a moment ago; now, no pain at all.

Afterwards I got to talking to another guy who told me about his childhood growing up in India and how his parents had placed him in a Christian school because they were academically better than Hindu schools at the time, despite the fact that his father was a radical Hindu. This guy converted to Christianity but kept it a secret for a whole ten years until his father found his Bible in the house. His father beat him and threatened to kill him, so he left home. Now he lives in London with his own family.

Later, I sauntered down Ealing Road.
Picture it: The Bollywood music, the smell of incense and burning oil, the lilt of Hindi being spoken up and down the streets. It’s why we affectionately call it Little India.

Top it off with the giant Hindu temple sitting just across the street from the little Baptist church and the Muslim mosque about a block away.

It’s why I love this city so much.

Super

So, a couple years ago, I watched a movie called Super, about a guy starved for justice who wants to become a hero. It’s a rubbish movie. Hilarious, but rubbish.

Anyhow, there’s this one scene where the protagonist is arguing with his sidekick in a garage. The sidekick is whining because she’s bored and feels there isn’t enough crime to fight. The main guy then explains how even in comic books the heroes aren’t fighting all the time. You only see the action in each panel. They have their “boring” moments that get cut out and left “in between” the panels, but even though you never see those moments, it’s understood that the characters still live them.

Despite being such a brain-numbing film, that scene nestled into my mind, and as I walked through Wembley Central that day, totally garnished in the ecstasy of adventure, it began to sprout an epiphany.

I began to wonder if days like this should be a regular thing — if we should strive to make every day a “panel” day. We naturally tend to idolise these sorts of moments. We share the videos on Facebook… post the pictures on Instagram… hear other people tell their stories and think, “Wow. If only my life were as amazing as that person’s life always seems to be.”

But not every moment has to be a highlight. We have our valleys and trenches. The dips that get lost in anonymity. Those are the scenes we just stuff in between the panels. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I just think the issue is having an expectation for our entire life to be made up of panel moments, or feeling like we need to display our life as one long highlight reel.

Sure. Of course every moment is valuable, but what I think I’m figuring out is I need to learn to appreciate and love both types individually.

We’ll always have our panel moments. The ones we deem “worthy” of talking about or uploading to YouTube. Parading across the cognitive social red carpet to receive the flashes of admiration or awe from peers and strangers. Not that they have to be lived for that reason, of course. Maybe you’d only ever talk about them in the company of good friends telling fun stories and reminiscing old times. Or perhaps on a stage to inspire the upcoming generation.

And of course we’ll have our in-between-the-panel moments. The ones we don’t even bother thinking about when somebody asks, “What have you been up to these last few months?”

But that’s okay. There’s a healthy balance. I’m all for diving into the extravagance of life, but I want to learn to appreciate the “dull” moments too. All the best stories are great just as much for what they don’t show as for what they do. It’s the exhausting mountain of hours that the author spends behind the scenes that make the characters so rich on the page or screen.

The Reel

November drizzled some particularly bleak moments into the mix of the work I’m doing and my continual effort to make London home, but the good far outweighs the bad. Here’s how my life might look in comic book form:

One panel might show us spending heaps of time continuing to develop the Creative Arts internship for next year. Another panel might have us working on starting a free cafe. Another might show me attending refugee home placement meetings, translating for the counseling school, preaching at the aforementioned Indian church, serving in a homeless shelter, or helping out with the English course.

In between the panels… endless emails to answer. Wandering around the streets at night waiting for life to shower me with meaning and purpose. Binge-watching anime TV shows with my Chilean friend. #addictedtoattackontitan

It’s all about how you choose to look at it, right?

The Credits

I’ll be leaving the UK soon to spend Christmas back home in one of my homes this year. That’s also a whole miracle story in itself.

Thanks again from my heart to all you who are believing in me and supporting me in my still-new life over here.

Keep being awesome.

Peace.

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Of Traffic and Novels

 

I remember getting to visit this one particular library a long time ago when I was still a little kid living in Costa Rica. I thought it was cool because it was an American library, which meant I got to read all the books in English. I suppose it was “official,” as far as libraries go, but looking back now, I realise it was definitely just a person’s house stacked with extra shelves in the living room and hallways all packed with his or her collection of books.

But hey, it worked for me.

I also remember once noticing a piece of paper taped to one side of the shelves, with a funny little story on it. To the extent of my memory, it went went something along the lines of,

As Joe sat for over an hour in his car stuck in traffic, he thought to himself, ‘Why does this only ever happen to me?!’

I thought it was pretty clever at the time. I probably even wished I would have come up with it myself.

Yet, that intellectual batter had a certain rich ingredient of truth which I didn’t quite taste until much later on.
Years afterwards, I eventually moved to the States and proceeded to initiate my own independent life, which of course involved all the grownup things like buying a car and driving to work and, yes, occasionally getting stuck in traffic (or always getting stuck in traffic, when it came to my short stay in Baton Rouge.) The usual.
But then the batter finally finished baking in my comprehensive oven and the realisation hit me:

We don’t ever actually get stuck in traffic, do we?

We become traffic.

*Cognitive super nova*

I thought it was a pretty radical revelation.
My natural compulsory tendency was to support the subconscious supposition that everybody else in the world is getting in my way, getting me stuck, making me late for wherever I’m going, whether it’s just somewhere random like work or somewhere actually imperative like Crispy Cremes. Selfish road hogs. Can’t they see I’m the prime focal point and centre of all existence? Impertinent! And don’t even get me started on rush hour. That’s just an entity other people inconsiderately always create, something I need to avoid since, if I’m not working that day, whatever I’m doing is far more important.

As you can see, I tend to think about myself a lot.

Obviously I’m aware there are all sorts of logically mathematical and statistical factors for how and why traffic happens, such as wrecks and agonisingly slow drivers (Ahem. I won’t mention any names of certain people I know;) but for the general occasion it took a considerable degree of deliberate emotional conceding to admit I was part of the mass — part of the problem, as it were. Sure, without me the traffic would probably still be there…in most cases….no comment….but as soon as traffic “happens” and I’m there, I have become traffic, just like everybody else, for everybody else. It’s not just me stuck, but all of us together forming a massive faceless entity comprised of many various individual deliberations and intentions.

Stuck in traffic, becoming traffic… The semantics don’t matter as much as the mindset behind your apperceptive steering wheel. It’s easy to consider yourself a nameless speck in a mass of nameless specks, and it’s even easier to elevate yourself as the perceptive nexus point in that mass of specks; but the truth is that we each hold an infallibly immeasurable degree of inherent significance independent of any relativity to one another.

I think it’s a realisation embodied perfectly in a word from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, by John Koenig.
Sonder.
The realisation that everybody has a story, and he or she is the primary character in that story; and in the same way that the mass of humanity flowing around you is made up of all the background characters in your story, you too might also be a background character in their story.

But there’s a richer harvest to be gathered from this crop than just a sorrowful sentiment.

When being the protagonist of your own story becomes less about elevating yourself (for the sake of self-worth) or comparing your story to another, but more about owning your plot and living it well, valuing your life because it was the one given to you, then it becomes an enjoyable story.

I think its okay if sometimes we feel like we’re not doing a good job managing the plot, though, because our worth doesn’t come from what we can accomplish or how well we do it anyway. We’re inherently valuable already. The things we do and accomplish should be an expressive indication of that, not an effort to validate it. With that perspective fueling our tanks, I think we can ride out more freely, more passionately, with the top down and the music blaring.

The sentiment becomes manageable. We can be okay with being the occasional extra in somebody else’s cast of characters, because there’s nothing to prove; and having overcome that need for external, presumably objective validation, I think it becomes easier to extend that extra amount of consideration towards other people, fully accepting them as the protagonists of their stories, allowing them to be the centre of our attention for a moment.

I realised the other day that glancing at another person’s life in passing is like looking at the cover of an epic novel. A brief interaction with somebody is like flipping through the first couple pages.
So we’re all novels. I guess that makes any traffic jam a library, eh?
Too cheesy? Sorry. I’ll let you pretend I never said that.

P.S.

For the record, I would just like to rub it in all your faces that in the nearly four years I’ve been living in Montana, I’ve experienced actual traffic a maximum of maybe two or three times.
Gotta love those wide open spaces, baby.

Procrastination Station

Allow me to tell you about a little friend — rather, an acquaintance — I have who tends to pop in uninvited a bit too often.
Typically, he sneaks up behind me just as I’m thinking of doing something productive, like writing a new blog post or working out, and he distracts me with notions of other things I could do instead. I’m sure you’ve met him before too. Around these parts he’s known as Procrastination.

Okay, whom am I kidding? He’s basically my mortal enemy.

Procrastination is a sleazy creature. I envision him as a skinny little gnome. Skitterish, pointy ears, high-pitched voice. The whole enchilada. He might seem cute at first, but he always shows up at the most inopportune times thinking out loud about all the other things  I could be doing in the moment besides what I was intending to do. His ideas do always seem good, at first. In fact, he’s downright persuasive.

Here’s what an interaction between us might resemble:

I’ll be coming from a delight little walk in the woods feeling all inspired and ultra-spiritual and eager to write a full 1000-word blog post that will generate dozens of new followers and get a bazillion likes and be shared all over the internet, but even before I make to the front steps, the little gnome hops out from the bushes and yells, “Hey, Nicholas! How’s it going? You look so great today. What’re you up to?”

“Oh, I’m just planning to write for a bit,” I respond, still eagerly trying to hold on to all my new brilliant ideas before I forget them.

“Oh, that’s cool,” he quips. “Such great ambition. You’re such a good writer. Maybe some day you’ll actually be able to prove it to yourself and to the world. Hey, you’re probably really hungry from that long walk, huh? Why don’t you have a quick little something to eat before you get to work, you know, to nourish the brain and all that?”

I’m a bit apprehensive. I know I should probably get straight to writing whilst my ideas are still fresh and my motivation is hot, but he does kind of have a point, doesn’t he? I could just eat something now and get it over with so I wouldn’t have to stop for it later on.

“Well, okay,” I concede, “maybe I could; but just something really quick, and then I’ll get straight to it as soon as I’m done.”

“Of course, of course!” he says with a shrill liveliness. “And don’t even worry right now about the clothes you left in the dryer. You can fold those tonight.”

Oh yeah, I think to myself. Those still need to be done too; but he has a point; I should do them later.

As I’m eating, however, he leans over my shoulder and whispers, “You know… you still haven’t finished transferring all the information from your old bank account to your new one. That’s actually important grownup stuff that needs to be done.”

I feel a little offended. “Writing is grownup stuff,” I mumble through a mouthful of bagel and cheese, trying to convince myself that it’s actually true.

“Oh, sure! No doubt about that in the least!” Now he’s sitting on the table in front of me. “But this is more important in the moment; and besides if you get all this boring stuff out of the way first, then you can relax and have as much time as you want to write without having all the other stuff hanging over you.” He says this as he hangs over my plate.

“Well,” I swallow my food and stand, “I guess there is some sense in that.”

“Yes! Yes! It’s the smart thing,” he jitters up at me as I pick up my plate and try to maneouvre around the kitchen without tripping over him. By now most of the motivation from my walk has started to dissipate.

The gnome is still talking: “And since you’ll already be on your computer anyway, working on all that mundane stuff, you could go ahead and finally clear out all those old emails from your inbox, eh? They’ve been there for ages!”

I sigh. “I suppose I should do that too.”

“Yes. Yeeees,” he snickers sinisterly.

Then, however, as I’m sitting at my computer trying to get my “grownup” tasks out of the way, but somehow continuously finding more to do, I see his pointy ears poke over the edge of the desk.
“Hey!” he whispers. “Hey! Sssspt! Hey! It’s been, like, a whole six minutes since you last checked Facebook. Maybe now there’s something new and interesting to look at.”

“Leave me alone,” I command. “I’m busy.”

“Oh, I know! I’m not trying to distract you. It’s just that you’ve been working so hard, and maybe taking a little break will help you relax. Just a couple quick scrolls down the ol’ feed, nothing more.”

Before I even realise what I’m doing, my hand reaches for my phone and I’m scrolling mindlessly down Facebook. Next thing I know, I’m watching cute cat videos and remembering I need to start getting ready to leave for that movie night I had later in the evening.

And on and on.

Now, I’m obviously not trying to disassociate myself from the fault of my procrastination habit and blame it on an imaginary gnome.

(Though sometimes that would make things easier, I think.)
I’m just recognising it for it for what it is — a habit. A bad one.
Fortunately, that’s one of the first steps towards overcoming procrastination.

And I was going to wrap up this post with practical ways to stop procrastinating, but I think I’ll save it for later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just kidding. I’m not that bad.

Though I admit I did think about it.

Image result for bashful gif

Nearly everything I’ve read on overcoming procrastination breaks down the process into three basic steps:

  1. When it happens, admit to yourself you’re procrastinating.
  2. Recognise why you’re procrastinating.
  3. Enact a strategic step to combat the urge.

The When

Okay, let’s be frank. How often am I really being truthful with myself when I think, “Oh, it’s fine if I eat four more cookies now. It’s the last week of the month. I’ll just let myself splurge this one last time and start really taking care of my diet next week.”

Image result for seriously? gif

Too often I let the fleeting pleasure of the moment suffocate my desire to face reality.

Being honest with yourself is just plain healthy in general.

The Why

The gnome likes to sit on the edge of my desk and catch me in my weak moments. “You’re not really thinking of putting your writing out there just yet, are you? Why not wait a little bit, til you’re actually a good writer? A legitimate writer.”
For many of us it’s probably less a matter of laziness and more just a fear of failure, isn’t it? Or perhaps that all-or-nothing mentality. (“If I can’t do it well, why do it at all?”)

One of my slipperiest slopes is, “Eh, cleaning isn’t that important right now. It can wait. Just keep it somewhere near the bottom of the list and you’ll get around to it when you have the time to spare.”

Yesterday I had to snatch him up by the ears and hold him at eye level.
“Let’s get one thing straight, you little runt,” I said fiercely. “There never really is ‘time to get around to it,’ (and if there is, I’m usually too tired or just ‘not in the mood.’) Furthermore, there will always be something else to do. So no more excuses.”

That sent him scampering off and I was actually able to sit down and start this post.

The How

Willpower is good, but it’s very limited (at least in my case) and it typically tends to run out, oh, I don’t know… usually around the time I smell that fresh batch of brownies in the kitchen or when I hit my first grumpy-bump of the day. From what I’ve learned over my short life, the best way to break a bad habit isn’t so much by exerting energy to avoid it, but by shifting the focus to something else, namely, other good habits. It’s indisputable that what we keep our focus on will eventually determine our actions.

Almost all the articles I found had these same techniques in mutuality:

  • Believing in yourself, and believing that what you want to accomplish is actually important.
  • Rewarding yourself for accomplishing something. (I confess. My problem is that I like rewards for doing nothing.)
  • Concentrating on starting the process, rather than finishing it. That way it doesn’t seem so daunting.
  • Having concrete thoughts on how to practically start something instead of always daydreaming. (I insert the “always” because I actually benefit a lot from daydreaming. There’s a balance.)
  • Creating — blegh! — schedules and deadlines. (Honestly, I’d probably prefer to drink toilet water.)
  • Forgiving yourself for whenever you fail. (That just applies to all areas of life.)

As my friend Steven Jones always says,

Just starting is 90% of getting the job done.

Probably because most don’t even get that far.

There’s definitely a legitimate allowance for taking breaks and prioritising, but when it’s a matter of having a procrastination gnome sitting on your lap saying, “Eh, this is hard. Wasn’t there some folder or something in your documents that needed to be organised?” then usually I know it’s time to do a little exterminating.

No, it’s not easy, but what valuable endeavour ever is? I believe progress is just as admirable as the end results.

Gradually, the gnome starts to feel less welcome, and when he does show up, I bash him over the head with a good Pablo Picasso quote:

Image result for only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die left undone

Peace.