All in a Day’s Work

Day 14, 500 words, 31 days.

For the past several days I’ve stayed home in the mornings and afternoons, preparing a presentation I plan to give when I go to India next week.

Typically, I spend good chunks of my time at home wearing the same clothing I wore to sleep the night before. For hours, I’ll be seated in the same position and in the same place – slouched in the corner where the two halves of my couch converge to a ‘T’ usually – getting up only for the occasional restroom break or a refill of my cup of coffee or water. Many times I’d almost forget to have lunch, that is, until I start to smell whatever’s cooking next door. I try to imagine what they are having, then proceed to look for whatever that might be, among the hawker stalls down the street from our apartment.

The cats take turns chasing each other rowdily, like little children at an amusement park, or an open parking lot. It doesn’t really matter that our apartment isn’t open and large because there are several rooms for them to jet in and out of, and the furniture that we have sitting around only end up serving as an obstacle course the cats turn into their personal playground.

When they are finished exhausting themselves, they nap. And cats absolutely love to nap. When they are in this sedate state, I start thinking I have a legitimate chance at calm and constructive working conditions to last me the rest of the day. That is, unless I can manage to keep the t.v. off, or the tab of sports scores closed, or my tummy in check as it growls for more food. If I can prevent myself from indulging in these things, I could, potentially, get some work done.

But watching the cats nap is a beautiful thing. It is also rather sleep-inducing and often, I find myself getting coaxed into stretching out on the couch and letting my eyes get some shut-eye – some needed rest from too much screen time. The cats are bad, bad example.

Today, it was a miracle from God that I worked for two hours straight – likely my productivity ceiling for most days. Working those two hours made me feel like I had accomplished something significant, as if I had never gotten paid to sit in front of a computer for an entire day, before. Makes me wonder how I managed to string together eight of them on an average working day, back when there was an actual office and an actual commute to be had.

Feeling as though my day didn’t go to waste, I was satisfied enough that I spent the remaining half hour finishing up chores before picking up my wife from school. My wife, whose day is never lain to waste, is often exhausted by the end of it. She, unlike me, is actually standing for most of the day and moving her limbs as she explains basic mathematical concepts and how to properly sound out vowels to little children. By the time I fetch her at school, I concede, in my mind, who’s more tired (she is), and by the time I reach her classroom, I do my best not to say how little I had actually done. It just wouldn’t be good for either of us.

This afternoon after she finished up her prep work, we drove over to Georgetown, where the pet store is. This is not the only pet store in Penang, and there’s far more to Georgetown than visiting this pet store. But some days, we go all the way to Georgetown, specifically for this one pet store. Usually, we leave with one or two items – cat litter or vitamins to mix in with their food.

Thankfully, the store is situated near a large outdoor food court called New World Park. We decided to have an early dinner there. We both ordered a bowl of Mee Suah, a type of thin, wheat flour noodle. I had pork, and she, duck. It wasn’t bad – though it had a more herbal flavor than we had both anticipated. We ate it all anyway, mostly in silence.

By the time we were through, the plastic chairs around us were left mostly unoccupied. The noise of the food court settled into a hushed, undecipherable murmur. The sun prepared for its quiet exit behind the horizon. Meanwhile, the sky was turning a deeper orange, with the slightest suggestion of blue. And that was our cue, to head back home.

Toiling Away

Day 11, 500 words, 31 days.

I’m more than a third of the way in. The last couple days have been more challenging than the first few – a test of my resolve and commitment to this particular project.

On one hand, I’m just glad I haven’t let up.

On the other hand, there’s still such a long way to go. And by that, I don’t just mean this project. I mean the whole, writing thing. There’s still so much more to learn, to unlearn, to fail at and succeed with. For me, I keep telling myself that this has got to get past the 31 days.

But for now, the project is exactly the sort of short, intense mental workout I need to build the right sort of habits. Now if only my commitment in this area of my life could mirror that of my commitment to my health and physical well-being…

Jeff Goins gave us writers a nice little encouragement today. It was he, after all, that challenged us to take on this 500 words a day project, so it was only fitting that he told us:

“…you are enough. You are a writer, and what do writers do? They write. And all of you are doing just that. You’re showing up, availing yourself to the Muse, and doing your work.”

I’ve kept my expectations relatively simple this entire time I’ve been writing since the new year – that is, to just keep on writing. To press on as if my day couldn’t possibly end without having tried. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t feel complete, and a void would be created, to be filled, only by the weight of words.

I believe there will be a time for more meticulous editing. For the doing-over, and the taking out, and the revising again and again. There will be moments when I read over what I just wrote, and realize, “What on earth did I even mean by that?” And then, my face, buries itself in the meaty cushion of my palms, covering my shame.

But for now, my objective has been simple and by grace, I’ve stayed the course faithfully.

This feels a little like I’m toiling, though I’m sure farm workers and day laborers and doctors would have some choice things to say upon hearing such a thing. But I guess I don’t want to take for granted the essence, and necessity, of the work. The day-to-day grind of coming up with something to write – regardless of how interesting, or funny, or God-forbid, neither.

Early on in the project my wife innocently asked me, “So, what exactly are you going to write about, every day?”

I’m sure I didn’t have much of an answer. But I do remember feeling really liberated, that I didn’t quite know. In fact, I feel that way still.

Surprisingly, it’s even been liberating to write, publicly. Something about not caring that any particular piece reads perfectly or is actually, engaging, is helping me feel free to keep writing. Now, I don’t keep track of whoever’s keeping track, but I have a vague idea of which of my friends have remained loyal, perhaps even to a fault – should they instead be, actually, laboring away on their cubicles, or classrooms, or…dare I say, smartphones.

To you, I say, thanks, for putting up with me. But should you decide 31 days is just too long, I totally hear you – and no hard feelings.

Explaining Myself

Day 8, 500 words, 31 days.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped wanting to tell people what I do for a living.

It always seems in flux anyway; I find myself explaining how I’m transitioning between projects more often than actually elaborating on what I’m currently doing. It’s generally just a lot of explaining.

My wife and I attended a function for her fellow teachers to usher in the school year as it begins again after the Holidays. We enjoyed a buffet dinner at a Japanese establishment we’d otherwise probably have never gone to – it’s a bit further than we normally like to adventure, and a bit pricier than we normally spend. In other words, it was a rare treat.

For me, however, I tend to dread these big gatherings, not because these teachers aren’t friendly or likable. If anything, they are precisely those things and it’s difficult keeping on an uninviting scowl when everyone is smiling at me for reasons I still haven’t sorted.

I just dislike the part of these interactions that inevitably begins with exchanging pleasantries having to do with, what I do.

I was probably one of the few people in the room that didn’t work for Dalat – my wife’s school – so having to explain what I actually do always gets me sounding like a college freshman – eager and unsure.

Normally the spiel goes like this: “I do social media management for an NGO. Like, Facebook and stuff. I freelance sort of. I also write. Yes…”

I almost always make sure to add that last part, about the writing – mostly because it sounds a lot more digestible than “social media management”. Truth be told, I’m still figuring out the best way to describe it. Sometimes I’ll tell people it has something to do with online marketing. Or that I get to be on Facebook for a living.

The “freelancing” part throws people off, I think. It’s not really the best way to describe what I do. It just goes nicely with being a “writer” but I have the least bit of a clue how to even begin that sort of a career. Other than, actually writing – daily – of course.

More often than not people just assume I have some tech skills that allows me to work remotely. This isn’t entirely accurate. I suppose blogging counts, but I try not to introduce that concept when having a conversation with someone as old as my parents.

In fairness to my parents, I think by now they know what blogging is, and bless their hearts, they keep telling me to keep doing it, whatever I’m doing.

The conversation about what I do hardly ever gets anywhere. I may talk about being able to travel here and there and that usually piques someone’s interest. It’s almost always more interesting where I say I’m about to go versus what I say I’m about to do. That’s ok.

I started this blog over a year ago, hoping to figure out what vocation really means for myself – and maybe along the way, I’d feel a certain sense of calling, the more I worked it out in my head.

These days, it’s my heart that’s wrestling with all that’s happening in my life. It’s been an interesting combination of responsibilities I’ve taken up since moving here – getting involved with folks that started up a niche magazine, volunteering as a “representative” of sorts for a human rights organization I’m still getting to know, figuring out how to tell stories through social media, and finally, writing, every single day, for it’s own sake.

I can hardly make sense of why I’m doing all that I do, let alone explain it to someone else. It’s always a long-winded sort of perambulation and so I leave out a lot of the little parts. Only here do I get to revel in the details.

This much I do know – being in Penang feels about as right as wearing a sock on my foot, bottom-side up. I’m where I need to be, but I have to get my toes and heel lined up correctly at the seams, first. Except I have no idea how I’m long it’ll take to get my socks on straight – they’re just,  at the very least, on.

Regardless of what I’m doing here, or why, for that matter, I’m getting more and more connected to this place. How deep my roots go, I don’t know, but they’re going. Like a plant filled with dry soil, I needed some rain today, and to my delight, it did. It was a sudden pour that somehow came down quietly, as though it wanted to keep it’s own falling a secret.

If nothing else, I feel more rooted with each passing day, planted more deeply to this place, this journey, than the day before. I don’t know in what way I’ll change while I’m here, or what I’ll end up actually pursuing in the long run. I just feel, something, and it’s too hard to explain. All I know is that it’s starting to grow.

The Problem With Work

What if we have it all wrong?

This notion that our work gives us our meaning. That is, the work that takes up our time, energy, and attention from 9 to 5, or whatever schedule that equates to an 8-hour work day.

Generation Y-ers are inundated with messages that promise us we’ll find work that best utilizes our skills, allows our talents to thrive, or help us find that amorphous purpose-giving activity we’ve been waiting for.

We are a hopeful generation, yes. The options before of us appear endless. The myriad of career paths beckon us to dive in and sample jobs like we’re figuring out what flavor of yogurt to order.

And yet, this self-serving buffet of employment options spoils us.

Because we’ve come to expect reward in return. We expect to gain meaning. We are determined to make something of ourselves because for us, we’ve grown to believe that success, through work, is not an option, but the only option.

Or is it?

Without needlessly deconstructing the ways in which we’ve been socialized  for years by our parents, our friends, our schools, the ads on TV, the ads everywhere, the books we read, the blogs we follow, or the tweets that remind us to “YOLO“…

In this country anyway, we’re told time and again that if we work hard enough, our wildest dreams are there for the taking. That we’re all afforded the chance to go to school for free, then if we’re good enough, we can finish school and be in debt, and if we’re good enough still, we can get a job and pay off that debt, and move up enough to finally start saving (for “something”), and then before we know it, we start questioning what it’s all really for…

At which point, we decide that our work, then, has to mean something. Right? Why else would bother toiling so hard for?

Why else would we spend our mornings trying to beat traffic just so we can get to our desk at a reasonable hour and do _______ for many hours, and do _______ as well as we can, as much as we can, so we can leave at a reasonable hour and beat traffic and get home and call it a day?

But what if, this: what if work was exactly just what it was – day in and day out, the coffee to stay awake, the Facebooking to stay sane, the e-mails to feel busy, the to-do list to check off slowly, the bad commute both ways, the getting-home-late for dinner, the catching-the-kids asleep…

What if it couldn’t break from that routine? What if, for some of us, the choices aren’t as endless as they first seem? Or that there are too many bills to way, mouths to feed, checks to cash, e-mails to send, people to please, people to help – that we can’t afford to do anything other than work with what we have. And so, work, remains, work.

Are we then resigned to a life of meaninglessness? Because our work is what it is?

Since when did our work become, ALL, that there is? 

When were we told that the meaning we could discover, could only be realized between the hours of 9am until 5pm?

What about the other hours of the day. The hours we spend waking, breathing, sitting, listening, eating, playing, loving, serving, laughing, building, and dreaming, when we’re not at our cubicle, not at our desk, not in the car, and not on the train?

What about the meaning in those moments?

(What about all these questions??)

Sure, there’s something to live for. There better be. But perhaps that thing worth living for, isn’t “work”.

Perhaps we won’t find it there, but in the deepest recesses of our soul, in the stillness we find in solitude, in the fellowship brought by our loved ones. Perhaps for some of us, that thing worth living for, the thing which helps makes sense of it all, isn’t where we’ve found ourselves constantly looking.

That is, on our computer screens, on our tablets, on our planners, or on our spreadsheets. It may not be on the feeds we’re subscribed to, on the e-mail newsletters we’ve signed up for, or in the pages of the latest self-help book on productivity.

It may be, that the work isn’t the end, but a means toward something more. It may be that the work means nothing at all. It may be that the conversation should shift beyond just work.

And when it does, we might find that there’s an abundance of purpose and meaning to be had, because there’s much need in this world, and much from us that is required, and so much, then, to be given, and what we needed to do was take that small risk of looking elsewhere, and listening.

 

On Goodness, Part 2

“We are blessed to have the privilege to serve others.  And it is a privilege.  There is no higher calling.

From that kernel of truth, I’ve no choice but to wonder: is it naïve to think that we might conceptualize our professional lives differently?  Is it possible that the question “what’s best for me, for my career, for my life?” should pale in comparison to the question “am I doing the most good I can possibly do?”

– Sasha Dichter, Acumen Fund

It felt appropriate, following my little ramble on goodness yesterday. Dichter’s whole entry is actually worth the read (http://sashadichter.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/the-spirit-of-service/) but I’m just going to zero in on this one snippet.

Do I re-conceptualize my work life?

Absolutely, and constantly. Dichter says a poignant thing when he talks about how, “We’re wired, fundamentally, only to experience fully the reality in front of us.”

This can’t be any truer in my case, when what is in front of me rotates between spreadsheets, databases, word documents, and social networking websites (hah!). So some of the more meaningful things I ingest are the inspiring nuggets of wisdom and truth I stumble upon on a TED talk challenging us to re-conceptualize what we do for living, and use our skills and talents, preferably, to serve others.

It’s the daily dose that gets me through.

The temptation of course, once I’ve dug myself deeper into the doldrums of administrative work (for a good non-profit, mind you), is to jump ship entirely, or re-think how I’d personally re-invent the wheel, saving myself (and maybe others) from a work-life that ought to have a “spirit of service” but instead, a soul-sucking means to an unidentifiable end.

Whether I like it or not, it begs that second question, of “what’s best for me, for my career, for my life?” when really, I should be asking the third: “am I doing the most good I can possibly do?”

And the answer to the latter, I find, is both yes, and no.

Yes, in the simple sense that I am doing what I’m paid to do, and doing it well (enough).  Here is where I am exercising some degree of self-grace. Given my position, for all its structure and limitation, I think I’m pushing back at the periphery and stretching out my bubble as far as I can.

No, in that there’s more to be done and I want to be one (of many) to do it. Beyond the expectations listed out in my job description, I’m after the liberating satisfaction of knowing that I’m putting forth my best and whole self, for the sake of furthering a best, and holistic, service.

There is simply too much work, and we’re running out of time. We’re running out of time, because too many kids are growing up too fast to know what it’s like to be a kid and have basic necessities of food and clean water, stable shelter and clothing. Too many youth are turning into adults without the right to education, without the fruitful experience of a job, and the rewarding experience of a paycheck. And yet, too many adults are growing older, faster, not knowing where their life had gone and what they had worked for other than to accrue wealth and share it with no one.

I admit, these are pretty broad generalizations and any adult can defensively, and understandably exclaim, “That’s not me!”. Fair enough. But even if we were all doing our part to at least see all children as our children, too many of those kids grow up never actually believing that they are cared for, that they belong. And I can’t blame them, either, for ever wondering why they weren’t.

I care for them to know, that we do, and that we’ll come through.

I do what I can, now, within the confines of my cubicle (pretty sure I’ve said that before), to advocate for the youth I know here at Covenant House, and the youth I’ll never meet, still on the street, still wondering if someone cares.

I do it by filling out spreadsheets with names of all the different adults who’ve expressed some degree of interest at caring, and I’ll bother them, over and over, about our work and the kids.

There will be a day wherein I’m no longer sorting columns and re-formatting letters of thanks. One day, I pray, I won’t have to make cold calls to anybody, though, I should probably  prepare myself for that really critical one I’ll have to make in the future to some CEO of some Fortune 500, waiting for someone just to ask.

The day that this work, is over, would simply mark the day that another work, for me, has begun. And I pray that on that day, I commit to doing even more good than I had before.