Thursday, January 29, 2015

'My Big Fat Fabulous Life' and Lessons in Pursuing Your (Writing) Passion

One of my recent guilty pleasures is the TLC show My Big Fat Fabulous Life. The show follows the life of Whitney Thore, a self-proclaimed 'fat ass and bad ass'. She has always been passionate about dancing but after gaining 200 pounds in just one yearpartially due to Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)she realized that she must now deal with a new normal. This means loving her body the way it is and not being constrained by it in spite of what social norms dictate. The show also highlights the tension between Whitney's desire to love the body she has now and her acknowledgement that she needs to strive for a healthier weight.

My Big Fat Fabulous Life
Image by: tvequals

I admit that I was drawn to this show because I have had a long and deep history of body hate and poor self-image. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with weight. Though I was never extremely obese, even as a child I was 'round', 'chubby', slightly 'fuller' compared to my peers. Nine years ago, I was also diagnosed with PCOS, though not as severe as what's talked about in the show. Fortunately, I don't have too high of a testosterone level to make me grow a beard, although in my teens up until before getting pregnant, I dealt with highly irregular menstruation, and of course, infertility. 

I was also struck by one episode where Whitney's dad talked to her about not being able to find a man to marry because of her weight. I remember having a similar talk with my father when I was in college where, during a 'moment of weakness' (let's just put it that way), he told me that unless I lose weight and become 'slim', no 'quality' man would fall in love with me and take me seriously. It left me angry, hurt and scarred for life.

I admire Whitney for being comfortable in her body and truly wish I could have the same attitude about mine. While being inspired by her story and her attitude as portrayed on the show, it dawned on me that how she lives her life can be applied to my writing as well. As a matter of fact, anyone who's pursuing a passion can apply these same lessons, regardless of what that passion is. 

1. Whitney has the courage to show who she really is, regardless of what others think of her or whether or not she measures up to others' expectations. 

She lives her life authentically by pursuing her passion for dance and she shows up with no shame. When she dances, it's not her size that strikes you, but the joy and dedication she exude. This is possibly why students continue to show up at her classes, learning from her and finding inspiration.

Having an authentic voice is something all writers should continuously apply and strive for. It's not always easy. Ideas don't always magically show up but I know that discipline is an integral part of the equation if we want to keep doing what we love and do it with love. You may not be as good or as well-known as other writers out there, but finding your own voice and writing about things you truly believe make you relevant. Keep showing up as YOU with all that you have now instead of being defeated by a sense of lack.

2. Her focus is not on being liked but rather on living her life to the fullest, refusing to be constrained by possible criticism or unpopularity.

Whitney knows that when she goes out, there's always a risk that someone will call her names, stare at her with disdain, and spew poisonous words all because of how she looks. She doesn't let this keep her from going out and doing what she wants to do, whether it be dancing, modelling, or wearing a two-piece bathing suit in public.  

As a writer, there's always the temptation to focus on getting more readers or followers on social media, and you may end up retreating from certain topics that you feel may not make you as likable, or as popular. Sometimes we also don't dare to go beyond our comfort zone for fear of being criticized or attacked for expressing our genuine views. But allowing ourselves to be held hostage by such fears only stunt our growth and certainly diminish our authenticity. Let's take in Deepak Chopra's wise words: 
" all my research, the greatest leaders looked inward and were able to tell a good story with authenticity and passion."

3. Yes, she gets affected, and sometimes hurt by strangers unfairly judging her based solely on her weight; people making assumptions about the kind of person she is when they know nothing about her health issues and lifestyle. But I haven't seen her stoop to their level and instead does her best to stay calm and take the high road.

As a writer/blogger, it's not uncommon to encounter haters online. Instead of being able to constructively criticize and diplomatically disagree, some people would rather leave nasty comments that aim to attack not only your ideas but your personhood. In such situations, it's wiser to brush it off and walk away. You can't make everyone happy anyway, neither is it your job to do so as a writer. 

4.  On a recent episode, Whitney was trying to work out with a trainer and was challenged to do the burpee. She started out thinking she couldn't do it but eventually decided to take little steps until she could accomplish the task. Instead of focusing on executing the routine perfectly (which in effect would have kept her from even trying), she poured her energy on simply trying, taking it one step at a time.

Each writing piece, or any end result you are trying to produce, doesn't have to be brilliant and perfect all the time. What's important is that you show up, take the first step and keep at it. Don't get overwhelmed by the idea of a grand and perfect end result. Break it down into manageable steps and give yourself credit for all the accomplishments, no matter how small. That's the only way to build confidence which will motivate you to keep going.

5. Her goals are clear to her—to keep dancing, which is her passion, and at the same time reach a healthier weightand she surrounds herself with people who love and support her, and most of all, push her when she gets derailed or discouraged.

The truth is, it's challenging to keep pursuing something we love and sustains us when we don't have a support system. No matter who you are or what aspirations you have, it's essential that you have someone who anchors you, someone who genuinely loves you and will have the courage to tell you honestly when you are failing and also have the capacity to celebrate your successes with you.

So what does having a positive body image have in common with pursuing your passion, and in this case, blogging/writing? It's confidence! I understand it's easier said than done but it's a mental practice and takes consistency. Just don't give up!

Have you seen the show? What lessons have inspired you?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Night an Angel Came to Bowl

The bowling alley was packed. The line kept building up as more groups came, waiting for lanes to become available. Our family was just lucky enough to have made it in time, before the crowds started to pour in.

To the right of our lane was a group of friends in their late 20s. To our left was another family with small children. Noah was clearly enjoying the game and I remember feeling tired in spite of the fun. My son just kept going, eager to learn how to throw the ball properly, while I kept wishing the two games would end soon. Beyond ten frames, my arm and shoulder felt significantly weaker and each swing just got sloppier and sloppier to the point where my seven year old was scoring better than I was.

Just when I was starting to feel crappy and thought the night was becoming too boring for me, a young ladyin her late 20s perhapsapproached my son. I'm not sure if she was part of the group to our right or if she was just seated on the bar stools behind our lane but where ever she came from, she singled out my son. In her hands was a HUGE pile of arcade tickets. I can't even begin to tell you how many tickets she had but it almost seemed like she had an entire roll. It was so unbelievable that for a moment I thought she worked there and just grabbed the tickets from the back office!

"Do you want these?", she asked my son with her kind, friendly voice.

My son was standing roughly three feet away from me and I could see that he was too stunned to respond. He stretched his arms to receive the tickets as I heard my husband, who was standing next to him, say, "Sure! Thank you!"

As the lady started to walk away, I thanked her too and reminded my son to say thanks as well.  

"Oh, you're welcome!", she said with a sweet smile.

Image by: Lisa Padilla

Noah still couldn't believe what had just happened and said, "Mama, at first I thought she was kidding! That's why I couldn't say anything". 

We couldn't believe it either. At that point, my husband and I just kept telling Noah how remarkably nice that stranger was, and how lucky he is that he was chosen from among the many children who were around. 

After emphasizing to my son how blessed he is to experience such a touching random act of kindness and generosity, I told him to pay it forward. I suggested that he take a certain amount from the roll and share it with the kids next to our lane. 

My son was excited to do so and he went with his dad to hand a long strip of tickets over to the other family. They were very happy and grateful as well.

When we went to the machine to check the value of the tickets and see what we can exchange them for, we calculated that they were AT LEAST $50. We had a total of 899 points to exchange after feeding all the tickets into the machine. Instead of just ending up with the usual 'good-as-junk' flimsy, plastic toys that one gets from the glass encasement after every trip to the arcade, Noah was able to take home a stuffed toy bear, a toy gun, a small football and some stickers...the most he's ever gotten!

But this experience gets even more amazing at this point. After Noah got his toys, the same stranger who gave us the tickets was lined up to claim something for herself. She had 150 points left to claim and when she saw us, she even offered us her remaining points! We graciously declined and before finally stepping out, I tapped her shoulder one last time and said, "Thank you so much. We REALLY appreciate it!"

I don't think any of us will ever forget what happened. If I could have one crazy wish granted right now, it would be for that wonderful stranger to come across this post and know that for at least one night, she was someone's fairy godmother, a family's angel even! She transformed at least one family's ordinary night into one filled with a deep sense of gratitude, our tired bodies suddenly invigorated by her inspiring generosity, and our cynical souls left believing again that there's hope for humanity.

Any random act of kindness is never too small. I may never be able to personally tell that stranger of the real gifts she gave us that night. But I hope anyone who reads this realizes that such acts of kindness inevitably create sacred spaces where wonderful gifts manifest and multiply. She didn't only give us tickets. She awakened and transformed us. She shared her light, and this is light we shall carry, with the hope that we can continue transforming the ordinary into something extraordinary through utter generosity.

Our lives are not our own. 

We are bound to others, past and present, 

and by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.

(David Mitchell---Cloud Atlas) 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

It's Not Just a Confession

Image by: Michael Coghlan

"Bless me Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was...."

I still remember the confessionals, those boxes of terror that lined both sides of the parish church we used to go to when I was a child. Growing up in the Philippines, the Sacrament of Confession (also now known as Penance or Reconciliation,) was done during the Sunday Mass. I remember that during the service, whenever I knew I needed to go to confession, I would keep glancing at the confessionals to see which priest would enter the 'box' and administer the sacrament. Since I attended Sunday Mass consistently at the time, I knew which priests had a reputation for being strict and scary, and which ones where more approachable and, shall we say, 'gentle' as far as assigning penance before granting absolution. Being required the trio of praying the entire rosary, giving alms AND fasting was considered bad news compared to simply being required to say three Hail Mary's and the Act of Contrition. One had to choose well. And if you can time your confessionif only to guarantee ending up with the 'nice' priestthen do so to the best of your ability!

I remember the trepidation I felt during my very first confession...and each and every one thereafter. It was held in our school chapel and the nuns made sure we were adequately prepared for this sacrament. (Translate: The idea of a policing God who keeps scores was well-ingrained in this Catholic girl's mind.) I recall seeing some classmates who went before me, sobbing while confessing. I think I teared up a little bit but I'm not sure now if it was because I felt touched by the Holy Spirit or more because of my sense of shame after I just admitted my faults and inadequacies to a complete stranger. 

And in the spirit of coming cleanthis is about confession, after allI might as well admit that one of my most embarrassing life events also happened during confession. You know those movie scenes where the character enters the confessional, all hyped up to come clean as she emotionally enumerates her sins, only to eventually find out that the priest wasn't there yet when she started?? Yes, that was me. To make matters worse, the priest knew of my overeagerness because he was actually there, but attending to another penitent on the other side. Silly me, I didn't even notice that the screen divider wasn't open yet and that it was way too quiet while I was wasting all my words and all that emotive outpouring. When the screen finally slid open and the priest started to speak, I knew that he knew because I swear I heard a slight giggle in his voice. That could just be my paranoia talking but I'm pretty sure I left that priest shaking his head. Not only did I start without him, in the end, when he gave me my penance and asked that I recite the Act of Contrition right there and then, I had to admit to him that I hadn't memorized the prayer. He probably couldn't understand how someone who seemed overly excited to confess could show up so unprepared for penance. Sometimes I really just surprise myself at how much humiliation I'm capable of! Suffice it to say that this sacrament has never been a favorite of mine and one that I continue to avoid at all costs to this day.

This week, it'll be my son's turn. He will receive this very same sacrament for the first time. It made me smile and gave me peace of mind when I read the memo that parents should take this opportunity to teach the children that God is not a law-enforcer, but instead one who is about kindness, friendship and unconditional love. I'm happy that my son is learning this now and won't grow up with a sense of fear towards a God who only keeps scores and takes only perfection. 

Another positive thing I noticed was that his religious education class and the Church now refer to the sacrament as 'Reconciliation' rather than 'Confession'. As a matter of fact, my son had no idea what I meant when I first referred to it as 'confession'. I do think 'reconciliation' sounds more inviting, less authoritative and not at all one-sided. To me, it focuses more on a mutual process of making amends, forgiveness and a moving forward from both sides.

Asking for forgiveness is anything but easy. To ask for forgiveness necessitates the grace of humility. To admit one's own wrong-doing inevitably breaks through any illusions of perfection we may have about ourselves. It requires a willingness to be vulnerable because you need to open yourself up to dig deep and acknowledge your failings, both to your self as well as to the one you ask forgiveness from.

This is also why at the heart of asking for forgiveness lies courage. It is as much about our courage to acknowledge our flaws, as it is about our courage in confronting the possibility that forgiveness is never guaranteed when we ask for it. There's always that risk.

However, during this time when my son is about to go through this sacrament, I assured him that God's love and capacity to forgive is way beyond what he can imagine. I told him that God knows he will still make mistakes in the future but what's important is for him to sincerely want to do better. That's what gives meaning to the act of asking for forgiveness. In the end, I believe that's what God wants for all of us. It's not flawlessness, but that we simply never lose our internal compass that shows us not just what is right from wrong, but most importantly points us toward the direction of the best version of our selves. 

I wish my son much courage as he goes through this rite of passage. Most of all, I pray that he feels deep in his soul how this sacrament has nothing to do with fear, nor shame, and is really all about Love and Compassion.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Clean Up to Blog Better

I love organizing. And while a lot of people are busy these first few days of the new year trying to organize their homes and their schedules, it occurred to me that a similar kind of clean-up can also benefit my life as a blogger/ writer. If you're anything like mefinding it harder than expected to kick-start your writing this new yearthese three simple steps might just do the trick. At the very least, it gives you something concrete to start working on. Incorporating these practical habits into your routine will help bring you closer to your goal of becoming a more focused and committed blogger.

1. Clean your physical work space

I understand that different people have different work styles and preferences. But personally, I just function better when I have an organized and relatively calming surrounding. So for the past few days, I've taken the time to get rid of the holiday mess that seemed to have piled up in my office. Gift ribbons, holiday wrappers, greeting cards, bills, and junk mail all had to be either put away or shredded. I needed my desk to breathe again and for the surface to show. The simple reality is that the more organization I saw, the less distraction I had, allowing me to focus more on the real work ahead.

2. Clean your virtual space

As a writer / blogger, I spend an insane amount of time on the computer writing my essays and engaging in a host of other activities that go with online publishing: research, reading other articles for inspiration, gathering blog images, and looking at publication opportunities, among other things. On a typical day, you'd see my computer screen with no less than five tabs open (and that's being very conservative) and most of the time, I end up bookmarking various sites for future reference. Though I've created folders and subfolders with even more subfolders in an attempt to organize these gazillion bookmarks, I've found that it has simply gone out of control. It was time to clean this space if I want to be able to work more efficiently and pull out my writing resources more quickly when needed. Some links were too old and were no longer active sites and therefore had to be deleted. The same goes for the publication opportunities with expired deadlines. Some links were misfiled or mislabeled and therefore had to be moved to the proper folder. 

Starting this year, I also decided to create and work off of an editorial calendar. Yes, believe it or not, I've never made one for myself all these years but have now discovered its advantages. It's never too late to at least try to do better, even for someone who's been doing this for roughly six years! For one, I'd be forced to plan ahead instead of perpetually torturing myself to come up with topics to write about. Using an editorial calendar will also (hopefully) make me more disciplined as it puts more structure into my weekly schedule, guiding me with tasks that I need to focus on (e.g. writing fresh content for Catharsis, revisiting evergreen content, submitting existing or new material for publication to other sites or anthologies). If you need ideas to spruce up your editorial calendar, you might want to check out this Pinterest board by Susan Maccarelli of Beyond Your Blog. It's a valuable resource.

All this virtual space organization took (and will continue to take) a lot of time and patience but I knew this clean-up had to be done and needs a constant renewal of commitment if I want to fulfill my promise to myself to become a more organized and focused blogger starting this year.

3. Clean your mental clutter

This is the most important and most challenging clean-up involved if you are serious about being better at your craft. To me, it's not so much as simply being able to concentrate and remain focused in order to accomplish my writing. More importantly, it's the need to rid my mind of the unnecessary noise, the mental obstacles that make 'wanting' and 'planning' too comfortable for me, and as a result keep me from 'doing', 'executing'. These noises or voices are the ones telling me that I shouldn't write unless it's perfect, or highly profound, relevant, something other editors will love and end up publishing on their sites; the ones telling me that my voice is not unique, that I'll never be as good as those other writers, or that no one listens and that none of this matters.

I know that the voice I need to amplify is the one that says I just need to keep writing and stop judging myself. Each of us has a story to tell. It doesn't have to be highly dramatic, heartbreaking or remarkably life-altering. Having some form of trauma, abuse or some unusual life story are not prerequisites to good writing. All that's needed is authenticity, the courage to write YOUR story, YOUR truth, in YOUR own voice. That is all, and that's the best place to start from.

Which of these techniques work for you? Are there other 'clean-ups' that help you blog more efficiently?