the first half of twenty-fourteen: can a person really change?

Monday, June 30: At the beginning of every year, I’m always hopeful and enthusiastic about the chance to change myself, to become a better person, a more caring person, a more successful person.  I make goals for myself. I want to succeed, I really do.  But I wonder if I can ever really change.  Can I change my true nature or am I doomed to continue to fall back into my old habits, into the person I really am deep inside?

I resolved to be FOCUSED this year.  Granted, the year isn’t over yet, but as of the halfway point, I’ll recap where I am.  Not very focused, I admit.

One of the things I didn’t make a resolution about was my photography.  However, I had some nice things happen with my photography this year.  First, I joined the Vienna Photographic Society.  This is a group of hobbyists, most of whom are excellent photographers. I was inspired to push myself to excel, but ultimately, I realize I don’t have the technical expertise to be in their league.  I’m not even sure I want to have that much technical expertise. Neither do I have Photoshop, nor do I do much in the way of post-processing.  I understand now that many professional photographers do extensive post-processing. Maybe one day I’ll get into this, but at this point I don’t have the drive to attain such a level of accomplishment.

Each month the club has novice and advanced intra-club competitions in general photography and in themed contests using trained and experienced local photographers as judges.  I’m always in the novice category.

In my first competition, I won third place in the novice category for this picture.

Blue boats in Pokhara
Blue boats in Pokhara

In another competition, I won first place in the novice category for this picture “Our Soul is a Spray Can,” taken in Cascais, Portugal.  At the end of the year, when the club gave awards to everyone who entered competitions during the year, I also won Honorable Mention for this picture.

My Soul is a Spray Can
Our Soul is a Spray Can

In a PSA (Photographic Society of America) National competition for Nature, Round 2, I got 10 points for this picture of Acacia Trees in Lake Langano, Ethiopia. This meant it went on to the next round of judging, but I ultimately didn’t win anything.

Acacia trees at Lake Langano
Acacia trees at Lake Langano

One of the things I enjoyed doing was a 20-minute presentation to the club on Oman.  I put together a slide show about Oman and told stories about my life there.  I got a lot of compliments on this presentation and I loved doing it. 🙂

One of over 80 photos I showed in a 20 minute presentation on Oman
One of over 80 photos I showed in a 20 minute presentation on Oman

I also joined Instagram and have been posting a lot of my pictures on there.  At one point I started tagging my photos #natgeotravelpics.  This hashtag put my photos into National Geographic Travel magazine’s Instagram feed.  One week, they featured this photo and it got well over 20,000 likes and I got a lot of new followers on Instagram. It was a lot of fun for a couple of days.

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia
Hot air balloons in Cappadocia

Finally, I entered a photo competition at the Vienna Community Center, which was open to the public.  I won third prize in Architecture for this photo of the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Grand Mosque

It’s clear where I focused most of my energies!  Below are the goals I set on January 1, 2014.  As you can see, I seemed to FOCUS more on my photography than on the goals I actually set for myself. 🙂

1.  Pitch a travel article to at least one publication every week, beginning after January 13.

This is one goal I haven’t taken any steps toward achieving.  I started with an idea for the Washington Post Travel Section about a crazy trip I took from the chaotic spiritual city of Varanasi to the chill yoga capital of India, Rishikesh.  The story, already written in my blog, was about 12,000 words.  The Washington Post Travel Section seemed the perfect place for this story because they often publish personal experience stories. However, they do not take unsolicited pitches.  You can send a full story and they’ll decide if they like it and are interested in buying it.  But the word count on their stories must be from 1,500 to 2,500 words.  Mine required a LOT of cutting.  Besides, they generally don’t want to look at a story over a year old, and my story was from 2011.  I thought they might consider a story if it was  timeless, as mine was, so I worked on it for a while, cutting and cutting, until I got down to 5,000 words.  Still way too long.  Then I just abandoned it, slowly at first, as I continued to mull it over, and then all at once, as I dropped it altogether.  That was the only article I even attempted to write.

Why am I so easily waylaid?

Probably because I’m not sure I really want to be a travel writer.  I’m not interested in having to work on my holidays!  I want to enjoy, soak up the culture and the sights.  I want to enjoy the food and wine and the experience.  Travel writing is a job.  I’m not sure I want to make a job out of something I love doing for its own sake.

2.  Finish revising my novel by the end of February.  Spend March figuring out what steps to take to get it published and take those steps.  Begin a new book after I get that process underway.

I didn’t quite make my February deadline.  I did however finish my novel in May. Finally!  A dear friend of mine read it and gave me some great feedback.  I even came up with a title, The Scattering Dreams of Stars.  So most of the work is done.

The next step is to send out query letters to agents.  I wrote numerous drafts of a query letter and I posted a draft on a forum where fellow writers critique query letters.  Mine got ripped to shreds.  After many efforts to capture the essence of my story in a short two paragraphs, and to write a captivating hook, I let it sit.  And sit.  And sit some more. I have two friends who have offered to edit the letter, and I’ve made another attempt, but I’m still not happy with it.

I’ve decided it’s harder to write two paragraphs than to write a 350 page novel.  Some people say they write the hook and the summarizing paragraph before they write their novel.  Maybe I should have done that; it would have helped me to be more focused.

My goal is to finish that query letter and send it to agents in the next two months.  Oh dear.  Again, why am I so easily thrown off track, and sometimes by the simplest of setbacks?

As far as being a full-time writer, I now remember what I don’t enjoy about it.  During the last 6 months, while I took off the semester to write, I felt isolated and antsy.  It hit me that I function better with a schedule.  I need to get up in the morning and go to a job.  I need to interact with people.  I do better getting out and about, being around people, being accountable to someone.  I’m the kind of person who needs to squeeze in writing during the down times of a busy life.

3. Apply for at least 3 jobs a week in international development until I get one (Painful).

Yes, it was as painful as I thought it would be.  I applied for 40 jobs in the U.S. and after getting no response from any of them, I started putting feelers out abroad.  Even though I matched job descriptions exactly, I didn’t even get an acknowledgement on most of my applications.

As it’s very time-consuming to apply for jobs these days, I got disheartened very quickly.  It used to be you could send a resume and a cover letter, but these days, applicants must often fill out online applications, completing every detail of your job history on each company’s website.  It’s so ridiculous.  What’s LinkedIn for, anyway? I think there should be one central place where you post your resume and you can download from that central place to a company’s website.  You go through this cumbersome process and then you never hear ANYTHING back!  It’s so frustrating.

Finally, I got sick of never getting any acknowledgement and spending so much time spinning my wheels for nothing.  I don’t know the reason I don’t get short-listed.  Some people have told me I’m overqualified.  Others have told me I’m not qualified enough.  Or I don’t match every single qualification.  I have transferable skills, but employers seem to want you to have worked in that particular job, and they seem to want you to have no ambition to move from that job.  Also, there are so many young people with Master’s degrees in International Relations coming from the big schools in the area: George Washington University, Georgetown University, American University, Johns Hopkins.  Why would they hire an older person when they can hire a young person fresh out of college?

While I was in Oman, a woman contacted me through my Nizwa blog because she was considering working for the University of Nizwa. She ended up taking a job in China.  I wrote to ask about possible jobs at her university and she told me they had just instituted a mandatory retirement age of 60.  As I started looking at jobs in China, I saw many jobs with an age limit of 60. I figured since I only have one more year to work in China, I would focus my job search there.  I’ve always wanted to teach in China for a couple of reasons: 1) Asian students in general are hard-working and 2) there are a lot of amazing things to see in China.  I focused my job search there and in one week I had four interviews and I got three offers.  I accepted an offer to teach at SCIC (Sino-Canadian International Colleges), Guangxi University in Nanning, the capital city of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  It’s not far from Vietnam and about a 3 1/2 hour bus ride from Guilin, where the movie The Painted Veil was filmed.

In all, I applied for 70 jobs, beginning my job search when I returned from California at the end of January and ending on June 13, when I got the offer from GXU.  That was 21 weeks at over 3 jobs a week. I believe my days of trying to find a job in the U.S. are over.  It just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Since I can’t get a job in my country, I’m thankful that someone will hire me from foreign lands.  Looks like I’m going to China!  Nǐ hǎo!!

4. Post no more than two posts a week to my blog. (This will be one of the hardest to keep!)

I actually did this.  I’ve posted 52 posts in 26 weeks, about two a week. I have neglected my fellow bloggers though, and for this I feel bad. 😦

5. Continue my explorations of the East Coast over the next year, after my trip to California in early January.  Venture to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, West Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee (Ann Patchett territory!).  Take a road trip.  And if I can get a job, or make some money freelancing, go to Costa Rica or one of the Caribbean islands. Pitch local travel articles to publications further afield.

I haven’t been to any of these places.  However, I am planning a trip to New Hampshire this week. 🙂

6. Read a lot: short stories, novels, the craft of writing, travel writing.

I love to read, so this has been easy.  I’ve read 22 books, mostly books on writing and novels.

7. Walk at least 5 times a week and eat healthier and smaller quantities of food.

I’ve been really good about the walking, but not so good about the eating smaller quantities of food.  I managed to lose 6 pounds, but then I gained back 4, so I’m only two pounds down from where I started.  Here’s a chart of my weight, which seems a kind of metaphor for my life.  I always end up right back where I started from!

My weight as a metaphor for my life
My weight as a metaphor for my life

In a way, I feel relieved to be going abroad again.  Taking a job here in the U.S. probably wouldn’t have allowed me to travel.  Besides, starting a new job in a corporation or a non-profit at this point would mean starting with only 2-3 weeks of vacation per year.  Teaching abroad allows me to have both the cultural immersion I crave and to have extensive time off to travel in the region where I’m based.  Overall, it’s a great solution to all my problems.  As I only have about 9 more years to work before I retire, and I still have my health, I may as well take advantage of teaching abroad.  Besides, my kids are nowhere close to settling down, getting married or having kids; by the time they are, I should be back in the U.S., ready to settle down and enjoy the extended family.  And best of all, they’re supportive of me having my adventures while I’m still young enough to have them!

The other thing I miss about being abroad are the expats and foreigners one meets when thrown into a foreign country.  Everyone is an adventurer of some sort.  Being in the U.S., I’m tired of having people’s eyes glaze over when I share my experiences living abroad.  I love the fellow nomads that tend to gravitate to each other in foreign lands. In addition, you meet wonderful natives of the country where you are a guest.  Two of my closest friends in Korea, Julie and Kim, were Koreans.  And I miss dearly friends I’ve made abroad, friends the likes of which I don’t have here in America.  I miss Mario, Sandy, Tahira, Kathy, Anna, Mona Lisa, Seth & Anna, Myrna… and the list goes on.  We share a common experience no one else will ever understand.

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RESOLVED 2014!!! FOCUS

Wednesday, January 1:  Happy New Year!!  It’s that time of year again, time to get on track with life!  I’m always enthusiastic about turning the calendar to an untarnished new year, and getting a fresh start on what I hope will be the life of my dreams.  However, I know it’s a challenge to keep myself disciplined.  Accomplishing my New Year’s Resolutions in past years has always been a mixed bag.  I achieve some of what I set out to do, and other things I don’t even touch.

“If you have the capacity to be more than one thing, do everything that’s inside of you.” ~ Bishop T. D. Jakes

This is the problem.  I want to do everything that’s inside of me.  And because of that, I actually never get anything done!

I am like the Cathy in the cartoon of the same name.  I’m the Cathy of a million brilliant possibilities.

I am pretty good at many things, but not great at any one thing.  I can write fairly well and I can do statistical or financial analysis.  I can figure out Excel spreadsheets or Word documents.  I can live abroad or at home.  I am filled with wanderlust and, alternately, with homebody tendencies.  I love solitude and intimate social gatherings.  I can help organize U.N. delegations to Middle East Peace Conferences (Annapolis 2007) or help organize events for the Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice 2008) or organize debates among students. I can teach adults or children; I can teach Koreans, Omanis, Saudis, Vietnamese, Americans or Mongolians.   I can do diligent research and draw overarching conclusions, or I can wander around dreamily through foreign lands.  I can exercise religiously or I can lazily sit around reading a good book for hours.  I can take pretty good pictures, but I’m too impatient to actually learn how to improve.  I can be incredibly organized, or I can be a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants operator.  I can study a foreign language until I’m blue in the face, scoring well on written tests, but I can never gain any facility with the language.  I am an excellent student, always.  I have been a reporter, a banker, a stockbroker, an intern (State Department), an intern again (MSI), an English teacher and an ESL teacher.  And of course a mom.  Let’s not forget that.

I have a B.A. in English and an M.A. in International Commerce & Policy.  I have ESL and Virginia teaching certificates.  I have written a novel from start to finish.  I have written short stories and poems and research papers and blogs.  I have worked as a cash control “banker” at Busch Gardens and as a bank teller, a loan officer and a credit analyst. I am pretty good with numbers and pretty good with words, but not great at either.  What does one do with such a broad sweep of mediocre abilities, and such a variety of interests?

Staying close to home this year.  There's plenty to explore in the Americas.
Staying close to home this year. There’s plenty to explore in the Americas.

The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone.  It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean.  ~ Toni Morrison

I admit now to stealing a great idea.  I read about this idea on someone else’s blog.  This person, I can’t even remember who (sorry!), advised people to choose a word for the year.  After a great deal of thought, here’s what I’ve come up with:

FOCUS

“What you focus on expands, and when you focus on the goodness in your life, you create more of it. Opportunities, relationships, even money flowed my way when I learned to be grateful no matter what happened in my life.”  ~ Oprah Winfrey

When I met Annette of Beauty Along the Road in Monterey, Virginia this fall, she inspired me to give some serious thought about what I really want to do. Annette and I brainstormed many ideas and when I left her, a lot of possibilities were floating through my head.  At the time we met, I was feeling frustrated with my teaching job, and felt horribly depressed at the thought of continuing to teach.  The college-level students I was teaching were immature, disrespectful and entitled, and I frankly hated teaching them.  I believe I shouldn’t have to deal with classroom management issues in college-level classes; the classes I taught felt like teaching middle school, and if I wanted to teach middle school, I could go to work for Fairfax County Public Schools and make a lot more money.  Not that I want to do that, believe me.  Not only was the pay extremely low after being paid well working abroad, but the hours were longer and the job was more demanding, thus leaving little time to devote to what I really love.

If you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.  ~ Howard Thurman

What I love is writing.

Now of course I know that trying to become a published writer is a difficult road.  Most people have to have a day job to support their writing habit.  But I was inspired by Ann Patchett in her fabulous book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.  She always knew she wanted to be a writer.  She built her whole life around that purpose, and looked for a job which would pay the bills but not impinge on her free time.  She knew teaching would drain her of her own creativity, so she became a waitress, and then a freelance writer for Seventeen.  That was how she paid her bills, until she made it big with her novel Bel Canto.

She has some words of wisdom for aspiring writers:  “Even if I don’t believe in writer’s block, I certainly believe in procrastination.  Writing can be frustrating and demoralizing, and so it’s only natural that we try to put if off.  But don’t give “putting it off” a magic label.  Writer’s block is out of our control, like a blocked kidney.  We are not responsible.  We are however, entirely responsible for procrastination and, in the best of all possible worlds, should also be responsible for being honest with ourselves about what’s really going on.”

I have to stop procrastinating (though I’ve never called it “writer’s block,” because I don’t believe in it either).

Besides my desire to write, I also have the desire to travel. The one good thing about teaching ESL, the only good thing, was that I was able to live abroad, and to travel extensively.  But am I willing to put up with one to have the other?  Maybe I have no choice, but I’d like to create another option.  Carol of The Eternal Traveller inspired me to try a Travel Writing Course from the Australian Writers’ Centre in November.  I completed it and now am armed with some knowledge about the process.  I know, I know, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

I loved living and working abroad, but now, I can’t do that because of family matters.  So, I would like to use my hard-earned Master’s degree to find a job in international development.  At least I could feel like I was contributing to something I care about.  So if I need to work to pay the bills because I can’t make any money in writing, then I need to find a job I love, a job that has meaning to me, and a job that I don’t have to take home with me.

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.  I want to know what you ache for, and if you dream of meeting your heart’s longing. ~ Oriah

With all that in mind, I’ve decided to take off from teaching next semester.  Yes, I’m quitting my job, at least for spring 2014.  That gives me 6 months to be FOCUSED.  Because if I don’t get something else going here, then I’m doomed to continue teaching.  That is NOT the option I want for myself.

Ultimately, I know I don’t have control over whether I get anything published or not, but I do know that I will certainly never get anything published if my work is sitting on my computer unseen by anyone else.  I also know that I will not get a new job unless I am applying for jobs.  I just can’t see strangers knocking at my door begging me to come to work for them.  I have to actively sell myself, sell my writing, sell my ideas: a very unpleasant business all around, and a terrifying one.

I went through this business of applying for jobs in 2008-2009, for nine grueling and demoralizing months.  I had just finished my Master’s and I thought I would easily get a job. After all, before I became a full-time mom for 15 years, I had never had trouble getting any job I wanted. However, after 250 job applications, I had 5 interviews and 1 internship, which lasted for 9 months at Management Systems International, until I got hired to teach English in Korea.  Believe me, I don’t relish the idea of doing this again.  But my alternative is to stay stuck in a job that pays nothing and goes nowhere and drains me of all my energy.  I have to do it again.  I have no choice.

In order to stay focused, I need to cut back on my blogging because, although I love blogging, it can be addictive and time-consuming.  I’m addicted to it because it gives me immediate gratification; I can see the stats and encouraging comments that push me to write more.  Blogging serves one purpose in that it gets me writing, taking photos, pushing the boundaries of my world by trying to see it in a different light.  It also gives me encouragement and helps me gain confidence, something I find hard to come by.  But. It isn’t contributing to my goal of getting articles, or my book, published.  And it certainly is not going to get me a job.

So, to keep things simple, here are my seven FOCUSED resolutions for 2014.

1.  Pitch a travel article to at least one publication every week, beginning after January 13.

Multitudes of travel publications.  Surely there's one that will take my work. :-)
Multitudes of travel publications. Surely there’s one that will take my work. 🙂

2.  Finish revising my novel by the end of February.  Spend March figuring out what steps to take to get it published and take those steps.  Begin a new book after I get that process underway.

3. Apply for at least 3 jobs a week in international development until I get one (Painful).

4. Post no more than two posts a week to my blog. (This will be one of the hardest to keep!)

5. Continue my explorations of the East Coast over the next year, after my trip to California in early January.  Venture to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, West Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee (Ann Patchett territory!).  Take a road trip.  And if I can get a job, or make some money freelancing, go to Costa Rica or one of the Caribbean islands. Pitch local travel articles to publications further afield.

Staying close to home, with a possible (?) trip to Costa Rica... :-)
Staying close to home, with a possible (?) trip to Costa Rica… 🙂

6. Read a lot: short stories, novels, the craft of writing, travel writing.

7. Walk at least 5 times a week and eat healthier and smaller quantities of food.

walks near home
walks near home

At first dreams seem impossible, then improbable, then inevitable. ~ Christopher Reeve

“If you want to write, practice writing.  Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say.” ~ Ann Patchett

“Forgiveness…it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.  Every time I set out to translate the book…that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper, … I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence.  Every.  Single.  Time. … I do believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.  Forgiveness, therefore, is key.  I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.”  ~ Ann Patchett in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

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Ultimately, my dream is to combine writing and travel somehow, either by planning and offering writing retreats in far-flung parts of the globe, or by going abroad for several months at a time and writing like my life depended on it.  Writing retreats would combine my natural teaching ability, my wanderlust, and my writing dreams.  However, I feel the first step is to get published, so I can establish some credentials, and some credibility.  One step at time…..

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