here’s looking at you, twenty-seventeen

“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”
– C.S. Lewis

Twenty-seventeen.  I like the sound of it.  Three-hundred-sixty-five days, each offering possibilities. Or at least invitations to take small steps here and there.

 “The days are long, but the years are short.” ~ Gretchen Rubin

I’m a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions, or, better yet, Intentions.  I always have been, although my success at achieving them is about as good as anyone else’s.  Still.  I love to dream.  If the day ever comes when I stop dreaming, I might as well call it quits.

Philadelphia Museum of Art - Perelman Building
Philadelphia Museum of Art – Perelman Building

I have a long list of resolutions that cover a wide array of categories: education, health & fitness, finances, household projects, spiritual & cultural growth.  I use the same categories every year, written in a large bound periwinkle-colored book full of blank pages. At the beginning of each new year, I write: Cathy’s 2017 Resolutions (or whatever year it is) and then I tape a copy of 2017 Yearly Horoscope: Scorpio (which rarely holds any truth in its predictions).  At the end of each year, I evaluate what I did and didn’t do (no rewards or punishments necessary), clip together the pages of the old year, and close it out. It’s my method, and I enjoy the process.  I love the bulk of those years of resolutions, some met and some not. My periwinkle book of wishes and dreams.

Urban hiking in Philadelphia
Urban hiking in Philadelphia

It has taken me a long time in life to figure out what’s most important to me, but now that I know what lights my fire, my intention for twenty-seventeen is to focus on the things I love, to expand on them and to delve deeper, to let the full expression of them bloom.

a tree-lined path near the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia
a tree-lined path near the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia

These are the things that set my heart on fire: inspirational and creative travel, writing & blogging, photography, walking (urban and nature hiking) and reading. I’ve also been toying with the idea of entrepreneurship as opposed to career-seeking in a world that seems infused with age discrimination.

I guess pedestrians go that way....
I guess pedestrians go that way….

Because I’m interested in so many things and I have so many ideas, because there are so many choices, I often feel overwhelmed; in fact, I feel utterly swamped.  When I read this passage from Robert Clark’s Love Among the Ruins (p. 162-3), I recognized myself in Jane:

Jane, “having resigned herself to the fact that a Ph.D. was not in the cards … for a personality, a character formation, that, truth to be told, has felt itself ‘swamped’ since perhaps the age of four — no, longer still, since before she seemingly alone rowed herself ashore and landed in this life.

“It is, Jane must admit, a curious thing to be so overwhelmed by obligations and duties — to have unfinished chores hugging at her hem while lined up behind them is the impending sense that some fundamental necessity has been completely overlooked — but also to experience moments of terribly clarity in which she sees that she is not busy, that in fact she is doing nothing.  And that ‘nothing’ is perhaps the substance which swamps her, the flood that threatens to sink her altogether.  For it is not merely nothing in the sense of a moment of inactivity, of respite or pause.  Nor is it the nothing of ‘nothing in particular,’ neither this nor that.  It is, Jane sees when she looks up to see it hovering just above and in front of her, her thumb holding a place in a magazine article whose subject she has already forgotten, the index finger of the other hand clawing in the near-spent cigarette pack, ‘nothing at all.’ It is the kind of nothing that is a force in its own right, that precludes all the possible somethings one might try to put in its place; that marks the fact of everything one is not doing and, looming stupidly, heavily like humidity, renders starting impossible.”

How I love it when I read a book of literary fiction (which I read to the near exclusion of anything else) and recognize myself.

following the glowing path
following the glowing path

The nothing that I’m doing, that nothing that has a life of its own, is so physically oppressive that starting something, anything, becomes a force to be reckoned with.  How does one start something when “all the possible somethings” remind me every moment of what I’m NOT doing? I often feel smothered by all those possibilities, and rendered inactive.

Philadelphia urban hike and Paint the Revolution banner
Philadelphia urban hike and Paint the Revolution banner

Yet.  I do continue to search.  To seek.  A good friend of mine once admitted to admiring me for always searching.  For what, he didn’t know.  Neither do I.  But I do believe it is important to keep searching, even if you don’t know what for.

urban hike through Philly
urban hike through Philly

In the excellent memoir-writing book, Writing Life Stories, teacher Bill Roorbach asks one of his 85-year-old students, coincidentally named Jane:

“Jane, tell us, what’s the secret of life?”

Jane smiled benignly, forgiving me my sardonic nature, tilted her head, and said without the slightest pause: “Searching.”

An indignant Chuck (one of the other students) said, “Not finding?”

“No, no, no,” Jane said emphatically, letting her beatific smile spread, “Searching.”

Searching is what keeps us alive, gives us hope, keeps us moving along, step by step, through our lives.

“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”  ~ Vincent van Gogh

enticing shop window
enticing shop window

In the areas of life that excite me, here are my intentions for the year ahead:

Reading: I intend to bask in my love of reading, using Goodreads extensively, adding to my to-read list and writing reviews of every book I read.  My goal is to read 40 books in different areas: literary fiction, memoir, poetry, short stories and travel memoir; books on the craft of memoir, travel and fiction writing: and inspirational books on creativity. Last year, my goals was to read 35 books and I achieved that goal. I was enriched by every page I read. 🙂

a construction zone beneath a mural in Philly
a construction zone beneath a mural in Philly

Photography: I intend to read books on photography, push myself to play more with my camera, possibly take a photography workshop, and challenge myself to be more creative. I will try to participate in several photo challenges on WordPress.  I would also like to get and learn a new photo processing software.

diagonal walkways
diagonal walkways

Walking (urban and nature hiking):  I intend to continue my 3-mile walks 4x/week, but also to take local urban hikes through cities such as Washington, Philadelphia, and Richmond and natural hikes in the Shenandoah mountains or elsewhere on the East Coast.  I also hope to do three official 10K walks this year.  Of course, I walk a lot whenever I travel abroad because I believe it is the best way to fully experience any destination.  I also have a dream of walking the Camino de Santiago in the fall, possibly September-October. If I do it, I want to do the whole thing, The French Way, all 780 km of it.  I hope I can swing it this year.

As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life. ~ Buddha

urban hike in Philly
urban hike in Philly

Inspirational and creative travel:  I intend to travel more intentionally this year, and to make something creative from my travels.  My plan for this spring is to try to volunteer at a bed & breakfast in Croatia for a week, travel solo in Croatia, and then meet Mike, where we will explore Hungary and Czech Republic, focusing on Budapest and Prague.  In the fall, I hope to be able to walk the Camino de Santiago.

urban hiking in Philly
urban hiking in Philly

Writing & blogging:  I’d like to stop being lazy in my travel writing and blogging and to push myself to be more creative and inspirational.  I intend to travel more intentionally and observantly, keeping a detailed travel journal and taking more creative photos. I hope to make something from my travels, whether the stuff of memoir or fiction, poetry or storytelling photography.

still decked out for the holidays
still decked out for the holidays

As for my fiction and memoir writing, I’d like to self-publish my novel and finish my memoir by year-end.  In addition, I plan to take classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  I’ve already signed up for three classes: How to Build Complex Characters, Building Better Characters, and Character Building. I know, they all sound alike, don’t they?  However, they each have a slightly different focus and are taught by different teachers.  I’m interested in this subject because I want to create characters to take with me to Croatia and on my other travels.  I’m also interested in creating a course on how to create characters and bringing that character to …..(fill in the blank with a foreign country name).

Old row house on Cypress and Juniper, modern Kimmel Performing Arts Center, Art Deco 1920s Drake Hotel converted to luxury apartments
Old row house on Cypress and Juniper, modern Kimmel Performing Arts Center, Art Deco 1920s Drake Hotel converted to luxury apartments

Entrepreneurship/Career:  Finally, there is the issue of work.  I’ve been reading a book by Gail Sheehy called Sex and the Seasoned Woman.  I started this book years ago, but I finally finished it this year.  What I found most interesting were the stories of older women who decided to reinvent their lives and bring their passions into fruition.  I found a story about Elaine, who started out as a schoolteacher, to be funny and inspirational (p. 232-235):

Elaine’s husband asked her: “What are you passionate about?”

“Books,” she said.  “This may be a really dumb idea, but I’ve always wanted to be a bookseller.”  Now she is the proprietor of a large bookstore in California.  Later, her husband asked her again if there were anything she was missing in life.

“Teaching,” she admitted.  “This may be a really dumb idea, but what if we started a conference for travel writers?”  Now their bookstore has expanded into a small university of sorts.

Elaine says “But these things didn’t start as smart business ideas.”  They started with Elaine saying to her husband, “This is probably a dumb idea, but….”

So, THIS is probably a dumb idea, but I hope to start a new blog where I don my teaching hat and write posts about how to immerse oneself more creatively and intentionally in travel, how to approach travel with awe and with an eye to inspiring creativity in oneself.

The Church of St. Luke & The Ephiphany
The Church of St. Luke & The Epiphany

I’m hoping that eventually this will lead to me offering creative travel retreats.  Slowly, slowly.  As a teacher, writer, and traveler, I know I am perfectly capable of doing this.  Yet.  And of course, there is always a YET!  I’ve never been an entrepreneur before, so I know I will have a steep learning curve. I intend to climb that curve, even if it involves backsliding down that slope as I learn.  I will need confidence and courage.

Philadelphia urban hike
Philadelphia urban hike

In that vein, I’ve written a lot of notes about defining my business and my market, signed up for a course called Starting Your Own Business, and have subscribed to Entrepreneur magazine.  Now I need to come up with a name!

I will reveal more about my ideas for this business on a new blog at some point soon, I hope.  I have lots of ideas. 🙂

southside Philly
Southside Philly

As for my ESL career, I will cut back on my job applications, but I will periodically apply to jobs abroad or at home.  My heart isn’t really in the work itself, except for the travel opportunities offered.  If I get a job, it may waylay my aforementioned plans, but I’m open to any adventure the world throws my way! 🙂

facade in Philadelphia
facade in Philadelphia

I hope everyone continues to dream and grow in twenty-seventeen, and I hope all your wishes come true. 🙂

(All photos were taken on urban hikes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 29-30, 2016)

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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.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.