One foot in front of the other

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We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

We made grand plans. Big, big plans. Ginormous plans that make us toss and turn at night, giddy with excitement. Plans that you try to hide inside you that could just burst right out of your chest in a big bloody showdown, much like in the movies. You know,  Aliens-style. But instead you grin. A secret smile that only you know why.

There’s a list. There’s even a list of lists. A list so long that you continuously add to it until it becomes this snake of a paper trail that makes you beam even more in excitement.

A dance in the dark, a skip here and there.

It’s BIG. Oh yeah.

But then.

Nothing happens. You might cross one thing, or two off that list. But then you forget.

Days pass. Weeks. Months. And then before you know it, it’s been a year. Where did the time go?!

I’ll tell you where it might have gone:

Kids. Chores. Being a household manager. Dogs. Cats. Canaries. Parents. Relatives. Simply put: we all have lives outside of our dreams.

Full-time work. Part-time work. Freelance engagements. Contract work. Shitty day at the office. Hey, all valid – we need to eat, don’t we all?

Facebook. Twitter. Pinterest. Youtube. Etsy. Ebay. No? Really?

It’s easy to let other things creep into the cracks of our already fragile plans, hopes and dreams. Nothing is holding them together quite yet.

It’s easier to see what’s right in front of us, and wanting to settle the problems that’s plaguing us before we can even try to grasp something that isn’t quite there yet. Not yet.

It’s easier to say we don’t have enough time, instead of being ruthless with how we spend it.

No time is ever perfect, no situation is ever calm enough. The baby will cry, the dog is sick (and probably vomiting all over the lawn), your house is in a mess, and you have 20 tabs open on your web browser. You’re everywhere, and yet you’re nowhere.

Breathe in. And out.

Close your eyes.

Lie down.

Face down if you feel like it. (it helps me sometimes)

Take some time to think about that BIG dream you’ve been holding on to. 5 minutes. 10.

And when you get up, instead of going straight to your kid/dog/chores/*insert whatever needs your attention*, how about you take that one small step and cross one thing off your list?

No matter how small.

One step.

And wouldn’t you know it: you’re already on your way, getting back on track.

[Illustration credit: Hilarious comics by Sarah C. Andersen]

Perfection.

My emotional state has been flip-flopping between being angry and sad for the past few weeks.

I had emergency oral surgery that involved taking out 2 lower molars and an impacted wisdom tooth about a month ago, and it took almost 2 weeks before I could speak like normal. One molar was in trouble because of the impacted wisdom tooth. Another was because a 10-year old root canal had an infection (although I didn’t feel any pain) and would have to come out sooner rather than later. And those were the ones I needed to attend to then. I still have another root canal treated tooth that’s biding it’s time because another dentist didn’t realise my filling had come loose last year (he merely put more filling on top of it) – and had allowed it to decay further until there wasn’t much tooth left.

No one informed me that all of this would one day happen.

No one told me that it could have been prevented.

Don’t get me started on why I even needed the root canals in the first place – it was because a shady dentist didn’t clean out my cavity properly (and no, x-rays were not taken back then). I thought something was amiss when he kept pushing that I should have crowns done; to which another dentist said “Crowns?! I’m more concerned about saving your tooth!”

I had braces done when I was a teen. I just recently learned one of my back molars wasn’t uprighted properly by braces that was done almost 20 years ago. And that I should have worn my retainers every night FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. No one told me this. Not even my dentist.

Over the years I told the dentists that I’ve met that I sometimes grind my teeth. They waved my concerns away because it wasn’t that bad. I went to a dentist every year for annual check ups. All clear, they said. Keep the back of your mouth clean where the impacted wisdom tooth was, and it should be fine.

So I did. Or at least I tried my best. It’s hard to say.

Maybe I didn’t do enough. Maybe my occasional grinding did me in too. I even got a sonic toothbrush and a Waterpik to actively prevent cavities and to make sure my pearly whites were getting the best cleaning everyday. But even so, I couldn’t help but feel angry and disappointed at the dentists who could have done better. Who could have done their job properly. Who could have prevented things from going this far.

You might laugh at me and think I’m silly. It’s just teeth for crying out loud. I get it.

I took good care of mine. Brushing. Flossing. Rinsing. Waterpik-ing. Annual checkups. But shit still happens. Recently, I’ve been told stories of how some people hadn’t gone to the dentist for 10 years, who didn’t floss and yet still have perfect teeth. It’s luck, they said. At the time, they could have just ripped out my heart and stabbed it in front of me and it wouldn’t be as painful to hear.

Losing two of my teeth (that impacted wisdom tooth didn’t count) took an emotional toll on me. I felt like a failure. I couldn’t even keep my teeth in my mouth! I felt ashamed, and embarrassed. Heck I even debated if I should share it with you guys because it was so mortifying. My eyes would sometimes well up post-surgery when it was time for me to eat because all I could eat for the first 2 weeks were soft-ish food like tuna sandwiches (with the crust cut off) or porridge. I had to be careful not to eat things that were too hard because I could only chew on one side of my mouth. My remaining root-canaled tooth that had already taken a beating didn’t quite feel “right” yet. That one is also earmarked for extraction – but only after I replace my 2 missing teeth with dental implants, so I’ll need it to last me till then. I was a pitiful sight – I felt so sorry for myself.

I would look at strangers and friends and I would admire their lovely teeth. A full set of them. And I would feel sad. I already took out 6 for when I had my braces, and I didn’t have a lot more to spare. I have a friend who would feel sad as she watched couples with babies, because she couldn’t have one of her own. I can’t say I know what that feels like, but for me it came pretty close to describing what I felt at the time.

At the time, to me, the luckiest people in the world are those who have their full set of teeth.

They can eat whatever they want, whenever, wherever. In my mind they can conquer the world! Or a restaurant! It’s a stretch, I know. I bet they have other problems too, hidden underneath the surface. But at least they had working teeth – the crazy me would espouse. My mind was spinning, with me saying all these silly things in my mind and yet I was still rational enough to give the pessimistic side of me kick-in-the-ass rebuttals. It was a perpetual tug of war in my head.

But life goes on.

I consoled myself by telling myself that we, as humans are in a perpetual state of decay. It just turned out that my teeth decayed faster than the rest of me. The same as how some people’s knees bust up faster than others because they’re athletes. Maybe I’ve been eating more than others? Maybe I’m a food athlete? Who knows?

A good friend told me that if a tooth isn’t doing its job properly anymore, it’s time for it to go. I told her I felt sad, to which she said the tooth wasn’t alive and can’t feel pain so I didn’t have to feel bad. Plus, a tooth’s job was to allow you to grind food up to bits – whether it’s a natural tooth or not shouldn’t matter at this point. I burst out laughing, and felt better immensely.

A month in after the surgery, I’m eating properly again (I’ll still need to watch out for those sly hard bits like bone, sand, etc, that work their way into my food). I chew slower, and more carefully. I brush 4-5 times a day (because darn it I can try harder). I still have most of my teeth. I no longer feel angry or sad. Sometimes it creeps up on me, but it goes away quickly. I recently went to Melbourne for a holiday with the husband, and came back refreshed. I was surprised at myself for being able to eat almost normally there (minus the tougher bits). I’m laughing a lot again. I feel lucky.

The truth is, nothing is ever perfect. It won’t ever be.

I’ll only be able to have a full set of working teeth next year as I’m waiting for my bone to heal for dental implants to be placed. And then there’ll be more waiting before I can actually have a tooth screwed on. I’m lucky I’m able to afford them – plus, I’m still young so it’s a better long term prognosis. So a tiny part of me will be metal. That’s a bit badass I suppose.

I’ve always wanted as many things to be settled as possible before I can truly begin my work. Didn’t matter if it was the big stuff, or the little stuff. I’d check things off my list one by one to finish off all the work that would potentially distract me from the major work I needed to do. And often, that leads me with not enough time to do the things I should be doing. I’ve realised that it’s foolhardy to continue to maintain such order. The the older I get, the more challenges I’ll face to my emotional and physical health. It could be mine, or my loved ones, family, friends and even my dogs. It’s inevitable. Things are often out of my control. Sometimes those lists will have to go unchecked.

Perfection is an illusion.

It’s an excuse we give ourselves – that everything has to be in order for us to truly begin, or to continue from where we left off. The idea that chaos is bad, and that the only way you’ll jump is if you already know how something will turn out. We can’t know for sure, but how many times have we made that sort of rationalisation? I know I’ve done it. But rolling up your sleeves and getting things done, even if you’re afraid of it, is what has made me take the little steps needed to move forward. Like plonking myself down on that dental surgeon’s chair so that he can remove 3 of my back teeth in one go – a process that took almost two hours because one didn’t want to come out (I wish I could have kept you too, buddy) and I could start to feel the things he did in my jaw because the local anaesthetic was wearing off.

We can’t always have everything in order before we begin.

The only thing that can and will work is if you take small steps forward among the chaos around you, towards where you want to be. It’s hard because pain – whether it’s physical, mental or emotional – is very real. But the great news is that things and situations don’t last, whether it’s good or bad, painful or joyful. They make up the combination of moments that pass in life, that stop and envelope you before it drifts away to become a distant memory.

I can’t ever have a full set of natural teeth again. But hey, at least I have options.

And so do you.

You there. Yes, you – dear readers with all your glorious natural teeth – do me a favour: go ahead and crunch a couple of nuts in your mouth on my behalf and tell me again what is holding you back from conquering the world?

[Illustrated pattern by Bouffants & Broken Hearts]

How to Be More Creative in the Age of Over-Inspiration

 

Ah, the internet. What would I do without it? It’s a portal that bounces me from one wonderment to the next – an inspiring road trip filled with jaw-dropping illustrations and illuminating interviews, with sideshow attractions of fun video tutorials to community hangouts for every niche under the sun. The internet is the gateway to inspiration on demand, and it seems like the more sidetracked I get, the hungrier I get for more.

When you have a source that beckons with creativity and inspiration 7 days a week and 24 hours a day, it’s easy to be sucked into a loop. There’s always something interesting a mere click away. I know for a fact that I’m not alone in my predicament. In the age of Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and the many infinite scrolling art & design websites (I liken it to a bottomless well of beautiful things just waiting to be discovered) – what does this mean for artists?

The National Centre for Biotechnology Information’s research in April 2015 has surveyed that the average attention span of people in 2015 is now 8.25 seconds, compared to 12 seconds in the year 2000. That means our capacity for holding attention is 30% less compared to 15 years ago – and it’s not surprising, given how our brains are hard-wired to crave new information; according to Bruce Morton, a researcher with the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute.

With each click leading to the next and the more information we devour, the novelty wears off quickly, and off we go in search of better, more beautiful, more interesting things. It’s nasty cycle that perpetuates itself; leading to a host of other problems like a lack of productivity (hey, where did the time go?), procrastination (just one more website!) and for some, the inability (or reluctance) to dive deeper; to analyse and synthesise the information they’ve already visually absorbed.

I’ve talked to college students who were confused by it all – there was no lack of inspiration, and yet they weren’t inspired. They grew up with the internet being a very big part of their lives, and yet they seem to be suffering from inspiration fatigue, and couldn’t understand why. One theory that I brought up was that perhaps they’ve been looking at what was already completed and done by other artists, therefore subconsciously they didn’t need to figure out the process for themselves (hey, since it’s already been done!) Replicating something visually without finding out the underlying thought process behind it all is just like skimming the water without knowing its depths. It’s also a little like eating junk food all the time, which tastes great but isn’t very good for you.

I recommended my students to try and be more conscientious of the information they took in. Instead of merely looking at the aesthetics of the many works of art in front of their screen before jumping to the next, how about they pause for a moment and focus on finding out more details about it instead? Dig through archives of the artist’s work, and perhaps catch a glimpse of their process. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t (the ails of over-inspiration runs far deeper), but the reminder to dig vertically instead of mindlessly pacing horizontally might just be a good start. I needed the nudge too as I’m sometimes guilty of the same.

It’s times like these that it’s useful to remember Charles Eames’ quote:

Art resides in the quality of doing, process is not magic.

Maybe we don’t really need more inspiration. We need more doing instead.


[This is an article I originally wrote for Illustration Friday]

[Illustration: Neil J. Rook]
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