At the beginning of this year, I set myself two 2018 goals–one firm and tangible, one loose and wafty–and a couple of reminders for how I wanted to steer myself this year.
Goal one was to try and read fifty-two books in the year, and goal two was to learn more about myself.
The two reminders were a line I took from an Instagram caption of the Western Australian artist Anya Brock: sometimes you have to put things in the wrong place to know where they go; and a line I took from an Instagram post of the artist, musician and healer Bunny Michael: everything you need is already inside you.
Armed with my pop-culture psychology and the screenshots folder on my phone, I committed in January to dedicating this year to doing things differently from how I’ve always done them; to questioning myself and my approaches; to growing aware of and shedding years of conditioning; and to just spend heaps of time reading books.
Today, on the first day of the last month of the year, I’m reflecting on this collection of threads–the intention I had at the beginning of the year–and how those two goals actually ended up to be closer to one another than I’d first thought.
The first one: the books. It started out as the extremely small and underwhelming thought of hey, I used to read a lot and I don’t anymore. I want to read more. Maybe setting myself a weekly book goal would help me read more.
Then, as my lazy, languid summer holidays finished and I realised reading a book in a day is totally incompatible with a normal work schedule, my reading slowed to a trickle and I contemplated abandoning the whole project. “This is dumb and I’m embarrassed that I’m failing,” I thought; maybe I’ll quietly give up.
But I’d been posting my books on Instagram and I felt just a little bit too proud to abandon the project; instead, I opened this blog and counselled myself with 1,000 words of why it was actually a good thing that I was failing at my goal.
In that post, I reflected on the fact that I’m an all-or-nothing perfectionist with a tendency to conflate my habits with my identity. I read books, therefore I’m a reader, that part of my mind goes, and then my perfectionism pipes up and says hm well you haven’t read Jane Austen or Emily Bronte or Mark Twain or Albert Camus or Simone de Beauvoir and true fact I actually just had to google her name to make sure I spelled it right so are you really a reader and if you’re not a reader then you’re not really anything, right? Right. Totally.
I realised that I live in shoulds–I should read literary fiction, not bestseller-booklist faff; I should swap my phone for my book when I’m lying in bed; I should read a broad and intersectional range of authors.
Those things are important to me–but framing them as shoulds is dangerous. “This year, I decided to reclaim reading from my perfectionist self and give myself permission to read what I wanted, to enjoy it, to practise it, and to set a goal that feels so lofty to me that even hitting 50 per cent of it will be more than I read last year,” I wrote in that blog post.
I want to read literary fiction because scrolling back through my own book review posts makes me realise how much I enjoy it, even if it’s a bit more intelligent and imaginative than my small mind is prepared for. I find it difficult to break free from my phone before bed but I want to read; I know it makes me happier and better-rested. And decolonising my reading habits has expanded my world view and made me consider art, media and storytelling differently–that’s a gift, not an obligation.
I’ve read more this year than I have before and both the content and the routine are teaching me more about myself. That first 2018 goal, to read more books, is making me realise: I’m a perfectionist. I’m self-critical. I don’t give myself permission to do things for fun. I’m addicted to my phone. I’m plagued with self-doubt and that poison leeches into many other parts of my life. I’m more serious than I realised. I like going to bed late. I don’t like novels set in the 1800s. It’s important to me to reflect on my privilege and consider what I can do from this position to try and redistribute power. I’m more performative than I’d like to believe. I’m better at many things than I believe myself to be.
Everything you need is already inside you. If you run a marathon it’s these legs that move you forward; you don’t grow a third leg in your training. If you write a book it’s ideas and discipline from inside this brain, not from a surprise second brain grown with magic tablets.
All of this stuff I’m learning about myself is already there; it’s not newly added, but I’ve told myself stories and lies and palatable fictions for years and I’ve started believing that without even realising–instead of understanding and accepting what’s buried deep beneath.
For years I’ve told myself that I’m a laidback, easygoing person; but self-reflecting here in half-speed paradise Timor-Leste I’m realising I’m actually a highly strung, uptight bitch (ask Felix what I’m like to live with and how I react when something doesn’t go According To The Plan).
I thought I was driven and go-getting; now, I’m sort of seeing how much effort it takes me to look for freelance work, to show up every day at a slow-paced job, and how dissuaded I feel from really trying at things that feel difficult and rewarding–not necessarily because I’m lazy, but because I’m just happier where I am. I’d rather have a semi-interesting and stress-free job than a marquee title and an 80-hour week; which has been embarrassingly difficult for me to swallow.
I never wanted to be seen as lazy–to me, that’s always been an awful, negative word–but actually, I am a bit. And I thought I was principled–but as my self-righteousness softens with a growing awareness of the nuance and complexities of inequality here in Timor-Leste, I’m like, actually, no, I’m pretty self-absorbed and pretty keen to do the thing that feels easy and just feel a bit bad about it, instead of really committing to The Thing That Is Right. I stuff up here every day, and instead of making me feel small and ashamed, that’s liberating me from my long-hidden but insidious narrative of Needing To Be Capable.
It’s neither reading nor Instagram alone that’s made me realise all this–it’s a wormy concoction of committed self-reflection, journalling, blogging, walking, the anxious regurgitating of every single social interaction I’ve ever had, Instagram screenshots, honest chats with supportive friends, the grind and joy and beautiful vulnerability of being in a romantic relationship with someone and constantly learning more about myself in the process of bumping up against them (thanks Felix for making me realise that I anxiously grab onto I’ll be home around 7 as gospel and get irritated when that’s a loose island seven-ish and oh I don’t get to control when things happen, but please bloody be realistic in your scheduling omg). And, of course, it’s being in Timor-Leste: it’s living in a place that isn’t my own, as a wide-eyed outsider constantly second-guessing everything I thought was normal and neutral and given; being constantly forced to examine myself, my intentions, my prejudices and assumptions.
I’m not in the wrong place but I have been forced out of my place. Pushed out of a neat comfortable known nest and made to falter and fly. Sometimes, you have to put things in the wrong place to know where they go. Sometimes, you have to see something within you relocated to know it doesn’t belong.
Learn more about myself. Read 52 books. Put things in the wrong place to know where they go. Everything you need is already inside you.
This year has been big and deep and hard and mango-juice sweet and I am glad and tired and grateful. Thank you for reading this post for so long and thank you for being with me as I’ve moved through.
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