New Year’s Eve Reflections in the Red Chair

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With 2015 drawing to a close, I put up a post on Facebook about my top four highlights of the year: joining the Song Talk Radio team, becoming a member of Cavaleiro Farm, going on my first solo camping trips, and singing at my first gig.

It has truly been a year of exploration, creativity and pursuing my passions. And the momentum is only growing as the New Year approaches.

What I didn’t mention though were some of the lowlights. For one, enduring some pretty stressful months at a job that I had gone into with my usual passion and gusto, but that ended up draining my spirit with its bureaucracy and politics.

I ended up getting laid off in the spring. There wasn’t enough funds to continue with the position, I was told. Fair enough — but all of the events leading up to the news and the way it went down made for a pretty demoralizing moment.

I was sent home — cardboard box full of stuff in hand — and retired to my couch, emotionally drained at the end of a (not so thrilling) rollercoaster ride.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long to conclude that the lay-off wasn’t even a blessing in disguise. It was simply a blessing. I had been miserable and losing hope that I could make the difference I wanted to in the organization — yet I was planning to stick it out until I could figure out what the heck to do with myself.

The lay-off was a kick in the ass that said: Go forth and figure it out NOW.

Life is truly too short to be spending it in limbo.

There was another, much bigger, event of upheaval in my life. It meant losing someone so important to me. And it also felt as though I’d now be returning back to a situation of instability that I had spent a lot of time in the past crawling out of.

There’s really no “but” to the first part — sometimes we just need to take the time to be sad and both grieve and honour our losses.

But to the latter, we also have to give ourselves more credit and believe that we can manage to be stronger than we’ve shown ourselves to be previously. To think otherwise is to concede that we haven’t picked out the important lessons we’ve needed to learn from all of our past trials and tribulations.

Life is truly too short to not be learning how we can do things better.

Within a year, there will be the good and the bad. What I’ve gathered is that there is so much that is out of our control, but what we can choose is to respond to what’s thrown at us with honesty. Honesty to ourselves and to others.

Sometimes that means growing a pair. Sometimes that means letting down your pride. Sometimes that means not looking so far ahead into the future and just asking ourselves what is the truth for me right now?

With only a few minutes left to go until 2016 is ushered in, I want to just focus on the “right now” — which finds me sitting in a quiet, empty house in this comfy, red sofa chair, glass of wine on one side of me, guitar on the other, reflecting and writing.

In a way, this snapshot of my evening represents what’s honest for me right now and this notion of “honesty in the present” is the only intention I’m setting going into the New Year. Everything else will follow.

Wherever you are in the world, whatever you may be doing, I wish you and yours a very wonderful New Year.

~ Cafe (a.k.a. Janice) <3

Intelligence — Do You Believe You Have It?

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‎I’ve recently been thinking a lot about ‎intelligence — smarts, talent, whatever you’d like to call it.

It’s interesting that no matter how intelligent you may be in reality, if you don’t believe or perceive that you are, ‎you’ll be stuck.

Stuck doing the minimum that you think you’re only worthy of doing — whether it’s the kind of job you go after, ‎pursuing certain interests you wish to develop, or anything else that requires self-belief.

I see someone I know going through this now and it breaks my heart knowing they are capable of so much more. ‎But somehow, over the years, they seem to have lost the confidence that this is the case. And so, they settle for less.

I’ve been there. And that’s why it distresses me to see her like this, because I know exactly how it feels to not believe in your own worth.

There’s been two main things in my younger years that led me to experience this same way of thinking about myself.

But before I get into that, I want to explain that I was always smart when I was very young. I did advanced math and was in my school’s gifted program. I was also very creative and read a lot of books and wrote stories and poems. ‎So objectively speaking, I was an intelligent kid.

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But the first thing that started me down the road to thinking less of myself was that I got into the cycle of working low-paying, survival jobs for many years.

I worked long, hard hours and usually multiple jobs at a time — but at the end of the day, I felt like I was working constantly around the clock towards a dead end as my destination.

It started when I was in high school and my family had to go on social assistance. Aside from attending school, I was also usually working a couple of part-time jobs to help out with the finances.

But if I thought that was hard, it got even more difficult when I moved out on my own, right after I graduated high school. At that point, I felt like I couldn’t rely on anyone else but myself.

There was never enough financial stability in my life to have the luxury of “taking time off” to gain experience towards some kind of meaningful career or to build up the skills I was lacking. Or to apply carefully to jobs and wait for the right one to come around.

It was “take what you could get” and, moreover, take it right away or you wouldn’t be able to pay rent the next month.

Living this kind of life meant constant physical and mental stress, and led me to feel a sense of hopelessness that would stomp down on my optimism. Even though I dreamed to have more for myself, that’s all I felt I could achieve because that was simply life as I knew it.

It was very difficult to fathom things like ever ‎making a certain salary (never mind actually working a salaried position with benefits and a pension plan), or becoming a manager, or running my own business.

Those things seemed to be meant for another type of person. Not me.

The second thing that got me to a point where I doubted my intelligence was that I was in a relationship for a period of time where — whenever he was mad — this guy would tell me that I was fucking stupid, an idiot, loser, retarded, pathetic, worthless.

Even if I objectively knew that he didn’t really think so when he wasn’t angry, it was hard not to internalize it after hearing it yelled at me again and again and again.

After a while, I seriously started questioning whether I was actually stupid. And it eventually got to the point where I felt so much hopelessness and despair when he’d yell those things at me, that I would punch my fist into my computer screen or bang my head against the wall.

I think it was the innate, visceral reaction of needing to fight back, except I had been so conditioned not to hurt him that I hurt myself instead.

I had come to feel very worthless — just like he said I was — and as though I was in the bottom of a deep, dark hole, unable to see a way out.

How could this be the rest of my life? I wondered.

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With all of the repeated instances where people put down your intelligence, and with all of the actions (or omissions) you make that reinforce the idea that you aren’t deserving of a better situation, it’s easy to spiral into a cycle where you stay stuck at the bottom.

‎And when I say “bottom”, I mean at the bottom of your potential. You never aim higher. You stay fearful. You don’t ask questions or reach out to people who could become your connection or knowledge base to “better” things.

And so, you never find out just what you’re capable of.

If you don’t believe something is possible and within your reach, why would you even try to take the steps to get there?

* * *

Since that time, I got accepted into a very competitive Master’s program and graduated with a 4.0 (out of 4.0) GPA. I have worked salaried positions. I have been a manager‎. I have proven to some of the most brilliant minds in my field of study that I am unequivocally deserving of their reference any time I’m applying for a new job.

I have also gone on three solo backcountry camping trips with zero fear and organized many group trips.‎ I have learned how to play the piano and guitar. I have composed my own songs.

I clearly am an intelligent person. ‎I always have been. It just took some time, a whole lot of sweat and tears, and an enormous amount of love and support to actually see it.

And now, I believe I can do anything I put my mind to.

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The road that led me down the deep, dark hole was long and complex. And thus, it was a long, complex process to get out of it.

One part of that journey was creating a new cycle in my life — one of continuous, positive reinforcement that told me: You are worthy to have better for yourself.

That positive reinforcement came in the same two ways that conditioned me to ‎grow my self-doubts:

In the same way as my ex continuously put me down with words to the point where I internalized his negative image of me, receiving constant messages of encouragement and belief in my talents ‎helped me to view myself in an alternative light.

Two further things on that: It meant choosing to surround myself with positive people who brought out and saw those good things in me. And while most of that validation came from others initially, I had to eventually find it in myself.

Secondly, just as fearing to aim higher resulted in me staying stuck in a cycle of insecurity, taking small (and eventually big) steps that resulted in personal successes gave me tangible proof that I could in fact accomplish things I once only wished for but never thought I could do.

The journey towards greater self-worth also involved a lot of other things, like going to counselling and finding ways to cope that were healthier than my defense mechanism of drinking.

It included building the social and human capital that we all need, but that I hadn’t learned to develop, in order to navigate the system.

It included finding a more stable living situation so that my mind could find greater stability. And it included having friends and family who gave me unconditional support through all the mistakes I made.

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It’s been a long road — it took many years — but it brings me an immense, unexplainable joy that I can now genuinely tell you how much I do truly believe in myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still and will always be a work-in-progress. But the distance I’ve come so far gives me hope that if I could get here, others who may not think it’s possible can too.

As much as I resented having to go down this road at times, I’m truly grateful for all that I’ve learned and for all of the people who stuck by me.

Because if it wasn’t for them, I would’ve likely stayed stuck at the bottom of my potential.

I would have likely never contributed my skills and talents to the places I’ve worked at or the groups I’ve volunteered for that serve to help others through their challenges.

I might have lost all hope in finding my spirit and struggled to pass on the positive messages and energy every person should strive to add to this world.

And that would have been a serious waste of intelligence.

~ Janice (a.k.a. Cafe) <3

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On mental health awareness and stigma: I think as a collective, we really need to open up more about mental health and talk about the hard issues we all face. Too many people feel alone and ashamed about their mental health issues. Let’s change this.

The discussion that happened on this past post I wrote really gave me hope that people want to talk about mental health. And that no one is alone in their struggles!: On Mental Health: If You Got Issues, You’re Officially “Normal”.

As I said then, thank you for reading with an open mind, and please feel free and safe to share your story here.

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Photo #3 Credit: Sad woman
Photo #4 Credit: Storm clouds gathering
Photo #5 Credit: Thanks, Amy! :)

Taking Down Stage Fright: My First Show

I played my first show a couple of weekends ago. It feels pretty surreal now that it ever happened.

Even the next morning I wasn’t sure that it had. Probably because I went from singing on a stage to a crowd of people in a bar to sitting alone in my cubicle staring at some graphs.

But happen it did. It all started out with me attending my first ever open mic at a place called Free Times Cafe. I don’t want to sing professionally and I don’t care much about performing. BUT I hated the idea of having stage fright.

I’ve had stage fright all my life, since I was a little kid when I would cry if I was being forced to sing in front of people.

When I was a teenager I was taking classical voice lessons and actually dreamed of becoming an opera singer. But I would enter into these singing competitions and when I’d perform, I would get so nervous that I’d forget all the words and something that was NOT my voice would come out of my mouth. It was pretty brutal.

I got back into singing many years later, but this time just for fun. I was taking lessons at my friend’s music school and every year they put on a recital. I still got the uncontrollable shakes the couple of times I sang on stage. And that bothered me.

People who aren’t sure if they’re going to get killed stepping outside of their house on any given day in a war-torn country have something real to fear.

Stage fright? Well, I believe stage fright is an irrational fear stemming from the insecurity you have that people may think you suck after hearing you perform.

I actually think many of the things we’re afraid of doing in life come from caring too much about what other people think. And so we hold back. We don’t pursue the things that would bring us great enjoyment or a more fulfilling life.

And so, when I was asked by the Free Times’ open mic host to come back for their Best of the Open Stage show, I said yes because I knew it was time to really kick stage fright in its big butt.

I practiced really hard for the next couple of months to prepare. I went to a couple more open mics to get practice singing in front of people. I almost planned to go sing out on the street — I figured if I could do that, I was golden!

But I got sick a couple weeks before the show (of course). I tried not to panic and focused on getting better. The night of the show, I was still battling something and was barely keeping myself together. But the audience was so incredibly amazing and all I wanted to do was lay out everything on that stage so I could walk away knowing I did my absolute best.

It turned out to be a great night and I was mostly just ecstatic to have so many of my favourite people in the same room, showing so much love and support.

Would I do it again? Yes, I would. I truly believe that conquering fear in one area of your life will just make you less fearful in other areas of your life.

And as with most things, practice makes perfect — so, the more you practice pushing fear away and just going for it, the easier it becomes to ALWAYS push fear away when it’s trying to steal the spotlight.

What’s been one of your life-long fears that you’ve either conquered or would like to conquer?

~ Cafe <3

Nature Selfie

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The assignment of taking a self-portrait compels one to ask themselves: “What words would you use to describe yourself? How will the viewer know what matters to you? What story do you want to tell?”

While in some ways there’s nothing particularly fascinating or unique about this photo, I feel like it answers all three of those questions.

What words would I use to describe myself?: I enjoy the simple things in life, I absolutely love and need to be immersed in nature, and I strive to be genuine and honest (which I think is expressed through the direct, open relationship between myself and the camera, or viewer).

How will the viewer know what matters to you?: The position of lying in the grass, book and  removed sandals in the background, and I think even the simple t-shirt I’m wearing communicates this aspect of my personality.

What story do you want to tell?: The story of returning to a less complicated life — one where my practice of happiness includes quiet spaces and time, and being in nature.

When I lay here in the park, my toes in the grass, marvelling at the puffy clouds in the blue sky, I mused to myself: This is why children are so happy and free in their minds — they immerse themselves in nature and find joy in these simple, quiet moments. Here, the demanding worlds of the work grind, social standards and even digital connection fade away.

What would your self-portrait look like?

~ Cafe <3

Photo taken: August 7, 2015
Camera: Blackberry Q10 cell phone

This photography assignment was from National Geographic’s Getting Your Shot.

Exploring Family History on the Death Road

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While my fellow Torontonians partake in ribfests and fireworks to pay homage to the birth of our Motherland, I sit here on the couch, sipping some red, as my mind wanders off to another region of the world (sorry, Canada).

Los Yungas. The lush, green rainforest that stretches across Peru, Bolivia and Northern Argentina. Teeming with colourful flora and weird and wonderful fauna, it is accessible from the city of La Paz in Bolivia via the deadliest road in the world, “la Camino de la Muerte” (the Death Road).

About 50 years ago, a Korean family consisting of nine siblings and the parental heads ventured across the world from their home country to South America. (The tenth sibling would later join them). They landed in the Los Yungas valley.

My mom was eight at the time, third youngest of the siblings. Although most of the family later moved to La Paz where they opened a clothing business, my mom stayed in the rainforest for another year with her father.

They would frequently make the trip to La Paz and back, and the whole family would sometimes journey to the Yungas for restful getaways. Which meant a lot of Camino de la Muerte for my mom.

My mom remembers how unregulated the Death Road was back then, absent of guardrails and vehicles having to play the passing game when the road became too narrow to constitute a two-way. (Don’t think too much has changed there, ma).

She also recalls trucks filled to the brim with oranges and people sitting on top of the oranges as they zoomed towards their destination on the winding road.

I remember hearing about these stories when I was much younger, but back then I didn’t comprehend the global infamy of the Death Road. After days of travel research, I now find myself in awe that this rugged journey — that thrill-seekers from all over the world pay bike tours to take them on — was just a part of life for my mom.

Yes, a significant piece of my family history puzzle lies in Bolivia. Thus, Bolivia is where I must go.

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Visiting “the heart of South America” was barely a shade of a dream a couple years ago. I could only hazily envision myself in what I conjured up to be a dusty town where old Bolivian señoras in their bowler hats sold fresh fruits and nuts in open markets.

But today, the dream has actualized itself into a plan. It won’t happen tomorrow, but I’ve sketched out a pretty solid draft of my future explorations in what I consider to be the Third Motherland.

While I’d love to do the typical tourist traps, like Salar de Uyuni, I also want to be able to travel slow and really immerse myself in Bolivian life and culture. And, of course, I want to visit the Yungas and experience an important part of my mom’s childhood.

Now I just need to work up the courage to face the Death Road …

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… and maybe stop watching stuff like this:


If you were to explore your family history and culture, where in the world would your journey take you?

– Cafe <3
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