Choose Your Life

You’re playing with your daughter, and she’s chasing you around the apartment. Her shrieks of laughter and delight fill the room.

“What a wonderful way to spend an evening,” you pause and think to yourself. “What could be better?”

Ooops, she almost catches you. You spin to “escape”.

Except your foot catches the leg of a table. Hard. With force.

Pain shoots up your leg, and you stumble backwards.

Choose.

You’ve been out running errands all day, and you just want to get home. You can’t wait to see your family. And you’re definitely ready for a hot supper.

A train pulls into the train station, and you get on. Just a short ride away now.

But the train doesn’t move. It stays standing. Minutes pass.

Eventually, the conductor announces there’s a broken train on the rail ahead. Your trip home just became a lot longer.

Choose.

You’ve been rushing to meet a last minute deadline on a project, and today’s the final day. It’s a major project, and you’re responsible for getting it done on time.

Everything is ready to go except for one final piece – a bit of work that you’ve been waiting for your coworker to complete. When you checked with him the other day, he’d assured you the work would be done on time.

A bit anxious, you give him a call.

“Oh sorry,” he says, “I’m not going to be able to get it to you for another week.”

Choose.

Life constantly offers you choices.

Sometimes you get two options, and you have to pick one. But more often than not, life simply presents one option.

Here it is. Deal with it.

So how will you respond? Will you complain, hide, or react with anger? Or will you accept the situation for what it is? Will you embrace it as part of your life? Will you choose a powerful, heroic response?

The response is always up to you. The choice is always yours.

It can be tempting to only choose the more “positive” situations. But being whole means embracing your whole life. Being fully alive means being alive in all moments. It means choosing everything – not because it’s what you prefer, but because it’s what’s offered.

In the end, everything you face is your life. The only question is, will you choose it?

You’re out for a walk in quiet of the morning. All is calm. All is peaceful.

“Can the day start any better than this?” you wonder.

Then you look up.

In the east, the sun begins to rise, igniting the distant clouds into beautiful streaks of reds and yellows.

It’s simply magnificent.

Choose.

###

Worth Remembering

I don’t know all that much about her really. We never talked long.

Where did she come from? Or had she always lived here? Did she have any family? Did she have a job? Why did she hang out on that particular street corner? What was life like for her? These are questions I don’t know answers to.

About the only thing I know was her name was Jennifer.

I passed her often – usually on the way to and from the grocery store. She liked to hang out near the entrance to the ‘L’.

Our conversations were brief most of the time – not touching on anything particularly remarkable. But they were a bright moment in the day nonetheless.

She liked to ask about my family – especially my daughter who she thought was “so special”. Every time I or my wife passed with our daughter, she’d stop us and smile. She had a great smile – a big grin full of missing teeth. You could always tell it was genuine.

From time to time she’d ask for change – a small bite to eat. And from time to time we’d help her. I’d gave her some change. My wife gave her a pair of jeans. Perhaps what we offered were but small kindnesses, but I hope it was more than that. I hope it made a small difference. I hope it showed she was a somebody to us.

Then one day we realized we hadn’t seen her in a while.

That wasn’t all that surprising of an event. I’m used to people disappearing. Sometimes they get a job and are able to leave the streets. Sometimes they move to a different neighborhood. And other times, well, you hope the best for them.

Yet recently, my wife found out that Jennifer had passed away.

I think about her often. I think of her smile. I think of the way she loved our daughter. I think of the many brief conversations we had by the ‘L’ station.

I’ll miss her.

Maybe I never knew her all that well. I’ll probably never know too much about her. But I do know she was a human being. I know she’s worth remembering.

###

The Beginning In the End – Lessons From My Black Belt Demonstration

Years of training come together in a single moment.

I stand in the center of the gym floor with five of my fellow students. Each of us is about to test for black belt in Taekwondo.

Friends, family and fellow students watch as we take our places. Sitting at the judge’s table in front of us is a panel of high ranking black belts – including not just the head of the academy, Grandmaster Connelly, but his instructor as well.

It’s time to show what I know.

heaven and earth
the beginning and ending
of all things
is the same
(Chon-Ji – 19 steps)

In the days leading up to the demonstration, people asked me, “Once you get your black belt, then what?”

Black belt is seen as the pinnacle of being a martial artist – the end goal. Reaching that level is a big accomplishment. But there’s more to it than that.

***

We begin with our patterns. Starting with the ones we learned early on, we work our way up to more advanced forms. With some, the techniques are strong and crisp. On others, I make mistakes and forget steps. But I get through them all. I complete the final pattern and hold my position.

Each pattern represents a step along the way. And I’m proud of how far I’ve come.

strong as a bear
quick as a tiger
each step
a foundation
(Dan-Gun – 21 steps)

a journey of education
step by step
reforming
mind and body
(Do-San – 24 steps)

Every ending offers a time to celebrate, to appreciate the hard work you’ve done. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

***

Running through our basic techniques, we punch and block to the rhythm of our count.

Hana, Dul, Set, Net, Dasot …

I sound each number with a shout, echoing the force of my movements. I feel the power of each technique. I feel strong.

Before the test, Tim, one of my instructors, told me to be as loud as possible, to send the message of confidence to the rest of my body. It worked. I’m thankful for his advice.

honor truth
brought by those
who have traveled the way
become awake
(Won-Hyo – 28 steps)

Every ending comes about not just because of the work you did, but also from the input of countless others. They helped you grow and succeed. Be grateful for all they gave to you.

***

My partner moves forward in a punch. With a series of quick movements, I deflect his attack with a block, send a kick toward his stomach, and follow through with a palm-strike at his chin. Had I intended to make contact with each move, he wouldn’t be standing anymore.

But I’m careful with my attacks. I am present enough to control my stikes. I’m able to keep my partner safe.

And in that presence, I find myself enjoying the day. The test is hard and demanding, but I’m having fun.

here among
material elements
grounded
in body and mind
(Yul-Gok – 38 steps)

Every ending is a one time event. Savor the experience. Be present and enjoy it.

***

One. Two. Three. I select a set of solid pine boards from the pile and hand them to the two senior black belts who will hold them.

With the boards in position. I take a step back and take a breath. And in one movement, I move forward and launch a side kick at the boards.

Boom! My foot passes through them like they weren’t even there.

Gathering up the broken pieces, I marvel at the power I put into the kick. I’ve never considered myself athletic or muscular. Just a few years ago, I could hardly break a smaller board, let alone three full size boards at once.

Yet I just did. I broke them ease. And I walked away wondering if I should have tried four boards instead of three.

I can’t believe how much stronger I am now.

one quick strike
straight and true
pierces its target
(Joong-Gun – 32 steps)

sagelike power
from learning
from within
acts outward
(Toi-Gye – 37 steps)

Every ending offers a chance to see where you are. Marvel at the progression you’ve made. Take ownership of it.

***

With my part of the demonstration complete, I sit back and watch the other people test. Four of my peers go for their second degree black belt.

Their patterns are more complex. Their combinations in sparring have greater power and variety. Their kicks are quicker and more effective. I can tell they’re performing on a level far beyond me. It’s exciting to see what I have yet to learn.

I remember a year ago when I attended my first class with the advanced students. I’d just gotten my black stripe – the level before black belt – and was feeling proud of where I was. But the opening warm-ups alone made me realize how much of a leap I had yet to make to the next level. And when we took our places to bow at the start of class, I stood at the end. I was the lowest rank. I was a beginner.

That feeling returns as I watch those testing. Despite reaching black belt, I still am a beginner.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

much to learn
beginning again
as a budding flower
(Hwa-Rang – 29 steps)

Every ending is a beginning. It’s part of a greater journey. So look toward the next step. Get excited about the learning and growth that lies before you.

***

the tide may go out
but ever the ocean
remains
(Choong-Moo – 30 steps)

The day comes to a close with a bow to our instructor, and I head home. The demonstration is finished.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back to train again.

###

Life Happens in Moments Like These

In the span of ten seconds, my walk went from being simply good to magnificent.

And simply good was pretty good to start with.

The weather could not have been better. Bright sunlight illuminated the morning – its warmth announcing the arrival of spring. No jacket was needed.

The trek covered a good distance, and I felt the beginnings of that tired satisfaction that only comes from making an effort at something.

All around, blossoms sprung up from the trees, turning them into fragrant canvases of white and pink. Yellow and white flowers dotted fields of green grass. Birds sung out their song. Life abounded everywhere.

And as a bonus, the occasional squirrel hopped across my path. There’s just something about squirrels that makes me smile.

But my smile was about to get bigger.

At one point along the walk, I near the base of a hill. Coming toward me on the path bikes a mother and daughter. And as they pass me, I catch a fragment of their conversation.

“Get ready, there’s a big hill coming up,” the mom tells her daughter.

Reaching the incline, the daughter turns toward her mom, and with a voice full of confidence and pride she says, “I think I can do it, Mommy!”

And echoing back the belief and energy of her daughter, the mother replies, “I think you can too.”

In their wake, I stand still for a second, touched by the simple magnificence of that moment – the love, the connection, the courage, the confidence, and the enthusiasm.

Life happens in moments like these.

threads of everyday
meaning, connection, courage
woven into now

human connection
distilled by the sands of time
elixir of life

###

A Simple Practice of Compassion

The man doesn’t look too happy.

He pays his fare without a smile and moves toward the back of the bus. But the bus is crowded, and he can’t avoid bumping into several people on the way. He offers no gesture of pardon or apology. Reaching an empty seat, he sits down, crosses his arms, and retreats into the hood of his winter coat.

To you, I wish joy. May you find a reason, even if it be small, to smile. May you find a moment of laughter.

The woman in the red jacket appears restless. She checks her phone. Must be no new messages new for a moment later, she puts the phone away. She glances around the bus. “Why won’t the driver move us faster?” her face seems to say. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Her feet rap against the floor. She pulls out her phone again.

To you, I wish peace. May you find contentment in your journey. May you be at ease.

The heavyset man with the white beard is probably drunk. He speaks loudly. Though he sits across the aisle from me and his words are in clear English, I can’t make out what he says. A bottle of liquor pokes out from the black shopping bag beside him. On he rambles.

To you, I wish a safe journey home. May you arrive without injury to yourself or others. May you have a good night of sleep tonight.

A mother with her daughter get on the bus. The mother directs her child to a seat and they sit down next to each other. The noisy bus doesn’t make the best place for conversation, so they both stay quiet.

To you, I wish your relationship may be full of life and joy. May it grow stronger and stronger.

Standing upright near the rear exit is an older gentleman. We had both waited for the bus at the same stop, sharing jokes until the bus arrived. A smile still shines in his eyes.

To you, friend, I wish continued laughter and delight. May you enjoy the rest of your day. May your smile be contagious.

I can’t see the driver. He sits behind a partition, concentrating on the traffic ahead of us. I do remember him smiling as I boarded the bus though.

To you, brother, I wish safety as you drive. May you find delight in your work — in the turning of the wheel, the blinking of the lights, and the interactions with those you serve.

I watch the people in the bus. Often, I’ll create narratives for each person — judging their actions and inadvertently pretending I’m superior to them. But today, I remember to practice. I act on the words of Father Greg Boyle: “How can we seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what people have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it?”

To each person, I try and offer a small prayer of blessing.

to you
who is worthy
of goodness and joy
I wish goodness and joy

to you
who deserves
boundless love
I wish boundless love

My well wishes probably won’t make a difference to the people I wish them to. Sure, there’s a small chance they’ll notice my smile toward them. There’s a possibility I’ll have an opportunity to help them later. But most likely, they’ll never know of my blessing. They’ll continue with their days as if nothing happened.

But really, the practice isn’t about them. It’s about me. It’s about us.

For each time we choose to see another person’s suffering instead of casting judgment we train ourselves to be open.

Each time we offer a simple blessing to someone, we force ourselves to look outward. We see the world beyond ourselves. We see that we are not the only ones with needs and struggles. Slowly, but steadily, we strengthen our capacity for empathy, compassion, and generosity.

There will come a time when we will be able to give more than an unspoken blessing. We will have the chance to touch another — to offer compassion and service. And because of our practice, we will be ready.

***

Several minutes later, I step off the bus. I feel as though all the blessings I wished upon others have rained down on me.

###

Running a Sprint and a Marathon at the Same Time

The magnificent view from the top of the climb.

It takes a bit of madness to decide to write, in just one month, a fifty thousand word novel. Given I made that choice only a week before the challenge began, well, you can decide how crazy I am for yourself.
 

Introduction: The Choice

The first time I heard about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I thought, “That sounds interesting. I should do it sometime. But not this year. I’ve got lots going on.” Yet the next year would come, and my response stayed the same. I’d find an excuse and decide to put it off for another year. The cycle continued.

This year was no different:

“I have a daughter. I’m working on my web design business. Fifty thousand words is too many for now. Next year though, I’m going to do it.”

But the thought of participating wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept thinking about it.

A week before November, I decided. It was what I wanted, and I I committed to make the effort.

how distant does that finish line appear
o’er the high hills and barren desert plains
but still you make the choice to face the pains
and not put off the race another year

You need to decide, in the beginning, whether a project or dream is what you want. Because the going will get tough. You will want to quit. It won’t be fun. And in those moments, if you never really wanted to finish, you will walk away. You’ll abandon all your hard work.

And if a particular dream isn’t what you want, then say no. Quit at the start, when the cost isn’t high.
 

Prologue: Preparation

I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. One week is not much time to figure out the concept for a story and sketch out the main characters and scenes. I raced to get ready.

Would more time have been helpful? Absolutely. But I did what I could.

sprint and run
build your strength
the time to train
will soon be done

Every project or dream takes preparation.

You need to know what you want. It doesn’t have to be a complete outline or detailed map, but it’s important to have a vision.

You need to set up the habits. Such projects are big by nature. Doing them on pure willpower won’t work. Build upon existing structures and practices to help move you in the direction you want to go.

But sometimes you don’t have much time to prepare. Sometimes, you just have to get going.
 

The Beginning: The Race Begins

To finish the novel by the end of the month, I had to write at least 1,667 words every day. And for the first few days, all went according to plan.

I had the energy of a new beginning. I had the excitement of a new experience and activity. I burst out of the gate, ready to go. Not only did I hit my target word count, I added a few extra ones as well. All I had to do was keep my pace.

begin begin
bursting from the starting gate
onward onward
pounding feet upon the gravel slate

At the start of a project, you’ll have lots of energy. Use it to build momentum as quickly as you can.
 

The Middle Part One: Discoveries Along the Way

Though I had an initial idea in mind about my main characters and story, I came up with most of the details while writing. Sometimes, it was just a continuation or expansion of what I had thought already. But often the discoveries surprised me. I’d set up a scene and a character would behave differently than I expected. It made the process fun.

I never would have made those discoveries by planning or thinking hard. They came through action.

laboured breathing
climbing to reach the hilltop
only to find
a view
that takes your breath away

On your project, you cannot know everything at the beginning. You don’t know what will happen or who you’ll meet. Thank goodness. The joy of discovery is part of what makes the journey worthwhile and interesting.
 

The Middle Part Two: Falling Behind

By the end of the first week, I was behind.

I didn’t mean to waste time browsing the internet. But the news was interesting. I didn’t mean to go outside instead of writing. But the weather was unseasonably warm. I didn’t mean to I didn’t mean to get to the end of the day and not be in a mood to write more than a thousand words. But it happens sometimes. Right?

walk a bit
stop a bit
you’ve lots of space
to pick up the pace
and still win the race

Beware the temptations that distract you. If you’re not careful, if you’re not intentional, they’ll pull you off course.

The trouble is that they aren’t obvious. They appear in subtle ways. “Oh, I’ll only break for five minutes. Oh, I’ll get to it later. Oh, this is a small compromise.” Because the temptations are so easy to justify, they tug you further and further away from your target without you noticing.
 

The Middle Part Three: The Choice

With ten days to go, I had over half the novel to finish. I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t confident about my story. I felt like giving up.

“Why bother? I can’t do it? I’ll have to triple my pace to finish. Surely that’s beyond me?”

But in my time of struggle, I had four allies to call upon.

I reminded myself of my choice at the beginning. This project was what I wanted. I knew it would be hard, but I had decided to do it anyways.

I looked to the example of other artists and writers. Their first attempts and drafts were not masterpieces either. Producing bad work is part of the process of learning and creating.

I drew strength from what I’d finished so far. I was nearly halfway there. I’d produced twenty-four thousand words that weren’t there before. It would be a tragedy for me to abandon them.

I sought the encouragement of others. I joined a group of people who were also working on a novel. Many of them were further behind than I was. They pushed me to keep moving.

And I did.

drops of sweat fall in a downpour
footsteps pound with the weight of thunder
will you press on against the storm?

When the journey gets tough – and it will – lean into the challenge. Embrace the discomfort and keep going. Remember the reason you started in the first place. Seek the help of others. Choose again to finish.
 

The Middle Part Four: The Final Sprint

To finish on time, I’d have to match my most productive day so far, and I’d have to do it for every one of the remaining days. With no other option, I picked up speed. A daily word count that once appeared a stretch became the baseline.

Three days before the end, I was ten thousand words away from the finish line. I challenged myself to see how many words I could write in one day.

So I got up early. The first two thousand words flew by, and I had them done by breakfast. I kept going steady, and by lunch I’d knocked out another three thousand. Halfway through the day. Halfway done. And despite a slower pace in the afternoon, I managed to add another two thousand by four o’clock.

“Nice job,” I thought to myself, “You’re at seven thousand words. You could call it a day and finish tomorrow without any problem. Just take it easy for the rest of the day.”

But I refused to quit. Several hours later, I crossed the ten thousand word mark, tired, happy, and a touch jittery from drinking too much coffee. I’d made it.

Fifty thousand words in a month, ten thousand words in one day – I would have laughed at you if you told me I’d accomplish both of those.

the finish line
comes into view
unleash everything

You are capable of more than you think you are. By taking action – by attempting that project or dream that seems beyond you – you crash through your limitations and expand your possibilities.
 

Conclusion: At The Finish Line

On the first Sunday of December, a group gathered together at a restaurant to celebrate. As much as I was excited to finish, I loved seeing the others who made it too. Shared accomplishment is magic.

Someone at the party described NaNoWriMo as being a marathon and a sprint at the same time. Each day you push yourself to your limit, while maintaining your pace to reach the end on schedule.

Finishing the novel is just another beginning, another sprint in this marathon of life. If I can accomplish this, what other dreams can I bring to life? My baseline has been reset. What next?
 

Postscript: For When You Fall Short

Though I succeeded on this attempt, there have been plenty of other times I haven’t completed a project. There have been occasions where I let my dreams slip away.

But I learned from those experiences. I discovered what didn’t work and what did. When I wrote the novel, I adjusted my strategy to compensate for past weaknesses and amplify past strengths. I put more focus on habits instead of willpower. I sought the help of others. And I made a firm commitment to finish.

failing to finish
this time
does not diminish
next time

You won’t always succeed. Sometimes you’ll fall short.

Maybe you didn’t try hard enough. Perhaps you faced circumstances beyond your control. Or maybe you didn’t have the right tactics. Regardless of the reason, don’t beat yourself up over it. You are not a failure.

Instead, see what you can learn from the experience. Study what went wrong. Look at what didn’t work. Examine what you did right.

Next time, with the extra experience in hand, you might just cross the finish line.

###

No, you may not read the novel right now. I might rework it into a short story or novella in the future. But right now, it’s very much a draft.

The Choice

Choose to keep rising.

I stare at the page before me. It’s taunting me, isn’t it?

“You can’t do this.”

“You’re not a writer.”

“You’re nothing more than a fraud.”

It’s a Monday morning, and I’m committed to posting tomorrow. But the words won’t flow. I can’t get further than a few sentences before stopping. My ideas seem weak and worthless.

Nor is it the only time I’ve faced these doubts. In the last several weeks, none of my writing seemed any good. Why did I even bothered posting it?

Is the voice inside my head right? Should I just give up?

Maybe I need a change of scenery. I walk outside and toward the library. The sky is cloudy. A wall of gray hides away the sun.

the high canopy
of dull and lifeless grayscale
blocks hopeful sunlight

At the library, I take a seat near the window. The waves crash against the rocks outside. Pulling out my computer, I reread everything I’ve written so far. A handful of half-starts to various thoughts and ideas litter the page. I don’t feel like using any of them. So I start over.

Ten minutes pass. Twenty minutes pass. Half an hour passes.

My writing still feels jumbled. The sentences don’t line up. They’re as rough as the crashing waves below.

broken on the rocks
the glass bottle no longer
protects the message

This isn’t working. I pack my bag and return home.

I collapse in the rocking chair and stare at the ceiling fan. I’m weary. I have no fight left in me.

My wife sits with me as I complain about the situation. “I just want to give up,” I tell her.

She listens to my story. And then she asks a question. She forces me to decide.

“Do you want to just skip this week?”

***

Every endeavor worth doing has a time – a time you’ll get stuck and lose sight of the way forward. Your art, practice, or quest will throw up an obstacle that seems invincible. You’ll doubt yourself. You’ll want to give up.

Maybe you’re frustrated with what seems a lack of progress. You should be able to succeed, but no matter what you do, you can’t seem to build momentum.

Maybe you can’t figure master a technique or skill. You’ve tried and tried, but you can’t get it right.

Maybe you feel alone.

Whatever the challenge, whatever the circumstances, you will have to choose.

You can persevere, or you can abandon everything you’ve built so far. You can embrace the struggle, or you can suffer beneath it.

***

The voice tells me to give in:

“You shouldn’t be writing. You aren’t any good.”

“You’re an impostor. Everyone will find you out.”

“Abandon the Bright Army. It’s not going anywhere.”

As much as I want to listen to the voice, as much as I want to skip this week and all the weeks after, I’m unwilling to quit.

So I choose to write. I choose to keep moving.

The post isn’t any easier. I still labor though each paragraph. But I’m committed. I push through and finish it.

***

Your practice, your service to others, and your life are not defined by the good or easy days. They’re defined by the moments you’re on the edge of despair – when giving up is the easy option. They’re defined by your choice to continue.

When you feel stuck, take a step. It doesn’t matter how big or in what direction.

When you struggle to learn a skill, keep practicing. You’re probably closer than you think.

When you feel alone, seek the company of friends, family, and peers.

The choice to persevere is never easy. It won’t be comfortable. But it’s worth it.

***

The weeks and months following bring their share of difficulty. But I made my decision, and I keep at it. Slowly, ever so slowly, I build my momentum.

I start taking ownership of my craft. I identify with my work as a storyteller.

My posts, although not easier to write, get stronger. I’m even proud of a few of them.

And when I have rough days, and I still do have rough days, I remember my choice to keep going. I draw strength from it. I can overcome the challenges before me.

storms and winter’s chill
against them the tree chooses
to rise to the sky

###