a personal development poem
I write down my goals and habits every day
writing them is patience,
tells my brain to make them stay
tells my wishes: come my way.
I write down my goals and habits every day
writing them is patience,
tells my brain to make them stay
tells my wishes: come my way.
This essay is about following your dreams, even if you’re already living in one. I share the story of how I journeyed to Oxford, and this fall, how I discovered a new fantasy in New York.
I’ve told this story before but it’s an important one.
It’s the story of how, when I was 15 years old, I set foot in Oxford for the first time, and I realised suddenly that I was in Narnia, Middle Earth, and Wonderland.
Oxford, I felt, was not a place to visit, but a place to live, and more importantly, a place to write, where so many had written before me. For centuries, people wandered these streets deep in thought, deep in dreams. It’s the appeal of Hogwarts too – not a castle to tour, but a castle to live in, where kids like me did homework.
I was drawn to these places of learning and creating, places of process. The college where Tolkien learned Old English. The river where Charles Dodgson dreamt up Alice, and became Lewis Carroll. I needed to live there, one day, in the City of Dreaming Spires, maybe as a visiting student or something.
A teacher who knew me well offered a startling shortcut: what if I applied as an undergraduate? I hadn’t let myself imagine the possibility. His suggestion gave my dream permission to grow. I tailored the rest of my teens to get there, to do an English degree at Oxford, and a few years later, I showed up with my suitcase at the gates of Exeter – aka Jordan – College.
Oxford? I could never. Now I know better. I know to entertain the fantasy even if it seems impractical. Oxford, the birthplace of so many fantasy worlds, reminds me that anything can happen, even the impossible. I’d never been anywhere like it, until this October, when I went to New York.
Swimming like a speck among enormous posters of my favourite Broadway shows. As I got older, New York became an exciting place to visit friends who went to Columbia or NYU (just like the characters in Gossip Girl!). I still get starry-eyed when I get off the train at Penn Station, but the cityscape has become a backdrop, with the people I meet taking centre stage.
I love to gaze at the Empire State, but from afar – I don’t need to be up there, playing Chuck and Blair. I’m in town to see friends, who just happen to make this city their home. These days, my friends who moved to New York have been there for a while, just like Taylor Swift.
Track One of 1989 is about arriving in the city: ‘Welcome to New York’. Track Ten of Lover is about living there, on ‘Cornelia Street’, where Taylor rented a place (she said casually in the car).
That song came out this summer, and I knew I’d be in New York a couple months later. I considered taking a detour downtown to see Cornelia Street for myself. I flagged it on my map, in case I happened to be in the neighbourhood, but it would be silly to prioritise a street when I had so little time, and so many people to meet.
One of the people I was meeting in New York was Nick. I’ve been helping him with his book over email, but we’d never met in person. ‘Have you been to Washington Square Park?’ He asked over the phone, offering to ‘host’ my visit to the park. His book is called Party Like a Professional, and he takes the role of host seriously, whether at one of his parties, or showing a tourist like me around his neighbourhood.
I’d never been to Washington Square Park, but it sounded familiar. I looked it up, and it was indeed the park that Jess Mariano ran away to, in the very episode of Gilmore girls I’d just rewatched last week with my friends from uni. We’re all in different cities, but on Fridays, we meet as honorary residents of Stars Hollow. This episode inspired me to write a poem about Jess, so it was perfect timing – I could get a photo in that park and publish it with my Jess poem.
Doesn’t Doctor Strange live here too? Didn’t Caroline Calloway just Instagram that view? Context slid into place, and I began to feel sort of at home.
When I arrived in the park, I spotted a DSLR in the hands of a fabulously dressed woman, and it turns out that she, Linda, is a photographer and poet, from Dublin.
She was excited to share that Bob Dylan performed around the corner – from this very spot! – in the early days of his career. Weeks later, I happened to watch all of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I learned about the Gaslight Cafe, a location on the show, based on a real-life venue where many artists made their starts. I had a hunch that it was the Bob Dylan one that Linda mentioned, and it was. This time I learned of the historical place before its fictional depiction, but for me, it’s often the other way around. Lenny Bruce, an actual comedian, is a character in Maisel, and I knew his name from RENT.
For the first time, I understood why people dreamed of moving to New York. What made it worth the noise and expensiveness. The city itself is a live work of art, a collage of creators and what they continue to create.
How selfish. I’ve lived in Edinburgh for five years now, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. The first time I came here was as a student theatre critic at the Fringe. I was amazed at how this place held thousands of performers who journeyed up with their shows and dreams. I longed to live here, in a place that represented possibility and creativity, the place where Harry Potter happened to have been written. I’m living in a dream come true.
New York brought to light a feeling of guilt: I should be grateful for where I am. I’m now a resident of a place that used to feel like a faraway fantasy. I have everything I wanted five years ago, including a clear route to a British passport, and a soft dog.
A glimpse of Edinburgh Castle is now a symbol that I’m home. I’ve grown used to being neighbours with the Queen, in her summer residence. I dream of diners and yellow school buses, staples of my suburban American childhood that, these days, I see more often in movies. A former fantasy becomes reality, while fantasy itself travels like the wind. If I tune into my fantasy, I can ride along with its momentum.
I can be grateful for what I have and welcome the possibility of more. I dream in detail, because fantasy is intricate. One detail at a time, I can weave that wish list into my world. I can let myself see what I really want. A recurring theme of my dreams is an artist’s crew: The Inklings of Oxford, the transcendentalists of Concord, the Algonquin Round Table of Manhattan, the Stein salon in Paris, at Midnight. They’re everywhere.
My friend Erin is a former New Yorker who moved back to DC. She said the same: ‘I miss New York so much! I miss the people. But I realised that there are people like that all over the world.’
Turns out, my local artist friends have New Yorks of their own: London, Berlin… We can live in them together, far away. Erin and I can share New York from afar too.
Back in Leith I bump into neighbours in the street, colleagues in coffeeshops. Where everybody knows my name, because I bothered to introduce myself. I can be the city that brings people together. I can have New York days without getting overwhelmed by a New York life. I can wear some of its artistic spirit, while wearing my Boston cap upon my head. It’s what my Washington Square Park host, Nick, is teaching after all – bringing people together in our own little parties, all over the world.
I can be an honorary New Yorker, like I’m an honorary citizen of Stars Hollow, a resident of Gryffindor house, even Cornelia Street. They are all real places, and so is every version of New York: past, present, and alternate universes in the Avengers (who, by the way, came to Edinburgh too).
P.P.S. A new month in Everyday Wonderland begins next week. It’s my membership programme for finding magic where you already are, fantasies and all. Read more and enrol at http://everydaywonder.land. Will I see you there?
I’m not a Perfectionist. Perfect implies an endpoint.
I don’t believe in perfect. I believe in the possibility of improvement.
It can always be better, I will never be satisfied,
I’m an exhausting kind of optimist.
I tutored a fifth grader in writing.
He kept bringing back his paragraph, I kept suggesting edits.
‘When is it ever going to be enough for you?’ He huffed.
Good point. Never. I thought we were having fun, making it better
and better. Fine, you can stop.
P.S. On Thursday I’m sharing the secret story behind this piece with all Heroine Training patrons.
P.P.S. The Art Life just reached episode 12! Have you listened? Search ‘The Art Life’ on all podcast platforms or find direct links on our website. If you listen on Apple Podcasts, please rate and review to help the show meet Readers like you :)
Often the best teachers are those who have just mastered their subject, because they remember what it’s like to learn it.
When I try to teach something I learned years ago, I overcomplicate or don’t give enough guidance, because I’ve lost sight of the struggles. My life is a series of learnings, and therefore a series of sweet spots for teaching, rolling by continuously. I want to capture those personal, teachable moments. This is why I write essays.
In essays, I articulate lessons as soon as they’re embodied. I write to remember what I recently had to learn. I’ll look back, years later, and marvel at the details of what used to be difficult.
Every year in Math class I’d long for the previous year’s challenges: And I thought multiplication was hard!, I moaned, as I learned division. My writing plants flags, symbolising the landmark lessons of my personal journey, as clearly as textbooks distinguish Algebra I from Algebra II.
An idea is best captured in the passion of the present moment, but there is a price to pay.
I can’t write about something that I’m still figuring out. Something too recent may be wrapped up in hurt, uncertainty, or both.
I wish to keep things fresh, but also make sure they’re solid. Too soon and I’m reactive, egotistical, defensive in the face of fear. Too soon and it hurts.
This week, I started an essay about something else, but wasn’t ready to tell its story yet. I kept pausing, asking, do I really want to say this right now? When I complete an essay, I believe in it fully. If I am at all unsure, it’s not time to say it out loud yet.
It’s challenging. It can hurt. But it doesn’t have too. It shouldn’t need to.
When I challenge myself just enough, writing heals me, helps me through the hurt. Sometimes this means opening myself up to pain, but constructively. Letting the boggart out of the wardrobe in a safe, practice setting. In the studio, I make sense of a feeling. From welcoming the pain, I build: I build up myself, and create something new.
Everyone’s bridge will be different. Yours might be a big and bold Golden Gate. Mine is a softer, Monet water lily kind of bridge. I’m an Impressionist, capturing the moment in motion with blurry brush strokes. Structurally though, a bridge is a bridge, and I prefer to tell my story when I’m safely on the other side of it.
In this excellent, children’s computer game, you must transport a group of adorable little blue companions across the map. There are puzzles along the way, the best of which involves making pizza.
But there are also campsites, where your Zoombinis can curl up by the fire. It’s a ‘save game’ feature, but also a life lesson: rest is essential to the quest. In my life as a Zoombini, I can write from these campsites. But I can’t write from the middle of a puzzle — there, I must focus on the pizza, and in harder levels, the ice cream that goes with it.
I said, ‘If there is any hesitation, then No. This might not be the best time. Another time will come.’ The right stories will find their places on the shelf.
Both of us are navigating the balance between authenticity and leadership. We can be present and truthful from a place of embodiment.
I must share what feels safe, preserve ideas in magic bottles until they mature into their best stories. The Art Life is having the patience to wait for the perfect moment to share: sharing is the most caring when the thought is full.
It can be a difficult line to see, because writing is how I process and also how I publish. The better I understand this boundary, the better I create.
There’s danger in having the World Wide Digital Printing Press at our fingertips. Just because I can publish immediately doesn’t mean I must. As a Gryffindor this is hard: I’m urged to SAY SOMETHING, DO SOMETHING, but I’ve learned to wait.
I must ensure that I know what I’m saying before I say it, because it’s not just the action that counts – not just the ‘There I did it. Done!’, but the impact. My words could mean more if I give them time.
As an actor and a writer of fiction, I learned to develop characters before telling their stories. The same order of operations applies to my own life: Develop the character first, then tell the story.
I develop my character through journaling, and by letting time pass. My journals must be private, because they’re my permission to be raw and untidy: to misspell, let sentences run on, start paragraphs with ‘So what else?’, stop mid-thought with interruptions about the afternoon’s errands.
I stay dedicated to writing by boxing in time to write. Within the box, I must unshackle myself from the pressure to make each sentence publication-perfect. I’ve learned that ideas meander. They might need to go in all sorts of directions before finding a true path. I measure progress not in word count, but in moments creating.
If I share too soon, I’ll give away a component of what I’m creating. I’ll forget to include that sentence in the essay because it feels like I’ve already shared it. Because I have. Out loud, in conversation, it disappears like an Instagram Story, when it could have been grid-worthy. Or worse – it’s like spotting a pretty view, and snapping a photo for Instagram instead of letting my eyes linger on it. Holding up a screen, dividing me from my experiences, rushing to share the moment without really knowing what I’m saying because I haven’t lived it myself.
In the Queer Eye book, Antoni Porowski has a wonderful dinner party tip. Don’t prepare the cooking too far in advance, he says. Time it just right, so that the aroma from the kitchen welcomes your guests as they arrive.
I like my ideas to be perfected like a (dairy free) creme brûlée, prepped with enough time to chill in the fridge, but torched at the table, so the fire is fresh.
P.P.S. A new month in Everyday Wonderland begins tomorrow. It’s my membership programme for finding magic where you already are. Read more and enrol at http://everydaywonder.land. This month’s theme is comfort. Will I see you there?
I feel so Jess Mariano,
folding back the book cover,
leaning over for a note i want to pen in the margins.
The note is a smiley face.
I don’t feel like Jess Mariano anymore
Or do I?
I’m starting to think
that park benches
are the best, most creative places in the world.
Not just a place, but a way to be.
I’m a Park Bench Person
If transportation were like Gossip Girl
I’d be in Brooklyn by now
But it’s not
It’s like Gilmore girls,
Where buses get delayed
On graduation day
Even for Rory Gilmore,
trapped in a poetic fantasy:
books on benches,
hot dog stands.
Photographed in Washington Square Park by @lindaibbotsonpoet
P.P.S. PRIZE DRAWING: I’m going to send these handwritten poems in the post to a random Heroine Training patron. Join by Wednesday to enter! On Thursday I’ll announce the winner and share the Secret Story behind these poems on Patreon.✨
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