Writer’s Retreat on Lion’s Head Mountain

Quan Hua Temple on Lion’s Head Mountain in Miaoli is the perfect place for a solo writer’s retreat–but you won’t find peace and quiet there over a busy holiday weekend 

On Google Maps

Red temples ornate with aggressively colorful dragons, phoenixes, and other members of Chinese pantheon are as ubiquitous in Taiwan as convenience stores, but Quan Hua Temple on Lion’s Head Mountain in Miaoli County still manages to awe. It’s not just that it’s one of the biggest temples I’ve ever seen. The way that it’s nestled against the mountain’s dense green growth, a sacred human space in a natural sanctuary, makes for a breathtaking impression. The temple is not competing for attention against neon signs or tall buildings. The red roof and the rainbow parade of mythical creatures and gods dominates your visual field as well as your imagination.

 Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas
Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

There’s a hotel here, a place for hikers to rest before or after a long day of hiking the local trails. It’s my favorite space, one of my favorite places in the world. The rooms are simple and comfortable, with ceramic-tiled floors, wood-paneled walls, and a balcony looking out over the forest. If you ignore the parking lot to the left, or focus on the mountains looming in shades of gray beyond it, the view is spectacular. It’s just the view to distract and inspire a writer.

I stayed at the temple hotel for the first time in 2009, during the long Dragon Boat Festival weekend in June. I spent four days reading, writing, and hiking the way I imagined a real writer would. The isolation made for quiet and early nights, and early mornings. I took it as an affirmation of my calling that I enjoyed myself so completely with only books and notebooks for company.

I finally made it back over the 2017 Tomb-Sweeping Day weekend. It’s only two hours away by scooter from where I live in Taoyuan City, via the Provincial Highway Number 1 or the Number 3. The drive itself was therapeutic, particularly the part where I missed a turn and the GPS directed me along windy country roads past the Yongheshan Reservoir and up and down the nearby mountains. There’s nothing like swooping through the forest on these roads on a scooter, your whole mind trained on taking the curves. I wish getting in the zone came that automatically to me any other time.

When I checked in this time, the manager showed me to a room that had a double bed, but was against the back wall of the hotel, the side that literally faces the foundation of the temple itself. (Because all of this is built into the side of a mountain, the top floor of the hotel extends below the first floor of the temple.) I asked to switch to a room with the beautiful view that I remembered, but was told they were all booked. It was too late to do anything about it then, so I resolved to make the best of it. A real writer doesn’t need a view!

I fell asleep early—there are no restaurants or bars here, nothing to distract you from feeling tired. But I was awakened—everybody for a mile was awakened—at five a.m. by a ten-minute long round of bell ringing. I concentrated on taking deep breaths and listening to how the reverberations of the bell differed slightly after each clang, but in other little crevices of my brain, I was wondering why we humans can’t just appreciate the sounds of birds in the morning, or the wind in the trees. After a few minutes, I felt like I was seeing sound waves. When the bell ringing stopped, my blood pressure finally dropped. Then the drums started up. By now, of course, everyone in the hotel was awake, so the hallways were alive with the sounds of stomping and screeching didis and meimeis, and parents trying to get them ready for a day of hiking or travelling after what could not have felt like enough sleep.

I couldn’t get back to sleep. At seven, the hills were alive with the sounds of angry car horns and the frantic whistles of someone trying very hard to herd traffic. I definitely picked the wrong weekend to reject civilization and look for solitude in the mountains. Children raced back and forth over a metal grate above my window, bridging the gap between the wall of the hotel and the foundation of the temple. There I was, fuming like a bridge troll.

I tried to write when I got out of bed at 9 a.m., but I was using all my energy telling myself that I should be able to concentrate anywhere. Finally, I just found the manager and asked her if I couldn’t change rooms for the next two nights. It was no problem. I got my view and a balcony. However, the new room had two twin beds instead of a double, and no bathtub–but I am willing to make sacrifices for my art.

I switched rooms just in time to hear the chanting start at the pagoda across the way. The sound traveled through the hotel, the temple and the trails throughout the mountains. It went on for about two hours while I tried to write, tried to convince myself there must be some spiritual benefit in it. The benefit only came when it stopped and I felt incredibly relieved.

Chanting in the mountains.

A post shared by Keili Rae Gunden (@amateur_vagrant) on

Then it was time for lunch and hunger compelled me to face other humans. Goals aside, we were all united in trying to get that free lunch. I came out a winner: Unlike all the families, I had no trouble finding a place to sit at a thin table up smooshed against the wall. It was ideal for eating but not having to hazard any questions about why my husband wasn’t with me. The meal was surprisingly tasty. Of course, it was all vegetarian, which is fine by me, but if you struggle to enjoy seaweed, fried gluten, or meat-shaped chunks of vegetarian edibles, you might want to stick with the instant noodles and cereals available at the little shop on the temple grounds.

After lunch, more chanting. On a loop, I told myself it was good for me, wished it would stop soon, and berated myself for coming on a religious holiday weekend. But by the time it stopped at four o’clock, I had finished a first draft of one story. I spent the rest of the day reading and watching the parking lot clear out, drivers honking and car alarms sounding off until sunset.

As I was getting into bed around nine o’clock, I resolved to get myself upstairs when I heard the bell tolling to see if I could get any photos of the sunrise. Instead I woke up at 5:30 to the pleasant sound of chirping birds. Without the bell, getting out of bed seemed less urgent. I didn’t get upstairs until 6:15 and then I headed off to stretch my legs along the Lion’s Head Mountain Historic Trail. Before I got very far, an elderly monk wiping down a giant urn stopped me to find out where I was from. I must have been just the audience he was waiting for, because he launched into a long, fluid speech about all the foreign friends from different countries who come to visit little Taiwan, which is in fact a very wonderful place, and it’s very important for everyone in the whole world to get along. I only understood about half of what he was saying, but as long as I stood there smiling and nodding, the old monk kept talking. So I smiled and nodded and reflected on what kind of stereotype it was, talking to a monk in a temple on a mountain in Taiwan, the kind of experience that friends back home might imagine is available to me all the time. Then the monk’s phone rang very loudly, breaking the mythical spell. He pulled a slick red flip phone out of the pocket of his orange robe and I escaped up the trail.

There are loads of temples within walking distance from Quan Hua, and loads of mountain trails in this area, but I’m not an adventurer on my own. I worry too much about getting lost, getting bitten by snakes or dogs, getting assaulted, or some horrible combination of the three. So I stuck to the trails and the roads, and had a lovely walk through the still-quiet forest. I even saw four incredible Formosan blue magpies and a large hawk, none of whom would cooperate for a photo. When I got back to my room, it was just past eight o’clock. I had my coffee and a shower, and went over the draft of my story from the day before. The bells rang, briefly, and farther away, and I could hear the cars navigating the three-story parking lot, but overall, the second full day was much quieter. There was still a lot of chanting at lengthy intervals, but it stopped again after lunch and I took a nap with the door open and the room full of fresh air. The rest of the day I spent reading and writing, more motivated knowing I would leave the next day.

Even with the curtains open, I didn’t wake up until 6:30 the next morning. It was blissfully quiet outside except for bird songs. The light came in soft and quiet through the beveled glass. Taking another walk would have been healthy, but I had to check out at 11 and didn’t want to give up the last few hours of writing time. Of course, the writing was going very well, and I wanted to stay another day, but it only comes so easily when there’s a deadline coming at you with a gun to your head.

I confirmed with the woman at the front desk that it’s much quieter when it’s not a holiday weekend. I’ll come back again when everyone else is too busy, and I’ll leave my phone at home. The only thing to distract me will be the view of the trees that extend the mountains and the mountains that extend to the sky, as far as you can imagine.


Tips: If you plan on spending a chunk of time in your room, don’t bother coming unless you get one of the rooms with the balconies. The rooms on the other side of the hotel are fine and clean, but about as cheery as prison cells—not exactly an environment conducive to creativity.

If you don’t plan on eating the free vegetarian meal (served at 6:30 a.m., 12:00p.m., and 5:30 p.m.) and you don’t want to lose writing time driving around, bring your own (non-perishable) snacks and drinks. There is a small shop on the temple grounds, but the selection is very limited.

The cost of a room is NT$1000 for 1-2 people. Ask about charges for additional guests.

There is an air conditioner and a TV in each room, but you won’t need the TV because you’ll be writing.

There is a desk-like vanity in each room, with a stool, and also 1-2 beds, a nightstand, a small coffee table, and two wooden chairs. I pulled one of the chairs in front of the vanity to write, and when I got tired of sitting, I put the coffee table on the bed and wrote standing up. There is plenty of room for pacing and the balcony is an excellent place to stand and stare at the skyline.

2017 New Year’s Resolutions

From my bullet journal:

Read 110 books
I read 100 books last year, so I don’t think this will be impossible. If you sign up for the Goodreads challenge, you get a handy little meter that tracks your progress and tells you when you’re ahead of or behind your goal. If you’re trying to read at least two books a week, this is invaluable. Also: short books are books, too!

Complete the Yale lecture series on The Novel: 1945-Now (read all the books and listen to all the lectures)
I followed the Yale lecture series on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner last year and it was really enriching. Definitely put me on track in terms of trying to read the “American canon”, whatever that might be. I mean, whatever it is, The Great Gatsby, something by Hemingway, and something by Faulkner are on it. I have high expectations for this series and the books I’ll be reading.

Complete the list of 100 things to do in Zhongli and all blog posts
Why? I don’t know. It’s fun for me, gets me engaged with what’s going on outside, and gives me something to say when partypoopers say Zhongli is boring. It’s not Tainan or Hualien or Taipei, but we have a good time.

Plank for two minute every day (even if it’s not continuous)
Um I am already failing this. It’s not too late to get back on track, though. Just I’ve been having these lower back pains…

Stick with yoga 2-3x a week; if class with Neil ends, enroll in a yoga gym
My buddy has been showing me some of the ashtanga yoga moves and we’ve been meeting up to go through Leslie Fightmaster’s 50-minute ashtanga yoga video three days a week. I am worried that taking Chinese class might make it easy for me to find excuses not to go, but so far, so good. It feels great and I know it’s good for me in terms of mindfulness, too. (That back pain tho…)

Keep hula hooping, even if it’s just five minutes a day
I wish I had some people to hula hoop with because having someone show me what they know would be so helpful, but until then me and my exercise hoop can spin around the living room in between classes. I’m not really committed to the every day thing, but I learned a lot last year just by hooping every couple of weeks, so I want it stay on the menu.

*Pay off all our student-loan debt
This would be so great, but unless we make it absolutely our number one priority, I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t want to teach more than I have to, but I want to the go to the U.S. to see my family this year. Also I want to take Chinese classes at the university, J has some trips in mind, and my scooter is possibly dead now, so I think the realistic thing is just to keep on paying and saving what we can.

Resume studying Chinese with a tutor or at the uni or a language exchange partner
So right before the end of 2016, like literally the last Friday of 2016, I enrolled in a Chinese class. So I have eight hours of Chinese every week now, and I am considering upping it to 12 or 15 hours a week next semester. I know that I always get excited at the beginning of new projects, but I am especially excited this time, and as long as the enthusiasm’s there, why not ride the wave? Also, tutoring is way boring in comparison, and I kinda sorta don’t love language exchanges as they usually end up being either free language lessons or you spend like two hours a week chilling with someone who isn’t actually your chosen friend when you don’t even have enough time for your real friends.

Get back on the Wahls Protocol diet-HFLC, organ meats, no dairy, limited alcohol, lots of fruits+veggies
So that probably isn’t exactly how Dr. Wahl would have described her diet, but that version of it was working really well for me and J in the beginning of this year. We both lost weight and every day it was like a competition of who felt better and had more energy. We rode that wagon until June, when we went to Thailand and Cambodia and decided nothing was off limits. Now we’re back to chasing that wagon as it rolls down the road. But now that holidays are over, we have no more excuses for making or eating hash brown casserole, and I feel like there’s a better chance we can stick to it.

Play the receipt lottery
So in Taiwan in order to encourage businesses to actually provide receipts (and thus keep their books in order and pay their taxes), the government came up with a plan to provide lottery numbers on every receipt. So every time you buy something, you get a lottery ticket. J and I have never really participated, but it seems like you can win a little bit of money quite often, and who are to throw money away? The Rockefellers? Maybe some of that can go towards our student loan payments or helping someone in need…

Give charitably every month
We haven’t figured out like life insurance or our retirement funds yet, but we have more than most people on this planet. I wish we were better stewards of it, to give ourselves a more secure base from which to help others…anyway, start small. Maybe sponsor a grandmother in Cambodia? Donate money to build toilets in India? You really gotta do your homework, too.

Re: writing = measure activity, not results
Yeah I am getting sick of myself talking about writing, too, except that I do write a lot, whether it’s this blog, short stories, memoir, or in my diary. I beat myself up regularly for not finishing more things, for not submitting anything, for never really being published, but all I need to do is write, and anything that gets in the way of that, including self-flagellation, has to go.

Write for myself every day
For me, this kind of means journaling, but also not wondering what anyone else thinks about what I am writing. I mean, blogging, obviously, somebody might be reading it, and I’d like reading it to be a good experience, otherwise I am an asshole/sadist, but anything else, man, worrying about what people think before I’ve even started writing is creative suicide.

Make writing a priority: first thing every morning
Okay, so, no, ten days into January, still not good at this. I am still figuring out how to make time for Chinese class and Chinese homework, so I am not going to beat myself up. However! I know that I am quick to discover things that will distract me from all the complicated feelings I have about writing/not-writing or will substitute for the sense of accomplishment I get from writing, so no excuses: writing has to come before anything else.

Say yes more often!
If it’s not obvious to you, I am generally anxious and always worried about the consequences of my actions, which makes for a very boring day/year/life when you look back on it. I hemmed and hawed about taking Chinese classes for like a year, but so far, I am so glad I just made the impulsive decision to sign up. What else has this year got in store for me?

 

22 Things I Have Tried to Substitute for Writing

Here are the things I do to substitute for the sense of accomplishment I want to get from writing:

  1. Try to do headstands
  2. Try to do the splits, side or front
  3. Read 100 books a year
  4. Blog (technically it’s writing, but would it kill me to finish and submit one short story in a decade?)
  5. Cut my hair
  6. Improve my beauty regimen (in ten years, it’s shifted from avoiding pimples to disguising wrinkles)
  7. Run (I’ve participated in three half-marathons, walked at least part of all of them, and now I get shin splints and knee pain as soon as I think about taking a jog)
  8. Build a cooking website with my husband
  9. Shop around for a piebald ball python
  10. Consider going back to school full-time to become a winemaker
  11. Take in two abandoned hamsters and a horned frog
  12. Take surfing lessons; discussed buying a surfboard and renting a beach house
  13. Drink
  14. Eat
  15. Cook
  16. Become very invested in Game of Thrones
  17. Post just like so much on Facebook
  18. Pray
  19. Cry
  20. Argue
  21. Work jobs I hate to afford luxuries that numb the pain and my sense of purpose
  22. Hula-hoop

100 blog posts

"Out of the Office" by Marc Swarbrick is licensed under FreeImages.com Content License.
“Out of the Office” by Marc Swarbrick is licensed under FreeImages.com Content License.

I am writing 100 blog posts then posting them every day for 100 days. After that initial thrust, I would like to continue posting on a regular schedule, but I’ve disappointed myself with overpromises before so we’ll just see how it goes.

I started a blog a long time ago, maybe ten years ago. I bought a book on blogging back then. That’s how clueless I was (am): I bought a hardcover book on writing on the internet.

I have never been very cool, tech savvy, or trendy. I’m like an unintentional Luddite. I just don’t get the memos.

(Can someone explain to me how to use tumblr? Because I signed up, and I look through my feed, and none of it is the funny threads that I see on imgur.)

(I’ve been lurking on imgur since 2011. I don’t have an account.)

Anyway, I’ve dipped my toes in the water a bunch of times since then. I had a pretty good run for like six weeks back in 2013 when I was actually posting three times a week. But mostly I just felt like I was wondering around in a pitch-black room where I couldn’t even find the walls.

Right now, I’m also in a dark place, but it’s different. More like a dark woods where I am tripping over roots and running from shadows. I have 35 years behind me and I feel like I have nothing to show for it. None of the things I believed would just happen have happened. None of the stuff I thought I would have figured out by now has been figured out.

I really believe that if you are feeling bad about yourself, the best thing you can do is set yourself some tiny goals and start working toward them. Every time you accomplish something, you get a little boost of confidence. You need that confidence to accomplish bigger goals.

I set myself the goal of reading 100 books this year. I’m doing okay. At the time of writing this post right here, I’m a couple books behind, but I think that’s because I read some pretty epic books in the beginning of the year. A Brief History of Seven Killings was great, but that is a 700-page book.

Working through 100 books has been the first thing I felt like I could be proud of in a long time. Is that sad? I feel like it’s pathetic. But since I haven’t gotten much closer in ten years to my goal of “making a living writing best-selling memoirs” (I was dreaming of my own line of scented candles, y’all), I decided I should start smaller.

Reading the books hasn’t been hard at all. I actually do have free time (DINK here) and I’ve enjoyed it huge. The benefits are unending. And I’ve reclaimed my identity as a bookworm, which I felt I had no right to when I was only reading casually.

And now I’m writing 100 blog posts. I’m trying not to overthink the whole project or any one post in particular. A buddy of mine said you don’t have to be great every day, you just have to be there every day and great sometimes. I’d like to second-guess every sentence of every post I’m writing, but I don’t think that’s how people communicate in the Information Age.

See? I’m learning.

I am also motivated by the idea that if what you’re doing hasn’t been working, then you ought to try something different. I can think of a dozen reasons not to blog, like I’d rather be a short-story writer, etc. But it’s been ten years and I’m not a short-story writer, so maybe I had better try on a different hat.

Anyway, this is the project. This is what I’m doing. I make no promises about how I’ll post after these 100 posts are up, but who knows, maybe something good will come of it. Maybe at least I’ll learn how to not second-guess myself into the ground.

Cheers!

dirt don’t hurt

This started as a Facebook rant, but then I started trying to qualify my point and I realized dammit, I’m blogging, so here is my blog on why I sweep like once a week. (Also keep in mind that we don’t have kids in case you are either feeling jealous or think it’s super gross in here.)

I have been trying out this male superpower of walking into a room and not giving a fuck if it’s clean and not even noticing if it’s dirty. Cause why should I stress about dishes in the sink or socks on the floor or dust under the entertainment center if nobody else cares? And I mean that with love and grace: Why should I care if you don’t care? I would rather be reading or writing. I would rather be drinking wine and watching Golden Girls. I feel like I’ve been groomed to be a domestic helper and you know what? It’s just not that important.

no dishes no problems
no dishes no problems

And those of you who know I’m married, don’t let this reflect badly on my husband. The reality is that I was getting really stressed out about the house for the first two or three years we were together. Then I kind of realized that I wasn’t even cleaning that much; I was just constantly stressing out cause it wasn’t clean and stressing him out cause I was stressed out. He didn’t even notice it was dirty until it was like really, really dirty. So I’ve been trying to improve my tolerance and turn a blind eye to any mess that isn’t actually organic material. I feel like we are arguing about it a lot less and he seems to be helping a lot more. The house isn’t guest-ready most of the time, but we lean in when we know people are coming over. The rest of the time, I prioritize writing, reading, and cuddling. It’s easier to cuddle when you aren’t trying to keep points on who did the dishes more times this week. And I’d rather wash the bathroom piece by piece when I feel like it than fight with him to do it on a schedule that doesn’t align with his ideas about when it needs to get done.

Overall, I’d say our house is probably cleaner than his bachelor place was, but dirtier than mine was.

Also, I get tired of having the same damn conversation with my girlfriends. On the hand, it just really sucks that I know so many women who are married to or living with men who just haven’t figured out that if you blow chunks of shit all over the back of the toilet bowl, you should probably clean that shit up IMMEDIATELY. Why wait? On the other hand, I am so fucking bored with it. Not only am I supposed to “waste” my time cleaning the house and worrying about keeping the house clean, but now when I take a night off to drink wine with some sexy ladies, I gotta spend that time talking about dirty toilets and unvacuumed floors?!

give no fucks

Inspired to be strong

I’ve been working really hard on trying to be healthy lately: it’s summer, I’m going to be a bridesmaid in about six weeks, and I don’t want to die before I’ve seen what this body can do. I get discouraged because I’m 33, almost 34, and I feel too old to be really trying to build a strong body, but there are enough inspiring stories online that feeling too sorry for myself because I am too “old” to start something new feels more ridiculous than pretending I am young, so I persist.

Some stories that motivate me:

  • Kathy Martin started running in her 30s and now is an internationally competitive runner in her 60s. I reread this article about her whenever I need a pick-me-up.
  • Fauja Singh started running marathons in his 90s. He retired at 101. Everyone stop complaining about everything.
  • I noticed during the last Olympics that a lot of the American female runners were in their 30s. I’m sure they’ve been training nearly their whole lives and have a dedication to purpose that is incomprehensible to mere mortals like me, but the fact remains that they weren’t past their prime in their early 30s and 40s. Here’s a chart of the ages of American Olympic athletes that can put things in perspective.

More than ever before, my focus is on becoming strong instead of worry about what size pants I can fit into. My mom was a bodybuilder growing up and she had me convinced that not only was I genetically predisposed to bulk up easily, but that getting a ripped body like hers was the result of lifting weights. I didn’t want her bulging biceps for myself, so I shied away from the weight room whenever I got it in my head to start exercising. But I realized recently that the kind of body I do want comes from being strong, from lifting weights and doing bodyweight exercises. I also realized that my mom was not just up in that gym doing some squats and lunges: she had a strictly controlled diet and was working her ass off in the gym for hours every day. I no longer think I am danger of accidentally getting a bodybuilder’s physique.

So I’m doing planks and trying to do push-ups, lifting weights to strengthen my arms and chest, trying to get to that first pull-up. Doing cardio to lose weight, eating a long list of “superfoods” and clean meals every day to cleanse and strengthen my body from the inside out. I’ve been working out once a week in a small group with a trainer who’s really focused on form, and he’s been able to help me with the shin splints and joint pain I am experiencing as I try to get my body out of the desk chair and into the sunshine.

I find that focusing on being strong is a lot more motivating that focusing on losing weight so I can look good. I assume it’s because being strong is a personal goal that doesn’t have anything to do with what anyone else thinks about me. Fact: the attention I would get for losing weight and being able to fit back into a size 4 is less delicious than chicken wings (Kate Moss is missing out). But doing tabata routines and bicep curls until I feel kind of dizzy and being able to do more each time IS motivating.

I love this quote from Kathy Martin: “I hope I do this until the day I die. I want to be all used up, just a wisp of dust left.” It’s reminiscent of that lovely quote I see attributed to Socrates, “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

Any stories to share about getting stronger? I’m a noob and could use the inspiration. I love the videos that Frank Medrano posts on Facebook.

I quit Facebook, for now

I deactivated my Facebook account. It wasn’t totally impulsive, but the day I decided to do it, I did it because I was annoyed with lots of people and lots of things and not because I was really in tune with my life goals.

Weeks ago, I’d started blocking exes on LinkedIn and Facebook, starting tightening up the privacy on my posts and pictures as much as I could, and started unsubscribing from people and even unfriending people because I just felt like I was getting too much personal information from people who wouldn’t have shared it with me if I’d bumped into them at the grocery store. I didn’t feel malicious or angry, I just felt like some relationships had run their course and it was weird for me to keep getting updates about milestones in their lives and photos of what might be some of their most intimate moments with good friends and family.

say no to facebook
Image from jenfongspeaks.com

At the same time, I have been getting annoyed with myself and J for spending too much time online. Facebook time is definitely not productive time, and curating what we were posting–pictures, status updates, funny videos, articles–was really taking away from time that should have been spent writing, reading, blogging, working on The Tabletop Cook, and actually living our cool life instead of just telling people about it. Especially for me. J is very chill about Facebook. He reads the newsfeed and uses Facebook Messenger to keep in touch with friends here and back home, but he only makes posts or shares photos every couple of days, like when we take a particularly cool trip around the island. I was posting every interesting article I read, every viral video I saw, every funny joke I came across. Ironically, if we were friends, you’d probably already unsubscribed from me.

I had been wondering how it was that I was wasting so much time on Facebook when as a much younger person I remember logging onto ICQ and MSN Messenger and rarely having conversations with anyone else, at least not substantive ones. It occurred to me that Facebook wasn’t actually a good fit for me, that it’s unnatural for me to spend so much time interacting with other people, even if it’s not in real life. At the same time, I have been recognizing that I am much more of an introvert than I ever realized. Maybe interacting with all those other people, all the time, was actually unhealthy for me because I wasn’t really getting the deep solitude I need to recharge, and feeling like I could never escape friends and family, no matter how much I love them, was making me feel resentful.

hermit crab picture
Sometimes I get crabby. Image from The Ugly Cricket

I only deactivated my account, which is kind of a bitch move because everything goes back to how it was as soon as I log back on again. And I did log back on again, for four minutes about a week after I’d deactivated my account, because a good friend was coming into town and I wasn’t sure if she had any other way of reaching me. The first post on my newsfeed was pictures of an estranged family member cuddling my baby niece, which I’d rather not have seen. I also had 40 updates, none of which were even real interactions from my friends. After sending her my cell phone number, I deactivated the account again and felt extremely good about the decision.

I haven’t regretted it for a minute. I noticed right away how often I was logging on out of sheer habit, as every time my students went on break or I was waiting in line, I pulled out my phone and only remembered as I was looking for the familiar icon that I had removed the Facebook app from my phone. But I’ve been able to commit with a lot of success to my 10pm bedtime so I can get up earlier, since I get so much more done in the morning before I go to work than I do in the evenings when I’m burnt out from teaching English. I read two books the week I stopped using Facebook, when the last little self-help tome I’d tried to read took me nearly a month. I googled exercise videos and healthy recipes and how to care for my bonsais without constantly checking in to see pictures of a college classmate’s new SUV or an old high school teacher’s new grandkids. I haven’t seen a cute animal video in ages, and I have to check an actual news site for what’s going on in the world instead of relying on my newsfeed. I’ve emailed friends and family, come up with a new game plan for The Tabletop Cook, picked out my clothes for the next day, and did the dishes before bed. I don’t want to make grand promises about never using Facebook again, but for the moment, why would I?

8/12/14 update: J asked me to reactivate my account for our trip around the island so he could tag me in photos and whatnot, so I did. I didn’t reinstall the Facebook app on my phone until the three-week trip was almost over. Since we got back a few days ago, I noticed I’ve been spending time on Facebook again, mostly reading gaw.kr articles and weird news stories from China. But I don’t want to! I blocked Facebook on my computer tonight and if I try to log on, it redirects to Vanguard.com, which helps to remind me to stay focused on my goals. Incidentally, imgur.com redirects to Mr. Money Mustache if I try to look at it on my computer. I don’t have the Facebook app on my phone at the moment, either, as it’s easy enough to reinstall, but also enough of a pain in the butt that I won’t do it unless I am really keen to be annoyed with myself.

6 a.m. reflections

I woke up without an alarm today and I could tell by the light coming in at the edges of the curtains that it was earlier than usual, but I’ve been trying to go to bed by 10 p.m. so I can wake up naturally by 6…so I go out of bed. It was 5:54. My first thought was that I could lay back down and curl up next to my husband. I would probably fall back to sleep for another two hours without even trying. But then I remembered that I’ve been going to bed earlier because I wanted to wake up earlier, and without an alarm, and that it would be the height of stupidity to give up right as I’d reached my goal just because I didn’t expect to reach it this morning.

I think that happens a lot with time, money, and eating healthy. I have heard that lots of people who have won the lottery–being the type of people who thought playing the lottery was a good investment strategy–have blown through their winnings and run themselves back into debt in just a few years. It’s like you finally meet your goal, but you’re so used to running on fumes, having barely enough time or money to get everything done, or eating a little too much garbage food every day, that waking up three hours earlier than usual, having a couple thousand dollars in the bank, or eating five small, sensible meals throughout the day feels excessive. So you hit snooze, you blow through what little savings you have, or you end a healthy day with a beer, cold pizza, and ice cream–because you’ve been good.

treat yoself
If you treat yourself as a reward for having the self-control to say no, I’m not sure how much progress you’ll make toward your goals. Image lifted from G2 Technology Group page

Then you feel normal, then you feel that familiar panic and and you can fall back on the familiar excuses of not having enough time, not having enough money, of being a victim to your impulses.

Even as I write this, I’ve already replied to an e-mail and a series of Line messages, logged onto Twitter and tweeted a few times and read a few articles, and found a recipe for furikake. These are indulgences I don’t allow myself when I wake up at 9 because I know time is limited and I have to write. But I woke up at six, so…what? I can play around until 9, until the familiar urgency kicks in? I need it like I need coffee, I suppose, but I know I’d be happier without needing either caffeine or panic to start my day.

So how to break myself of this habit? I think first I need to continue cultivating the habit of going to bed at 10 p.m. and waking up at 6 a.m. Right now, it’s just a bit of rookie luck that I got out of bed as early as I’ve always wanted to. It took a couple weeks to get into the routine of writing as soon as I wake up, but I feel more and more confident with that habit and I can see how it’s benefited me: I literally get out of bed thinking about writing, and that’s how I want my life to be oriented. I imagine it’ll take a few more weeks of training myself to go to bed at 10 p.m. before that feels more like a natural habit and less like fighting with my inner child who wants to stay up late. However, I think waking up at 6 a.m. writing, working out, cooking, reading, and then teaching from 2 p.m. until 8 p.m. will make going to bed at 10 p.m. a whole lot easier.

It will take some time and experience getting used to having a wealth of time and learning how to manage it, just like it’s taken three decades for me to learn that having a savings account or saving for retirement is not “extra money” that I can spend on frivolous purchases when I go over an imaginary budget. I have wasted some time this morning, but I haven’t totally squandered it: if I work on one of my stories in progress for an hour, which is about what I spend on them every day, then I’ll still be able to get in a big workout before lunch. Now that sounds like a perfect morning.

running through the city in the morning
Image by lululemon athletica, lifted from runaddicts.net

I talked to a financial advisor

probably a financial adviser. possibly.
My financial adviser was cute, but not this cute. Photo by Victor1558

I had wanted to talk to a financial adviser ever since I got laid off and I had to roll over my 401k, but I was terrified.

First, I was afraid of the cost of a consultation. My money is mostly earmarked for bills and groceries right now, with very little wiggle room. I am unable to foot the bill for a conversation with a fast-talking mutual fund salesperson.

Second, I was afraid of the technical details. I have genuinely been trying to educate myself about financial matters, and while I feel leap years ahead of where I was just two years ago, I haven’t yet had to put my money where my mouth is. I’ve just been paying off the ol’ credit card, paying down the student loans, and making coffee at home instead of buying expensive lattes. I haven’t really had to figure out what to do with a couple of thousand dollars yet, let alone consider the consequences in terms of taxes and all.

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Consider the source

This is a little story about letting people who are afraid hold you back from trying things for yourself. If you’ve ever done that–and learned from it–tell me about it below.

When we moved into our beautiful home eighteen months ago, I considered getting a bike. We only live about three miles from my (then) office, and if I really rode my bike every day, maybe we could even sell one car…imagine the calories burned! Imagine the money saved!

Photo of a Harrisonburg street by taberandrew

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