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Approaching Your Writing Practice: What to Write About?

In my writing workshops (either fiction or non-fiction), I always highlight the importance of writing practice to the participants–and encourage them to make a reasonable schedule they can follow to do this practice. I don’t require them to do their writing practice every day, but there is supposed to be a little bit of structure around it.

Think of writing practice as an exercise; just like working out.

You exercise and work out not only because you’re a professional athlete or want to participate in a competition. You don’t have to be great in sports to exercise. You don’t have to break a record or achieve something amazing when you’re exercising.

You exercise because you know it is good for your body, it will train your muscles, and although you may not like the process as much, you know you’ll feel good and accomplished afterward.

You don’t have to exercise every day to benefit from it, but you know if you don’t exercise at all, it won’t serve you good in the long run. The best is to have a certain schedule that can work for you–either once a week, twice a week, or maybe three times a week; for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or maybe an hour. You don’t want to exercise too much or push yourself too hard as well; because you can injure yourself. Or you may get fed up with exercising altogether.

When you have skipped exercising for a while, it’s going to feel a bit harder to get back in the game. You may get tired quickly and your muscles are going to be really sore. You may find that you are not as strong, as flexible, or as fit as you used to be. But it’s okay, that’s why you’re back exercising, right?

Similarly, writing practice is like that.

***

But, what should you do during your writing practice? What can you write about?

Well, technically, you can focus your writing practice on some areas you think you’re having difficulties with. If we go back to the exercising-and-working-out analogy–if you know or feel that your legs are weak, you may want to do some exercise to make your legs stronger.

However, these are the 3 things I usually concentrate on during my writing practice:

1. CHARACTER

I love watching people and I can do this for hours.

If you’re in a mall, in a cafe, in a waiting room, in a coffee shop–pick some people as your ‘characters’ and describe them in detail: what are they wearing, what do they look like, do they have any obvious physical traits, how do they carry themselves, how do they speak, how do they call the waiter, do they hesitate before paying at the counter?

Notice even the smallest details about these people. Just write down your observations as facts, without judgments.

When you’re done, it’s time for your imagination to take over. If you have to guess, what do you think will be their backstories? What are their vices and virtues? What do you think they do for a living? Are they married or single? What do they aspire to be? What are some of their biggest challenges in life? If they have a dark secret, what would it be?

When you’re finished, examine your guesses and compare these wild speculations with your detailed description of the ‘characters’. Can you see why you are led to conclude or speculate a certain backstory for a certain character?

2. SETTING

Wherever you are, try describing that place. Make sure that you only write facts from your observations. Notice everything: shape, color, smell, shadows, sounds.

When you’re done, now try to write about this place from a point of view of someone who has just gone through a heartbreak; someone who just got fired; someone who has just won a lottery; someone who is in love; someone that is about to die. Or, how would a chef, a lawyer, or a celebrity describe this place?

How would they ‘see’ the same setting differently based on who they are or what they’re struggling with?

3. DIALOGUE

Listen to (well, eavesdrop) a conversation; and write the conversations down the way they are being spoken. If you can’t write that fast, use abbreviations. Above all, I would suggest not to observe the people who are speaking but concentrate on writing down their conversations only.

After a few minutes, stop and leave–until you can no longer hear these conversations or see who is speaking.

Read the dialogue and based on the word selections, the umm and err, the dialects, the jargon; what can you guess about speaker number 1 and speaker number 2? Who are they? What can you tell about their origin, upbringing, education, profession? If you cannot see them and can only read the way they speak, can you guess what they look like?

What can this conversation reveal about their personality? Based on the dynamics of the conversation, how do you think one feels about the other? Is there a feeling of mutual trust, jealousy or rivalry, or maybe you can tell that one truly admires the other? How can you make this guess or come up with this conclusion? Which dynamics in the conversation give you the hint?

***

I like to focus on these 3 things during my writing practice because I think they are quite essential. Either you’re writing fiction and non-fiction, you can always benefit from knowing how to build your character, your setting, and your dialogue.

If you have done this exercise several times, I am sure you will get a better understanding of how to distinguish a character, setting, and dialogue that works.

Happy practicing!

Hanny

The Art of Frequenting Coffee Shops

Sipping coffee is our way to fall in love with the bittersweet.

It always begins with a closed door.

And from what it allows us to glimpse upon, our heart is pounding with curiosity. Should we come in? Should we give it a chance? Will we like it? Will we regret it?

Most of the time, we decided to take that chance. To swing the door open and walk in, wishing to find something.

Anything.

There are times in our lives when something, anything, is better than nothing.

Sometimes, we fall for the welcoming smell of fresh-brewed coffee, the 3D latte art, the friendly bandana-wearing barista, the pretty ceramic mugs, the excellent selection of background music… and some other times, we don’t.

Sometimes, as we peered inside from the window, we thought it’s going to be cozy, inviting, gezellig. Until we realized that while some things are better seen close-up, some others are better seen only from a distance.

But, no matter what, usually, we stay for a while with a cup of coffee, waiting to see if we’ll change our minds. Some of us stay too long to be able to notice what’s wrong. Some of us leave too soon to notice what’s right. Some of us stay long enough to see what is, and leave soon enough not to see things we’d rather not.

However, in the end, like it or not, we all must leave. Even those 24-hour coffee shops can close down, move to another location, be shut down for a renovation, or the owner simply has a change of heart.

Still, sipping coffee is our way to fall for the bittersweet.

Because there are some particular stages in our lives when bittersweet is better than just bitter. When a once-opened door is better than one that is never opened. When leaving an about-to-be-locked premise is better than being locked up.

At least, we’ve taken the chance to walk through that door, place our order, sit down, and sip our coffee. At least we’ve experienced what it has to offer.

We know that there are still so many coffee shops out there. The ones we haven’t heard of, the ones we haven’t peered into, the ones we haven’t visited before.

One day, if we take a chance and swing the door open, one of them may steal our hearts.

Hanny

When Meditating Feels Hard

When meditating feels hard, I watch a candle or an incense burns in silence. I fix my gaze onto the flame, the glowing dot; following each movement and noticing each moment of changes; no matter how minuscule: that second when the candle melt, when something flickers, when the ashes fall.

In the evening, I listen to this and this, beautiful music from Toshi Arimoto. I lit up some of my favorite scented candles and sit cross-legged on the couch in the dim-lit room. I close my eyes and start breathing following the rhythm of his music. I find this activity really soothing and I can tell that my body is enjoying it. I also realized that since I am concentrating to breathe according to the rhythm, my mind doesn’t wander as easily. I’ll do this breathwork for 20-30 minutes, and I always feel calmer and more grounded afterward.

Hanny

The Misconception of Self-Care

I used to think that ‘self-care’ means taking the time to do the things that will make you feel good. At the time, the first few things that crossed my mind when I heard about self-care weren’t far from instant gratification: treating yourself to a shopping spree, taking a break for vacation, or booking that long-awaited manicure session.

But the thing is, self-care is not about doing things that will make you feel good. These days, I realize that self-care is about doing things that are good for you; even when initially, they don’t feel good.

It’s not only about ignoring what other people do or think, but also about speaking up and learning how to be assertive instead of being bitter and bottling up resentment.

It’s not only about quitting a job that doesn’t fulfill you, but also about continuously improving your professional skills and commit to things you’ve agreed to do.

It’s not only about taking a break to pack your bag and leave, but also about staying where you are and do what you need to do to sort out your mess before it inflated way out of proportion.

It’s not only about cutting ties with toxic people, but also strengthening your ties with people who have been around for you; as well as finding out how not to be a toxic person yourself.

It’s not only about succumbing to your favorite comfort food, but also nurturing your body with nutritious food that will be good for you. It’s not only about curling up in bed or taking a good rest, but also about moving your body and exercising, so you can feel energized and healthy.

It’s not only about buying new clothes, getting a hair cut, or booking a massage, but also about learning how to accept yourself, how to let go of envy and the need to compare yourself with others.

It’s not only about forgiving others who have hurt you, but also about asking forgiveness from people you’ve hurt in the past.

It’s not only about going out on a shopping spree, but also about learning about how you can manage your money better, pay your debts, and start saving or investing for your future.

It’s not only about reaching out to others and allowing them to take care of you, but also learning how to fill up your cup until it overflows and you can pour love back to the ones you care about.

I realized that taking care of myself is going to feel hard, difficult, and challenging at times. Sometimes it’s about facing my fears instead of running away and seeking comfort. Sometimes it’s about admitting that I am not the person I’d like to be and getting myself back on track instead of allowing myself to deviate further from my truth. Sometimes it’s about forcing myself to hit that yoga mat instead of having a nap.

Initially, they don’t feel good. But I know they are good for me in the long run. Some people may say that apart from the ‘feel-good’ aspect, self-care also needs a dose of tough love.

I disagree.

I think it doesn’t need tough love. It just needs love.

“What would I do if I respect and love myself?”

This is the question I ask myself, again and again, several times a day, to remind me that self-care is not something I should do once in a while. In every mundane thing we do every day, we can always find an opportunity to care for ourselves.

Because not all the things that feel good are actually good.

Hanny

Llia: On Productivity & Being Committed to Writing

Llia (Aulia) Halimatussadiah is a writer of 30 books, from novels to how-to books. She is also the co-founder of NulisBuku.com, an online self-publishing platform, and Storial.co, a social storytelling platform that allows writers to do direct publishing digitally. In the past 3 years, she’s been writing biographies of successful Indonesian Entrepreneurs. Her latest book ‘Done is Better Than Perfect’, is a biography of Indonesian Digital Marketer and Serial Entrepreneur, Denny Santoso. You can read more interviews with Indonesian writers here.

1. What is your view about productivity, discipline, and inspiration?

Llia: I’m not productive, I just have a lot of things to say. The abundance of my curiosity and energy has led me into a series of learning, from books, classes, workshops, people, situations. And every time I learn something new, I just have to share it. It can be in the form of social media posts, writing books, podcasts, and videos. Inspiration comes when you’re living with a sense of awe and wonder of the world, just being aware of the present moment. It’s so natural when you’re in the state of accepting, receiving and allowing, you’ll get inspirations. I meditate every morning and night for at least 20 minutes, being still helps me a lot to be in coherence mode, and the effect of calmness inside will last for hours.

Once you’ve decided to create something big, for example, a long book, then inspirations alone are not enough.

You will need a plan to keep you accountable for your commitment. You need a structure. You need to be disciplined. I always said, structure before substance. Create outlines first, then pour your heart into it. I am proud to be able to be balanced (most of the time!), balancing my yin and yang, masculine and feminine energy that governs creation.

2. Do you have a writing routine?

Llia: I write a gratitude journal every morning, writing the evidence of the things that work well in my life based on my intention. For writing as in book project, I also do it first thing in the morning usually from 7 to 9 am, then I’ll get ready to go to the office. I am not writing full time, but my job as CMO at my own startup Storial.co allows me to have words, a big part of my life.

3. How do you manage a writing project? How do you organize your thoughts, your resources, and your time?

Llia: When I get inspired to write a book, it usually because I’m curious about a subject and I have spent enough amount of research that already benefits my life that I’d like to share with others. So I started a project with a clearly articulated objective, what the impact the book would make to the world when it’s done.

Then I would create a mind map to see how the book outlines would look like from start to finish. Then I’ll set the book launch date and count down from that date to figure out my researching time, my total writing time, my first draft, my proofreading time, my editing time, to my final draft. Then I’ll usually figure out from that schedule, how many pages per day I should write to be able to reach the goal on time. If I have to write 3 pages a day and I skip one day, then the next day my goal would be doubled.

When I’m writing a book project, usually my mind is fully occupied with my project, so I’m focusing on my energy and time to my writing project ’til I finished at least the first draft.

4. You are writing different types of books: novels, poems, guide book, self-help, travel book, spiritual, movie script, etc. Why? How do you want people to remember you or your work as a writer? 

Llia: I’m bored if I’m doing the same thing over and over, I like some challenges when I do my work, that’s why when writing gets a bit too easy for me, I add the challenge by writing books in different subjects. The latest and heaviest challenge would be writing a biography book of entrepreneurs’ stories. The difficulty level is so much higher because I need to dive deep into another person’s life and become them for some time. It’s tough!

I want to be remembered as a person who falls in love with life. And it shows through my passion for words and my variety of books.

5. What do you “discover” when you write?

Llia: I discover more about myself when I write. I was almost sure I was an ADD because I can’t sit still. I can’t even sit comfortably at a cinema because I just need to move from one thing to another, mentally and physically. So, when I write, I need to stay with myself for a little longer, it needs a bit of forcing my body to sit down and type the words coming out of my heart and mind. And when you’re able to be at peace, your mind clears, and things come to you like a light bulb. You suddenly get it.

Whether about the content that you’re trying to write and the correlation with your reality, to the way you handle yourself to be able to finish the book. People you need to meet will also appear to show you what you missed. Writing invite you to a new piece of land you never knew existed inside you.

6. How is your stoicism reflected in your writing or in the way you approach writing and publishing?

Llia: Nothing is bad news for a stoic. When my manuscript got rejected by a publisher, I turn it into a print-on-demand business NulisBuku.com that later grows into a new company Storial.co, a social storytelling platform. You just kind of take whatever life has thrown at you and turn it into profit (laugh).

As for my writing, I guess I’m very practical in my view about life because of stoicism, my writing is simple and to the point. I kind of joke to my friend Henry Manampiring, the author of Filosofi Teras, that I need more drama in my life, otherwise I would never be able to write a novel no more!

7. How would your perfect day as a writer look like?

Llia: My perfect day started as I wake up in my little villa overlooking the hills and the pool. Then I open my wooden door, feel the fresh air in my face, then take a deep breath. I started to meditate for 20 minutes to expand my heart and reach out for my journal to write and be grateful for my day the day before.

I walked to my writer’s room just beside my pool and open my laptop. Took 15 minutes to read books on the table and start to continue writing while sometimes rest and see the forest view on my window. I will write for 2 hours then take a break to walk in the forest around my house for an hour. I start writing again after having a light lunch until around 2 pm.

I’ll sunbath by the pool for an hour then take a 2 hours nap. I woke up to get ready to go to the beach and watch the sunset. Then taking notes for any inspired words coming out of my brain. I’ll have dinner with friends until around 9 pm then heads home. I can watch movies or read books related to my writing until around 10 pm.

Then I’ll meditate for 20 minutes before I sleep. 

Hanny
*) PHOTO COURTESY OF LLIA.

The Short History of Instant Noodles.

I published this essay on this blog a few years ago. Today, I am republishing the revised version of this essay, edited by Jen Campbell.

Whenever it’s raining outside, my mind always goes to a bowl of instant noodles. A steaming plate of comfort topped with egg and fried shallots, drenched in my favorite savory soup, such as Chicken Curry or Special Chicken flavor, which I loved as a little girl.

Of course, these days various instant noodle brands have come up with all kinds of flavors I never could have imagined. But, like with most things, nothing beats the classics.

I guess it’s all about how the signature taste transports you back to the old days from the very first sip: to feast on memories; to slurp a piece of nostalgia; to savor a feeling of going back in time.

***

There was a period in my life when Mother and I moved in with my mother’s parents. Every evening, after the call for Maghrib prayer, Grandmother would disappear into the kitchen and prepare a bowl of instant noodles for Grandfather.

Grandfather always opted for the Chicken Curry flavor—and he wanted the noodles to be extra soft instead of al dente. His should be topped with egg, fried shallots, boiled choy sum (Chinese flowering cabbage), and a tablespoon of sweet soy sauce, all served—steaming—inside a white Chinese bowl with a red rooster painted on it.

Grandfather always had his bowls of instant noodles exactly like that, every single evening, at the same time. He would be having it in front of the TV in the living room, while watching the evening news or a soccer match. Before bringing the spoon to his mouth, whenever I was around, he always asked the exact same question: “You want this? This is delicious. You want this?”

I would shake my head and watch him in amusement as he savored his instant noodles with gusto, slurping the soup noisily. Seeing him made me believe that here, right in front of me, sat an old man who was having the best meal of his life. Sometimes, long after Grandfather finished his meal, a splinter of boiled egg yolk sat stuck in his white beard.

When (on very rare occasions) Grandmother made me a bowl of instant noodles, she would prepare it the way she prepared it for Grandfather. I didn’t like the bitter choy sum back then, but I liked the way the too-soft noodles made the soup seem way thicker, the way they absorbed the full flavor from the seasonings.

Grandmother continued to prepare a bowl of instant noodles for Grandfather every single evening, until one day she fell sick. She passed away a month later.

After Grandmother’s death, Grandfather still had his bowl of instant noodles every evening—only now, they were prepared by my mother. She took great care to emulate Grandmother’s noodles.

Grandfather would have his meal as usual, but he no longer asked me whether I’d like to have the noodles, too, and I suddenly lost interest in watching him finish his dinner. Maybe I was bored. Maybe I was simply growing up. Maybe the sight of Grandfather eating his instant noodles had stopped to excite me.

But then I realised it was because something was missing: his gusto.

I guess no one could prepare the perfect instant noodles for Grandfather but Grandmother.

My mother was a good cook, but even she couldn’t precisely copy Grandmother’s signature dish. Grandmother also knew the way Grandfather liked his sweet hot tea: the precise thickness of tea and sugar, as well as the exact level of warmth when it should be served.

A year after that, Grandfather passed away. And then no one in that house ate instant noodles anymore.

***

I am always fascinated by the fact that a bowl of instant noodles can develop its own taste. These noodles come in identical packaging, with identical seasonings, and identical instructions on how to prepare and serve them. Nevertheless, I have heard of people lining up in front of certain instant noodle street stalls, who are all selling the same brand, because ‘the noodle here is so delicious’.

I thought this would be something Grandfather would understand. Perhaps, in another life, Grandmother would have her own stall, and Grandfather would visit every day.

In Indonesia, especially in the big cities on Java island, instant noodle stalls can be found on almost every street corner. Many stay open until the small hours. One need only look for street stall signs proclaiming the word ‘Internet’.

A friend who visited from abroad pointed at those stalls one day, and asked me whether those were street-style internet cafes. I told him that it was a different kind of Internet. This ‘Internet’ stands for Indomie-Telur-Kornet (a brand of instant noodle, egg, and corned beef). It’s a bowl of comfort food for most Indonesians—especially for clubbers who roam the streets hungrily at 3 am after partying and drinking hard, trying to prevent hangovers before heading home and sleeping through the morning.

A local friend of mine would enthusiastically vouch for an instant noodle stall in another part of the town. It would take her 45 minutes to get there by car—an hour and a half if there was a traffic jam. But she would brave it all. She said this stall served the most delicious bowl of instant noodles she had ever tasted in her life.

Perhaps it was the way they prepared the noodle.

Or how long they boiled it.

Or whether they stirred the noodle or not.

Perhaps it’s due to when they added the seasoning.

Or the kind of eggs they used.

The amount of fresh bird eye chili they put in.

Whether they sprinkled fried shallots, or not.

It could be the brand of the corned beef and whether they served it from the can.

Whether they put in some leafy greens.

Whether they grated cheddar cheese.

Whether they added a sprinkle of salt or chicken stock.

Or maybe ‘delicious’ has nothing to do with the taste itself.

Maybe it has more to do with memories.

***

We moved out from my grandparent’s house into a rented one when I was ten. The house itself was really small. The kitchen was oddly located; it was right in front of the bathroom. But the house had a huge backyard.

Seeing it, as a little girl, I imagined us having a huge swimming pool. But my mother sensibly decided to use the space to grow peanuts.

I don’t know why she chose peanuts, but after spending a few hours under the sun in the backyard for a few months, she managed to grow 10-12 rows of of them. I might not have got my swimming pool, but Mother bought me a huge plastic bucket. On sunny days, she would fill it with cold water. I would soak myself happily; wearing my swimsuit, playing with a yellow rubber duck, while Mother worked on her peanuts.

During harvest time, we always had more nuts than we could consume, and my swimming bucket would be filled with them. You could say we were swimming in peanuts. Mother would boil several batches of peanuts for hours; I could smell them from the street. We would eat some of them, but ended up giving away most of them to our neighbors. She also made peanut cookies and peanut butter, but we kept those for ourselves.

When there were simply too many peanuts to handle, Mother would leave the peanut-filled swimming bucket outside our fence, so anyone could grab some.

Peanuts were meant for sunny days.

For rainy days, we had instant noodles.

Mother always scolded me for forgetting my umbrella—or for losing it. On some wet afternoons, when it rained heavily and I came home from school with a soaked uniform, my mother would tut at me for not having my umbrella, while—at the same time—preparing a bucket of warm water for a bath. Then she would send me to the bathroom, reminding me to wash my hair so I wouldn’t catch a cold.

By the time I finished bathing, Mother would have prepared my ‘rainy day’ meal on the dining table: a plate of warm pandan white rice with a bowl of steaming hot instant noodles; and some eggs—fried in margarine and sweet soy sauce. A glass of sweet hot tea would be ready on the side. At this stage, my mother would stop scolding me about the umbrella. She would tell me the stories of her day; or ask me to tell some stories of my day.

My mother could cook anything from rendang to gulai, from gudeg to siomay, and they were always delicious. But nothing reminded me more of the comfort of coming home than the signature smell of her simple rainy day meal: a warm plate of rice, a bowl of steaming hot instant noodle, egg fried in margarine and sweet soy sauce, that glass of sweet hot tea.

It is the smell I come home to—the taste of warmth I’ve come to long for.

***

After Mother’s passing, for the sake of living a healthier lifestyle, in the past few years, I have drastically reduced the frequency I consume instant noodles.

However, every time I come home from a long traveling journey, I still treat myself to a bowl of Chicken Curry or Special Chicken, and fry myself an egg in margarine—drizzled generously with sweet soy sauce.

For this reason, when I found an Asian supermarket in my first few weeks after moving to Amsterdam, I shrieked in ecstasy at founding the exact instant noodle brand of my country; my grandparents; my childhood; my memories.

Every few weeks now I treat myself to a packet of Chicken Curry instant noodle (finding the most bizarre excuses to validate this ‘treat’)—preparing it in a too-clean kitchen that still feels foreign to me, a kitchen that now smells of cheap margarine, fried egg, and caramelized soy sauce.

Because if coming home had a taste, to me, it would taste just like that.

Hanny

Q&A: How Can I Practice Mindfulness in My Daily Life?

NOTE: From time to time, I turn to you (yes, all of you) when I have no idea about what to write on this blog. Feel free to drop an email or DM me on Instagram if you have any ideas/questions for the blog!

Q: HOW TO PRACTICE MINDFULNESS IN OUR DAILY LIVES?

A: First of all, I love this question because it has the word ‘practice’ in it! Personally, I believe that mindfulness is a practice. It’s not a permanent state of being. It’s an ephemeral thing we would need to cultivate on a daily basis with a healthy dose of discipline, patience, kindness, gratitude, and a spark of joy, to keep it alive–the way we would care for a house plant.

***

Below, I will share the 3 things I do to practice mindfulness on a daily basis. Feel free to adopt these into your life when you see fit.

1. DO ONE THING AT A TIME

Although in various occasions I am proud of my ability to multi-task, to practice mindfulness, I choose to do one thing at a time. To concentrate and focus on one thing–no matter how small or trivial it is: boiling a cup of tea, eating, conversing with friends via instant messenger, planning my day.

The idea is to respect each task or activity on its own and give it its slot of uninterrupted time and attention.

This means to simply focus on eating and enjoying your meals, instead of enjoying your meals while watching Netflix, listening to podcasts, or conversing with friends.

I always find myself capable of finishing a bag of chips or a carton of popcorn effortlessly while watching movies or reading novels. But when I have a bag of chips or a carton of popcorn with me, without any distractions, I realized that in less than 20 seconds, my cravings have been satiated.

Start by selecting several activities each day to practice, and notice how you feel.

2. SLOW DOWN

Everyone has their own idea of ‘slowing down’, but the basic idea is not to be in a hurry–so we can turn off our fight or flight mode. Imagine how you would react to a similar situation–for instance, a traffic jam–when you are in a hurry and when you are not in a hurry.

‘Slowing down’ helps us to get connected to that inner calm inside of us, that is not hurrying, rushing, or buzzing.

This can mean anything from slowing down your breathing to slowing down your car, from slowing down and pause for 10 seconds before you type a comment on someone’s feed to slowing down by taking a break from work. This can also mean talking slower, reacting slower, or walking slower.

3. OBSERVE INSTEAD OF JUDGE

There’s a difference between thinking: “there are unwashed plates piling on the kitchen” and “the owner of this kitchen is lazy and dirty” or “this kitchen is a total disaster“.

When we observe, we see what is. When we judge, we see what we want (or have been taught) to see.

When we observe, the sky is gray. When we judge, the weather sucks–or, on the contrary, the sky looks so romantic. When we observe, that woman skipped the queue. When we judge, that woman is rude, uneducated, someone needs to teach her a lesson or shout at her because that is so unacceptable. When we observe, this city has many old buildings. When we judge, this city is so beautiful.

When we judge something for better or worse, we are sticking ‘labels’ into it based on our histories, our upbringings, our preferences, our experiences, or even our traumas. When we observe, we learn to recognize things as they are; instead of what we think they are.

Next time you’re standing in front of a mirror, or talking to a colleague at work, or even walking around the street, try to notice whether you are observing or judging.

***

Do you have any tips on practicing mindfulness in your daily life? What are some of the things that become a part of your daily mindfulness practice? I would love to hear from you!

Hanny

On Organizing A Simple Wedding (Or Trying To)

Upon hearing the news about me about to get married, some people started asking me all sorts of questions, like: “What kind of venue do you have in mind?” or “What kind of wedding dress would you like to wear?” or “What flowers would you like to have?” or “What would you like for your wedding gift?

To which I replied with, “Hmm, actually… I haven’t thought about it.”

And it’s true. However, strangely, for some reasons, I feel a little bit guilty about it. I guess I just don’t want people to think that I don’t care about the wedding. Because I do care. Though I have to admit that I do not put that much weight on the ‘ceremonial’ part.

***

When my fiancé asked about what kind of wedding celebration I’d like to have, I said I have no particular idea. For me, a small and simple gathering with families and friends should do. What’s important is that we are legally and officially married. And, that’s it. Which surprises some people–especially those who know that I was once a pre-wedding photographer and a themed-wedding designer.

I have to say that I love beautiful wedding ceremony or themed-wedding celebrations (they are so magical–especially the forest-themed wedding!), and I still love designing such experience, but not for my own wedding.

I feel like I just want to have a basic and simple one–more of a low-key kind of approach (although my fiancé wants to throw a small post-wedding party in Amsterdam). I don’t know why. Maybe because I am an introvert and a private person who naturally feels out of place in the middle of parties; not to mention the awkwardness of having ‘me’ as the spotlight of the party!

So, here’s the thing: the wedding is less than 2 months away, and I still have no idea about my dress, my bouquet, or my wedding ring.

***

The ins and outs of engagement/wedding rings is something quite foreign to me. I see them merely as a symbol.

I remember this story I read in a forum years ago, about a woman and her fiancé, who wanted to get married. Because both of them are still struggling with daily necessities, they bought her wedding ring at a flea market–a vintage ring that costs nothing; but she liked it and she was happy. She said it was more than enough as a ‘symbol’ of their love and their intention to get married.

A friend of a friend made a ring-shaped tattoo on his and his partner’s ring finger. For them, it’s more practical than wearing a wedding ring. At least you don’t need to worry about losing it or having it slipped out of your fingers when washing dishes. If ‘diamond is forever‘, so is a tattoo.

Somehow, I like these kinds of stories. It never fails to fill me with such a warm and fuzzy feeling. I think it’s because I am attracted to people who embrace symbols as one should: nothing but a symbol–a reminder, a sign–that we give meanings to symbols; not the other way around. Thus, when some people were commenting on how small my engagement ring was (maybe they were joking, right?), I just laughed.

***

A few weeks ago, my fiancé took me to OOGST, the goldsmith studio where he got my engagement ring–the one he selected to propose. The goldsmith studio is run by Ellen Philippine and Lotte Porrio, lovely, warm, and friendly artists whose love of their artwork is clearly visible. In their beautiful studio, they design pieces of jewelry made with recycled gold and conflict-free diamonds.

“What kind of wedding ring would you like to have?” my fiancé asked.

“There is another ring? But, there’s already this one,” I pointed at my engagement ring. At the time, I didn’t know that you can get a different ring as a wedding ring (how many rings should I wear?).

So my fiancé and I had a discussion about it–and we’re still thinking if we need to get a wedding ring or not. However, even if we decided to get one, instead of purchasing a new pair of rings, we’re thinking of melting the ring of my late mother and the ring of my fiancé’s grandfather, then recycle them to make a pair of simple wedding bands for the two us. We think the recycling process can also be seen as a symbol for the ‘melting’ of the two families. A lovely sentiment, isn’t it?

***

The next thing to tackle (apart from the venues and F&B) for our small wedding celebration is, of course, the wedding invitation. Based on my experience, I know that wedding invitation can be one of the most expensive things in your wedding budget (to design, to print, to deliver)–especially if you have a large number of guests.

I understand that many cultures still put a lot of weight in having a printed wedding invitation that is (preferably) hand-delivered by the soon-to-be bride or groom. However, I also realized that most people do not keep wedding invitations they received; and sooner or later–sadly, these beautiful invitations will be thrown away.

After weighing the pros and cons, my fiancé and I finally decided that we won’t be printing a physical wedding invitation and going paperless instead. We cross our fingers that our friends and families would tolerate our decision, and we started designing our wedding invitations with Paperless Post.

Paperless Post

The website offers both paperless and printed pre-designed wedding invitations (they are so beautiful and the designs from Rifle Paper Co. are so cute!). Some designs are free, but some premium ones worth some coins (you can buy coins to purchase and send your invitation).

What I love the most about the paperless part is the fact that you can export your guest list, schedule the sending of your invitations, track the sent invitations (and notify you if the invitations have been opened by the recipient–or not), manage the RSVP, send reminders, and many more!

At first, I was thinking of using the lovely designs from Rifle Paper Co. (I have some of their notebooks!), Oscar de la Renta, or Kate Spade NY (yes, they designed some wedding invitations there!). However, since there are some limitations in customizing a pre-designed layout and there is an option in the website to upload your own design, my fiancé urged me to design the invitation myself.

“Why don’t you make some illustrations, so we can make it more personal?” he asked.

Surely, I procrastinated for about 2 weeks or so, and only yesterday I decided to wrap it up. Finally, I decided to go with a casual-modern look for the invitation design (something we both like) with an illustration of the two of us.

***

Here’s the thing: I never thought that I would get married.

I mean, not that I don’t want to get married, but when I hit 30, I kind of dropped my idea of a (traditional) marriage. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism–because I live in a culture where people are expected to get married (in the national identity card, the marital status column can only be filled with “married” or “not married yet“) and women are expected to get married when they are in their twenties.

So, when I hit 30, then 31, then 32, and so on and so forth, and still being single, it always raises some questions (and eyebrows. and sometimes, unsolicited ‘advice’).

Maybe that’s why I decided to drop the idea of getting married.

I remember that there was this one point in my life when I asked myself: What if I never get married? What will happen then?

I really gave it a serious thought. I listed down all the possibilities of this ‘alternate universe’ where I am living by myself, forever single.

I think about living alone, maybe with my pets and pots of plants. I think about my job, my friends, my social life, my passion projects, my single apartment somewhere. I think about traveling alone. About cooking for one.

And as I was thinking about it, I realized that it’s not bad. It’s actually not bad at all. Staying single is something I know I can live with. And being alone–to some extent–is something I am naturally inclined to as an introvert. So, there, in my thirties, I decided that I will be okay even if I will be single forever. I know I will be fine and will still be able to have fun nonetheless.

And then, here I am. Organizing my simple wedding and designing my wedding invitation.

But maybe it’s good, though. To go through that thinking process and knowing that I can be single or engaged, or married, and it doesn’t define my level of happiness or worthiness, nor it defines who I am as a person, and what I am capable of.

On Cleaning, Decluttering, and Tidying Up My Space (and My Life)

When someone asks me what I usually do when I am sad or angry, I would say: “Cleaning the bathroom while crying my eyes out!”

It was a joke. Well, actually, half a joke.

I do find comfort in cleaning, decluttering, or tidying up anything I could think of (not only the bathroom!), especially when I am sad or angry.

I have no idea why I am actually drawn to these activities when I am feeling down. Maybe because the act of cleaning and decluttering provides me a false sense of control (I got this!). Or because it gives me the opportunity to still be sad (or angry) in a (more) positive way.

Or maybe, the act of throwing broken (or forgotten) things out–reminds me of how I can actually let go of things that no longer serve me and my growth in life. Maybe, the vigorous regimen of brushing, scrubbing and wiping dusty surfaces that follow makes me feel as if I were cleansing myself, emotionally (tears–my organic & natural cleansing agent). Maybe, the painstaking effort in organizing my stuff and tidying up my space is supposed to tell me that it can be done. That now, I can also reorganize my priorities and tidy-up my life (or, more frequently, heart).

I guess, cleaning, decluttering, and tidying up has been my go-to ritual to deal with my (hurt) feelings and my (chaotic) state of being.

***

On a conference I participated in a few years ago, I heard this idea about how we can change our internal state by changing our external environment.

The underlying premise is simple: it’s easier to change things externally than internally; however, when you change your external environment–this change can also affect your internal state.

OK, let’s take an example. Imagine yourself, going about your daily lives. One day, you’re going around in your most comfortable outfit (for me this means sleeveless blouse/shirt, jeans, and sneakers) and on another day, you’re going around doing more or less the same stuff–in a really neat or delicate outfit (maybe an evening gown, or a formal suit). Can you get a sense of how you might act, think, or feel differently–just because you’re wearing a different outfit?

Or imagine yourself working from a plain white cubicle, then working at a cafe with lovely jazz music at the background, and then working from a noisy pub. Do you think there’s a shift in your mental/emotional state as you’re changing your work station from one place to the next?

That is more or less the premise behind the ‘outside-in’ idea. When we have no idea on how to change our internal state of being, change our external environment to get closer to the feeling we’d like to feel.

If we want to feel happy, or healthy (or wealthy, creative, confident, anything, really) but we don’t know how to get there ‘internally’, change our external environment. Change the way we dress, the way we speak, the way we spend our time, our morning routine, our social circle, our daily habit, to feel that way. What kind of outfit change that could make us feel a bit more creative? What kind of morning routine that could make us feel a bit healthier? What kind of people we could surround ourselves with that could make us feel a bit happier?

In this case, cleaning, decluttering, and tidying-up has become my ‘outside-in’ way of changing my internal state by mirroring it through my external environment. When I am sad or angry or feeling down in general, I can’t think of ways to clean, declutter, or tidy up my mental/emotional state. And so, I clean, declutter, and tidy up the bathroom, the bedroom, my drawers… until I feel something shifting inside of me.

***

The absence of broken things and piles of rubbish makes me feel like a big burden has just been lifted out of my shoulders. Empty spaces, racks, or drawers, makes me feel like I can breathe deeply and effortlessly. Gleaming surfaces makes me feel light and in control.

As everything is being placed neatly, right where they are supposed to be placed, I feel as if I am also experiencing that. Everything eventually falls into place, and I am back to where I am supposed to be.

PS: In my next post, I will write about organizing my simple wedding in Amsterdam, and why I choose Paperless Post for my wedding invitation.