The first time I tied a cherry stem in a knot with my tongue was on the banks of the Mekong River, surrounded by beggars. The skies threatened rain as I sat with my parents and sister at a bare metal table outside a restaurant in Phnom Penh. It was the first day of the Duch trials and soldiers stood menacingly, armed with AK-47’s, at every street corner. Was I meant to feel threatened or protected? I was confused. The streets were wet from an earlier downpour. The muddied river lay wide before us. The only other Westerner in sight was a crazy man who passed us on the street, shaming us and the locals alike with his loud words of admonishment—the locals for manipulating the Westerners with their begging and us for letting our empathy show on our faces.
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One of the waitresses—an older woman— chastised a younger worker, bringing her to tears. None of this seemed out of the ordinary to those around us, as I sat with my family stunned into silence. Across the street was an encampment of mothers and young children who we could see wanted our food, and when they approached the table, we hesitantly lowered our half-eaten plates into their up-turned palms and were thanked with zealous bows. I felt anxious and exposed. I unconsciously turned my focus to the cherry in my drink. I ate the cherry, began to chew nervously on the stem, and the next thing I knew, I had tied it in a knot.
I’ve only tried this trick a couple of times since then—always with my family, laughing, somewhere on vacation. It’s something none of my friends knows about me. It seems a frivolous thing, but I’ve come to appreciate the way it reflects something about me that’s actually very important. That is, when I’m in the midst of what feels like a lot of tension or discomfort, I seem to have a knack for being able to focus my attention in a very steady and predictable way–like the tying of the cherry stem.
Standing on the pitcher’s mound in a softball game—bases loaded, teammates cheering, and coaches yelling— I look at that one spot in the catcher’s glove. One target. One goal.
Pitching is my cherry stem.
As I think about it now, that moment on the street corner in Cambodia shows a lot about me. Tying a knot in a cherry stem was a way to distract myself from the disturbing city scene around me and the resultant disruption I felt inside. It’s this same laser-like focus that has allowed me to have a wide range of interests and talents from the time I was little, and to be a successful and active student and athlete today. When faced with something particularly challenging, I am able to put everything aside and commit my full attention to the one target—one goal. Whatever I take up with—an art project, a research paper, a history lesson—as long as I feel stimulated and challenged, I am fully engaged, actively involved in learning about the thing or seeing a task through to its completion. One target. One goal.
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