Chapters of Life

So much can happen in a single year of life.

I will never cease to be amazed by this simple fact. You can look out on a fresh year sitting before you, be inspired by the possibility and take your first steps in a certain direction – but there is absolutely no way to know what will happen next. No way! How foolish we are to think the universe will bend to fulfill our meticulously laid plans. Our intentions and deepest aspirations can manifest themselves in our lives if we hold them deeply in our hearts and do the work required to make it happen, but they will most often not show up in the package we first expect.

Certain points in our lives invite reflection on what has come before as we anticipate for what will happen next. We sense one chapter coming to an end and another about to begin, and time seems to slow out of reverence for the preciousness of life.

I have found myself in one of these periods most recently. This time of year has held significance for me for a long time, as it has always been the end of the school year and competitive season of gymnastics, a time for slowing down and simply being a kid. Last year held even more importance than normal: I had officially graduated high school, and it was time to enter the real world as an “adult.”

And so eleven months ago, I took a huge leap and stepped out on my own. I moved to a new city to attend the school of my dreams and left behind the familiarity of my childhood home in favour of adventure. This year proved to me that our late teens and early twenties are a time of great discovery. It is a time of firsts, irrational decision-making and a perpetually heightened emotional state. I’ve never much been a fan of failing or messiness, but it seems to be utterly unavoidable at this time of life. I have been on an impressive rollercoaster this last year, let me tell you. Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen. Life is quite the ride.

I look back now and feel as thought I am a completely different person from when I first stepped off that plane into the stifling heat of July.

It was the first one-way trip I’d ever taken, and the feelings were bittersweet. I remember journaling as we flew through the air several thousand feet above the ground. I was starting a new journal, and I wanted every word to be perfect. Still, to this day I cannot think of a word to describe the unique blend of sadness, fear, and exhilaration that tags along when you move to a new place. Leaving behind the people I’d grown up this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I knew it was what I had to do. Something in my gut told me I was making the right move.

For the first six months, I existed in disbelief and wonder at the richness of this new life I got to live. I was learning, growing, expanding to fill the space I had never felt back home. This new place became my home, and I hated the idea of leaving it for even a moment. I was surrounded by people who understood me and loved me for who I am – or at least, this part of me that has never before felt truly understood before.

I was attending one of the most prestigious schools in the world for the circus arts, and so the circus artist in my thrived while I neglected nearly everything else. I didn’t write a single poem for eight months, and the writer in me watched in increasing irritation as I failed to record a single detail from my life.

It is so easy for us to lie to ourselves at times, far easier than we like to admit. I viewed my life as one does a new lover: through rose tinted glasses that slowly, imperceptibly, deteriorate in time.

Yes, my fall semester was filled with beautiful moments and simple joys, with friendship and laughter and love. But there was also an underlying pain I was not dealing with, one I could only ignore for so long. I was tired all the time, fatigued in a way you cannot fully understand until you have experienced it for yourself, one even then I could not begin to understand. I played mind games with myself to get to the end of the week, and I spent much of my time looking forward to a weekend that never quite seemed long enough. I worked hard to squeeze myself into the mould the school had cast for me but no matter how hard I tried, I never really fit.

I was doing work that was, in many ways, extremely satisfying. Any kind of growth in that capacity usually is. I am incredibly grateful for that period of learning, and I have no regrets but for this one: I began going about my days in a way that was inauthentic and ultimately unsustainable, and I lost a large part of myself in the process.

The thing is, we are all multifaceted people – some are just more this way than others. I am not wired in a way where I thrive on a single-minded environment where nearly everything you do falls upon some pre-determined path. I do much better with the freedom to choose and simultaneously pursue a few different kinds of work aligned with my interests. Balance is key, I know this now. It took me many hard months to get here.

Sometimes people can see things in us we cannot see in ourselves; sometimes we are just too close to the problem.

Others can sense when you are lying to yourself, as a friend of mine once told me. There was a heaviness in my life that I was ignoring. Towards the end of the first month of the new year, one of my coaches approached me with a question that shook me to the core. In essence, she was asking one thing: are you happy? Is this really what you want to do?

I was forced to face a decision I’d been lingering on for about a year, one that held with it the gravity of my entire world. I knew my answer would change everything, literally everything about my path, where I would go and how I would move forward. Terrified and shaking, I chose to do what my gut was telling me. I ended a partnership that had grown toxic, the same partnership that guaranteed my place at school. I took action, and then it was my turn to wait. And wait. And wait.

A few months later, things blew up in my face in a way I had not anticipated. I faced more rejection in four months than I thought one heart could take. And yet, the day after the finale of one spectacular supernova and a mere three hours of sleep, I looked healthier than I had in months. I had a friend tell me my face was glowing.

Life has a funny sense of humour. At times, Life is not very funny at all. Our capacity to move through grief lies in our ability to remain open to the lessons Life has to teach us in the moments we’re on our knees, holding in our hands the two halves of a heart that has split in two. Trust the process – there are some things you cannot know.

I see now that this life I get to live in this moment is much more in line with what I truly want to do. It is, however, also a life I could not have imagined would be possible before my initial plans all went to shit. My intentions were clear all along, I just did not know they would manifest themselves in this way.

Each life is a work in progress. We cannot rewrite the past, but we can change how we approach the future. We can choose to give ourselves space to feel whatever we are feeling without holding on too tightly to ideas of what tomorrow may look like, whether that be for better or for worse. The only constant in a constantly changing world is change.

One short chapter in my life is coming to an end, and I never imagined I would be ready to move on so soon. But I am. This next chapter is going to be a good one, I can feel it. Here I come.

Social Spiderwebs

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

Let’s just stop and think about that for a second. Whom do you spend more of your time with than anyone else? How much are we each our own person? How much of our emotions, thoughts and actions occur because of the someone else?

As it turns out, the answer is quite a lot.

As human beings, we are incredibly influential and influenceable to different degrees. We exist within deeply interconnected social spiderwebs where everything is contagious. I mean everything – weight loss to the common cold to dissatisfaction with work. Everyone is on earth is separated by an average of six degrees of separation, and your actions have an impact that extends far beyond your closest friends.

In their bestselling book, Connected, scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler speak about the power of social networks and how they impact our lives. It turns out, our thoughts, actions and feelings have three degrees of influence. This means that when you decide to eat healthier or join a gym, your friend, your friend’s cousin and his sister-in-law are that much more likely to do the same. All at varying degrees of intensity, of course. You have the strongest influence over your immediate peer group, and the weakest over those three degrees away. But the connections are there, and we are foolish to ignore them at this point when the world seems to be growing smaller by the day.

This ripple effect can have far-reaching consequences, both good and bad. When one person falls into a habit of neglecting their health, those around them are at an increased risk of doing the same. In the book, Christakis and Fowler explain how something as intangible as inexplicable fits of hysteria can spread throughout a school or even a country in a kind of social epidemic, much like a disease. It all transfers down the line eventually, if we are not conscious of what is happening and take steps to stop it before it travels too far.

Even loneliness is contagious, a fact we must be increasingly aware of in the coming years as our tendacy towards isolation becomes a growing concern.

Humans are very social beings. We crave connection on a cellular level. Our brains have been wired to react to rejection in the same way we would if the wound were a physical one, a signal to our body that it is likely dangerous for us to remain on our own. In this article in Psychology Today, writer Jennifer Latson explains how loneliness occurs more frequently on the fringes of a social network, and it can be passed from one person to the next just before that person retreats from the group, leaving a trace that can and will spread.

Loneliness, much like carbon monoxide, is a silent killer. It sneaks in slowly, imperceptibly, with no regard for the number of relationships you’ve collected over time. It does not discriminate against the well-connected and doesn’t care how old you are. It just shows up, and we must first take notice of our feelings in order to combat it.

Researchers are finding more and more how vital our social connections are to our overall well-being. Loneliness is more lethal than obesity or smoking and comes with an even longer list of side effects: from an increase in stress and anxiety to a heightened risk of depression and disease, loneliness is making its way to the top of a list of public health concerns. There is no traditional way to regulate it as one would a typical disease, and it remains attached to the stigma surrounding mental health that is ever so slowly changing, one day at a time. The best thing we can do for now is to pull those who like to linger at the edges a little closer in and make an effort to be conscious of the people in our lives.

If we really are so interconnected, maybe we should pay a little more attention to whom we’re spending our time with, and the ways in which we interact with others and ourself.

I have noticed many of these findings to be true in my own life. Empathy can be extremely powerful, and it has been entirely intuitive for me for as long as I can remember. More often than not, I find it easy to empathize with the point of view of whomever I am with at any given time. There are times when I am more perceptive than others, and in these times I find myself hyper-aware of the emotional state of the people that surround me. If I am not careful, I begin to inherit their traits.

I have felt this before in a very tangible way. If someone close to me is stressed or anxious or depressed, their pain begins to manifest itself in my own life. I find myself seeking control over things I typically feel no need to control. In the past, I have gotten so caught up in everything swirling around me that I forget who I am at my core. Only recently have I been able to recognize this within a few days of it happening and calm myself before I go too far.

In a sense, I can be a social chameleon, blending into the social setting or group I find myself in at any given time. I either bend myself to fit in or choose to stand firmly with my own beliefs on the opposite side of the spectrum – I am not very good at lingering halfway in between.

I have learned there is great value in giving people the space to be themselves and just agree to disagree.

This adaptability is a very natural human tendency; it is what enabled us to thrive in groups for so long. The pull of community is strong. There is, however, a fine balance to be found between seeing someone else’s perspective and losing oneself entirely. It is the dance of learning to observe one’s passing emotions while staying deeply rooted and grounded in oneself.

You are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time – so choose wisely. If you want to learn, surround yourself with people who are perpetually working to grow. If you wish to expand your perspective and open your mind, spend time with those who love to travel and go on adventures in their spare time.

Of course, this is not simply a one-way street. You influence the people around you just as much as they influence you. In this way, the kindest thing you can do for the world is first to learn to be gentle with yourself. Acknowledge and accept your worth as a human being, that there are times you are awesome or crazy or sad and that is okay. If you can show up for yourself in this way, you will be more understanding of those around you and in turn, help them accept themselves.

Who do you spend your time with? How do you think can you care for them better?

Be Here Now

Some days, my mind can be a very noisy place. Today is one of those days.

It can be extremely hard to write when my brain is busy trying to process a million things at once. As a matter of fact, it can be extremely hard to do anything at all. Making to-do lists and filing memories into the appropriate file cabinets so that they-may-not-be-lost-when-I-should-wish-to-retrieve-them takes up a lot of mental space. I am moving in less than a week, I have no idea what my life will look like in six months and holy shit, where did the last year go?

I swear, sometimes my thoughts travel at a speed that gives Light a run for its money. There is no way to keep up with them all, so I find myself just sitting here watching them pass as I try desperately to focus on the task at hand.

There are fruit flies buzzing around my kitchen as I stand here this morning, and today I feel like I share their attention span. Either that or I have evolved to possess the mental capacity of a goldfish. Go figure. Go Fish. Maybe I should go play cards or clean the kitchen instead. That sounds like a good idea… or not – maybe not.

Sometimes people tell me they admire what they call my “self-discipline.” They covet the ability to choose a task, to focus and get it done, something that is not so easy in a world riddled with distractions. But let me tell you something, it is not what it looks like at all. Where they see someone who has mastered the art of motivation or productivity, I am aware that the one thing that keeps me going are habits.

I know I must do handstands six days per week if I wish to grow as a hand balancer, so I do. If I want to be able to move with any level of ease, I know I must stretch every day, so I do. I have been making my bed every day at the very least since the age of ten, so it is not a question of whether or not I should do it when I get up in the morning – my hands are pulling at the sheets long before my groggy brain has a chance to suggest otherwise.

According to the University College London, it takes 66 days to wire in a new habit to the point of automaticity.This is just a fancy way of saying it becomes easier to do the new habit than it is to skip a day out of laziness, fatigue or lack of motivation when the time comes to do the thing that you know you should do.

Often times, we set goals for ourselves then forget about the thousands of tiny steps it will take to get us there. We imagine ourselves at the peak of the mountain before we’ve even begun our ascent. When it comes to actually do the work required to get us where we want to go in life, it is much easier to give up near the start than it is to stick it out past the messy middle and trudge through the trenches to our dreams.

As human beings, we are wired to avoid discomfort. It is how we survived for so many years when the elements were against us and an array of predators sought to see us dead. As tribal beings, our instinct tells us to do almost anything to avoid being cast out of the tribe. We seek the approval of others, and would often rather go places in groups than strike out on our own.

Spending time alone can make us feel deeply uncomfortable. When you have nothing around to distract you, you have no choice but to confront the thoughts that follow you around all the time. Sometimes these thoughts upset us or make us question our decisions in life. As uneasy as this process may make us feel, it is invaluable to step back and observe the patterns of your own mind.

I’ve noticed there is a cyclical nature to my thoughts – my brain likes to run itself in circles around the same ideas, like a dog chasing its tail with little success and no end in sight. These thoughts usually circle back to either the past or the unknown future, things over which I have virtually no control.

If it takes only 66 days to wire in a new habit, we must be careful what habits we choose to wire in. Even the way in which we process our thoughts and the things that happen to us in life can become a habit if we are not mindful of where our brain routinely wanders to.

There is a point when looking to the past in order to sort through your feelings is no longer healing – it becomes rumination over things you cannot change. There is a point where planning and dreaming about the future becomes a habit of living in a time you cannot yet see.

At some point, we just have to let go and be present, as scary as that may seem. We have to accept the choices that have brought us here and make peace with those forces we cannot control. If we don’t, our life will fly by before our eyes, before we have a chance to grasp the beauty that was right there before us all along.

Over the years, I have become intimately familiar with the process of creating habits. Writing is one place where I have struggled to keep these habits more than anything else. Creative endeavours require their own special brand of motivation, and sometimes I go to the shelves to find it is simply out of stock.

I have never quite mastered the art of stillness – there is much I have yet to learn in the ways of calming the brain. My ability to write relies heavily upon my ability to exist in the moment and be present with my thoughts. If I worry what people might think of my work as I am trying to get it out of my head and onto the page, there is no way I will be able to write what needs to be said. I have to give myself the permission to wander down unknown avenues, to be in the moment and trust that the process will take me where I need to go.

It is only recently I have been able to recognize these patterns that live within my mind. When I notice I have spent a period of time stuck in the past or worrying about the future, I force myself to slow down and come back to the moment.

Your five senses are a gift. Use them. Try to distinguish the flavours of your food each time you take a bite. Take note of textures and subtle sounds. What does the air feel like today? What colour is the sky? What do you smell when you first step outside, what noises do you hear?

This is what it is to be truly alive. When I notice I have been absent from my life for a time and pull myself back to where I am, I feel like a literal weight has been lifted off my forehead. It is a much happier, lighter way to live. I am working on being a little more present every day.

As Hagrid once said, “No good sittin’ worryin’ abou’ it. What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Beauty of Empty Space

Confession No. 2: I am not very good at sitting in in-between spaces, and I am also not very good at sitting still.

I mean this in the most literal sense of the words – I am incapable, it seems, of doing nothing. As I am placing these thoughts down on paper, I hold a rock in my hand that is not occupied with the task of transcribing the words that come out of my brain. I do this to keep myself busy in the moments my mind drifts off into the void as I try to figure out what it is that I’m trying to say.

There are two exceptions to this rule. First, if I am watching a movie or performance of some kind that has my mind fully captivated, my entire body becomes engaged in the act of absorbing every detail and I am unlikely to move around too much unless I become uncomfortable. The same could be said of watching the sunset or reading a fascinating book. Second, if I am curled up next to someone I love, I am often quite content to just lay there. When I am truly relaxed, I just let my body melt and all is well in the world.

There was a time when even these moments of stillness disappeared from my life as I became obsessed with the feeling of getting things done. It was the only time I felt at ease with myself, in the wake of work well done.

My mind is extremely task oriented. I didn’t always used to be this way – I’m not sure when exactly things changed, but it was probably around the time I was fourteen or fifteen when I became aware of how short life really is. This realization set off a blaring siren in my brain. I grew to feel guilty if I wasn’t doing something my brain perceived to be “productive” at all times. For a while, it got so bad I couldn’t even sit down with my family to watch an hour-long episode of our favourite TV show we liked to follow each week. I had to be stretching or doing rehab exercises as the episode went on, and if I wasn’t I would usually hate myself for it after.

Just before my seventeenth birthday, I had to have surgery to repair a torn ligament in my knee that I had injured months before. Any procedure of that magnitude requires much rest in order that your body may have the energy to focus on healing, but I refused to let a lame leg slow me down. Within the first three days after surgery, I was already stubbornly attempting to do any form of exercise I could for fear that I might lose my body if I didn’t. I would go for slow, hobbling crutch walks when I was supposed to keep my leg elevated. I would find ways to work out my upper body without jostling my knee.  If I wasn’t moving or sleeping, I was convinced I should be learning something so I read as much as I could. Even as I struggled to find my way to the washroom, I refused to take the time I should.

That third day, my body began screaming so loudly I couldn’t ignore it anymore. The hospital-grade painkillers had worn off, and I was in a lot of pain. I came very close to passing out in the night when I got up to use the washroom, and a few more times after that. It became clear I was trying to do too much. I had to slow down, sleep, and sit still for a while if I was to heal at all.

The older we get, the faster time seems to pass.

People have been trying to explain this phenomenon forever. One of my favourite theories that I think makes complete sense: the further you get into life, the relative ratio that every year takes up in your memory becomes smaller. In other words, the slices of the pie get thinner as we age. When you are two, a year makes up 50% of your life. By the time you are fifty, the percentage has been reduced to 2. Therefore, every year seems shorter by comparison than the one before.

I think these jumps seem bigger when you are young – going from 1/15 to 1/15 is a bigger jump than going from 1/40 to 1/50. When I became viscerally aware of the passing of time in those early adolescent years, I panicked. There were so many things I wanted to do and achieve and produce in my one precious life, I didn’t want to waste a single moment on trivial pursuits but live each day with purpose. In order to do this, I hopped on the hyper-productivity train and joined the crowd of people looking to the same.

How could we better hack our time in order to fit in everything we want to get done? New strategies popped up every day, and I consumed self-help literature voraciously. I learned to map out visions for where I thought I wanted to go in life. I made vision boards in order to help keep me on track. I had my big five goals, ten smaller deliverables and top five values to live by, and I tried my best to act on them every day.

What I learned in the process is that goal-setting can be an extremely valuable tool,  but it can also be extremely stressful. We often overestimate what we can accomplish in one week, and grossly underestimate just how much we can grow in a year – you will go places you cannot predict, so trying to map out every inch of your life is utterly useless.

Most of all, I learned that life should be more than just a to-do list. This is something I have only been able to appreciate in looking backwards at all the time I spent unhappy because I was trying to just “get things done.” I would set so many goals and tasks for myself, only to end up accomplishing one or two to full capacity. The rest would just sit there collecting dust on a shelf. It caused me anxiety to end each day with a list of tasks I couldn’t complete, and I delved even deeper into the literature to find out what was wrong with me when I knew all along.

Today, we are being constantly bombarded with two heavily conflicting messages by a society that can’t make up its mind. We are told to HURRY UP AND GET THINGS DONE, LIFE IS SHORT AND THE CLOCK IS TICKING AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIEEEEEEEEEE. At the same time, we are being pursued by a different voice, one encouraging us to slow down and live life in the moment, take time to breathe and be grateful for the things we have. The thing is, even meditation and gratitude lists can become just another item on the To-Do list. Even time spent with loved ones can be a source of stress if we approach it with the wrong state of mind.

Sometimes doing nothing is the most productive thing you can do. Life is all about balance – knowing where you want to go in life, and yet leaving space for the things to happen that you know you cannot plan for.

I have found I am happiest when I exist in equilibrium, between intention and going with the flow. When I wake up on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I know I am going to write. I train handstands six days per week, but my practice changes depending on how my body is feeling. Beyond that, I like to fill much of the rest of my time making art, doing good work, learning or spending time with the people I care about. But I also like to leave some room to breathe, to admire the beauty of empty space.

One of my most vivid memories is of one evening on the beach in Kailua, Hawaii, when my family took a trip there a few years ago. My dad and I just sat there in the sand as my mother wandered closer to the shore to dip her toes into the ocean. A comfortable silence sat between us – there was nothing that needed to be said. We watched the sky radiate brilliant colours as the sun inch its way closer to the horizon before it disappeared until the next dawn.

What a spectacular way to start and finish a day, to watch the sun put on a show in the company of those we love most and do nothing at all. This is the way I want to live my life: intentional work and beautiful moments that make my heart feel full.

Ever so slowly but surely, I am learning how to sit still.

Doubt

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.

A very wise man once said these words. As a hand balancer, I am reminded of their truth on a daily basis. If you can’t understand why on earth anyone would spend hours of their day trying to stand on their hands, I would tell you that it remains a mystery to me as well. For me, handstands are akin to a moving meditation. There is a feeling in the practice I have not been able to find in anything else – I do not know of a word that exists to describe it. I only know I am at home upside down, and so I continue the habit.

Handstands are a lesson in patience. Like anything else in life, some days are better than others; but unlike many things in life, the ups and downs make themselves tangible in a very visible way.

In a world of instant gratification, the art of hand balancing is an anomaly. It is a humbling reminder of the importance of consistent hard work over time. Sometimes when I am training in public places, people approach me and ask me to teach them how to do what I do. I smile and give them a few pointers and basic exercises they can do on their own, but most often they are looking for something I cannot give them. They are looking for some secret to let them bypass the hours of work that are required to achieve a level of mastery in any skill, not just in what I do. The thing is, most people are not willing to go that far and dedicate the time required to accomplish what they think they want to achieve. They just want to be good already, yesterday, five years ago. But it doesn’t work that way.

 do it. Minutes turn into hours which turn into years before you really start to see any headway at all. Because progress comes so slowly, you must pause and look backwards, to where you were six months ago or the first time you managed to stay inverted for more than five seconds on your own. You are taught to celebrate the smallest wins because that is all there is.

Handstands are special because they are a direct reflection of what is going on inside. I can tell if I am frustrated or mentally exhausted from a long day of work in how easily the balance comes. If I am feeling extremely emotional or disconnected from my body, it shows. Doubt sidles up beside me and snakes his arms around my own. My elbows begin to wobble and my hands can’t quite find the sweet spot where I am comfortable on the floor. Some days, the only way I can describe the feeling is this: it’s like I am belly dancing while standing on a moving boat. All while in a handstand.

It’s not as fun as it sounds.

More often then not, it’s a mental game. Sure, there are days where my muscles are fatigued from overtraining or I didn’t get enough sleep the night before. But I can usually overcome these factors if I can get into the right space in my head. The moment I allow Doubt a shot at the control panel is the moment I will fall. I forget the thousands of hours I’ve put into standing on my hands. If I can manage to stop consciously thinking about what I’m doing for thirty seconds and lighten up a little, my body takes over and I can suddenly balance again.

I experienced this phenomenon as recently as last night. I have struggled with Doubt for a long time, in many domains of my life. Doubt is a master of disguise. He and I are very well acquainted at this point, and I am only now beginning to understand his many sides. We’ve gone on a number of late night walks in which I let all my deepest fears fall on his sympathetic ears. He knows all my biggest aspirations as well, and he likes to use this to his advantage – not in a way that is conducive to my growth as a human being, but rather successful in keeping me exactly where he wants me. That is, not moving forward a single inch, but staying exactly where we are.

Recently, I’ve been able to identify some of his favourite tactics for getting into my head and manipulating my thoughts to suit him. There is that gentle, worried whisper, and the not-so-subtle whine. There are the times when he throws distasteful glances in my direction or when he gets up in my face and just shouts “WHY?”

My doubts are almost inextricably linked to a subconscious search for external validation, one I didn’t know I’d signed up for in the first place. I thought I could care less what other people think of me, but it turns out that assumption was wrong.

All this time, it seems I’ve been waiting for the right person to come along and tell me I am good enough when really, I need to see that in myself before I will believe anything anyone else says. For better or for worse, you only ever accept that which you believe you deserve.

We so easily fall into a pattern of thinking that says something needs to change before we will be satisfied with our life, be it our body, our financial situation or the relationships we are in. It’s like we are running a race chasing after the setting sun, and the horizon is our finish line. These extrinsic rewards or “markers of success” so often get tied up in what we believe about who we are, but they don’t need to. You don’t need to prove that you are worthy of fulfillment, of happiness or love – you already are, just the way you are.

I say this because I know. I’ve been there myself, a lot. It’s easy for me to get roped into thinking my years of experience in art and in life are negligible, simply because I am young. I’ve had a few people tell me as much, and for a time I grew to believe it. Sometimes I see all the people I perceive to be more skilled than I or more knowledgeable in their given field, and I get caught feeling like I am not good at what I do just because I see they are so amazing.

I am learning to appreciate the value of others without letting in diminish my perception of my own because everyone’s path is a little different. Just because my experience doesn’t look like yours doesn’t mean it is any less real or valuable. Each one of us is intelligent in our own way. If you can approach your daily interactions with this open mindset as opposed to one that is pretentious and closed, you will be surprised how much you can learn.

The stories we tell ourselves are incredibly powerful. Just look around at the people in your life, and you will see what I mean.

These stories have the ability to dictate how you go through life, how you overcome challenges and continue in the face of your fears. For a long time, I lost faith in my abilities to make even the simplest decisions – I was looking at all the places I had taken a wrong turn and ended up at a dead end, or had managed to lie to myself for a period of time when in my heart I knew something was wrong. I didn’t even trust my own feelings anymore, and so I allowed other people to tell me what I was feeling instead.

I had grown attached to the wrong story.

The way you see yourself refracts back out into the world, in the way you treat other people and even the earth itself. A person who knows their worth, who respects their own strengths and acknowledges their weaknesses is one who can respect the world around them. This is the kind of person I want to be.

Everyone deals with doubts and fears in everyday spaces where it does not serve them. We get to choose if we listen to what these voices have to say, or if we decide to call the shots instead. I used to scream at the walls when Doubt would show up to the one thing that brings me calm. Now, I just take a deep breath and quietly ask him to take a seat – I’ve got this one, thank you very much. I understand your concern, but I’ll be okay.

And know that you will be, too.

On Getting Started

Just start.

I tell myself this every single day. More often than not, I find deciding what to do and then taking the first step to be the most challenging part of any process, particularly when I am doing something creative. Which is, let’s be honest, pretty much every day.

There are a million different ways to be creative – creativity is not limited to the first few vocations that come to mind when you hear that word.

People often assume if they are not a writer, designer, or artist of some kind that they are not creative. This is a false pretense that comes from a society that loves to throw everyone and everything into neatly-labelled boxes and then tosses away the key. I find this assumption highly irritating. I would challenge you to take a closer look at the things you do every day and tell me you are not being creative in some way or another, whether that is cooking dinner for your family or finding a solution to a colleague’s crisis at work. Creativity is a hallmark quality of the human species, thank you very much. We would not be here today without it.

Maybe I am a little bit biased on this topic, but I don’t think that’s the case. I would consider myself a highly creative person in the more traditional sense of the word. I am an artist. I always have been, from the time I was very young. I loved making cards and drawings for the people in my life, for special occasions or just because I felt inspired to do so. In second grade, I was thrilled by a class we had called “Writer’s Workshop,” in which we would go from the idea phase of a story to producing an actual physical book. When I was ten, my Opa taught me how to sew, and I started my first company, Heart Balloon Ink. It was then that I learned my first lessons in branding and product design, and I would give all my friends handmade Pillows with a Purpose. (It was one way of marketing my creations, you know.)

Even as I spent hours with my mother, stitching together tiny felted creatures or crafting necklaces of hemp cord, holey seashells and beautiful beads, I grew to appreciate math and science all the same. I have a soft spot for solving formulas, and I loved my high school physics class. This analytical side of my brain goes directly against the philosophy that you can be skilled with a paintbrush or good with numbers, but never both.

I’ve always had the tendency to be a little rebellious, but not in the way you would think. I have never fit the mould of what is considered “normal.” Both an artist and a nerd, I am neither left brain nor right brain dominant, but instead, I like to sit somewhere in between. Making things is intrinsically satisfying for me, and my life is incomplete without it.

Maybe my love of creating comes from some genetic coding written into my DNA. Maybe it’s been passed down through my blood from the generations before me, from a time before computers and iPhones and TV.

I grew up in a close-knit family, the only kid among adults who loved to exercise their creativity in unconventional ways. My Opa was a bricklayer who then founded a construction company and built his own house. My Opa and Oma then established a world-class artistic gymnastics centre in the prairies so my mother could achieve her goal of reaching the Olympics, all without moving away from home.

After a successful career as an artistic gymnast and a stint of a few years where she coached in Guatemala, my mother went on to build her own space. What began as a dance studio has evolved into a vibrant training centre for the circus arts, none of which would have been possible without the help of my father. Dad is a creative engineer who did his masters in Robotics. He now spends his free time doing the rigging for the studio, designing and building original apparatus’ to compliment my mother’s wildest visions. They are a dream team come true.

In my family, if you want to do something, you find a way to make it happen.

This mentality was installed in me at such a young age that I never considered my entrepreneurial tendencies to be bold or rebellious at all. It was just the way things were done. Everyone in the inner circle of my family has lived many lives and is good at many things. I was taught that if you put in the time and worked hard enough, you could accomplish anything you set your mind to. Simple as that, right?

Except, sometimes it’s not so simple. When you’re young, you only see how brave or smart the adults in your life are, you don’t see everything they’ve struggled through in order to get to where they are. You don’t see their doubts and fears and the times they fought hard to make ends meet while working away at their dreams. You can’t understand why they encourage you down the “safer” of the paths laid out before you, why they say you should pursue the more logical of your aspirations when it’s because they don’t want you to have to struggle as they have. You can’t understand it, because you haven’t experienced it for yourself, and there are some things only living can teach us.

Creating things is extremely rewarding, but I will acknowledge there are days when it is also extremely hard. An idea can be so perfectly packaged in your head that you’re scared to take it out into the real world for fear that it may not live up to your lofty expectations. You can sit for hours with a blank canvas before you and a hand that refuses to move across the page, or fingers that refuse to type.

I find the first sentence is often the hardest for me to get right – I can most often fight my way through the middle of a piece, and there’s a burst of energy when you know you’re approaching the end. But without those first few words, I’m at a loss. I may have a vague idea where I’m going, but I haven’t found the right mode of transportation to get me there and I’m stranded until I do.

So some days, I tell myself, just start. Put something down on paper. It doesn’t have to be good. If it’s no good, no one ever has to see it. But you can’t edit what you can’t see, and I know there’s something in there just waiting to come out. C’mon, work with me.

Inspiration shows up every day you show up to work – some days it may just look a little different than others. Sometimes he’s wearing a suit, top hat and tie, and sometimes she shows up in baggy sweats and her ex-boyfriend’s t-shirt. And some days, the best days, Inspiration bursts into the room wearing hiking boots and a fully stocked backpack and announces the two of you are going on an adventure without further ado, are you ready yet? She’s been waiting all night and can’t wait to get on the road.

I don’t think I will ever fully understand how the human brain works. We are all wired so differently, and it is important to take the time necessary to figure out what makes each of us tick. For a long time, I struggled with the fact that I am passionate about so many things. I desperately wanted to narrow it down to just one or two, because somewhere along the line it got drilled into me that this was the only way to truly become world class at anything. The hunter who chases two rabbits catches neither. Or at least, so they say.

The problem was, whenever I would try to jettison my many passions in favour of just one, I would end up restless and deeply unhappy.

I saw this as an affliction or some vital flaw in my wiring, and so I fought it – hard. In the last number of months, however, I’ve come to realize that maybe I’ve been looking at the “problem” all wrong. Maybe my love of many things is not my weakest point, but my greatest strength.

I am learning to be okay with the fact that my life may work in cycles. There are periods when I find I am drawing from an ever-flowing spring of words. Other times, my creativity is purely visual – I am all photography and illustration and graphic design. And then there are days beyond that where my mind is not working at all. I crave working with my hands or being in my body, knitting or dancing or sitting still. All are equally valuable acts of creation as I am working on the greatest piece of art my life will produce: the person I want to become.

But in order to get where I am going, I must take the first step. I must make a decision, any decision. Then I must begin.

We Look At the Same Sky

I have a deep fascination with the sky.

I have for a long time, actually. It’s hard to say when exactly our love affair began, but from the time I started writing poetry in third grade, there has been a crucial connection between my creativity and the natural world. It is a recurring theme throughout my work – I always feel most inspired outdoors, generally walking and frequently observing the sky.

My love of the stars came when I read a book by one of my favourite childhood authors, Wendy Mass. I was eleven years old at the time. The novel, Every Soul a Star, is about three young strangers brought together on a campground to watch a total solar eclipse. The chapters are divided into their three different perspectives of the events that take place throughout the book. All the characters came alive in my mind, but I could best relate to the girl whose family had run the campground for several years, so long she could hardly remember anything else.

We read books to make us feel less alone, and these characters became my best friends in a time I felt quite lonely in a world that didn’t understand who I was. This girl did not know a traditional childhood, but rather she and her brother were brought up in the best classroom man never made, but one that existed long before the industrial revolution. She was engaged in an intimate relationship with the natural world, but her deepest love lay in the night sky.

It was in this book that I found my first astronomy lesson; I have taken great comfort in constellations ever since.

Having grown up in Winnipeg, I am more accustomed to sunny days than I am cloudy ones. I find it quite depressing to have the sun hidden from view for more than a few days at a time. The weather in Manitoba is rather intense, yes – this is what happens when you live in the middle of what was once a giant lake. It is extremely flat, so much so that you can see for a twelve-kilometre radius if there are no buildings to obstruct your view.

Because of the lack of change in elevation, the weather tends to stick around until a system comes through that is strong enough to move it along. Or there is a change in seasons. In winter, we get temperatures as low as -40 degrees C and then add the windchill. Let me tell you, that is cold. At the same time, in summer temperatures can climb above 30 degrees C. But no matter the season or time of day, you are more likely than not to find clear skies. It is one of the advantages to living in Manitoba.

If you’ve never been to the prairies, it may be hard for you to understand why anyone would live in such a bipolar climate. You may not be able to imagine the vastness of empty space that exists in a place where the sky is a canvas that lasts forever, further than the eye can see. There are entire stretches of uninterrupted land with nothing but farmers fields, rusty railroad tracks, and one or two rogue gas stations dotting the horizon. Even Winnipeg itself is sprawling – it can take more than three-quarters of an hour to get from one area to another in a city populated by less than a million people. It may not be the most exciting place to live, but it does have its own charm. I am grateful to have grown up there.

Now that I am living and traveling thousands of miles from the place I grew up, I find I instintively look to the skies for a piece of home.

It’s reassuring to know that, no matter where we end up in the world, the sky will always be there. I once saw a live movement production that told the stories of a few families of immigrants and their struggles in moving to a new land. After the show, we were privileged enough to meet the creator and listen to him speak about his inspiration for the show.

Because of a variety of factors, this man had spent long periods of time travelling. This took him away from his family and friends, scattered as they were across the globe. Distance can be quite hard on the heart, so this man found his own unique way of staying connected to the ones he loved. Each time he travelled, he would locate a park, sit down on an empty bench and look up at the sky. He would find comfort in the knowledge that somewhere, someone he loved was looking up at that same sky, even if they were a million miles from where he was.

The world may feel big at times, but it is also incredibly small. When we look to nature, we find this sense of connection that exists between all living things and resides within our hearts. We can reach for it when we find ourselves overwhelmed, tired, or unbareably lonely. It will always be there.

These days, I find myself looking up a lot. I am frequently distracted by whatever the sky is up to at a given moment in time. It’s quite comical, actually: I can be walking to a friend’s house at night, and I will stop dead in the middle of their back alleyway, just a few steps shy of their doorstep. The air is crisp with a winter’s chill or thick with the heat of summer. Sometimes I have words on the tip of my tongue that must be transcribed before they slip away, but most often I am simply sidetracked by the few stars that have managed to burst through the light pollution to pierce a gorgeous navy blue sky. I am overcome by a sense of wonder – the world is so utterly beautiful it literally takes my breath away.

Our world is built on patterns that repeat themselves time and time again. Take the number three, for example. Our days are composed of three distinct periods: sunrise, full light, sunset. In our solar system, the trio of the sun, the moon, and planet earth are necessary for life to thrive. There are three atoms that combine to create one molecule of water, three colours that combine to make visible light, and three main states of matter. The same could be said of the number seven, the hexagonal structure of a snowflake, or the ever-present golden ratio. Patterns are everywhere.

Patterns may be common in nature, but they can also teach us a thing or two about ourselves – what do you find yourself being drawn back to time and time again?

The best way to recognize these patterns within yourself is to spend some time alone with your own thoughts, to try things and gather data and then reflect on what you find. I find I am constantly pulled back to create and be in spaces with these three things: a body of water, a forest of green trees, and a breathtakingly beautiful sky. There is something in these elements that soothes my soul and lets me allows me to feel at peace in the world – I am home.

Listen to the signals your body gives you. Listen for what your heart has to say. Life is the process of rediscovering yourself as you wander. Have faith, you will find your way.

On Punctuating Unfinished Sentences

I have a confession to make: I am not very good at sitting in in-between spaces. I would much rather things just be simple for once, thank you very much, but alas, I now know this is not the way life works.

Life is messy, much messier than I would like sometimes.

My dad always likes to remind me that as a kid, I was quite the perfectionist. I mean, I still am now, to some extent. But this was to the extreme. When I was learning to read, my nightly ritual would go something like this. I would pick out a storybook with the goal being to read it aloud to my mother when she came home from teaching dance. First, I would read the book by myself in my room once or twice to get a feel for the cadence of the sentences and the way they felt in my mouth. Then, I would read it to my dad, so he could correct any mistakes I might be making. Finally, I would read it to my mother who would hopefully be very impressed by my grasp of the English language and I could go to sleep knowing I’d done something well that day.

The thing is, most of the rest of life is not like this.

You do not get several chances to provide the right answers for your final exam in high school or that interview for a job you really want to get. Sometimes people are forgiving – they will give you a second chance, or a third if you’re really lucky, but we do not live in a world of unlimited do-overs. At some point, you have to wake up to the mistakes you’ve made and will continue to make throughout your life so that you can learn to do things differently and make new mistakes next time. You can’t normally anticipate a mistake before you make it, either. And sometimes a mistake isn’t really a mistake, it’s just a detour on to a different path than you were planning. That’s why they say vision in hindsight is 20/20.

This all makes the perfectionist in me deeply uncomfortable and a little restless. “I can’t predict the future?” she likes to ask. Again. And again. And again. “Really? Are you sure?”

To which my response will always be no. You can’t. You just have to deal with life as it comes. In one of my favourite quotes by Maya Angelou, she says, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.” This is resilience. This is accepting the messiness of life and continuing on anyways, even when the going gets tough. Angelou knew a thing or two about this: she was faced with challenges, yet she managed to rise each time, like a phoenix from the ashes, stronger than when she’d gotten knocked down. What an inspiration.

Life has given me a fair bit of practice in throwing curveballs of late. In just a few short weeks, I will be packing up my life and moving to a new apartment a few blocks from where I am living now. This move may not be far, but it is happening much earlier than I anticipated it would. Finding the place was an adventure in itself, both mentally and physically. I searched streets and the interwebs for what felt like forever. It was a stressful, emotional rollercoaster, but I survived the trauma, and I’m excited now. I’m also a little envious of all my things that can be so neatly categorized and organized into boxes.

I think I’ve always liked the idea of boxes more than I actually liked fitting inside those boxes myself. Until I was six or seven years old, I couldn’t comprehend the meaning of the sentence, please put things back where they came from. My room looked like a tornado had come and we had never cleaned up the debris. There were clothes and books and toys everywhere, so much so you couldn’t see the floor. I thought it was weird to be able to see the floor. It unnerved me.

Clearly, I was just a creative mess of a small human being. I used to love making my own drawings and cards for people I loved – forget colouring books, that was boring. I would create and play in my imaginary worlds all the time. Then came time for elementary school. I’m not sure what happened around the time I started first grade, but it was like a flip switched overnight. I cleaned my room, started making my bed and didn’t look back. No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a start. I loved to collect things; I didn’t yet understand that there was no way I would ever use all these things but found some satisfaction in their acquisition. At least you could see the floor, and each thing I owned had a home in which it lived.

I began colouring in colouring books and on assigned sheets of paper at school, always trying my best to stay inside the lines. Maybe I became aware of the very real risk of failure and the consequences of making mistakes. Maybe I’d spent too much time around scared adults who already existed in that world where you simply couldn’t afford to make mistakes. But alas, this was the time the perfectionist in me truly came out for the first time in my life. She had no qualms taking control of my actions for several years, sponsoring Doubt and Fear so they might back up her message. “Don’t try new things,” she whispered persistently. “You might embarrass yourself if you do, and that would be the end of you.” She always has been a bit of a drama queen.

Eventually, I was forced to confront the fact that life is not printed in black and white the way I’d once believed.

Sometimes things happen that don’t make sense. Bad things can happen to good people. Good things happen to people who haven’t put in the work. People who do bad things are not evil – even they have some shred of goodness left in them, however deep it may be buried. I learned people often act out of fear or anger. Or sometimes they are just very, very confused. The world does not function in black and white, but rather an infinite number of shades of grey. Just when you think you have the spectrum all mapped out, you notice a new tone you’ve never seen before, and you find yourself back at square one.

I’ve learned that never and forever are two of the most dangerous and misleading words in the English language. Or any language, for that matter. They are absolutes, and they trick us into thinking some things in life are permanent and we have been able to distinguish which ones those are. For the longest time, I was convinced I would never live on my own. Look at me now.

Right now, my life is all about sitting in those uncomfortable, in between spaces. I do not know what comes next. But I do know what is important to me, and I do know what I want to build my life around. I am learning to let go of the idea that I have to have the step-by-step process figured out. It is okay to admit there are things I don’t know.

When you admit there is something you don’t know, you are opening yourself up to the answer. It is the key that enables you to grow. It is important not to set up too many constraints or blockades for yourself unless you know it goes directly against your values, or what you want most in life. If it is a bridge you used to get away from something deeply unhealthy, please do go ahead and burn that bridge. And there are a few doors truly are better left untouched. But often there are many more ways to go about life than the ones we limit ourselves to, we could see if we weren’t so tethered to being right.

I am not a huge fan run on sentences or paragraphs that last forever. I am a punctuation junkie – I love to use commas and periods and semi-colons, sometimes in places where it is not necessary. Sometimes I put too many commas in a sentence that should be two shorter ones, or I’ll put a period where there need not be one at all. Learning to write is like learning to live – it is a process of trying things and editing and finding your style. It is a journey I embark on every day.

The grammar rules in life are not so simple, however. In fact, I’m not sure there is even a guidebook to describe all the nuances out there. Sometimes what looks like a period is really a comma in disguise. Or we’ve thrown out the comma all together in favour of an ellipsis, a pause prescribed to last an indefinite amount of time…

Look in the Mirror

Sometimes I wish I could observe the world through another person’s eyes. Perception is such an intriguing topic – every last person on earth today experiences the world differently than you or I. And I mean this in the most literal sense. No two people can look at the sky and see the exact same shade of blue. To some, classical music is the most beautiful sound in the world, and to others, it will put them to sleep. One person may love the taste of mangoes, while another will be left at the mercy of nausea after one bite because of that one time in Guatemala when they contracted food poisoning and that was the last thing they had ate before they threw up for twenty-four hours, nearly nonstop, and they know they are not allergic but they just really do not want to relive that memory, thank you very much.

We all collect a series of assumptions as we go through life about the ways in which the world works, and we tend to expect everyone else to share those same set of rules, too. Even when they don’t.

Travel is one easy way to confront the very things you tend to take for granted on a daily basis. The culture we grow up in heavily influences so many of the decisions we make without thinking, relying on our subconscious brain to do the work. This set of rules is a sort of guidebook for how we should show up in the world, the language we should use and the way we should interpret others’ actions or words. It is so deeply ingrained in us we hardly ever stop to think about it or question where a certain belief came from, we just accept it as fact and move on. We need something concrete to build a foundation on, after all, something solid from which we can act.

Constantly questioning things is exhausting. There are certain evolutionary traits that exist in humans that have enabled us to survive for thousands of years, and this guidebook is one of them. It simplifies life for our brain, just like stereotypes do. Instinctively, we want to stick close to our tribe and avoid the “other.” So it is easy for us to get caught up in the business of living, to forget to reflect or question things at all, even when we become dissatisfied with the way things are.

This is because, until very recently, we simply couldn’t. Our brain was taught to ignore the fact that there might be another way, perhaps just beyond our doorstep. But times have changed. We can override our brain’s tendency to avoid other ways of life. First, however, we must be willing to venture out of our comfort zone and expand our point of view.

There are usually a few rules in our guidebook we skim over, never really taking a closer look into how they govern our life.

During my recent trip to Iceland, I was confronted with one of these rules that owned me for several years in a way I wish it never had. When I was eleven years old, I sustained a back injury that put me out for several months. I had always been a very active child, running and playing both in and outside of the gym, and this sudden inactivity was a shock to my body. Inevitably, I gained a lot of weight in a short period of time. After several months of rest, I returned to the gym, no longer the little girl I’d once been. It was as if I’d become a woman overnight – I hardly recognized this body I was attempting to flip around. Add to this the skin-tight bodysuits and tiny teammates, and it was a recipe for some serious insecurities surrounding my physical form. Thus began a battle between my mind and my body that would last several years.

Sometime before adolescence, I’d had an image ingrained in my brain of the ideal body: that was, I should have thin, lean, long limbs and a tiny torso to accentuate my hips. I always admired the gymnasts who had this graceful look over the short, powerful types. When you’re an active kid, it’s easy to maintain this stature. But in time, I grew to envy these long lean girls who could eat whatever they wanted and not worry about putting on a single pound. My body type was something quite different, and I fought, hard.

When I was fourteen, I thought I’d discovered a way to hack my body type to get the look I craved. If I cut out all grains and dairy and ate a diet consisting purely of vegetables, fruit, poultry, fish and a few select superfoods, I found those lean limbs within reach. I started doing cardio five to six days per week in addition to my gymnastics and circus training, and I was terrified of the consequences if I missed a few hours or stepped out of line.

My devotion to this way of life came from all the wrong reasons, and I grew to fear my body.

I would stare at the mirror and pull at non-existent fat around my waist, sucking in my abs as much as I could. Anytime someone took a photo or video of me, I would inevitably hate the way I looked. In the few times I felt I was beautiful, I was nearly always at my skinniest, skinny to a point that scares me to look at now. Ultimately, the image I saw when I looked at myself didn’t match reality, didn’t match what everyone else saw when they observed this tiny girl grow tinnier with every passing month. People I hardly knew were worried about my well being. I was skin and bones and wiry muscle, constantly tired and hungry and cranky.

You are not your body – you are so much more than the figure that other people see. Somewhere along the way, I forgot this little piece of information, and my self-worth became inextricably attached to the way I felt about my body on any given day. I thought this was the only way for me to live; I never criticised others for their lifestyle, I never told anyone they should adopt my way of life. Maybe this should have been a huge red flag, but my brain never got the message. I’ve always been better at helping others than I have at letting myself be helped, and in this instance, it went far too far.

It is easy to lie to yourself for a period of time, but at one point you have to wake up. A little more than a year ago, my parents sat me down and told me this needed to change. For the first time, they managed to get me to see how unhealthy I’d become, how this way of life had become a dangerous habit that could actually put my life in danger if we didn’t do something immediately. Thus, the long road to recovery began.

I think many of our issues about our bodies stem from the stories we learn from the culture we grow up in.

Visiting the thermal pools in Iceland made me realize how much more comfortable people are with their bodies over there. In the pools, you are required to strip naked and shower before you put on your bathing suit and enter the water. Thing is, there are no individual stalls – it’s all communal showers. There is no hiding. But no one really cares what anyone else looks like. Women and girls of all ages adhered to this rule, going about their own business no matter their shape or size. I think it’s a healthy thing for young girls growing up to see this kind of attitude surrounding bodies. There is no fear, no judgement, just acceptance. Everyone has a body with their own strengths and flaws, that’s just the way it is.

While this ritual made me uncomfortable, it forced me to confront the messaging I’d accumulated growing up. This idea that we should all be air-brushed models and do everything in our power to reverse the ageing process is false. Bodies are not meant to be feared; they are meant to be loved and appreciated for all they do for us every day.

I’m not saying these body positivity campaigns don’t still make me uncomfortable. This issue is something I’m still working on like anyone else. I am a short, athletic yet curvy young woman who builds muscle easily with use, and I am learning to own this fact now.

Take a look in the mirror, really stop and look this time. Every body is a good body – so love yours just the way it is.