My mind is a curious place.
I’ve never been inside anyone else’s so I can’t say for certain how others’ brains work, but mine works much like a smart phone, collecting videos and images and random data that contribute to my unique point of view in the world.
I can think back to when I was two years old, riding through the picturesque prairie countryside in the back of my fathers’ red trailblazer, our new husky puppy curled up in her kennel beside me as we took her home for the first time. As I sat there, a toddler overcome with joy by my new fuzzy companion, I attempted to share my excitement with my parents by exclaiming how we’d gotten “a husky.” Instead, the word came out as one, “Askia, Askia!” and my parents decided then that was what we would call our little black and white puppy from that day on.
When I was four, we were in Lisbon, Portugal for the 12th World Gymnaestrada, a gymnastics event that brings together over 20,000 participants from all over the world to perform and share their love of the sport in a non-competitive environment. I remember walking down hot, cobblestone streets with my dad while my mom was out training with the team, sitting atop his shoulders as we made our way through unthinkably large groups of people too vast for my young brain to comprehend. I remember meeting some girls from Africa who thought I was adorable and gave me a water bottle for my tiny Canadian pin. I remember a group of performers launching tiny dolls into the audience at the end of their number (I caught one and still have it to this day) and I remember tripping on a grate hidden in the stony back alleyway, effectively scraping up my knees and acquiring a giant goose egg on my forehead just minutes before the girls were to go up to perform.
As a third grader, I remember that first day in Mr. Krahn’s classroom when he gave us each our own writer’s notebook and told us we were to bring it with us everywhere, filling it up with our thoughts and words, decorating it however we liked. I wrote my first poem that day, sharing it proudly with the class and anyone who would listen. I remember how I broke my forearm a little more than a year later, how third grade had been filled with happy moments and fourth grade was decidedly not, but how even then, even in amidst many challenges, there was light. There is always light. I remember a cute boy signing my cast and falling into my first mutual crush, how he’d write me notes every day and stick them in the little bin underneath my chair. His “old geezer” impressions made everyone laugh, and it was nice to be noticed for once.
Life was simple, and it was beautiful. In many ways, it isn’t all too different, even now.
My mind is filled with a thousand of these tiny little moments. They are so vivid, for me, they play out like a movie. The hard ones, the good ones. Moments of joy and moments of pain or sorrow. This is my life’s story, and I am adding to it all the time – every day, every month, every hour. Sometimes I long to go back to certain moments. Sometimes I long for time to slow down.
I have found myself sitting with the notion of time frequently of late, growing increasingly aware of its passing. Time, I am finding, is a funny thing – it is rigid and elastic, mechanical and cyclical and uncontrollable all at once. The passing of time occurs with or without our permission. As such, it is often touted as our most valuable resource, and I am acutely aware of how I am spending mine.
Time, time, time. We think about it all the time. What are we going to do with our time, with our one precious life on this earth?
A few weeks ago, I saw a contemporary dance show that was fundamentally mind-blowing and opened up an entirely new world of possibilities for me and what I could become. The artist was Akram Khan – in his last solo show, Xenos, he spends much of his time alone on stage, accompanied by five live musicians. The cinematography of the show was simply stunning. You could feel how every single detail had been thought out, how nothing was there without purpose. I was sitting in the middle of the front row and I could feel his presence. He was absolutely, one hundred percent there with us, his audience of many. It was breath-taking.
For me, as an artist, this presence is the most important factor in any performance I observe. When you perform the same show over and over again, day in day out, it is easy to let what is essentially magic become quite mundane. When the artists are not fully present, the audience feels it. I have been to many shows where I have seen the absence of life in the artists’ eyes, and it absolutely breaks my heart. To be a performer is a gift – to one’s self and to the world. To forget that is to take art for granted.
Akram, at 43, was confronting his own mortality with this particular work of art. His body had seen many years of hard work and hours of dancing, and he knew he could not continue much longer in the capacity he had performed as a young man. Classically trained in ballet, contemporary and Katak, a form of traditional Indian dance, he drew from the sacred of the East and the West, in movement and stories and song.
Yet when he spoke with us, the audience, at the end of the show, he answered our questions with a humility I have come to recognize in many great artists. In spite of the already high calibre of his work, he continues to play and go deeper every time he steps out on stage. He shared his aim with his work and the stories the work grew from. He spoke of philosophy and history and time. His work has a purpose, and that is the kind of work I have always known I long to create. Now I had one more living example as proof to my theory that art can inspire change in the hearts and minds of many if used as the vessel that it is. Now I just have to go out and carve my path.
In January, I began a formation in contemporary dance, something of a pivot from the circus career I was pursuing last year. Until the end of March last year, I saw my life taking one very distinct path. But that path, I’ve slowly grown to realize, is not the one for me. Sometimes you see images of the people you admire, and you think that is the life you want to live. You never know the full story, however, until you live it.
We forget that we are not our heroes, we are our own people – and what makes someone else feel happy or fulfilled will not necessarily do the same for you. So we must find the courage to be honest and always choose our own stories.
I am finding a joy in the world of contemporary dance that I lost for much of the last decade of my life. My teacher has pushed me to ask questions and be curious, inspiring me to push my boundaries and search for every opportunity to learn and grow into the best version of the artist I want to become. I have found myself with new friends who make me laugh more than I have in a very long time. My days are challenging but thoroughly enjoyable all the same, exhausting but ultimately rewarding.
In the last week or so, I’ve come to realize I am only going to walk this particular journey once. Only once. I spent so much of my teen years miserable in pursuit of some far off goal, never once stopping to realize why it had to be so painful in the first place. My brain is not wired for skills. My brain is wired for creativity – I long to explore and shift and try new things every day. Otherwise, it is so easy to get stuck in a rut. As Akram explained, we need to maintain that sense of child’s play, that sense of curiosity and question. Life is so much more interesting that way.
And so, ever so slowly, my vision for the future has begun to shift. If I am going to go on this journey only once, I want to enjoy myself every step along the way. Some moments will be hard, no doubt. But I am learning, as Harry Potter’s mentor Albus Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of places if one only remembers to turn on the light” (JK Rowling).
There is always light.
I am learning to show up and be fully present for all aspects of my life, to fully enjoy the ride rather than simply working to get to the destination. Some days, however, I still pass idle moments combing through my memories, projecting my life’s story on a widescreen in my mind. Sometimes I wish I could upload this film to the minds of the people with whom I’ve connected. I want them to know where I’ve come from because stories have the power to connect us in ways unlike anything else.
Our past is not everything, but it does make up much of the stain glass window through which we view the world. My world may be different from your world, but in some ways, our worlds are so very much the same. We’ve both loved, we’ve laughed, we’ve lost. There is something so beautifully interconnected about the human experience that is so easy to forget when we meet a face we don’t recognize. But even in the unfamiliar, there is something familiar to be found.
This is what it is to be human.
Forget hate and discrimination and politics and walls. Forget xenophobia and racism and sexism. Forget violence. Forget wars. To be human, to be fundamentally human is to connect. To share. To love. To be a light. My story is your story. Your story is Our Story, the story of humanity. Share it. Remember that it matter. Our story matters. Every little piece of it.
That means you, too.