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.

Uncertainty

Recently, I’ve observed an interesting pattern that seems to recur throughout life. That is, nothing ever goes the way you expect. Even the best-laid plans can go awry sometimes. Or often. Or all the time.

If there is anything life has taught me in the last number of months, it is this: there is great value in being able to go with the flow and adapt to whatever comes your way, for better or for worse. Something that seems like a tragedy at the moment can be the best thing that ever happened to you – and vice versa. Uncertainty is part of the beauty of life. You never really quite know what is going on until you can look back and say, ah, I see it now.

There is no way to anticipate the future, and there is no one straight path to get where you’re going in life, whether you like it or not.

You make a decision, and that decision leads you down one avenue or the next, which in turn leads to the next fork in the road and on to the next. It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but more a matter of choices.

There was a time in my life when I created a highly regimented schedule and set of rules that I used to govern every decision I made. It was all self-imposed; I thought I knew what I wanted, and I was convinced I knew the best way to get there. I suppose every teen goes through a phase of thinking they know best, and mine just looked a little different than most people my age.

While my peers began to explore an ever-expanding world of choices, I confined myself to a shrinking prison of discipline and all the things that I knew were safe. They went to parties and tried alcohol, and I stayed home and played with new restrictions I could add to my diet. I had a set of exercises I would do each night after I came home already exhausted from a five-hour training session, and I wouldn’t let myself go to bed until they were done. Heaven forbid I touch a piece of chocolate or bowl of potatoes. If I did, the guilt would consume me until I did some extra cardio, even if I had already spent twenty-six hours at the gym that week. Or I might just explode.

It was an extremely limited, stressful way to live, one that was  entirely unsustainable in the long run.

I missed out on a lot during those six years of adolescence. I became increasingly delusional in my pursuit of a goal that was not my own, but rather one I’d adopted from some gymnasts I admired. There was no more passion in gymnastics for me – I was burnt out and tired beyond measure. People I hardly knew were worried about me, but I stubbornly refused the facts staring me in the face until I couldn’t any longer. The illusion came crashing down, and I had to start from scratch.

What do I really want to do with my life? I asked myself again and again. At the time, I had prided myself on being so self-disciplined. I had claimed it made life easier, not to have to make so many decisions. But now I look back and think, maybe I was just scared. Scared of the unknown, scared of failure or doing something undoable I might regret.

It’s funny to think about this now. Within the span of four months following a big decision in January, I had my life turned completely upside down to an extent I did not see coming. I tried to anchor myself to something that was ultimately not meant to last, at least not in the capacity it had existed up until that point. And so it collapsed beneath the weight of so much pressure, and I was free. It was time for a change, yet I was once again terrified of having the world at my feet with nothing to hold me down.

Freedom can be terrifying.

We constantly search for external anchors in life when really, the only anchor we can rely on is the one within ourselves. At our core, we all know what we truly want, whatever that may be. We’re just too scared to go after it because doing so feels exceedingly vulnerable. We tell ourselves it is impossible because we don’t know if it has ever been done. Or at the very least, we don’t know how to accomplish it. Or we’re too busy, or too tired or comfortable for such shenanigans.

Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable, and maybe rightly so. But nothing in life is ever truly fixed or certain, and acknowledging this can give us the courage to take steps where we’ve never been before, to travel and explore.

When we are young, I believe travel is the ideal way to learn and expand the brain. I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I did growing up. It is a large part of the reason I am who I am today. The world can be one of the best classrooms. Now, during one of the most formative parts of my life, the thought of being tied down to any one place for too long makes me anxious. Travel is the thing I crave.

While seeing how people exist in different parts of the world is invaluable in any capacity, flying solo increases that by tenfold. Solitude enables you to reflect on your experiences and rediscover things about yourself in a way that you cannot do when you are surrounded by the people and places you know well. We need space to hear our ourselves think.

I say “rediscover,” because I believe life is largely not a process of learning about who you are but uncovering the things you already know.

No one can ever know you better than you know yourself, as comforting as it can be to let yourself think otherwise for a time. I am in the process of learning to separate my opinions and emotions from those of the people around me. You will always be influenced in one way or another by the people you spend the most time with, but being aware that it is happening gives you the power to question whose words are coming out of your mouth and dominating your brain.

These days, I am learning to let go and trust in the process a little more. I still believe there is value in setting a direction for your life, but I also believe it is important to take opportunities as they arise. So I’ve decided to do just that, to have ideas and dreams then focus on taking baby steps and the occasional leap of faith when the cliff arrives. We’ll see where it takes me next. So far, it has led me down one pretty beautiful path.

On Healing

Healing is hard work.

Our bodies are truly incredible machines, but we so rarely stop to admire all they do for us. If we break a bone, we set it straight, place it in a cast to so we don’t use it for a while, and let our body do the rest. It regenerates the cells, literally knitting the bone and surrounding tissue back together until we are whole once again. Your conscious brain doesn’t have to do a thing. We don’t have to learn or teach our bodies how to heal themselves – they just do, all on their own.

Just imagine if we have to tell our bodies to fix themselves every time we sustained an injury, however minor or major the damage might be. Cuts and scrapes, burns and fractured limbs. How much brain power would that take? Your body may break down over the course of a lifetime, but it is so much more adaptable than we give it credit for.

Beyond major injuries and small daily pains, our cells regenerate every seven years. Your body is able to shape and recreate itself until your physical self is something brand new. Sure, we’ve learned to aid our bodies in the healing process over the years, but the majority of the work done doesn’t need our help. If we take care of our bodies in the most basic way, our bodies take care of us.

If only our emotional lives could be so simple.

When we don’t have to make a conscious effort to do something, it is so easy to take it for granted. Take breathing, for example. Without oxygen, you will die. We breathe thousands of times per day without giving it a second thought, our lungs expanding and contracting like accordions while our veins and arteries circulate blood to all parts of our bodies. It knows to take care of the most vital organs first – the brain and the heart – while we slack on our end of the deal, easily forgetting to take care of those same priorities. We compromise sleep and family time for our careers. We forget to challenge our brains in new ways in lieu of money.

If we don’t take care of our bodies, we receive a series of letters in warning before we get a slap in the face. If we don’t take care of our bodies, they break down. We can’t argue, we can’t deny the evidence any longer when it comes flying at us and we know it’s true. When it comes to our hearts, however, the story is a little different.

When it comes to what we feel inside, we can lie to ourselves a lot longer. We can wear masks and pretend to be someone else, pretend we’re not hurting inside and everything is okay.

Because we can’t physically see the decay, it’s easy to deny when we’re falling apart inside. We can reach a literal breaking point and still force ourselves to keep going, keep smiling and keep moving forward with complete disregard for what is going on inside. In reality, this is no way to live a life. People can smell inauthenticity from a mile away – they can see when you’re not being honest with yourself better than you can. We like to look in our side mirrors and ignore the sign, “objects may be closer than they appear” like we left a pending explosion behind miles ago when really we’re driving with the dynamite in the back of our truck and it’s only a matter of time.

Sometimes I wonder, why is it so hard for us to be real with one another? It must take a whole lot of energy to put on a persona every day. In some ways, our culture is becoming increasingly less tolerant of inauthenticity in comparison with the last few generations. There is a movement towards sharing the struggles we all have in everyday life, towards accepting all body types and bringing awareness to mental health. Yet still, we struggle. Why is this?

Healing of any kind is hard work, but healing the heart is the hardest work of all.

We’ve all been hurt at one point or another in our life. We all have baggage we’re dragging around from past relationships, childhood fears, and the insecurities of growing up. But sometimes we forget what is in these bags we carry with us wherever we go. Sometimes we find ourselves holding onto suitcases of regret and anger and pain we should’ve jettisoned long ago. It begins to weigh us down. If we’re not careful, we can begin to lean on this baggage as part of our identity: the boy who was never seen, the girl who was never good enough. We go into new situations and relationships and find ourselves repeating the same patterns, over and over and over again, because we never dealt with the issues that grew long ago; we haven’t taken time to heal the issues that were there from the start.

Sometimes we just have to open up those suitcases to see if what’s inside is really worth holding on to, or if it’s time to make peace with that piece of your story and leave that bag under a tree by the side of the road. Dealing with the past can be incredibly painful – if you’ve walked down especially dark paths, it is not something you should explore on your own. Healing your heart takes a conscious effort, but it’s worth it.

In his TED talk on emotional pain, psychologist Guy Winch speaks about how we know now that in order to stay healthy, we need to practice first aid and hygiene. When we get a cut, we clean it and cover it with a band-aid. We fail to do the same, however, for emotional scrapes and bruises: things like loneliness, loss and heartache. Winch explains we need to learn to practice “emotional first aid” with the same diligence we do for physical wounds, in order that we may live longer, healthier and happier lives.

Be willing to feel all the feels. Tears are not something to be feared.

It is not your job to unload your baggage on to every person you meet, but I think we can all stand to be a little more honest with each other. Acting is exhausting – I’ve been there myself. I’ve watched others do the same, and it hurts my heart. Above all, we need to learn to be a little more understanding of each other’s stories so that it doesn’t seem so daunting to let our masks fall off when we encounter other people. No one is as shallow as they appear on the surface. If we can remember this, maybe we will remember to see each other as human. Maybe we’ll remember everyone has their own struggles, hopes and dreams; that no one person’s experience is any less or more valuable for the difference in intensity.

Maybe we can learn to let each other in so we can help each other heal, to make the workload a little lighter and make the road seem a little less long.

An Exercise in Stillness

In all the time I’ve spent in transit, I’ve noticed there are many different ways to approach travel, but most people tend to fall at either end of an extreme spectrum. You can be constantly in a rush to check everything off your meticulously planned to do list, because there is so little time and so much to see and you must do everything. Or, you can just show up, go with the flow and see where your days take you. Both have merit, but my worry with the former is how stressed we can become. This is a problem, because you go on vacation to get away from stress, right? Right. Just checking to make sure you knew that, because I know I sometimes forget.

My first time on a plane was as a tiny baby only nine months old – I caught the travel bug very early on in life, and I don’t think it ever really went away.

My family was heading to Sweden with a team for the 11th World Gymnaestrada. I received a lot of love from the girls who just thought I was the cutest thing in my custom-made Canadian tracksuit. Apparently, I was a fussy eater back then: I refused to eat anything but mashed potatoes (good thing Göttenburg had a lot of those) and maybe a little applesauce, if you were lucky. But I did have the best seat in the house, cuddled up to my parents wherever we went. That’s one of the benefits of traveling as an infant, I suppose.

Almost nineteen years later, I am back in Northern Europe for a trip of an entirely different nature. I’m a young woman traveling on her own for the first time. I’m in Iceland in the midst of a chilly spring, and I’m a slightly less picky eater than I was back then. But it’s an eye-opening adventure, all the same.

After so many years on the road, I like to think of myself as a fairly calm traveler, that I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. There are times, however, when I am admittedly quite the opposite. I can be stressed and hurried and obsess over tiny details until my brain hurts. Let me tell you, it isn’t enjoyable for anyone if you’re uptight all the time – yourself included.

I know this so well, yet still sometimes I forget. Yesterday, my plane landed at 5:00 AM; despite the lack of sleep, I was filled with such a sense of joy and possibility, I walked around with my head in the clouds for the next couple of hours. Things just worked. It was magical. I stepped off the bus into a whole new world. I walked through quaint streets to find a place I’d read about for breakfast and admired the character in the colourful houses lining the street. I arrived at my destination a few minutes later, starving and ready for food.

By 8:29 AM, reality began to set in.

I quickly realized this cafe was not the place for me. Two minutes later, as I rushed out the door, I embarrassed myself further my tripping on the ledge, nearly landing flat on my face with my heavy backpack on top of me. Out on the street again, I brushed off my hands and it dawned on me that I was missing something. I’d stupidly decided I would carry two books with me in my hands, and I’d left them on the bus. They were gone, and I wasn’t getting them back. I continued to walk, taking out my frustration on my poor rubber boots. A short while later, I found a cute cafe (Bergsson Mathús) and began to plan my day.

I spent a majority of the rest of my day in a flurry of activity and indecision, overwhelmed by everything I felt I had to do in a week. It takes time to figure things out when you’re in a new country for the first time and I was acutely aware of every minute I spent getting acquainted with this different way of life. On top of that, everything is so much more expensive than I’m used to. How was I ever going to do everything on my to-do list? How was I ever going to pay for it all?

It wasn’t until I was sitting in one of the city’s infamous “hot pots” that I began to relax. All over Iceland, there are geothermal hot springs. The power of these hot springs is harnessed through public pools and spas, among other things. Each one has basins of varying depths and degrees of temperate. There are some warm regular sized pools, one or two cold pools, and a few hot tubs. Instead of going to regular pools to swim, the people of Iceland come here, where the water has endless healing health benefits.

Iceland is one of the happiest nations in the world.

It is an interesting place for me to visit, because some parts of their culture feel like home, while others are foreign and strange. The weather is damp, cold and moody (albeit much more so than I’ve experienced before – and I thought Montreal was bad.) For a foreigner, their language is impossible to understand. But the people are incredibly open, helpful and kind. As I was walking down the street yesterday morning, a gentleman driving past noticed my backpack had come undone. He stopped, rolled down his window to let me know, and continued in his way. Where I’m from, that does not just happen, people! Everyone is too caught up in their own worlds to notice such details, let alone tell you about it.

Maybe in such a harsh climate, people learn to accept and take care of the people around them, whether they know them or not. The host of my Airbnb is incredibly thoughtful and gracious, going the extra mile to make sure I enjoy my stay. Iceland was one of the first countries to implement democracy, to elect a female president and legalize same-sex marriage. They have a vibrant night life, and their art scene is bursting with talent and innovative ideas.

Most of all, Icelanders know how to work hard, but they also know how to relax. They take the time to look others in the eye when they talk to them, or make sure a neighbour gets the groceries he forgot. And they have this tradition of going out to sit in nature’s hot tubs at the end of of the day, to unwind and be with people they care about, or just to sit with themselves. They know how to plug into nature, to take a moment and recharge.

Maybe this ability to go with the flow comes from living in a climate that is so unpredictable. Whatever it is, it’s starting to rub off on me.

As I say there in that hot pot amidst the chaos of chatting adults and squealing kids, I closed my eyes and let the noise wash over me. All I saw were opposites: the contrast of cold rain drops and the warmth of the water, cloudy skies and laughter echoing through the steam. Chaos and calm. For the first time in a long time, I allowed myself to lose track of time. In that moment, I began to truly enjoy myself, and I gave myself permission to let this trip be whatever it needs to be.

When we travel, it is so easy to plan our days, to make endless to-do lists and schedules in an attempt to make this memory a perfect one, that we may treasure it forever. We want everything to be just right. We feel like if we’re not doing something all the time, we’re wasting valuable time, and we’ll regret it later. We come home feeling like we need a vacation from our vacation when in reality, it doesn’t need to be this way at all.

Be a little more gentle with yourself and give yourself some space to breathe. Perfection is a myth, so stop trying so hard to achieve it.

I am very good at giving others these words of wisdom, but I am not very good at taking them myself. Often (or always) I write these posts because I have something to share, but also because it is what I need.

I need to be reminded that I am not some machine who is expected to produce and create and do things all the time. I need to be reminded that sometimes doing nothing is not a waste of time, sometimes doing nothing is what I really need. I need to be reminded to let go, to go with the flow and let things happen, because Serendipity is quite good at her job, if you haven’t noticed, but you need to give her space to do her work.

Repeatedly in my life, I find when I enter a situation with no expectations, that is when the best things occur. My favourite memories are things that happened by accident, or periods of time when I wasn’t doing much at all: I was sitting on my favourite beach in Hawaii watching the sunset while my father sat beside me, or lying in bed reading next to my mom. When I step out of the shadows of judgement and expectation, that is when I truly begin to live.

I am in the process of learning to let go and spend more time in the spaces that let my heart be light. It’s a much more interesting way to go about life. We’ll see where Serendipity takes me next.

Perspective

Have you ever noticed how two people can look at the same painting and see something completely different?

As human beings, we generally dislike uncertainty. At least, I know I do. All we want is one straight answer, preferably one that aligns with our beliefs. We ask ourselves day and night, who is right and who is wrong? All day, every day. When our world is a mess of polarized and conflicting opinions, it’s easy to be confused. Religion or science? Liberal or conservative? Climate change or climate crisis? It’s all a matter of perspective, and each person has one that is entirely unique to them.

The lens through which you observe the world is a culmination of everything you’ve seen and experienced from the time you were born until now.

Actions often speak louder than words, but language is far more powerful than we give it credit for. Yes, your lens has been shaped by the things that have happened to you, but more than that, it has been shaped by the ways in which you’ve been taught to view those experiences, by the words and phrases and stories you learned when you were young.

Embedded in the language of a culture are that society’s deepest held beliefs: words are wires that heighten our awareness of certain things and dampen our awareness of others. A culture that places importance on people over things will have words to describe the nuances of emotion that others have completely ignored. If you do not have a word for an emotion that describes the melancholy of saying goodbye to a loved one or the longing for something that might’ve been, you will be unaware such an emotion exists. The word in Portuguese is saudade. In your mind, however, you will merely be sad. You may never fully understand what it is to cherish a person with all your heart and be present for every moment you get to spend with them.

People are important, but it is easy for us to forget in the West. We are entangled in a world obsessed with wealth and capitalism, one enamoured with physical things. Measurables and metrics reign supreme. The goal in life is to be rich, right? But rich in what? Success is an outward thing, we say. The ends always justify the means.

I beg to differ.

Our actions have consequences we will never fully understand. The world is like a spider web of cause and effect; we are sewn into the fabric of time and one step can cause a ripple. The path we take is our thread, just one thread woven into a much larger picture.

Many Aboriginal cultures have words or stories to describe the interconnectedness of all living things. One such word exists in South Africa: ubuntu. Vaguely translated, it has been said to mean, “I am because we are.” While the origins of the word are unknown, it is a philosophy that runs through the blood of many communities across the continent, collecting a series of cherished values and pulling them into a single word we can grasp. It reminds us to take care in how we treat ourselves and others, for in harming another, we harm ourselves – and vice versa.

Ubuntu says we cannot exist in isolation from one another, as much as we try. It says, “your pain is my pain, so let me help you heal.” It says if this is true, the focus, then, should not be placed on the individual, but on the community. How do your actions effect the world around you?

There is something universal about the human experience. I have not lived the life you’ve lived, but there are things we share in common that can help us relate to one another. I have not endured your struggles or felt your grief; I have not known your joys or the answers that brought you relief. But I do have my own story with its own highs and lows, one that gives me a base of knowledge and understanding if I choose to use it as such.

I know what it is to have loved and then lost that love at the moment you least expect. I know what it is to cry for so long there are no more tears left. I know what is to find out you were wrong, to fear rejection so deeply you change how you are and say things you regret. I know what it is to sit with your heart in your throat, to feel it pound in your chest harder than you thought possible as your palms fill with sweat.

I know all these things, but I also know what it is to find happiness in the little moments that make life great. I know the sweet taste of a gentle kiss, and the smell of the earth after it rains. I know what it is to dance when no one is watching or sing so loud everyone can hear and still not care. I’ve seen the first stars appear as the sun sets over a far-off horizon. I’ve felt sand between my toes and grass under my bare feet and the joy of being truly in the moment, even just for one moment… I have lived.

The experiences I have accumulated may not look anything like yours; I may not speak your language and we may never take note of the same things. But that does not mean my experience is any less valuable than yours. It does not mean I can’t look at the tears in your eyes and say, I’ve been there. I’ve felt pain, too. I understand. It does not mean I can’t see your joy and celebrate with you, that I can’t be grateful you’ve received such a gift. It does not mean I can’t sit with you in the tension of unknown spaces or hold your gaze when I see you on the street. We are all connected in ways we cannot understand, and that is beautiful.

Some things in life are meant to be left, not questioned. Sometimes that’s just the way it is, and sometimes that’s enough

Other times, it’s okay to question things. Sometimes there are things that need to be questioned. There are rebels in every generation, and change is necessary if we wish to move forward as a human race. But the things they choose to question and the ways in which they ask are of utmost importance. It is the difference between initiating a non-violent revolution and starting a senseless riot. One seeks a solution to a problem, while the other is simply looking to cause a disruption.

Always remember this: the way you ask the question will guide the answer you get. If you only look for problems, you will find all the things that are wrong this world and you will affirm your belief that life is bad. If you ask yourself what went wrong in your day, you will find everything that went wrong. On the contrary, if you ask someone three things they are grateful for at that moment, they will undoubtedly be able to answer you. In fact, if they allow for it, that list will continue to grow. It is called the confirmation bias – you will always be able to find more of what you look for in life. Focus on the problems and you will get more problems. Seek out solutions and you will be surprised how quickly they show up knocking on your door.

When I look at my life among the diversity of our world, I see the things we all share in common – I make connections. My brain has always been wired this way. If it’s all about perspective, what do you choose to see? Do you look with judgement or curiosity?

It is easy to misunderstand another if you never take the time to listen. I listen to others because people are worth it. I see you – do you see me?

On Technology

Let’s be real for a second, here. When is the last time you went twenty-four hours without touching your phone? Without answering a text or scrolling through social media? When is the last time you truly went “of the grid” to be alone in nature or spend time with your loved ones?

My guess is, it’s been a while.

I have developed a love-hate relationship with technology. In so many ways, technology is truly incredible. I can appreciate the fact that it allows me to stay in touch with my family in a different part of the country and talk to friends overseas. It can help lonely individuals find a community or learn a new skill. Technology is enabling people in rural places opportunities that would’ve been impossible just a few decades ago; it is literally saving lives and opening the doors for children across the world. It is the reason I can share these words with you right now, and for that alone I am grateful.

If technology were suddenly stripped from my life, I have no doubts I would feel its absence. But our world has become so dependant on technology, so much so that most of us can’t imagine leaving the house without our phones. Sometimes I question whether or not this is a good thing, whether or not this kind of dependency is truly healthy or if it will have detrimental effects in the long run.

Sometimes I just want a break. A break from the constant distraction of notifications and the subconscious fear of missing out, of the awareness that comes with being connected and the constant expectation of a reply. Sometimes I just want to go somewhere without my phone for once, to get a little bit lost and find my way back home with nothing but my wits and a map. Sometimes I don’t want to hear about the latest disaster in Syria, or the drama going on in the United States. I just want to exist right here in this moment with you. Is that too much to ask?

Whether or not we like to admit it, technology changes things. Sometimes this change is for the better, sometimes for the worse. In a recent study done at the University of Chicago, researchers investigated the effects our phones have on our brains when they are present but not in use. They had participants complete a series of problem-solving questions with their phone sitting on top of their desk, hidden in their bag, or left in another room. The results were shocking: those who had their phone with them in the room performed more poorly than those who had been asked to leave it elsewhere.

The mere presence of one’s phone actually has the ability to diminish the brain’s capacity for focus, critical thinking, and creativity.

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? Such a small, inconspicuous device can’t possibly have such an effect on us. But science has just proven to us they can. The researchers called this phenomenon “brain drain.” You have a limited attention span; when your phone is present, a portion of this limited resource is devoted to stopping you from picking it up and mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or checking your emails. Your brain is subconsciously aware of the fact that you may, at any given moment, receive a notification, so it is constantly searching for one.

When your phone buzzes or beeps, it lights up the part of your brain responsible for pleasure and you get a hit of dopamine. You got what you were looking for. You matter. It is easy to get addicted to this cycle if we are not aware of what is happening. We are only beginning to understand the consequences of “brain drain” and the effects it could be having in our schools, in our work and daily lives.

These days, I have an increasing appreciation for people who can engage in a full conversation without once reaching for their device. It is one thing to be on high alert for an ailing parent or a child at home who might need your help. It is yet another thing entirely to be scrolling through your Facebook feed while you’re having a conversation with someone. If you find you’re too busy to look a person in the eyes to see how they’re really feeling, maybe you need to ask yourself about your priorities.

Just as your phone can diminish your ability to concentrate, it can reduce the quality of your interactions and the richness of everyday life. Life is a series of ordinary moments made extraordinary by the people we spend them with and the beauty of the simplest things. If life truly is a miracle, maybe we need to start acting like it.

By leaving your phone face up on the table or keeping your eyes glued to a screen while you speak with a loved one, you lessen the value of the moment you’re sharing. You are sending them the message that there are people you are thinking of elsewhere, and you consider these potential notifications to be more important than what they have to say. You are telling them you don’t really care, whether this is your intention or not.

We’ve all been guilty of this at one point or another in our lives. I can recall so many times in my teen years when my mom came home from a meeting, and I couldn’t be bothered to put down what I was doing for thirty seconds to give her a proper hello. Yes, there are times when we are working and we are in the flow and we don’t want any little interruption to break that. Yet even in these times, I think we can pause for a moment to acknowledge someone who might want to speak with us. If you explain to someone you would like to give them your full attention but you are doing important work at the moment, they are usually willing to come back at a later time. More importantly, they know you care.

I was listening to a podcast recently; the host had spoken with someone who worked with Morgen Freeman over the period of a month. The host asked the man what made Morgen Freeman so special. The person responded that Freeman had “the ability to make each person he met feel like he hadn’t seen them in many years.” In other words, he knew how to show up and be present for others, to let them be seen and heard.

We have a tendency to get caught up in our own little worlds and take so much of life for granted. Especially people. When we are young and naive, we never truly appreciate all our family does for us. When we are older and busy, oh, so busy, we often forget this invaluable truth yet again. Family is everything, and people are important. More important than any measure of success we could possibly stand to achieve.

What is the point of reaching the top of the mountain if there is no one with you to share the view?

If you are living away from friends or loved ones, yes, please do send photos and texts and FaceTime. When someone you care about wants to know about your day, please do respond to their message. But there is a fine balance to be had, one between staying connected with those closest to us and being obsessed with this supercomputer we all carry around in our back pockets. It is a balance I think we need to find again.

Put down the phone, for once. Leave it in another room. The next time you’re having a conversation, look that person in the eyes. Speak with someone you think you know and let them prove you wrong. Collect memories. Ride the bus and people watch. Sit in the park and people watch. Just people watch, in general. It’ll be much more entertaining than TV, trust me on this one. Forget about time. Go on an adventure. Sleep under the stars. Sit around a campfire and roast marshmallows and exchange stories with your favourite people in the world.

Just live a little. Life is short. And people are worth it.

For more information:

Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google

LIFE

People are fascinating. Did you know that?

These days, I’ve been spending a lot of time on my own. I’ve found one of the perks of flying solo is that my brain has become hyper-aware of the world going on around me. I’m attuned to micro details, so I hear snippets of loud conversation and notice scenes I thought only existed in movies. It’s a unique experience and one I’m grateful for, even if it does get a little lonely at times.

You can only spend so much time with your thoughts before it becomes monotonous and boring, so one of my favourite ways to pass the time has become people watching. I’ve never been one for spending endless hours on my phone or reading on the road, and this is the next best thing to having my nose stuck in a book. Actually, in some ways it’s even better.

Life can be highly entertaining.

Some days, I seem to be invisible to passerby, while others there are multiple instances of fleeting eye contact. I find it amusing, how quickly most people look away. This seems to be a distinct trait of the generation I’ve grown up in – those who are later on in life are much less afraid to share moment a moment with a stranger. And then, of course, there’s the children.

Younger than the age of seven, most kids have not yet been taught to enter each human encounter with the level of suspicion most adults do. I remember even I was a somewhat extroverted child. I loved to chat with adults and bring a smile to the faces of people I didn’t even know. I have a distinct memory of being four years old and crossing the street with my mom: one of my hands held my mother’s, while the other hand waved to all the people in stopped cars whom I wanted to thank for ever so politely allowing us to pass. I didn’t really understand the concept of traffic lights back then…nor did I have a care in the world what other people thought of me. I was so light and free.

Children are so pure and special because they haven’t learned to hate or judge or worry – they simply show up as they are and exist within the moment. Then they’re there for the next moment, and the next, and the next. They aren’t too busy to play a game of peek-a-boo with that friend they made on the bus or the stranger they see on the street while waiting in line for ice cream. Everyone is equal in their eyes, and they don’t take themselves so seriously. Life is a game, and the first rule is you have to have fun while you play.

We could all learn a thing or two from younger generations, things we seem to forget over time.

Sometimes I wonder what these children will grow up to be like. Everyone has a story, after all. While these stories may share plot points, no two are alike. There are details and nuances to each of our stories that make them entirely our own. No one else on earth has ever been born with your unique combination of DNA, dreams and memories. No one else perceives the world exactly as you do. Sometimes I wish I could step into someone else’s mind for a day to get a feel for how they view life – I have no doubts it would deeply impact my own thought process and open doors I didn’t know existed.

Books, I believe, are the closest thing we have right now to being able to share our consciousness. Books, and the ability to listen to others speak about their own stories and experiences of life. This ability sits right at our finger tips, but how often to we actually slow down enough to listen? I get the sense that the question, “How are you?” has taken on the role of a greeting we are expected to exchange in passing. It is so rarely a genuine question anymore. But to take the time to show up for another, to check in and see how they’re really doing is a small thing that holds immeasurable power. I know a few people like this, people who have the ability to make you feel like you are truly being heard for the first time in ages. It is a quality I myself am working to cultivate. It starts with this simple rule: if you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question.

Empathy has never been a problem for me. In fact, I find I often empathize too deeply. I fall into other people’s stories and experience their emotions with them, so much so I find it hard to separate their feelings from my own. I’ve only recently been able to put words to this phenomenon; there was a time when this habit of mine became unbearable and overwhelming, and so my brain took emergency measures for the sake of self-preservation. I stopped feeling anything at all.

Maybe this sounds like a dream to you, but trust me – it was quite the opposite. I became adept at the reliable smile and nod, boys. Smile and nod. I would give the appropriate answers at the correct times. “I’m excited, really, I swear.” I think I must have come across as quite heartless at times. I forgot what sadness felt like; if I was rejected, there was only a dull ache. I wouldn’t cry for months at a time, until there was an overload on my circuitry and I would break down, sobbing at some small, insignificant thing. Then the cycle would start all over again.

My body was in survival mode. This strategy may seem like it can work for a period of time, but the problem is, when you kill the “bad” emotions, the “good” ones die, too. There is no internal peace, or joy, or fleeting happiness. There is no overwhelming sense of gratitude and love for all the amazing things in life. And there is no wonder. Life is work; that is all.

Gradually, over time, changes occurred in my life that made me realize I’d been living a life not my own. Somewhere along the line, I’d picked up the habit of saying sorry for who I am, of attempting to fit myself into a series of boxes in which I did not belong. When I stepped out of the old boxes, I tried out some new ones, but those didn’t work out either. I’ve never exactly been good at doing what I’m told, fitting into a specific mould. I tend to do best when I do my own thing, and it has been hard for me to accept, that is okay.

No matter what anyone tells you, you don’t have to fit into a box. If that box is comfortable, then by all means, make it your home – but know it is not a matter of “right” and “wrong.” It is figuring out the steps that are right for you, and acting accordingly.

It has been a journey with many ups and downs and detours to get to where I am at this moment, doing work I believe I am meant to do and feeling all the feels. If there is one thing I have learned in the last few years, it is this: deep down at our core, we all know what we truly want. Don’t ever let any one make you question who you are or make you think they know you better than you know yourself, because they don’t. That is a question only you can answer. You may not know right away. You may not know for a long time. Life is simply the process of figuring that out.

If life is a game, the first rule is this: don’t ever apologize for who you are. And of course, remember to have fun while you play.

WANTED: Hope

Hope? What is hope? How do some people maintain hope in the face of terrible circumstances, while others lose it and seem to never find it again?

Hope defies all the odds. In fact, Hope can be so elusive it leaves us speechless. I find it funny that, for something I am so passionate about, I am having a terribly hard time finding the words for what I want to say. When I look over to where Hope is sitting in the corner of my kitchen and ask her opinion on the matter, she just shrugs, turning her head to gaze out the window. The sky is this gorgeous, breathtaking blue today – there’s not a cloud in sight. I suppose the beauty of this day is far more interesting to her than my struggles to put words on a page. And maybe she’s right. Figures.

Our world can be such a loud place sometimes, it’s easy to forget about the gentler things in life. We’re force fed a stream of bad news all day long until there is little room left over for simple joys. We’re tricked into believing Hope has disappeared when really, she’s been walking beside us all along, hoping over cracks in the sidewalk while we have our eyes glued to our phones. Hope is unassuming and subtle – she doesn’t like to shove herself into places she isn’t wanted. But she’s always there, somewhere, waiting for us to look up for a second and take a breath of fresh air. You see, we all have something to live for, but this is something we tend to forget. Hope lives in that thing; it’s where she’s made her home and she ain’t leaving any time soon.

Is it foolish to have hope? That depends on what you believe.

There is a point when hope can become blind optimism and faith in the wrong thing, but that is a far cry from believing we have a reason to live. In the last few years, I’ve learned there are two fundamentally different ways to go through life: one looks at the world and says there is a reason I am here, and the other says this is meaningless. It is a difference in mentality that can lead a person to take their own life, or find a way to crawl themselves out of that black hole, whether with help or alone. It is a difference in what you believe resides at the core of every human being – are we broken, or are we whole? Meaningless, or meaningful?

Everyone struggles sometimes. Life can be unpredictable. Life can be hard. We do not choose much of what happens to us in life, but we do choose how we respond. We can choose to be a victim of the challenges we face, or collaborate with life to seek out solutions. I am not here to diminish your pain. There are some who have dealt with struggles I cannot begin to understand; the dark depths of the mind some wander into are undoubtably terrifying. We find Depression enters most of our lives at one point or another, whether in the form of a loved one, a colleague, or in ourselves. It has become a leading cause of disability and will continue to expand its domain, unless we do something about it. Depression stems from the belief that tomorrow will be no different from today, when we forget we have something to live for and tell Hope to go bother someone else, we’ve already pitched a tent and we’d rather be left alone with our suffering, please and thank you. In reality, this is the last thing we should do.

Under the threat of Depression’s oppressive reign, it’s our job to remind each other life is beautiful, and no one is ever alone – Hope is sitting right over there and there are plenty of people around.

Hope continues to baffle me. I’ve met privileged adolescents who are caught in the throws of Depression, and I’ve met people who’ve been through Hell and still see Hope exists. One of the most powerful examples I’ve encountered is the story of how circus changed the lives of people in two vastly different communities, one in the far north of Canada, the other in the heart of West Africa. The story began with two circus artists who met during their performing career. They found they shared the dream of making a difference in the community that had raised them, and quickly became friends.

Guillaume Saladin had spent his childhood divided between three places: a town in France, the lively city of Montreal, and the bitterly cold Igloolik in the far north of Canada. He had a love and appreciation for all three places and their people, but he had seen the sorrow of the North and longed to do something to help. In the summer of 1998, the town was struck by the suicides of two young people. It was not the first time, and it was a pattern that needed to stop. Guillaume returned to assist in a project aiming to give the youth an outlet for their emotions in order to prevent further suicides, and this led to the creation of Artcirq.

Yamoussa Bangoura had grown up in Guinea, West Africa, a country plagued by poverty. He was fortunate enough to have found circus at a young age, and the passion and drive with which he pursued the art enabled him opportunities far beyond the norm. He was able to travel the world, performing, while supporting himself and his family back home. Some time later, Yamoussa returned to teach circus to his siblings and community, later building a grassroots school to continue the initiative. In 2007, he created Kalabante with a few of his highest performing students. Some were related by blood, and some were not, but they became a family.

The two friends decided to do an exchange: the African-based circus would visit Igloolik, and Artcirq would visit Guinea. Circus Without Borders was born. (You can watch the film here or here.) The differences were shocking, but so were the similarities. Both communities embraced the other with warm, welcoming arms. Both had faced struggles of their own, but the ways in which they approached these struggles was astonishing. Yamoussa spoke of the culture he grew up in: you deal with struggles, maybe you deal with feelings of depression, but suicide is never an option because you are working to find a way to support yourself and your family. You see everything your family gave you and you want to give back, so you work until you can. Life is hard but there are things to live for, people to live for, joy to be felt and love to give.

Life is hard but it’s also worth it – that’s something we should never forget.

These days, Hope tags along wherever I go, and I’m glad. Things are a whole lot brighter with her around. Why should we keep Hope around? Because even in darkness, there is light to be found.