Smile!

You never truly know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.

I’ve heard this cliche time and time again over the years. It’s easy to ignore such sayings for their cheesiness, but I think we often ignore the fact that each one holds some truth. They are sayings that have stuck around for a reason – time is something that should never be taken for granted, but it is something that often is.

When I was young, my parents used to love taking photographs. Of me, of the dog, of the trees and the paths we wandered down – especially when we went on family trips. I never fully understood why this persistent documentation was necessary until I’d put a few years behind me and came to appreciate the genius invention that was the camera.

Around the time I was six, I went through a phase where I absolutely loathed anyone who tried to take a picture of me. I would pout and hide my face in my mother’s side. Maybe, if you were really lucky, you’d get me to give you a grimace. These were also the days of no, what I like to call my rebellion phase, the one I skipped in my teen years. I look back on those days now and smile. Life was so simple back then.

As time went on and life became routine, less photos were taken.

At one point, I got my own camera, then iPod, then iPhone, and began taking photos for myself. Once I discovered the medium of photography I fell in love, because that is exactly how my brain works. I imagine my brain to be some kind of super computer that can process emotions (albeit not always that accurately.) I have an insanely vivid memory for the moments that make up my life: I can go back in my archives and find an image or watch an entire scene unfold from years ago, much like watching a movie on a computer screen. For me, the art of photography and writing poetry are one in the same. It is the art of capturing instances of the human experience, of freezing time so that it can be saved and never forgotten.

There came a time when my dad was rarely the one behind the lens anymore, unless we had traveled somewhere exotic or were doing something especially fun. Life had grown too busy for such things. As so many people do, we forgot how to appreciate the beauty of everyday life. I became increasingly aware of the rapid rate at which time seems to vanish. For a while, I wanted to document every moment of my day, until I didn’t. In my angsty teen years, there were entire months where not a single photo was taken. I see this now as a reflection of my own lack of self esteem and the general state dissatisfaction we seemed to exist in.

This year, for the first time since I was born, my mom and I celebrated mother’s day in separate time zones. For the first time since I moved out on my own, I was struck with an intense longing for the place I’d grown up and the people who’ve always been there. I spent a couple of hours looking through old photographs and instantly became aware of the magic of this form of capture. I was transported back in time: to the first time I saw the Austrian alps and the bliss of being eight, to my impatience with the endless visits with friends and relatives who spoke a language I barely knew, and the simple things that brought me joy. I remembered making caterpillars in the sand in Florida, walking cobblestone streets in Brazil, the feel of the ocean tickling my toes and the Hawaiian sun warming my face. There was the stillness of Clear Lake in the dead of summer. Sunrises and sunsets and nights beneath the stars.

Most of all, there were people. People, people, people. Nothing is more valuable than time spent with people.

I was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for my father who had taken most of the photos I was scrolling through. It is so easy to get caught up in the business of life. There is work to be done, a house to be cleaned, family to be taken care of and events to attend. We live in a world that exists in a state of constant motion, where we’re asked to constantly show up for things, but, how often do you truly show up for your own life? For this moment right here, right now, reading these words on this screen. Are you here? Or is your mind already racing somewhere else, to the other twenty seven things you have to get done today?

Life is short, and our time here on earth is so, so precious. There is a freaky phenomenon that occurs as we go through life: over the years, our perception of time speeds up. A year when we are thirty seems so much shorter than it did when we were three – and that’s because, comparatively, it is. When you are three years old, a year makes up one third of your life. When you are thirty, it is just 1/30 of all the years you’ve spent on earth.

There are 168 hours in each week and 8 736 hours in every year, which is simultaneously a lot more and a lot less time than you think. As humans, we tend to vastly overestimate what we can accomplish in seven days while we greatly underestimate all we can achieve in a year. We often forget that how we spend our time is up to us. Time is a choice. If you don’t prioritize the things you value most, you will find yourself living someone else’s life. In a world that is full of companies, products and ideas vying for our attention, it is easy to let our days be filled up with a job we hate, endless social media feeds and our five favourite shows on Netflix. We complain we never have enough time to spend with our friends or pursue that hobby that really lights us up, when really it’s up to us. We decide what we make time for, whether we choose to admit it or not.

One of the reasons I believe meditation is so valuable is that it brings us back to our breath. Our minds tend to spiral in one of two directions: we ruminate over the past we cannot change, and worry about a future we cannot control. In the process, we forget about this moment, right here, right now. Our lives are composed of nows, of memories and ordinary moments made extraordinary by the things we chose to do with them and the people who were by our side. No matter where we are in life, the breath is always there.

Sometimes the heart beats a little faster, and sometimes there are moments that take our breath away. But when we come back to the breath, we are reminded that we are alive and we are okay.

I am working to build my life around my priorities, not to let them go but make them cornerstones in the way I live my days. I want to live a life filled with vivid memories, stunning scenes and photographs and moments that made me smile. Because in the end, it’s worth it. This life may be short, but the ride is wild.

Break the Cycle

Everyone accumulates baggage as they go through life. Everyone deals with love and loss, doubt and pain and regret. And everyone deals with fear.

Ah, fear. Let’s talk about fear.

Everyone knows fear – if you tell me you don’t, you’re probably lying, unless you’ve had some secret revealed to you that remains hidden from the rest of the human race. If this is the case, by all means do share. If not, know you are not alone.

I’ve been dealing with fear for a number of years now, so I am quite familiar with the ways in which he likes to work. He’s got it down to a science – or at least, so he thinks. Brains like to think they know what’s going on. They freak out over subjects that remain beyond their grasp or things they can’t control. I’ve learned that brains can be incredibly valuable tools if used correctly, but they can also be incredibly cruel.

From the time I was young, my brain has always liked to be kept busy. If it felt at anytime that there wasn’t enough to do, it would create tasks for itself, which often lead to my brain getting itself stuck in repetitive feedback loops until something else would drag me out. Fear is a perfectly natural human instinct: it kept creatures alive for thousands of years before you and I arrived. I am aware that there are times it is a very reasonable response to an unknown situation. But I am also aware there are times that fear is entirely irrational, when it sticks its nose into places it has no business being.

I came to experience fear as something very visceral, concrete and real early on. When you are in gymnastics, fear is an every day occurrence. If you aren’t failing and falling regularly, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. When you’re propelling your tiny body several feet in the air, it seems natural to fear injury, but that’s the last thing you need to focus on. No matter how many times your coach tells you that you’ve done the progressions and as long as you follow through, no, you’re not going to land on your head, there is a primal instinct you will be fighting against until you reach a level of comfort with a skill. And fluke accidents just happen sometimes when you’re in such a high pressure sport. My brain knew this, and my coach’s confidence in my abilities didn’t stop my mind from spinning out of control.

There have been several times in my life when fear has felt like an insurmountable wall.

The body has three instinctual responses to fear: fight, flight, or freeze. I can’t count the number of times I’ve brushed up against that wall and been instantly paralyzed, unable to move. I would run at the vault only to slow half way down the runway. I would start into a acrobatic sequence never to get past the first move. Sometimes, the soles of my feel would create pools of sweat as I would stand on the four-inch wide balance beam for twenty minutes at a time, swinging my arms back and forth, unable to go for moves that should have been easy. When I finally managed to get myself to go, I would inevitably fail, just as I’d convinced myself I would. This never helped my confidence, but it did show me the power of the mind.

Fear manifests itself in different ways – gymnastics is just one example. When I was nine, I had the realization my parents would die before me, and I spent the next two months sobbing for hours after I went to bed, until I cried myself to sleep alone or in their company, scared they would be gone the next day. I learned that you can get struck by lightning even within the safety of a building, so during storms, the basement became was the only place I felt remotely safe. There was a time I was terrified I would get cancer, that our house would burn down and I would be stuck inside, or a criminal would break in and stab me in the night, and I would die young, leaving behind two heart broken parents.

I’ve since realized all these things I feared so deeply reside far beyond my control. And I am a person who does not like lack of control. But this is life – it’s uncertain and scary and unknowable, and therein lies its beauty.

These days, fear wears a new face in my life, but his voice sounds very much the same.

I fear I’ll make the wrong decisions, that I’m too much to handle or I’ll never be enough. I fear the same things I value the most: honesty and love, vulnerability and trust. I fear people and their unknowable thoughts and intentions. Most of all, I fear rejection. Speaking my truth can be enough to paralyze me to a point where words refuse to leave my mouth. If people are patient, I can often climb that insurmountable wall, but some days, I can’t. And that’s okay. Rejection is a wound that takes time to heal, and a scar that stubbornly stays.

These days, I am learning the way to work with fear is to break the cycle – when you find your brain stuck on repeat, you have to find ways to pull yourself out. Call a friend. Call your mom. Go for a walk and count the people you pass. Read a book. Meditate. Breathe. Scream and dance. Cry if you must. But never let yourself stay stuck for too long, or you’ll never live your life.

In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert explains the beautiful way she interacts with her fear. Instead of viewing it as something to be conquered, she gives it space to exist. She has a speech she gives this dear old friend anytime she embarks on a new project or endeavour:

“Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job very seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting – and, may I say, you are doing superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused… There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still – your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive” (25, 26).

Fear is necessary; it’s part of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive. Your fears say something about you, about the places you’ve been and the things you value most. Your fears, however, do not get to define you, so long as you don’t let them take control of your life. Everyone has baggage – it’s how you carry it that counts. Don’t be afraid to make space for your fears.

Know this: you are strong enough to break the cycle. And you are not alone.

A Reminder

What do you live for?

This is one of the most important questions we must continue to answer for ourselves, day after day. It’s stupidly easy to lose sight of the reasons we do anything in life, to let our days fall into patterns and habits and endless to-do lists of things we can never seem to get done on time. We live in a world where constant improvement is the standard we live by in all areas of our life; nothing is ever enough. We are constantly seeking to be more productive in our waking hours and more efficient with our sleep. We are taught that life is short and if you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards, so you better get going – no time to waste.

It seems we barely have the time to put the phone down to have a real conversation, face to face. “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, thanks. And you?” “Good, good. I’m very busy, you know – I better be going! This has been nice.” Such is the life of those who work to keep up with the Jones’. Always rushing. Always hurried. Always busy beyond measure.

I’m tired of the word “busy.”

I think the word “busy” has become a badge of honour in our society. The ends justify the means, right? Right? Wrong. We’re pushing people too hard, too fast, and we’re suffering for it. In hot pursuit of human and technological advancement, we are forgetting the things that make a life worth living, the things that make a person whole. No noble prize is worth missing out on a week spent camping in the Rockies with your family. No olympic gold medal will ever replace the joy of eating freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that ooze all over your fingers and face. No amount of money will ever compare with the warmth of the sun on your skin on the first sunny day in spring.

In our constant pursuit of improvement, we’ve developed the mindset that nothing is ever enough. We are never enough.

But we are. We are not what we do – we are so much more than that.

We are our memories and our loved ones and the challenges we’ve faced. We are everything we’ve ever overcome. We are the books we read and the movies we watch. We are the songs we dance to when no one is watching, and the music we turn up too loud. We are strong and vulnerable and courageous and lovable. We are not machines, we are human – nothing is more important than that. We are unique, and we are enough.

I’ve never been very good at celebrating my achievements. The mindset of constant pursuit was wired into me at a young age. I am slowly unlearning this way of life, but it is not easy, and I often forget. In the spring when I was sixteen and I suffered a torn ACL, my life slowed down for a while. Every April, there is a community of poets who participate in NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) by committing to the 30/30 challenge – that is, they write 30 poems in 30 days. I decided to try my hand at the challenge, and so for thirty days I spent a lot of time wandering around in my mind, making observations and putting together verses of rhyme. I’ve always found the act of creation deeply satisfying, and I decided to keep the challenge going for myself even after the month was over.

It became a habit of mine to come up with short poems and haiku when I’m in the shower, usually something about a favourite moment, tableaux or lesson I’d learned that day. I’d fall out of this habit sometimes, but eventually I’d return and start writing again.

In her book, The Creative HabitTwyla Tharp explains that each person has a lens through which they view life, each with varying levels of zoom. This is most evident amongst artists, where we can note the two extremes. There are those who view the world from a distance – they like to take in the whole image at once, snapping thoughts through a wide angle lens. These are the painters who make abstract art, the photographers who capture a whole city lit up at night. Then there are those who focus more on the details of living, utilizing their sharp focus 100 mm lens. These are the choreographers who are inspired by the gait of a single person’s walk, the writer who creates a character so real you’d like to go for coffee with them sometime. They see all the little things others miss – the twitch of a hand, a fallen rose petal, a look passed between two secret lovers.

I have always been the later of the two. Poetry, for me, has become a means of slowing down and being grateful for the simple moments in my days. I am in the process of learning to be more present, to accept who I am in this moment, of seeing my strengths and accepting that I am enough – no strings attached.

Because sometimes life is messy and complicated and painful, but sometimes life is oh, so beautiful, and I want to remember that.

We all need to slow down sometimes. Recently, I’ve been blessed with a slower pace of life. I’ve stood in my kitchen almost every day to write during these last two weeks, the first two weeks of spring. There is this huge tree across the back alleyway from my apartment, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch it explode, from a mass of barren branches with barely visible buds to something whole and green and bursting with life. Normally, I wouldn’t have noticed the tree’s incremental progress until it was in full bloom. Most of us don’t. We complain about the winter, until one day we look up and everything is green.

It’s so easy to loose sight of the joys in life, to forget the reason that we do things. I love to write and yet sometimes, I let it become just another thing I have to do. But that’s wrong. That’s when so much of life becomes a burden. When I wake up in the morning, I get to choose what I do with my day – I don’t have to do anything.

I get to write, to cook and breathe and live, and that’s a gift. And that’s enough.

Love?

What is love?

This is a deeply rooted, fundamental question humans have been trying to answer for a long time. For centuries, philosophers, writers, scientists and psychologists have tried desperately to define love, to categorize it and stick it in a box. There are the four basic kinds of love and the five love love languages, Shakespeare and the Iliad and Grimm’s Brother’s fairy tales. People have done crazy things for love: they’ve died for love, murdered for love, searched the seven seas for love and given up when maybe it had been there, right in front of them, all along.

I’ve always had a funny relationship with love, simultaneously fascinated and terrified by it’s ability to control our actions and yet fix so much of what I saw wrong in the world. I think I was eight or nine years old the first time I said, “I love you.” I remember my mother used to say those words to me on a daily basis, and one day, she told me that sometimes, she liked to hear those words too. It was a weird concept for me. I’d never really thought about it before. One day, not long after that, I was standing in our sunny kitchen and my mother told me she loved me, like always. This time, I felt the words sitting at the back of my throat, heavy and awkward like a stone. I wanted to say them, and so I did, my tongue nearly tripping over the syllables. My mother smiled and responded with a hug while I stood there, feeling slightly self conscious and uncomfortable, trying to figure out why that had been so hard for me to say.

For me, the words we use hold great power. Words can inspire a nation, or tear a country to shreds. They can destroy a person’s confidence or place it in the wrong source, manipulating and skewing the truth to fit one person’s twisted point of view. But words can also encourage trust and vulnerability, motivate a child to learn or make someone feel less alone. Words can be terrible. Words can be beautiful. For me, the words “I love you” are some of the most powerful words of all time.

Maya Angelou once explained how she believes words are things and we must take great care in how we use them. “You must be careful of the words you use, or the words you allow to be used in your house… Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things – I think they get on the walls, they get in the wallpaper, they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes and finally into you.” Words require trust.

I think love can be many things, but I know one thing it is not: judgement. Who am I to say that I’m right and you’re wrong? There are many different paths in life. Typically, it’s not so much a matter of what’s right and what’s wrong but a matter of what you believe in, what actions you chose to take and the consequences that go along with those actions.

Real love does not judge, and real love does not cause harm.

One of the things that angers me most in the world is when people argue over differences in opinion or belief. Far too many wars have been fought in the name of religion. If we take a closer look, the ancient religious are all built on the same foundation: the concept of love. If this is true, how can I tell you that just because you don’t follow my religion, just because you don’t believe what I believe, you’re going to Hell? How is that love?

I know Christians who are hypocrites and atheists who are some of the most caring people in my life. I know you probably don’t believe what I believe or see the world through my lens, but that’s okay – we’re all just trying to figure things out as we go, and we’re bound to encounter other opinions along the way. Who’s not to say that our beliefs can’t coexist, that different religions and theories and political parties connect with different people for a reason? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and as long as that opinion doesn’t ask that you cause harm or initiate suffering, I will respect that. To love is to give others the space to sit with their opinions and questions. If you truly believe what you say you do, then someone else’s perspective shouldn’t change that.

It is one thing to say that love does not judge, and another to put it into practice.

It is something I am learning and striving for every single day. First, I must learn how to stop judging myself, to unlearn a decade’s worth of bad habits. It’s one of the hardest journeys I’ve been on yet – I don’t know how to love myself for who I am, to accept that I am already enough. I’m very good at seeing the good in others, but not so good at seeing it in myself.

I think I’m still a little scared of love; I think we all are. I think it’s one of the most powerful forces in the universe, something to be reckoned with, not to be taken lightly. You can say “I love you” all you want, but ultimately those words are so powerful because they’re a commitment that require action. You can say “I love you” all you want, but if your actions show something different it means nothing. It’s very easy for those words to become a refrain, something we say without thinking about it. So the next time you say those words, look the person in the eyes and make sure you really mean it.

So what is love?

I’m still trying to figure that one out. I think it remains one of life’s greatest mysteries. I know that right now, for me, love means being there for the people in my life. It means baking cookies and making memories. It means looking up at the sky every once in a while to appreciate the fact that I’m alive. It means listening, really listening to someone’s story, even if it’s the tenth time I’ve heard it or I could be watching an episode of Arrow right now or I’m really, really tired and I just want to go to bed.

It means acknowledging the people in your life who have helped make you who you are.

Thanks mom.

Connecting Dots

Life is a funny thing sometimes.

Looking back on my life in the last number of years, I had no idea it would take me to this moment I’m standing in right now. Life does this thing where it’ll push you and pull you different places until you start heading in the direction you’re meant to go. You can be so utterly convinced you’re headed down the right path when – surprise – the ground gets torn out from beneath your feet.

You can hold on so tightly to something only to have it be ripped from your hands, only to find out it’s not meant to be.

Some things in life are worth fighting for, but I now know there is also value in letting go. My Opa had a saying he would always repeat when the going got tough – really, it is the mantra of his life. He would say, “Never give up.” If something’s not working, you try harder, you grit your teeth and make it work. If they say you can’t do something, you find a way.

It was a philosophy that was instilled in me from the time I was very young. This is how my grandparents taught my mother to go about life, and so naturally it got passed down to me. When you’re that young, you don’t see the pain being so stubborn can cause, you just believe the adults know best. So I fought my way through many things, holding on to fantasies and dreams I didn’t realize weren’t my own.

Artistic gymnastics runs through my blood: when my mother was very young she started into the sport, her own mother and father acting as both her parents and her coaches. When it became apparent that my mother had the passion and work ethic necessary to go far, she reached a level she would need to move to another province in order to continue on the path towards her goals. But this would mean their little girl would be away from home, so my grandparents decided to build their own path instead. They built their own gym, a gym which became a ‘home of the champions.’

After years of blood, sweat and tears, my mother went on to be successful on the international scene, achieving the status of an Olympian. Because of the boycott of 1980, she never got the chance to compete, and so I thought I wanted to complete this journey for her. In fact, for some time when I was young, I thought this was the only way to be a success in life. I had to carry on my family’s legacy.

This was an idea all my own – my family never forced me to continue, but whole-heartedly supported me in whatever path I chose. My gymnastics career, like my mother’s, was fraught with pain and injury, but unlike hers, mine came with very little success. I struggled with fear and mental blocks that resembled walls, with a distorted body image and loneliness and eating issues. I held on for eleven years, until at last I became a national level gymnast at age 16…only to tear my ACL two months later. This forced me to step back and take a hard look at my life.

I remember sitting in the car with my mom after I’d gone to see the sports doctor to be referred for an MRI. I was sobbing so hard it was difficult to breathe, let alone speak. The doctor hadn’t seen the imaging results yet, but he could already tell me it was very likely I’d torn the major stabilizing ligament in my knee. This meant surgery and a long, long road to recovery. In this moment, there was one thing I knew that played on repeat in my mind: “I don’t want to go back to gymnastics,” I said. And I knew in my gut, it was true.

As I looked back on the months leading up to the injury, I realized I’d grown depressed and lost my passion for the sport. Fear overshadowed the love of flying through the air I’d once known. After taking a week off at Christmas, on the first day I was supposed to return to the gym, I spent two hours with tears streaming down my face while my mom convinced me to go to training. In the week before the injury, my brain and body felt sluggish, disconnected. I was spending practices dreaming of going home to spend time with my family and would have a sick day at least one time per month.

In time, I realized that going to compete in the Olympics was no longer my dream. Maybe it had been at one point, but it was no longer the thing I wanted to do with my life; it was something I clung to as part of my identity. I didn’t know who I was without it. Gymnastics had become a means to an end.

Slowly, I started discovering things I was truly passionate about, things I wanted to pursue that had been there all along.

I did a lot of reading and thinking and soul searching, identifying some of the beliefs and values that sit at the core of who I am. That isn’t to say I’d learned my lesson; I took steps that led me down one path, only to find out once again, it would not lead me to be the best version of myself I can be. It was not the path for me.

Steve Jobs once said, “You can only connect the dots looking backwards.” We can’t predict the future, we can only live one day at a time. Every action we take has a consequence that effects our lives and the lives of those around us. I’ve learned that the world is a small place: every person on earth is connected by an average of six degrees of separation, which is a lot smaller than you’d think. This means that, if you sent out a letter, it would have to pass through the hands of an average of five people in order to make it back to you. Our lives are built on a kind of butterfly effect, where I know one decision I make today will impact someone I don’t even know tomorrow.

We can only connect the dots looking backwards, and sometimes those dots hurt.

Failure hurts. Rejection hurts. Broken hearts take time to heal, and it takes time to learn how to trust again. But these dots are also lessons and plot twists in the stories of our lives. I know if I hadn’t held on to gymnastics for so long, if I hadn’t followed certain curiosities or taken certain risks, there are people in my life who wouldn’t be where they are today. I wouldn’t be where I am today. Life is a process of living and learning, of testing the water with your big toe and knowing the water is cold but deciding to dive in anyways.

I’m grateful for all the dots that got me to where I am today. Looking back, many things make sense. I can also acknowledge that I have no idea where I’m going right now, that I’m floating and I don’t know what my next step will be. Life has kind of knocked me flat on my back, but I had a good friend remind me recently that sometimes, that’s okay.

Sometimes you have to lie down in the grass and look up at the stars for a while. Life will show you where to go, just you wait.

To Be Vulnerable

People. It always comes back to the people.

Until this year, I never realized how important people are to me. How I care so much that sometimes it feels like too much, how I love to do little things for the people in my life and I’m fascinated with their stories.

Before she passed away when I was five years old, my grandma Betty wrote me a letter that I was to read when I’d grown up some and reached my late teens. That letter sat in boxes, on shelves and in hidden safe places for years, until I turned sixteen and my mother passed the letter on to me. Grandma Betty was such a strong, caring and patient woman. She knew how to stay calm – that woman had a zero tolerance policy for nonsense. She did raise four boys out in the country after all. I’m sure my dad and his brothers were quite the hand full.

I have one very vivid memory of staying with Grandma up at our family’s cabin for a week in the summer when I was three. It was just the two of us. I don’t remember everything we did during that week, but I do remember how grounding it was to spend that time with her. One day, when we were coming back from the market, we drove into the little gravel driveway in front of our humble cabin, and Grandma’s face went very still. She stayed perfectly calm, telling me how we were, “just going to stay in the car for a little while.” A huge, brown mama bear came lumbering down the road with her fuzzy cub not far behind. I remember watching curiously as the bears moseyed on up the road, minding their own business. Grandma explained to me, the bears weren’t looking to cause any trouble, but if mama bear felt anyone was endangering the safety of her cub, she wouldn’t hesitate to attack. I think the same can be said for most humans – I know in myself, if I see someone mess with a person I care about, mama bear will come out and I will stand up for what I believe in.

Many of the things that define who we are at the core of our being are defined before our fifth birthday. Grandma Betty didn’t know me very long, but in her letter she nailed so many essential aspects of who I am that are true to this day. I share my my grandma’s belief that people matter – they are important and their opinions count. The first time I read some of the things she hoped I would do and become, I remember being overwhelmed by the sensation of being so well understood. Grandma did love to people watch.

“I know you will grow up to be a thoughtful and caring young woman who values her own strengths. I know how hard it is going to be for you to be a young woman who cares for others but still recognizes the importance of yourself.” This is a tightrope I know I have always struggled to walk.

Being in close relationships of any kind is one of the most challenging things in the world, because you can’t control what other people do or say. But it also one of the most rewarding.

When I care for others, I love with my whole being. I dive in and entrust them with pieces of my heart, pieces of who I am. The minute I want to really get to know a person, I walk into those relationships with my palms facing the sky, open and honest because I don’t know how to be anything else, because that’s who I am.

The willingness to be vulnerable can be seen as a weakness, or it can be seen as a great strength. But know that it does not make anyone fearless. Vulnerability is terrifying. It is living with your beating, bleeding heart on your sleeve. It is trusting that others will not take advantage of your willingness to do and be and care with every fibre of your being. And that trust can be oh, so hard.

Sometimes vulnerability hurts. I have cuts, minor burns, and a few jagged scars criss crossing the surface of my heart. We all do. You can choose to let that pain make you bitter and cynical and closed off from the world. Or you can choose to accept it, to let it make you stronger and let those be lessons learned, to let yourself be healed by the love of those around you.

Because vulnerability can be painful, but it can also be so deeply fulfilling to let others into your corner of the world.

I walk into the world with open palms because for me, there is no other way. The alternative is far more painful than anything I’ve known and oh, so lonely. In order to be honest with others, I’ve first had to learn to be honest with myself. Now I know that in order to truly love others in the way they deserve to be loved, I must first learn to love myself for who I am. I have to define who I am and what I believe, because you attract what you are, not what you want. People in life are a mirror, and the ones closest to you are a reflection of what’s going on inside.

For a long time, I’ve been frustrated – I feel like I never quite fit in anywhere, that I never had one person or one clique or one group that was my own. I’ve always felt loved by many but I was never the first person they’d call. Maybe one day I’ll find that. Maybe not. Maybe it’s easy to see all the spaces I don’t fit because instead, I’m meant to spill into all the cracks that others can’t fill. And maybe that’s okay.

On Inspiration

When I was eight years old, I wrote my first poem. It was the first day of third grade, and I can’t recall the prompt we were given that made me decide to try my hand at this format, but I do remember that creativity and independent thinking were heavily encouraged during that year and my inner writer flourished under Mr. Krahn’s watchful eye. Elementary school teachers can have a huge impact in a child’s life – they are teaching students during some of the most formative years of their life. That year, we were given writer’s notebooks, and Mr. Krahn told us to decorate them how we liked. We would use them in class, but we were also encouraged to explore on our own, to fill them with our observations, stories, hopes and dreams, or whatever else we might choose. I wrote my first poem and never looked back, taking the challenge to heart. That notebook went everywhere with me.

I read once that the things you choose to do for fun at a young age can be an indicator as to what you will be passionate about later in life, and I was writing all the time. During recess, after school, waiting for my mom to pick me up, I could be found with that notebook. In the summer, when we went up to our cabin, there was a quiet, secluded path by the lake with docks that dotted the shore. Most of these docks were floating ones, but there was one at the very end that was stable. When we used to walk that path, my parents would be a few steps ahead, discussing life or work or the next big trip, and I would trail a few steps behind composing poems in my mind. On some especially hot summer days, my mom and I would walk to that dock with our notebooks in hand and sit and write for hours. It was a peaceful, calm escape from the world, our secret little nook, and I loved it.

Often, I’ve found that I am most inspired by nature. I write my best poems when I’m walking alone, when I’m in transit or standing in the shower, surrounded by water. For this reason I’ve acquired the ability to compose on the move, retaining several verses in my mind until I can get to a piece of paper to write them down. This also means that I’m not very good at showing my work – nearly all revising happens in my head before the work even makes it to the page. I know some might argue for the flaws that exist in my creative process, but I believe different things work for different people, and this is what works for me.

Learning to create anything is hard work; it’s all about putting in the time. There are some days I can’t find the words to express what I want to say, some sentences I spend hours toying with to get the rhythm just right. But there are other times a piece of writing seems to come to me fully intact, where the ideas flow through me rather than from me. This experience is the one I think all artists work for, where time stands still and hours cease to exist.

My best works have this in common: one day, usually after hours of writing and research and pondering the english language, a sentence or phrase pops into my brain and refuses to leave. I say, “Ah, so this is where we’re going now,” and chase the words down some wild path until I feel the work is finished, usually only a matter of hours later.

It’s the strangest experience, and when I look back on what I’ve written, I find it hard to believe I created that? Where did that come from? Then I sit down and begin to work again.

Inspiration of this kind remains somewhat of a mystery to artists and scientists alike. In an attempt to explain this elusive experience, psychologist Mihaly Chikszentmihalyi coined the term, “flow,” a state characterized primarly by the loss of time, loss of sense of self or personal needs, and the ability to produce work at the highest level. Mihaly went on to research and explain how you can recreate this state in your own life, a “secret to happiness.” His work and descriptions are incredibly accurate, but I prefer a much less scientific explanation of the phenomenon.

In her work, Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert explains how the ancient Greeks and Romans believed inspiration exists as an entity in its own right. They

“both believed in the idea of an external daemon of creativity – a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home and who sometimes aided you in your labours. The Romans has a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius, your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius” (Gilbert 67).

Inspiration will show up for you, but it has to find you working. Everyone has a different creative process. Ultimately, this process needs to lead to you actually doing something, however scary that make seem. We’re all terrified of failure. But if you never put that pen to paper or paint on your canvas, you’ll never end up making anything at all.

Yes, some days will be harder than others. Most often, the work you do will not end the way you thought it would; I know this post did not for me. But if you feel compelled to create a thing, then you must begin. You never know if you don’t start.

Questions

Authenticity. What does it mean to be authentic? I could look up the Webster Dictionary definition of the word, but I already know it wouldn’t give me the answer I’m looking for. What does it mean to write with an authentic voice, and how does one find it?

I’ve struggled with this for some time now. The minute I start trying too hard, start thinking about the people whom I want to reach and who will read my work, I get stuck. Or worse, I write something that I think sounds fake. And that’s the last thing I want. I want the reader to be able to hear me speak as they read my words, as if we were having a conversation. But how do I find that?

I’m questioning a lot of things these days. Who am I? What am I passionate about? What do I pretend to be passionate about for the sake of other people? Why do I do the things I do? What is most important to me, the things I’m not willing to compromise on? How do I build a life around these things? I’ve become quite good at giving people the answers I know they want, but in the process I’ve lost sight of what I truly want. I’m good at giving advice to those struggling, at making it look like I’ve got it all figured out, but in reality, I don’t. I’m just as lost as the next person.

Things are not going the way I originally planned. In the process of being told no, of ending up on my knees and coming to the end of the person I thought I wanted to be, I’ve figured out that maybe that life is not what I wanted after all. There was a dream somewhere deep inside me, far beneath the surface, one that I was not admitting to myself. Because it’s not the “traditional” path, it’s not the safe path or the one I’d been told I should take. But ultimately I know there are things that are so deeply important to me that my life needs to be built around these things, or I’ll never be truly satisfied – I’ll always be waiting for the next weekend, vacation or travel opportunity.

Curveballs are painful, but in that moment when I’m down on my knees sobbing, I know what’s most important to me, the core of what I want and need going forward.

Relationships, for one thing. I want to spend my precious time on earth doing the things I love with the people I love most. Even two years away from that, for me, is too long. I longed for the freedom to go where my people would go. Now I have that – I’m in a position to build my life in whichever way I choose. Choices are terrifying, but they are also liberating.

I am a writer, a poet, a storyteller. I’ve been asking myself, why do I write? What makes me think I have something valuable to say? I write because stories are powerful. I write to give a voice to the voices we don’t hear and the faces we don’t see, because I identify with what they’re feeling. I’ve been there. I am a subtle human; I’ve never been the most charismatic personality in the room. Countless times, I’ve found myself desperately wanting to contribute to a conversation but never having the chance. We live in a loud world, and quiet voices get lost in the chaos. But I believe every person was put on earth for a reason – every life is important. Why do I write? I write to remind people that they matter. I write to make people feel less alone.

I have so many questions and so few answers. How do I find my authentic voice? I guess I try, but not too hard. I search. I read. I write. I write because it’s the thing I can’t not do, because I am incomplete without it.