Deep Breaths (A Rant)

This is a 6-minute read.

Sometimes, existing in this world as a human being can be exhausting.

We exist within this single dichotomy: everything is simultaneously far too much and not enough to fit our definition of the way things are supposed to be.

I often get the sense that I am too much and not enough always, in all ways.

Too passionate, straying too far from the herd we are supposed to follow. Too vibrant, too full of life. Too many ideas on how to change the world. Not creative enough, not smart enough. Not focused on the right things. Not working hard enough to make a real impact. Not enough people know your name.

By the world’s impossible standards, nothing is ever enough. We could always be thinner and prettier and have nicer things. We should do more good in the community and volunteer overseas and spend more time with our families and friends back home. We should make more money. We should be vegan and live zero-waste lives. We should exercise and take 10,000 steps and vote and be tolerant of others all while living our best lives…oh, and you’re not doing enough to take care of yourself. Make sure you do that too.

Does anyone else ever feel as overwhelmed as I do? Who knew life could become so complicated in such a short span of time.

As a Very Curious Individual (VCI), I spend a lot of time learning new things. Life is fascinating. The world is fascinating, but there is also an overwhelming number of things to know. Data can be useless without action, and we are currently in an era of data overload.

Researcher Alex Edmans explains how we are now living in a post-truth world in this TED Talk. When there is so much “evidence” to back up any opinion we may wish to argue for, it is easy to let our confirmation bias to lead us astray. Just because someone somewhere “tested” something, doesn’t make it true. To be pro-truth is to acknowledge that sometimes our initial ideas may be wrong, that there is a difference between opinion and fact, and we must fact-check our sources before sharing our latest findings with the people we know.

The problem is, sometimes we consume and regurgitate others’ opinions without even knowing it.  We are constantly consuming media wherever we go, and all this information can be…well, overwhelming. (I think that is my word of the day.) It can be a challenge to properly process everything we absorb. What do you do with the fact that we only have twelve years to stop global warming from rising beyond 2 degrees C, a tipping point beyond which there is no point of return? What do you do with the fact that these next twelve years determine whether we can learn to live in harmony with the natural world, or exist in climate catastrophe for the foreseeable future? I sure as hell don’t always know what to do with that information. Panic? That’s not going to get anybody anywhere.

Some days, I feel very small and extremely helpless. What can I, as one small person, possibly do to change this very scary prognosis? I want to yell at the world to wake up. I want to kick and scream and fuss until people start to take notice. I want people to take notice but more than that, I want them to care enough that they begin to make a change. A real, tangible change. A sustained change. Not just empty promises, but do everything we can to follow through.

We need little changes to add up to big changes. Every. Single. Day.

When I was little, I wanted to go to the Olympics for artistic gymnastics. More than that, I wanted to make a splash on the international scene. I wanted to be known by people, I wanted to be seen. In all honesty, a small part of me still longs for that platform, but it is not driven by ego or recognition or fame. In all honesty, I don’t think it ever was. To have your work be known and loved by thousands of people gives you a platform of influence, the opportunity to impact real change in the world around you.

To make a sizable difference in the world and connect with people on a deeper level. In all honesty, that’s all I’ve ever wanted.

I am a dreamer. I have big dreams for my life, and some days those dreams are overwhelming. Some days those dreams are terrifying, and some days they’re terribly exciting. It is easy for me to get caught up in this dream world where everything is possible, but then I remember, to achieve great things I must first begin. I need to take the first step. And so I breathe and I come back to the present moment and I get back to work. I learn a lot of things, and I’m just now learning how to put those learnings into action.

All my life I’ve been a dreamer, but this year has been about making those dreams a reality, one small simple step at a time. In the process, I’ve cultivated this new sense of trust in life and its ability to take me where I need to go. Where the world needs me to go. Some days, a lot of days, it’s not easy. I don’t always want to write or stand on my hands for two hours or learn about the devastating impact deforestation is having on climate change. Some days I just want to be twenty and watch Netflix for a few hours and forget about everything I’ve learned. Sometimes I do because life is about balance. And balance includes late nights and nonsense, every now and then.

Other days, life is stunningly beautiful. I look up at the clear blue sky or watch the stars at night, publish a piece of writing I’m truly proud of or come home after a performance and sit and appreciate my little apartment beneath the warm glow of fairy lights I strung up on the wall.

The more you begin to say yes to life, the more life says yes to you.

You’ll know when you’re on the path you’re meant to be on – when you’re living a life aligned with your deepest values, interests and abilities. It just feels right. There is no other way for me to describe it. You may not know what your life will look like three months from today. In fact, you often don’t. But that’s okay because when you are living the life you are meant to live, you are lit up and contributing to the world in a way only you can.

Author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

What makes you come alive?

Wherever you are today, whatever you are experiencing at this point in time, step back for a moment. Take a deep breath. Inhale for a count of four. Exhale for six. Repeat three times. Feel your mind drop back into your body. Feel the earth beneath your feet. Hear the people all around you. Feel the rhythm of your heart’s own steady beat.

You are okay. This world is okay. (For now.)

What will you do today? What small, yet purposeful action will you take? You are so much more capable than you dare believe. Remember that when you get overwhelmed.

Pause. Breathe. Grow. Repeat.

Answers (A Pep Talk)

“Ommmmmmm…”

“Whatcha doing?”

“Meditating.”

“What’s that?”

“Meditating. You know, sitting in stillness, breathing, being. Seeking inner peace and contentment with all that is right here, right now.”

“Oh. We’re doing that again.”

“What?”

“This meditating thing. It’s BORING. Why would anybody just sit there doing nothing when there are so many things to do and people to meet and places to see? Sitting still seems like a waste of time to me.”

“Mmmmm. You just don’t get it.”

Patience. I think that’s my word of the year. Or the word of my life. It has been a long, challenging year filled with ups and downs and many moments of “I have no idea where I am going, what am I doing with my life?!” followed by moments of “this is AMAZING!” Figuring out where you are going takes time. Building things worth building takes time. But sometimes I am young and sometimes I am impatient. I would like to have everything figured out NOW.

I will be the first to admit that my brain is hardly ever satisfied with where it is at any given moment, and recently I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Like many people partaking in the mindfulness movement, I long to show up and be more present for my life, but it baffles me why this is a question at all. Life is so beautiful, and we only get to live once. There is absolutely NOTHING I can do to control what happens in my future and NOTHING I can do to change the past, yet this is where my mind likes to stray to time and time again. Why is this? And how can I change it?

There is a time and place to remember the past. There is a time and place to look towards the future. But if we spend all our time watching the horizon or looking back over our shoulder, are we ever truly living?

My brain is a busy place. I imagine it to look sort of like Grand Central Station inside, with millions of thoughts coming and going every single day. Occasionally I’ll hop on a train with one of them and see where it leads me, but the rest of the thoughts are still there, never more than a few thousand miles away.

I’ve been feeling fairly restless lately with too many thoughts, ideas and projects competing for my attention – being a creative person can be busy work at times. My brain has been arguing with itself quite a bit, one side trying to keep track of everything I have going on while the other half tells me I am not doing enough so I better get off my butt and make something happen already or else there will be consequences. What consequences, you ask? I’m not sure either. But apparently, they’re there, like a ticking time-bomb that could explode at any minute if I don’t get moving.

You see, my brain likes to think it can control my life. Therefore, it likes to sit in the driver’s seat and act as the navigator at the same time. It has this need to have some semblance of a plan of where we are going and how we are going to get there at all times, and if it doesn’t? Well, things aren’t so pleasant for the passengers inside. They tend to get jostled around a lot until my brain gets some answers.

The thing is, life does not go according to plan, ever. No ifs, ands or buts about it. If it does miraculously go according to plan for a period of time, you often find the plan wasn’t actually what you were looking for all along and end up pulling off to the side of the road to check your map and figure out why you thought this path was such a good idea in the first place.

While I have grown to accept life’s plot twists as just another part of the journey, some part of my brain has not. It has been deeply aware of the fact that I have been floating of late and has therefore grown increasingly restless. There has been no plan. No direction, no burning passion or inclination to take one path over another. There has been curiosity, and there has been healing. Oh, the healing. But healing takes time, my brain says. You’re wasting time. No, I’m not, I tell my brain again. Do you wanna drive on two flat wheels? Didn’t think so. Neither do I. So we sit. And we think. And we ponder.

It’s easy for my brain to make it sound like I’ve been doing nothing. This isn’t true, either. The results of the work I’ve been doing have just been more intangible than I am used to. There haven’t been any overarching goals or five-year plans in mind. I’ve just been getting back on my feet and following my curiosities, one step at a time.

Still, my brain has been restless, and so what do I do when I’m restless? I research. I temporarily abandon any current projects in favour of figuring out my life beyond those deadlines, spending hours combing through the internet to get a clearer sense of what I want my life to look like at this time next year.

I suppose one could also call this procrastination.

This kind of procrastination can be quite productive at times. Well, not productive in the most acute sense of the word, but productive none the less. All that research soothed my brain to the point where I can now get back to work and know I’ll discover some ideas that were nowhere to be seen before, ideas that will enable me to move my projects forward.

Moderate procrastinators have actually been proven to be more successful and creative than their peers – no, I’m not making this up. In his TED Talk on the surprising habits of original thinkers, Adam Grant explains how he discovered this group of people whom he calls “originals,” and how they function differently from the rest of society. One of the defining traits of originals is that they are quick to start but slow to finish – as moderate procrastinators, they sit in between the people who always finish early and those who start so late that they have to scramble to get everything done on time.

Grant shares the data from an experiment that asked people to come up with new business ideas. There were three groups: one group was asked to do the task right away, while the other two groups were asked to procrastinate by playing Minesweeper – for either five or ten minutes each. Which group was the most creative, you might ask? It was the middle group, the one that procrastinated for five minutes before completing the task. People in this group were 16% more creative than those in the other two groups. Grant explains:

“Now, Minesweeper is awesome, but it’s not the driver of the effect, because if you play the game first before you learn about the task, there’s no creativity boost. It’s only when you’re told that you’re going to be working on this problem, and then you start procrastinating, but the task is still active in the back of your mind, that you start to incubate. Procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.”

It’s reassuring to know my brain is not the only one that works this way. Grant goes on to explain that another defining feature of originals is that they are less afraid to fail than they are of failing to try. In essence, they would rather put forth a less-than-perfect but innovative product or idea if they saw the world could benefit than wait for it to be perfect or worse, let that idea sit up on a shelf until someone else worked up the courage to go do it. If their idea fails for some reason or another, they learn from their experience and take note of what they can do differently next time.

Left unchecked, procrastination can morph into this form of perfectionism that stops us from taking action in the first place. It settles like a fog in the mind that makes us forget what we truly want and dampens the excitement we have for our ideas. This is the most dangerous form of procrastination of all because it is so sneaky, you don’t even notice it. Some people even find this trait admirable.

I used to wear my perfectionism like a badge of honour, but now I see it more as a synonym for crippling self-doubt or fear of rejection than I do a source of pride. I am not proud of the times I have been too scared to try.

My tendency to procrastinate has produced some beautiful ideas in the last week – but my mind has also been wandering dangerously close to the murky lands of perfectionism. I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself, and as a result, I have been suffering from some pretty nasty writer’s block.

When I was in gymnastics, I had a bad habit on beam. There were certain skills around which I had developed very large mental blocks, and this made it extremely hard to actually practice said skills. I vividly remember the feeling: I would be standing on the beam, my arms above my head and feet side by side, perfectly aligned and ready to go. I had performed the skill countless times before and yet, I would stand there, sometimes for five minutes at a time, wiggling my sweaty feet and swinging my arms up and down to no avail. I was paralyzed by the fear that I might land on my head and break my neck and then never be able to move again.

Now, this may sound entirely logical to someone outside of the sport, but it was entirely not. I had never, not once landed on my head. I’ve never even come close. I knew this skill inside out. On competition day, I would stick the skill perfectly, without a single wobble; the next day, I would return to the gym to that same paralyzing fear and frustrating habit of stopping myself before I would even start.

I have no explanation for this phenomenon. I only knew that on these days, my brain became something of a prison cell. I was trapped. It was like I had opened my mouth to speak knowing full well what I wanted to say, only, no words would come out. Choking on your own thoughts is like choking on the air we breathe – no one can see what’s plaguing you, and you can’t see a way out.

Looking back now, I know my anxiety boiled down to this one thing: ultimately, there was no guarantee that anything I did would work out. In life, there never is. Each skill on beam was simply a micro example of this truth – I would know right away, and so I often felt I would just rather not find out.

Since I left gymnastics, I’ve experienced a high volume of what I’m now calling detours – choices I made that didn’t work out. These “failures” hurt at the moment, but I’m still standing and I’m stronger for it.

My brain likes to make life a whole lot more complicated than it actually is. Sometimes less is more and trying harder is not the answer. Sometimes the answer has been there all along. Sometimes you just need to take the first step, then the next, then the next, and learn to sit with the uncertainty that is the beauty of life.

Today, I am hereby denouncing perfectionism once and for all. I AM PERFECTLY IMPERFECT and PROUD OF IT. Because life is not perfect. Life is beautiful and wonderful and challenging and curious but life is NOT perfect. Life was not created to be perfect. We were not created to be perfect. Imperfection is where our beauty lies. Imperfection is honesty and connection and vulnerability and that is the life I want to live.

Maybe, just maybe, letting go of perfection is letting go of the outcome is letting go of everything but this moment right here, right now. Maybe letting go of perfection is showing compassion for ourselves and every living thing on earth because how you treat yourself is how you treat everyone else. Maybe letting go of perfection is being courageous and original and living our best lives, individually and collectively.

You have been given a life – do us all a favour and go live boldly, bravely, in unapologetically bright, vivid colours. Take up space. Wear your heart on your sleeve and live life out loud. Do your dreams, however big or small they may seem because the world needs it now, more than ever. The world will become a better place because we were willing to take a chance and colour outside the lines.

Go live a life worth remembering. That’s what I am going to do.

On Learning

Confession No. 04: I love learning. (One could even say I’m a nerd.)

From the time I was very young, I have been fascinated by many things. I think this is partially due to the fact that I grew up with a father who relaxes by expanding his brain – my dad loves to watch home and cooking shows as well as documentaries on TV, so I grew up watching HGTV more than Family channel, often missing the shows my peers loved to watch.

Before we even began learning the basic principles of multiplication in school, my father was teaching me my times-tables. I loved every research project I was assigned in class, especially when I had a say in the specific topic I would learn about. I would spend hours and hours finding recipes and exercise programs for girls I was coaching and loved to out try new recipes when I had the chance. Around the time I was sixteen, I began reading non-fiction books for fun because, why not?

Over the years, I have accumulated an assortment of facts and knowledge. You never know when a piece of information will come in handy, so I try to soak up as much as I can.

For me, research is relaxing. I am being productive (I tell myself) because even if I don’t use the information for this specific task, I am building my brain muscles and creating new connections between neurons. I love to discover the links between seemingly disparate ideas and pull them together in a way that makes them easier to understand. It is extremely satisfying, this kind of work, and I am lucky enough to get to do it every day.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received came when I read Liz Gilbert’s book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Gilbert encourages readers to “follow their curiosities” and explains what this looks like in her own life. In this conversation with podcast host Jonathan Fields, Gilbert explains how people often think the opposite of depression is happiness, but it’s not. The opposite of depression is curiosity. The moment you stop believing that tomorrow will be any different from today, that is the moment you will lose your zest for life. Each day is a beautiful opportunity to learn something new, but it’s so easy to forget that.

The truth is, you will never know all there is to know.

I find this fact simultaneously thrilling, humbling, and utterly inspiring. If I will never know all there is to know, then there will always be something new for me to discover tomorrow. Your learning doesn’t stop when your formal education does; in fact, that is when the real learning begins.

This is not to say I have always loved the process of learning – there have been many times when I definitely have not. I am, by nature, a bit of a perfectionist, and learning can be quite messy at times. I have always had a bit of an aversion to being judged for my learning because I hate feeling like I’ve failed. I can’t say I hated tests and exams because I loved the feeling of satisfaction I got when I did well, but I definitely did not enjoy the criticism that came when I did not. Then again, I don’t think anyone does.

I did well in school because I paid attention in class and often found the subjects quite interesting. If I found the teacher boring or I didn’t understand what they were talking about, I would just do the research on my own. I didn’t really mind taking tests, but the minute my grades slipped below ninety, I would cringe; below eighty, I told myself to work harder – that wasn’t good enough.

Perfection was my highest goal, but that shouldn’t have been my focus. That is not what learning is about.

Learning is the process of growing, of becoming wiser and stronger than you were the day before. Everyone learns in different ways, and I’ve always learned best by doing things for myself. A teacher can speak for hours about a subject, but those formulas and theories will mean nothing to mean until I put them to use. I learned early on that I remembered things better if I wrote them down. The best way for me to understand a language or equation was for me to smash it into bite-sized pieces and repeat the steps over and over again.

These are the strategies that work best for me, but what works for me will not work for everyone. I was able to do well in school because I did the work and figured out how I learn best. This is not the case for many people, however, and it frustrates me to think there are people who leave school thinking they’re stupid. No person on earth is truly stupid – we are all intelligent in our own way.

For the last few centuries, we’ve spent our time focused on the wrong question. The question shouldn’t be, “are you smart?” based on some grades on a paper somewhere. School should be about helping each child discover their strengths and the places they need to improve. The question we should be asking is, “How are you smart, and how can the world benefit from that?”

Sometimes I forget my love of learning. Sometimes I can only see all the ways in which life is hard. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I do not know and the uncertainty that goes along with being a new adult. But if I have learned one thing, it is this: no one ever really has everything figured out.

You can look at a stranger and think they have a perfect life, that everything must be so easy and they know exactly where they’re going – but I can almost guarantee this is a lie. You don’t know their whole story. The masters know the secret to mastery is to maintain a beginners mind. The more you learn, the more you understand there is so much more to learn, and so you must remain humbly open to anyone who might teach you something as you journey along your path.

As we approach the beginning of autumn and the start of a new school year, I have to admit it’s a little strange not to be heading back to school. The structure and safety of being in school are, in some ways, all I’ve ever known. They are things you take for granted until you step out into the real world and realize there is so much more at stake. Once you graduate from school, you are responsible for your one precious life. No one will make things happen for you if you are never willing to take the first step.

Sometimes, taking the first step means stumbling. Sometimes it means falling flat on your face. Notice I did not say that taking the first step can lead to failure because you never truly fail until you give up. If you learned something from the experience, you did not fail – you only added to your knowledge of what not to do next time.

These days, my days are filled to the brim with learning: learning about myself and my work and my world, how to process pain and cultivate joy and what it is to be alive on this planet that is just bursting with life.

It’s a beautiful thing, this kind of learning, no matter how challenging it may be. I wouldn’t exchange it for anything in the world. Every day is an adventure when you are acting as your own tour guide because the value lies not in the place you are going but rather the person you become along the way.

So take the time to enjoy your journey and rest assured – one step at a time, you will get where you are going one day.

Be You

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

Alright, I’ll admit it: I have a great appreciation for quotes. I began collecting them when I was young. I spent hours flipping through inspirational books, folding over corners on pages I loved and highlighting ideas that struck me as true. They were things I wanted to remember. When I grew a little older, this time was spent on the computer, which I learned can be a bit of a rabbit hole in of itself. It’s funny, I began to realize, after a time many quotes began to say the same things, just in a different way.

Still, I continued to collect new ones. Quotes would be written down, transferred to notebooks and sticky notes and plastered all over my walls. There were quotes that became like mantras written on the inside of my mind – I would repeat to myself over and over again, particularly during challenging times. This particular quote was first said by Dr. Seuss, and it’s one of my all-time favourites. There is something in those words I find so comforting, even if I’ve struggled to validate their truth.

I would like to tell you I’ve never struggled to be myself, but if I did, I would be lying. Simple doesn’t always mean easy, and I seem to like to make things a lot harder for myself than they actually need to be.

My brain is like a sponge. I am constantly amazed by the amount of information it can soak up and retain. Sometimes this skill can be an incredible asset – I have endless amounts of data filed away for the day it might be useful, studying was never that hard, and I can pick up on new dance choreography with relative ease, so long as I am actually paying attention.

That is the key – focus. Our brains are truly powerful machines that process tens of thousands of thoughts every single day. How do you spend your thoughts? With so much going on in my mind at all times, I know I am very good at entertaining myself. This also means I am at risk of checking out of the present moment if I am bored by what I am doing and losing track of time if I’m interested. This is only sometimes funny when a professor asks you a question and you realize you were actually a million miles away, what were we talking about again?

At other times, my sponginess can be incredibly annoying. I can pick up on the fears, habits and beliefs of the people around me easily, without a conscious thought. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with – we all are. I find I adapt and change in ways I don’t even notice until I do something completely out of character and someone calls me out.

I lose myself in others.

Speaking your truth and living by your values shouldn’t be difficult, but it often is. Not because these things aren’t important to us, but because we have an instinctual desire to be accepted by our tribe, by the people we surround ourselves with. The notion of stepping outside of that can be terrifying. Fear works real hard to get us to fit in, or at the very least do something sensible like following along some predetermined path, we can do that, right? Not always. There comes a point in any life where you have to leap without the assurance of what comes next. You have to live your own story.

It’s funny to look back on my goals from the last number of years, how they’ve changed and shifted course. I can see how the media I was consuming and the people I looked up to at any given point directly influenced the steps I thought I should take.

As a young gymnast, Nastia Liukin was my idol. I watched her fly to Olympic glory in 2008 and dreamed that I would do the same…one day. A little older, I watched acrobatic duos on Instagram attend one of the most prestigious schools for circus arts in the world and I wanted to be just like them…one day. When I discovered author Julie Kagawa’s series, The Iron Fey, I absolutely fell in love with the characters and the way her writing compelled me on a journey filled with romance and plot twists. For a while, my writing began to sound just like hers, but I never took note of this small fact. I would publish a novel and be successful just like her…one day.

I latched onto the dreams of others because admitting to my own dreams made me feel foolish. And vulnerable – too vulnerable. What if someone laughed at me or thought less of me because of what I aspired to become? It’s one way to live with your living, beating heart on your sleeve, and that my friends, is terrifying. So for many years when my dreams came knocking, I politely declined. I took steps on the paths others had laid down before me because, if it worked for them, why wouldn’t it work for me?

My own dreams do exist. They’re there. When I think about them, I can feel my face light up…but then there is the Fear.

I feared my dreams might seem selfish or stupid or insignificant in comparison to the aspirations of those around me. Even as recently as the last few months, I looked to the people who have inspired me to see how they reached their level of success. I considered going to regular university even though my gut told me otherwise. I tried on styles and patterns and platforms like one does hats – which one suited me best?

The answer, it turns out, was none of them. Often the road to our dreams can appear daunting – we see the goal looming over us on a snowcapped mountaintop, distant and far beyond our reach. We have no idea how we’ll get there. The path is unclear, riddled with fog and forks in the road. We are fully aware that some of these paths lead to dead ends while others will help us get further up the mountain. We just don’t know which one is which.

You could follow a path someone laid out before you. You could take every one of those steps and maybe you’ll find success…for a time. This option may seem logical or easy, but the truth is, life doesn’t work this way. The exact combination of steps that worked for others will not work for you because you are not them. You are your own person with your own experience, memories, circumstance and desires. Because you are your own person, you have your own journey to take. Yes, do listen to your elders and learn from those who have gone before you. But do not try to copy their story word for word because I can promise you this: it will not work.

If you can see the whole path laid out before you, it isn’t your path.

For much of my life, I have struggled. I have felt this constant pull: I am simultaneously too much and never enough to fit in. I’m a little different than the people around me, but never quite different enough to be considered a freak. I am a creative but I am also an intellectual…but I am also a hand balancer and baker and entrepreneur and friend. I am passionate about so many things it makes it nearly impossible to become too obsessive about any particular one, because if I spent my time feeling guilty for the time I spent doing handstands or writing or researching all the ways we can help reduce pollution, I would never get anything done.

No, I’m not the right combination of just enough and not too much to fit in or be anyone that I’m not. But I AM the perfect blend of elements to create a very unique compound: I am perfectly me. And you are too.

I hereby declare that you have permission to stop being anyone you’re not.

So go be you.

On Getting Unstuck

I am a writer.

It has never been hard for me to say those words. I am a writer, and I’ve been telling people I am a writer from the time I was eight years old. I know of many incredible writers who had trouble stating this same fact until they had something to show for it: a viable career, a substantial income, a few successful books published. When I was young, I never had this same need for external validation and I didn’t know the stigma attached to the profession, so I was never shy about the fact this was who I was, who I wanted to become. No one else got to decide if I was a writer. A writer is someone who writes. I write, therefore I am a writer. End of story. No questions asked.

We are who we are, simple as that…except for when it’s not.

I still consider writing to be a respectable profession – we translate stories and information for the world. I believe this is essential. But the world does not always agree. As I grew older, I became aware of this discrepancy, and so there were times where I have conveniently forgotten this vital truth. I got busy doing other things. I surrounded myself with people who did not understand this deeply intellectual side of me, and so into hiding it went.

The thing is, I am a writer. Writing is the thing I cannot-not do. It is how I make sense of my thoughts every day, how I connect and interact with the world. We are more than what we do and yet, so much of who we are is manifest in what we do. There are some things inside of us that just need to come out. To tell me to stop writing is like telling me to stop breathing. I cannot stop if I wish to live.

Perhaps I am being a little dramatic when I say I consider writing to be essential to life – I am sure I could go on living without a pen in my hand or a means to share my words. But if there is one thing I have come to know about myself it is this: a Maia who is not writing is an unhappy Maia. Sometimes the lack of time or mental space to write is the thing that causes the unhappiness, and other times I am certain the unhappiness causes the lack of writing. Either way, it is a signal that I need to take a step back and re-examine my life because something needs to change.

Writing is an extension of the core of who I am.

We all have something like this, some character trait or thing we do that is just quintessentially us. What is that thing for you? Some people I know are the funniest people in my world. If they stop cracking jokes, I get concerned. Others are singers or builders or they love to cook and have people over at their house to enjoy a lovely dinner. It doesn’t matter what your “thing” is, but I promise you there is something only you can do in the way you do it. And I know I grow deeply unhappy if that thing is not in my life.

In the last couple of weeks, I have been struggling real hard to get anything decent down on paper. I’ve tried starting many essays like this one here, only nothing I wrote went anywhere. I would sit there with my pen and paper for two hours and come up with nothing to show for it. Less than half a page of coherent thought and a million unused words later, I would give up and turn to another task.

It became something of a vicious cycle. It is hard not to feel like a failure when nothing you do feels good enough. I began to feel as if I was climbing a steep sand dune with the wind blowing viciously in my face, effectively preventing me from making any progress at all. One step forward, three steps back. Two steps forward, four steps back. On and on it went until this week I said ENOUGH. I am done with this stupid cycle and feeling sorry for myself.

All artists struggle with creative blocks from time to time. It is simply a part of our profession. I have found, however, that these blocks don’t just show up with some greater reason for being there.

It is so easy for us to get stuck in a loop of seeing all the things that aren’t working. Inevitably, the more we stare at these things without doing anything about them, the more they start to show up. It was like I was looking for confirmation that I am a failure. We have to be the ones to recognize when we have fallen into a rut. We have to be the ones to physically shake ourselves to get moving again, to get out of the space in which we are stuck. No one else can do this for us.

There are many reasons we can become blocked at any given time, but the biggest one is this: we fail to take care of our bodies, the home in which our creative mind lives. So often we take for granted all the amazing things our bodies do for us on a daily basis, things to which we do not give a second thought. They breathe without us asking them to and carry us wherever we need to go. They heal themselves when they are sore or broken, and enable us to take care of the ones we love most.

Our bodies can handle a lot, but they have their limits too. When we are approaching the edges of our limits, they will give us warning signs with increasing intensity until all at once they yell STOP. At this point, they will sit down in the middle of the road and throw a tantrum like a cranky toddler, refusing to go anywhere until you give them what they need.

Allow me to remind you of something we all like to conveniently forget from time to time: you need to listen to your body.

Sleep deprivation is not a badge of honour, and it really does matter what you eat. Our bodies were made to move, so make sure you move yours every day. Water – drink more water. If you are thirsty, you’ve waited too long. Also related to water, crying is good. Not crying means not dealing with your emotions and without release, where do you expect all that pent-up energy to go? No, working more is not the answer. I repeat: if you are feeling depleted or numb from emotions you are not dealing with, working more is most certainly not the answer. I am speaking from experience when I say, please find a way to let it out. Your heart will thank you for it in the end.

We need to take care of our hearts just as we take care of our bodies, especially after we face something as painful as rejection or loss. If we don’t, it can severely undermine our confidence moving forward.

I am especially guilty of this. The Japanese say, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” For much of my life, I have worked to live by this proverb. When I faced injury or rejection, I always tried to see the opportunity within hours of the hit. I am not very good at staying down for long. I like to pick myself back up again and keep moving, keep busy, keep doing things and searching for new goals when an old one doesn’t work out.

I am not very good at sitting with emotional pain, but in the last number of months, I have learned. Emotions are funny things. If we do not deal with our feelings as they come up, they will get stuck in our bodies, potentially causing physical weakness or pain or injury. As I am working through a long-term physical injury of my own, I am learning to observe sensations as they come up, which effectively triggers memories. Sometimes someone would make me feel uneasy or angered by what they said. Never speaking up for what I was feeling, I would shove it down and hold tension in my right shoulder instead.

Most of all, I have been struggling with a lack of confidence in myself. Read: constantly standing with poor posture, slightly deflated to make my body seem smaller than it really is.

Ah, Doubt, my old friend. That little voice in your head that constantly undermines everything you do and likes to ask you if you’re really good enough. Like, are you sure? I saw this person over there and they’re way better than you at this thing you’ve only been doing for three years. I mean, yes, they have double your experience but anything you do is worthless next to them, so what’s the point?

Yes, I am a writer. But that phrase carries with it a little more doubt than it did eleven years ago. This is a curious phenomenon – I’ve put in thousands of hours into honing my craft and yet…Doubt sees my experience as nothing. Worthless. It has been a challenge for me to validate my experience because there are no degrees behind my name. I did not graduate from university with a BA in Creative Writing. I did not go to grad school to become a certified Poet or novelist or writer of creative non-fiction. I’ve opted to attend the school of life instead, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my education thus far. The best part is this: it’s never-ending.

I am a writer because I write. Not because I have some paper hanging on my wall that says I am a writer. In fact, it is entirely possible that I have more experience than some people who do. And I do not say that to be cocky, I am just stating a fact. I am a writer because I write and I will continue to write and share my writing for as long as I have things to say.

Yes, there will be periods where I am not feeling inspired. Yes, there will be hard days. But I can and will choose to show up anyway.

There is a fine balance between being kind to yourself and making excuses on a daily basis. I was falling into the later until this morning when I woke up and declared I would write (and publish) this essay. This is a balance I am continually seeking to find – life is changing all the time. If there is one thing these last few weeks have taught me, it is this: choose your commitments wisely. If you make a promise to yourself you will do something, the follow through is the most important part. This is how we build confidence in ourselves. This is how we learn to trust.

The Beauty of Empty Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not as fun as it sounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had grown attached to the wrong story.

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

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

And know that you will be, too.