Give and Take

Confession No. 3: I am not very good at asking for help.

Does anyone else ever feel this way? I have a feeling I am not alone.

In his recent book, Give and Take, bestselling author Adam Grant shares that there are three kinds of people in the world: givers, takers and matchers. We all show up in different ways in the world, falling at different points along the spectrum in different areas and at different points in our life. Our tendencies can change, but we tend to have a default setting we return to time and time again, evident in the way we approach our relationships and interactions every day.

The names for these categories are somewhat self-explanatory. Takers go through life with the goal of accumulating more than everyone else, winning at the expense of someone else. They have no issues putting their needs before someone else’s. Givers do just the opposite – they habitually put the needs of others before their own. Givers give without the expectation of getting anything in return, sometimes without a thought of their own well-being and oftentimes at their own expense.

Matchers are the most common among us, falling somewhere in between. This is the way many people go through life, simply following others’ lead. When matchers are surrounded by givers, they too will become givers. When they are surrounded by takers, they will match that level of stinginess and look out for themselves, because who else will? Matchers operate on a kind of transactional basis, looking to get out of a relationship exactly what they put in – nothing more, nothing less.

For most of my life, I have tended to lean towards the giver end of the spectrum, but like anyone else, my relationship with give and take has been a complicated one.

In elementary school, I remember cycling through a few best friends, never really secure in my social status in the hierarchy that we all know exists, even at that age. I was never like the other kids – I lived a life that was very much foreign to my peers, and they could never understand me for it. Even as a child, I lived a life of discipline. Training and spending time with my family were the most important things, and I often spent my free time writing. I was fairly gifted at a number of different things, but I also worked hard to achieve a level of skill with intention. Both creative and mathematically inclined, my education continued beyond the walls of the classroom. My dad and I would practice numbers in our basement, and I loved to do research on the topics that interested me.

My grades were always good and the teachers liked me, the quintessential “teacher’s pet.” I think this caused some jealousy and insecurity among my peers, who never seemed to stick around. One day I would look up, and the girl who I thought was my best friend had ditched me for someone else, leaving me alone once again.

There was never any explanation for this abandonment, and so I never really understood why they’d left. What had I done wrong? I thought I’d only been generous with my time and my energy and this was how they chose to respond?

As it turns out, many people don’t know what to do with this level of generosity. Receiving makes them uncomfortable when they don’t know what to give in return.

Things improved a little in high school. I still found myself in a number of friendships that didn’t work out, ones that would be there in the times that served them but chose to leave in the times that didn’t. For some friends, they found it easy to be around me when I was hurting but disappeared in the times I was going strong. Others turned to me when they needed a listening ear and left as soon as they’d figured everything out.

People will come and go as you go through life – only a few will really stick around. These are the true friends (I’m looking at you, Natasha!) who you can really count on, the ones you know have your back. But even within these friendships, I have always struggled to ask for help. I am much more comfortable being the helper than the one in need, much better at giving advice or holding space for someone to share their thoughts than I am receiving it. I don’t want to be a burden. I’ve always struggled to believe I deserve this love when in reality, we don’t have to do anything to deserve it. We all do, just the way we are.

In some ways, I find it much easier to be vulnerable with people I barely know. Once I reach a level of closeness with a person, I find it nearly impossible to keep anything from them and yet I fear what they may say when I do share my thoughts. I am terrified of what they may think of me, that they may judge me for my fears or insecurities rather than support me as I know I would them.

We are all our own worst critics. What we don’t realize is that the closer we get to another person, the more we blur the lines of seperation between how we treat them and how we treat ourselves.

Susan Piver describes the phenomenon in this podcast and in her book, The Four Nobel Truths of Love. The easiest example can be found in romantic relationships. Once we have been in a relationship for a while and have surpassed the infatuation stage, discomfort and conflict can and will arise. We grow frustrated with our partner for the little things we do, and it becomes easy to focus on every little thing that annoys us. In the moments we find ourselves angry or irritated, the natural course of action is to lash out. In reality, we should do just the opposite: take a step back and observe the problem from a distance. A relationship a mirror that reflects back to us what is going on inside. If we cannot be accepting and gracious with ourselves, how can we expect to be understanding of others?

In this way, the biggest thing we can do to improve how we show up in the world is improve our relationship with our self. Where do you need healing? Where do you need help? Learn to view yourself through a lens of understanding: sometimes you are strong and awesome, sometimes you are in pain or tired or weak. Sometimes you are a pain in the ass and other times you are not – this is the way it should be.

We could all learn to be a little more understanding of ourselves and the people around us, especially givers. With their willingness to put the needs of others above their own, givers often end up suffering at work and in their personal lives. They are at an increased risk of developing depression and eating disorders and even take lower salaries at work.

On the contrary, givers who can learn to fill their own cup and give from a place of plenty, these are some of the most successful people in the world. They thrive in the midst of fulfilling lives because they are willing to give so much of themselves in a way takers and matchers do not. People may feel slighted when takers succeed but they celebrate the success of givers. The attitude of abundance is contagious – and the world needs it now more than ever.

I am learning that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather the acknowledgement that you can’t do everything on your own, which you can’t – trust me, I’ve tried. Being vulnerable enough to ask for help shows the people in your life you trust them. Relationships are a balance of give-and-take that, like all things, takes time to learn.

Each day when you go out into the world, you have a decision to make. You can operate from a place of scarcity – where there is never enough to go around – or you can operate from a place of abundance. What do you choose?

To fear or to trust?

On Getting Started

Just start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WANTED: Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.