The Stories We Choose

This is an 8-minute read.

Stories. The stories we hear and tell ourselves on a daily basis contain within them immeasurable amounts of power. They determine how we move through our everyday life, the way we see our future and how we relate to our own story, our past.

Do we trust or do we hide? Love or hate? Show compassion for those we do not understand or turn a blind eye to all those we label as “other?”

I have been doing a deep dive into my own story recently, re-examining my history and the lens through which I view it. It is often a somewhat uncomfortable process, this questioning of all the things we hold as truth. Honesty is one of my highest held values, but I’ve learned that in order to be honest with others, I must first learn to be honest with myself.

For someone who values honesty, I am incredibly good at ignoring facts that are staring me right in the face. I habitually lied to myself for a long time, and I find it hard to forgive the person I was during those years I spent under my own spell. The narratives I told myself often hid in plain sight, simmering somewhere just below the surface. I was too scared to dig anything up for fear of the turmoil it might cause within my life. So I bottled things up, put on a brave face and carried on. Until I couldn’t carry on any longer.

During my teen years, I struggled with my relationship to my body and, inevitably, the food I ate (or didn’t eat.) When I was eleven, I injured my back and as a result, gained a lot of weight and began to look like a woman, the one thing every young female gymnast fears most. My comeback was a struggle until I learned my body could change if I increased my cardio and hours of training while choosing to eat fewer carbs, so that is what I did. My coaches told me how good I looked, and everything was well. For a time.

As the years progressed, I became anorexic at a severity that was just mild enough I could continue to function and train at a high level, albeit not that well. I figured I was still eating food, so there was no way I had become “anorexic.” The word brought about images of girls tied to hospital beds, stick thin and fighting for their lives, and I resisted this idea, hard.

I was determined to be strict with my diet and exercise regime because it made me “feel better” within my body. Nothing wrong with that, right? Wrong. You can be a “healthy eater” and still be anorexic if the amount of calories you burn in a day far exceeds the fuel you take in. My body began feeding on my muscles when my fat reserves had dropped to something nearly non-existent. Still, I held on.

For a long time, every single decision I made was made out of fear.

I chose to eat the way I did in an attempt to control my body. I feared I might get fat if I ate any other way. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was a girl who was still too bulky, not the shell of myself I’d become. I was never elegant or pretty or thin enough for my idea of beauty. So I restricted myself and kept on running.

Eventually, my parents intervened at a point when my obsession was becoming life-threatening. I began to understand only months into my recovery how thin I had really been. The image I’d seen when I looked in the mirror did not match what other people had seen at all. This scared me more than anything else – the fact that the mind could play such a huge role in my perception of reality terrified me to the core.

Recovery has been a long, winding road with many tears, twists and turns. As I nourished my body with wholesome foods, I put on weight and began to have more energy once again. I had good people in my life there to reassure me when the mind games became too much, and their love helped me find a way through. No, you’re not eating too much. No, you’re not fat. Remember, you trained for five hours today? 

When I came out on the other end, I had treated the symptoms of anorexia. This was a huge accomplishment in of itself. But the underlying root of the problem that had caused this threat to my life, it was still there.

Hidden within the stories I told myself was a deeper belief that was holding me back from living a life of true joy.

Sometime in my early teens, I developed the belief that nothing I did was ever good enough. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t worthy of a beautiful life. I wasn’t worthy of love. Having grown up in the cutthroat world of women’s artistic gymnastics, my definition of success relied heavily upon outward appearances and one’s ability to be at the top of their field. I may have told myself these things didn’t matter to me, but the stories I’d consumed growing up were embedded in my mind. I didn’t believe in my own story of success – not yet.

My fractured relationship with myself gave space for others to sneak in and further undermine my confidence. I thought I didn’t deserve respect, so I didn’t stand up for myself. I felt I had “failed” in the past, so I told myself I was a failure. I had been known to act out of fear at times, and so I labelled myself a coward.

This is why I say the stories we tell ourselves are so powerful: they literally have the ability to shape our reality, whether we would like it that way or not. We need to learn to seperate the things we experience in life from our deepest beliefs about ourselves.

Language is incredibly powerful, but we use it so carelessly at times. I would like to remind you that having had your heart or trust broken once is different from being broken. Having experienced failure within something you care about does not mean you are a failure. Your outward appearance does not determine your worth as a human being and more than that, you are so much more than enough.

The truth is, the heart is an intricate thing. In time, as we grow closer to certain people in our lives, the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ begin to blur. Susan Piver, an author and longtime Buddist practitioner, explains in this podcast how in any deep relationship, the way we treat ourselves becomes the way in which we treat others. If we learn to show up for ourselves with the acceptance that we are ever-changing human beings who can be strong and kind and fearful and angry all at once, we are able to meet our fellow humans with a deeper sense of compassion, knowing they too experience all these things.

In order to be gentle and understanding with others, we must first learn to be gentle and understanding with ourselves.

For me, this year has been a lesson in healing and the value in being honest with oneself. Satya, as it is known in Sanskrit, is the practice of truth-telling in all domains of life. As it turns out, it is easy to say you value honesty, but it is so, so challenging to practice it for yourself. It takes great courage to stand up for what you believe in when you know there is an easier way.

I look back now, and sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I hadn’t chosen bravery that moment back in January that changed my life. Sometimes you make a decision that sets off a chain reaction, and that’s exactly what I knew this moment was for me. Even then. It was absolutely terrifying but I couldn’t bear the thought of staying where I was a moment longer.

My life would likely look much different if I hadn’t tipped over that first domino that led to so much change and heartache. Would I have been truly happy? Probably not. Perhaps, in time. But I wouldn’t be standing in this beautiful moment sharing these words here with you. And that, for me, is enough.

In the end, fear never really disappears. It just manifests itself in different ways. The key is to learn to sit with our fears and doubts and give them space to breathe. Courage does not exist in the absence of fear, but rather, because of it. Do not let your fear write the stories you tell yourself every day. Do not give doubt the pen. You are the author of your own life, even if you forget now and then.

There is no right or wrong in life, only the path we choose. It is, however, vital for us to remember that one, simple fact as we go through our days: we have the power to choose.

So what is your truth? What story do you choose?

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.

On Punctuating Unfinished Sentences

I have a confession to make: I am not very good at sitting in in-between spaces. I would much rather things just be simple for once, thank you very much, but alas, I now know this is not the way life works.

Life is messy, much messier than I would like sometimes.

My dad always likes to remind me that as a kid, I was quite the perfectionist. I mean, I still am now, to some extent. But this was to the extreme. When I was learning to read, my nightly ritual would go something like this. I would pick out a storybook with the goal being to read it aloud to my mother when she came home from teaching dance. First, I would read the book by myself in my room once or twice to get a feel for the cadence of the sentences and the way they felt in my mouth. Then, I would read it to my dad, so he could correct any mistakes I might be making. Finally, I would read it to my mother who would hopefully be very impressed by my grasp of the English language and I could go to sleep knowing I’d done something well that day.

The thing is, most of the rest of life is not like this.

You do not get several chances to provide the right answers for your final exam in high school or that interview for a job you really want to get. Sometimes people are forgiving – they will give you a second chance, or a third if you’re really lucky, but we do not live in a world of unlimited do-overs. At some point, you have to wake up to the mistakes you’ve made and will continue to make throughout your life so that you can learn to do things differently and make new mistakes next time. You can’t normally anticipate a mistake before you make it, either. And sometimes a mistake isn’t really a mistake, it’s just a detour on to a different path than you were planning. That’s why they say vision in hindsight is 20/20.

This all makes the perfectionist in me deeply uncomfortable and a little restless. “I can’t predict the future?” she likes to ask. Again. And again. And again. “Really? Are you sure?”

To which my response will always be no. You can’t. You just have to deal with life as it comes. In one of my favourite quotes by Maya Angelou, she says, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.” This is resilience. This is accepting the messiness of life and continuing on anyways, even when the going gets tough. Angelou knew a thing or two about this: she was faced with challenges, yet she managed to rise each time, like a phoenix from the ashes, stronger than when she’d gotten knocked down. What an inspiration.

Life has given me a fair bit of practice in throwing curveballs of late. In just a few short weeks, I will be packing up my life and moving to a new apartment a few blocks from where I am living now. This move may not be far, but it is happening much earlier than I anticipated it would. Finding the place was an adventure in itself, both mentally and physically. I searched streets and the interwebs for what felt like forever. It was a stressful, emotional rollercoaster, but I survived the trauma, and I’m excited now. I’m also a little envious of all my things that can be so neatly categorized and organized into boxes.

I think I’ve always liked the idea of boxes more than I actually liked fitting inside those boxes myself. Until I was six or seven years old, I couldn’t comprehend the meaning of the sentence, please put things back where they came from. My room looked like a tornado had come and we had never cleaned up the debris. There were clothes and books and toys everywhere, so much so you couldn’t see the floor. I thought it was weird to be able to see the floor. It unnerved me.

Clearly, I was just a creative mess of a small human being. I used to love making my own drawings and cards for people I loved – forget colouring books, that was boring. I would create and play in my imaginary worlds all the time. Then came time for elementary school. I’m not sure what happened around the time I started first grade, but it was like a flip switched overnight. I cleaned my room, started making my bed and didn’t look back. No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a start. I loved to collect things; I didn’t yet understand that there was no way I would ever use all these things but found some satisfaction in their acquisition. At least you could see the floor, and each thing I owned had a home in which it lived.

I began colouring in colouring books and on assigned sheets of paper at school, always trying my best to stay inside the lines. Maybe I became aware of the very real risk of failure and the consequences of making mistakes. Maybe I’d spent too much time around scared adults who already existed in that world where you simply couldn’t afford to make mistakes. But alas, this was the time the perfectionist in me truly came out for the first time in my life. She had no qualms taking control of my actions for several years, sponsoring Doubt and Fear so they might back up her message. “Don’t try new things,” she whispered persistently. “You might embarrass yourself if you do, and that would be the end of you.” She always has been a bit of a drama queen.

Eventually, I was forced to confront the fact that life is not printed in black and white the way I’d once believed.

Sometimes things happen that don’t make sense. Bad things can happen to good people. Good things happen to people who haven’t put in the work. People who do bad things are not evil – even they have some shred of goodness left in them, however deep it may be buried. I learned people often act out of fear or anger. Or sometimes they are just very, very confused. The world does not function in black and white, but rather an infinite number of shades of grey. Just when you think you have the spectrum all mapped out, you notice a new tone you’ve never seen before, and you find yourself back at square one.

I’ve learned that never and forever are two of the most dangerous and misleading words in the English language. Or any language, for that matter. They are absolutes, and they trick us into thinking some things in life are permanent and we have been able to distinguish which ones those are. For the longest time, I was convinced I would never live on my own. Look at me now.

Right now, my life is all about sitting in those uncomfortable, in between spaces. I do not know what comes next. But I do know what is important to me, and I do know what I want to build my life around. I am learning to let go of the idea that I have to have the step-by-step process figured out. It is okay to admit there are things I don’t know.

When you admit there is something you don’t know, you are opening yourself up to the answer. It is the key that enables you to grow. It is important not to set up too many constraints or blockades for yourself unless you know it goes directly against your values, or what you want most in life. If it is a bridge you used to get away from something deeply unhealthy, please do go ahead and burn that bridge. And there are a few doors truly are better left untouched. But often there are many more ways to go about life than the ones we limit ourselves to, we could see if we weren’t so tethered to being right.

I am not a huge fan run on sentences or paragraphs that last forever. I am a punctuation junkie – I love to use commas and periods and semi-colons, sometimes in places where it is not necessary. Sometimes I put too many commas in a sentence that should be two shorter ones, or I’ll put a period where there need not be one at all. Learning to write is like learning to live – it is a process of trying things and editing and finding your style. It is a journey I embark on every day.

The grammar rules in life are not so simple, however. In fact, I’m not sure there is even a guidebook to describe all the nuances out there. Sometimes what looks like a period is really a comma in disguise. Or we’ve thrown out the comma all together in favour of an ellipsis, a pause prescribed to last an indefinite amount of time…

Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom can be terrifying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.