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.

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.

We Look At the Same Sky

I have a deep fascination with the sky.

I have for a long time, actually. It’s hard to say when exactly our love affair began, but from the time I started writing poetry in third grade, there has been a crucial connection between my creativity and the natural world. It is a recurring theme throughout my work – I always feel most inspired outdoors, generally walking and frequently observing the sky.

My love of the stars came when I read a book by one of my favourite childhood authors, Wendy Mass. I was eleven years old at the time. The novel, Every Soul a Star, is about three young strangers brought together on a campground to watch a total solar eclipse. The chapters are divided into their three different perspectives of the events that take place throughout the book. All the characters came alive in my mind, but I could best relate to the girl whose family had run the campground for several years, so long she could hardly remember anything else.

We read books to make us feel less alone, and these characters became my best friends in a time I felt quite lonely in a world that didn’t understand who I was. This girl did not know a traditional childhood, but rather she and her brother were brought up in the best classroom man never made, but one that existed long before the industrial revolution. She was engaged in an intimate relationship with the natural world, but her deepest love lay in the night sky.

It was in this book that I found my first astronomy lesson; I have taken great comfort in constellations ever since.

Having grown up in Winnipeg, I am more accustomed to sunny days than I am cloudy ones. I find it quite depressing to have the sun hidden from view for more than a few days at a time. The weather in Manitoba is rather intense, yes – this is what happens when you live in the middle of what was once a giant lake. It is extremely flat, so much so that you can see for a twelve-kilometre radius if there are no buildings to obstruct your view.

Because of the lack of change in elevation, the weather tends to stick around until a system comes through that is strong enough to move it along. Or there is a change in seasons. In winter, we get temperatures as low as -40 degrees C and then add the windchill. Let me tell you, that is cold. At the same time, in summer temperatures can climb above 30 degrees C. But no matter the season or time of day, you are more likely than not to find clear skies. It is one of the advantages to living in Manitoba.

If you’ve never been to the prairies, it may be hard for you to understand why anyone would live in such a bipolar climate. You may not be able to imagine the vastness of empty space that exists in a place where the sky is a canvas that lasts forever, further than the eye can see. There are entire stretches of uninterrupted land with nothing but farmers fields, rusty railroad tracks, and one or two rogue gas stations dotting the horizon. Even Winnipeg itself is sprawling – it can take more than three-quarters of an hour to get from one area to another in a city populated by less than a million people. It may not be the most exciting place to live, but it does have its own charm. I am grateful to have grown up there.

Now that I am living and traveling thousands of miles from the place I grew up, I find I instintively look to the skies for a piece of home.

It’s reassuring to know that, no matter where we end up in the world, the sky will always be there. I once saw a live movement production that told the stories of a few families of immigrants and their struggles in moving to a new land. After the show, we were privileged enough to meet the creator and listen to him speak about his inspiration for the show.

Because of a variety of factors, this man had spent long periods of time travelling. This took him away from his family and friends, scattered as they were across the globe. Distance can be quite hard on the heart, so this man found his own unique way of staying connected to the ones he loved. Each time he travelled, he would locate a park, sit down on an empty bench and look up at the sky. He would find comfort in the knowledge that somewhere, someone he loved was looking up at that same sky, even if they were a million miles from where he was.

The world may feel big at times, but it is also incredibly small. When we look to nature, we find this sense of connection that exists between all living things and resides within our hearts. We can reach for it when we find ourselves overwhelmed, tired, or unbareably lonely. It will always be there.

These days, I find myself looking up a lot. I am frequently distracted by whatever the sky is up to at a given moment in time. It’s quite comical, actually: I can be walking to a friend’s house at night, and I will stop dead in the middle of their back alleyway, just a few steps shy of their doorstep. The air is crisp with a winter’s chill or thick with the heat of summer. Sometimes I have words on the tip of my tongue that must be transcribed before they slip away, but most often I am simply sidetracked by the few stars that have managed to burst through the light pollution to pierce a gorgeous navy blue sky. I am overcome by a sense of wonder – the world is so utterly beautiful it literally takes my breath away.

Our world is built on patterns that repeat themselves time and time again. Take the number three, for example. Our days are composed of three distinct periods: sunrise, full light, sunset. In our solar system, the trio of the sun, the moon, and planet earth are necessary for life to thrive. There are three atoms that combine to create one molecule of water, three colours that combine to make visible light, and three main states of matter. The same could be said of the number seven, the hexagonal structure of a snowflake, or the ever-present golden ratio. Patterns are everywhere.

Patterns may be common in nature, but they can also teach us a thing or two about ourselves – what do you find yourself being drawn back to time and time again?

The best way to recognize these patterns within yourself is to spend some time alone with your own thoughts, to try things and gather data and then reflect on what you find. I find I am constantly pulled back to create and be in spaces with these three things: a body of water, a forest of green trees, and a breathtakingly beautiful sky. There is something in these elements that soothes my soul and lets me allows me to feel at peace in the world – I am home.

Listen to the signals your body gives you. Listen for what your heart has to say. Life is the process of rediscovering yourself as you wander. Have faith, you will find your way.

On Punctuating Unfinished Sentences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Exercise in Stillness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iceland is one of the happiest nations in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.