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 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.

Who Am I?

Who am I?

I feel like I have been asking that question a lot lately. Perhaps this is normal, given who I am. I mean, what else does an introspective young writer like to do with her time?

When I ask myself that question, a very standard response pops into my mind. It’s one I’ve often given to people I am encountering for the first time. The order may change on any given day, but the answer goes something like this: I am a hand balancer. I am a writer. I am a hand balancer who writes, a writer who loves to stand on her hands. The details of this description, of course, have shifted slightly over the years – but their essence remains the same.

No matter which way you put it, I am a doing. I am defined by the things I do and the things I aspire to do in the future, something that will inevitably change time and time again as I grow through life.

Life is a series of experiments: there are so many things one can choose to do or explore or become. As a young person, all these options can be quite overwhelming, yet somehow, society tells us that by the time we graduate high school we should’ve already chosen one. Growing up is confusing enough as it is, and the pressure to define who we are by our aspirations only adds to the pressure to get it right the first time around.

I am not sure when exactly I became a doing, or how I came to be that way in the first place. All I know is that this method we’ve developed for defining ourselves is entirely unreliable, which leads me to believe we should reach for a new way.

I am very good at letting others know they are so much more than what they do. When it comes to myself, however, I struggle to apply this same truth. If I am not a hand balancer, then who am I?

I have been doing circus and acrobatics for three-quarters of my life – for me, to be upside down IS to be alive. I spent my childhood at my mother’s circus studio and my grandparents’ gym. Many of my best memories and most defining moments happened there.

When I wasn’t walking on tightropes and swinging from the bars, you could almost certainly find me doing a series of cartwheels across the lawn of my elementary school. For my seventh-grade talent show, I performed a piece on the aerial silks. I missed school functions for gymnastics training and circus productions as opposed to the other way around. I was never like anyone else in my school, and so they never understood my discipline or devotion to my sport. As a result, I almost always felt separate, somehow left out.

In eighth grade, I discovered how to hold a handstand; because they take up almost the same amount of space as if I were standing, I could do handstands anywhere, anytime. And so, in typical Maia-fashion, this became my new obsession. Anytime I was bored in gym class or if a teacher left the room, upside down I would be found. Upside down was my favourite way to be. I felt safe upside down.

There have been times in my life when this part of my identity was taken away for a time, and I struggled to find any sense of grounding without the thing I defined myself by. These were some of the hardest times of my life so far – I felt as though my world had dropped out from underneath me and did all I could just to get my head above water once again.

When I was eleven, I injured my back and had to take a break from training altogether. Food became my solace, and I spent the vast majority of my time watching videos and reading magazines about gymnastics, plotting the path of my comeback and rise towards my Olympic dream. I gained a lot of weight during my time off, and coming back was hard, much harder than I’d anticipated. A year and a half later, however, I started to see some success. Gymnastics was still the thing that defined me. I can do this, I thought.

When I tore my ACL five years later, I spent the first six weeks convinced nothing bad had happened. It was just a sprain, a minor setback, and I would be able to compete in three weeks, just as planned. I may have been determined, but determination will only get you so far when it comes to a legitimate injury. When I finally saw a doctor, it turned out I’d been wrong – I had torn the ACL and damaged the meniscus, and I would need surgery to repair both. I was devastated and terrified for many reasons all at once. In an instant I knew this one truth: it was time to move on.

So I left the sport for which I had lost my passion and pursued circus full time. Circus had always had a playful energy for me, and I didn’t realize how intense it could become at the time. You can put unnecessary amounts of pressure on yourself anywhere, and over time my relationship to circus grew strained. I clung to my craft with fear, fear of who I would be without it, that I would lose the body I’d worked so hard to maintain.

When the pain in my wrist became unbearable, it had already been hurting for many months. I was overtraining with bad alignment and not enough strength training to support the skill-base I was working to build. And so for two months, I couldn’t do any handstands. Maybe it was good for the partner work I was doing, but I felt as though I’d lost a piece of myself. Who would I be without handstands? How could I ever be good enough?

Each time I was forced to step away from my “doing,” I spent the whole time focused on doing everything I could to get back what I’d lost. I never allowed myself to pause, to feel remotely happy for any reason – how could I with this piece of me gone?

I realize now this created a clinginess, an energy of fear that made my training an obsession as opposed to something I truly enjoyed. I grew so attached to this doing and becoming I never took a moment to step back and learn who I am at my core.

About a month ago, my body started talking loudly again. I’d been ignoring a nagging pain in my right upper body for about a year, and my body was telling me it’d had enough. At first, I was deeply upset – I’d made so much progress, wouldn’t I lose it all and be forced to start from the beginning again? I began seeking treatment and inevitably, have had to take a break from hand balancing again.

This time, the process is no less scary than it was before, but my approach to my healing is a significantly different one.

I’ve decided to give my body the space and rest it needs to heal, truly heal from everything it’s been through over the last number of years. Sitting still is not my forte, but I am learning – your body will tell you what it needs if you only listen. My entire right shoulder is shifted up, higher than the left; this lack of blood flow and strength has caused a tilt in my body that will not go away on its own.

Indeed, I do need to go back to the basics and teach my body how to move again. Frustrating as it is, I know this process will enable me to continue to do what I love for far longer than I would if I kept training on a maligned joint. I am learning to be patient because I know it will be worth it in the long run.

I tell myself, love, love, LOVE. I love you, even when you feel broken. You are healing, and you will be stronger and even more beautiful for it, just like those Japanese pots that have shattered and been pieced back together with liquid gold.

I am approaching my healing from a place of love: loving my body and all it does for me every day, love for my craft and who I am at my core. I can still be happy without all the doing and aspiring and becoming. I can be happy right here, right now because life is pretty damn beautiful, no matter where you are.

Last week, I faced that question once again: who am I? Doubt and Fear lingered like shadows around the edges. Who am I, if I’m not a hand balancer? Would people still like me and respect me and want me in their life? Or am I utterly worthless without this skill?

So I began looking for answers. I genuinely do believe we are worth so much more than what we do, I’ve just struggled to define what that means for myself. Often when we let a problem sit in the back of our brain, the subconscious mind will come up with answers. A few hours later, my mind submitted a few tentative answers. A little later, I had a few more.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you make them feel.” It’s not always the doing that has the most enduring impact – sometimes it’s the simplest little things that count the most.

So who are you, deep down in your core? I challenge you to stop your doing for a second and just sit with this question. Because I promise you, doing things is important in life, but it’s not everything – there’s something more.

***

Something that has helped me in the past: VIA Strength Finders Test

Give and Take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To fear or to trust?

On 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…

Connecting Dots

Life is a funny thing sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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