A Thousand Tiny Moments

My mind is a curious place.

I’ve never been inside anyone else’s so I can’t say for certain how others’ brains work, but mine works much like a smart phone, collecting videos and images and random data that contribute to my unique point of view in the world.

I can think back to when I was two years old, riding through the picturesque prairie countryside in the back of my fathers’ red trailblazer, our new husky puppy curled up in her kennel beside me as we took her home for the first time. As I sat there, a toddler overcome with joy by my new fuzzy companion, I attempted to share my excitement with my parents by exclaiming how we’d gotten “a husky.” Instead, the word came out as one, “Askia, Askia!” and my parents decided then that was what we would call our little black and white puppy from that day on.

When I was four, we were in Lisbon, Portugal for the 12th World Gymnaestrada, a gymnastics event that brings together over 20,000 participants from all over the world to perform and share their love of the sport in a non-competitive environment. I remember walking down hot, cobblestone streets with my dad while my mom was out training with the team, sitting atop his shoulders as we made our way through unthinkably large groups of people too vast for my young brain to comprehend. I remember meeting some girls from Africa who thought I was adorable and gave me a water bottle for my tiny Canadian pin. I remember a group of performers launching tiny dolls into the audience at the end of their number (I caught one and still have it to this day) and I remember tripping on a grate hidden in the stony back alleyway, effectively scraping up my knees and acquiring a giant goose egg on my forehead just minutes before the girls were to go up to perform.

As a third grader, I remember that first day in Mr. Krahn’s classroom when he gave us each our own writer’s notebook and told us we were to bring it with us everywhere, filling it up with our thoughts and words, decorating it however we liked. I wrote my first poem that day, sharing it proudly with the class and anyone who would listen. I remember how I broke my forearm a little more than a year later, how third grade had been filled with happy moments and fourth grade was decidedly not, but how even then, even in amidst many challenges, there was light. There is always light. I remember a cute boy signing my cast and falling into my first mutual crush, how he’d write me notes every day and stick them in the little bin underneath my chair. His “old geezer” impressions made everyone laugh, and it was nice to be noticed for once.

Life was simple, and it was beautiful. In many ways, it isn’t all too different, even now.

My mind is filled with a thousand of these tiny little moments. They are so vivid, for me, they play out like a movie. The hard ones, the good ones. Moments of joy and moments of pain or sorrow. This is my life’s story, and I am adding to it all the time – every day, every month, every hour. Sometimes I long to go back to certain moments. Sometimes I long for time to slow down.

I have found myself sitting with the notion of time frequently of late, growing increasingly aware of its passing. Time, I am finding, is a funny thing – it is rigid and elastic, mechanical and cyclical and uncontrollable all at once. The passing of time occurs with or without our permission. As such, it is often touted as our most valuable resource, and I am acutely aware of how I am spending mine.

Time, time, time. We think about it all the time. What are we going to do with our time, with our one precious life on this earth?

A few weeks ago, I saw a contemporary dance show that was fundamentally mind-blowing and opened up an entirely new world of possibilities for me and what I could become. The artist was Akram Khan – in his last solo show, Xenos, he spends much of his time alone on stage, accompanied by five live musicians. The cinematography of the show was simply stunning. You could feel how every single detail had been thought out, how nothing was there without purpose. I was sitting in the middle of the front row and I could feel his presence. He was absolutely, one hundred percent there with us, his audience of many. It was breath-taking.

For me, as an artist, this presence is the most important factor in any performance I observe. When you perform the same show over and over again, day in day out, it is easy to let what is essentially magic become quite mundane. When the artists are not fully present, the audience feels it. I have been to many shows where I have seen the absence of life in the artists’ eyes, and it absolutely breaks my heart. To be a performer is a gift – to one’s self and to the world. To forget that is to take art for granted.

Akram, at 43, was confronting his own mortality with this particular work of art. His body had seen many years of hard work and hours of dancing, and he knew he could not continue much longer in the capacity he had performed as a young man. Classically trained in ballet, contemporary and Katak, a form of traditional Indian dance, he drew from the sacred of the East and the West, in movement and stories and song.

Yet when he spoke with us, the audience, at the end of the show, he answered our questions with a humility I have come to recognize in many great artists. In spite of the already high calibre of his work, he continues to play and go deeper every time he steps out on stage. He shared his aim with his work and the stories the work grew from. He spoke of philosophy and history and time. His work has a purpose, and that is the kind of work I have always known I long to create. Now I had one more living example as proof to my theory that art can inspire change in the hearts and minds of many if used as the vessel that it is. Now I just have to go out and carve my path.

In January, I began a formation in contemporary dance, something of a pivot from the circus career I was pursuing last year. Until the end of March last year, I saw my life taking one very distinct path. But that path, I’ve slowly grown to realize, is not the one for me. Sometimes you see images of the people you admire, and you think that is the life you want to live. You never know the full story, however, until you live it.

We forget that we are not our heroes, we are our own people – and what makes someone else feel happy or fulfilled will not necessarily do the same for you. So we must find the courage to be honest and always choose our own stories.

I am finding a joy in the world of contemporary dance that I lost for much of the last decade of my life. My teacher has pushed me to ask questions and be curious, inspiring me to push my boundaries and search for every opportunity to learn and grow into the best version of the artist I want to become. I have found myself with new friends who make me laugh more than I have in a very long time. My days are challenging but thoroughly enjoyable all the same, exhausting but ultimately rewarding.

In the last week or so, I’ve come to realize I am only going to walk this particular journey once. Only once. I spent so much of my teen years miserable in pursuit of some far off goal, never once stopping to realize why it had to be so painful in the first place. My brain is not wired for skills. My brain is wired for creativity – I long to explore and shift and try new things every day. Otherwise, it is so easy to get stuck in a rut. As Akram explained, we need to maintain that sense of child’s play, that sense of curiosity and question. Life is so much more interesting that way.

And so, ever so slowly, my vision for the future has begun to shift. If I am going to go on this journey only once, I want to enjoy myself every step along the way. Some moments will be hard, no doubt. But I am learning, as Harry Potter’s mentor Albus Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of places if one only remembers to turn on the light” (JK Rowling).

There is always light.

I am learning to show up and be fully present for all aspects of my life, to fully enjoy the ride rather than simply working to get to the destination. Some days, however, I still pass idle moments combing through my memories, projecting my life’s story on a widescreen in my mind. Sometimes I wish I could upload this film to the minds of the people with whom I’ve connected. I want them to know where I’ve come from because stories have the power to connect us in ways unlike anything else.

Our past is not everything, but it does make up much of the stain glass window through which we view the world. My world may be different from your world, but in some ways, our worlds are so very much the same. We’ve both loved, we’ve laughed, we’ve lost. There is something so beautifully interconnected about the human experience that is so easy to forget when we meet a face we don’t recognize. But even in the unfamiliar, there is something familiar to be found.

This is what it is to be human.

Forget hate and discrimination and politics and walls. Forget xenophobia and racism and sexism. Forget violence. Forget wars. To be human, to be fundamentally human is to connect. To share. To love. To be a light. My story is your story. Your story is Our Story, the story of humanity. Share it. Remember that it matter. Our story matters. Every little piece of it.

That means you, too.

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?

Doubt

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not as fun as it sounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had grown attached to the wrong story.

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

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

And know that you will be, too.

Look in the Mirror

Sometimes I wish I could observe the world through another person’s eyes. Perception is such an intriguing topic – every last person on earth today experiences the world differently than you or I. And I mean this in the most literal sense. No two people can look at the sky and see the exact same shade of blue. To some, classical music is the most beautiful sound in the world, and to others, it will put them to sleep. One person may love the taste of mangoes, while another will be left at the mercy of nausea after one bite because of that one time in Guatemala when they contracted food poisoning and that was the last thing they had ate before they threw up for twenty-four hours, nearly nonstop, and they know they are not allergic but they just really do not want to relive that memory, thank you very much.

We all collect a series of assumptions as we go through life about the ways in which the world works, and we tend to expect everyone else to share those same set of rules, too. Even when they don’t.

Travel is one easy way to confront the very things you tend to take for granted on a daily basis. The culture we grow up in heavily influences so many of the decisions we make without thinking, relying on our subconscious brain to do the work. This set of rules is a sort of guidebook for how we should show up in the world, the language we should use and the way we should interpret others’ actions or words. It is so deeply ingrained in us we hardly ever stop to think about it or question where a certain belief came from, we just accept it as fact and move on. We need something concrete to build a foundation on, after all, something solid from which we can act.

Constantly questioning things is exhausting. There are certain evolutionary traits that exist in humans that have enabled us to survive for thousands of years, and this guidebook is one of them. It simplifies life for our brain, just like stereotypes do. Instinctively, we want to stick close to our tribe and avoid the “other.” So it is easy for us to get caught up in the business of living, to forget to reflect or question things at all, even when we become dissatisfied with the way things are.

This is because, until very recently, we simply couldn’t. Our brain was taught to ignore the fact that there might be another way, perhaps just beyond our doorstep. But times have changed. We can override our brain’s tendency to avoid other ways of life. First, however, we must be willing to venture out of our comfort zone and expand our point of view.

There are usually a few rules in our guidebook we skim over, never really taking a closer look into how they govern our life.

During my recent trip to Iceland, I was confronted with one of these rules that owned me for several years in a way I wish it never had. When I was eleven years old, I sustained a back injury that put me out for several months. I had always been a very active child, running and playing both in and outside of the gym, and this sudden inactivity was a shock to my body. Inevitably, I gained a lot of weight in a short period of time. After several months of rest, I returned to the gym, no longer the little girl I’d once been. It was as if I’d become a woman overnight – I hardly recognized this body I was attempting to flip around. Add to this the skin-tight bodysuits and tiny teammates, and it was a recipe for some serious insecurities surrounding my physical form. Thus began a battle between my mind and my body that would last several years.

Sometime before adolescence, I’d had an image ingrained in my brain of the ideal body: that was, I should have thin, lean, long limbs and a tiny torso to accentuate my hips. I always admired the gymnasts who had this graceful look over the short, powerful types. When you’re an active kid, it’s easy to maintain this stature. But in time, I grew to envy these long lean girls who could eat whatever they wanted and not worry about putting on a single pound. My body type was something quite different, and I fought, hard.

When I was fourteen, I thought I’d discovered a way to hack my body type to get the look I craved. If I cut out all grains and dairy and ate a diet consisting purely of vegetables, fruit, poultry, fish and a few select superfoods, I found those lean limbs within reach. I started doing cardio five to six days per week in addition to my gymnastics and circus training, and I was terrified of the consequences if I missed a few hours or stepped out of line.

My devotion to this way of life came from all the wrong reasons, and I grew to fear my body.

I would stare at the mirror and pull at non-existent fat around my waist, sucking in my abs as much as I could. Anytime someone took a photo or video of me, I would inevitably hate the way I looked. In the few times I felt I was beautiful, I was nearly always at my skinniest, skinny to a point that scares me to look at now. Ultimately, the image I saw when I looked at myself didn’t match reality, didn’t match what everyone else saw when they observed this tiny girl grow tinnier with every passing month. People I hardly knew were worried about my well being. I was skin and bones and wiry muscle, constantly tired and hungry and cranky.

You are not your body – you are so much more than the figure that other people see. Somewhere along the way, I forgot this little piece of information, and my self-worth became inextricably attached to the way I felt about my body on any given day. I thought this was the only way for me to live; I never criticised others for their lifestyle, I never told anyone they should adopt my way of life. Maybe this should have been a huge red flag, but my brain never got the message. I’ve always been better at helping others than I have at letting myself be helped, and in this instance, it went far too far.

It is easy to lie to yourself for a period of time, but at one point you have to wake up. A little more than a year ago, my parents sat me down and told me this needed to change. For the first time, they managed to get me to see how unhealthy I’d become, how this way of life had become a dangerous habit that could actually put my life in danger if we didn’t do something immediately. Thus, the long road to recovery began.

I think many of our issues about our bodies stem from the stories we learn from the culture we grow up in.

Visiting the thermal pools in Iceland made me realize how much more comfortable people are with their bodies over there. In the pools, you are required to strip naked and shower before you put on your bathing suit and enter the water. Thing is, there are no individual stalls – it’s all communal showers. There is no hiding. But no one really cares what anyone else looks like. Women and girls of all ages adhered to this rule, going about their own business no matter their shape or size. I think it’s a healthy thing for young girls growing up to see this kind of attitude surrounding bodies. There is no fear, no judgement, just acceptance. Everyone has a body with their own strengths and flaws, that’s just the way it is.

While this ritual made me uncomfortable, it forced me to confront the messaging I’d accumulated growing up. This idea that we should all be air-brushed models and do everything in our power to reverse the ageing process is false. Bodies are not meant to be feared; they are meant to be loved and appreciated for all they do for us every day.

I’m not saying these body positivity campaigns don’t still make me uncomfortable. This issue is something I’m still working on like anyone else. I am a short, athletic yet curvy young woman who builds muscle easily with use, and I am learning to own this fact now.

Take a look in the mirror, really stop and look this time. Every body is a good body – so love yours just the way it is.