Category Archives: Identity

On Finding Unexpected Clarity

Here’s a super quick summary of my last year for a bit of context: Completed the most indescribable arts degree. Spent the summer applying for jobs and volunteering for projects around Calgary, trying to figure out what to do with my life. Decided to “courageously commit” to an organization I already loved. With help from friends, convinced the organization to hire me as a Communications Intern and moved to Toronto. This work resulted in lots of compliments, but no job. And that’s how a small-town Albertan ended up unemployed in Toronto…

I suspect that everyone who gets a degree without a straightforward label struggles to figure out what to do with their life post-graduation. Ever since I realized that I did not want to sacrifice my youth to become an architect, I’ve been trying to find another career that would fill me with the same passion without architecture’s “sleep is for the weak” culture. However, the months of cumulative informational interviews, research, and testing out ideas have led to one inevitable conclusion: my soul refuses to accept the confines of the cookie-cutter jobs available to me. If only I could be a Designer-Entrepreneur-Storyteller-Community Builder-Artist-Adventurer!

Amazingly, a friend forwarded me an application that looked perfect. A town in Pennsylvania has this Changemaker-in-Residence program, where they pay for driven, creative young people to come to their town and do cool shit (aka social innovation). They have an interesting theory of change:

“We believe that the more creators and trend-setters we can encourage to play in our community, the more others will want to move here. So your one and only expectation is to create, create, create. Be a positive force for change that serves as a magnet for others to join you.”

It sounds like a dream-come-true! Creative work, with mentorship and housing included, in a town surrounded by incredible natural beauty would be amazing. But as I filled out the application I butted up against a painful contradiction. I truly believe that brain-drain poses a serious threat for the social and economic vitality of rural communities, and educated young people can have an outsized impact on the health of these towns. The problem is that, with a population of 80,000 people, State College doesn’t seem rural in comparison to my own hometown. Winfield has a shrinking population of about 250 people. No joke! I looked it up.

I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I would get out of Winfield and never look back. Yet I’m faced with the uncomfortable knowledge that, if I truly care about creating social change, there is nowhere in the world that I can be more valuable than in the very place that I fled. So I will go home.

Of all the careers I’ve imagined, this is the most terrifying. I don’t know precisely what I will be working on, or how I will fit into the small town culture (I wasn’t exactly popular in school), or what it will mean for my future. All I know is that I have to try to create change close to home before I take on global challenges, or it will haunt me forever.

On the bright side, Winfield offers the same perks of natural beauty, freedom to create, easy access to mentors, and affordable housing that the Changemaker-in-Residence program does. Who knows!? Maybe I can entice some of my big-city friends to come play in Winfield, and it won’t be so bad 😉

Until next time.

(un)Ambiguously yours,

jm

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On A Heart Broken Wide Open

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is the 6th in a series, intended as a space for the various authors and contributors of Embracing Ambiguity to reflect on the past year in each of their lives. 2014 has been a tumultuous year for each writer, from transitions and changes in the physical spaces they live in, to the internal turmoil of life changing decisions.  Each post follows the general prompt of thinking back to where we stood one year prior, and the head space we were in at the time; reflecting on what has brought us to where we are now and the change that has occurred in that 365 days of time. Happy reading and an ambiguous 2015 to you! 


My family doesn’t keep many traditions, but Christmas Eve is the exception to our otherwise fluid approach to life events and family structure. For as long as I can remember, we’ve plated cheeses in a pleasing array, baked hordes of tiny fried things, and filled wine glass after wine glass in the lead up to Christmas Eve church service. Dressed up in our winter finery, we take up a pew in church listening to the Christmas story of a baby in a manger. The pinnacle of my year though, is the moment when the church lights turn off and slowly candles are lit down the rows of standing congregants who sing Silent Night in beautiful hushed voices. In a moment of true peace, I find myself grounded at the end of each year in this moment.

Last year, on Christmas Eve, I was offered a job after five months of unemployment — marking the day as a new start, regardless of calendar definitions. I jokingly declared it a Christmas miracle, not realizing at the time how important a next step the job would be. It was the first contract, of many, working in my chosen field. It introduced me to people who are now some of my closest friends, connected me to each of the contracts that followed, and gave me a sense of self confidence that I, falsely, thought was stolen from me. In that job, I found my zen place of no fucks given and from there was able to, I think, radically transform how I work in new environments, with new people, and new ideas.

I have a tendency to pin my hopes and dreams on certain events, thinking that things will only be great if this one event happens or goes well. However, should it fail, everything comes crashing down. And so, for me, it’s easy to feel as if the more negative events carry a disproportiately meaningful weight – that they are somehow more significant. This year saw hospital visits that had me panicked and wondering what it would be like to lose someone so young. This year my bank account was never quite full enough to cover all of the bills, and there were many moments when I didn’t know where my next pay cheque would come from. This year I was rejected, and heartbreakingly so. This year, despite such a beautiful start, was still unbelievably challenging.

On Christmas Eve this year I sat next to family I hadn’t seen in many months, heart full with happiness in our reunion. Moving to a new place made coming home feel so much more important, and as the priest addressed the congregation his words grounded me once again in a year full of life lived. He encouraged those gathered to “admit our frailties”, and gently stated that “what the world needs is for us to break open our hearts.” His words pulled me away from my default assumption, and helped me see that a year is about so much more than the heavier events.

And so this year, I admit, my frailties often got the best of me. But (and this is a very large and important but) I like to think my heart, somewhere along the way, began to break wide open.

Maybe it happened in the unexpected last minute drives from Toronto to my hometown; in dancing without care at a best friend’s wedding; in stuffing ourselves with Indian food on my living room floor; or in getting on a plane to land on an island with open arms. I can’t say if the year was overwhelmingly good or bad, as both certainly existed, but I am sure that somewhere along the way I changed. I opened my self up to new people, a new place, and, once again, a new job. With a heart broken wide open, my year was shaped by vulnerability. The radical transformation I felt begin to take shape at the start of the year has carried to now, and while I find it hard to believe life is as good as it is, I’m looking forward to trying to keep this year’s Christmas Eve words in mind.

– mm

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on photosynthesis

Sometimes life throws you curveballs.

Sometimes, it’s 4:45am on a Saturday morning and you’re crying in your room after having just finished watching Warrior (2011).

Now, not to take anything away from the film – which is great – or from the performances of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton – which were greater – but I don’t think that the heartfelt MMA action-drama is what is causing the faucets of my eyeballs to leak onto my face.

You may have noticed that it has been a while since I have written anything on the blog. Or not. I guess that’s maybe assuming a lot. Either way, the truth remains – I haven’t. But it hasn’t been for lack of topics.

In early October I wrapped up my time with Engineers Without Borders Canada – two years of working there. My first real job, done. The end of an era. It would have been one thing to step away from this job for want of a change of scenery, but that’s not why I left. I wanted to fundamentally change what I was doing.

Ambiguity.

In late October I put on an art show with my photos and paintings. It is all hung at a place called Sadie’s Diner here in Toronto, and will be there until late December. I have never done anything like this before and doing it while unemployed has felt like a big risk, financially and otherwise.

Ambiguity.

The exciting and life-important thing in all of this is not that I put on an art show. The exciting and life-important thing in all of this is that I managed to find the self-trust to allow myself the chance to take a chance on, well, me, to put on an art show.

Then there’s the unemployment. It is only so long that the joke of #funemployment remains funny. Only so long until the daily grind and grey of unemployment sets in. The entry level jobs looking for three years’ experience, the unpaid internships, the rejection emails, the self-doubt and criticism – each one like a wave pounding the shore of your resolve and there are days where pulling yourself out of bed before 1pm seems impossible but for a small act of god. Or Santa. Or Captain Crunch. One of the three.

Ambiguity.

All of these things are ripe with ambiguity, and all of these things are ripe with content for blog posts.

But it has been a while since I have written anything on the blog.

I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. But my head has more often than not been cloudy and the thoughts hard to come by. I’ve been feeling lost. Uninspired. Deflated. It has been overwhelming, to say the least.

Sometimes it’s hard to see a reason to wake up in the morning, and sometimes, it’s 4:45am on a Saturday morning and you’re crying in your room after having just finished watching Warrior.

But I don’t think the heartfelt MMA action-drama is what has caused the faucets of my eyeballs to leak onto my face. To try and explain what (maybe) does, I have to tell you a story.

It’s early January 2012 and I’m walking home along Bloor St. in Toronto. It’s cold, and at my sides hang six or seven grocery bags, stuffed to the brim. On my back sits a backpack filled with cans, and I’m coming back from a grocery trip to No Frills.

Now, the thing about coming back from a grocery trip at No Frills, is that I don’t live anywhere near a No Frills. But I’m a student and I’m poor and I have this stubborn belief that I should do the things I’m capable of doing. It’s why I carried a mini-fridge from Canadian Tire to my dorm room in first Year University. It’s why I moved the contents of my apartment – from desk to shelves to bed – by longboard, twice. And it’s why I’m walking back from No Frills, six or seven grocery bags at my sides and a backpack filled with cans on my back. Because I can.

So I’m walking along Bloor St and it’s cold and it has probably been half an hour already, with another 10 minutes or so in front of me. I’m walking along Bloor and my hands are crying out – the weight of the bags and their thin plastic handles are digging into my fingers, punishing my stubbornness. I’m carrying all this shit, just passing the Tim Hortons near Bloor and St George, when I feel the phone vibrating in my pocket.

I had only just recently acquired a cellular communications device and so this idea of always being in reach was still new to me, and so, my first thought was: “Who the hell could that be?” As you may or may not have noticed (depending on your imagination and reading comprehension) I’m not in the most opportune position to be taking a call. But when you don’t have caller ID and you don’t have voice mail and your first thought is, “Who the hell could that be?” the question of “Did someone die?” is too real a possibility to let the call ring out.

So I awkwardly fumble for the phone in my pocket, and still holding the three or four bags in one hand I lift it to my ear and answer, “Hello?”

I don’t recognize the woman’s voice on the other end but she identifies herself as a staff member with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and she asks if I have a minute.

To take a step back, this call wasn’t quite as totally out of the blue as it probably seems, for myself and a group of friends had done some work in partnership with the Legal Network just a couple months prior, at the start of December 2011. Bill C-393 was going through Parliament at the time and we had organized a demonstration at Yonge and Dundas, to coincide with the Bill’s second reading and to try and put pressure on the government to make some crucial changes. As well as organizing the event, I filmed it on the day of and put out a video that we later sent to every Member of Parliament.

There’s a long and anger filled rant that I could go on about this Bill and the issues surrounding it, but I’ll spare you. The important takeaway is that it was an issue I was very passionate about and that the Legal Network – and their Executive Director, Richard Elliot – were something of an intellectual crush of mine.

So she identifies herself as a staff member with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and she asks if I have a minute. I lie and tell her that I do, trying to play it cool so she can’t hear the strain in my voice from the three or four grocery bags that I’m still, for some reason, holding up to my ear with the phone.

She tells me that they want my help with something, but that it’s “sort of top secret” and before she says any more she asks me, “Are you in?”

Yes. This is probably the coolest thing that will ever happen to me.

Now, I have no idea what to expect or what they could possibly want from me, but I say, “Yes, of course I’m in.” Partially because I love their organisation and have an intellectual crush on their Executive Director, and partially because of the off chance that this might be my one chance…to become a super spy.

When she proceeds to explain the situation I don’t get my dream of being a super spy but what I do end up with is a pretty close second.

I’m told that one of their staff members managed to record some footage with popular artist K’NAAN (of Waving Flag fame) backstage at a recent show. In the footage K’NAAN gives his support for Bill C-393 and the Legal Network wants to use this footage to kick off a massive petition campaign, to coincide with the Bill’s final reading in the House of Commons.

The only problem, she tells me, is that the footage is in a few different takes and it isn’t that great and they need it in a finalized and shareable format by tomorrow and they didn’t know who they could get to do it and so they thought of…me.

I know.

This is probably the coolest thing that will ever happen to me.

I’m told to await an email with the footage, which will come once it’s uploaded, and so I hurry home with my six or seven bags of groceries and backpack full of cans, to wait.

And now I’m home in my shitty basement apartment and the groceries are put away and I’m at my desk in my cramped, windowless bedroom (gotta love the Toronto rental market) and I’m hitting the refresh button on my Gmail. And I’m hopped up on adrenaline and caffeine, too excited by the events of the day to do anything other than wait, so I wait. And I wait. And I wait.

A couple hours go by with no email and no word and I begin to worry, but then the phone rings, and it’s the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and the footage is almost uploaded.

Finally the email lands in my inbox and I eagerly open it and download the footage and I hit play AND

What I’m met with is a grainy, poorly framed, 7 minute clip comprised of a few different shots, in which K’NAAN (bless his heart) repeatedly makes mistakes regarding the more intricate technicalities of the bill. All the right facts are there, they’re just in different takes and so I set out on the task of stitching together something usable.

It takes most of the night to edit and the rest of it to get the video uploaded, but come morning I send it off to the folks at the Legal Network who in turn send it off to K’NAAN’s people (I know…) for approval.

It takes a couple more hours but it comes back with the a-ok, barring one minor change: K’NAAN’s name is to be written in all capitals.

I could go on forever here about the bill, but the quick summary version is that the video got 21,000+ views, the petition got 50,000+ signatures, and the bill made it through the House!

I wish I could say that this ends on a high note, but the quick summary version ends with an even quicker punch in the gut, in that the Bill was later killed on paper in the Senate, thanks to some political shenanigans from the Conservative party.

But this post is not about politics and the problems with it in this country. Instead, I share this story for a couple reasons:

  • It is a pretty cool moment in my life that I don’t often get the chance to share
  • Because lately, I’ve been feeling as though I’ve lost something

When I first picked up the phone on Bloor St. that cold January day, and when I was asked if “I was in”, I was prepared to say yes, no questions asked. I would have done literally anything they asked of me in that moment.

At the time I was in University and working part-time and struggling with course loads and probably a bit of depression (or at least, Seasonal Affective Disorder – the shitty basement apartment with the windowless bedroom will do that to you), but despite all that I was completely and thoroughly wrapped up in this issue. It became my primary focus that semester, so much so that I can still – nearly three years later – rhyme off all of the details surrounding the bill and its journey through Parliament. I can’t tell you a damned thing about what I learned in class that semester. Hell, I don’t think I can even tell you what classes I had that semester.

And I don’t know why this was the case. I say that not because Bill C-393 and access to medicine is not an important issue, but because it’s one that I had no real connection to. I didn’t know anyone who had suffered from HIV/AIDS, I just saw something that, to me, seemed painfully and glaringly obviously unjust, and felt compelled to try and do something about it.

There was no pausing to reflect and no thought about whether I could handle this extra time commitment. Just action. Just fire and passion.

I tell you all of this, dear reader, because at the beginning of October I wrapped up my time with Engineers Without Borders Canada. In late October I put on an art show. And as we sit here at mid-November the joke of #funemployment has lost its humour. The days have become grappling contests between the often harsh self-criticisms of “you need to be more productive” that wail like bomb sirens, and the simultaneous and unshakeable desire to do nothing at all.

There was a time when then-me would have relished in this free time, would’ve taken it as the opportunity to do what I wanted when I wanted. Time to photograph, to video, to write, to volunteer, to protest. In these long weeks it seems that all I can motivate myself to do, however, is rock climb and drink gin and tonics while playing Batman: Arkham City.

And so it feels like I’ve lost something.

And somewhere deep down I have this horrible fear that this – this complacency and loss of fire – and not the full time job with benefits and a desk – is the marker of my transition to “adult life” that I’ve thought so much about these last couple years. A fear of some unavoidable dividing line cutting through my life, where on one side there is youthful optimism and spirit and on the other side there’s a tame and docile curmudgeon stocking up on for-sale toilet paper and toothpaste.

Case in point, the other day my roommate asked me to come with him to a march happening at the University of Toronto, in support of fossil fuel divestment, and I couldn’t drag myself out of bed to do it (for context, the march was happening at 12:30. This wasn’t a 7am affair). There was a time when then-me would have said “Of course I’m in!” There was a time when I would’ve been out filming, running alongside the march and climbing on top of newsstands to get a better angle. A time when I would have stayed up all night editing the footage to be able to put a video out by the next morning.

And so I worry that I’ve lost something.

For a long time my “anthem” was Frank Turner’s Photosynthesis. There’s a part of the song that goes:

“All your friends and peers and family solemnly tell you you will, have to grow up be an adult yeah be bored and unfulfilled. Oh but no ones yet explained to me exactly what’s so great, about slaving 50 years away on something that you hate, about meekly shuffling down the road of mediocrity, well if that’s your road then take it but it’s not the road for me. I won’t sit down, I won’t shut up, but most of all I will not grow up.”

This was my jam. This was my quote on my staff page of the EWB website. This is still a quote on my “About” section of Facebook.

And last week, I couldn’t pull myself out of bed to take part in the divestment march.

And so I worry that I’ve lost something. And I’m left wondering what it is I stand for and where it is I’m going and whether any of this actually means anything or matters, or whether I’m just a self-absorbed 20-something millennial obsessed with a bullshit notion of “finding myself” and “making a difference.”

And so as heart-wrenching as Tom Hardy’s turn as “Tommy” in Warrior was, I don’t think it’s what had the faucets of my eyeballs leaking onto my face at 4:45 on a Saturday morning.

Instead, it was likely this unshakable feeling that I no longer know which way is up. It was likely the knowledge that the moments in my life that stand out as the most meaningful were driven by action and not pondering thought, and the simultaneous fear that I don’t know how to “just act” anymore.

And so I worry that I’ve lost something. But I also don’t believe that it’s gone. This notion of the line of adulthood, from which there is no return once you cross, is silly. I know that. There’s no reason that the higher level of responsibility that comes with being an adult has to be mutually exclusive from being the idealistic, energy ridden millennial from early January 2012.

And so I don’t believe that it’s gone. That said, I’m finishing up this post in a coffee shop in Guelph and I can barely bring myself to fire up the computer to add in these last minute additions – the Grey of today has long set in and the grappling match is well underway. So it’s hard.

But I won’t sit down. And I won’t shut up. And most of all I will not grow up (but also, I will. Cause that’s ok).

And so while I feel as though I’ve lost something, I’m working on getting it back.

 

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

 

 

 

 

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on an island in the sea

I live on an island in the sea in a used-to-be-more-vibrant pink house that from the front would not be out of place in a documentary about crack dens.

I sleep on an air mattress that deflates every two nights regardless of if I sleep on it or if I remember to put the cap back on the nozzle in a room that is painted an oddly comforting shade of olive. I don’t even like olives.

I share this apartment with two housemates, one of whom I’ve been calling the wrong name for the past three weeks. Thankfully he is kind and thinks this is amusing.

I walk to work via the same route everyday, listening to the Google Maps lady’s commands but still turn the wrong way out of the house each morning.

I went to my first hot yoga class last night and grab a corner spot in what I thought was the back of the room. My proximity to the mirrors should have given it away, but it was not the back and I was not prepared to bend my legs like that.

So far my completely out of the blue decision to move to St. John’s is working out. I have a job I love where I with people I respect, in a city that has been nothing but welcoming (despite the face locals make when I say I moved from Toronto). It’s only now just sinking in though that maybe this decision was a bit… unusual.

It’s hard to know what the “right” thing is to do when it comes to life decisions. Do I make the move? Do I take the job? Do I live with these people? Or harder yet, how can we be sure that these decisions will serve us well? Am I just running away? Will this hurt my relationships? Am I letting my family down?

I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. But instead of an overwhelming feeling of doubt or indecision my gut has been telling me that this is right. That this change is good. Sure it’s overwhelming, strange, and difficult too, but ultimately it’s good. I don’t know how I know this, but I have a friend who reminds me that the feelings in the pit of our stomachs are real and should be listened to.

Despite my overwhelming instinct to rationalize and reason through most thoughts and feelings, I’ll admit that letting go and allowing myself space to think and feel without boundaries has led me to one of the most wonderful opportunities in my life to date. A week worth of gaffes later and my gut-brain is still staunchly in favour of it all, which is a win after a few years of feeling a little off kilter. I know it’s unusual to find this kind of comfort and resolve in a decision, and for that I’m infinitely grateful.

I’m think I’m in the right place.

– Mica

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on making livings and lifestyles

I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between making a living and making a lifestyle. As a recent university graduate I spent the first three months of my post-university life reconnecting with friends and family and reminding myself what life looks like when you don’t close down libraries at midnight. Running into (generally older) relatives at weddings and reunions usually meant that at some point (or multiple points) in an evening I would be confronted with the question of what I’m doing next. Although it’s an innocent and honest question on the surface, if asked with the proper tone it can carry a society’s worth of conditioning to imply that the only appropriate response to said question involves a clear and detailed career plan. I don’t have a career plan and although my canned response that “I’m looking for ways to use stories to inspire and educate” receives some favourable reviews, I honestly have no idea how I’m going to put a roof over my head and food on my table in the medium to long term. But, even if my liberal arts and sciences degree didn’t give me a paint by number career path it did instil me with a careful skepticism. My initial reaction to the question of shelter and food is to ask what shelter and food mean. Sleeping on couches and in basements for the majority of my summer reminded me about the beautiful side of simple living but I also aspire to one day live as part of a larger family unit (whatever that means) and those aspiration require a less transient infrastructure. What that infrastructure will be, I don’t know. But to some extent I’m treating my current travel as research into different lifestyles. There’s a balance to strike between making a living and making a lifestyle and some folks seem to have struck it.

I spent a week in mid-august wwoofing at the Harvest Moon Organic Bakery just outside of Lion’s Head on the Bruce Peninsula. I traded labour for food and lodging, stayed in a bunky on site, and assumed responsibility for the disposal of any and all broken butter tarts. The owners have run the bakery for almost 19 years, built themselves a passive solar home, carved walking trails and sculpture garden through the bush, and are socially engaged and lovely people. At one point they also operated both a large garden and bed and breakfast but they’ve scaled back in recent years. Although they work hard and long hours during the summer (theirs is after all a seasonal business) they produce good quality food, eat primarily from a garden they tend themselves, and spend the winter skiing, reading, and playing board games. After seven days, I left having met some of their neighbours, learned more about gardening, sided a treehouse, and been thoroughly entranced by a lifestyle that seemed to connect to both the physical and social space it inhabits. The folks at Harvest Moon make a living from a lifestyle that encourages active connection to their neighbours and physical surroundings. That appeals to me.

‘What next’ questions from my well-meaning relatives seem to focus only on the issue of making a living. My responses are sometimes met with disappointed and skeptical expressions but I’m trying to figure out what kind of lifestyle I want so that I know what ‘making a living’ means before I commit to a specific endeavor like law school or an oil rig contract that might fill my bank account at the cost of spiritual bankruptcy. While trying to avoid value judgements, I’m compelled to nonetheless acknowledge that no amount of money is worth doing things that would make me miserable and I say this from the middle of a 6 week contract that has me scrubbing toilets three mornings a week – although I am cleaning them in the middle of a national park in the Rocky Mountains.

You can only start with the question of making a living if you’ve already assumed the answer to what it means to make a life. It’s the same as asking how you’re going to get enough lumber to build your fence before you’ve figured out the height you want and the perimeter of your yard. Switching your thinking changes the question from ‘how am I going to provide for my needs’ to ‘what needs do I need to provide for and how can I meet them’. I’m still trying to figure what my needs are or could be but a week at Harvest Moon reminded me that yearly income doesn’t have to be earned over50 weeks a year at a 9-5 job and that work in something like a garden and kitchen can circumvent the need for some expenditures. Who doesn’t like homemade preserves?

I’ve got a few relatives who enthusiastically raise lifetime earning statistics to point out that I really should be starting my career as soon as possible. They’re measuring success by earnings; I’m not. And while I acknowledge that wealth affords opportunities, I’m inclined to view money as a means to an end rather than the end in itself. This perspective is the result of a certain amount of privilege. I didn’t need to work for a few months following university because I had friends and family who could put me up and enough money in the bank to move between them. And I’ve had the time to think about these things because I spent four years at an expensive post-secondary institution. Not to mention that as an articulate white male, the odds of me finding lucrative employment are good no matter where I look. Not everyone is this lucky and my thinking would probably be different if I had dependants and bills to pay. But I think that the question of lifestyle needs to come first in any case. It doesn’t matter how much you can afford to pay if you haven’t figured out what you want to buy. It doesn’t matter how you make a living if you don’t know how you want to live.

Jon Farmer

on cocoons of sameness

EDITORS NOTE: This blog post is the fifth in a series intended to celebrate Embracing Ambiguity reaching the 50 post milestone. Embracing Ambiguity received an email in response to a recent post, that asked a lot of great and challenging questions. In celebration of Embracing Ambiguity’s milestone, various authors will be responding to these questions over the next week. In general, the theme is (roughly) “making the decisions that will impact EVERYTHING” and “the narratives we tell ourselves about what we’re doing, why and how we feel about it.” It is left to each author to choose how closely they reference / stick to these (and other) prompts. We’re excited to see what they come up with. If you like what you read, share it on Facebook and Twitter and help #EmbAmb increase its reach. Happy reading.


Right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop window in Burlington, Vermont listening to beans grind and people chatter. Fall is here and I’m surrounded by people who look like me. Birkenstocks and socks. Plaid. Reusable shopping bags and to go mugs. It’s amazingly comforting to feel instantly at home in place I haven’t actually called “home” for the past six years. Here I have a sense of who I am and am surrounded by people who reflect that back to me, both aesthetically and because we’ve known each other since we were twelve. In this cocoon of sameness, my identity isn’t in question, it’s strengthened.

Almost three years ago I started an internship, my first job out of school, and vowed I would put my need to constantly future plan to rest in favour of living in the moment. When I started I knew that with such a short amount of time to work (four months!) I would feel the need to keep applying to jobs, to plan my next steps, to figure out every day what the “right” thing to work on next would be. I threw myself in to my internship, made amazing friends, and lived completely in that community. And so in a way, not making any future plans was a decision in itself and I, surprisingly, ended up being hired full time by the same organization. No searching, no planning, no big decisions necessary.  Instead of taking time to sift through what I dreamed for my future I accepted a job and from there followed the path to where I am today.

There are days, like today or when I read the big questions in the editor’s note, when I wonder if I made the right decision that summer. Since taking that job I haven’t really sat down to think about what I want to do and where I want to go next, and more recently it’s felt like I’m stuck in a pattern of survival. Instead of a more intentional approach to my career I’ve said yes to everything that comes my way first because it was easy, and then because I didn’t have a choice (unemployment does funny things to a person). What started off as a deep breath of  indecision has turned in to survival mode of no decisions and as a result I’ve gone a bit decision making gun shy. Though all of the infinite possibilities of the world seem so shiny and bright and nice it is terrifying to think of everything changing, or worse, deciding wrong.

So now I sit here, feeling all warm and fuzzy for fall foliage, and wonder who I’ve become and what exactly I’ve done if I’ve not made many intentional choices over the past few years. Who am I if I stumble around from job to job, thing to thing, without really taking a moment to pause? Is this the person I want to be? And if so, what decisions am I going to start making to intentionally maintain that? But if not, who? what? how?

I am confused. I am unsettled. I am learning. I am resilient. But most of all, I am scared.

It has taken months to realize this. It’s taken months to realize that I need the space and time to regroup. To articulate, however vaguely, the person I’m trying to be. To feel stable and map out my hopes and dreams and ambition. That’s the key though — the space to tap back in to that ambition. AC Newman sings, “I don’t mean to weigh things down / with fortune telling, let’s just see / when it all comes true, we’ll see” in the song “Not Talking” and I’ve had it on repeat trying to divine what I should do next. While the strokes of his guitar the trumpet notes sound so sure, his lyrics mirror the question marks I’ve been so deftly swatting aside the past few years. It’s nice to think that maybe this all doesn’t matter, that the decisions we make are not as earth shattering as we give them credit for. It would be nice to just wait and see.

I’m not that person though. I’m a planner and an organizer and a mover and I have been holding back on those things now for far too long. I imagined, briefly, of cancelling my flight back to Toronto and fully embracing the comfort of my Vermont identity cocoon. What a bold and beautiful decision that would be! But just as indecision has me feeling lost and confused, I think running away from that confusion without a map would do much the same. And so I sit here and stew, thinking about what regrouping will be. As usual, I don’t have any answers. Though for a change, I’m going to take some time and decide what I intend to do next.

– Mica

On CHANGE (or: This one time, in Ottawa…)

Goodbyes suck. I was reminded of this fact a couple weekends ago, in Ottawa. Reminded of it over and over and over again in rapid succession as one by one, the people I’d spent the preceding four days with trickled back to their respective pockets of the country.

It’s amazing how quickly bonds can form when you stick excited, passionate people with similar interests, values and beliefs into the same small space to discuss, debate and learn. We were gathered in Ottawa for an Oxfam Canada Conference, and in attendance, a cross section of the organization’s campus (and alumni) presence from cities across the country. 40 or so energetic, lovely and inspiring young people.

It was in watching these energetic, lovely and inspiring young people enter their cabs that I was reminded that goodbyes suck. Reminded of it in every farewell hug that decoupled momentarily, only to snap back together like a set of magnets, determined to demonstrate the truth of the notion that opposites attract. I was reminded of it in every attempt to prolong the farewell, in every mushy showering of verbal affection, and in every promise to keep in touch.

I was reminded of my disdain for goodbyes each time the Oxfam corner of my heart felt a small pang of ache with the slamming of each car door. I have missed this community, this cause, these values, and these people.

And so while the conference made clear that which I already knew – about goodbyes and about a longing to be more involved with Oxfam – my four days with 40 inspiring leaders and a dozen or so insightful facilitators also reminded me of something else.

For the last two years, since graduating, I have felt adrift in the terrifying sea of young adulthood. I graduated UofT after 4 years of contempt for the University process, environment and culture. Graduated UofT with an uncertainty about who I was or what I was doing or where I was going, but also, with an unshakeable certitude that whatever the answers to the who, what, where were, they sure as FUCK would look nothing like how I had (formally) spent the previous four years.

After graduating I applied to every job under the sun. Street outreach officer, Communications Guru, Campaign Manager, Freelance BBQ Sauce Inspector, Event Coordinator. The list goes on. Hell, for giggles I even applied to (and was somehow interviewed for) the ED role of a small upstart.

Despite countless resumes and cover letters, proclamations of how I was the “best candidate for the role” and “please oh please god just hire me I won’t burn anything down I swear…” I had found nothing.

Imagine my shock – no one wanted to hire me?! My undergrad degree in Peace and Conflict Studies doesn’t allure you, you say? Would a nice crisp Queen Elizabeth II help? No? Ok…

What did help, however, was taking my university degree off my resume. I was no longer “Tyler Blacquiere, Honors BA with High Distinction from the University of Toronto”, and instead, was “Tyler Blacquiere…I’ve worked at a library before and I probably won’t burn anything down.”

Well, the latter must have been just the ticket, and thus set off my summer of pretending to rearrange shelves full of bagels, in the bakery at my local Loblaws.

Now, look. There’s nothing wrong with working in a grocery store or a Walmart or a WHATEVER. At least, not inherently. There WAS something soul crushing about erasing my last four years to get said job. There WAS something problematic about the amount of food that was thrown out, often even before its best before date. And there WAS something about the experience that was fundamentally at odds with who I considered myself to be – or rather, the person I wanted to be, and the place I wanted to occupy in the world.

For a long time I have been someone with a core set of values held close to my chest, and in times like my summer at Loblaws, when my actions have felt at odds with my beliefs, I have been met with great distress. Put simply, I try my best to hold myself to two main things:

  • I want to leave behind more than I take
  • I believe that life is meant to be lived for other people

My time spent in the bread aisles of Loblaws was not facilitating either of these, or other, values. Unless, I guess, you count helping people find bagels as “living life for other people” (sometimes you just really need some pumpernickel?).

You can imagine my joy, then, at being offered an internship with Engineers Without Borders at the end of that summer, in September 2012.

I was unsure of exactly what I’d be doing, and unsure of how exactly I’d live off an $800/month stipend, but these questions were irrelevant when weighed against a continuation of my current reality.

EWB was a charity. It was working to end poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. It was, for the most part, doing “development” in a smarter, more innovative way that most other charities.

Me, and my values, couldn’t be happier.

I now stand at the start of September 2014, and I’ve reach my two year anniversary with the organization. During that time, my roles and responsibilities have shifted considerably. From a videography and fundraising focused internship (September 2012 – January 2013) to a series of short term, part-time and full-time contracts, focused on EWB’s charity run and holiday campaign (January 2013 – December 2013), to a full time non-contract role in January of this year, focused on fundraising and communications.

These past two years have not been without their ups and downs, but on the whole the experience has been a good one. I’ve had the opportunity to occupy and lead a number of different roles and projects, worked with some pretty incredible people, and – not insignificantly for someone in this “transition to real people life” – have been able to keep myself consistently housed, fed and clothed.

These positives aside, however, things have been growing increasingly challenging. Motivation has been hard to come by, excitement has been relatively non-existent, and the days have started to drag. I have felt “there”, and not much more. The passion, felt so strongly in these 4 recent days in Ottawa, has not translated back into my work with EWB since returning to Toronto.

For the most part, I’ve been unsure as to why. Certainly, there have been some clear challenges in life and work that would explain part of my declining happiness in my current role, but nothing that really gets at the feeling of just being sort of…done.

It was not until this one time, in Ottawa, surrounded by 40 or so energetic, lovely and inspiring young people, that I was reminded of the reason why.

All throughout my “activist days” (if I can call them that) of University, I spent late nights working on things for Oxfam, Canadians for CAMR, and the Green Society Campaign (to name a few) and early mornings working on essays which, at that point, had taken a back seat to more important pursuits. Through the petitions, the protests and the press releases; through the MP meetings op-eds and videos, I felt like I was “doing something”. Felt like I was leaving behind more than I was taking, and like I was living life for other people. And sure, maybe I was just young and naïve and dumb, and now, in looking back, maybe I’m romanticizing, but still. It felt as though there was inherent purpose in what I was doing. It required a certain fire; required boots on the ground and coffee in the veins. And naïve dumbness aside, it did, in one way or another, and regardless of size, contribute directly to change.

And I know. I KNOW. Fundraising and communications are important. Fundraising is what enables the “on the ground” work. It lets EWB’s ventures operate, and provides the backbone for worthwhile programs like Kumvana, which connects young African leaders to the resources and training they need to amplify their impact and reach within their communities. It’s important work.

And communications puts knowledge into the hands of the people who we rely so heavily on to sign our petitions, run in our fundraising races, and become monthly donors. It helps them make informed decisions about where they’ll invest their money, time, and support. And, it shares the successes of our ventures, funded in turn by those donor dollars. It’s important work.

But. As important as it may be, I’m realizing that it’s incompatible with some central tenets of who I want to be. It’s incompatible with my strong desire for direct purpose and action. It is, I think, one step too far removed from the change creation process – from creating the kind of world I want to live in – to ever be truly and consistently satisfying. I was reminded of that in Ottawa, as I sat with 40 or so inspiring young leaders and talked about Oxfam’s new campaign to have a third televised leader’s debate, specifically around the issues affecting women. I was reminded of it as I participated in and lead sessions that drew me back to the days of yore. And I was reminded of it in the flurry of brain activity that followed.

In the last two years, as I’ve jumped from role to role, I’ve endured through any moments of doubt or question about what it was I was doing by, in part, rationalizing that “at lease it’s not Loblaws”, and, in part, by giving into the fear of leaving and stepping into the unknown once more. In doing so I have become disconnected from my desire for direct, purposeful action. And it’s starting to wear through.

I miss the days of being so excited by what I was working on that I’d gladly stay up all night and push through to the morning. I miss the days of frantic, furious inspiration that comes from pursuing something you truly love. I miss the feeling of being truly and deeply tired from a day’s work. Not the kind of tired that comes from being bored and grinding, but the tired you feel in your bones. The tired you earn after a day’s worth of pouring passion into a vessel of your own creation.

If I’ve learned one thing about this journey to adulthood, it is that this whole thing, this whole process, is one of crossing all that from your list which you know is not for you. So as difficult as it is to find myself in this spot, I know that I am, at least, getting a bit closer to finding my place.

Whatever the hell that actually means.

…and then I found $20.

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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On Changing Course and Being Happy

I’ve been trying to write this for a while. And by trying to write, I mean it’s been running in my head over and and over again. Words fly by in a whiz of anxiety, sometimes excitement, but always overwhelming. The central themes revolve around satisfaction in my life so far, trying to be optimistic in the future, confirming and reconfirming (and re-reconfirming) that “I am no one’s runner up”, and realizing that I have come so bloody far in the past year, no matter how deja vu this all “september 1st is rolling around” feels.

When I was still a little girl, and my mom would come lie with me to help me go to sleep, she’d often have to help me quell my anxiety. What is hilarious to me now is that even as a 10, 11, 12 year old kid, I cried at night with the question “What am I going to be?! What am i going to do?!” ringing in my head (and the walls of our house). I didn’t take well to the standard responses: we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, everything is going to be OK, YOU’RE ONLY 10 FOO’, and anything else anyone would tell me. And so my mom, ever the patient saint, would lie with me naming occupation after occupation, stopping to explain the words that were still foreign to me. Starting with the A’s like archeologist to occupational therapist (I still can’t understand what they do) to social worker,  my mom would move through the alphabet as I was near hysterical about what the future would hold. I can’t say now if it was truly just my anxieties starting to take form, or if even then I had begun to feel the responsibility of the world on my shoulders. I know that the feeling of not being enough, of needing to be more, had already rooted itself in me. It’s almost palpable through the memories how much more faith I had in my peers (what, from their handball skills?) than I had in myself.

Despite all the question marks, some things were certain. I was brought up with my two role models having completed both undergrad and graduate school (my dad’s favourite line, after ones in Hebrew for “that’s how you learn” and “life’s hard, kid” being “I spent 11 years in university!”), and so before I even understood what they were I knew that that’s what my path was too. I thought that’s just what people did, end of story. It honestly didn’t occur to me that there were alternatives, nor did I think to look. I guess my anxieties were gripping with white knuckles the certainty in that path, even if I’d have to fill in all the other blanks as I went along.

But, of course, ha!, try as I might, that wasn’t to be my path. I took a year off before even starting my undergrad, and I hardly finished it in one piece. I literally crumbled a few months after graduating, and after dedicating myself to my GPA so that I could get into any grad school I wanted (although I had no fucking clue what that was), I decided, to hell with it! that wasn’t for me! I met really lovely people who were making it work without a master’s degree (say what?!), and that was powerful.

That didn’t pan out so well, if only (and definitely not only) because I was too sick to even watch  movies for much of this past year. I can break the year down into a few distinct phases, or states of mind, but the most important of which being the two I currently capriciously rotate between.

There was the sick, unable, hopeless Maya that when answered what I was up to I would sheepishly answer anything from I don’t know, Nothing, or sometimes in moments of hysterical honesty I would own the list of diagnoses that had become my shadow. I became almost comfortable, although maybe complacent is a more accurate but also unfair descriptor, in these diagnoses, in the “what was wrong with me”. It was my self-perceived identifier. My new Path, illuminating where I had been and where my feet were to be planted next. Instead of these conditions being something I had, I let them become something I was. The running dialogue in my head was overrun with “I am Maya and I am tainted.” This occupied a lot of space, a lot of time, and a whole lot of energy. And still, in my weakest moments, it roars its ugly ass head once more.

But a powerful thing happened the other day. I can’t remember what the context was, or who it was with, or even what I had just eaten. I was probably talking to myself, to be honest. Something provoked me to describe myself, in my head or out loud, and my first response was no longer “I am Maya and I am trying (and rarely succeeding) to get better” but instead “I am Maya and look at this bright future and all the baller things I’m going to do!” That’s right, there was a fucking exclamation mark. There are baller things that I am going to do. ME. My path had yet again changed course. This time, though, it didn’t have a predetermined destination or mapped out route. It. Just. Was. Inhale. Exhale.

Ten year old Maya would still be unsatisfied–I haven’t answered any of her questions. I don’t know what I am going to do or how I am going to get there. I still have to reckon with the fact that I have spent my whole life following the equation I wanted so badly to exist for how to live a happy life. I still have a long ways to go before my physical and mental health are up to par. But for tonight, for right now, I can be OK with not knowing what I am doing and if my current path is the capital R Right one, or if the Right one even exists. In this moment, I am not seeking perfection. I finally (sometimes) have optimism for the future and a hope that things will get better. That all the work I’ve put into this year will realize its rewards eventually, in time. And, fittingly enough, the ability to see that is the result of all the personal work I’ve done this year.

 

Someone recently told me, “I’m busy enjoying being happy”.

So maybe this new grad school won’t be the answer, and maybe it won’t land me my dream job or make me feel like I am the morning and the evening star.

But maybe, hopefully, I can be busy being happy (with my deepest sympathies to ten year old Maya’s frustration and anguish)

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On Water, Soil, and Sun

When I was born my parents planted a tree in our front yard. They don’t live at that house anymore, though on occasion I walk by it to wallow in nostalgia and to see how my leafy counterpart is doing.

A little while ago my Mum stayed with me, and my housemates, for a week. She’s in her fifties and doing a master’s degree. Each spring her program offers an intensive, week long in person course and as her school is just a few blocks from my house it’s a convenient, and rare, opportunity for us to spend time together, to share in each other’s lives in an intimate way

I moved out of my parent’s house when I was eighteen to a different country for school. Since then I’ve spent one summer with them, but otherwise our close relationship is sustained by a few phone calls each week, holidays, and one-off weekends either here in Toronto or at their home.

You could say I’ve spent my formative years with them, but I’d argue that my “growing up”, my most painful and most important learning, has happened without them. Which makes week long living situations particularly interesting, because the versions of ourselves we think we know today, right now, in this moment, aren’t necessarily the ones others hold on to.

I’ve recently started a garden. It’s the first one that’s all mine (there were a few years as kids I think we “shared” a garden with Dad) and it is unbelievably satisfying. My tomatos are well on their way to yielding what I hope is endless jars of sauce, the lavender I planted from a shop around the corner is so aromatic you can smell it from across the room, and my bean plants look so much like the picture perfect bean plant I wish there was a fair I could enter them in.

The satisfaction though comes from tracking their growth – they follow a pretty straightforward pattern, and with some research, a just as straightforward plan for care. There are enough variables to keep things interesting (motherfucking raccoons), but at least I know the kind of growth that’s going to happen. Water, soil, sun and one day in a few weeks a tiny little bean, or the beginning of a tomato.

People are less predictable (surprise!). If you had mentioned to my Mum ten years ago that she might think of doing a master’s she would have laughed before you could finish your thought. If you said that being laid off from my first job would shatter my innate sense of confidence, I would have stared at you in confident disbelief. We’ve come a very long way from who we were yesterday, and the day before, and the year before that.

Spending a week with my Mum reminded me of this. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of her in a very specific way – as the her I knew when I was nine, or eighteen, and not taking the time to see her as she is now. We are different people and that’s made clear when looking at career trajectories or even our gardening habits (she grows flowers, and I veg). With so many shared moments between us, I couldn’t pinpoint the most important transitions in her life or even map what I think her career trajectory has been. It’s the little things in between our Christmases and week of visiting that may have had the most impact. It’s that time that boy said no, or that sweaty drunken dance party to old eighties anthems. But she doesn’t know those things, and I don’t know those things, and instead what we have is just who we are.

Maybe what’s most surprising to me is that personal growth doesn’t stop. Maybe we only notice it in fits and starts. Maybe we don’t know we’ve grown until years and years have passed and we look in the mirror one day and see someone else, someone new, looking back. Maybe we turn fifty, go back to school, spend a week with our adult daughter and get to grow with her by learning new ways to relate to one another. Maybe it’s all of this and nothing at all.

A lot has happened since my parents planted that tree twenty-four years ago, and I imagine in another twenty-four years I’ll have just as inconclusive reflections on change and growth. While my plants are growing, and my Mum is studying, and I am figuring out what I’m doing right (and wrong), I will forever wish there was a clearer plan.

Then again, maybe the answer for people, as for plants, is just some water, soil, and sun. Summer is here in Toronto and we’re all likely to grow as it turns to fall. It’s surprising how much can happen when it’s happening.

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On Teeter-Totters

Since being let go I’ve started volunteering at a breakfast program for community members in need and taken up singing in a choir. In doing so, I’m trying to balance The Struggle, and I teeter-totter between knowing if I’m living up to my potential or not.

E.B. White says, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” I sing because I need to do something that makes me happy, but to really feel like I’m contributing to the world I awkwardly hand out bananas at a drop-in breakfast. Maybe an oversimplification, but its the most recent in a string of examples of what a challenge navigating this tension between so-called “improving” the world and “enjoying” is.

When I was working, and working at something I thought was more aligned with improving the world, I told myself that it was just as important to enjoy the day to day. In this framing, working justified enjoying, and I would never give up working, but I certainly could (and did) give up enjoying.

Maybe the time I have now is meant for me to dedicate my more creative side — Cook and bake to my hearts content; Write and blog and tweet with intentionality; Paint and create to shame the best of pinterest boards; Read all of the things. I have so called free time, and I am lucky enough to live in a city with thriving arts communities, so why not dedicate it to artistic pleasures?

And yet I can’t but help to feel guilty when I do nothing with my day other than read interesting articles and make homemade chicken pot pie. Working is fulfilling and busy, and because its something of a necessity (EI only lasts for so long) it addresses White’s described tension for me – you must strive to improve the world, that struggle is most important, and then sometimes there are things to enjoy.

Of course balance would be the ideal, where I would do something I love and live a life where I can push for change and feel just as good about that as singing in a choir. I want it all – I want to embrace this tension in the fullest and then clasp my hands in triumph when I can stand in the middle of the teeter-totter without falling. Aren’t we all working toward that moment? Is it so hard to do?

I don’t know how I’m going to get there, though I have a feeling this is a life long pursuit and my first step might be in getting off my couch, and back on that teeter-totter.

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