On My 4-Step Program to Finding Myself

EDITOR’S NOTE #1: This post actually comes from Michelle, but due to some technical difficulties, is being posted under another account. 

EDITOR’S NOTE #2: This post is the 8th 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! 


On this day last year, I was in a surprisingly similar situation as I am right now. I was in a quiet mountain chalet with my family, surrounded by beautiful snowy landscapes and gorging on delicious food I could never afford on my own. Our agendas were filled with exactly the same activities as this year: going into town to get groceries and internet access, walking through the forest, skiing and spending quality time with family and friends. The only difference is that last year, the cottage in question belonged to my family and was just outside Montreal. This year, we’ve changed continents and I’m sitting typing this in the French Alps.

As pretentious as that sounds, it’s actually pretty indicative of how everything is sort of the same, but also pretty different. If my 28th’s of December 2013 and 201 seem similar, the years that preceded each of them couldn’t be more different. On New Year’s Eve 2013, after a few flutes of champagne and much to my family’s amusement, I dubbed 2014 the Year of Michelle. And I have to say, I think I was successful in making the year entirely about myself. It seems crazy, but I had never consciously made myself a priority before. So 2014 was by far the year where I spent the most time completely on my own, and when I thought the most about my path, independently of anyone else’s.

At this time last year, I had just completed my first work contract, and had decided to start grad school the following September. But we were only in December, which gave me 9 months of sitting in the waiting room of life. I was determined to make the most of it though; to take the time to shed the layers of school and work, and get down to who I was at the core. When I think back on it, I accomplished this with my very own 4-step program. Step 1: one month of absolutely nothing. Seeing what I did with absolute free time gave me my first real glimpse of me. It was fun while it lasted but I didn’t love what I saw initially. Step 2 lightened the mood a bit; I filled my time with volunteering, hobbies and friends. But the big test came with Step 3: two months of traveling through South America on my own.

This was a slight echo from 2013, when I studied in Panama for four months. Here was the thinking behind this new trip down south: I had an amazing experience in Panama, but with no control over what I was doing there. I wanted to see what it would be like to experience something similar, but entirely on my own and under my control. And that’s exactly what I got: a perspective-shifting, mind-opening trip that furthered my thirst for adventure. I no longer had any patience for people who couldn’t hold an interesting conversation. I had met so many fascinating people with so much to say, that a conversation about the latest in reality TV just didn’t seem worth the time.

Needless to say, coming back to a marketing job was excruciating after that. But this was Step 4 and I was almost at the finish line. The grumpy secretary that works in the waiting room of life? She was about to call my name! So I powered through and made the most of the little time I had left in my hometown before moving on to the next big step: doing my Masters in Scotland. The goal was to get a higher education all the while still making it an adventure. I’m on that road now, although I’ve realized that grad school may not be the opportune moment to develop hobbies and go on insane adventures, which has led to a nice balance of weekends spent with my head buried in the library and others spent exploring breathtaking (literally and figuratively) Scottish hiking trails.

Looking back, I feel confident that I made the most of my time in the waiting room. However, I do wish I hadn’t seen it as such. If I had just thought of it as another step in my life, instead of a ramp leading up to the huge move to grad school, maybe I wouldn’t have felt as alone at times. But that newfound solitude lead to more introspection than I had ever experienced. I feel like I know myself much better than I did last year and I am more confident in my independence now. In that sense, the Year of Michelle successfully reached its initial objective. My personal growth curve has been getting steeper and steeper every year and I hope that trend keeps up for a long time. I don’t know what next year holds, and there are no guarantees that December 28th 2015 will also be spent in a quiet mountain chalet, but wherever I spend that day next year, I hope I can look back on my year and be even more proud of myself than I am now.

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on the road to el dorado

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is the 7th 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! 


I have started and restarted this blog post countless times now. The thoughts and sentences and paragraphs – ones that usually come with relative ease – have either felt stilted, incomplete or insincere.

Part of this is, I’m sure, due to the very nature of this series of posts. How, exactly, does one choose the 1000 or so words that encapsulate an entire years’ worth of lessons, hardships, learnings and experiences?

A much bigger part of my difficulty, however, has come from the intrusive and overwhelming pressure of these last few months.

Since leaving my job at the end of September life has been…tumultuous. October passed by in a flurry of brush strokes, as I frantically prepared for an art show I’d host at Sadie’s Diner at the end of that month. “I’ll take this month to really pursue my art, and then I’ll get to serious job searching next month,” I told myself.

And to give some credit, I did start November with a flurry of job activity. Cover letters and tailored resumes filled my days, but ultimately, so did a lot of rejection emails. As the weeks wore on it became harder and harder to stay motivated and energized, and eventually, to even pull myself out of bed before 1pm.

Crippling anxiety and frustration began to take over, and I ceased doing much of anything at all, save for rock climbing…and playing Batman Arkham Asylum.

So the last few months have been hard, and in the context of my year, it’s even harder to look past them. They feel a bit like a black hole, sucking in any shreds of light from the previous eight months, and masking much of the year in a shroud of crushing blackness.

But as I sit on the second floor of a local pub, beer in hand, Florence and the Machine’s “Shake it Out” begins to pound in my ears, and as I sit listening to the chorus, I notice that it is an eerily appropriate anthem for this moment in time:

And it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back

So shake him off, oh whoa

The song is actually written about being hung over, says lead singer Florence Welch, but swap out “a devil” with my black hole, and the message is fitting.

This past week I’ve been trying to re-establish some sense of routine. Wake up early, go for a run/work out, eat breakfast and make coffee. On Monday I woke up at 1pm and went for a run at 3pm. But I did make coffee. “Breakfast” may have been a scoop of protein powder in milk, but it was something. On Tuesday, I was out the door and pounding the pavement by 12:30pm. Baby steps.

I am on my way to feeling better, but I’m simultaneously realizing that if I’m really going to move past this most recent period of my life, I’m going to need to shake it off…

Oh whoa.

At first, I attempted to do this by starting from the beginning of 2014 and listing out all of the things I was proud of having accomplished:

  • I started my first full-time, real-person job
  • I created and regularized a number of communications processes at my workplace
  • The Embracing Ambiguity blog had it’s 1 year anniversary
  • I lead a storytelling workshop at an Oxfam Canada conference
  • I took up rock climbing
  • I set up a photo website, and put on an art show
  • I started running again, recreationally

At first, this seemed like an ok way of going about this whole process. But as I looked at my list, and as I thought about it more and more, I started to think back to a book that I had been reading, called The Rock Warrior’s Way, by Arno Ilgner. The book is about climbing, but its applicability goes far beyond.

In one of the early chapters, Ilgner talks about how we’ve been raised in a cultural system where worth and value are determined by achievement, and where the toxic idea that “accomplishments somehow make us more valuable,” is commonplace. In this setup, it also means that our sense of self-worth is removed from the self, and placed in the hands of the external factors and people that judge, measure and celebrate our accomplishments.

Ilgner goes on to say that:

“Looked at objectively, your self-worth is essentially static: you are worth the same as anyone else. No more, and no less. You may be glad to have accomplished [x, y, z]…but they have not increased your worth as a person.”

So looking at my year in this way seemed off. This lens also took those moments I had laid out, and placed them in opposition to those that were less shiny, only further defining and highlighting my black hole as a giant, all-consuming failure.

Now, failure is fine. It’s a very human thing, and everyone experiences it. But, in my previous model of thinking, I wasn’t gaining anything from the recognition of failure. It was success and failure. Good and bad. Static descriptors, and nothing more.

#RookieMistake

So with all this in mind, I took another stab at my list. This time, however, I applied a different lens – as suggested by Ilgner – one of learning, and growth:

  • I learned how to navigate working on a team as a full-time staff member, in a small but ambitious organization
  • I learned how to balance different working styles and preferences in an office environment
  • I learned more about communications in the non-profit sector than I ever thought possible
  • I simultaneously learned that, maybe, communications in the non-profit sector wasn’t for me
  • I learned that I love presenting in front of people, despite what my shy, 10-19 year old self might say
  • I learned that rock climbing is the shit, and that it is incredibly beneficial for my mental and physical well-being
  • I learned that when I trust myself, pretty great things can happen. Like art show’s at Sadie’s Diner
  • And, from my black hole, I learned that I’m not yet at the place where I can be making decisions about who I am and what I’m doing and where I’m going

When I started my full-time job in January 2014, I thought that “this was it”; the thing I’d worried about all 4th year of University, and then fervently pursued in the year and a half following, had finally been “got”. I had won young adulthood.

It took but a few months for me to learn that maybe, I wasn’t actually where I wanted to be.

As I explored my art in the fall, I learned that I love too many things, and care about too many more, to make a decision about THE THING that I want to do.

For the last few years I’ve raced along the Road to El Dorado and after this mythical concept of adulthood; something I naively assumed I’d see glimmering in the distance, a golden city on the horizon line, once I had figured it out, once I knew what I was doing.

But I think the most adult thing I’ve been able to do these last few years, specifically, in the darkness of these last few months, is admit and accept that I have no fucking clue. Accept that my El Dorado is filled with fool’s gold.

So here’s to 2015. Here’s to not knowing but not caring. Here’s to stumbling along and to trying new things and to keeping an open mind. Fuck figuring it out, that shit is so 2013.

Cause I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t

So here’s to drinks in the dark at the end of my road

And I’m ready to suffer and I’m ready to hope

It’s a shot in the dark aimed right at my throat

Cause looking for heaven found the devil in me

Looking for heaven found the devil in me

Well what the hell I’m gonna let it happen to me

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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 Waiting

EDITOR’S NOTEThis post is the 5th 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! 


 

These past two new years have been different from the ones before them.

Before 2014, New Years marked progress; I had a sense of purpose and a control over my life as I moved through University. The last two New Years have been less about moving forward through school and more about waiting. At the start of 2014 I was waiting for that last semester of university to be over so I could start my career, and now waiting for a job so I can start my career. Juxtaposed to the many other positive aspects of my life, it makes the stall in my would-be career feel even stranger.

Last year at this time, I began my last semester of my undergraduate education. I was about to reach the end game, something that is now so common among the population my age we sometimes forget what an accomplishment it is. So with one semester left I was waiting to graduate, an easy course load and already looking into job applications. And now I am waiting for a job, perhaps it is the one I just applied for, or the one I just had an interview with, or maybe, my worst fear will come true and I will still be waiting one year from now. I am waiting for some big change that will alter my not only my day to day life but also my future, though I may be putting too much faith in the idea that my career will fill some void.

Not idle waiting, though I do watch more than my fair share of Netflix. Not inaction. It is a lack of control over outcomes. It is doing all that you can and putting that out to the universe and waiting to see what returns to you. You can do the best you can to bring things into your life, but in most cases, we cannot control what is coming for us, and that is scary. So you do everything you can, and then you wait.

This past year I did have adventures, I found joy and inspiration, I have had ups and downs and now I feel as though I may have come full circle. After spending months applying for jobs at the start of last year, I went abroad to teach English in Colombia; somewhere I never planned to go but was able to make an adventure. I got to go to Coachella music festival with my brother, I graduated university, I spent time with my grandma and family, find new hobbies like biking and cross stitch, evolve relationships with friends. But now I am back into the thick of months of applying for jobs, back to hoping and waiting for THAT job, whatever it ends up being.

And it is these other aspects of my life, other hobbies and my friendships, that make this wait bearable. With New Years just past, I see some sense to resolutions, whether you complete it or not, resolutions can allow you to take control of at least one aspect of your life, making those uncontrollable parts, that you are simply waiting on, bearable. Maybe resolutions allow you to focus on other things while you wait.

 

– MG

On saying so long.

EDITOR’S NOTEThis post is the 4th 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!


I’ve been struggling a lot with writing about my past year. Feelings of discomfort overwhelm me with every effort, and I arm myself with words and filled pages to try and fight them back.

How quickly I fall pray to old habits.

Yet I continued to return to the keyboard, determined to write something about this past year. A year that brought so many tears, so much anger and resentment against it, such fear and frustration. I wanted to write something about it, but I didn’t know what. Or why.

My fingers struck keys like soldiers wielding swords, attempting to protect myself from the feelings and the everything that came over me every time I even thought about something to write about this past year.

How quickly I fall pray to old habits.

I wanted to write something, but I didn’t know what. Or why.

I think I understand now though.

A eulogy.

Unknowingly, I had been trying to write a eulogy for this past year. I didn’t want the year to change, for me to wake up in 2015 and just move on. I couldn’t–can’t–just move on.

I couldn’t begin 2015 without properly mourning 2014.

2014 was a hard year. It brought many of my demons to the surface, despite my best efforts to have kept them hidden for the past 13 years. I learned, and am still learning, to differentiate between myself and these demons. To call them out when they act up, and to distance the blame, shame, and guilt that they bring with them. I learned what asking for help–and not on a math question–can look like. Help to get through the day, to find motivation, any reason, to do so. Help to listen to myself, and find worth in what I hear. Help to love, and be loved. I learned what all of this felt like, and even more so, that it is okay to feel it. The struggle, tears, and relief all tangled together in one terrifying and new and strange and comforting bundle. I learned that vulnerability is distinct from weakness. That self care is different from selfishness. That depression is not only sadness, and anxiety not only stress. I learned that I am worth fighting for.

I am still learning to believe it.

It was a hard year, not a magical one, after all.

Nearly every day of the past year, I learned and learned again, that life is painful. Life is exhausting and frustrating and sad. I have also learned that life is not always so hard, not always so terrible, not always so draining. I am still learning to value the fight for those good moments when the bad ones seem always around the corner, and always stronger, adapted to my new defences.

For each thought, each moment, each day that I lost to the stillness, the void, the emptiness, in 2014 and in the years that preceded it, I mourn.

And so I write a eulogy for 2014. I acknowledge my struggle, my losses, and I try to accept them. I hope that those dark moments of 2014 will be buried deep, never again to resurface. I want to never think about it again. I wish that my eyes will open in the morning and I will wonder if 2014 was just a bad dream. I want to believe that 2015 will bring joy and sunshine and renewal. Sure, I’ll squint in the beginning, but soon, soon my eyes will adjust. To the joy, the sunshine, the renewal.

Yet, that does not feel quite right. Not quite enough.

I continue to try to write something about this past year. I just don’t know what. Or why.

I hated 2014, with all of its hardships and suffering, but it is because of 2014 that I know I cannot cross my arms and blink it all away. There is no magic solution. And there is no moving on without taking with me what I have gained from it. This past year freed me from what could have otherwise been a lifetime of bondage to my demons. I know deep down that if I can survive 2014, I can survive anything. This fight for freedom that I have started, that I already have one year under my belt of, is the hardest thing I will ever have to do. I have hit rock bottom, and I am climbing back up.

I wanted to write something about this past year.

I had to memorialize 2014, make sure I in fact never forget it. So I never forget how far I have come and how hard it really was. So I never forget what shapes strength can take.  What glimmers of sunlight feel like against my cheek amidst the darkest of days. So I never have to retrace my steps. And, if one day I do, I know the route, and who I want to bring with me for it.

And so I wanted to write something about this past year. I wanted to prove to myself, to show once more to the demons, that I am not hiding anymore. I am not letting my fears or discomforts prevent me from accomplishing what I know I can do. If I can survive 2014, I can survive anything.

I will not fall prey to my old habits today.

So long, 2014.

– m

On blank canvases

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is the 3rd 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!


A couple days after the 2014 New Years, I found myself at my rented basement suite.  I was pissed.

I had left a couple small items to move out still, back to my parents’ home, but the place was still a disaster, with no sign that my former roommate had come back to help with anything and I wouldn’t be getting my deposit back unless I stayed to finish the job.  It took me a total of 6.5 hours, and even the landlady felt bad and came to check on me to make sure I hadn’t passed out from the fumes from the cleaning products (which was most appreciated).

The immense cleaning session, however, gave me a lot of time to think and reflect.  The majority of which was dedicated to figuring out what my next steps were in the next few weeks; and life in general.

That morning I had received an email from the University telling me that my thesis was accepted, so that was one less thing to worry about, but it also meant I had one less thing to work on, and one more end to school and the regularity and familiarity that had come with it.

This meant that I was moving into a completely new blank space, one that encompassed all aspects of my life.  In some ways, I was moving on and forward with life, but I was also moving back home, so at the same time, it felt like I was taking steps backward. Well now what? I was unemployed, and I hadn’t heard back from the engineering firms and the non-profits that I had sent resumes and cover letters in to.  What about relationships? HA! That is one area that has never worked out either, so no good news there, but nothing that I haven’t been through before.  I literally went into the New Year a complete blank slate, with no direction, no plans, and no clue.

In the end, 2014 has been a year of practicing patience, mostly towards myself.  It was a year of learning, about limits and what I want in my life and of myself.  It was a year of finding direction and forming goals.

I was fortunate enough to get a job, and it was even in the field of my undergraduate education (note: not my graduate program however).  Most days I feel stupid at what I do, and have constantly learned through mistakes, asking lots of questions and listening to the perspectives of coworkers on what they would do.  I am still not 100% confident that my career path is one which I will stick to for the rest of my life, but it is one that I am enjoying presently, and I know if I want to stay in this industry, what directions I want to take or where I want to see myself in the future.  I started saving up my money, and I have been actively looking for a condo to buy and call home to start my adult life anew.  I made wonderful friends this year, and I’ve lost touch with some, but have tried harder to strengthen relationships with others, understanding more that I need these kinds of relationships in my life.  I started realizing how much time I put to work, but not on all these goals and hobbies I had wanted to pursue in years past. Even with actual vacation time to my name for once in my life, I decided not to use them and learned how much I can burn out, and should probably take some time off from time to time and go on adventures and invest back into myself.

From entering 2014, furiously wiping clean of what remained from the year before, I had produced a blank canvas, and I had started putting pencil to paper; sketching and outlining what I wanted to start seeing my life to look like.  The image isn’t totally clear yet, but there are shapes taking form.  It is just a matter of adding colour and seeing if looks right.  Let’s be honest, I’ll probably have to paint over some parts, and redraw lines and maybe even change up the medium.  But it’s a start, and that blank space doesn’t seem as daunting as it once did.

-Jeff

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on saying yes

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is the 2nd 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!


A year ago, I lay on my back staring at the ceiling of my old apartment feeling totally lost. About a month before that I had found myself pacing for days through my apartment, a 6 foot ball of anxiety. I had interviewed for a job, while scaling up a few projects, and found myself on the precipice of a new life, terrified.

I was scared that I would get the job and therefore not have time for all of these new things I was doing. I was scared that I wouldn’t get the job and simply wouldn’t have money for useful things like food or rent or Netflix. I decided that if I didn’t get the job, I would give up looking, commit to these other projects and find a way to make it work. And in 2014 that’s exactly what I did.

Today, I sit legs outstretched staring at the wall of my new apartment, just beginning to allow myself to feel a sense of place. A few weeks ago I found myself living a flashback of 2013. I had interviewed for a job, while scaling up a few projects, and found myself on the precipice of a new life, oddly calm.

I went back and read last years review to fully appreciate where I sat then and found documentation of just how lost I had felt. I began 2014 with almost no attachments, and to borrow the metaphor I used then, just the urge to chase a few subway cars to see how long their platforms could be. As I paced, waiting to hear how I would begin my 2015, I tried to understand what I had done this year to change my outlook.

The simple answer it seems, is that I lived it. I made less money in 2014 than I had since I left home for university, but it never felt like hardship. I was lucky enough to find small contracts through a number of sources to get me through each month. And to have some savings to drain when I needed a bit extra for whatever reason, which helped with the anxiety of starting each month unsure about where income to pay that months rent cheque might come from.

If January 2015 started the same way that December 2014 did, I would have completed the final piece of the slow build of consistent projects to reach my goal of earning $1000 a month. The figure I had deemed as enough to sustain my life on. This fact alone could be said to be enough of a reason for my shift from terror to calm in the wake of an incoming job prospect, but I don’t think it tells all, or actually even that much, of the story itself.

If anything, what changed was how I saw myself and how I understood the nature of work. In 2014, I began to see employment not only as something you can go out and find, but also as something you can build given the right opportunities. I spent the year saying yes to nearly every request made of me, rarely knowing if it would end with me being paid for anything. Often it results in a bunch of work and not much else, leading to a friend stating that ‘Stefan works for free’. But in the end, it proved to be a surprisingly effective tactic if your goal was to only get by.

Saying yes to improv classes lead to working on a set with Chris Hadfield.

Saying yes to running environmental networking events lead to bringing five buses of Torontonians to the Peoples Climate March in NYC.

Saying yes to a writing club lead to story telling events that now cherish.

Saying yes to making a last second video lead to what may well be the Green Majority’s big break.

Saying yes to work showed me that I could create value in this world and gave me the opportunity to prove it to others. There are thousands of people, places, and communities that make up the reasons why 2014 ended up the way it did. Hundreds of privileges that I took into the year, some small, some huge, that made it all possible.

But I’ll remember 2014 as the year I said yes, started walking, and didn’t look back.

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On Milestones

I don’t like GPS.  Always knowing where I am, where I’m going, and how fast kind of takes the fun out of exploring the world. Long before western empires had satellite technology to help us navigate, the Roman Empire used milestones to measure their progress. I imagine an ancient traveller passing the stone pillars and reflecting on the distance they’d covered that day. Maybe they counted the footprints they left along the cobblestones or breathed easier when they reached the top of a long, steep climb. Towards the end of the day when enough miles were behind them and they had reached an inn, they’d be welcomed by a kindly host and promptly asked, “how was the journey?”. At this point, the ancient traveller would sigh, think about the ache in their feet – the one that only comes when you sit down after a long walk – and stare blankly at their host for a moment. As a recent traveller myself I sympathize with the impossibility of the question and the necessity of a pause at this point. After a few beats of thoughtful silence, the ancient traveller would offer a vague and largely meaningless adjective like ‘good’ or ‘tough’. Maybe their host would press for more detail and the ancient traveller would begin to describe their journey by referencing the milestones.

Like all measurements, milestones make it easier to think about space and time. And in the absence of a GPS for life, yearly milestones help me think about where I am, where I’m coming from, and the most recent section of the journey. I’m lucky enough to have a summer birthday so between it and New Year’s my biannual reflections are well spaced. Of the two, New Year’s is the more introspective. I think it has something to do with the cold and darkness. It makes it easier to measure my progress.

At midnight on December 31st 2014, I was standing with friends on the icy shore of Georgian Bay just north of my home town. I was thoroughly layered in long-johns, jeans, two shirts, a sweater, coveralls, a coat, three hats, and a scarf. The temperature was somewhere below -10, the wind was plastering our backs with snow, and the bonfire in front of us was shooting sparks downwind. We greeted 2015 from a circle of (relative) warmth and light in the middle of a cold, dark night. When the fire burned down we went inside and played music in a kitchen until one by one the guests found places to sleep on couches and pieces of floor.

One year earlier, on December 31st 2013 I was partying with my cousin and her friends just outside of Paris. It was calm for a European New Year’s. My cousin is in her mid-thirties and was 8 months pregnant with her third child at the time. Her friends have young families too and we celebrated with snacks, kid friendly movies, and a dress up dance party just before midnight. While they were putting the kids to bed, I watched distant fireworks through the apartment window. It was the first year I hadn’t made it home for the holidays. After four months studying abroad in Amsterdam I extended my trip, celebrated with my cousin, and spent a few weeks afterwards in the UK. 2013 had been an adventure and I said good-bye to it from a much healthier place than I’d entered.
Just after midnight on December 31st 2012, I carried my guitar home from a party at a friend of a friend’s. That night, I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of the house I grew up in. The furniture – and every other object – had moved south with my mother and sister and a for-sale sign peaked hopefully out of the snowbank on the front lawn. I was staying alone in the shell of my childhood and it was a terrible place to be. After a few hours of sleep I woke up in 2013, packed my things and drove 3 hours to an ex-girlfriend’s house hoping to spend the night. In retrospect, I was losing the physical foundations of my childhood and looking for some sense of acceptance and continuity to sooth my confusion. I imagine repotted plants feel similarly when the gardener shakes them loose from the soils that germinated them. The uncertainty – the total absence of the familiar – was terrifying. By December 2013 I was doing better and was carrying the kind of broadened perspective that time in foreign places and new friends can give a person. Coming into 2015, having spent the 6 months after my graduation visiting friends and family, sleeping on their couches, and wandering new paths in both unfamiliar and beloved places I feel the most grounded I’ve ever felt.

Hometown roots and school gave structure to my life. I knew roughly where I would be and who would be there even if I didn’t know exact details. 2015 is different. I don’t have a map.  I’m currently self-identifying as homeless and unemployed as I continue to crash on friendly couches and begin to seriously plan next steps. For the first time in my life, I’m crossing the threshold of a new year with no idea where the next 12 months will take me. I have no idea how I’m going to make money, where I’m going to live, or who I’m going to spend my time with. And yet I feel like I’ve arrived somewhere significant, like I’ve made progress, and like I’ve grown.

2014 was a year of transition and learning, and looking back, some of the best parts of the year were things that I couldn’t have predicted on January 1st. That realization calms me down and gives me hope. A year ago I didn’t know how many friends I would make, places I would travel, or things I would learn. I had no idea how the projects I was working on would turn out or how much fun graduating would be. I didn’t know my sister would get engaged or that we would spend Thanksgiving together in her home in Alberta. I had no idea that I would work beside a glacial lake in the shadow of Rocky Mountains or that I would find a new sense of calm somewhere in the 3 months of travel that followed. I entered 2014 with things to do but some of my greatest growth appeared in the unplanned spaces. 2015 is entirely unplanned. The next three-hundred-and-sixty-some days are pure potential and I’m excited. I don’t know where I’ll be when I reach the next milestone but I have every reason to expect that the road between here and there is lined with beautiful places and good people. I know that it might be steep in parts but I’m hoping that if I keep my eyes open – as I’m learning to – then I’ll be farther along when I get there.

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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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