Tag Archives: charity

On searching for a former clarity

I feel like I’ve gotten horribly lost in the Bermuda Triangle that is the transition to stable, adult life. Not the physical me, of course, for that body currently sits on the sunny patio of Jimmy’s Coffee, in Kensington Market, scrawling these notes in a too-small notebook with a too-inky pen. No, it’s the person inside this outer shell that feels hardly recognizable.

I’ve thought this to be the case for some time now, but have been holding out hope for the return of the more familiar, more comfortable, me. With posters on phone poles and photos on milk cartons, I’ve stumbled through day-to-day routines filled with the naive hope that his return was just around the corner. That if I could just catch a break in the aimless and never-ending job search. If I could just paint the right thing. If I could just send that tough route. If I just bought the right pen and sat in the right café and listened to the right tunes, he’d return. With a sudden gust of inspiration, he’d send ink splashing across swiftly turning pages.

If I could just…If I could just.

But I can’t. And instead, the landscape of my life remains a barren wasteland of half-baked ideas and unfinished projects. The corpses of books half read and canvases half-filled lie alongside the ghosts of stories half written and photos never taken. Languishing bodies indistinguishable from the spirits of unrealized potential, all lost amid my internal clutter.

Every once in a while I think I’ve figured it out and in these moments I am Einstein, and a careful mixture of caffeine and exhaustion is my E=mc2. In these moments, it seems as though I’ve found the thing to kick-start this ailing engine inside of me. And I do, momentarily. And I’ll design or write or shoot and I’ll feel as though old-me has returned. With newfound energy and excitement, all aspects of regular life get pushed to the side. My sleeping schedule implodes, I forget to eat, and my once neat and tidy room becomes consumed by a chaos of productivity.

And then…gone. The pen stops moving, the paint starts drying, the pages stop turning, and I’m hurdled back off the wall I’d been climbing, left hanging in an empty space, unsure of which way is up.

In these brief flashes, I let myself think maybe, possibly, old me is here to stay. But with each departure the fall feels farther and farther, and makes the next appearance harder and harder to come by.

And so I don’t know what to do. And I don’t know what to think.

Each day, old-me would wake up with this idea in his head that he was the kind of person who wanted to change the world. To make a difference. But with each passing day, this-me finds it harder and harder to see just how that will ever be the case.

Each day, I wear this ring on my pinky to remind me of a commitment I made to use my skills and time to make the world a better place, and scattered around my room are remnants from my Oxfam days – times when I was knee-deep in social justice; when I was “doing things.” I hold onto all of this as tightly as I’d grip a crimpy hold on the rock-wall, hoping it’ll keep me upright and stop me from falling off. But I don’t know how strong a connection I actually feel to any of them anymore. And like finding the right pen or the right café, I don’t know if they’re actually what I need right now.

In one of my more recent flurries of productivity, I got the idea in my head to re-name, re-brand and re-start the storytelling work I had been doing two years ago. And so I spent the better part of two weeks brainstorming and designing and staring at fonts. And when I was done I sat back and looked at my creation and thought to myself: “I don’t actually know why I did this.”

IM

I had all these ideas for a logo and a name, and a series of meanings to bind them both, but what was missing was any of the actual drive and excitement needed to take a word and an image and make it something more. And so it, like the domain name I own, sits and collects digital dust.

And so I worry that old-me is horribly lost in the Bermuda Triangle that is the transition to stable, adult life.

If you happen to see him as you traverse your own ambiguity, please send him home. The thing inhabiting this-me is not early as fun to be around.

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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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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The summary post

Last week, Embracing Ambiguity reached the 50 post milestone. To celebrate, various authors who have contributed to the blog over the last year and a half wrote a post on a similar theme. That theme, roughly, was: “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 was amazing to see different authors take the prompts in completely different directions, and inspiring to hear their experiences, interpretations, and fears. With five new posts in the span of a week, we realize you may not have been able to keep up! So, just in case you missed anything:

ON THE ALWAYS, EVER CHANGING | Author: Jeff Ku

“Things will always be ever changing for me, and if you stop and talk and listen, it is always ever changing for everyone else too.  No stint of work, no matter how short or long is a waste. It is a learning opportunity, each one being a directory guide on the long hiking trail, helping me decide which direction to pursue.  And you know what? I may not end up at a final destination where THE ULTIMATE MEGA JOB has been waiting for me to get to.  It will actually probably lead me back to the beginning where I get a good laugh at my work life, and I then discover the joys of retirement and being a bratty old man.  But as long as I am learning, and gaining and fulfilling some aspects of my life at my job, I will stick with it.”

Read more here.

ON BECOMING PROCESS-ORIENTED | Author: Maya Fromstein

“Slowly, slowly I am trying to learn how to focus on the present moment. To not necessarily focus less on “WILL THIS JOB DEFINE ME” or “WILL THIS MAKE ME THE MOST QUALIFIED EVER” and “WANT. TOP. MARKS”, but to actively incorporate and pay attention to the moments of “Well this is nice” and “mmmm” (four m’s, check it) into my life. To respect my body and my mind and all of their assorted needs, while simultaneously respecting my potential and my future aspirations. To truly believe that if I take the breaks I need, and stimulate the other areas of my brain or hands that thesis writing and computer typing leave wanting, it will enhance all areas of my life.”

Read more here.

ON PEOPLE | Author: Stefan Hostetter

“Rather, I had found the people that made the world make sense. If I had accomplished nothing else, I had done this, and I realized then and there, that I think this would be enough. I would never be making a choice that would impact everything. I could never have a failure too great. I could never be so wrong that I couldn’t be right again.”

Read more here.

ON CHOICE AND CONSEQUENCE | Author: Tyler Blacquiere

“I can’t accept that the “right thing” doesn’t matter – that there isn’t a choice to be made – because I can’t accept the alternative. Because the alternative is one of complacency and complicity in all that is wrong and needs changing in the world. Choice and consequence. It has to matter. Because for everything I said above, it still holds true that life is too damn short and too damn precious and people are too damn great and the world is too fucking awe-inspiring for it not to matter.”

Read more here.

ON COCOONS OF SAMENESS | Author: Mica McCurdy

“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?”

Read more here.

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On running (and the downfall of pride)

It is a dreary, wet, and cold October morning, and there is paint dripping down my face. The helmet atop my head is two sizes too small, and has my skull locked in a vice grip. The small camcorder haphazardly taped to the top of that large child’s helmet is now getting wet, and so I’m not even sure that this little experiment of mine will work. Oh, and we can’t find the starting line. Well, we can see it, but getting there is another matter.

Confused yet? Fair. If your first thought upon reading the above was not “the start of Tyler’s short lived and disappointing running career” I could probably forgive your error. But that’s just what it is. Every word of it, the truth.

It was a Sunday and it was early. The helmet was on my head because I needed a way to mount the camera, and the camera was atop the helmet because I had the bright idea to film my 5k race, in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Both of those things were the case because I was, at the time, interning at EWB, and because interns are keeners, I was filming my race to make a video for EWB’s Run to End Poverty. Oh, and the paint…orange was EWB’s colour. So, naturally, I painted the helmet orange. Apparently, however, when you glob on large amounts of paint the night before, it takes a somewhat long amount of time to dry. This hadn’t happened, and now the rain.

But back to the race. After stumbling around confused, we found the start, and the race began. I had always been generally athletic, but this was my first official race. I hadn’t really trained, hadn’t really slept the night before, and I really had to pee. Did I mention the rain?

All this aside, I loved it. The race was a blast. I never really had opportunity to realize it before, but in those short 5K I saw just how into the competition I could get. The thrill of passing people drew me on, faster and faster, and in just under 24 minutes, it was over.

For a while after the race, that was that. It was fun, my video turned out surprisingly well, my shrunken head returned to normal size, I hung my race bib on the wall, and went back to everyday life.

But as the New Year rolled around I found myself thinking about running more and more, and began to play with the idea of training for the full marathon in next October’s STWM.

Now, on a few occasions during my young adult life, there were times when I ran consistently for general health and wellbeing. But I never considered myself “a runner” – I never formed part of my identity around the activity. That changed in March of 2013, when – with the help of my Uncle Bryan and Elevation Personal Coaching – I officially began to train for the elusive 42k.

It didn’t take long before I was hooked. The thrill of pushing your body beyond what you thought previously possible, and the ability to actually see your progress kept me coming back for more. Over time, running became a bigger and bigger part of my life.

I was building my schedule around fitting in runs, I was eating better, and more, to match my level of exercise. Hell, I had even bought protein powder.

Pretty soon, I started to eagerly anticipate Sunday mornings, when my world became one of a still rising sun, a cool crispness in the breeze, carbohydrate gels and logged kms, in my weekly long distance runs.

I will never forget my first attempt at 15k – the first time I experienced “the runners high”. As I rounded the last corner in my route, coming into a 3 block straightaway to my apartment, I was on top of the world. I didn’t feel tired, or sore, or worn out. On the contrary, it felt like I could’ve kept going for another 15K.

Part of my enjoyment from running came from – and excuse me while I ditch humility for a second – I was fucking good at it. I was managing the upper distances without too much trouble, and more importantly, to me, I was fast. My uncle and coach had dubbed me “Flash” and I became obsessed with the idea of speed.

It eluded me at the time, but looking back now I can’t help but think that running became a proxy for other things in my life. After some rough personal-life times and the stress of work-life times, as well as a general late winter/early spring malaise, it felt good to be doing something I enjoyed, and doing it well. In part, I think, because it was real and tangible. Unlike my work, which was ambiguous, short term and at times, hazy – where success was unclear and in an environment of brilliant people, often overshadowed – running was real. My times were definite and quantifiable; in the immortal words of Shakira: “Ooh, my Garmin don’t lie.”

I had something I was succeeding at, and was proud of it.

But my uncle’s nickname of “Flash” was not – I think – just a reflection of my finish times. It hinted at my tendency to be young and dumb and overzealous. Things were going great, I was feeling good, and so when Bryan would say things like “Keep the pace above 4:45” or, “Take it easy on this one,” my brash brain would, at times, respond, “but whyyyy?!” I could do it so much quicker. And I sometimes did. But with a body as complex and susceptible to injury as the one we’ve got, speed isn’t everything. And pride will be your downfall.

It was a gorgeous Sunday morning. I was in cottage country with colleagues. I’d avoided drinking the day before, in preparation for what was to come: an empty country road, a backpack full of water, and 21K. Now, I had done this distance before – this was a revisiting. A step back. A refresh. My instructions were to do it at a reasonable rate; just take it easy and enjoy it. But my pride had other ideas.

I wanted to crush it. I wanted to push myself and see just what was possible, and what I could do if I went all out. And so I did. I pushed and I pulled from deep within and in less than an hour and a half later, I was done. I didn’t tell Bryan. I think I knew that he would be less than pleased. But I did it. It was possible. And what’s a little extra effort now and again, anyway? Well…

I was sore. Not unreasonably sore, I convinced myself. Just sore. Looking back now, this was likely the beginning of the end. For it was a week or two later, 23K-ish out on the Toronto Waterfront that my right knee gave out. I’m not even really sure what happened, it just kind of…hurt. A lot. And I stumbled. And then running was impossible. And then walking was hard. But there I was, 20K from home, without money or a way back. So I walked. Slowly, and gingerly; in pain, both body and pride.

It was awful, long and slow, but I made it home and reported the news to my uncle. A few weeks off was the prescribed solution, along with a lot of ice and elevation. Despite my best attempts, however, a few more ups and downs made it clear that I wouldn’t be ready to run in October.

It was now my turn to be crushed. To have trained so hard and for so long, and now…this. Watching from the sidelines on race day pained me in a deeply physical and emotional way. All the success, excitement and hope for what was possible was gone. In its place, a feeling of stupidity and hopelessness about running.

It took a while, but I eventually got over myself, and life moved on. I resolved to come back better and, more importantly, smarter, next year. But when next year rolled around the universe had other plans. Despite months of rest, my knees just never felt the same, and life events threw curveballs in many attempts to get training back on track. After a number of these false starts and several long winded Facebook explanations to my uncle, I went silent. I stopped running and stopped communicating.

I had given up, and I retreated.

I was scared about the state of my knees and their ability to carry me on the wind again. Was embarrassed to have done this to myself. And, I felt like I was letting Bryan down. It was hard enough to admit all of this to myself, and so I never tried to convey it to my uncle. For a long time, I beat myself up about it, until eventually I pushed it out of mind and tried to focus on other things – work, writing, photography.

Recently, however, I went for a run. Not a timed, training run. Just a run. It wasn’t very far and it wasn’t very fast and I didn’t have carbohydrate gels and I didn’t post the results to my online training diary. And it was…nice. I was relaxed and without pressure. There was no expectation, no target to hit and no fear of what was next or whether I’d be able to run again in the future. Just me and the trail. For so long, running had been a means to an end – I was training for a marathon. There was an end goal in mind and running was (quite literally) the vehicle that would get me there, across the finish line at the 42K mark. Now, for the first time in a long time, running was an end in itself. It was a nice change, and one that sparked a realization about my relationship to a lot of what I do in life. It was in this moment that I was reminded, in particular, about this crazy hectic panic filled transition between “now” and “adult life.”

Because I have very much been treating that transition as a means to an end. Work has been the thing, the experience, and the connections that will lead me into whatever my “place” is. I’ve seen work as the path leading me to my real purpose – the big shiny pot of gold at the end of the terrifying rainbow of young adulthood. In approaching it this way, it has been needlessly stressful. Every slight hiccup, diversion or stumble along the path has been so much more than that, because of how it was detracting from my pursuit of “the end.” I have consistently failed to see these things for what they are: a challenge, a learning opportunity, a potential for skill development. That’s not to say that these moments wouldn’t still be stressful through this different mindset, but I’d be able to take them as they were, instead of as what they could be.

So maybe, if I can get over myself for long enough, work too can become an end in itself. I can take pride in the everyday small projects and wins. And maybe, I can start to find enjoyment in it again.

For now I’ll keep running. Not far, or fast. And without my Garmin. I’ve accepted that there probably isn’t a marathon in my near future. But someday. And when that time does come, I’ll be smarter. And I’ll listen to my coach.

(ps sorry Bryan)

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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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 music and happiness

If you’re anything like me (or most people, really), music has a constant presence in your life. As regular as your heartbeat and as unconsciously there as the breaths that keep that heart beating.

At this point you may be thinking to yourself: “Yes! That’s me. I listen to music all the time.”

If this is true, my question to you is this: you may listen to music all the time, but when was the last time that you really heard music?

Now, I know. I KNOW. I’m quite aware of how big a pretentious hipster douchebag that makes me sound.

But really! When was the last time that you heard music? When was the last time that you let yourself hear it?

Let it be the thing that you are doing in a given moment or chunk of time

Let it wash over your senses like a sonic baptism

Let it empty your mind save for chords and words strung together by human heart

When was the last time that listening to music was an event – something that you blocked out a space in your day calendar for: “An hour with Dan Mangan” or “Lunch with The Killers”?

Because yes, sometimes music is a background nicety. Sometimes it’s a distraction from the noise of a busy coffeeshop. Sometimes it’s an excuse to throw your body around with a primal fury; an excuse to sweat like it’s your day job and to throw the definition of personal space out the window.

But if you’re anything like me, it’s very easy to let music be that and only that: a background, a distraction, an excuse.

Sometimes, though, I think it should be more than that – it should be an event. You should devote yourself to it like a sculptor to his stone, take it in your arms and let it whisper its secrets into your ear.

I had forgotten that.

Forgotten it until just now – 20 minutes outside of Kingston – on a hot bus with 15 or so people, some of whom I know, many of whom I don’t. Forgotten it until just now when I put my headphones in, folded my legs, closed my eyes and let myself remember why The Gaslight Anthem’s “59 Sound” is my favourite album. Forgotten it until I had sat there through all 12 tracks, eyes closed and coffee cooling, locked in a state of musical meditation.

And it was wonderful. I really heard songs that for so long now I’d only listened to. Picked out the bass line and followed it as it weaved its way in and around the drums and guitar. Tracked the tiny variations in vocal range. But it was only because I let myself – only because I made the conscious decision to let music be the thing that I was doing in that moment. Nothing else.

It was in this moment that I connected a dot. Not a big one, mind you, but a dot nonetheless. In part, it was inspired by Stefan’s recent post, and this quote from it:

“What if I work not because I want or need to, but because I have to. What if I work to escape? Work keeps me company when no one else is available. Work allows me to tune out the rest of my life’s concerns because there are more important things to do. Work doesn’t flake out or run late. Work is reliably there, just waiting to give me the momentary validation of checking something new off my to do list”

And, in part, it was inspired by something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: happiness and work.

It started on a bus. We were coming home late one evening when she asked it: “Are you happy at your work?” The driver behind the wheel of her question was nothing more than innocent curiosity, but it landed with a thud in the space before us, shaking the suspension and rousing heads from cell phone screens. “I…” Pause. Uncertainty. Play it off: “Define happy,” I joked. Seeing through the cracks in my playful façade, she backpedals. “We…don’t have to talk about it now, or ever! I just…I’m here, if you want to.” “I know, love. Maybe some time not on a bus?”

Since then I have been lot more conscious of the question. Am I happy in my work? It’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around, for a number of reasons. Though my response of “define happy” was in jest, there is also some merit in it.

Does doing the work make me happy?

What if the work doesn’t, but the people do?

What if it’s neither, but instead the knowledge that I’m “making a difference” (whatever THAT means)

What if only parts of the job make me happy? Is there a threshold? Some minimum happiness level I should be aiming for?

Is happy the same as fulfilled?

I’m often stressed, tired, overworked. But happy isn’t mutually exclusive to those things, is it?

I could add a million more questions to this list, but there are other problems, as well. With the question of “are you happy at your job?” comes an unspoken but understood question of “would you be happier elsewhere?” And really, how do you know? How the HELL do you know?

And, besides, do you have to be happy? Society seems to tell us so. If you went out into the street and asked 100 people “What’s the meaning of life?” I’d be willing to bet that happiness, or some variation thereof, would be the most common answer.

Then there are the articles: “7 Steps to Happiness” ; “3 Changes you can make RIGHT NOW to be Happier” ; “GURL, WHY YOU SO GOD-DAMNED MOPEY ALL THE TIME?”

Most recently, it has been the “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” trend. These ideas are often presented as if happiness is a tender fruit to be plucked from a tree.

In truth, it’s hard to find. Hard to define. Hard to know when you’ve got it, and all too easy to recognize when you’ve lost it.

But that’s ok. It’s just as ok as it is for music to be a background, a distraction, or an excuse.

For a long while after that question landed on the bus, I beat myself up about it. “How can you not know?! What if you’re settling? You’re not unhappy, you’re just afraid of failure and so are trying to run away. You’re wasting your artistic talent and creativity – you could be doing so much more somewhere else.”

It’s only now, after hearing music for the first time in a long while, that I have a bit of clarity. It doesn’t matter (mostly). You don’t have to be happy all the time. You don’t. We’re often sold the idea that we do – told that eating a salad alone is a hilarious, uplifting activity, told we need to pursue happiness like a chorus follows a verse. And sure, it’s an important part of life – but that’s not all there is. The beauty of being human is experiencing a complex range of emotions, and no one is inherently good or bad – or better or worse – than the next.

What’s important, I think, is that it’s conscious. That there’s a decision. See, what bothered me about my musical revelation on the bus is not the pure fact that for some time now, I’ve only engaged with music as a passive listening experience. What bothered me was that it wasn’t a choice. It was just happening. In my rush-rush driven attempt to finish all of the things, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed getting lost in a good album. Forgotten how much I enjoy letting music become an event. I was letting my default state take over.

And (I think) it’s the same for happiness. It’s okay to not be totally happy in your work. Or at least, uncertain of what it means to be. But, I think it needs to be a choice. I think it’s a problem if it’s not – if it’s just your default state that switches on with the lights in the office on those early Monday mornings. If there’s a choice, if there’s a conscious decision to prioritize something else – impact, fulfillment, money, whatever – I think that’s okay.

That’s why Stefan’s post from the other day struck me. It was this one line: “What if I work not because I want or need to, but because I have to”. Specifically, it was the “not because I want or need to”. It reminded me of times in my life when I burnt myself out because I was unconsciously acting on my default state of working myself to exhaustion. Not because I wanted to or was choosing to, but because that’s just what I did.

So the real question, then, is not “are you happy at your work?” It’s whether or not the answer to that question is the product of conscious choice.

But that, my friends, is a question for another day.

 

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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On 2013

I am not generally one for New Year’s resolutions. Not because I don’t think you should strive to change or improve, but because I’ve always found it sort of weird to try and use the start of a year as the impetus for doing so. If it’s actually something you’re interested in doing, shouldn’t the date be irrelevant? Anyway, not the point.

THE POINT IS. I AM one for doing some yearend reflection. And what a year it has been, both for me and for the people in my life. I’ve seen relationships end and folks take new jobs. Friends have moved continents and love has grown. There has been loss, challenges, huge successes, and lots of fun.

Part of 2013 will, for me, always be “the year that injury stopped me from running the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon” (I’m saying this now – and you can quote me – I’m going to fucking crush that shit next year). From an Embracing Ambiguity point of view, my year has been a bit of a rollercoaster. I’ve tried to map the major changes out. See the highly scientific, super rigorous graph below:

amb

So clearly, things have (mostly) gotten less ambiguous as the year has progressed.

I started the year finishing up an internship at a Canadian charity and am ending the year working for that same charity. The one difference is that instead of interning I’m now (mostly) managing our major yearend fundraising campaign, and have an offer of an “actual” (non-contract) job on the table.

It’s quite a leap.

I’ve gone through a hell of a lot to get to this point: from multiple short term contracts to a sudden fulltime (contract) role, long nights and early mornings of proving that I had something to offer and offered something worth keeping.

And now, so close to the thing I’ve been aiming for since the day I graduated university (a job-job), it feels…different than I was expecting (maybe?).

In truth I guess I don’t know what I was expecting. I think*, however, that I thought I’d just feel like “me”. And in a sense, I do. But I also don’t…ya dig?

More so now than at any other time in my life, I feel certain in my uncertainty. I don’t have all of my shit worked out, and the way forward is still unclear, but there’s a greater…awareness? Like I’m no longer “faking it till I make it” – which, don’t get me wrong, isn’t to say that I’ve necessarily “made it” – but I definitely know some shit. And I’m definitely willing to fight for the chance to prove it.

The successes in my place of employment have also come coupled with a failure, of sorts, in my extracurricular pursuits. Those of you who read this blog somewhat regularly may know what I’m referring to: The Storytelling Project. Since early in the year, I’ve kept this quote above my computer:

“When I get to the end of this year, I want The Storytelling Project to be at a place where people and organizations are approaching me to have their story told, because they see value in what it is I’m doing”

Whoops.

The quote above is from a work retreat we had last January, where we were asked to think about our lives one year into the future. With one story produced and a few more stuck in development, I can’t exactly say I achieved my goal. There was a time when I would’ve beat myself up about that. A lot.

A time when I would’ve questioned what it was I had spent my time doing. Questioned if it was “enough”.

Now? I’m definitely a little bummed, but I’m also recognizing that I have done a lot this year. A lot I should be happy about and proud of.

I’m also recognizing that making a “splash” in the way I had hoped, is hard.

Like, really fucking hard. It’s uncertain, exhausting, time consuming (time you don’t have when focusing on the thing(s) that pay the bills) and can often feel like you’re trying to walk up a down escalator.

I’m recognizing that it’s okay it didn’t happen this year. All it means is that I get to regroup and try again in 2014.

I guess what I’m really saying, folks, are these two things:

1)      Embrace the ambiguity. It will never go away completely, but you will start to get a handle on it. You will. Even when it looks like that’s impossible. You will because you’re bright and passionate and driven and a fucking baller. And don’t tell me you’re not because you are. And if it doesn’t feel that way now, it will. You just need to find your place. Everyone has one. When you do find it, embrace it, too. Fucking own it. Don’t spend your time comparing it to someone else’s. You are your own unique snowflake. Remember that it’s not where you’re at; it’s what you do with where you’re at.

2)      Take it easy on yourself. It’s okay to stumble. It’s okay to fail. It happens. But you know what else happens? Recovery. Ass kicking. Take a second and think to yourself: what’ll be your Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2014? Let’s crush it together.

I know these things aren’t “new” or even very insightful. But they are important. And they are things we can forget as we rush through the day to day, head down and feet moving furiously towards our next test. So take a minute to remember them.

All this said, I think part of what I’m saying is that (maybe) I’m growing up.

Just a tad.

Eek.

Until next time. And next year. (Haaaaaa! Yes, I went there.)

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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on losing faith

“#EmbAmb is…loving your job but questioning the org you do it for”

The above is something that I recently wrote on our fancy new Facebook Page, and it is something I have been spending a lot of time thinking about and grappling with this past week in particular, but for the past little while more generally. I have, for a while now, wanted to write something about this, but it was only the events of the last week that finally pushed me to do so. Even now, however, as I sit in a coffee shop with pen to paper – tiny baby screaming at the table next to me – I don’t even really know what to say, where to start, or what the “end” looks like.

I guess I could start with what is easy – the things that fall into the first half of the above quote: “loving your job”. See, I generally love the work that I’m doing. I love working with our all-star teams of volunteers. I love talking about the National Campaign that I am working on. I love the amount of freedom and trust that has been placed in me by my supervisors. I also love the team of folks that I get to work with on a daily basis; I love getting up for work knowing that even if the rest of the work day is shit, seeing and interacting with that team will always be a silver lining. That is something pretty rare to have found, and not a day goes by where I am not thankful that I have.

That said. This past week has been…trying. Frustrating. Demotivating. Marked by unspoken tension and unease, and perhaps most of all, uncertainty. All of these feelings stem from some financial difficulties that the org has been experiencing over the past few months, and that culminated last week in the dismissal of two staff.

The decisions around this whole financial mess, the reasons given for those decisions, and the proposed steps forward have all resulted in a serious lack of faith in the leadership of the organization. These feelings are not entirely new, but are definitely amplified by recent events. All of this reminds me that, as I’ve said before, no one really knows what they’re doing. The result is that I am left questioning whether I want to work for the organization anymore, questioning what is/isn’t appropriate or useful to voice, and perhaps, most importantly, questioning how I can fundraise for an org I don’t entirely believe in.

Now, there is an important distinction that I feel I must make here. The work, the goal, the “mission”? Totally on board. I think our “on the ground” ventures are doing incredible things and deserve to be supported in their work. I just no longer know whether or not the org is capable of making that happen. All of these feelings are made more difficult because of my (relative) “newness”. I am one of the youngest people in the office, and have been around for the least amount of time (discounting the regular inflow of 4 month interns).

Are my feelings valid? Or do they come from a lack of context? Am I just being reactionary, and missing the bigger picture?

Do I stick around? Do what I can do to help? Grin and bear it through the awkwardness and uncertainty in hopes that things improve?

Or do I jump ship? Say peace? Truly speak my mind in some disruptive way and then leave, never to look back?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. I’m also acutely aware that I depend on this work to pay the bills, and that prior to working where I am now, I had a soul crushing job at a grocery store. A grim alternative, even with everything going on. I am ALSO well aware of my strong fear of becoming one of “those people” who makes decisions based on money – a fear that is harder to steer clear of when faced with rent and crushing student loan debt.

These are complicated questions and answering them is not something I am currently feeling capable of doing. So for now, I will continue to waddle through the uncertainty and awkwardness. I only hope I find an answer soon.

 

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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on giving a f*ck(?)

If you’ve read most of my posts on this site so far, you’ll probably notice that my focus has been more on the personal side of things and I’ve only briefly talked about social justice issues or my role in them.  There is a reasonable explanation for this, and that comes as a question: Do I actually care about international development, social justice, and social change?

I’ve spent the greater part of the past 4 years of my life (my graduate degree and the last 2 years of my undergrad) getting involved and increasing my involvement with a non-profit organization (what can I say, I was a late bloomer), starting at the student chapter and slowly making my way up to national level work.  What got me started on it? Simple, a couple of very amazing friends in my engineering classes invited me to take part in the local student chapter of the NGO.  At first, it was addicting!  All I wanted to do was learn more, and my curiosity became a great fuel for discussions as I was trying harder and harder to understand everything that was being thrown at my face and how little I truly knew about worldly matters.  What made me stay though, ultimately, were the people that were also heavily involved.  I have never met so many engaging, critically thinking, intelligent, and passionate people before.  Basically, I wanted to be more like these people, because I genuinely wanted to be a better person and individual.

To clarify quickly, the work I have done has mostly been here in Canada, and not overseas.  I’ve recognized from an early point in my involvement that my greatest impact would be here in my own community or country and not internationally.  Because of this, I have always felt a sort of disconnect with the issues of poverty and social injustice abroad, but I know and acknowledge their existence. My friends have witnessed these injustices first hand and have retold those stories to me, yet I still feel disconnected to the entire thing.

As mentioned in previous posts, I’m graduating soon (seriously, I’m really excited, and will take every opportunity to tell people this because at one point I wasn’t sure if I’d be stuck for another 3 years trying to do this thing).  Once again that question of what I am going to do afterwards comes up.  And whenever this question is asked of me, I always ask myself, whether or not I give enough of a fuck to try and keep doing this social justice thing instead of engineering, and if so, am I doing it for the right reasons?  Do I care enough about the issues at hand anymore like I used to?  Or, fuck it, let’s be honest here, I want to work with these amazing people I’ve grown to love and care for dearly.  And if I find myself in a situation where I do work in that environment, but my friends have chosen to leave, will I have the drive to stay put, or would I see myself leaving soon after?

So am I a bad person if I’ve figured out that I’ve been giving my time in this sector of work, not primarily for those that are suffering, but for the people who have chosen to work in this line of work themselves?  Is investing in those around me, and caring about their work because it is important to them, a good enough reason for my involvement in the social justice community?

This time I don’t have an answer, and I don’t know if I’m going to like it when I actually figure it out.

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On…forget it.

In my last post, “On losing track…”, I wrote about the challenge of holding on to your passion and motivation from day to day; about those days when you wake up and don’t feel like doing anything at all.

More recently, however, I’ve been experiencing a different kind of challenge.

I’m just…kind of fed up.

Worn out.

Stressed.

After another week of late nights, 9pm meetings and crazy back and forths between different projects, I’m just feeling a little tired of it all. Don’t get me wrong, I love the work that I’m doing; love that it is fulfilling and leaves me feeling as though I am accomplishing something worthwhile. But sometimes I just can’t help but wish it were…easier.

Wish that I didn’t have to give up most of my nights in a week to put in extra hours (or, alternatively – I wish that when I did take time for myself, when I said “no” to work, that it wasn’t also accompanied by strong feelings of guilt. As if somehow, by prioritizing my own needs, I’d done something wrong). Wish I had a predictable schedule so that I could actually manage a social life without going crazy in the process.

Working in the social justice sphere is great, but it also forces you to make certain life adjustments. It’s not always the case, but there are days like today where I just…don’t want to.

Sometimes I’d like to get home at 5pm, and actually have ended my work day. Would like to be able to go to the gym (would like to be making enough money to actually afford going to the gym), or for a run, without having to wake up at 5am (or at least, have waking up at 5am to do so be a choice, not a necessity). Would like to be able to disconnect from email and job related social media over the weekend without fearing the inevitable onslaught of things to respond to come Monday morning.

I’m not sure what the answer is in addressing this issue. It is made more complicated by the fact that, despite these occasional feelings, I wouldn’t change what I was doing for the world. At the same time that there are days where I want to say “forget it”, I also love the busy rush, the late nights and the looming deadlines. It keeps me fueled, motivated and energized. So maybe this is all normal, and maybe I’m just whining (I prefer the term “venting”). But maybe that’s also ok. Maybe that’s just what we need sometimes. Besides, I’M AN ADULT NOW I CAN DO WHAT I WANT.

Until next time.
Ambiguously yours,
-t

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