Moving.

I’ve been here before, but it still feels new. Slowly packing my boxes as I prepare to leave the place I call “home.” It’s the end of an era, I guess. Finishing college and making this move is a game changer.

I’ve been here before, of course I have. My mind immediately jumps to five years ago, when I took off for University. It’s a familiar story: By the end of high school, I had messily carved a suburban teenage “self” out of high school essays, basement parties, and bad attempts at French cuisine. The time had come to challenge that identity. So I moved to the City (mine was Ottawa; my friends scattered all over). I remember leaving my parents’ house in 2010, taking pictures off the walls as my younger brother prepared to take over the space. The process of packing up your old life, even if you’re truly ready for it, is necessarily emotional. It was emotional then, and it is emotional now.

It’s good emotional, for the most part: I’m excited, I’m ready. My family and career and soul will all be better for this.  I sat down with a friend from first year yesterday and just vomited out all the cool stuff I want to do with my life: “I want to make this website! I want to make that app! I want to run this Twitter account! I want to make education better! I want a dog and a house and a panini press!”

Sidenote: The panini press has been secured. Thanks, Celine!
Sidenote: The panini press has been secured. Thanks, Celine!

It’s time to challenge the identity again. That’s how I see these big moves. I’m attracted to the idea of putting myself in a new environment and seeing how my outlook and personality change…and how they stay the same.  “Finding myself in college” wasn’t about “doing new stuff” (though that was cool, too). It was about figuring out what parts of my identity were who I was, and which parts were just a product of where I was. Would I still like History when I left the guidance of my high school teachers? (Yes, it turned out, I fell even more desperately in love). Would I still adore my high school friends after a few years in a new place? (We had a wicked party last month, actually). Would I hold on to my lack of religious beliefs, my relationship, my bad habits? (No, no, and I’m sure I’ve traded them in for some more).

The move helped me. It didn’t save me, it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all “solution.” It just helped, for the same reason travelling or “trying something new” helps. It’s powerful to see that there is more out there. And it’s powerful to see how you respond to that. Embracing new space can show you what sticks when you shift the environmental factors—the social pressure, the family dynamics, all that. Whether you love the new place or hate it, the whole experience can give you a much more solid grasp on who you are and what you want.

And what I want now is to move forward with my life, which means leaving Ottawa. It means reclaiming a Southern Ontario “self” (this time as a job-seeking big kid) and shedding some of the capital city student life. Just some of it. I’ll still be me, of course. But with this move, I’m hoping I will get a better idea of what that means.

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Work and Play Aren’t That Different. Really.

I wonder when life stopped being a game.

I wonder when I stopped playing.

I wonder if I could start again, somehow.

I was sitting at a friend’s orchestra performance. After a few rounds of clapping, I had become acutely aware of the red spots on my raw hands. “Why does that-freaking-conductor keep leaving the room and coming back in?” I wondered, irritated. Because seriously. My hands, guys. They don’t need to take this abuse.

As the applause died down for the fifth (sixth?) time, I clasped my hands and remembered the games I used to play as a kid.  My teeny-tiny hands perceived a round of applause as a call to competition. I would concentrate on being the loudest clap or, more frequently, the last clap–quietly tapping my hands together after everyone else had finished showing their appreciation, feeling a proud, silent victory when I was responsible for the last small sound from the audience.

That was the game.

Everything was a game back then.

I don’t want to be unreasonably nostalgic, but I think it’s a fair reflection. The line between fantasy and reality, which now feels so concrete, was blurred when we were kids. I don’t know whether it was from lack of experience, or dreamy imagination, or unrefined perception, or something else. But the line was blurred. We were self-centered, obnoxious, pushy…but we were also a lot of fun. The way we looked at the world was fun.

When I was small, I didn’t know much about life (hell, I still don’t), but I was pretty sure it was supposed to be fun.

“Play” is often considered frivolous recreation, the opposite of “Work.” But perhaps this isn’t totally true. Perhaps work and play are not mutually exclusive. A worldview that favours joy and laughter and a heavy dose of “don’t sweat the small stuff” sounds like a healthy move. A little less stress and a little more giggling and running around (endorphins, anyone?) has to be a good thing for your happiness and relationships. Challenging yourself in a joy-filled way sounds like a pretty good habit. And it’s certainly easier to see the world humbly and honestly when you aren’t busy taking yourself too seriously.

My favourite definition of play is this one:

Play – the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving.

Translation? Play is basically how every cool innovation ever has ever happened. Toying with ideas. Playing around in the workshop, playing instruments, wordplay.

It’s pretty simple, really. Play is experimental, constructive, innovative, competitive. It can exercise your imagination, (pretend that there’s a monster after us!), your problem-solving skills (how do we hide from the monster?), and your ability to collaborate (let’s build a fort!). Games make you push yourself, and trick you into actually enjoying it.

And they make hands red from overclapping into a fun challenge, apparently.

I could learn from that. Maybe we all could.

In kid-land, we played house. We played school. We played dress-up. Now we just “do” those things, somehow forgetting that they used to be games. And forgetting that in many ways, they still are.

The stakes are higher, our awareness is (ever so slightly) stronger, but life is still full of games, just waiting for us to uncover them. We’re still allowed to play.

In fact, if we aren’t playing, maybe we’re doing it wrong.

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 9:9)

I’m a mess. And that’s okay.

I feel fake.

Not all the time.  But lately, at least on the internet, I feel like I’ve been putting my “best self” forward. And that’s fine, I guess. But it’s not particularly genuine.

I have business cards! I was at an awards show! I wrote some stuff, and people read it!

I’m proud of all those things, I really am. And I’m glad I can share them. But between the collection of #humblebrags, the over-edited status updates, and the filter-on instagram version of my life….

I mean, it looks like I’m the kind of person who puts on pants before noon. Who watches intellectual TED talks, instead of mindlessly binging on Dr. Phil.  Who always, always gets along with her picture-perfect family.

And that’s simply not true.

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So here’s the reality, friends:

I’m insecure, overzealous, and uncoordinated. I swear, sometimes when I shouldn’t (sorry, mom).  I don’t exercise enough…unless you count running late, I guess. I make jokes that aren’t funny, and I laugh at them. Out loud.

(Yeah. I’m that person.)

I suffer from foot in mouth syndrome, fear of missing out syndrome, there-are-always-clothes-on-my-floor syndrome. I also make up syndromes a lot, apparently.  I’m messy. I play mind games without meaning to, mostly with myself.  Sometimes, I have trouble being happy for people.  I can be a bad listener–or worse, a good listener but  a terrible responder.   I am sensitive to a fault; I use big words when I do not need to; if there is a mirror nearby I will be looking at myself.  I’m kind of awkward. Definitely impulsive.  Occasionally preachy. I don’t know how to hide irritation, even when I should. I cry at commercials, laugh when I’m nervous, and rarely think before I speak.

I’m a mess. And that’s okay.

It’s not that I’m proud of these qualities. Not even a little bit. But I’m not ashamed to recognize them, either.  They mean I’m here, I’m awake, I’m aware, I’m human, and I’m trying to be better.  They mean that even through imperfection–serious, serious imperfection–I can still live, love, and be loved.  We all can. And we can love other people through their not-so-perfect, too.

That’s amazing.

The judgement machine of the online world sometimes makes that difficult, I know. We put a filter on everything. We compare our everyday lives to everyone else’s “greatest hits” (thanks, Facebook).  We blog about the times we win, not the times we lose. We talk about the times we have been wronged, not the times we wronged others. We manufacture our own stories in which we are the heroes.

But we aren’t heroes. We’re People. We make choices. We have personalities. We have bad habits and imperfect histories and honestly, we’re pretty boring most of the time.

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So let’s take solace in the fact that we won’t always be perfect.  The fact that we will annoy people. We will try to be helpful and it won’t work. We will apply for jobs and not get them.  We will suffer failed relationships, send regrettable text messages, and come in last place.

I’ll be a mess. You’ll be a mess. We’ll be a mess. And that’s okay.

Life isn’t about being perfect every time you show up–life is about showing up, period.  And tomorrow is about being a better you than you were today. If we were perfect today, then tomorrow would be pretty boring.

(And right now, by pretending I have it all together, by pretending it’s only smiles and professionalism and good news, my internet-self is probably pretty boring. Hopefully this helps to keep it real.)

Love.

On Fear.

“I am scared of things changing. And I’m scared of them staying the same.”

Recently, these words tumbled out of my mouth, confession-style. There it was: I was scared. It was unconstructive, and it was awkward, and I didn’t know what to do with it. But I knew I was scared.

My friend offered a mini-pep talk, but she didn’t sound totally sure.  I grabbed a kleenex as I teared up.  She teared up, too–because fear is contagious, because empathy is the real deal, because it’s freaking January and the lack of sun is cramping our style/emotions, guys.

I was scared. It was good to talk about it, good to recognize it.  But the fear itself?

I knew, and I know, that fear is not a good thing.

It’s not good that many of my biggest stressors are fear-based. Just fear-based. Not things that are actually happening.  Not things that exist outside my head. 

It’s not good that these fears often do the opposite of protecting me–instead, they just kind of make me inaccessible.

It’s not good (in fact, it’s straight-up dangerous) for fear to be anyone’s main motivational force. And, of course, it’s never fun to be facing the world scared kitten style.

Not the best role model for coping skills.
Probably not the best role model.

But despite all this, the fear was there. It was real. It is real.

And so I began searching for where that fear fit…and where it really, really did not fit.

What is fear, why is it here, and what should we do with it?

I guess it’s easy enough to define fear, at least in simple terms.  Fear is really just an evolutionary instinct which helps us to recognize situations that present physical, emotional, or mental danger. My momentary burst of “I AM SO SCARED OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING INSIDE IT AND WHAT AM I EVEN DOING” was a (twisted kind of) fear response.  Simply, my brain and body recognized that something could go wrong, and made me aware of that–whether I liked it or not.

Fear responses can be pretty great for survival. We can use them to identify and respond to threats–potential predators, unhealthy consumption, I probably shouldn’t put a fork in this toaster. Fear is a great tool.

Again: It’s a great tool.

But the thing about tools is that you are supposed to control them. They aren’t supposed to control you.

The problem with fear is that it can grow, it can get overzealous, and it can control you.  Our fear impulses don’t only warn us against being electrocuted or poisoned or thrown in jail.  They warn us about other “dangers,” too.

Here are a few popular ones…

Loving always, always leaves us in danger of losing.  Scary.
Trying consistently leaves us in danger of failing.  Also, scary.
Living has a 100% probability of ending in death. Yiiiiikes.

Essentially, if fear is doing its basic, natural job, it’s going to be fighting all this loving/trying/living stuff.  After all, what is more fatal than life itself?  

Fear is the natural enemy of living. And loving. And caring. And trying.  Giving fear too much power will naturally lead to you avoiding those things.

(Actually, giving fear too much power will naturally lead to you avoiding pretty much everything.)

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The problem is that you can’t avoid many of these things. You can’t. Locked up hearts still break. Not giving something a shot can still leave you feeling like a failure. And not living your life isn’t going to make you any less likely to die.

Whether we fear it or embrace it, we’re all going to lose, and fail, and change, and die.

Which of course begs the question…

What is fear’s place in our lives? And how do we keep it there?

I’m sure it’s obvious by now that I’m not the biggest fan of fear.

In fact, I tend to think of “fear” as being the opposite of “love”…or at least, the closest thing to an opposite of “love” that the English language has.

But that’s the English language.  And it’s not perfect.  Those opposites are certainly not perfect.  Love and Fear are pretty vague terms which don’t always reflect on each other– you and I both know that.

But they both are often involved.  And when they are, love should dominate.

Here’s how:

Fear, from an evolutionary perspective, exists for a reason. So sure, sure, it’s allowed to be a juror on your internal decision making panel.  Instinctive self-protection, caution, whatever you want to call it…your fear can make a quick statement.  Of course it can.

But then your courage gets to make a statement. Same with your reason, empathy, experience, goals, and values.

And Love? It gets to be the final judge. Love should always be the final judge.

You have a lot of internal jurors at work inside of you, a lot of tools at your disposal. Fear can be one of those tools, it can be.

You just have to control your fear before it controls you.

Sidenote: this video was what got me thinking about this and it is awesome and will blow your mind.  So you should all watch it. kcool.

Making Mountains Out of Moments

We’re really bad at auditing our own histories.

Okay, I can’t speak for you. You’re probably great.  But other people, over-sensitive, nostalgic people like me, struggle with making sense out of a personal past.  We get caught up considering moments. Moments distract from patterns.

And patterns are what matter.

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Now, I’m all about good ol’ reflection.  When a long-term relationship falls apart, for example, doing a solid autopsy is just about the most positive response you can have. It’s constructive.  It’s necessary.

Good. Great.

But when things are fresh, when memories and emotions are running high, our autopsies tend to trace scars instead of patterns.  Sometimes, when we should be looking at recurring toxic (or not-so-toxic) behaviours, we dwell on moments.

And if you focus only on moments, friends? You are in for an emotional ride.

You’ll relive and relive and relive the really intense stuff.  Only the really intense stuff.  The major disappointments. The I-can’t-even-breathe-right-now romantic gestures. It becomes a mental scorecard–was the whole thing horrible, the worst, or was it unbelievably amazing? Was it that time I cried all night, or the time I laughed all night? I don’t know. I don’t know.

(Neither, guys. It’s probably neither.)

Instead of looking for patterns, we pit “good times” against “dark times” in our minds, acting like our history is defined by extreme stories and emotional confrontations. We forget the day-to-day behaviour. The reactions. How communication worked (or didn’t), and how do you feel about that?

Focusing only on tear-stained memories of “good times” and “dark times,” can paint a pretty dramatic and unfair picture of all these things.  Sure, mega-scars need healing, and the happy times are worth remembering…but in most cases, using only the most epic stories to illustrate how things went down might not be the best tactic.

Basically, it’s big picture time.

you-are-here

The relationship thing is just an example, of course. In general, we seem to have a habit of over-valuing stories drenched in perception and projection (and probably other dangerous things that end in -tion).  And that’s a pretty big problem when our little-picture memories are this malleable and unreliable.

Can big-deal moments be important? Of course, of course, of course. I’m not talking about overlooking major losses, abuses, and epiphanies.  Intense things can happen, and they can effect us.  Fallible as they may be, our memories make us who we are.

But, when we’re trying to learn from something long term, to make sense of ourselves and our pasts, we cannot just lean on landmarks.

When we are auditing our lives, little antecdotes shouldn’t override the whole story.

Living with No Regrets (is bullshit)

This is going to shake some people up. I think it will, anyways, based on the number of people who claim “NO REGRETS!” as their mantra (hashtag YOLO?).

I’ll disclaimer this by saying that I’m not picking on the sentiment behind the “no regrets” claim. I just feel the need to tear the literal concept apart. “No regrets! ” sounds increasingly like a thin veil of optimism, rather than a genuine way to live. Because, honestly, can you really be an emotionally healthy human being without a little bit of this?

Regret
Basically, regret is what happens when empathy meets taking responsibility. “I feel bad that you’re feeling bad. I feel worse because I played a role in the situation. I’m going to apologize and move forward with my life now, but I will remember this so I don’t repeat it in the future because that’s what a genuine apology looks like, guys.”

Every time you apologize sincerely, you express regret. Every time you feel a little guilty, the lessons from that (constructively) become a part of who you are. Even if you have to cancel on a friend, the regret that it was necessary (again, empathy meets responsibility) is probably a genuine sentiment.

So where does this concept of living with “no regrets” stem from? I think it boils down to two basic principals:

  1. You should move forward with your life, instead of dwelling on the past.
  2. Everything you have been through got you where you are today, so…God bless the broken road, amiright?

These both sound great in theory, but I don’t think you have to completely abandon healthy regret to value these imperfect ideas.

You should move forward with your life, instead of dwelling on the past: Okay, yes. Dwelling is not a good scene in any case–dwelling on future worries, on past loss, on that zit you can’t get rid of. I think aiming for “no dwelling” is a good call. But regret doesn’t have to be debilitating. It doesn’t have to be obsessive. It just has to be genuine and, hopefully, constructive. Maybe this is my history major talking, but completely tossing out the past seems like a dangerous game to me. Healthy regret doesn’t mean wishing moments or people back from the dead. But it does mean conducting a fair autopsy.

Everything you have been through got you where you are today: “But but, crazy blogger lady, ‘no regrets’ just means we value those mistakes instead of feeling bad about them!” I hear you. I get it. Especially on the “moving forward” front, this is a decent attitude. But I truly believe that when you have done something bad, “feeling bad” about it is healthy. It shouldn’t be a guilt that consumes your future, but it should affect you somewhat. It should make you take pause.

Sometimes we make bad decisions. You can marvel at the way “everything worked out in the end,” or see the silver lining, but you are still allowed to feel negatively about certain consequences and take responsibility for your role. You’re allowed to regret making a mess. You’re also allowed to feel proud when you clean it up, or build something new. It’s all part of the same game. Healthy regret helps you learn from your past, and to see those lessons fabricate.

Yes, I think there is such a thing as healthy regret. And while “NO REGRETS!!!” is a pretty ridiculous idea, it’s fair to say that there’s an ugly side of the sentiment that should be actively avoided.

Healthy regret should:

  • Be forgiving and constructive
  • Motivate you to apologize sincerely
  • Allow you to recognize when you are inconveniencing another person
  • Allow you to recognize when you have made bad decisions
  • Help you make better decisions
  • Force you to challenge yourself and find solutions in the future
  • Make you more forgiving of other peoples’ mistakes
  • Make you more grateful for the positive things in your life, as they stand in contrast to those regrets

Healthy regret should NOT:

  • Force you to live in the past
  • Fuel victim mentality
  • Be applied to something that happened to you, which you never had control over
  • Assign blame outside of loving self-reflection
  • Work against forgiveness
  • Create debilitating guilt or fear
  • Lower your self-worth
  • Make you less grateful for your life because of past pain and mistakes

This is totally achievable. It has to be. Regrets are natural, and it’s hard to control when they come up. Instead of denying them, we should learn to process our regrets in a constructive way. And if we don’t…

Our apologies are going to really suck.

Living Between the Lines

This morning, I caught my reflection in a dark office window and took pause. There I was—black pencil skirt, red lipstick, slight heels, straight back, mug of coffee in hand. A to-do list running through my head, quickening with every caffeinated sip.

Mesmerizingly adult.

I took a long look at the big kid in the mirror, tucking a thick strand of almost-blonde hair behind my ear. I can’t tell you how exactly I felt at that moment. Might have been fear, or pride, or confusion. Might have been all three. It wasn’t that I was particularly uncomfortable with the look—this is hardly my first blazer/pencil skirt combo. But I knew that only three hours ago, I had been marching down the dewy sidewalk as the sun rose. Jean shorts, hoodie, messy ponytail. I was singing old blues songs to myself, and watched as the street light beside my house clicked off at 6:30 am.

The lady-type I was looking at now didn’t look like a 20-something kid who crashes on couches. But I knew. I knew that only a month ago, I was living out of the backpack that now carries my work laptop and homemade lunch. That these red shoes have seen their fair share of karaoke nights (and were purchased for $10 at K-Mart, if we’re being honest here). That I live in a cheap basement apartment on the other side of town. That I am no stranger to overnight bus rides, used furniture, and 2 am pizza orders.

Classy, classy, classy.

Shaking it off, I resumed power-walking to my cubicle. I proceeded to go through my emails. The language! Visual identity. Network application. It’s RGB, not colour. I had to “tighten up” some designs before a conference call.

I clicked my heels on the carpeted floor and streamed the radio through my headphones. I knew the language served an important purpose. I knew the jean shorts and the hoodie are no more “me” than the businessy blazer. But my head was spinning with all the transformations in my day.

Sometimes, my mother gives me this look that says “Wow, baby girl, when did you grow up?” It’s the same fear/pride double take I gave myself briefly in the window today. Only she’s looking at a transformation spanning a few decades; I was looking at one that took 30 tired Monday morning minutes.

We all wear so many costumes, and speak so many languages. I don’t think that makes our roles less genuine—we move pretty seamlessly through the motions. It’s an interesting process, though, playing a role (not that you’re faking it, but still, it’s playing) every time you walk into a certain place, or consider a certain person. Balancing the expectations and conflicting commitments.

In some ways, I think identity is somewhere in the cracks. It’s not in the office, or at a friend’s house, or at family dinner. It’s in those first few seconds when you wake up and aren’t quite sure where you are yet. When you’re driving—just driving, and for a moment you stop thinking about where you’re going. When someone touches you on the shoulder, or the hand, and your body unconsciously warms to the contact. Or maybe, if you’re anything like me, when you stare out the window at the rain.

Unexpected meditations, split second reactions.

The different costumes and languages and skillsets are important, of course. They define a lot of things. They help us fill our hours, contribute to society, et cetra. But I know, deep down, that I am neither a 9-to-5 busybody nor a sloppy, happy 20 something with a broken internal clock. Role after role after role. There’s something else, something much more powerful, dripping through the cracks with every scene change.

If you’ve ever wondered why I believe people have souls…this is it, man. When the pressure melts away for a few seconds, all that’s left to do is practice being human.

(Why This Article Is Not Called) “20 Ways to Be a Twenty-Something”

I’m a sucker for clicking on blog posts ordered into “lists.”

It’s so bad, you guys. I hardly ever like them. Those “how-to-be-twenty-something” lists from Thought Catalog are particularly tempting.  “Yes! A guru! Go ahead, stranger on the internet, tell me how to do this right!”

I know they capitalize on my insatiable desire for direction. I know these things are rarely entertaining, never mind enlightening. I know I’m being lazy, looking for life lessons in bite-sized, unemotional lists. I know all that, but I still give the articles a shot every time because–“What if they know something I don’t know?! What if they have the secret?!”

Unfortunately, the list-ers rarely  give me the shot back. They don’t leave room for another right answer. Lists are facts, rules, and deadlines. They are filled with fluffy and contradictory advice, seemingly thrown together by the same eighteen year old on ego-steriods:

Be vulnerable and emotionally available in everything…but don’t go falling in love or expressing your feeling, kiddies.  Get your shit together, and do it now…or tomorrow, tomorrow works too. Screw society…oh, but be gentle, you might need to use it later.

To save you the reading, I’ll sum ALL the articles up for you:

Build yourself, and be self-aware. Keep calm. Everything in moderation. Be good to people. Be good to yourself.

You’re welcome.

Outside of those pseudo-commandments, I’m beginning to think that there is very little deep advice that we can fit into lists like that. I also think that one-size-fits all advice is rarely a good call, especially in the twenty-something circuit. After all, this is the period in your life where you’re supposed to be learning how to question rules and step-by-step guides, not blindly march towards them. This is the time to realize how different everyone is, and how the same everyone is, and how relative everything is.

How do you list out the ideal reaction to any of that?

You don’t. You twist through your own complicated, beautiful story of “LET’S JUST TRY THIS.” Sometimes you will find friends to join you, even if it’s just for a night. Sometimes you’ll like them, sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you’ll like yourself, sometimes you won’t.

And sometimes it will work. And sometimes it won’t.

These lists try to make things logical, when they are not.  I think that’s what kills me. They try to sell us on the idea that there is a right and wrong way to do things, when there are about a million of both. The ambiguity of “twenty-something” territory is far better suited to awkward songwriting, 2 am storytime, uncomfortably honest prayers, and radically number-less blog posts.

So what, then, are lists good for? They certainly make sense for practical stuff. Studying tips. How to navigate University. Finding an apartment. Cleaning your kitchen. Planning a trip. Getting a job. Quick tips, man.

I have a few of those myself. Perhaps I will write a list some time.

But it won’t be a list that tells you how to feel about your life. It won’t be a list of premature “tips” which are really just jaded rants, personal regret, and #humblebrags.

(Unless the regret is genuinely practical.  Like, say, don’t go a year without glasses if you really need glasses. Or, don’t buy a shitty laptop.)

I hope that you can be a blogger without having to pretend you know everything–or worse, having to pretend you can put that “everything” into a list.  I hope imperfect people and listless lifestyles can fit into the conversation, because…well, because imperfect people and listless lifestyles are the definition of Conversation. And Conversation is what we really need, isn’t it?

Perhaps Sarah Bessey put it best:

I’m not too interested in telling anyone else how to live their lives anymore, let alone in six steps with a pinnable graphic.

Yeah. I’m not too interested in that, either. But I sure am interested in talking about it, and hearing about it, and writing about my tiny/young/fallible/idealistic corner of it. And maybe, sometimes, that will fit into a list.

But, mostly, my life isn’t about quick tips. Neither is yours. It’s about celebrating and mourning, sometimes at the same time. It’s about getting confused and getting the giggles. It’s the word “Oops,” and it’s the word “Love,” and it’s feeling unsure.

And I’m sorry, but there’s no number on any of that.

People are Trees, Not Timelines

It was 2011.  I suppose that wasn’t so long ago, really, but it feels like forever now.

I was sitting in the basement of a local Unitarian Universalist Church, surrounded by regular attendees. I hadn’t been to any kind of worship in at least a decade, and felt like a fetus surrounded by middle aged church goers. I watched as the Minister passed around markers, telling us to “draw our spiritual journey.”

(I realize this may seem strange, but trust me–it’s business as usual at the UU.)

I drew and labeled tentatively across the page. When we finished, I partnered up with the woman across from me to go over the designs.  She showed off her intricate, curving  pathway–marriage, born again Christianity, yoga, Wicca, kids.  It was a beautiful timeline, and I smiled back at her story as she scanned my drawing curiously.

I hadn’t drawn a timeline.

I had drawn a tree.

I don't actually have original tree drawing, so I ran outside and took this blurry picture. Just for you. You're welcome.
I don’t actually have original tree drawing, so I ran outside and took this blurry picture. Just for you. You’re welcome.

A group show-and-tell circled around the room.  One by one, everyone began revealing their timeline. Curves, corners, arrows, paths, this-thus-that. Even the Minister illustrated his journey with thick, chronological lines.

And there I was, with my frizzy short hair and limited life experience, clutching an image of twisted branches while everyone poured out their major life events.

On some level, it probably had to do with my age.  When the Minister said “spiritual journey,” all my young mind could think of were moments and relationships, good meals and great ideas, quiet places and loud families. These were the things that made God seem just a liiiittle closer than usual.  So I drew roots. Branches to represent friendships, leaves to represent moments.  Some of the leaves were falling off of their perch; others were growing flowers. Text and little hearts explained (or refused to explain) what it all meant.

Basically, it was hyper-symbolic. It was not so simple –> as –> this.

And maybe it was a little strange, maybe it wasn’t quite what the Minister was looking for, but…I was proud of my tree. I liked the openness.   There were “big life” events on the tree, of course, markers of birth/death/love/war.  But there were other things, too.  The tree represented my life as a work-in-progress, with multiple facets. One big, bright leaf reflected a long, peaceful silence I shared with a close friend. Another represented the first time I got absolutely engrossed watching a play.

The tree let those things matter.

Looking back, my favourite thing about the tree is that it was strong, but not rigid.  It was alive. Parts could grow, or break and fall right off, and it would all be natural. As a young person, that was important. I think it might stay important as I get older.

(It’s also possible that I’m just kind of a hippie. Feel free to raise an eyebrow.)

By nature, timelines present our memory and our identity as rigid. They present our lives as one big story, instead of millions of imperfect experiences. I don’t know if that’s fair.  I don’t think we should restrict our identity to the things that “count” as milestones.  We aren’t necessarily tragic heroes with a beginning-middle-end. Nor are we self-aware folks on a direct journey through life.  “That was a really hard time in my life,” or “That was the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Too simple. That’s just too simple. We aren’t timelines. We can’t stop at chronology. I don’t want to compartmentalize your life, or my life, not like that.

Yes, yes, I realize all this might sound odd coming from a History student.

Let me be clear: Timelining is a great way to establish context.  It’s not a crime to treat events as “things that took place,” or even to consider people as empty, reactive vessels that “things happened to” at first.  I absolutely devour the nothing-but-chronological unfolding of the world through the lens of time.

But I also don’t, and can’t, stop there.

Even in History, reality often comes in trees. Family trees, for example. Essay outlines. Complex international relations maps.

Family tree with fingerprints from the extended fam. Can't get much more meaningful than that!
A family tree from our last reunion, with fingerprints from the extended fam. See? Trees are awesome.

We have to branch out. Timelines are great at telling base, simple stories…but they’re not so great at telling the whole truth.

And when it comes to our own identity, our own History, we deserve the Truth.  We deserve to represent ourselves as more than a timeline–more than what happens to us, and certainly more than a few life events that people have decided are “important.”

Maybe, just maybe, we could use the wisdom of trees to start looking at that.

(I know, I know. Hippie alert, part two. You can raise your other eyebrow.)

Five Sentences That Changed My Life

I don’t want to throw clichés at you.

Clichés, my high school teachers told me, are worse than useless. They’re uncreative. They’re filler.  Usually redundant, always unimaginative.

They were right. Of course they were right. Even the things I live my life by have never really been “clichés”–my mantras and reassurances come from quotable places, but they matter because they caught me by surprise. Yes. That. That right there. Never thought of it that way before.  

Usually I consume words, but every now and then, words consume me. (sorry. that was cheesy).

Those are the rare, rare words that stick.

Here’s a peek:

Im-not-worried-about-you

I know, how simple and strange.   “I believe in you. I trust you with yourself.”

Obviously these are terrible words to say if you’re actually worried about someone. But if you have faith in someone’s survival skills, it’s a pretty great way to share the faith without demeaning their situation.  To say that it’s normal to be falling apart at the seams, rebuilding, laughing, crying, calling a friend at 3 am, insert lifeline here–they are going to be okay. At least, you think they are.

That seems to be worth something. It was worth a lot to me.

You-are-where-you-were

This is part of the poem “Transient” by Al Purdy…a great poem, though not overly relevant on the surface. But these words, these two lines–dude. The best way I can describe it is, they let me move.

It’s a weirdly big deal, and I can’t really explain it, but anyone who knows me well has seen these words written on something (my blackboard wall, my binders, in pen on my arm).  The words are honest, and make no assumptions: Yes, I was always headed to wherever I am. And yes, the dirt under my fingernails, the person that I am, this can be “home.”

These are lovely ideas.

Everything-might-happen

Here’s some tough love. Sometimes, it’s someone else’s turn. A person you love will leave, because they’re meant to be with someone else. A family member will die, because they’re in a lot of pain.  Your business will fail and you’ll be left with nothing, because society needs to move forward and economies change.

You can spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out why that happened to you. Trying to figure out the reason. Thinking in a vacuum–something must have happened to you, so that something else can happen to you. Post hoc ergo hoc propter hoc.

Now, I’m a pretty religious person.  I believe that everything does happen for a reason, and I believe in resurrection–closed doors leading to more open ones.  But it’s silly to think that the exact reason for everything has to do with you, right now.

God has a lot of kids to look after.  At one point, you’re going to end up being collateral damage. We take hits for each other all the time, whether we know/like it or not. That’s the price we pay for balance, for the circle of life, and for the privilege of being so beautifully interconnected with each other.

Your fate does not only belong to you. But what you do with that fate? That’s all yours, baby.

Does-everyone-realize

The ladies down at everyoneisgay.com say awesome stuff all the time, but this line from Danielle really stuck.  So simple. So valuable.

Fact: If you worry things are going to suck, and you’re wrong, you’ve wasted your time worrying.

Fact: If you worry things are going to suck, and you’re right, you’ve wasted your time worrying. So you’re miserable twice as long–waiting for the thing, dealing with the thing, recovering from the thing.

Constructive concern is a go. Any other “worrying” gets served with this lovely question:

Who-am-I-today

This is my mantra.   I close my eyes and repeat these words in my head as I rock back and forth–because I’m totally sane, obviously.  It’s an every-other-day thing, at least, and I have no shame in my brief reality checks. These words bring a great deal of focus: “Who am I today?”  That’s all that really matters, in the end. Screw the coulda/woulda/shoulda.  Screw worrying.  Screw the fact that I do both of those things…until the mantra walks in and gives me a role to play. Today.

“Who am I today?”  A student. An employee. Sometimes a writer, always a sister and daughter.  I’m pretty alright at those roles, once I remind myself what they are–and who I am.  Right here, right now.

What phrases give you pause, comfort, or something-in-between? Which sentences shape your life?